Advice for Good Health from 1838

I hope you are faring well in your corner of the world. Here in my Midwestern US community, most of us have been in strict social distance mode for about ten or eleven days while the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases have been climbing. As a writer who works from home anyway, the biggest change in my routine is that I have fewer excuses to rely on when I fail to get any writing done. At the same time, I’ve accomplished less than ever.

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Even my attempt to journal about the experience of living in this strange time (using only my neatest handwriting for the benefit of future historical fiction writers) has been sporadic at best.

This should be the perfect opportunity to finally finish a polished draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Alas, I spend most of my time stressing about how far out of our routine the whole family has become, trying not to worry to distraction about my spouse who works in the healthcare field, and scrolling through too much news about this virus we still don’t know nearly as much about as we all like to pretend we do.

Of course, that’s a very human response. When faced with a new threat, without the time required to conduct thorough research and design solid tests yielding statistically significant results, we observe what we can, make some guesses, and post about our conclusions on social media.

We live in a pretty enlightened age, medically speaking, so if we step outside of our panic for a minute, we can understand that there are still a lot of answers we don’t know and won’t be able to find out for a while. But in some ways, medicine also hasn’t changed that much.

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At least no one is suggesting this is a good idea anymore. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

So today, I thought I’d share some good health information from my research for the novel I’m currently not finishing. This comes from a doctor by the name of Sylvanus Goheen who in 1838, served as a missionary physician to Monrovia in what was then the Colony of Liberia. Much like the physicians of today, Dr. Goheen faced a disease he didn’t understand as well as he would have liked.

In his case, it was malaria, which claimed the lives of so many missionaries and emigrants that Liberia had come to be called the White Man’s Graveyard (which is also the current working title of the book I should be revising right now).

With the still unnamed disease certainly not yet understood to be a parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitos, Dr. Goheen had to do the best he could with the observations he could make. He came up with the following advice for staying healthy:

  1. Give strict attention to diet—eat as nearly as possible the same food used in America and chew well.
  2. Eat light and early suppers and when feeling off, abstain from food. Always keep bowels regular.
  3. Avoid the sun, and rain, never get wet and avoid currents of air when perspiring freely.
  4. Never become fatigued either by bodily exertion or mental exercise and particularly refrain from reading at night.
  5. Keep out of night air and remain at home and in the house after nightfall and in your bedroom in the morning with windows closed until 8:00, for the first four months.
  6. Go to meeting but once per day, never take long walks nor boat excursions.
  7. Keep the mind easy and composed and talk or think little about the fever.
  8. When attacked, eat less than nature demands and confine yourself strictly to a gruel or arrowroot diet throughout convalescence.
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Not to question a doctor who attended almost a full year of medical school, which is still almost a year more than I did, but I see no problem with this.

Some of this is probably pretty good advice, even perhaps applicable to our current Covid-19-driven world. It may not be a bad idea, for our psychological well-being as well as our long-term physical comfort, if we could roughly maintain our pre-pandemic diet that likely included fewer Oreos and potato chips. It also certainly couldn’t hurt to try to keep our minds easy and less focused on the fever. And we should definitely stay in at night, safely socially distanced.

But then the list also includes some things that probably aren’t quite right for today. I’m not overly concerned about occasionally finding myself perspiring in the breeze, which might happen on that long, isolated walk I’m perfectly happy to take. And under no circumstances can I see myself giving up reading at night.

Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see that Dr. Goheen’s advice wasn’t quite right for his situation, either. He was doing what physicians do and drawing the very best conclusions he could within the limited knowledge available.

Much like him, we are faced today with some unknowns, a lot of fear, and a medical field that is working very hard to gather the best information and offer the best advice it can in an impossibly short amount of time. We’re all doing what we are able to keep ourselves and our world as healthy as we can.

Stay safe, everyone. If you’re stuck at home, write a novel or something. And for goodness sake, chew thoroughly and keep your bowels regular.

More Brains than Any Two Engineers

January 18, 1865 Washington Roebling, a colonel in the Union army and a trained engineer, married his sweetheart Emily Warren. Then when the war ended, the two went on a honeymoon tour of Europe with a slightly nerdy twist.

