A Somewhat Subdued Book Launch

This has been a difficult week in the household of practical history. My sweet mother-in-law passed away after a long health struggle. It’s been an emotional time of grieving and planning and hosting, and it has not been a week for posting or commenting. I am sorry about that, and I am working to catch up.

In general, I would suggest that one might wish to avoid big, emotionally difficult life events when launching a book.  Of course, since big, emotionally difficult life events are rarely planned, here we are. Because the other thing that happened this week is that my third historical novel launched into the world.

I had originally planned to post that announcement accompanied by some interesting history, a little whimsy, and much fanfare. Instead, I’m just going to post the prologue of the book. If you get to the end of the prologue and you would like to keep reading, you can get the book here: mybook.to/PurchaseOnAmazon or here: https://books2read.com/u/31KjGw I would also really appreciate that if you are on Goodreads and feel so compelled, you go ahead and mark it as “Want to Read”: https://bit.ly/3osuNGV. And, of course, reviews are an author’s best friend. Thanks!

Prologue

August 13, 1837

Even the buzz of the insects hushed as the final preacher of the Sabbath day stepped onto the stage to claim the pulpit. It was this man they’d come to see—the farmers and the merchants, the ladies in their finest silks, the young lawyer who, at the request of his friends, had left piles of work in his office six miles away in Springfield only to hear the renowned speaker.

Peter Akers didn’t disappoint. He was a giant of a man. More than six feet tall and broad with long limbs and large hands that animated his speech, he loomed above the crowd. They leaned into his words in the slick heat of the Illinois summer.

He began his sermon with a text from Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee. Akers favored the Old Testament prophets, often preaching from these strange and ancient texts sometimes for hours, diving without hesitation into high-minded allegory and apocalyptic language, inviting his congregation to ascend with him to new intellectual heights.

Also, this happened.
#1 New Release in one fairly obscure category on Amazon. But that’s something. I think.

His were not the emotionally exhilarating sermons of his col­leagues. He neither condemned nor flattered. His words did not in­spire the quaking and contorting otherwise common at camp meeting revivals, yet he held his audience rapt and eager.

Like Jacob of old, Akers wrestled with God, and all who listened came away changed. His sermon danced among the words of God’s prophets, from Zechariah to Isaiah, from Ezekiel’s proclamations of the unrighteous overturned, to the book of Revelation and Baby­lon’s inevitable fall.

And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise anymore: the merchandise of silver and gold and precious stone, of wine and oil and fine flour, of sheep and horses and chariots and slaves and the souls of men.

Akers paused here, his eyes raised to heaven and at the same time locked into the hearts of each silent person awaiting the forth­coming conclusion, breaths held in anticipation.

“If we interpret the prophecies of this Book correctly. . .” Though the preacher’s commanding voice lowered to nearly a whisper, not a word could be missed. “There will soon come a time when the head and front of this offending shall be broken; a time when slave-ships, like beasts of prey, will no longer steal along the coast of de­fenseless Africa. When we shall cease to trade in the flesh and souls of men but will instead expel forever from this land the manacle and the whip.

“I am not a prophet,” Akers explained to a congregation that did not believe him. “But a student of the Prophets. American slavery will come to an end in some near decade.”

At these words, shifting and murmuring rose in the crowd, some perhaps angry but most filled with hope and awe at the sheer audacity of the assertion. Undaunted by the excitement, Akers car­ried on, saying, “Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife might be standing in this presence.”

This was a pronouncement rather than a question. The preacher paused, giving space for the seed of prophetic vision to find fertile soil.

At the edge of the crowd, the young lawyer drew a long breath, rubbed his weary eyes, and reflected on the preacher’s powerful words.

One of his friends clapped him on the back. “What do you think, Mr. Lincoln? Are you glad you came with us?”

“As odd as it seems,” he answered with only slight hesitation, “When the preacher described those changes and revolutions, I was deeply impressed that I should somehow strangely mix up with them.”

