Good Sense About Washerwomen

I found this story in the Carlisle Journal, 4 January, 1856.

This would have been a complete Cinderella story, had it not been for the premarital sex. And the fact that Cinderella was already married. And the fact that there's a murder.

"Rumours, widely circulated and extensively believed, assert that a young Duke, bearing one of the most celebrated historical titles of France, was found murdered upon the bridge of Asmieres, the other evening. He had entered into an intrigue with a washerwoman, whose husband, in the rage of a surprise, stabbed the ducal paramour of his wife, and chased him undressed until he fell dying upon the bridge.

"Figaro is the only Paris journal which has alluded to the event. The allusion is truly French, advising young noblemen, when they choose their mistresses, not to choose, like M. de N--, their laundress.

"British good sense sends ... women of a certain age as laundresses, while the Parisian washerwomen are the youngest, prettiest, freshest, the most tempting, and most tempted girls in this debauched metropolis.

"Judging from his portrait, which I have seen in the shop windows, the Duc de N-- was one of the handsomest young fellows of his time. No jury would convict as an assassin the husband, who was in the right, according to French morality, opinion, and law; and the family of the noble Duke will not prosecute, to avoid scandal, and to conceal his pitiful end."

The anti-French sentiment is STRONG in this article, you guys. We're in that good ole xenophobic mid-century period.

I also love the deeply ingrained sexism and ageism going on here. They're basically saying that if you're going to employ someone to work for you in a relatively intimate capacity (being allowed in your home to collect or wash your intimate garments), then you'd be an IDIOT to employ a young and beautiful girl, who is clearly going to tempt you. Only employ older women who, almost by definition, are ugly and completely asexual.


The Revenant
Right-o, I've just seen The Revenant, and I liked it SO MUCH that I forgot for about two hours to be upset that it didn't pass the Bechdel Test.

I've decided to do a post about the real-life story (or at least myth) surrounding early 19th-century fur-trapper, frontiersman, and immortal demon boyscout, Hugh Glass. I'm cobbling this together from loads of different online sources.

SPOILERS BELOW. Also possible triggers for minor mentions of rape

The broad outlines of the film are pretty true to the story we know of Glass. In 1822, Glass answered an ad for men to go up the Missouri river on a fur-trapping expedition. He was about 40 years old, which (in 1822, without the assistance of modern medicine and hygiene) actually meant he was getting on a bit.

In 1823, the party was attacked by Arikara warriors and the surviving members decided that it would be safer to abandon their route on the river, lest the Arikara come back. They traveled over land toward the Yellowstone River.

Glass went out to scout for sources of game and managed to disturb a grizzly bear with two cubs, resulting in the savage attack which is shot exactly like a rape scene in the film (resulting in the weird rumors that Leonardo Dicaprio got raped by a bear in the movie).

(I would actually love to talk about the way this scene was shot, and how important it is for current gender politics that this horrifically traumatic, violent event is now culturally linked to ideas of rape, especially in such a conventionally masculine film with a very masculine target audience. But that is a discussion for another day, on a different blog.)


The bear mangled him up quite badly, as bears are wont to do, but Glass managed to kill it with the help of two of his companions (not single-handedly, as he does in the film). The other trappers did not believe Glass would survive his injuries, which included a broken leg and ribs, a punctured throat, a severed scalp, several cuts that exposed bone, and wounds that were starting to get infected. They patched him up as best as they could, but the prognosis wasn't great.

The commander of the expedition, General Ashley, asked for two volunteers (would would get paid very handsomely) to remain behind until Glass died, and to bury him properly. The two volunteers were Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald (played excellently in the film by Tom Hardy, as a sufficiently dangerous mumbly dirtbag).

Bridger and Fitzgerald claimed that Glass had died and that they were attacked by Arikara and forced to flee. There is a bit of debate about how complicit Bridger was in abandoning Glass, who was VERY MUCH STILL ALIVE, seriously injured, and without any weapons, equipment, or food. He was 250 miles from the nearest fort (although some sources say it was 200 miles, 100 miles, or even 80 miles. Regardless: a lot of miles; too many miles; all the fucking miles).

