Say What?!

In 1774, German naturalist Johann Matthaus Bechstein published a treatise on cage birds in which he mentioned an African Grey Parrot owned by Cardinal Ascanius. This bird could perfectly recite the Apostles’ Creed. I’m sure that took some dedication on the part of the cardinal, but it’s not terribly surprising that the parrot could accomplish such a feat.

African Greys, which live for a good sixty to seventy years, are known for their intelligence and loyalty as well as their ability to mimic the sounds and words that they hear, particularly those they hear frequently. Clearly, the cardinal was a pretty pious man, or at least it was important enough to him that his bird thought so.

Andrew Jackson, looking respectable and not at all like a man who swears at his parrot. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Evidently Andrew Jackson was not as careful about what was said around his pet bird, an African Grey Parrot named Poll. Jackson had purchased Poll when he won his presidential bid, thinking it would be a good companion for his wife Rachel. The Jacksons weren’t really part of the scene of political elites in the US and he feared Rachel would feel a little outclassed and isolated. Unfortunately, she died between his election and inauguration, leaving Poll in the president’s care.

But Poll must really have been a pretty good companion because the bird certainly had a lot to say when the then former president died in 1845. The parrot was present at Jackson’s funeral, along with thousands of mourners, and according to the account of the officiant Reverend William Menefree Norment, Poll had many words to share. The only problem was that those words were of the variety that might get one kicked out of a funeral.

Say what?! Found Animals Foundation, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The bird cussed up a storm and was carried away from the shocked crowd, who let’s face it, were probably just trying not to giggle. I mean, this was a man whose military prowess carried him to the White House where one of his first orders of business was to add a dozen spittoons to the place. He was a rough-around-the-edges kind of guy who was prone to fighting in duels, once gave the beat-down to potential presidential assassin, and who probably would have been banned from Twitter. Or at least his pet parrot would have been.

On standby under my desk, just in case I need to chat.

But he was also the kind of guy who carried on conversations with his pet. As a devoted pet conversationalist myself, I find that pretty charming. My dog Ozzie gets a lot of talking to. I bounce story ideas off of him, occasionally read him blog posts, and tell him the jokes no one else will appreciate. He’s a great listener, particularly when our talks include plenty of scratches behind the ears and the inclusion of the words “good dog.”

I don’t think he’s ever heard me recite the Apostles’ Creed, but I also don’t think he’s heard me do a great deal of cussing. Of course, if he has, I’m fairly confident that my secret is safe with him. With a life expectancy of only about fourteen or fifteen years, I sincerely hope Ozzie won’t be at my funeral. But even if he is, he’s a really good dog who loves me a lot. He won’t say a word.

Follow the Bigwigs

Between the years of 1673 and 1765, the city of Paris saw more than a 400% increase in its number of wig makers. Largely that is because King Louis XIV, standing in heels at the pinnacle of fashion, had started to go a little bit bald and decided to take a page from his father’s book.

Previously, Louis XIII had dealt with hair problems of his own. Probably suffering from syphilis, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Louis XIII lost his hair in patches and suffered with sores on his scalp. And so, he donned a wig.

Yes, there were also many prominent Americans who wore wigs, but George Washington was not among them. I cannot tell a lie, these powdered curls are his own luscious locks. Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a wig wasn’t exactly a brand-new fashion trend. Ancient Egyptians had worn them. Later, some powerful Romans, too. And bald Europeans or those unfortunate enough to be cursed with red hair occasionally wore wigs. Of course, when the king decides to do it, people tend to sit up and notice. Also, a lot of them had syphilis, too.

Wearing a wig became a pretty sensible thing to do. It protected your dome from the air while irritating your festering sores, added a couple pounds to your already cumbersome attire, and made your scalp sweat profusely. It also harbored grime and lice and layers and layers of scented powders that made you smell…well…actually that’s it. They just made you smell. I suppose maybe that kept people from wanting to get within six feet of you, and so it may actually have offered pretty effective protection from syphilis.

I mean, there’s wearing a wig. And then there’s this. Philip Dawe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wigs really took off in France, and soon all across Europe, when the next generation of French royalty started to wear them. Louis XIV allegedly owned a thousand wigs that he could coordinate with each of his outfits for any occasion, whether an intimate family dinner at home, a sparsely attended press conference, a private walk alone in his gardens, or a jolly Zoom call with foreign dignitaries.