He did not wait for a response from his dumbfounded friend, but stood tall and stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and limbs as he thought of the many tasks awaiting him on his desk, and of the much greater work he’d yet to begin.

Celebrating Family History Month Under a False Bottom Drawer

On June 11, 1837, the ship Charlotte Harper set sail from the United States for the West Coast of Africa where a colony had been established by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of resettling former American slaves. The ship carried supplies for the settlements of Bassa Cove and Monrovia in the colony of Liberia, a handful of ACS agents, a couple of teachers, and one eager twenty-four-year-old Methodist Episcopal missionary physician named Sylvanus Goheen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Sylvanus, but this is his good buddy John Seys, superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal mission in Liberia. Smith sc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back on history, we might have some strong opinions about colonization, most of them probably negative. At that time, opinions were mixed. But this farm kid from Pennsylvania, youngest of a large brood, and fresh from medical school, such as it was in the 1830s, didn’t question the nobility of his intention to help carry the light of Christ to the new colony. He did, however, fear he might not make it there at all.

Watching the waving handkerchief of the one brother who, with tears in his eyes, had come to send him off, the image slowly fading from view along with the coastline of the United States, Sylvanus began to envision looming tragedy that would send him to the bottom of the Atlantic. The newspaper headlines his mother would read began to drift through his mind: Storm Sunk Vessel and All Aboard Lost or She Went Down in the Night, Cause Unknown or She Happened in with a Pirate who Murdered All Aboard. I think it’s safe to say he was freaking out a little.

And this is where, after hours and hours of puzzling my way through the handwriting of my ancestors, I lament the fact that a lot of school children are no longer learning cursive. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I don’t blame him. I’d have probably been freaking out, too. Sylvanus Goheen was imaginative, charming, and pretty funny. He was also sort of arrogant and sometimes kind of petulant, but we all have our faults and, if I’m being honest, he reminds me a little bit of myself.

That makes sense to me, because he was the younger brother of my grandfather’s great grandfather. I first encountered Sylvanus on the pages of a diary he presented to his sister Ann around the time of his departure for Liberia. This diary, though shorter on details than I’d have liked, turned up beneath the false bottom drawer of a lawyer cabinet among my grandmother’s possessions. That’s where my aunt found it shortly after my grandmother’s death.

Since I’m the writer in the family, she presented it to me and I placed it on the backburner where it simmered for quite a few years while, though I dabbled with it a little, I spent most of my time with mummies, lost manuscripts, and scoundrels. But now finally it’s quite a few years later. It’s also October, which means that if you are in the United States, this is officially Family History Month as declared by Congress in 2001 because, evidently, they had nothing better to do.

It’s the month for interviewing your oldest relatives, for checking out the genealogical tools available at your local library, for sending off for that kit that tells you how closely you’re related to Genghis Kahn, and for searching the false bottom drawers in your heirloom furniture. Because I bet you’ll find interesting people, who did interesting things, and if you can manage to learn about them, you might even discover hints of yourself.

Genghis Kahn, allegedly among the most genetically successful men of all time. Clara-Agathe NARGEOT (1829 – ?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And maybe, if you do a little more research, and a little more than that, and a little more than that until you’ve done quite a lot of research about them, you might someday take them off the backburner and write a book. That’s what I finally did.

My newest novel White Man’s Graveyard will be released in just a few weeks. In its pages, you’ll get to meet Sylvanus, his sister Annie, a dog named Hector, an orangutan named Jenny, and a whole lot of other characters, many of whom come from my own family’s past, and a few of whom come from my head. You’ll also get to explore a controversial piece of not always well remembered American and Liberian history.

And you’ll discover whether or not Sylvanus was murdered by a pirate.

A Horde of Under-caffeinated Hoarders

On July 24, 1777 Boston merchant Thomas Boylston got what was coming to him. Or at least that’s probably how it was understood by the one hundred or more women who attacked him on King Street. Boston, like most cities around this time in the burgeoning nation, was experiencing a series of food shortages. Both the British and Continental armies frequently requisitioned food and livestock and a lot of women had been left scrambling on their own to manage families, homes, farms, and businesses while their husbands were off fighting a war.