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Emily did give birth to the couple’s only son in 1867 so I suppose engineering wasn’t the ONLY thing they did on their honeymoon. Carolus-Duran / Public domain

Washington’s father, John Augustus Roebling, had built a pretty big name for himself in the field of suspension bridge construction and his plan to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn had been given the green light by the State of New York. Washington and his new bride decided that while they were honeymooning, they might as well do some research into the newfangled caissons that were all the rage among European engineers.

In case, like me, you didn’t spend your honeymoon studying engineering, a caisson is a watertight container that allows work to be completed underwater by pumping in compressed air and keeping water out. It’s awfully useful for building the foundation of a bridge over a river.

While the newlyweds picked up some pointers, the elder Roebling worked on finishing up his measurements before construction could begin. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury in the process and required amputation of a foot. And that led to the tetanus infection that quickly killed him.

It also brought an end to a fairytale engineering tour of Europe. Washington rushed home to take his father’s place as head engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project. He was great at it, too, leading his men by working alongside them, even taking his turn in the caissons, where he soon realized that working in compressed air can prove dangerous.

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Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1870. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress / Public domain

He suffered with what divers, and presumably also those in the bridge construction business, now know as the bends, or decompression sickness, in which your body doesn’t react particularly well to the large amount of nitrogen dissolved in your blood after breathing compressed air for a while.

Decompression sickness can be prevented, now that we know what it is and what causes it, but Washington didn’t have the benefit of that information and wound up partially paralyzed, most likely the victim of multiple strokes, and unable to fulfil his role as lead engineer on the project.

That left only one Roebling, armed with a pretty good education for a woman of her day (which still wasn’t a great deal of education) and what relevant bridge-building knowledge she had managed to pick up on her honeymoon, to take up the charge.

Emily accepted the challenge.

She became the chief engineer, allegedly relaying daily instructions from her husband to the job site, updating and schmoozing with politicians, defending her husband’s position from competing engineers angling to take the project over, and soaking in all the knowledge she could about stress analysis and cable construction.

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Maybe the rooster was a lucky bridge-crossing companion because he already had so much experience crossing the road? via Pixabay

When the Brooklyn Bridge finally opened on May 24, 1883 the first carriage to cross it carried Emily Warren Roebling with a lucky rooster held on her lap. Though she never publicly claimed to be anything more than a mouthpiece for her husband, in a private letter to her son she wrote: “I have more brains, common sense, and know-how generally than any two engineers, civil or uncivil, that I have ever met.”

And she was probably right. In the years following the Brooklyn Bridge project, Emily Roebling earned a law degree and became active in numerous organizations, always seeking ways to promote women’s education and women’s equality.

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A suspension bridge built by engineers not supervised by Emily Warren Roebling. Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure (1940).

But I came across her while researching the opening location of my novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which occurs briefly in the shadow of a burgeoning bridge that would become, for a time, the longest structure of its kind in the world. I first met Emily Roebling as the Chief Not-Technically-An-Engineer who successfully completed the project begun by her father-in-law and who now has a street block in Brooklyn named in her honor.

She was my kind of woman—the kind who does what she needs to do to get done what needs to get done and doesn’t bother asking anyone whether or not she can. She’s the kind of woman I want to be and the kind I want to celebrate this upcoming Sunday March 8 when we recognize International Women’s Day. Fortunately, I know a lot of women like her.

An Extra Day and a Hot Mess

Sometime around the year 1235, Johannes de Sacrobosco, a monk and astronomer teaching at the University of Paris, published his Du Computo Ecclesiastico, an in-depth study of the hot mess that is the history of the calendar in all its various imaginings and recalculations through the years.

Though I haven’t read it, the history rumor mill suggests the book is pretty scholarly. Sacrobosco definitely had a lot of things to say about the way the passage of time should be measured, including a few suggestions for reckoning the Julian calendar to solar and lunar observations and calculations. By his day, the equinoxes and solstices had already experienced a pretty significant backwards slippage in time.

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Julius Caesar wishing February had been a little bit longer, because March wasn’t looking so good for him. Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

The book also includes a story about how the calendar ended up in such a terrible fix in the first place, like that time the month of February became comically short because Augustus Caesar decided to borrow a day for his own namesake month of August so that it would be every bit as long as the previous month named for his dad.

February is comically short, not only because it usually has twenty-eight days instead of the more traditional thirty or thirty-one, but because it follows January, which at least in my corner of the world is the longest darn month of the year. It’s bleak and cold and filled with the junk you put off during the holidays. Oh, and it follows the holiday season, which is as fun as January isn’t.