In the film, this begins in the late fall and continues right through a South Dakota winter, turning the whole film into one giant popsicle hellscape. In reality, I don't know what time of year the attack happened, but I assume it was the summer. Glass, in order to prevent gangrene, found maggots and introduced them to his wounds. I don't know if maggots would have been present outside in the middle of winter, but I doubt it. Is there a maggot expert out there who can clarify?

So he packed up his maggots and his protruding bones and his giant bear pelt (which the other two assholes had surprisingly left behind) and decided to CRAWL 250 miles to the fort.

This is the most metal thing to ever happen on this blog.

Just as in the film, Glass was helped by friendly Native Americans (who, apparently in real life, SEWED the bearskin directly on to Glass's back to help cover his wounds) (I lied, this is the most metal thing to ever happen on this blog), he survived on roots and berries, except when he chased off wolves from a buffalo carcass so he could feast on it instead, and eventually made it to the fort.

The only significant difference between the film and real life is that in real life Glass made a raft and floated down the river for at least part of trip, making the whole trek considerably less arduous. He started out crawling 1 mile per day, rested for a while by the buffalo carcass until it turned rancid and he was able to stumble a bit, by which point he began walking 10 miles per day. The raft had to help a goddamned lot.

There are a number of frontier legends and rumors, which I'm just going to copy and paste from the Telegraph article here: "Some said that Glass killed and ate a rattlesnake during his journey; that he awoke from a slumber to find a grizzly bear licking maggots from his wounds. The length of his crawl swelled from 80 miles to 100 miles to 200 miles. His back story became more elaborate: he had been kidnapped by the French-American pirate Jean Lafitte as a young man, had been captured by the Pawnee tribe and won his freedom with a pouch of scarlet vermilion powder."

Despite the increasingly unlikely mythos developing around Glass, he did manage to survive his dire wounds and trek a miserably long way through myriad dangers, and made it to the fort in about 7 weeks.

Once at the fort, he recovered from his wounds (which, presumably, took longer than the single night that his recovery takes in the film). After he had healed, he went off on his quest for vengeance. He managed to track down Bridger, but forgave him because of his youth. Bridger, sufficiently shamed, then went on to become a celebrated frontier figure  and Wild West hero in his own right.

Fitzgerald, on the other hand, had fucked off to Nebraska and joined the army.

Glass tracked him down, but all he managed to do was recover his stolen rifle from Fitzgerald, because killing a soldier would have carried the death penalty. So Fitzgerald just got to carry on living, mumbling his way across the midwest. *cowboy voice* And if you listen real close, you can still hear his ghost mumblin' to this day . . .


Glass kept trapping and trading for the rest of his life. He died less than a decade later in an attack by the Arikara.


I found this story in The British Chronicle, 15 September 1790.

If Doris Day didn’t star in some sort of 1960s bedroom comedy farce with a similar plot, I’ll eat my hat.

“The following circumstances created some buzz at a fashionable watering place last Tuesday night. Lord xxx, who had possessed a tenderness for the wife of his valet [Thomas] for some considerable time past, at length managed matters so well as to effect an appointment for passing the above night with her, and to that purpose previously sent her husband away to a town some miles distant, upon business which would have detained him until the next day. Thomas, however, suspecting the fidelity of his wife, put off his journey and concealed himself in an apartment adjoining his wife’s.

At the hour of assignation his Lordship quitted his Lady, and repaired to Mrs Anne [Thomas’s wife]; Thomas then shifted form his lurking place and having the key of his wife’s room in his pocket, when he found all quiet, very deliberately locked up the Peer with his enamorata [an archaic version or misspelling of inamorata, a female lover], and then repaired to his Lady’s chamber, where he filled the place his Lordship had resigned [Heh, ‘filled the place’. I see what you did there].