This is a horde.
tangi bertin from Rennes, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like there are in most good crises, there were those who saw advantage in the struggle. Boylston, who was a cousin to John Adams, was generally thought to be a patriot, and who seriously underestimated the wrath of a whole horde of caffeine-deficient women, decided to hoard coffee in order to drive up the price.

Now, I am not a coffee drinker, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers. Some I might even call obsessive, a category that might even include you. I know it includes the people who make it difficult every single day for me to drive down the access road behind the main Starbucks in my town. I say “main” because we do have more than one. They’re both busy. Always.

This is a hoard. It’s just as scary. Image by Nature-Pix from Pixabay

I mean like winding drive-through line that spills ten cars deep out of the Starbucks parking lot and into the road that I innocently attempt to drive down in order to make my way from one place where I don’t buy coffee to another place where I don’t buy coffee kind of busy. This line, I assume, is filled with people who might have joined in with the women of Boston that marched to Boylston’s business, demanded his keys, and when he refused, seized him by the neck, forced him into a cart and, according to some accounts, spanked him until he complied. He eventually did. The mob then carried off all the coffee and left Boylston contemplating the fact that he’d been beaten up by a bunch of girls. One farmer justified the mob actions by saying, “This is the very same oppression that we complain of Great Britain!”

And this is just coffee. I don’t really get it. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

While that may be a slight oversimplification of the causes of the Revolutionary War, short supplies can make people do crazy things, like hoard twelve years-worth of toilet paper next to the Christmas decorations and model train sets in their basements. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a desperate shortage of coffee right now. Or at least there wasn’t before National Coffee Day yesterday.

To celebrate the day, Starbucks offered a free cup of coffee to any customer who came by with their favorite mug. No need even to spank the barista. The offer was limited to one cup per customer per store, but since there are approximately forty-seven Starbucks stores within an hour of my house, and probably yours, too, coffee drinkers could have kept busy picking up free coffee all day long. Judging by the line spilling out of the parking lot, most of you did.

The Naked Truth About Pirates

In April of 1716, the crew of the French vessel Ste. Marie got a strange and probably pretty scary surprise. Off the coast of Cuba, the ship, carrying at least 30,000 pieces of eight, was flanked by two small vessels full of pirates who were armed to the teeth and were otherwise as naked as the day they were born.

There were many versions of the menacing flag associated with pirates. Among the simplest of them, this one was most likely flown by Black Sam. RootOfAllLight, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It had been eight months or so since eleven of twelve Spanish ships transporting a large haul of treasure from the New World to the old had fallen victim to a hurricane and wrecked off the coast of Florida. The tragedy claimed as many as 1,500 lives and quickly attracted the attention of treasure hunters, including partners Paulsgrave Williams and Samuel Bellamy who sailed from Cape Cod, arriving in the fall after much of the treasure had already been plundered.

Of the two, Bellamy was the experienced sailor and the historical rumor mill suggests that he had a pretty good reason for needing that treasure. He had met the girl of his dreams but her father refused the poor young man’s plea to marry his daughter. Frustrated at the lack of treasure, Bellamy, who would later come to be known as Black Sam, turned to piracy because, obviously, it’s every father’s dream for his daughter to marry a pirate.

And he was a really good pirate, actually one of the most successful of the Golden Age of Piracy despite a relatively short run. He often shared his ill-gotten wealth with those who needed it most, earning a reputation as the Robinhood of pirates. A brilliant strategist, he went out of his way to minimize violence, even stripping to the buff in order to shock the crew and take the Ste. Marie without a single shot fired.

If you do wish to dress like a black-hearted bilge rat, I suggest something more along these lines. It will probably still surprise most of the landlubbers you encounter and it is much less likely to get you arrested.

And despite his nakedness, he allegedly treated his captives with respect, preferring “Please and thank you, sirs” to “Arrr. Walk the plank, ye black-hearted bilge rats!” That may be something to bear in mind as we celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day coming up this Sunday, September 19th.