No one would have ever questioned the king’s dedication to wearing wigs, and by his example, probably preventing the spread of syphilis. In fact, because of such noble dedication to looking ridiculous, a hundred years after the end of the reign of Louis XIV, there were still incredibly health-conscious people dedicated to wearing wigs, some of them so elaborate and so big they could have been layers of two or even three wigs stacked on top of one another.  

Of course, in late 18th century France, it became somewhat less healthful to associate oneself with the aristocracy, and wig-wearing finally fell out of fashion there. This development was followed closely by a fairly hefty English tax on wig powder, which convinced the British population that it, too, didn’t care that much for wigs.

I guess maybe there’s an alarming rate of syphilis among English barristers? Someone ought to look into that. Sounds like a public health crisis. Image by Michael Dodd from Pixabay

Today we know a lot more about syphilis, both how it can be avoided and how it can be treated. It’s still a dangerous disease that needs to be taken seriously, and cases have actually been on the rise in recent years, particularly in Europe. It’s also true that wig-makers have gotten better at making natural-looking, more hygienic hair-pieces for those who need them because they have red hair or something.

But I think today everyone, with the exception of English barristers, has come to accept that wearing a poofy wig isn’t often really all that necessary. Still, it sure is funny to look back at the fashion trends of the past and the lengths people would go to imitate and demonstrate support for a particular leader or set of ideas. Thank goodness we know better now.

A Surefire Cure for the Hiccups

This week I received a note of thanks from WordPress. Apparently, I have been blogging along in this little space for nine years. In that time, I have averaged around forty-seven posts per year, once a week, except for the weeks I miss. It’s been a little higher in recent years because as my children have gotten older, they’ve become easier to ignore.

The internet actually attributes several “successful” hiccup cures to Pliny the Elder, but in my cursory attempt to chase down the references (yes, sometimes I look stuff up), I couldn’t find them. I fear this means that people believe Pliny the Elder is some kind of reliable medical authority. Clearly they have never read his work. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each post averages about eight hundred words or so, in addition to the occasionally ridiculously long picture caption. I figure I have vomited approximately 350,000 words onto this blog over the last nine years. I’m grateful to WordPress for the acknowledgement, because that seems worth acknowledging, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying encouragement to: “Keep up the good blogging.”

Or at least I am thankful for the presumption that what I have been doing for the last nine years has been good blogging worth keeping up. But if I think about it, it’s also a lot of pressure to put on a person. Because blogging regularly can occasionally be a difficult thing to do. It requires coming up with ideas again and again that readers might actually want to read about.

I’ve been pretty lucky with topics these past nine years. History is the gift that keeps on giving. Stories of individuals in history doing smart or interesting or silly or stupid things are abundant. Still, some weeks, I sit down to do some good blogging and I’ve got nothing. I encounter a hiccup.

This week has been one of those. After 350, 000 words, I have developed a case of the hiccups. I blame WordPress.

Fortunately, there are lot of cures for hiccups. I could hold my breath or suck on a lemon, or gulp water, or stand on my head. Actually, I probably couldn’t do that last one. But I might use an Ancient Chinese cure by chewing slowly on ginger and swallowing the juice, or try the old Viking remedy of grasping my tongue with a handkerchief and tugging on it while I count to 100. I could give the advice of Pliny the Elder a chance by drinking small amounts of raw cabbage mixed into vinegar with a hint of dill or chervil.

D–n this hiccup, by Henry Alken, 1837. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or maybe I should take a page out of John Mytton’s book. Born in 1796, John “Mad Jack” Mytton, wealthy British playboy who definitely earned his nickname, was most known for horseracing, gambling, naked hunting, and intentionally getting into carriage accidents. He also earned a bit of fame by attempting to cure a case of the hiccups by setting himself on fire. This according to an account written by his friend Charles James Apperley (aka Nimrod) who was present at the time.

The cure worked, though I’m not sure it was worth it. Mytton continued on, presumably hiccup-free, for another year or so of fast living before dying of alcohol poisoning in 1834, leaving behind an estranged second wife, four children, an enormous amount of debt, and a surefire hiccup cure.