“In the morning, gentle readers, you may picture to yourselves the confusion of the whole family; his Lordship was found locked in the arms of Mrs Anne and her Ladyship was discovered in the same situation with Mr Thomas.”

A few notes: I’m pretty sure this never actually happened, largely because it’s not really news. Or at least it would have been news, had the author given a clue as to whom Lord xxx really was. Obviously no one is going to print his real name, but the names of the servants and the fact that they were all at a fashionable watering place wouldn’t be enough to hint at the peer’s identity, without which no contemporary reader would care.

Secondly, although masters and mistresses absolutely slept with their servants (made easier by their fashionably separate bedrooms or even whole apartments in the house), it’s extremely unlikely that a valet would have just approached his aristocratic employer’s wife for sex. You had me up until the point that he got revenge sex with an aristocrat.

Not that this couldn’t have happened, but that would have been one BALLSY thing to try. In all likelihood, she would have said no, fired him, and perhaps had him arrested. Messing around with class barriers like this could be very dangerous–generally speaking, the higher-ranked person made the first move, especially if the higher-ranked person was a woman.

Thirdly, I very much doubt that the lady in question would have risked her reputation by allowing Thomas to stay in her bed long enough to be caught by the maid the next morning. Even assuming they were both on board with revenge sex, it would be enough for the lord to be caught and embarrassed with Mrs Anne in the cupboard. There would be little-to-no reason for his wife to expose herself to a sexual scandal, as well. While the desire to reveal her husband as a cuckold could potentially be strong (in that it would embarrass and hurt him even further), this could lead to some extreme social and legal consequences for the lady.

Finally, any servant who had attained the extremely coveted rank of valet would have been very careful not to lose his job without a reference. Regardless of his wife’s fidelity, not carrying out the task upon which his master had sent him would likely result in him being fired without a reference. He would certainly lose his place for locking his master in a room all night, and he would definitely lose his place for sleeping with the lady of the house. I’m not entirely sure what Thomas would have done for work after that, as it would be hard to gain another position when you’re forced to leave your place of work in disgrace. Again, that’s not to say that people don’t impulsively blow up their careers for a variety of reasons, but it would have been far for difficult for him at this time in history to find similar work.

In all likelihood, this is just a really fun cautionary tale about the sexual degeneracy of the aristocracy and how the working class occasionally triumphs over them.

Practice Makes Perfect

Just a really quick one today–I’m reblogging this from Futility Closet’s site here.

In 1863, the register of the U.S. Treasury, L.E. Chittenden, had to sign 12,500 bonds in a single weekend to stop the delivery of two British-built warships to the Confederacy. He started at noon on Friday and managed 3,700 signatures in the first seven hours, but by Saturday morning he was desperate:

[E]very muscle on the right side connected with the movement of the hand and arm became inflamed, and the pain was almost beyond endurance. … In the slight pauses which were made, rubbing, the application of hot water, and other remedies were resorted to, in order to alleviate the pain and reduce the inflammation. They were comparatively ineffectual, and the hours dragged on without bringing much relief.

He finished, exhausted, at noon on Sunday, completing a mountain of bonds more than 6 feet high. These were rushed to a waiting steamer — and only then did word come that the English warships had been sold to a different buyer. The bonds, in the end, were not needed.

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I found this story on an episode of QI (series M, episode “Middle Muddle”).

Here’s a couple of quick tales about people who were RRREAL uncomfortable with sex.

The first is about Lady Jane Stanley, daughter of the 11th Earl of Derby. Lady Jane, who lived in the town of Knutsford, Cheshire, believed that people of different genders walking next to each other was lewd, since it could lead to touching, which could lead to sexual activity.

She therefore ordered that all of the sidewalks in Knutsford be made so narrow that people could only walk on them single-file. I believe the town currently has plans to change this, if they haven’t done already.


She died unmarried. Her epitaph, which she wrote herself, reads, “A maid I lived and a maid I died. I never was asked and never denied,” which might be the single most depressing epitaph I’ve ever heard.

The second story today is about Anthony Comstock, who single-handedly ruined porn in the USA for several decades.