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Any month that starts off with a groundhog is pretty okay in my book. Picture by hatlerbratton, via Pixabay

Like it has most years I can remember, February has kind of flown by comparison. This shortest month comes with a furry mascot, a celebration of love, Girl Scout cookies, the start of baseball spring training, and slightly brighter days. Mine probably went especially fast, too, because it included a book launch and the corresponding flurry of activity. My calendar has actually been kind of a hot mess.

But as “not as awful as January” as February is, it does kind of get the shaft, even in leap years like this one. Had I been in Sacrobosco’s place writing a treatise on the convoluted history and problem of calendars (which I assure you no one would call a pretty scholarly work), I also would have included that story about Augustus Caesar lopping off February’s end, because it’s a pretty great one. Of course, it wouldn’t have been true if I’d written it, either.

It turns out there’s plenty of evidence that the calendar’s multitude of problematic and somewhat sporadically assigned month lengths predated both Augustus and Julius. The latter did do his level best to fix it, consulting with the astronomer Sosigenes from Egypt to come up with a 365-day year that corrected with a leap day every fourth year.

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Pope Gregory XII, a man whose calendar was not a hot mess. Justus van Gent / Public domain

Not bad. But it didn’t fix the problem indefinitely and it wasn’t until three hundred fifty years after Sacrobosco’s book that Pope Gregory XII made a really good change to the plan. That’s when it was decided that the calendar everyone would use (except for those who didn’t feel like it) would include 365 days, with a leap year every fourth year, except for a century year, unless it could be evenly divided by four hundred.

Simple, no?

But it has more or less worked since then with a large chunk of the world buying in to its use, or at least more or less understanding it so that business can be conducted with relative ease all 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds of the year.

It’s still not perfect and will need more corrective action over the course of millennia. Evidently the rotation of the earth isn’t even entirely consistent, making our measurement of time a little less precise than we’d probably like to think. But there are astronomers who regularly work on that problem and keep us all on track by occasionally adding an extra one-Mississippi to the clock. I imagine most of us aren’t much bothered.

In fact, other than the approximately 4.2 million “leaplings” world wide who will be celebrating their birthday this Saturday or the hopelessly romantic ladies who will be exploiting a silly tradition and proposing to their fellas, a lot of us probably barely even notice February 29th when it rolls around.

Unless you’re like me and your calendar is a little bit of a hot mess. Personally, I plan to make good use of this February’s extra day.

Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.

What’s in a Name

On January 15, 1929 a baby boy who was destined to do great things came screaming into the world. His name was Michael, after his father, a Baptist minister who served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

A few years later in 1934, Michael’s father traveled to Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. This was about a year after Adolph Hitler had come to power as chancellor, and Germany was becoming an uncomfortable place to be, losing itself to hatred and discrimination with the rise of the Nazi party.

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Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain]
The state of affairs in that nation and in the world weighed heavily on the reverend’s mind as he toured sites important in the story of Martin Luther, another man of God who found himself in an environment in which those in power were guilty of oppressing the less powerful for personal gain. According to legend, in 1517 Luther declared the need for change, and his willingness to defend his argument, in the form of a list of ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

In response to the swell of hatred in 1934, the Baptist World Alliance issued a statement of its own. It wasn’t a list of ninety-five theological arguments and questions nailed to a church door that would touch off a reformation movement. It was a strongly worded condemnation of “racial animosity, and every form of unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

Both the conference and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a 16th century German priest who prompted significant change in a world that was desperate for it, the Reverend Michael King, Sr. returned to the United States profoundly affected by all he’d seen.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. National Archives at College Park [Public domain]
So affected, in fact, that as he pondered the experience he came to a fairly unusual decision. He chose to legally change his name to Martin Luther King. His young son and namesake became Martin Luther, too, and on July 23 of 1957, the young man, then twenty-eight years old, made the official change to his birth certificate.

Today this son is remembered for his great leadership in bringing about change to a world in desperate need of it, for casting a vision in which all people condemn unfair discrimination and oppression. It was a challenging mantle to carry, one that cost him his life, but painted an enduring and powerful legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably better remembered in many circles today than is the priest whose name his father once decided to take as his own. But in learning and revisiting the activist’s story as we take time this weekend to honor the anniversary of his birth, I’m struck by the power of a name and the greatness it may inspire.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

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Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

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I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

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Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

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A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

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A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

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The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

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Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!