A Tuesday for the Rabbits

In July of 1807, Alexandre Berthier, then Chief of Staff to Napoleon Bonaparte, made a slight miscalculation that led to what has to be in the running for most epic battle in human history. This occurred shortly after the signing of the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended war and sealed an alliance between France and Russia and pieced apart Prussia. The treaties represented significant wins for Napoleon. The battle that followed, and which is regularly reenacted in my backyard, did not.

What you can’t see in this painting is the bunny that has caused Napoleon’s horse to rear back in sheer panic. Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon asked Berthier to help him celebrate his recent accomplishments by treating his men to a rabbit hunt. Berthier obliged, rounding up a couple hundred to a few thousand (depending on who you ask) of the fluffy-tailed, long-eared, twitchy-nosed spawns of Satan and caged them all at the edges of a field to await their fates at the ends of a large number of gun barrels.

What happened next comes as a surprise to no one who is me, but when the bunnies were released, they didn’t scatter away from the threat. Instead, they swarmed the hardened soldiers who, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rodents* coming after them in pursuit of carrots or whatever, dove for the cover of their carriages.

According to David G. Chandler, expert on Napoleon (and perhaps rabbits), the monstrous creatures flanked the hunters and converged on the imperial coach, some of them managing to leap inside and directly threaten the emperor, who was forced to prove his mettle by engaging in hand-to-hand combat, flinging the beasts from the windows in a highly imperial fashion.

Possibly the most epic battle in human history. An average Tuesday for most rabbits. Image by Ruben Porras from Pixabay

The history rumor mill would have us believe that the entire incident was Berthier’s fault, because instead of taking five minutes out of his busy schedule to round up a few thousand wild rabbits, he pulled together the hand-raised, relatively tame variety from nearby farmers. These rabbits didn’t know that Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most feared military leaders in the world. They just knew he was some guy who didn’t seem to want to give them carrots.

Maybe. But I also think that Napoleon and his men underestimated their foe, because rabbits are just the worst.

Finally maybe sort of a kind of win.

I have been at war with the fluffy little jerks for nearly a decade. They eat all my flowers, tear up my garden, and torment my dog. They’ve even caused him permanent injury with their stupid little nest holes that pockmark my yard. And without the benefit of a waiting carriage to imperially jump into, I have been somewhat at my wits’ end.

That is until this year. In a stroke of genius, I took globs of the fur I brush out of the dog every day in springtime and stuffed them around the bases of the rabbits’ favorite munchy lilies, some of which have managed to bloom for the first time in years.

For this moment, I am winning the battle, but I know it won’t last long. The rabbits, who in previous years have been known to stand in front of the dog just beyond his invisible electric fence simply to mock him, are perfectly aware that he’s no more match for them than Napoleon was.

*I do acknowledge that rabbits are no longer classified as rodents, but until 1912 they were, because rodents or not, they are vermin with constantly growing teeth and terrible bloodlust.  

New Zealand Rips a Big One

Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time may have noticed that rarely does it venture into topics that could be considered very serious. You may have even wondered at times why a thoughtful writer such as myself would mostly avoid using my platform, which includes tens of people, to discuss the things that really matter.

Well, thanks to the nation of New Zealand and its necessary and impactful attention to a dangerous problem facing the entire world, I have reconsidered. That’s right, the time has come for us to have a critical conversation in this space about farts.

This cow clearly smelled it. And we all know what that means. Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

While absent through much of this blog’s own history, passing gas has been on the minds of humanity for millennia. This truth was revealed by the 2008 discovery of an ancient fart joke carved upon a Sumerian tablet that dates to around 1900 BC, making it the oldest joke so far discovered.

Other notable moments in the history of flatulence include a god in the mythology of the Innu people of Eastern Quebec and Newfoundland who communicates exclusively through the breaking of wind, the alleged Pythagorean belief that a careless person could accidentally fart out his soul, and a series of Japanese art pieces from the early 19th century depicting, probably satirically, battling samurais cutting a lot of cheese.

But Samurais were far from the only people to have killed with a good toot. Both first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus and the Ancient Greek writer Herodotus, known as the Father of History and Some Stuff He Mostly Made Up, attributed large, deadly battles to the offensiveness of well-timed flatus.