In the 1870s, he founded a league against lewdness. He had fought in the American Civil War (not the best place to avoid swearing and drinking and talk of sex) and was disgusted by the behavior he saw there.

Allegedly, in 1873, one of Comstock’s close friends got ‘addicted’ to pornographyand died soon thereafter. It was Comstock’s belief that his friend had masturbated himself to death. This was one of the factors in Comstock’s foundation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The society actually did very well throughout the 1870s and 1880s, making over 700 arrests, resulting in 333 prison sentences, raking in fines totaling $65,000, and seizing the equivalent 65,000 ‘lewd articles’, including items like condoms.

You might be familiar with his name in the context of the Comstock Law, which made it a federal offense to send ‘obscene matter’ through the post. This meant you could mail nothing that counted as pornography, a contraceptive, an abortificant, a sex toy, or even any INFORMATION regarding one of those things. This was still going strong well into the 20th century.

I would also like you to appreciate that in 1895, one of the items that was banned from being sent through the mail was a postcard from a preacher. The postcard  had only two things written on it: two quotations from the Bible. The quotations were deemed ‘obscene’, preacher in question was arrested, and he was fined $50.

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Whale of a Time

I found this story on an episode of QI (series M, episode “Middle Muddle”). This is just a quick one today, but I hope what it lacks in length it makes up in bat-shit insanity.

Apparently in the late nineteenth century, there was a craze for standing inside a dead whale.

This started in 1896, when a drunken Australian stood in a hole in the carcass of a dead whale. As you do. For a lark. Because everything seems like a good idea when you’re drunk.

Evidently, this gentleman had been a long sufferer of rheumatism. After climbing out of the dead whale hole, he felt instantly better and claimed his rheumatism had been cured. There is no medical evidence to back this up in any way.

Regardless, it started a brief trend of people with rheumatism climbing in and out of dead whales for their magical healing properties.

I would give anything to be able to show the old photograph they had on the show, but I can’t find it. Anyone out there able to locate it?

Balzac’s Marriage Advice

I found this story on an episode of QI.

The author Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) advised dissecting a woman before marrying her. In 1829 Balzac wrote The Physiology of Marriage in which he wrote: “A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy and dissected at least one woman.”

While this sounds extremely morbid, it was actually probably good advice to at least be vaguely familiar with the workings of a woman’s body before you jump into an intimate and life-long commitment with one.

However, maybe Balzac wasn’t the best guy to go to for marriage advice in general: he fell in love with a married countess who told him that he could not marry her until her first husband died. Balzac had to wait 17 years for her first husband to die before they could marry, and his marriage lasted only 5 months before he died.

Further, he had some extremely troubling views on marriage. He wrote, “A man should weaken the will and strength of a wife by tiring her out under the load of constant work, so that she has no energy left to cause trouble“.

More bizarrely, he also wrote, “Never allow her to drink water alone. If you do, you are lost.”

I wish to god I had context for this. I found the exact excerpt in a Googlebook here, but I’ll be damned if it makes any more sense to me.

Bicycle Face

I discovered this story from an episode of QI (series M, episode “Miscellany”).

As we’ve discussed on this blog before, there was a great deal of anxiety in the Victorian era (and every era in the history of the world, to be honest) over new technology. But this anxiety became especially acute when it intersected with issues of gender.

With the rise of the bicycle and, more significantly, women’s use of the bicycle (and the correlating practical clothing and general freedom that came with it), there was the fear that bicycles were somehow going to destroy womanhood forever.

“The symptoms of ‘bicycle face’, according to the Literary Digest of 1895, only occur in women. They wrote: ‘Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance produces a wearied and exhausted bicycle face. The main symptoms are a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes, as well as being flushed or pale, and wearing a haggard, anxious expression.’ Other doctors claimed that cycling would irritate the pelvic organs, ‘and stimulate women todisturbing lusts.’ One French expert said: ‘it would ruin the female organs of matrimonial necessity.'”