You will be celebrating Talk Like a Pirate Day, yes? Among all the thousands of ridiculous made-up holidays and “official” recognition days that have been crowded onto our calendars over the years, this one is definitely on my short list of favorites (Pi Day on March 14 claims the top spot).

Originally created by some guy in Oregon as a way to pillage some fun on the date of his ex-wife’s birthday, the probably-not-so-celebration-worthy event attracted notice when humor columnist Dave Barry wrote about it in 2002. So now, people in the know, spend the day calling one another scurvy dogs and saying Yo ho ho a lot.

And why not? Historians may argue that outside of Disney movies pirates probably didn’t actually talk all that differently than the rest of us, but it’s kind of a fun challenge to try to work shiver me timbers into a conversation. Go ahead and give it a try; talk like a pirate. Just maybe think twice before dressing like one.

Dreaming of the Island Nation of Angletonia

On September 2, 1967 Englishman Roy Bates set the bar remarkably high when he gave a pretty extravagant birthday gift to his wife. That was the day he bestowed upon her the title of Princess Joan and made her the sovereign of a new nation called Sealand, which today celebrates the fifty-fourth anniversary of its establishment.

Don’t tell the Sealanders, but technically, it is what’s known as a micronation, basically meaning that as far as the international community is concerned, it’s not a real thing at all. But Sealand was created from a defensive platform fortress built during World War II in what was then international waters by Great Britain, and over the years it has achieved a modicum of legal recognition.

Looks like a nice place, I guess? See en:Talk:Sealand/emails, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bates occupied what was known as Fort Roughs Tower with the intention of running a pirate radio station from about seven or so miles off the coast of Suffolk and beyond the interference of the BBC. He never did establish the radio station, though. Instead, he consulted with a lawyer, and declared The Principality of Sealand.

The primary question, it seems to me, is why? Sealand doesn’t seem to me like an especially pleasant place to live, and at any given time, according to its current head of state Michael Bates, its in-country population is “normally like two people.”

It’s also taken the Bates family a significant effort to maintain through the years. When England began destroying several similar platforms off its coast in the late 1960s, Sealanders fired warning shots toward approaching vessels. Bates faced legal ramifications, but the British courts decided they had no jurisdiction in the case, which its prince took as legal justification for his “nation’s” existence.

Sealand has a flag, national anthem, currency, and stamps. You can even become a member of the nobility if you want. Zscout370, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later, in 1978, Sealand faced an invasion by German and Dutch mercenaries, resulting in Prince Michael being held hostage. The prince eventually managed to use some of the resources at his disposal on Fort Roughs to overwhelm his captors, one of whom was in possession of a Sealand passport and so was tried and imprisoned for treason. Because a German diplomat entered into eventually successful negotiations on the man’s behalf, Sealand could then claim German recognition as a nation. Kind of.

The whole thing sounds exhausting to me, but then I think I also might kind of get it. At least a little bit. Because even though the Bates family are British citizens who primarily reside on land in Great Britain, they have a place to retreat to when their government leaders go and do really, really stupid things. As government leaders so often seem to do.

The rest of us are left uselessly yelling at our television screens, computer monitors, phones, messenger pigeons, or however we get our news, and trying to invent more creative swear words to post self-righteously on social media because the old ones no longer seem adequate. Meanwhile, the royal family of Sealand, and “normally like two” of its citizen caretakers, can escape to their weird North Sea micronation haven where they can make their own decisions and Grandma Joan’s head is on the coins.

For now, Angletonia exists only in the unclaimed territory in my brain, where it looks something like this. Image by Todd Kay from Pixabay

It sounds kind of nice, actually. At least once in a while. And apparently other people think so, too, because micronations have been popping up all over the world for at least a century. Some exist on little (or quite large) bits of unclaimed land within the borders of recognized nations, some on islands, some in cyberspace, and even one in outer space. It boasts more than 160,000 citizens.