St. Augustine had a slightly more positive view of gaseous emanations, suggesting in his 5th century work The City of God that evidence of perfect bodily control as would have been enjoyed before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is that some people can produce song through their flatulence. We probably all have that one friend.

This is what it looks like to have the power to destroy the world. Image by Frauke Feind from Pixabay

For the most part, passing gas has always been a little bit funny and kind of rude and, apparently incredibly destructive. At least that is what New Zealand law makers have decided. It’s long been rumored that livestock farts are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases and in New Zealand, where people are outnumbered by cows two to one and by sheep more than five to one, the best way to combat the problem is, obviously, to tax the livestock. And so that is the plan, according to Climate Change Minister and apparent savior of Planet Earth James Shaw.

Now, I can almost hear the objections of you naysayers out there whining about the financial burden on farmers and ranchers. You may even go so far as to suggest that the effects of this move will certainly trickle out through the economy, transforming the industry into something much less sustainable and, as other nations follow New Zealand’s bold lead, ultimately contributing to the problems of already threatened global food supply chains.

To that I say that ridding the world of farts was never going to be easy. It was always going to require determination and sacrifice. Like all things worth doing, and most things that aren’t worth doing at all, it will come only at great cost. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s time for the cows to pay up.

Made for Walking

On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln shook hands at his inaugural ball with a man who had bet against him winning the office of the presidency. Edward Payson Weston had made the bet, agreeing that should he be the loser, he would walk from Boston to Washington DC for the presidential inauguration. He started out on February 22 and walked 478 miles in ten days and ten hours. He didn’t make it in time for the inauguration itself, but because of the press attention he got along the journey, he received an invitation to the ball.

Weston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I’m a walker. I have one of those fitness trackers and I try to get to at least 13,000 steps a day, though of course I’m not successful every day. Some are definitely easier than others. I’ve also participated in challenges to walk the year, for example 2018 miles walked in 2018. I’ve completed lengthy day hikes, including the twenty-six-mile trek around Lake Geneva in Southern Wisconsin. Because it’s fun, and good for me, and it’s better than running, which is stupid.

But I am truly amazed by the accomplishments of Edward Payson Watson, whose inauguration walk kicked off not only a presidency, but also a pedestrian career. By that, I don’t mean that his career was boring. I mean that he was a professional pedestrian, once walking 2,600 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in twenty-six days, winning a prize of $10,000 for the effort.

Payson would go on to complete a number of long-distance walks throughout his life, including a 51-day, 1546- mile from New York to Minneapolis when he was seventy-four years old. It was a feat that broke his previous record for the same walk by more than a day—a record set when he was a mere sixty-eight years old.

I rarely look so stylish when I’m walking. And those boots don’t look to me like they’re made for it. Edward Payson Weston. Spooner & Wells, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Both walks were impressive, but his most famous was in 1909 when he set off to cross the North American continent from New York to San Francisco in one hundred days, excepting Sundays. He experienced a number of delays and complications on this journey and wound up completing the challenge in 104 days and five hours.

Personally, I find that pretty amazing, but Payson was disappointed enough to try a transcontinental journey again the next year, this time leaving from Los Angeles and hoofing it to New York. He accomplished the trip in just seventy-eight walking days, a record that fell shortly after as a man by the name of Paul Lange soon completed the same trek in a little under 77 days.

Because the world of competitive long-distance walking is brutal. Apparently.

I know I have recently found that to be true. At the beginning of this summer vacation, I gave each of my teenage sons fitness trackers of their own, the same kind I have, with the goal of making them more aware of their activity, or lack thereof through the summer months.

Image by Mike Ljung from Pixabay

The idea was that they would need to at least record a set number of steps before sitting down to play video games, which aren’t limited as much in the summer months as they are during the school year. I was pretty proud of this arrangement. What I hadn’t counted on, though, was the fact that my fourteen-year-old, who this spring took up distance running for his school track team, is incredibly competitive.

So now I can’t sit down to say, write a blog post, without my son asking me how many steps I have and bragging about his own total. Turns out, he may get his competitive streak from his mother, and now each night sees us pacing through the house, trying to outdo one another by at least a few steps.

