Tag Archives: History

That’s Really Going to Ruin Someone’s Whole Day

11 Oct

When I think of 18th century royal courts, lots of things immediately spring to mind: grand palaces done up as ornately as humanly possible, huge poofy dresses (panniers and bustles!), and staid, slightly inbred folks with awesome titles, like the Duke and Duchess of Whatnot and the Baron and Baroness Blah d’Blah. I’m sure Peterhof Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia, once had all those things, but it also had something else up its proverbial sleeves.

Construction of Peterhof palace was begun in the early 18th century by Peter the Great (hugely surprising, considering the name and all). Good old Peter, who I’m pretty sure had a personality disorder (seriously, look him up, Pete could be one nasty dude), had some palace envy for the grand fountains he had heard about in France (he’d never been to France, but heard they were snazzy, so of course he wanted some for himself). Thus, Peterhof palace has over a thousand fountains, ranging from the very impressive Samson. fountain (meant to symbolize Russia’s victory over its rival, Sweden) to the devious trick fountains.

Two views of the Samson fountain. Upper: facing Peterhof palace (Grand Cascade). Lower: facing the Bay of Finland.
By the mid- to late- 18th century, the fountains and parks had expanded to its 1000+ fountain peak, and were impressing the courtly Russian masses (few). If you were a courtly lady/gentleman of the 18th century, stuffed into the overwarm entertaining halls for balls or dinners of state or kissing the Tsar’s feet or whatever, wouldn’t you want a nice refreshing walk in the gardens? Well, Personality-Disorder Peter is one step ahead f you. He thought it would be hilarious to have trick fountains installed throughout the park to drench unsuspecting courtiers (ah, those people of lower rank). One trick fountain looks like a circular bench, with an umbrella covering it for shade. As soon as someone sits on the bench, the “umbrella” starts dumbing out sheets of water, trapping people under it. Another one looks like a tree with benches and cobbles around it, but as soon as you step on one of the trigger stones, the tree starts shooting water crazily. If you try to escape by sitting on one of the benches, that might trigger a new fountain of water to come up from behind the bench, further drenching you.
Now, If I spent four hours being dressed and prepared every morning (early afternoon- courtiers weren’t morning people), I would be pretty ticked off that some hydraulic engineer with a peevish sense of humor thought it would be funny to drench me and all my court finery. That stuff is mostly silk! Think of all the rubles wasted just so the Tsar can have a laugh at his courtiers expense (Are you starting to see what I was saying about the personality disorder? He also was afraid of high ceilings and liked to have people killed on a whim)! Court dress is nothing to sneeze at. Take this ensemble, on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna:
Elizabeth Petrovna, by Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov, 1743.
The powdered wigs, the arsenic-laden cosmetics, the crinoline and layers of silk! All of it drenched and ruined by these sneaky trick fountains at Peterhof. You’d be out of courtly commission for at least the rest of the day (and you better hope you don’t catch a cold- this is the 18th century we’re talking about).

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.

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.