Most don’t tend to last too long, and few receive even as much sort-of recognition as Sealand has managed. As the spunky North Sea micronation celebrates fifty-four years of well-imagined existence, it’s not entirely clear how long it will continue.

The Bates family seems determined to fight for their little chunk of the world, but since England’s borders expanded in 1987 to include twelve miles out into the sea, Sealand does now technically exist within the country whose citizenship its royal family still holds. If there’s ever reason for a legal battle again, I’m not convinced, in all my vast (totally made-up) understanding of law, that it will survive. I think I’m rooting for them, though, and dreaming of my own island nation of Angletonia.

Taking a Crack at It

One day in September of 1895 (or thereabouts), janitor Harvey Lillard was hard at work in the Ryan Building on Brady Street in Davenport, Iowa. He was also hard of hearing, and had been for about seventeen years. In this building was the office of a grocer-turned-magnetic healer by the name of Daniel David Palmer, who decided that he might be able to take a crack at curing Lillard’s partial deafness.

Lillard agreed to an examination. What Palmer found was a bulging disk in the man’s spine. Figuring that may be the root of the problem, Palmer performed what is rumored to be the first ever chiropractic manipulation and birthed a controversial profession that will soon celebrate its 126th anniversary. It also allegedly restored Lillard’s hearing and set right an old, troublesome injury.

In one version of the story, the original injury occurred when Palmer slapped Lillard in the back with a book after a funny joke, and then cured him with an adjustment. That sounds pretty legit to me. Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Like all great origin stories, there are a few different versions of this one and really, it might be kind of suspect, but then so is the profession it spawned. Or at least it has been throughout much of its history. Rising at the end of the century that brought the world a plethora of dangerous patent medicines, magnetic healing, and early medical colleges that were only beginning to coalesce into something resembling standardization, while still grandfathering medical licenses of those who favored feeding mercury to their patients, chiropractic probably seemed like a light in the darkness.

Then with the twentieth century came the rise of antibiotics and the growing habit of medical professionals using the scientific method to study and treat and cure. Trained, tested, and licensed medical doctors began to know what they were talking about, and attributing all medical maladies to misalignment of the spine began to sound just a little bit nutters.

My 14-year-old son has apologized, as he believes he perhaps stepped on a crack and broke his mother’s back. Because he’s funny. Image by Jean-Pierre Pellissier from Pixabay

Despite the controversy, and decades of almost straight-up warring with the American Medical Association, chiropractic practitioners have persevered. With their natural approach to health that, in addition to frequent spinal manipulation, focuses on nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, they have probably done a lot of good for some patients. 

I am not one of those patients. But I did, for the first time ever, seek out chiropractic care this past week. I am, in general, a pretty active person, but ever since becoming a mommy quite a few years ago, I occasionally suffer with acute low back pain. I usually muddle through for a few days to about a week or so, and recover fairly well. This time, I haven’t been quite as fortunate.

Is it just me? This is a little weird, right? Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a little shy of two weeks since the onset of my latest struggle with back pain. It’s one of those annoying ones that I can’t totally attribute to any specific moment of injury, which makes it all the more frustrating. So, desperate for some relief, I went to a chiropractor, because my husband who is a healthcare professional of the more scientific method variety, and who has had some experience with sports medicine in which athletes will often use a more combined approach to nursing injuries, said, “Eh, maybe give it a try.”

I did. And what I can say is this: It helped. Maybe. Or maybe it didn’t. Actually, I’m really not sure. I know that following adjustment, I could probably stand up a little straighter for a few minutes and maybe got a little bit of pain relief that allowed slightly more flexibility as I worked through some physical therapy, in which, frankly, I have a lot more faith.

It was also weird. If you are an enthusiastic patient of chiropractic care (and if you love it and it works for you, then that’s great) then having a stranger pull on your arms and basically sit on top of you while you snap crackle and pop might seem totally normal. But if you’re not accustomed to it, well, it’s weird.

My back still hurts, but I am on the mend. Physical therapy and I are getting along much better and I can see past the discomfort now to a near future in which I feel fine again and can do all the things I want. I do, however, think I will probably not be seeking chiropractic adjustment again.