Hiccups can be awfully frustrating, but they usually go away after a while. I know that after nine years, that still seems to be the case in my little corner of the blogosphere, where history continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, and there are plenty of Mad Jack Myttons out there with stories worth exploring. I don’t know if that really makes for good blogging, but it sure is a lot of fun.

In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

Today represents an important day in the annals of history. I could even say it is hugely significant, or momentous, or earthshaking.  It is a day I believe should be a major holiday of great consequence. Because today is the 169th anniversary of the publication of the life’s work of Peter Mark Roget.

The guy had spent a long career as a physician, tutor, and inventor. He’d written numerous papers on health and physiology, served twenty-one years as secretary of the Royal Society, and was the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information. But his biggest, most consequential contribution that should not be overlooked, sneezed at, or considered chopped liver resulted from an early habit of making lists.

Beginning in 1805, at the age of sixteen, Roget started making lists of words and phrases, grouping them together into a classification system based on their rough meanings. By the time he retired from medicine in 1840, he had a really long list. I mean like it was extensive and far-reaching and at times probably seemed interminable.  

And so, he spent his retirement collecting, gathering, assembling, and scraping together a book for “those who are painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition.” He called it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, because as good as he was with words, Roget was not so swell with snappy titles.

Today it’s just known as Roget’s International Thesaurus. It’s in its eighth edition and has been continuously in print, aiding and assisting, helping and supporting painfully groping writers since April 29, 1852.

Even Sylvia Plath, who was pretty good with words, once referred to her thesaurus as the book “which [she] would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, or exaggerate that much, or hyperbolize in quite that way, but I do appreciate a good thesaurus. I own three and I use them extensively.

One is an early edition from 1866, great for looking up nineteenth century phraseology, circumlocution, or idiocism. The second is a pocket edition, useful for carrying in a purse, bag, clutch, or tote. And the third is the seventh edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, which contains more than 325,000 words and phrases and consists of 1,282 pages of sizeable, colossal, and monumental awesomeness.

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit obsessive, affected, or overly-stricken by my plethora, or in other words superabundance of thesauri (or thesauruses because apparently either is acceptable) and with the contribution to the world of lexicography by Peter Mark Roget. But as a painfully groping writer, I plan to celebrate, make merry, and paint the town red. I might even splurge and buy myself an eighth edition Roget’s International Thesaurus just to mark the day.

Chew on This

In 1891, salesman William Wrigley, Jr. moved to Chicago to peddle soap. As an incentive to storeowners to stock his product, he offered free cans of baking soda. When he discovered that the baking soda was the more popular product, he began selling it and using chewing gum as an incentive. And when the gum proved to be the hot item, he became a very wealthy man.

I bet this man could walk and chew gum at the same time. Artist: S. J. Woolf (Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1880-1948)Time, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He wasn’t the first person to crash onto the gum-selling scene, but he was possibly the savviest because Wrigley focused heavily on marketing. In 1915 he was sending free samples to homes all across the United States and had launched a series of newspaper ad campaigns with a wide range of claims about the benefits of chewing Wrigley’s gum while avoiding all those dastardly knock-offs.

Wrigley’s gum was sanitary, long-lasting, and refreshing. Kids loved it and it was good for teeth, stimulated appetite, and quenched thirst. It was soothing after a nice healthy smoke or it could take the place of one if you couldn’t indulge on the job. It eased digestion, relieved stress, and freshened breath. Not to mention soldiers in World War I probably couldn’t function without it. Allegedly.

I question the research, but for some reason I have the sudden urge to chew Wrigley’s gum. Public Domain image.

And you know, some of these claims actually sort of hold up. But one advertisement I found particularly suspicious claims that early man sucked on rocks to moisten his mouth, because he didn’t have gum. Let me tell you, William Wrigley, Jr. might have been a genius when it came to advertising, but his anthropological research missed the mark.

An article published in December of 2019 in the journal Nature Communications squashes the Wrigley rock-sucking theory when it describes a wad of chewing gum that is about 5,700 years old.