I guess that’s a good thing. Edward Payson Weston claimed he engaged in competitive distance walking for his health and to encourage others to resist the evils of the automobile, which made them lazy and sedentary. I don’t know about that, but with the current price of gas, I certainly don’t mind walking a little more and driving a little less. And if I can encourage my children to walk more and play less Mario Kart, then it’s well worth the effort.

This Blog Post is Okay

Okay, so over the past few weeks, I haven’t been very active in this space. I’ve been posting sporadically and haven’t been regularly visiting the many other wonderful blogs I normally visit regularly. I apologize for that and I will be working to make the rounds again now in the coming days as summer begins.

The last many weeks have been busy ones for me as I took on the full-time coverage for the maternity leave of a high school English teacher. Though it’s been a blast, it has also taken a lot of time and energy and I’ve had to let some things slide. But now the final exams have nearly all been given and the grades are almost submitted, and much like eighth president of the United States Martin Van Buren, I’m OK.

Martin Van Buren, OK US president. Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Van Buren was only a candidate for the presidency when, in 1840, he first became known as “Old Kinderhook,” because he was from Kinderhook, New York. His supporters across the nation formed OK clubs and many historians assumed that this is how the ubiquitous little acronym OK, and the word “okay,” that it spawned, was born.

In truth, the Van Buren campaign may have influenced the persistence of the word, but that’s not where it started. Twenty-eighth president Woodrow Wilson was convinced the word had Native American roots, coming from the Choctaw word okeh, first borrowed by seventh president Andrew Jackson.

That explanation sure sounds okay, but it turns out it wasn’t right either. Neither were the assumptions made by various other o. k. linguists and who knows how many okay American presidents that the word descended from Latin, Greek, Swedish, or Mandingo.

It wasn’t until the more than ok work of word historian Allen Walker Read in 1963 that the world learned the story of its favorite word, a word that is understood in nearly every language in the world. Read explained in the magazine American Speech that o.k. was first used in 1839 as an abbreviation for “all correct” by an editor for the Boston Morning Post, and was meant as a friendly poke at a colleague at the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image by Joakim Roubert from Pixabay

To modern readers that story probably sounds a little strange, but Read explained that at the time, there was a brief craze in English over both abbreviations and intentional misspellings. Well, ok.

And really, if you consider the modern teenager, with whom I’ve recently spent a great deal of time, it’s not so hard to imagine written communication carried out almost entirely in acronyms and misspelled words. Also, I think we can trust Allen Walker Read, as he is also the man who presented the world with a thorough understanding of the origin of the F_ _ _ word. But that’s another blog post.

The origin of ok or o.k. or OK or okay certainly doesn’t make for a glamorous story, but then maybe that’s appropriate. The really curious thing, I think, is how it managed to work its way into the speech of so many various cultures. I somehow doubt that it was all due to the influence of Martin Van Buren.

Perhaps the word has just evolved because as a species, we humans don’t always have something all that brilliant or important to say and so we end up saying things that are just ok. All I do know is that whatever corner of the world you’re from, you probably know what I mean when I say it. And that’s okay with me.

Did You Smell Something?

Every seventy-six years or so, Earth crosses paths with another resident of our solar system as the two of us get about the business of circling our mutual sun. It’s a pretty exciting event when it happens, at least as I seem to vaguely recall from my childhood in the 1980s when we last said hello to Halley’s comet.

This man knows his comets. Richard Phillips, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But to be honest, the encounter hasn’t always been perfectly friendly. Over the millennia this innocent-looking comet that may seem to mind its own business has been the cause of quite a bit of consternation. It has portended all kinds of dramatic and often violent changes in the world from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans just a few short years after its appearance, to the Norman Conquest of England, to the Mongol invasion of Europe undertaken by Genghis Kahn.

It wasn’t until 1704 when Edmund Halley pieced together that several of the comets observed throughout history might in fact be the same comet seen again and again, that we even knew our bad news neighbor’s name. Halley correctly predicted that the comet would be observed in 1758, and though he wasn’t alive to see it happen, he was right.

Armed with a new, slightly more scientific understanding of the comet, we the people of Earth didn’t find it quite so scary. That is until May 20, 1910 when it tried to kill us all. That’s when respected French astronomist Camille Flammarion used spectroscopy to discover that the comet’s tail contained cyanogen gas, that would certainly poison Earth’s atmosphere and swiftly wipe out all life on the planet.