So the next time some new invention comes out and someone starts banging on about how it’s going to destroy this or destroy that, just remember that the bicycle was once considered a potential danger to the future of the human race, by creating women who were no longer capable of bearing children or women too ugly to engender the requisite lust in men.

Jelly Babies

For my American readers (who aren't also classic Doctor Who fans), there is a British candy called "Jelly Babies". They're kind of like gummy bears, but shaped like babies, and I think they're kind of gross, but loads of people like them, and I'm just going to stop here before I get way off topic.

So this BBC article has revealed to me the dark goddamned past of the Jelly Baby, which, turns out, is a Victorian treat. Because anything that's this sickly sweet AND this morbid must be Victorian.

In 1864, there was an Austrian confectioner working in Lancashire. He was asked to make a mold for candy shaped like bears, but the sweets he produced ended up looking more like human infants than bears.

So he decided to sell them as-is and call them "Unclaimed Babies". In other words, children who have been abandoned, which was actually a real problem in the Victorian era.

"Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: A History Of Temptation, said although the name might sound ghastly to modern ears, sweet-eaters in the Victorian era would barely have batted an eyelid.

"'Unclaimed babies were a part of life back then - people would leave them on church steps and it's possible that people even found the name amusing," he said.

"'The sweets were sold loose and the jars they were in wouldn't have been labelled [or] branded, so people would have said, 'Can I have some of those jellied babies?'.

"'It is an example of one the most down-to-earth, mass-produced sweets which came along in the 19th Century.'"

It wasn't until 1953 that they were rebranded as Jelly Babies.

The Creation of the Smithsonian

I found this story in a BBC article here, around the time that the Smithsonian Museum was celebrating its 250th anniversary.

The article reads, “Inside a small crypt near the entrance of the Smithsonian castle on Washington’s National Mall is a memorial to James Smithson, an English scientist who isroundly praised for never having fathered any children. If he had, his vast fortune would not have been given to America to found the research organisation that bears his name – the Smithsonian Institution.”


Smithson in his Oxford regalia, looking scientific and–I’m not going to lie–pretty damn fine.

Here’s how the museum came to be: James Smithson was the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland. Smithson was born in 1765 in Paris (because all the best aristocratic debauchery happens in Paris, so obviously that’s where a Duke would have a child out of wedlock. It’s a scientific fact. You can trust me–I’m a doctor). Eventually he became a British citizen.

Although Smithson was acknowledged by his aristocratic family and inherited a great deal of money from them, he was still illegitimate and was therefore unable to find a wife of appropriate rank or wealth to suit his own status. There is also, of course, the speculation that he may have been gay, but I don’t know remotely enough about him to wager a guess. Plus, it’s none of our damn business.

Regardless, he never had any children, but he did have a half-brother (by his mother, not by the Duke), who had a son. Smithson’s nephew was named Henry Hungerford, and he was the sole heir in Smithson’s will.

Smithson included one caveat: if Henry Hungerford also died without issue, the entirety of Smithson’s fortune would be sent to the United States of America in order to found an institution “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”. It was to be called the Smithsonian.

Yeah, like that could ever happen. As far as legacies go, this one was pretty unlikely.

Smithson died in 1829, and Henry Hungerford inherited. But then, only six years later,young Hungerford died, as well, with no children.

So in 1835, President Andrew Jackson was informed of a rather odd bequest: the United States had been a very unlikely beneficiary in the will of a pseudo-aristocratic British scientist and all-around lover of knowledge, and the stars had aligned just so. The US was about to get a whole boat-load of money in order to create a center of learning.

Now, WHY exactly did Smithson bequest the money to the US? I haven’t the foggiest damn clue. He never visited America and, as far as I’m aware, had no connection to it or particular interest in it at all. The article doesn’t say. And don’t forget, Smithson lived through the American Revolution AND the War of 1812, so it’s not like the counties were on the most tremendous of terms or anything. Maybe he just really wanted to make a huge difference and saw the budding American nation as the place to leave the biggest footprint. I don’t know. It doesn’t help that all of his papers were destroyed in a fire in 1865.

