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.

A Conflict Among the Stars

Three hundred fourteen years ago today on March 31, 1708, well-known astrologist, physician, and former shoemaker John Partridge died right on schedule. The prediction of his “infallible death” had been published earlier that year in a letter written by a man called Isaac Bickerstaff, who then at the prescribed date, also published a clever rhyming eulogy.

Turns out the pen really is mightier than the slap.

No one was more surprised by the timely demise of Partridge than the man himself who returned home from a trip shortly after the report to discover that even those he knew well had heard and were so convinced by the news that he had a hard time persuading them that he was, in fact, still alive. When he wrote an article explaining that he had not died, Bickerstaff quickly answered with an admonition for the rogue that would write so insensitively of the dead.

As mean-spirited as Bickerstaff’s pronouncement might have been, from one perspective, Partridge may have earned it. He was a self-proclaimed reformer of astrology who published an annual almanac in which he regularly and erroneously predicted the deaths of renowned individuals. He was also somewhat outspoken against the Church and in his 1708 almanac had referred satirically to it as the “infallible Church.”

Partridge, who lived another six or seven years after Swift’s pen killed him off, and whose precise date of death is unknown, which might also be Swift’s fault. He’d probably have preferred a public slap. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The barb settled uncomfortably on Isaac Bickerstaff, which was a pseudonym of the highly offended writer, satirist, astrology skeptic, and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift. In the moment, Swift decided against charging the stage and slapping the spit out of Partridge and instead chose to give the man a taste of his own medicine by predicting his death.

Swift’s revenge was definitely effective. After the news spread that the prediction had been spot on, Partridge coincidentally also found himself in a dispute with his publisher that led to the discontinuation of his almanac for a few years. When he finally did attempt to re-emerge, he found his reputation damaged beyond repair. Some astrology enthusiasts even suggest that it was this prank of Swift’s that led to a general discrediting of the entire field that lasted through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.

So, maybe the satirist who once modestly proposed that the most sensible solution to Irish poverty was to eat babies, pushed it a little too far this time. Comedy can, after all, be a hit or miss, depending on context and perspective and perhaps whether or not one’s spouse has a penchant for the dramatic and a mean right slap.

A House Divided

In the first century, Pliny the Younger wrote from Rome to his buddy Calvisius in order to defend himself. Apparently Calvisius had previously questioned Pliny about his determination to stay inside and study his books while living in the most exciting city in the world. Pliny’s response, roughly translated into modern English, was: “Ew. Sportsball.”

The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann; c. 39 x 45 cm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I admit that may not be my finest translation work, as he did go into a little bit more detail than that. In the letter (9.6), Pliny expressed his complete failure to understand how grown men could be so obsessed with athletes standing up in their chariots and being dragged around by horses. But what was even more perplexing to him than that was the dedication of these same grown men to a particular color of uniform, to the point that, he claimed, if the charioteers were to trade colors mid-race, they would also end up trading fans.

He probably wasn’t wrong. Chariot racing was big business in Ancient Rome and had been for hundreds of years. The sport was organized into different stables or factions that competed to obtain the best charioteers, who then often coordinated to help one another win. There are references in historical writings to at least six different factions that existed at one time or another, each represented by a color. The main four seem to have been Red, White, Blue, and Green, with Blue and Green eventually having become the most dominant and even serving as a flashpoint in the bloodiest riot in history.

Charioteers in the red tunics of their faction from the Charioteer Papyrus (c. 500), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fans of the races, which was pretty much every Roman except for Pliny the Nerd, were exceptionally dedicated to their faction, and I kind of get it. I mean, I’ve never watched a chariot race and I don’t consider myself a huge fan of sportsball in general, but any baseball player who wears a Cardinals jersey is my favorite baseball player until he’s traded to another team and becomes more or less dead to me.

The human desire to rally around and lift up a team seems pretty ingrained to me. I’m sure I could do a deep dive into the history and psychology of that phenomenon, but I don’t really have the time. My life just got a whole lot busier, because suddenly it’s sports season at my house.