Our friendly neighborhood deadly comet. Professor Edward Emerson Barnard at Yerkes Observatory, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin., 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not every highly regarded astronomist agreed, but much like today, expert disagreement wasn’t enough to stop the press from hyping a good story. And boy was it a good story. It sparked others to claim that the gravitational pull alone from the comet would cause the oceans to swell and cover great stretches of land, sweeping uprooted American forests across the Sahara Desert. The panicked public furiously sealed the cracks around doors and windows to keep the deadly gas from entering their homes and stocked up on essential supplies like gas masks and anti-comet pills. Toilet paper, too, I assume.

When May 20th arrived and the comet came into view right on time, humanity held its breath and awaited extinction.

Out of an abundance of caution. Image by Èric Seró from Pixabay

Now, as a purveyor of conversational historical cocktail party-worthy tidbits, let me be the first to reassure you that all life on planet Earth did not in fact come to an end in that moment. While there is poisonous cyanogen gas in the tail of Halley’s Comet, it’s not there in a significant enough concentration to make a lick of difference to life on the earth. The gravitational pull, too, of our punctual but not-so-scary neighborhood comet is of no significant consequence to our big blue ball of a home.

Which was just the kind of misinformation that got the vast majority of astronomists banned from all the social media sites. After life on the earth didn’t end catastrophically, Camille Flammarion did what any good disproven researcher would and assembled a bunch of witnesses who swore that though the danger of the poison gas might have been slightly miscalculated, they definitely smelled a whiff of something funny in the air.

I can’t argue with testimony like that. Pretty much every time the media runs with a story that forecasts the end of the world, I’m pretty sure I smell something funny. Anyway, if anyone needs them, I’ve got a stockpile of anti-comet pills. I’d be happy to sell you one for an exorbitant fee. Come the year 2061 and Earth’s next encounter with Halley’s Comet, you may be glad you have one.

A Recycled Anniversary

Coming up this week on, on May 9th to be exact, this blog will mark its tenth anniversary. Over the course of those ten years, it hasn’t changed much. I still know too little about SEO, don’t use nearly enough bullet points, overuse commas, and usually drone on longer than most readers care to pay attention. Yet here I am plugging away in my little corner of the blogosphere, writing about whatever little historical tidbit has lately taken my fancy, cracking stupid jokes, and sharing inane details about my life.

And you, dear readers, are kind enough to come along for the ride. Some of you have been checking in on what began as “The Practical Historian: Your Guide to Practically True History” since early days. Some of you have stumbled onto it by accident more recently and have chosen to stick around. If you happen to be my mother, then you’ve even read every single post. I appreciate every one of you immensely.

Some might argue that the 5th anniversary symbol is wood, but wood pulp makes paper, which makes books. So, I’m not wrong.

When the blog reached its five-year anniversary I published a little book, ridiculously titled Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, which contained about eighty or so posts that I considered to be the greatest hits of the first five years. In case you didn’t know, the traditional fifth anniversary symbol is a book.

The tenth anniversary is most often symbolized by aluminum, or aluminium if you must. I thought the most fitting way to celebrate, then, would be to write an amazing post about aluminum in history. It turns out, the earliest mention of alum comes from Herodotus, that famous 5th century BC Greek Father of History who liked to make things up. And that is the most exciting thing I could find about aluminum, because I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to read any more.

But what I do happen to know about aluminum is that we’ve gotten pretty good at recycling it, and so, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this silly little blog, that’s what I am going to do, though this time I limited myself to ten posts rather than eighty or so.

Here are ten posts you can peruse if you so wish, recycled from the second five years of the Practical Historian:

Game of Allergens

Skinny Pants and Cupcakes: Everything a Young Republic Needs

Tough Questions on the Way to School

A Study in Buttery Bovines

The Greatest Shoe-Buying Orgy in History

Gardening for Beer. Beer for Gardening.

WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

My Immediate Travel Plans

A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse

Say What?!

A Day for Heroes

When at the age of ten, Christopher Walker began serving as ship-boy to his father’s merchant vessel, he could not have known how dramatically it would affect his wardrobe choices. Christopher’s father had begun his career similarly, as ship-boy on Columbus’s Santa Maria and that career ended on his young son’s first voyage when the ship fell under attack by violent pirates.

