Archive | September, 2011

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

28 Sep

Today’s person is a nutcase. I came across him while reading the book, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild (which I highly recommend).   He was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales in the year 1841 (ahh, a good year). Sadly, neither his mom, Elizabeth Parry, nor anyone else in his family wanted to take care of him. As a result, he was sent to St. Asaph’s Union Workhouse (which reminds me or the Warner Brothers film Anastasia. That could not have been any fun).

Eventually he escaped this life by catching a ship to America, where he decided to completely change his life story. He changed his name to something you might recognize, Henry Morton Stanley (after his employer, who was named Henry Stanley) and started telling people he was an American. He made up lots of stories about himself that don’t check out at all.

Fun fact: Henry Morton Stanley (who we have established is Welsh by birth, and American by delusion) is one of the very few people who ended up seeing combat on both sides of the Civil War. He started out fighting for the Confederates and got caught and sent to prison by the Union soldiers. He was given the opportunity to get out of prison my agreeing to fight for the Union army, which he did. However, after not so much time in the service of the Union army, he deserted.

Through a series of events, he came to be a journalist and explorer (sometimes I wish I could go back a few centuries and be an explorer/academic/person of the times, but then I think about it and realize that if Iwent back in time, I would likely be involved in something like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire). Anyways, Henry Stanley Morton became a journalist, which gave him the opportunity to go abroad and send salacious stories back to the US newspapers.

Since he was really good at embellishing stories (which made him really popular with his newspaper editor back in New York) and already in Africa for some exploration, Stanley was in the right place at the right time when David Livingstone (British explorer in Africa) went missing somewhere in the African Continent. Hoping to snap up the first scoop, Stanley’s editor put him on the job in 1871.

As the story goes (reminder: Stanley wrote the story), Henry Morton Stanley saved the embattled Dr. Livingstone (hence his most famous quote that makes the title of this post) and brought him back to civilization. He wrote a book about his incredibly difficult and heroic adventure which was very, very popular. (Livingstone didn’t really get a chance to chime in with his own side of the story because he died shortly after his “rescue”… this has a strange way of happening a lot with anyone who might disagree with Stanley’s stories. Conspiracy?)

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Illustration for 1876 French Edition
After his now-famous journey, Stanley headed a number of other expeditions into Africa. For instance, he was responsible for the being the first (non-African) person to find the mouth of the Congo river and to traverse completely across Central Africa. Although his stories were widely read in the United States, not everyone liked him. He came under fire by some people for his blatant disregard for the African people he encounters (he likes to shoot them…a lot).
I think its probably difficult to come up with a good take-away message about Henry Morton Stanley. He was a pretty bad guy: he lied about pretty much everything, was responsible for a ton of deaths, and was an overall pretty rotten character. Yet, he was a fairly important historical figure with a solid impact on the way history went (he helped King Leopold II to get ahold of the Congo, which was definitely not good for Congolese people). And to make it worse, he was really successful as a journalist and explorer (both pretty sweet jobs). To conclude this post, I’ll add a picture that I think says a lot about crazy Henry Morton Stanley:

You Know What’s Cool? Siege Machines.

27 Sep

Okay, war and war-related stuff usually isn’t my thing, but this snazzy invention is a pretty cool solution to the problem of fortifications. I was watching the movie Kingdom of Heaven yesterday (really bad movie- I recommend NOT watching it. Orlando Bloom really cannot carry a movie by himself), and the only redeeming thing about the movie was the interesting Medieval battle scenes. Historical inaccuracies aside, at one point, the city of Jerusalem is being besieged by Saladin’s forces and they use these awesome siege machines/towers.
Now, I don’t know about you, but in my imagination, Medieval fortifications are really tough to get past- I mean that was the whole point of fortifications anyways, wasn’t it? Once they started incorporating flaming trebuchets and stuff (and later, explosives and guns), it made it way easier to break into giant, well-fortified castles, but before then, castles must have seemed almost impenetrable, right? Well, my imagination forgot to consider siege machines, which really are a brilliant answer to the problem of high stone walls.