Discovered in southern Denmark, this wasn’t the first ancient gum ever uncovered by paleontologists. It wasn’t the oldest either. There’s evidence that some of the people of northern Europe were chewing birch bark tar as far back as 9,000 years ago. The Ancient Mayans, too, chewed chicle from the sapodilla tree, as did the Aztecs who even had elaborate rules of conduct regarding it. For example, if an Aztec schoolgirl popped a chicle bubble in class, she had to immediately spit it out and probably got sent to the principal’s office.

You had me at “purity package.” Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

What’s exciting about this recent gum discovery is that researchers managed to extract from it a complete human genome sequence. The chewer was a woman, though it’s not known why she might have been chewing this particular wad of birch bark. It’s possible she was looking for some pain relief from a toothache or perhaps she was softening it so she could stick it to the underside of a desk.

We do know she was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed, hunter-gatherer who’d eaten duck and hazelnuts for dinner and had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, aka mononucleosis, aka the “kissing disease.” Which might explain the gum.

Although I doubt her gum had quite the sweet taste or breath-freshening qualities of Wrigley’s. It probably wasn’t as sanitary, either. But it was surely better than sucking on a rock.

A New Hobby in the Bag

In 1568, Mary Stewart arrived at the doorstep of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor looking for some help.  Mary was fresh from a controversial straight-from-the-soap-operas marriage to a man who may have murdered her previous husband, had kidnapped and imprisoned her, and was just the right kind of divorcé who could make a group of angry Catholic Scottish lords demand an abdication and force their queen into exile.

It seems she may have also spent a fair amount of time posing for portraits. Mary, Queen of Scots. National Trust, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Protestant Elizabeth I was not particularly happy to see the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who might have, from a certain point of view, had a legitimate claim to the English throne, so instead of being strictly helpful, Elizabeth decided to imprison Mary.

It wasn’t exactly a harsh prison we’re talking about here. Basically, she just had to spend her time in comfort at the various estates of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She didn’t have the freedom to go outside unsupervised, but she did have nice furniture, a full domestic staff, and a lot of time on her hands.

She also made a friend. Talbot’s wife, Bess of Hardwick, seemed to get along with Mary pretty well and the two spent many, many, many hours embroidering together. I have no idea if Mary was particularly good at embroidery before her imprisonment, though she was surely familiar with it, as it was a common pastime of the 16th century woman of a certain class. I do know that she got pretty good at it during these long years of her life. I also know that if you find yourself suddenly stuck at home for a long time, it’s good to develop a hobby.

As we come upon nearly a year since life in my corner of the world went completely sideways due to the pandemic, I can look back and see some good things that came from spending a little more time at home and a little less time rushing about. One of those is a new hobby, begun more or less because I had too many plastic grocery bags on my hands.

Woo hoo! I figured it out!

First, let me explain that I have long been dedicated to the reusable shopping bag, not only because it uses a lot less plastic, but because you can weigh one of those suckers down with a gallon of milk, three bottles of wine, and a giant cheese wheel big enough for Thomas Jefferson. Then you can just sling it over your shoulder with as little effort as the world’s strongest man pushing a locomotive, and saunter to your car. Also, you don’t end up with bags and bags full of bags and bags waiting months for someone to remember to take them to be recycled.

But when the pandemic hit, two things happened around these parts. First, the grocery stores stopped allowing reusable bags because, obviously, such bags are notorious for virus transmission. It’s probably safest if you don’t even see a reusable bag.

Second, the recycling center that processed plastic shopping bags shut down operations for a while. I’m not sure why this happened, but it led to the buildup of a large number these bags in my house. I had an easy solution, though, because I have a couple friends who use the bags to make these really cool plastic sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness. I even knew how to cut the bags and make the plarn (plastic + yarn) they used to do the crocheting.

If I see you leaving the grocery store with colorful bags, don’t be alarmed, but I will probably follow you to your car.

I dutifully made plarn, setting aside just the scraps to one day be recycled, and reached out to say I had it for anyone who wanted it. And that’s when a very kind friend instead said, “I’ll teach you how to crochet.” It took some time, but I had plenty of that. It also took some dedicated YouTubing and a Zoom tutoring session, but I finally got it.

So now, in my year of forced social distancing that has contained a couple stretches of actual quarantine and has at time felt a little like imprisonment, I have crocheted sleeping mats out of plastic grocery bags. I’ve even started asking friends for their bags so I can do more. Because developing a new hobby really does help.