My sons are now both in high school (a freshman and a junior) and for the first time this spring, both will be participating in high school sports. Both are on the track & field teams for their schools, which because of the complications of rapid community growth and district expansion, are completely different schools. Fortunately, my sons do different events so they will not be in direct individual competition with one another, but because track meets tend to be large, regional events, their schools will often be competing at the same meets.

I have tried to explain to my children that running is stupid, but here we are. 12019 via Pixabay.

Of course, there is a friendly rivalry between both my sons and their schools. One school has well established sports programs with a history of successes. The other has a shiny new facility in which to train the very first athletes that will ever wear the jersey. And of course, each school has its own mascot and school colors. The question is: how is a mother to show her support for each of her children when her house is divided?

It turns out I have a friend who has a gift for creating custom tee shirts. We’ve gone back and forth a couple of times about the design, with my children weighing in when they thought one school was getting more emphasis than the other. I think we’ve figured out something that will work. I don’t have it yet, but it will include the names of each school in that school’s colors, a heart, and the words: “A House Divided.”

I’m not sure the average Ancient Roman sportsball enthusiast would approve, but perhaps Pliny the Younger would. He’d probably also approve of my plan to take a book for the hours and hours of track meet time in between cheering at my sons’ events. But he still probably wouldn’t come to watch.

Speaking of boring track meets and books: March 6th is the first day of “Read an Ebook Week,” which I recently discovered is a thing. To celebrate, I’m giving away five ebooks. If you sign up by midnight (CST) on March 12th to receive my email newsletter (which I promise will not clog your inbox), you will be entered to win the ebook of your choice. Well, as long as it is one of the four written by me.

Sign up at this link: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Or if you are one of the handful of wonderful people already receiving my infrequent newsletter, you can still enter. Just drop me an email at s_angleton@charter.net to let me know you’d like to participate.

Worth Learning About Anytime

It wasn’t until 1976, under the direction of then US president Gerald Ford that Black History Month became an officially designated event in the life of the United States, though versions of it had been recognized in various parts of the country for fifty years by then. Ford hoped that Americans would “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

It does raise some controversy, which I can understand somewhat. To designate only one month to the contributions of Black Americans throughout history could be considered a disservice both to Black Americans and to American history itself, which is much better understood when all of its threads are looked at together. I get that argument.

It’s great to set aside a month for this to be our focus, as long as we don’t ignore the stories of Black Americans during the other eleven months.

I have, fortunately, seen in my lifetime a noticeable shifting in the way history is taught to incorporate more of the Black voice and I am hopeful that trend will continue, but I also see value in setting aside time to focus on some of the things we still have the tendency to miss.

I will be the first to admit that this blog rarely features history from the Black community. The reason for that is certainly not intentional racial exclusion, but stems rather from the reality that this blog is a place I generally try hard to keep fairly lighthearted, which so much of Black history sadly is not. It’s made up of a great deal of struggle and I have a hard time knowing how to write about that in the same space where I joke about cussing parrots and moon poop.

But today, I do want to take the opportunity to look at the neglected story of an impressive Black man who appears in my most recent novel, White Man’s Graveyard, a book that includes neither cussing parrots nor moon poop, but does wrestle with some complicated and racially charged American history.

Born free in Rhode Island in July of 1801, Reverend George S. Brown was a skilled stone mason and a powerful preacher. Rumor has it he also played the bagpipe, but I won’t hold that against him. Brown traced his conversion to 1827, when, emerging from a part of his life he referred to as his years of carousing, he felt called to the Methodist Episcopal Church where he soon became a licensed preacher.

I have found no pictures of either Rev. Brown or his mission at Heddington, but this is a Liberian mission station (Edina) from the same time period, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And boy did he preach. At one point while he attended seminary, he was told he couldn’t preach because it proved too distracting from his studies. He did it anyway. And it seems that people listened. His diary is filled with references to sermon topics and scripture passages, to congregations and conversions, and what is amazing for the time is that he was as likely to preach, and be well received, in white churches as he was in Black.

In fact, the only Methodist Episcopal Church to which he was ever officially appointed lead pastor was in Wolcott, Vermont, where in the 1850s, he ministered to a white congregation and even led them through a building campaign.