So what is it? A siege machine is a big rolling tower with troops on it. The attacking army rolls it up the the fortified walls and when it gets close enough, releases a wooden bridge-type thing from the top of the tower. The attacking troops then stream across the bridge and into the fortified castle/city. Brilliant! The craziest part is that Medieval people didn’t think this up- siege machines have been around since the 9th century BC! The first recording of siege machines is in Assyria, from approx. 865-860BC.

Assyrian siege machine, 865-860 BC. British Museum.
Because they worked so well, everybody and their cousin used to use siege machines. In addition to the Assyrians, ancient Chinese people, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Medieval English people, and both sides in the Crusades all used siege towers in their various wars and conflicts.
19th century drawing of a Medieval English siege machine.
I’m thinking that pretty much the only thing that could stop a siege machine would be…a moat. Kind of hard to roll over that, huh? You’d have to build a bridge over the moat in order to get your siege machine past. Or you could build your castle on the side of a cliff or a mountain, which would also make it hard to roll a siege machine.

Regardless, I definitely think that siege machines are one of the coolest things ever- and they must have worked pretty well if they were used by tons of different cultures over thousands of years.

From Ponce de Leon to Dr. Mudd: A Mini-Vacation

26 Sep

I have visited a very large number of U.S. National Parks, and have lots of opinions about them: Denali (in Alaska) was cool, but it was rainy and cloudy in the dead of summer. Glacier (in Montana) was gorgeous, but the roads are enough to scare anyone. The Olympics (in Washington) were…pretty much exactly like the rest of Washington- but the hot springs were great! Without a doubt, though, my favorite National Park is Dry Tortugas (in Florida).

First off, doesn’t it just sound cool? You say “Dry Tortugas” and it immediately puts me in mind of pirates and Caribbean adventures (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?) Second, it is Florida, which as you’ll notice, is a lot warmer and more southerly than any of the other National Parks I’ve visited. Third, just look at it:

Doesn’t it just look awesome? Dry Tortugas National Park also goes by the name “Fort Jefferson”. Besides being arguably one of the prettiest National Parks, it also has the distinction of being the least visited. They can barely even maintain having more than two volunteer Park Rangers at any time. How could that possibly be, you ask? Well, you may have noticed that the park is an island, but what that picture doesn’t show you is that Dry Tortugas is four hours away by speed boat from the nearest inhabited part of America (Key West, FL). Its closer to Cuba than the United States (the only reason it has any Park Rangers at all is that illegal immigrants are constantly trying to land themselves on this island).

Besides having more Cuban “visitors” than American tourists, the island has a really cool history. It was first discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, who gave it the name Dry Tortugas (“tortugas” for all the turtles he caught on the island and “dry” because it doesn’t have any fresh water). Nobody really bothered with the island again until after the Spanish sold Florida to the U.S. Commodore John Rodgers thought the island might make a decent naval outpost and started construction in 1846. Since Rodgers wanted Fort Jefferson to serve as an advance warning spot in case of danger coming from the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, he made sure that it was heavily armed. Despite the dedication of decades and a ton of federal resources, the fort was never fully completed. Five points if you can guess why.

You get five points if you guessed the Civil War! Fort Jefferson played an interesting role in the War of Northern Aggression: it served as a prison for prisoners of war. Surprisingly, one of the southernmost bits of U.S. territory actually belonged to the Union during the Civil War. They didn’t even have to halt construction during the war because they switched from using slaves to prisoners for free labor. One thing you might notice in the pictures is that the top layers of the fort have different color bricks than the lower levels. This is because when construction started, they brought bricks in locally from Florida and other southern states, whose bricks are naturally a more reddish-orange color. Once the war started, their supply was cut off and they have to import bricks from as far north as Maine (these bricks have the darker red color).