It certainly helped Mary, Queen of Scots. When asked by an envoy from Elizabeth I how she was passing the time, Mary said that “all the day she wrought with her needle, and that the diversity of the colours made the work seem less tedious.” I get that, too, because after crocheting rows and rows of brown, gray, and white, I get ridiculously excited to get to use a bright blue or orange or yellow.

If you have any interest in learning how to make these, I found this YouTube tutorial particularly helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr_WHW_tGSE&t=742s

And Mary used her needlework well. Between 1569 and 1586 when Elizabeth finally went ahead and had her beheaded, Mary and friends produced a vast number of embroidered panels, many of which contained secret messages and emblems. Collectively they came to be known as the Oxburgh Hangings because they made their way to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, where some of them can still be seen today. The panels contain birds, elephants, plants, and all kinds of natural and symbolic scenes.

My work mainly contains wobbly stripes. It probably also won’t be on display for the public more than four hundred years after my death. But that’s okay, because I’m hoping that someone will get some good used out of my efforts. And I know it has helped me pass the time this year. It’s good to have a hobby.

America’s Big Cheese

On January 1, 1802, then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson became the recipient of what I think is safe to say was probably the best gift ever received by someone who has held the office. After travel by sleigh, barge, sloop, and wagon, a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese arrived at the home of the president.

The cheese came from the good people of Cheshire, Massachusetts who, led by cheese enthusiast (I’m guessing) and Baptist minister John Leland, made the wheel from the milk of nine hundred (non-Federalist) cows in a gigantic press fashioned specifically for that purpose.

Monument to John Leland and his impressive cheese press in Cheshire, MA Makeitalready, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The gift, allegedly created entirely without slave labor, served as a show of support and appreciation for Jefferson’s commitment to the complete separation of church and state. What was a controversial issue among religious citizens, was embraced as freeing rather than limiting by Leland and his flock. So, they sent cheese. As one does.

The cheese wheel made quite a splash in the towns it passed through as it traveled five hundred miles over the course of three weeks. When at last Thomas Jefferson saw it, he graciously thanked the gift-givers for their thoughtfulness and accepted it, while also donating $200 to their church because he opposed the practice of presidents accepting gifts.

But what a gift it was! The cheese wheel was even carved with the words of his favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” I mean, who doesn’t love a good motto carved into a giant wheel of cheese?

Thomas Jefferson, a man who could appreciate a good cheese-carved motto. By Rembrandt Peale – White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=1604678

Not Thomas Jefferson. Despite his Federalist political opponents’ mockery of what they called the “mammoth cheese,” the president proudly had it served at his home for more than two years. Of course, rumor has it that by then, some of it may have gone a little south and ended up at the bottom of the Potomac.

Because as you probably know, cheese doesn’t tend to last forever and big cheeses have to be changed out once in a while.

Yesterday in the United States, we officially changed out the big cheese in the White House. There are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty excited about that. And there are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty nervous about that.

Even though this has been a particularly tumultuous political season, that’s pretty much how it’s always been and yet, transfer of power happens and the nation, for better or worse, rolls forward. Like a big wheel of cheese.

I mean, it wouldn’t be the worst gift. Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

No matter how any of us might feel about the inauguration of a particular new president, I think we can be proud of and celebrate what has become a grand tradition.

To be clear, I’m referring to the peaceful transition of power and not the presentation of giant cheese to the new president, which with the exception of one other occasion involving Andrew Jackson, never really caught on.

But I suppose that tradition could be resurrected. All we need is a well designed press and about nine hundred (non-Republican) cows.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe used funds from her own substantial fortune to have a Victorian cottage built in Hartford, Connecticut, the state of her birth. The house had twelve rooms, plumbing, heating, a study for her husband, and no dedicated writing space for a woman who penned at least ten novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is one of the most influential books of all time and which today is often disingenuously criticized for not being written by a woman with the progressive ideological lens of 2020.

Cute house. If you don’t mind that it’s in Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5846038

And then in 1874, Stowe got a new neighbor. Missouri-born Samuel Clemens built a much larger, more ostentatious home with twenty-five rooms, sweeping international décor, and a man cave of sorts that contained both a dedicated writing desk and a billiards table. As you may recall, he also wrote a few books, including several you probably read in school and that were written at his home in Hartford between billiards games.

Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would want to make the move from beautiful Missouri to Connecticut, a state that as far as I could tell on my one brief visit boasts little more than Lyme disease and the kind of astronomical day-use state park fees that inspire picnics in gas station parking lots. But I wouldn’t mind a billiards table in my dedicated writing space. Also, I’d like to add my apologies if you are from Connecticut. I’m sure it has its charms.

It is a pretty cool looking house, but it’s still not in Missouri. Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT. By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21778275

It did for neighbors Harriet and Samuel and a whole host of movers, shakers, and big thinkers who made Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood their home. If the history books can be believed (and I am by no means suggesting they can) these were not neighbors who necessarily agreed all the time. But it was allegedly a pretty congenial place to be with open doors, stimulating conversations, and high-minded and friendly debates among respectful friends.

In the time my family and I have lived in my current neighborhood, for about seven-and-a-half years now, our street has tried to foster a similar sense of congeniality. We hold an annual Christmas open house, occasionally set up outdoor movie screenings in the cul-de-sac, wave from front porches, freely loan and borrow tools, and visit one another’s garage sales. I’m even trying to get comfortable with a neighbor popping in for a visit without feeling too flustered by last night’s dishes stacked up in the sink. I have a lousy maid. Also, she’s me.

Despite the fact that we don’t all vote the same or worship the same or root for the same baseball team (There’s just one inexplicable Yankees holdout. We’re working on it.), our neighborhood is a good place to be. And this week is particularly exciting because we have new next-door neighbors that just officially moved in.

It was a comfort knowing there were so many gnomes keeping watch over the neighborhood. And a little bit disturbing. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

Well, this isn’t entirely exciting, because the neighbor who moved out was a kind ninety-something-year-old obsessed with yard tchotchkes. I think I might kind of miss the flamingos, and gnomes, and frogs, and angels, and butterflies.

I’ll miss my quirky neighbor, too, who always attended the Christmas party in a brightly colored suit, snake-skin boots, and bling that would make most rappers jealous. He’s moved on to a retirement facility closer to his family, where he’ll get along much better than he did alone in a big house.

The place will be different without him, but our new neighbors seem nice. They are ultra-marathoners and vegans, and they have two very small dogs that compensate for their diminutive size with over-large attitudes. The newcomers have also have expressed in no uncertain terms that they are not fans of garden gnomes. I’m going to have to rethink the contents of the welcome basket.

But even though I think running is stupid, I love a good steak, and I have a relatively mild-mannered, medium-sized dog who right now is losing his mind over the canine interlopers next door, I think these new folks are going to fit right in. In fact, I already pretty much love them.

Oh, hey! If you’re not busy tomorrow night (10/9), check out Friday Night Reads presented by Title Wave Books, Revised and author Ryan P. Freeman, who will do a Facebook live reading from my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

A Pretty Good Citizen for an Emperor

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the ascension to power of the first and only emperor of the United States. On September 17, 1859, San Francisco newspapers carried the declaration of Joshua Abraham Norton that “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States,” he was officially declaring himself emperor.

Today it’s probably fairly obvious, as it was then, that this “Emperor Norton” was most likely dealing with a mental health crisis, but the declaration captured the attention of the boom-or-bust, gold-crazed city for a couple of reasons. First, prior to an investment three years earlier that hadn’t panned out, Norton had been a somebody of importance in San Francisco.

I mean, he kind of looks like someone with authority. Unknown author / Public domain

London-born, he’d spent most of his early life in South Africa where his father operated a highly successful shipping business. Joshua Norton made and lost a good deal of money himself in that part of the world before moving to San Francisco in 1849 after suffering the deaths of both parents and two siblings.

Despite these setbacks, Norton didn’t seem to have any trouble building up his fortune once he reached California where he became an influential presence among influential people. So, when he went bust, then quiet, then reemerged as the Emperor of the United States, people were interested in the story.

Newspapers certainly were. They continued to print Norton’s imperial proclamations including a series which abolished the Congress, by force of the Army, because in its actions he saw that “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.”

This after Congress had failed to respond to his summons to convene in San Francisco in order to “make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”

The United States of Emperor Norton’s day was one of great political upheaval, with a rapidly expanding western frontier and a war between states that pitted cousin against cousin and brother against brother.