All aboard were lost, save one. Christopher washed up on the shore of Bengalla, a made-up setting that is vaguely jungle-like, where he was saved by a tribe of pygmy people called Bandars, which is also made up and is almost certainly a little racist.

Bengalla. Probably. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The orphaned Christopher regained his strength there among these friendly people and took the “Oath of the Skull,” saying, “I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms!” Then he tacked on, as ten-year-olds are apt to do, “My sons and their sons will follow me.”

Christopher made good on his vow by moving into a “skull cave” secret lair and wearing his underwear on the outside. Four hundred years later, on February 17, 1936, his story was revealed to the world by the King Features Syndicate. He became known as the Phantom, or sometimes as “The Ghost Who Walks” or “The Man Who Cannot Die,” what with his descendants continuing to take the reins, giving him the appearance of immortality.

In reality, neither Christopher nor his twentieth century iteration Kip, ever had any super powers. He’s always been a talented martial artist, a decent linguist, an exceptional intellect, and the perfect specimen of fitness. You’d really only know he’s a superhero at all because of his skin-tight purple outfit, stylish mask, and his skull ring that leaves an impression on the recipients of his powerful punch. If that’s not enough, he also hangs out with a couple of trained homing pigeons. He even has a movie, though I never saw it:

Some superhero historians (who probably live in their mothers’ basements) don’t even credit the Phantom, created by Lee Falk and Ray Moore, with being the first real superhero because he lacked powers. They’d rather give the credit to Superman who didn’t arrive on scene until two years later than his purple predecessor.

Superpowers or not, the Phantom had a silly outfit, a secret hideout, a tragic backstory, and a constantly endangered girlfriend. I admit that, as I often tell my sons, I don’t really superhero, but that sound like the real deal to me. And as far I could find, the Phantom was never rendered powerless by some glowing green rock.

Apparently there is also a 1943 serial about the Phantom. But don’t worry. I’d never heard of him either. Neither had my son who superheroes much more than I do. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, I mean no offense to Superman. He has that cool crystal cave thing, plenty of past trauma, terrible taste in women, and questionable fashion sense. I celebrate all heroes, at least today, because I very recently learned that today is National Superhero Day here in the US.

National Superhero Day has been celebrated every April 28 since 1995. That’s when the pretentiously named Marvel Cinematic Universe declared it a day for turning our attention to their movies and merchandizing that are so ubiquitous, we usually just kind of tune them out. Also, I think we’re supposed to thank police officers and the like, even though they might be somewhat less heroic since they tend to wear their underpants on the insides of their uniforms.

As I mentioned, I don’t superhero much, but this whole thing got me thinking that I should designate a day myself. April 28 is already pretty crowded, so I am declaring right now that tomorrow, April 29, 2022 will be the first annual celebration of Read a Book by Sarah Angleton Day. Feel free to observe it on Saturday if that works better for your schedule. Spread the word!

A Big Butt in the White House: A Story of the Bustle

When twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom became the youngest first lady in US history on June 2, 1886 at the only presidential wedding ever held in the White House, she also became something of a fashion icon. Yes, Grover Cleveland was twenty-seven years older than her and had known her as a baby, but no one was thinking about how skeevy that might have been because boy could she rock a bustle.

Check out the bustle on that bride! Frances Folsom marries President Grover Cleveland, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned French fashion designer Charles Worth dressed her in a heavy ivory satin, silk, and muslin gown, trimmed in orange blossoms and draped over a birdcage-like bustle. Okay, some people might have been thinking about the kind of creepy age difference between the president and his choice, but everyone agreed she was a beautiful bride. And the event served as a much needed boon for the ever-important bustle.

New Yorker Alexander Douglas patented the bustle in 1857, but it didn’t gain much traction until Worth, who never actually had to wear one, began incorporating it into his designs a few years later. Then by the end of the 1870s, the popularity of this peculiar fashion accessory had waned as even the most fashion-forward of women decided they might like to occasionally be able to sit down.

Charles Worth wasn’t ready to give up on it yet and pushed to bring back the exaggerated tushy in the early to mid-1880s. Thanks in part to the new Mrs. Cleveland, it worked. But then just two years into her stint as first lady, an article in the Atlanta Constitution mentioned that Mrs. Cleveland had decided she was done with bustles.