During the Civil War, when the fort was used as a prison for captured Confederates, the population of the fort had as many as 2,000 people. However, the lack of fresh water on the island made disease a big problem. The sickness that riddled the island was as much a danger for the prisoners as it was for their Union soldier guards and all of the fort staff. Their shared near-death experiences tended to bring the inhabitants of the island together, and in 1865, the Unionists who had been on the island petitioned the U.S. government to get official pardons for the Confederates who had been imprisoned there. One of their most well-known prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who aided President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In 1867, a particularly bad epidemic of yellow fever hit the island, killing a majority of the island’s inhabitants, including the fort’s only on-staff physician. The remaining residents turned to Mudd for medical help to see them through the epidemic. His work to save the lives of the people on the island garnered their respect, and they helped him to get a an official pardon from Andrew Johnson.

Author’s Note: You may have noticed the gratuitous amount of pictures in this post. This is because its rainy and cold out in the real world, so I thought I’d give everyone a mini vacation to the Florida Keys. Also, some of these are my own pictures, and I’m proud of them. Enjoy.

Oh My, Don’t Your Hips Look…Wide

24 Sep

People wear a lot of strange things for fashion. While I’d like to think looking really weird for “fashion” is merely a construct of 20th and 21st century haute fashion, that of course couldn’t be further from the truth. While some weird things were caused merely by a shortage of technology (or maybe forethought?), like how shoes up until recently were the same for both feet (there was no “left” and “right”, just “shoe 1” and “shoe 1 again for shoe 2”), some things are just designed to look a little different.

I am thinking particularly about panniers, which is like a mini hoop skirt apparatus designed just to make your hips stick out. The front and back stay flat, which supposedly is to show off the swanky fabric of your dress. Panniers were popular in the 18th century. Once they become popular in the Georgian era and in the years leading up to the French Revolution, rich and fashionable women competed to see who could have the biggest panniers.

Eventually they got rather out of hand, and the panniers were so big that women couldn’t fit through doors. In some places, doors had to be widened to allow these fashionable ladies through. To solve the problem, some creative designers gave the panniers hinges, which allowed the panniers to be temporarily lifted in case fashionable ladies were in places without fashionably wide doors. The most extreme panniers (common enough in French court dress a la Marie Antoinette) were several feet long- on either side! Can you image being seven feet wide???

Marie Antoinette in court dress, 1779.
No wonder people thought she was crazy.


There is a scholarly article floating around out there that argues panniers empowered women of this period because it made them such a large and imposing sight standing next to men. I don’t know how much I buy this, but mostly because of the lack of evidence of late 18th-century famous empowered women…who wore giant hip bustles. I could be missing something though.

One final note: the word “pannier” comes from “panier”, which are the baskets/carrying bags that go on either side of a pack animal. How is it that looking like a taffeta pack animal was cool? Some fashionable panniers even had hidden compartments for ladies to store things they didn’t want to carry around. So…they kind of were like pack animals. Very fashionable pack animals.

Rainy Day? Watch a Movie…One of these Movies

23 Sep

I always feel like one of the most fun things to do on a rainy day is to curl up on the couch with some hot cocoa. On the other hand, sitting on a sofa sipping cocoa (or tea, or whatever you’re into) and staring at the ceiling/wall gets boring for some people. For them, I suggest a nice book or movie. And since this is a blog about history (you know, when I occasionally write about things that are relevant to history), I want to pick out some of my favorite historical-type movies. They’re a real grab bag/ mixed-up bunch, so feel free to pick whatever suits your needs (kids’ movie, sad movie, comedy, etc.).

The King and I (1956): An awesome Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about the king of Siam and a British schoolteacher in the 1860s. I love the songs in the movie, I love the characters, I love the storyline. There are more modern versions, but I definitely recommend this one, because it is by far the best. Watch if you’re in the mood for a musical.

