What to Do in the Meantime

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

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

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

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

But none of these men ever read the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming soon!

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

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

 

 

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

Because Reading is Good: Gentleman of Misfortune

February 19, 1843, Ms. Charlotte Haven visited the Nauvoo, Illinois home of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. For a small fee, Mrs. Smith invited Charlotte to follow her up a staircase to a dark attic room where several Egyptian mummies waited to welcome them.

According to the accounts of many visitors, the mummies were somewhat unpleasant to look at, with little of their original wrappings remaining. They couldn’t have been in great shape, either because, according to Charlotte, Mrs. Smith held up a detached appendage of one of them and said, “This is the leg of Pharaoh’s daughter—the one who saved Moses.”

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I’m not sure I would want to store this in my attic. By Ibex73 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66245615

The back story Charlotte and other visitors received was that the four mummies in Mrs. Smith’s possession included “King Onitus,” two of his daughters, and one poor unknown Egyptian who was spending his afterlife a long way from home.

The four mummies, as well as can be traced, arrived in the US from somewhere near Thebes, in the spring of 1833 along with seven others and at least a couple of scrolls covered in hieroglyphs no one in the US could yet read.

A man named Michael Chandler, armed with an unsubstantiated story about being the nephew and heir of Egyptologist Antonio Lebolo, claimed the shipment and spent the next two years exhibiting what was the largest collection of mummies to have yet toured the United States. He lost a few here or there along the way and eventually sold the final four to the early Mormon church in Ohio.

But Chandler wasn’t the nephew of Antonio Lebolo, at least not as far as any scholar has been able to find, and if Pharaoh’s daughter—the one who saved Moses—lost her leg in the afterlife, it didn’t happen in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Mummies have a strange history in the US, where they’ve found themselves displayed in parlors, ground into medicine, and used by painters to get that just right shade of mummy brown. They were unrolled before curious audiences, occasionally stripped so their linen could be recycled into paper, and yes, sometimes they were the unwitting mouthpieces of showmen and religious leaders.

The “lives” of mummies in 19th century America, thousands of miles from where, in life, they had planned to rest for eternity, was strange indeed. Strange enough even, that when I first began to learn about the Lebolo mummies and Michael Chandler, I thought there’s a great book in that.

I often have that thought as I’m researching. And once in a while I act on it.

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Books just waiting for some readers to come along.

My new novel Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of the Lebolo mummies and the imposter who stole them. In my story, his real name is Lyman Moreau, a clever gentlemanly criminal, who hatches a plan, assumes an identity, and finds himself caught up in a dangerous journey that will bring him face to face with love and loss, and will force him to consider his own mortality. His adventure takes him through several states, along the Erie Canal, across the paths of several historical figures, and to the doorstep of a prophet. He doesn’t quite get all the way to Mrs. Smith’s attic. But there’s probably a great book in that, too.

You can check out a brief excerpt of Gentleman of Misfortune here. If it sounds like your kind of book, please consider one (or more) of the following:

1. Buy yourself the book. Reading is good for you, and you deserve it.

2. Buy a friend the book. Reading is good for your friend, and s/he deserves it.

3. Request that your library order the book. Reading is good for everyone, and libraries are wonderful places.

4. Help spread the word so others can discover the book. Because reading is good. For example, you could:

    • Share/re-blog this post. Less work for you.
    • Post about the book on Facebook. Watch the “likes” roll in.
    • Put a picture of yourself holding the book on Instagram. #GreatReads
    • Recommend the book on Bookbub. Be an influencer.
    • Snapchat yourself with the book. Give yourself some kitty ears. It’s fun!
    • Tell your neighbor about the book. You can borrow a cup of sugar while you’re at it.
    • Tweet about the book. You can even just click one (or more) of the ready-made tweets below.

tweet-graphic-3Gentleman of misfortune is a dark tale of mummies, mischief, and murder. Perfect for fall! #tbrlist #historicalfiction #newbook https://amzn.to/2Q47em1

19th century gentleman swindler Lyman Moreau finds his next big scheme and loses his heart among a collection of mummies bound for the most successful prophet in US history. #historicalfiction #tbrlist #newbook https://amzn.to/2Q47em1

From author Sarah Angleton comes a new historical novel—a dark tale of eleven mummies, a scoundrel, a seductress, and a prophet. #historicalfiction #tbrlist #fallreads https://amzn.to/

And if you do read and enjoy the book, please consider leaving a review. It helps a lot. Thank you!

 

One Brick at a Time: The Greatest Book on Earth

I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.

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Five years of blogging means I deserve a cupcake, right?

I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.

But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.

What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.

Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.

It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.

They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.

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P. T. Barnum, the publicist I would hire, if only I could. By unattributed – Harvard Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.

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Available today from Amazon and anyone else who sells books. I think there are still a few others.

So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?

Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.

Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.

 

If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:

Tweet: A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+

Tweet: History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+