Frances Cleveland sitting comfortably without a bustle. Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Women throughout the US breathed a collective sigh of relief as, for the first time in a few years, they boarded trains and entered crowded public spaces without fear of knocking someone over with their accentuated keisters.

The bizarre thing was that, though women throughout the United States were happily removing these pointless additions to their wardrobes, Mrs. Cleveland hadn’t yet gotten the memo. She entered one of her favorite Washington Department stores and asked for a bustle, only to be shown the Atlanta Constitution article, in which a reporter had taken it upon himself to declare the first lady’s shift in fashion choices. I guess it was a slow news day.

Frances Cleveland took the article in stride saying, “I suppose I shall have to adopt the style to suit the newspapers.” She took her dresses in the next day to be altered for wear by a woman without a comically poofy backside. She was happy enough to let it go.

Before all the fashion historians get mad at me, I realize that not all bustles were probably incredibly uncomfortable. But some of them looked like this. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

No one seemed particularly upset to let bustles become a thing of the past, as they hadn’t really served much of a purpose to begin with, and life was certainly a lot easier when one didn’t have to worry about tucking a bird cage into one’s skirt in order to appear in public.

What Charles Worth thought of the development I don’t know. I assume he was a little annoyed. Perhaps he even attempted to preserve his power over the fashion industry by suggesting that one or two layers of bustle should still be worn. Unfortunately for him, the people seemed inclined to follow the guidance that made the most sense to them and more and more women began sitting comfortably wherever they pleased.

Regardless of how relevant the influential designer might have felt, or how much he had once enjoyed the confidence of the White House and important people, the air had gone out of his overinflated posteriors. The citizens had had enough. They’d taken off their bustles and weren’t keen to put them back on, even on public transportation. In 1888, the occupants of the White House were pretty much okay with that. 

One Angry Egyptian Princess

Late tonight and into tomorrow morning will mark one hundred and ten years since the tragic sinking of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. The terrible accident was a difficult lesson in the critical value of good safety procedures, plentiful life boats, and respect for vengeful deceased Egyptian princesses.

Titanic leaving Southampton. Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or at least one particularly angry deceased Egyptian princess who might not have been a princess at all, whose name may or may not have been Amen-Ra, and whose mummy curse has been blamed for numerous deaths, countless sicknesses, the loss of an appendage or two, and as many as three sinking ships.

Amen-Ra, or whatever her real name was, has been busy in her afterlife which was presumably fairly peaceful for millennia. Then in the late nineteenth century three mummy-obsessed Englishmen engaged in a bit of good old fashioned grave robbing in the vicinity of Thebes.

Cover of 1909 Pearson’s Magazine featuring the story of the Unlucky Mummy, before she sank the Titanic (British Museum ref AE 22542). Pearson’s Magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Englishmen cast lots to determine who would keep the linen-wrapped treasure and that was that. Soon after the discovery, their Egyptian guide was seen wandering disoriented into the desert and was never heard from again. The two who had not won possession of the mummy soon died, and the lucky winner, Thomas Murray, lost an arm in a hunting accident before boarding a ship back to England with his newly acquired princess.

That’s when the real trouble began. Everywhere the mummy went, tragedy occurred, until finally Murray decided to unload her on the British Museum, where rumors of her malicious intentions soon spread. She was dubbed the “Unlucky Mummy” by those unfortunate enough to incur her wrath and live to tell the press about her.

One member of that press was investigative journalist W. T. Stead, famous for shining lights on the need for important social changes in England, and in this blogger’s humble opinion, kicking off the slide down a slippery slope away from journalistic integrity we’ve been experiencing ever since. He also had something of an obsession with spiritualism and loved the tale of the unlucky mummy.

In fact, there is no evidence that the mummy of Amen-Ra, whose brightly painted coffin lid is still displayed in the British Museum, ever left her final resting place in Egypt, let alone traveled on the Titanic after a relieved British Museum pawned her off on a wealthy American. There is a pretty good chance Stead and his buddy Murray made up the story in the first place.

Curse or not, I personally enjoy a good mummy tale.

There’s also no record of a mummy aboard the Titanic, but W. T. Stead did travel on the doomed ship and went down with her to the ocean floor just one day after regaling other passengers with a dinnertime tale of the Unlucky Mummy and all the chaos she had caused.