The Young Victoria (2009): Watch if you’re in the mood for something moving. It tells the story of a young Queen Victoria (okay not that surprising with the title and all), and how she meets her future husband (although I managed to forgot the actual historical fact that she married him when I was watching the movie and got all concerned she would pick someone else… not to ruin the plot or anything). It’s incredibly well-done, but be prepared for some heart wrenching at the end.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): Yes, it is ridiculous. However, it is very funny. If you haven’t seen it, then you should definitely watch it- even if only to understand a variety of inside jokes stemming from the film. If you haven seen it, then watch it again!

Tristan and Isolde (2006): Starring James Franco (before he was famous- you might not even recognize him!) as a besotted Cornish knight in love with an Irish princess who’s been married off to the knight’s lord. The story itself originated over a thousand years ago and is very Romeo and Juliet-ish. If you’re looking for something romantic, but at a different pace than Young Victoria, this is a good pick.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003): I found this movie kind of unsettling, but maybe its a good one to tackle on a rainy day. Its about the Dutch painter Vermeer and stars Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. But since its about a Dutch master, and I’ve been neglecting the art side of this blog, I’ll go ahead and pick it anyways. At least if you watch it, you’ll end up feeling like you know more about Vermeer (no one will know you “learned” about him in a movie).

A Knight’s Tale (2001): Full of great rock music, and not nearly as dreary as many period films. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and is fun to watch. Not terribly historically accurate, but a fun and funny choice.

Far and Away (1992): Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise star in this movie as Irish immigrants moving to America. This one is a bonus for US history buffs (Oklahoma land rush, anyone?).

Shanghai Noon (2002): Hilarious comedy with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Full of really great immature jokes and possibly some history in there. Perfect if you’re in the mood to see Jackie Chan cause accidental injury to himself and Owen Wilson make jokes about the Wild West. More fun for the American history people (sometimes all those British dramas get you down).

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005): This movie is beautiful, but very sad. Make sure you’re really in the mood for it before you watch it, and maybe have some tissues on hand. It’s about a girl growing up in Japan and being trained as a geisha. This movie shows the interesting clash between old and new in 20th century Japan as the result of WWII (and other factors).

Newsies (1992): Possibly my favorite movie ever made. This movie is about the 1899 newsboy strike in New York. Also, it is a musical (sorry, they’re my favorite genre- note that I’ve mostly spared you from Disney movies and musicals in this list). It’s upbeat and fun, and not a bad movie at all. Plus, a young Christian Bale sings- in a New York accent.

TV Series Honorable Mentions: The Tudors (of course), Pillars of the Earth (technically an 8-part miniseries), Manor House (a British documentary that sends people back in time- really!), Downton Abbey (a 7-part miniseries about British aristocracy in 1912)

Period Pieces I Strongly Suggest You Skip: Clash of the Titans (2010), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Casanova (2005), Marie Antoinette (2006) Happy movie watching!

Unfortunately Named Person of the Day: Emperor Pupienus

22 Sep

Even Roman Emperors cannot avoid bad names…today’s unfortunately named person of the day is the Marcus Clodius Pupienus Maximus, or just plain Emperor Pupienus.
According to Wikipedia, contemporary texts tend to refer to him incorrectly as “Maximus”, instead of his family name of Pupienus. Really? I can’t imagine why.
Despite a name good enough to grace the pages of history books, poor Pupienus somehow managed slip by under the radar. Probably because he ruled during the Year of Six Emperors, 238 AD, along with Maximus Thrax, Balbinus, and Gordian I, II, and III.
Pupienus was co-emperor with Balbinus, and they apparently did not get along. The story goes that they were in the midst of arguing with eachother when the praetorian guard came in and assassinated them both. But what I’m really wondering is if Pupienus lived long enough to have children…and pass on his fantastic family name.