Before that, however, he served as a missionary to Liberia. That’s where I first encountered George Brown, encouraging purses to open and prayers to flow for the outreach opportunities presented by the colonization movement which sought to firmly establish an African colony for former American slaves.

George Brown was arguably the most effective Christian missionary to ever serve in the colony of Liberia. He established a mission post east of Monrovia called Heddington where he and his church of indigenous Africans withstood a brutal attack from slavers, and sought opportunities to reach further into the interior of the continent with the gospel message.

Brown also did not shy away from standing up to his white colleagues, including physician Sylvanus Goheen (one of the main protagonists in my novel) and mission superintendent John Seys, whose legal struggles with the colonial government seemed to Brown a terrible distraction from the mission. His refusal to align with a side, both of which he saw as wrong for various reasons, led to legal trouble of his own when Seys later attempted to block him from full ordination in the United States.

That’s where the story becomes sad and familiar because of course, the word of a white man outweighed the claims of even a well-respected and free Black man in 1840s America. Thankfully, George Brown persevered and eventually won the court battle.

I mean, this is one funny looking instrument, no matter who plays it. OpenClipart-Vectors, via Pixabay.

Reverend Brown is in my book because he was an integral part of the historical story on which it is based. In my earliest notes, he even provides one of the voices through which the story is told, but in the end, I didn’t think I could do him justice. Maybe someday another author will pick up his story and run with it. I hope so, because he strikes me as a man of deep conviction and unwavering integrity, an American well worth learning about this month and in the other months as well.

It’s true he never left bags of poop on the moon and if he owned a parrot that swore like a sailor, I never found any record of it. I do wish I had discovered more than a fleeting reference to his bagpipes, though, because I find that stories about bagpipes are often genuinely hilarious.

The Practical Historian Has No Taste

If you had happened to live in 430 BC and you had developed a taste for cinnamon, you’d have to have been awfully wealthy and also pretty lucky, because in 430 BC, the process of obtaining cinnamon was pretty complicated.

According to that great ancient historian Herodotus, the only source of this most flavorful spice was an unknown land where the cinnamalogus bird harvested sticks from the cinnamon tree to build its nest high atop the sheer cliffs of Arabia.

Herodotus, the world’s first practical historian. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where the Arabian cinnamon traders got their hands on it by luring the birds away from their cinnamon nests with tasty meaty morsels and knocking down the sticks with weighted arrows.

Now, I know you might think this sounds a little far-fetched, or perhaps you are skeptical because you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which introduces Herodotus as history’s biggest liar, liar, pants on fire. But consider that the cinnamalogus bird and this curious harvesting method are also documented in the writings of Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, and Pliny the Elder, which, I think, clearly demonstrates that the human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In defense of Pliny the Elder, he did at least express a little skepticism, suggesting that tall tales may sometimes evolve as a way to corner the market on some commodities. Cinnamon would probably have been worth the effort because it is among those sought-after spices that helped shape the modern world. Spice encouraged trade, which led to cultural exchange (and sometimes conflict), and eventually resulted in greater diversity in every corner of the earth. Because no matter what our differences may be, pretty much all humans like to experience flavor in their food.

For some reason I was picturing this bird as a lot more red and spicy and maybe with flames coming out of its wings or something. At least that’s how I would have drawn it if I’d made it up. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And that is something I have been made very aware of this past week when in the midst of surging numbers of Covid cases in my corner of the world, “the ‘Rona,” as it’s not so affectionately known around here, caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad case. I had a brief fight with fever followed by muscle aches, fatigue, and a runny nose. By day three, it had morphed into mostly congestion and as that cleared, I suddenly realized I still couldn’t taste and smell so well.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a terrible symptom, but it is a little frustrating when some of your favorite foods just stop tasting the way you want them to. In fact, if my senses of taste and smell weren’t already improving a little bit, it probably wouldn’t be long before I found myself willing to coax a mythical bird from its nest, to then destroy that nest with weighted arrows. Or at least if I found someone who said that’s what they had to do in order to bring some spice back into my life, I might just believe it was worth it.