It’s definitely more mainstream than it used to be. It’s regulated and requires training and licensing and all that. A lot of people swear by it. It’s just not for me. But, like its first patient Harvey Lillard and its first practitioner D. D. Palmer, I took a crack at it.

Leave the Poop. Take the Rocks.

This past July marked fifty-two years since Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind on the surface of the moon, leaving behind an American flag, some pretty funky footprints, and a plaque reading: “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A. D. We came in peace for all mankind.” The message, I’m sure, is of great comfort to those visiting aliens who can read the English language.

But that’s not all the crew of the Apollo 11 left behind. They also abandoned, among other things, two golf balls, twelve cameras, twelve pairs of boots, a telescope, and bags of human waste, including urine, vomit, and yes, feces. In fact, between the six Apollo missions that landed on the moon, there have been ninety-six bags of human waste left behind. The items were left in order to compensate for the additional weight of the moonrocks the astronauts brought back. There just wasn’t enough room for the golf balls and poop.

The first three men ever to leave their poop on the moon. NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It does seem like a very human thing to do to leave behind a trail of stuff. My family certainly did on our most recent trip. With some areas of the country a little more on edge than others and Covid numbers creeping up, we decided to stay a little closer to home for our summer family vacation this year. And so, we rented a cabin on Table Rock Lake in the southern part of our home state of Missouri.

We packed our suitcases, attached the cartop carrier filled with cycling and fishing gear, strapped our four bicycles to the back, and piled into the family truckster along with a cooler of snacks and a laundry basketful of goods for setting up our temporary home away from home. Fully loaded down, we headed out for our four-hour drive to the lake.

Eleven hours later, we arrived in a borrowed Jeep, with slightly dampened spirits, and in possession of only some of our belongings. The truckster (a 2020 Subaru Outback with just over 20,000 miles on it) decided it would rather make only half the journey and died a spectacular death on the interstate.

Right now it kind of feels like we left behind a big pile of poop. At least it’s still under warranty.

Fortunately, we did make it to the side of the road in a relatively wide-open spot where we could escape the shoulder over a grassy divide to a frontage road sporting a run-down motel that a very kind state trooper who soon stopped to help us called “not a nice place.”

After an hour or so of fighting the world’s most complicated phone tree to talk to someone with our insurance company at 5:00 on a Saturday, and calling on the kindness of some amazing family reinforcements who quickly volunteered to come to our rescue, we unstrapped our bikes and headed a couple miles down the frontage road to a safer part of the town whose last exit we’d just passed.

The truckster, minus a functional transmission and plus our luggage, got towed to the nearest Subaru dealership. That is at least located in the direction we were going, though is also an hour further from where we actually live.

Meanwhile, we played cards on the parking lot sidewalk of a gas station convenience store surrounded by our bikes and enjoying a dinner of the finest gas station convenience store food we could find, until my sister arrived with her Jeep complete with trailer hitch so we could transport our bicycles. Our nephew also came, so that he could transport her back to our house so she could take the car our oldest son normally drives back home for the week.

Next, we headed to the Subaru dealership, explained to a suspicious night security guard that we just wanted our suitcases, and rescued what we could. The Jeep held a lot, and with a second trip to the truckster the next day, we got most of our stuff transported to the cabin, where we strategized through the week how to get everything back home again.

Don’t worry. We didn’t have to leave our travel buddy Steve behind.

Of course, we didn’t. The laundry basket of household stuff broke in the process and so we disposed of it and we didn’t need to bring any food back with us, so a lot of little things could fit inside the empty ice chest. We threw away what we had to, left the household supplies that might be useful to future renters, and signed the guestbook: “We came in peace for all mankind.” The hubbs then pieced together the rest in the back of the Jeep, playing his finest game yet of what we like to call “Car Jenga.”  

Despite the ridiculous start and slightly cramped end, our vacation really was a lot of fun, and our left-behind hand soap, paper plates, and Clorox wipes were a pretty good trade-off for the memories made. We are definitely going to want the car back eventually, though. So far, we’re hopeful we might be able to retrieve it by the end of next week.

