A Jury of Slimy Philosophical Counselors

It’s been a crazy couple of days here in the Greater St. Louis area as historic flash flooding has overwhelmed roadways, swamped cars, and caused a lot of damage to homes and businesses. By historic, I mean this was the biggest rain event this region has ever seen since records of such things exist starting in 1874.

According to the National Weather Service, in just six hours, the rainfall total surpassed the previous record set in a 24-hour period in 1915. To put it in a slightly different perspective, the St. Louis area received approximately 25% of its normal annual rainfall total in something like twelve hours, and closer to a third in some areas. It’s a hot mess.

This is one of the interstates we travel daily. A friend sent me this picture and I don’t know whose it is originally. I will gladly give credit or remove as requested.

Now, let me reassure you that though my suburban town did receive impressive rain totals and is in some places dealing with damage from the flood waters, my personal home is relatively elevated and has remained dry. I’m certainly very grateful for that. Other than having to alter schedules and commutes, my family hasn’t been particularly affected by the downpour.

Prior to the deluge, we St. Louisans had been experiencing a stretch of drought and we needed the rain, so we were more or less delighted when Monday brought us cloudy skies and occasional drizzles with the promise of a nice overnight thunderstorm. We just hadn’t anticipated so much rain so quickly.

It’s not that our weather forecasters hadn’t mentioned the possibility of a lot of precipitation and maybe even some flash flooding. We all accepted, I think, that it wasn’t going to be an ideal night to tent camp in a creek bed. But it’s not easy to anticipate an event that, to the best of our knowledge, has never happened before.

Dr. Merryweather chose to use 12 leeches so his prognosticators wouldn’t feel “the affliction of solitary confinement,” which I admit is far more consideration that I have ever given to a leech. Image by István Asztalos from Pixabay

Even with all their university degrees, computer models, and fancy greenscreen maps, meteorologists have a pretty tough audience to try to reach. It’s just that they deal in probabilities and sometimes, the most probable thing that might happen, isn’t the thing that happens. The last highly anticipated St. Louis snow-pocalypse, for example, yielded less than an inch of light dusting. A little flash flood warning wasn’t going to scare us much.

Now if the meteorologists had run their prognostication by a “jury of philosophical counselors” consisting of at least twelve leeches, then that might’ve caught our attention. And if 19th century English physician and leech enthusiast George Merryweather had gotten his way, that might’ve been what happened.

As a practicing physician in the era of physicians not always knowing what they were doing, Dr. Merryweather spent a lot more time than the average non-physician thinking about leeches. One thing he observed was that their behavior tended to change with the weather. He wasn’t the first to realize this. For a long time, people who had nothing better to do had noted that leeches rise out of the water when a storm is coming and roll themselves into a ball when the storm is at hand.

But amazingly, Dr. Merryweather was the first to design a leech-powered weather predicting device. He called it the “Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, Conducted by Animal Instinct,” which he then shortened to the “Tempest Prognosticator.”

You can see a replica of
Merryweather’s fancy contraption,
minus the leeches, in the Whitby Museum in the UK. I have no doubt it’s worth the trip. Badobadop, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creative
commons.org
/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was an impressive apparatus, consisting of a circle of twelve glass jars arranged around a large metal ball. Each jar contained a little bit of rain water, a leech, and a whale bone striker at the top, which when bumped by a leech climbing into the bottleneck in anticipation of a coming storm, would strike the metal ball and give a warning of impending inclement weather. When enough of Merryweather’s slimy little philosophical counselors sounded the alarm, he knew a storm was on its way.

The really weird part is that it worked, kind of. Or at least it worked as well as other weather predicting equipment of its day. It had limitations, of course. The leeches, who aren’t known to be great communicators, weren’t forthcoming with the direction of a storm, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t have predicted record-breaking flash flooding any better than today’s computer models could.

In the end, Dr. Merryweather’s invention was not adopted as the gold standard of weather prediction he believed it would be. The tempest prognosticator was expensive and required some upkeep as water needed to be changed every week and the jury wanted feeding once in a while. Also, outside of the 19th century medical profession, most people agree leeches are slimy and gross.

But I’m picturing the article headline that might have been: “Leeches Predict Historic St. Louis Rain-Pocalypse.” Something like that would have lit up everyone’s social media feeds and gotten a fair number of clicks, I bet.

Don’t Steal My Thunder! (Please)

John Dennis was not a very successful playwright in the early days of the 18th century. I would say he wasn’t very good, but as I’ve not actually read any of his plays, I can’t fairly make that claim. What I do know is that if it remembers him at all, history tends to paint him as more of a critic, and also maybe a little bit of a hothead who was once dismissed from college for wounding a fellow student with a sword.

He looks so grumpy because someone stole his thunder. Jan (John) Vandergucht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was also apparently a pretty clever problem solver because when, in 1704, he needed a good rumble of thunder for the production of his play Appius and Virginia, at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, Dennis came up with a new way to make it happen.

I do enjoy a good rumble of thunder. My family and I have lived in the St. Louis area in the Midwestern US for about eight years now, but our previous home was in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest where we were for just a few years.

We loved a lot about that area. We really did. The friendly people, the warmer temperatures, the ability to grow almost anything without much effort were all great things, not to mention that we could be either playing in the snow on a mountain or fishing for crab on a beach in a little more than an hour on a Saturday morning.

But it almost never thundered. Oh, it rained. A lot. It rained those tiny, swirling droplets that coat everything and against which an umbrella is useless. It just didn’t really storm. Having grown up in the Midwest where the rain means business and often comes with high winds, hail, huge flashes of lighting, and loud cracks of thunder, I missed it.

By the way, you’re probably saying it wrong. As they like to explain in the valley, “It’s Will-AM-ette (D@*n it!).” by Olichel, via Pixabay

The only time I remember a storm when we lived on the west coast, I slept through it and only knew about it because a friend mentioned how terrible the thunder had been the previous night. Now, her terrible thunder was probably my low, distant rumble that makes me smile because I know it’s finally really springtime. But in that moment, I found myself getting desperately homesick. I held it together, but I was pretty upset at the thought. I kind of wanted to yell that she’d stolen my thunder.

I realize that’s not what the phrase “to steal one’s thunder” is really about. It refers to showing someone up, which my friend most certainly didn’t do just by waking up to a storm I slept through. But the phrase didn’t start out that way.

When Appius and Virginia, a play you’ve probably never heard of, despite its innovative thunder, got pulled early and replaced with a production of Macbeth, which you probably have heard of, John Dennis decided to pick himself up and go to the show.

Since you’ve heard of it, you may recall that Macbeth begins with three witches and some thunder and lightning. This particular production of Macbeth, at the Drury Theatre, began with innovative thunder using the same technique recently developed by John Dennis.

The story goes that he jumped up from the audience and declared something to the effect of (not all sources agree on the precise wording): “You won’t run my play, but you’ll steal my thunder!”

I suspect he used some harsher words, too, but whatever he said it is generally accepted that John Dennis coined the idiom “to steal one’s thunder.”

I realize that fun stories like this one are rarely true, but I haven’t been able to find anyone shouting on the internet that it’s not. Frankly, I’m not willing to expend more effort than a quick and shoddy Google search on this particular project, partly because I don’t want to be party to anyone figuratively stealing Dennis’s thunder.

No matter what the phrase might mean today, for frustrated playwright John Dennis and for this midwestern gal, it will always feel just a little bit literal. I’m happy to report that this past week I celebrated having my thunder back. My part of the world experienced its first good thunderstorm of the season. It sounded just like spring is supposed to sound. It sounded like home.