Pocahontas would not be a Productive Member of Society

22 Sep

Don’t get me wrong- I adore Disney and Disney movies, but thinking back on Pocahontas,the Disney film, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the character of Pocahontas as portrayed in the movie would be a really useless member of society.

For instance, the first time we see her in the movie, she is shirking her corn harvesting duties to frolic in the woods. In the song, “Just Around the Riverbend” she sings about how she wants to go with the flow like the river and doesn’t want to settle down into a boring life. To me, that just doesn’t seem like a very mature attitude, especially for the chief’s daughter.

Because she simply can’t stay in the village or do something helpful, the next thing you know, she’s off cavorting with John Smith, who as we know, brings nothing but trouble to the Powhatans. She refuses to marry the perfectly acceptable Kocoum, who if you recall, is the best Powhatan warrior around, because he is too serious for her. Honestly, what were you expecting Pocahontas? If you want him to to go about conversing with willow trees or rolling around in the dirt painting with the colors of the wind, I do believe your expectations are a little unreasonable. Then, because of her irresponsibleness, Kocoum ends up being killed. Are you happy now, Pocahontas?

All kinds of turmoil ensues later in the film, but Pocahontas blithely continues to behave in her usual manner (she tries to interrupt a war!). It really is troubling how not helpful she is to her friends, her tribespeople, etc.

Which brings me to my point: what if Pocahontas was around today? Would she still be a duty-shirking, immature and irresponsible person, who goes around singing at inappropriate times? Well of course she would be, since modern times allows for that even more than the early 17th century. Worse yet, what was Disney promoting for children (since the movie came out in 1995, the “children” who watched it are now in the early twenties)? Maybe Disney is to blame for my generation? I think next time I want to procrastinate, I’ll claim I’m channeling Pocahontas, walk to a park, and start singing (maybe I’ll just hum, my singing skills are minimal at best).

PS. It occurs to me that Productive Member of Society shortens to PMS. Huh.

Hirsutism: It is What It Sounds Like

21 Sep

If you’ve watched a History Channel special on bearded ladies or werewolves (it’s okay if you haven’t, not everyone watches as much TV as I do), you’ve probably heard of hirsutism. If you think that the word sounds suspiciously like “hair suit”, you’d be exactly right! Hirsutism is a genetic issue that affects a relatively tiny proportion of the population. It affects more women than men, but let’s face it- they’re hairy anyways, so we’re less likely to notice.

Aside form 19th century circus acts, people with hirsutism tend to keep their condition on the down low. Probably because being so covered in hair garners a lot of attention. There is, however, one family that got quite a lot of attention in 16th century Europe, Petrus and Tognina Gonzales. Petrus, who was born in the Canary Islands, was taken as a child and presented to the French King Henry II. The prevailing medical opinion of the time was that he was either a werewolf or part dog.

The king took Petrus in and had him educated (more to see if it was possible than anything else). By the time he was an adult, Petrus was very successful in court circles and quite the asset to Henry. He got married in 1573 to a Parisian woman and they ended up having four children (all of the kids got dad’s hirsutism). As a family, they traveled around Europe together, visiting different royal courts and important people. Around this time, a painting was done of Tognina, Petrus’ cute (but hairy) young daughter.

Unfortunately, not much more is known about the family, or what happened to them throughout history. Maybe if you meet a particularly hairy European person with the last name of Gonzales, you can ask if they have a great-great-grandfather named Petrus.

Unfortunately Named Person of the Day: Ivar the Boneless

20 Sep

Back in the good old days (i.e. the Middle Ages), last names had not yet been invented. Instead, people just went around being called their first name and then some piece of information that was relevant to them. For example: Louis the Fat…because he was fat (real person, I swear) or Thomas, John’s Son (precursor to the modern Johnson). Of course, you didn’t really get to pick your name, or else there would have been tons of Hildebrand the Awesomes or Guibert the Incredibles running around everywhere. As a result, some of history’s characters have ended up being named really unfortunate things. Today’s person is the 9th century Viking warrior Ivar the Boneless.