It’s now been fifty-two years and mankind has not yet retrieved most of its left-behind stuff from the moon. Frankly, no one misses the golf balls. They seem a pretty good trade-off for a pile of moonrocks and memories of an out-of-this-world trip. But with all the bacteria that has been exposed for decades to the environment of the moon, there are some scientists who are eager to get their hands on the poop. Personally, I think I’d just be happy with the rocks.

The Overheard Musings of a Milkmaid

It was in the middle of the 18th century when, as a boy, English physician Edward Jenner overheard a conversation that would one day save countless lives. What he overheard was a milkmaid explaining to someone that she would never have to worry about the disfigurement of the dreaded smallpox because she’d had a case of the much milder disease cowpox.

Surely it struck the young man as strange that this probably fairly uneducated woman believed her life, and her beauty, may have been saved by a cow, but the notion stuck with him as he grew. On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox laced pus. The boy ended up with a short-lived mild fever and some temporary general malaise, but was otherwise fine. Then two months later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, and he developed no symptoms at all.

This woman will not be getting smallpox. Paulus Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Jenner called his discovery “vaccinia,” derived from the Latin word for cow. He wrote up his findings, published them as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, presented them to the Royal Society, and faced ridicule from renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and other very important men.

But some listened and experimented and discovered the same result. Edward Jenner, on the overheard musings of a milkmaid, had discovered a way to prevent smallpox infection that proved significantly safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself, which was a practice frequently undertaken by those who wanted to reduce their chance of dying from smallpox to one in forty from twelve in forty.

Edward Jenner, no longer a child, and still eavesdropping on milkmaids. John Raphael Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One physician thought the newfangled vaccine promising enough, that he sent Jenner’s work to an American colleague by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse, who served as Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. The American physician was so impressed by the research that on July 8, 1802, he vaccinated both a household servant and Waterhouse’s own five-year-old son, fortunately with great success. He would later go on to vaccinate his entire household and quite a few relatives in order to, according to him, “convince the faithless and silence the mischievous.”

Excited, Waterhouse next set up Board of Health trials in which vaccination by the cowpox-causing virus proved overwhelmingly preventative of smallpox infection. He faced as much resistance and ridicule as Jenner had, but he did have a powerful ally in then president Thomas Jefferson who sent him a fan letter in which he wrote: “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

Benjamin Waterhouse, a man who thankfully wasn’t too concerned about the ethical questions surrounding experimenting on one’s own 5-year-old son. Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson may have been a little bit premature in his statement, but through the continued efforts of Waterhouse and Jenner a skeptical population both in the US and England, and eventually throughout the world, increasingly sought vaccination. Then in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated.

Gone. A disease that some historians estimate killed as many as two billion people throughout history is gone because of a gossiping milkmaid, an eavesdropping boy, and the influence of a committed community of medical professionals and those who trusted them.

I’m not a vaccine expert, though I’m glad to say I have more education than the average 18th century milkmaid. What I do know is that the more opportunity viruses have to thrive, the more opportunity there is for variations to occur, and the more opportunity there is that one of those variations may not be thwarted by the vaccines we currently have. I also have many medical professionals in my life, all of whom are fans of vaccination in general, and right now, of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically.

United States Census, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wouldn’t pretend that I could dispense medical advice, and I am well aware that every individual has a unique medical history and set of concerns that can produce a whole host of questions I might not even think to ask. And I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. I also believe that how my fellow Americans want to live their lives is how they should live their lives. I get all of that.

So, I will not dispense advice or debate with you about whether or not you should get vaccinated against Covid-19. I won’t even consider you faithless or try to silence your mischief if you decide not to. All I will say, for whatever it may be worth, is that the members of my household, consisting of me, two teenage sons, and my husband who is a medical professional, have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I’m grateful we had the opportunity and that we took advantage of it. I’m grateful that most of my extended family are vaccinated as well. I’m grateful for all those around me who have also done so. I’m grateful for cows and milkmaids, for Edward Jenner and Benjamin Waterhouse, and for the medical professionals who have made our most recent miraculous vaccines possible.