If Emperor Norton could have had a Facebook account, I’m betting this would have been his profile picture. Beinecke Library / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

And that brings me to the second reason I think the proclamations got play in the media. Because I think the reading public sort of got what he was saying.

If he’d had a Facebook feed, I have no doubt it would have been filled with people he loved and respected screaming at each other over their differing political ideologies. That’s enough to threaten the stability of anyone’s mental health. And I mean, really, who of us hasn’t, at one time or another, thought it might just be easier to declare ourselves emperor, abolish Congress, and start from scratch?

Not that I want the job. Just to be perfectly clear. But the sentiment? Well, there are days.

Emperor Norton’s reign extended beyond the immediate violence of the American Civil War and his proclamations, penned at the Mechanic’s Institute Library on Post Street in San Francisco, continued to find their way into print.

Oakland Bay Bridge. All thanks to Emperor Norton. Kind of.

Over the years he called for public school and public transportation access for African Americans, fair treatment of Chinese workers in American courts, and the extension of numerous rights to Native Americans. He even proclaimed the need for a bridge to be constructed between Oakland and San Francisco, of the variety that definitely exists today.

He regularly participated in political meetings, attended lectures, and spent time getting to know his community while attending the theater and frequenting local saloons. For an emperor, Joshua Norton was a pretty good citizen. When he died, penniless, in January of 1880, his funeral was allegedly attended by more than ten thousand people, and San Francisco’s business community made sure Norton was buried in style.

Because that’s what you do for an emperor.

Hat Smashing Shenanigans

School has begun, Labor Day has come and gone, the pumpkins have ripened too early, and there’s a hint of cool in the air. Despite the calendar’s insistence that there are still eleven more days of summer, it’s starting, in my corner of the world, to feel a little bit like fall. That means it’s time to put out the scarecrows, trim up the flower beds, and think about trading out your straw hat for one made of felt or silk.

These are the kind of big, beautiful pumpkins that will make great Jack-o-lanterns. Too bad someone forgot to tell them that Halloween is still almost two months away.

Or at least that’s what you would have done had you been a gentleman living in the US in the first couple decades of the twentieth century and you cared about such things. Most men didn’t. Not really anyway. But there was a fun tradition highlighted by an article from the Pittsburgh Press in September of 1910 in which stockbrokers jovially destroyed one another’s straw hats if their colleagues were careless enough to wear them after September 15.

That’s all in good fun, I guess, if you find that sort of thing amusing. But the same article mentions an incident in which the police had to intervene on behalf of the straw-hat-wearing average Joe on the street who occasionally found himself unexpectedly bareheaded.

By 1922 the straw hat smashing shenanigans had risen to a new level. On September 13 of that year, two days prior to the unofficially official straw hat smashing day, a group of boys decided to get the party started at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points Region of Manhattan.

So wait, how do the scarecrows get away with such a blatant fashion faux pas? Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

As factory and dock workers left work for the evening, the boys began yanking straw hats off passersby and smashing them in the streets. Probably not surprisingly, some of the hatless victims got upset and a brawl broke out.

The police managed to bring the crowd under control without much more than a couple of arrests, but the conflict didn’t end there. Over the next few nights, riots broke out all over the city. There were more arrests, a lot of angry parents accompanying their teenage children home from jail, and some pretty brutal beatings in the streets. Many men were treated for injuries and least one was hospitalized. Over straw hats.

What began as kind of a quaint tradition used by businessmen to razz one another at work became a serious public safety issue in New York over the next several years when September rolled around. 1924 saw the first murder attributed to the unforgivable sin of wearing a straw hat out of season.

I’m sure that like me, and any other reasonable person, you find this picture completely infuriating. Maybe even worthy of a riot. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fortunately, the straw hat rioting eventually died out. In 1925, then President Calvin Coolidge commented that he didn’t much care about switching hats, which seemed to calm everyone down a bit. It also helped that straw hats fell out of fashion and so it wasn’t long until no one was wearing them anyway. Then the Great Depression hit and people had more important things to worry about.

But for a while in US history, the kind of violence and destruction that shutters businesses, damages property, and endangers innocent people, occurred at the literal drop of a hat.

Boy, I sure am glad we’re past that.