The story was later recalled by survivors of the Titanic tragedy. From those recollections, it wasn’t a big leap to the assumption that the mummy of Amen-Ra had been an unwilling passenger on the unsinkable ship, nor that she made it onto a lifeboat and survived to sink two more vessels, including the Lusitania of World War I fame.

I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson to learn in there somewhere, something about it being easier to blame the supernatural for tragedy than it is to address its causes or consider what decisions might have prevented it. Or maybe the lesson is that journalists should be careful when wielding their power for stories because one never knows when one might go down with the ship. Or just maybe there’s a really powerful curse emanating from an angry Egyptian mummy causing havoc all over the world because she’d like her coffin lid back.

If I could, I’d probably give it to her. It might at least be worth a try.

Bathed in Journalistic Integrity

You might have noticed that the world right now is a pretty messy place. I suppose that’s always true to some extent, but in this moment, it feels especially difficult to discuss important things without a misstep sure to incur the wrath of someone. Of course, this particular blog doesn’t enjoy a terribly wide audience anyway and so I doubt there would be much public outcry were I to accidentally presume an incorrect gender pronoun or commit an inadvertent microaggression or innocently inquire whether a particular bumbling world leader is in fact a malfunctioning animatron.

It’s a good thing this blog audience is small because this is how rumors get started.

Not that I would do any of those things. As I have stated numerous times, this blog is rarely about anything important, but there are moments in history when open, honest, and nuanced conversation is of critical importance. It’s at times such as these that those with public platforms of any size have a sacred duty to explore the stories that truly matter and that have the potential to shape public discourse and affect the world.

As you no doubt have assumed, I’m talking about stories such as the history of bathtubs.

It was during the lead up to WW I, another difficult moment in history, when long-successful journalist H. L. Mencken discovered that his sympathies for the German culture and its people, outside of the scope of its politics, could find no place in the media. Amid a sea of reports that universally painted German citizens as inherently monstrous, there was no room for the more balanced approach of Mencken’s writing.

Image by JillWellington , via Pixabay.

And so, he decided to go in a different direction. On December 28, 1917, the New York Evening Mail published his article lamenting the fact that on December 20th of that year, the nation had failed to celebrate the momentous seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub in the United States.

The leap forward in American hygiene, Mencken attributed to a Cincinnati businessman named Adam Thompson, whose world travels had led him to appreciate the ingenious tub his fellow countrymen so desperately feared. Thompson hired cabinetmaker James Cullness to make him a bathtub of his own, a project which soon gained a great deal of attention and spawned a rapidly growing controversy that resulted in numerous American cities enacting ordinances governing the use of the dangerous bathing contraptions.

Had that been the end of the story, the bathtub may have fallen out of use and been lost to the complexities of history, but its path toward greatness crossed with that of then vice president Millard Fillmore, who decided that taking a bath maybe wasn’t as bad as the outcry from the medical community suggested.

Millard Fillmore, looking like a man who recently took a bath. George Peter Alexander Healy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When he later became president upon the death of Zachary Taylor, one of Fillmore’s first acts as the new occupant of the White House, was to add a bathtub, a terribly presidential action that served to help normalize the tub’s usage and forever alter the hygiene habits of the American public.

The article was well-received. More than a hundred years later, Mencken’s work remains a frequently quoted authoritative source on the fascinating history of the bathtub. It stands as a brilliant testament to the same kind of journalistic integrity we expect to see today.

And by that, I mean he made the entire thing up. It was Mencken’s stated intention to provide lighthearted distraction during a time of tough news, though many have suggested that he was fed up with his own struggles to get his more serious work out there and wanted to provide evidence of just how easily a journalist such as himself can feed pretty much any information to a gullible public as long as he isn’t asking them to think too hard about it. He came clean about the fabricated history in 1926, but by then Millard Fillmore’s place in bathtub history was sealed. It still isn’t difficult to find the tale splashed across the internet or even occasionally in serious books written by serious people.

We may never know Mencken’s motivation for certain, but what we do know is that currently the White House contains thirty-five bathrooms. As I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of those bathrooms probably contain tubs, I might know a way to get to the truth of this malfunctioning animatron rumor.