I var the Boneless was a fairly notable Viking leader an warrior- he ran successful raids/attack on England in the 860s/870s and led the Great Heathen Army (I assume they didn’t name themselves either) alongside his brothers, Hubbe and Halfdene (also excellently named people).

Ah, but why is Ivar Boneless? Good question! The answer is: no one is really sure. There are, however, some main theories:
1) He was very flexible, which led the brilliant people of the middle ages to guess that he had no bones.
2) He had brittle bone disease. This was proposed by a person with brittle bone disease. It is unlikely, given the record of his battle/combat, especially accounts of him as a berserker that he could have had such a crippling condition.
3) He had some impotence issues. This is actually the most likely theory, at least for the name. It didn’t necessarily have to be true to have been something his warriors called him. There is a long tradition of calling your war leader impotent: Roman soldiers returning to the city victorious after battle used to yell out bawdy things about thier leader.
4) He was carried on a shield by his men after victorious battle, which made him look like he didn’t have legs. Which probably freaked people out and spawned the story. In this situation, boneless = legless, which is a pretty linguistically sound jump to make.

Reflections on Disney’s Hercules

19 Sep

I recently re-watched the Disney movie Hercules (and by the I mean I recently sung along to the entire movie), and noticed some interesting (or not- depends on your definition of “interesting”) things.

The first thing I noticed is that Baby Hercules starts the movie off as a blonde, then becomes a ginger when he becomes mortal (following Disney’s plot, Hades tries to make Hercules mortal in order to kill him and eventually take over Olympus/the world). Hercules is the only ginger in all of ancient Greece. What are you trying to tell us Disney- that gingers are gods in mortal form? Statistically speaking, its pretty unlikely that Hercules was a ginger (granted, its highly unlikely Hercules actually ever existed at all- sorry to burst any bubbles there).

Second thing: Disney very much Disneyfied the Greek gods, especially Zeus and Hera. The movie portrays them as this 1950s-esque couple with trouble having kids. Then they produce the adorable baby Hercules and all of the gods rejoice on Mount Olympus. Greek myth doesn’t exactly work that way though. A quick read of, well, basically anything involving Greek gods will let you know immediately that Zeus and Hera weren’t married or in any way monogamous. In fact, Zeus had dozens of illegitimate children running around- some with other gods, some with mortal women. He also had this weird bestiality thing going on (swans and bulls, anyone?).

For another thing, did anyone else notice the 5-lady gospel choir that sings most of the songs in the movie (including three titled, “The Gospel of Truth”)? As with ginger Hercules, you have to wonder why. Dear Disney, why is there a 5-lady gospel choir to sing us Hercules’ tale? This is Greek myth, and thus predates the Gospels by a long time- and it predates gospel choirs by even longer. Also, why is one of the singing women short and fat when the rest of them are all lithe? Judging pretty hardcore right now Disney.

Also, Megara (clever naming reference to the Greek megaron?) is by far the most sexed-up Disney character ever. Deep voice, big hair, and an almost physically-impossible hip jut, her character is designed to… distract… Hercules. She spends a lot of time in the movie simpering all over the place). Apparently her character is based on the Greek tragic heroine Alcestis, who died to save her husband. She also (very strangely) has some sort of accent- New Jersey maybe? Why Disney? Why? I don’t understand! In case you’ve forgotten (or never knew in the first place), here’s what Meg and Hercules look like in the movie:

No big deal that Hercules is wearing the tiniest man-skirt ever. Anyways, there are parts of the movie that I really do like. For instance, the temple of Zeus near the beginning, where Hercules comes to find his way. Excellent job with the temple and giant cult statue. It could have looked more chryselephantine (gold and ivory) for authenticity, though. Great job and good movie regardless. I also approve of all the pottery-type animation (red figure and black figure), which is generally reserved for the songs in the movie.