Of course, there was one major problem: the money was across an ocean and subject to foreign laws and procedures. For the bequest to actually read the US, it would have to be tried in a case in Chancery.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bureaucratic red-tape POPPYCOCK that was nineteenth-century Chancery, you should really read Dickens’s 1852 novel, Bleak House. Chancery was famous for decades- or centuries-long court cases. Spoiler alert: in that book, Chancery manages to actually kill an otherwise healthy young man through the power of its paper-pushing bullshit).

So the chances of the US actually getting the money were pretty much zero.

Except that the Chancery court case only took two years. Which is a fucking miracle.

Then, of course, someone had to physically bring the money over. It’s not like they could wire it. Over $500,000 worth of gold was put on a ship, in the hands of an American lawyer. The ship sailed during a very stormy season. There was a good chance that the ship would sink and Smithson’s money would sink slowly to the bottom of the ocean while Celine Dion crooned in the background.

But that didn’t happen. The ship survived all the storms and arrived in the US. And then Congress sat around on its ass, letting the money grow dusty, until they finally passed the Act to Establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

In 1903, American inventor Alexander Graham Bell thought it was a real shame that Smithson had never visited the US. So Bell decided that the US should exhume Smithson’s body (which was buried in Italy), and bring it to the States.

Please enjoy this picture of US Consul William Henry Bishop holding James Smithson’s skull.



His body was shipped to America, where it arrived safely. Only . . . people didn’t know what to do next. So his body sat in a conference room for over a year while the Smithsonian Board of decided what to do with it.

Guys. Figure that shit out before you dig up a corpse and ship it halfway around the world. SERIOUSLY.

They couldn’t figure out what to do without either seriously depleting their dwindling funds, or without shaming some of the other monuments nearby (an original plan for a monument would have dwarfed the Lincoln Memorial, and no one was really comfortable with that). So they rather shabbily converted a janitor’s closet at the Smithsonian into Smithson’s final resting place, and that’s where his crypt remains to this day.


I hope his ghost haunted the guy who made that decision and said, “You dragged me from sunny Italy for THIS?”

Of course, I’m not just being flippant–many people claimed to have seen Smithson’s ghost roaming around the Smithsonian. So, in light of these stories (and while his boss was away), the curator of the Smithsonian in 1973 impulsively decided to exhume Smithson AGAIN. On the basis of ghost stories.

Workmen took out the casket, which they discovered was made of metal and soldered shut. The curator told them to use their flashlights to bust the casket open. In doing so,they managed to catch the silk lining inside the casket on fire.

Now, before this astonishing lapse of judgment gets even worse (because it does), I’d like to point out that I have no idea what he was hoping to accomplish. So there’s a ghost, presumably. I could understand MAYBE moving the entire casket elsewhere. But why do you feel the need to open it? was he concerned that Smithson wasn’t really death? Wouldn’t that just anger the ghost? It’s like this guy has never read a ghost story or seen a haunted house movie IN HIS LIFE.

Okay, right, are you guys ready for this to get worse?

So, we have Smithson’s monument all mangled to shit, his casket broken open, his 150-year old skeleton exposed to all and sundry, and now everything is ON FIRE.

Then, “He didn’t want them to ruin the silk by using an extinguisher so he told them to fill their mouths with water and come back to spray it down. So they did it.”

The silk is already ruined. It’s on fire. And if you, A CURATOR, were so concerned with preservation, why did you have random workmen bust open a sealed relic with improper tools, without any authorization to do so?

And now, to cap things off, a whole group of people are just spitting on James Smithson. Congratulations. This might be the worst thing I’ve ever written about on this blog.

So while his bones were exposed, they decided to make the best out of a terrible situation and send his body to the lab for testing. Apparently he was in pretty decent shape when he died in 1829. Good to know.

From what I gather, he was put back into his original crypt (and I hope to hell the curator got fired), and is still there today. His ghost was last seen during a seance held in the Smithsonian in the ’80s.

The end.


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