And if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19, I am so very grateful for that, too.

Celebrating the Not Quite Right Just Yet

So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.  

A man who knew how to party. John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.

As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.

I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.

That looks like a lot of hard work. Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.

It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.

The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.

But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.

Ooh. Aah. Illuminations! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.

But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.

If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!

Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

In 1818, civil engineer William Cubitt, well-respected for his work on windmill sails and for a fastidiousness that carried him quickly up the ranks of the engineering firms for which he worked, proposed a new approach to convict rehabilitation.

Sir William Cubitt, who also had a somewhat complicated relationship with the treadmill. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suggested that in order to counteract the tendency of prisoners toward idleness, they ought to be put to good use on treadmills, producing the rotary power needed to grind corn or pump water or provide entertainment for the prison guards. Cubitt designed the contraption himself, drawing on his experience as the son of a miller. It consisted of a paddle wheel with twenty-four spokes that required a prisoner to step up continually for as many as six hours at a time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of exhausted just reading that. Like probably most people who have ever used one, I have a complicated relationship with the treadmill. I have one. I keep it tucked into a cool, dark corner of my basement, which is where I reluctantly, but also kind of gratefully, use it.

If you’ve followed along with this blog for long, you may recall that I think running is stupid. I stand by that. But I also occasionally (actually lately even frequently) run. I blame Covid for this latest burst of insanity, because for a while it led to a more sedentary lifestyle and fewer available opportunities to curb that. So, I dusted off my running shoes and hit the treadmill, which is a lot less punishing on my creaky joints than pavement is.

I suspect that the unlucky English prisoners of the 19th century who were subjected to this particular form of work didn’t care for it much. I know I still hate every single second I spend running to nowhere, though later I always appreciate having spent some quality treadmill time and tend to feel better afterwards, so I guess maybe you could say I enjoy the destination. I’m getting better at it, too.

Cubitt’s treadmill wasn’t completely monstrous. It included a handrail. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one thing that I can say that this year plus of our little global pandemic has conditioned us all for. Many of us have gotten much better at accomplishing things while going nowhere at all. And this week, in between torture sessions on the treadmill, I have been able to do just that, because I have been “attending” the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference from the comfort of my at-home office while wearing a series of professional-ish looking blouses and comfy running shorts.

The conference was originally supposed to be held in San Antonio, but was moved to an entirely virtual format in the midst of pandemic concerns. It would have been fun to spend a little time away in a really interesting city that I’ve not yet managed to explore. I could have taken lots of sock monkey pictures, traded business cards with my fellow writers, and purchased more books than I had room for in my luggage.

I did take one picture of my travel buddy Steve. Sadly, it’s not in front of the Alamo, but he’s still smiling.

But this virtual thing has actually been working really well. The organizers have done a brilliant job, providing topical Zoom room mingling opportunities that have probably led to more engagement in meaningful conversations than I would have been able to accomplish in a physical room full of people. The presentation lineup is outstanding, and more complete than it could have been at a live conference. There’s been more participation from writers around the world than would likely have traveled to San Antonio.

I have learned and am continuing to learn a ton. I have also kept up with the laundry, spent some time with my family, and enjoyed having my dog lay at my feet as I sit at my computer chatting with new friends. I’ve done a lot, and I’m tired, but I haven’t gone anywhere at all. And while I probably would prefer to be at a live conference, I haven’t hated every single second of it. In fact, this particular treadmill hasn’t felt the least bit torturous.

I’m not sure I could say the same for the literal treadmill in my basement. Fortunately for England’s inmates, however, William Cubitt’s brand of prison torture was outlawed in 1889. To the best of my knowledge, my treadmill is still legal. But if I’m misinformed, please don’t hesitate to tell me because as much as I like the feeling of having finished a run, I am a hopelessly law-abiding citizen.