September 24, 2015


adj. sham, insubstantial; consisting of little or nothing behind an impressive facade
Oxford English Dictionary

Today is the birthday of Grigory Potemkin, whose windswept locks may or may not have been a cheap rug.

Anyone trying to sell a house should know the subtle tricks for sprucing up a shabby property—toothpaste for wall cracks, shoe polish for hardwood scratches, and baking cookies to mask the odor of incontinent pets. Some scholars believe (although the historical record is sparse and there is ample evidence to the contrary) that Grigory Potemkin may have pulled the greatest bait and switch in history when he built entire bogus villages in the arid wasteland of southwestern Ukraine to impress his boss and sugar mama—Catherine the Great.

Potemkin was born to a military family along the Dnieper River in western Russia in 1739. He would eventually be part of the 1762 coup that overthrew the hapless Peter III and put Peter’s opportunistic wife, Catherine II (soon to be “Great”), on the throne, ushering in a new era of sex and statesmanship that would last for more than thirty years. Catherine liberally commingled her public and private lives, vocally proclaiming that she and Peter had never consummated their marriage (despite the existence of their “son,” Paul) and enjoying affairs with multiple advisers and supporters—though, strangely and ironically, not one of the most legendary philanderers of the age (see Casanova). Catherine called upon Potemkin for military guidance when her crown was threatened in the early 1770s, and the two inevitably became lovers.

Within a decade, the flagging powers of the Ottoman Empire (see ottoman) and others ceded control of an enormous swath of land, almost a quarter of a million square miles, to Russia as Catherine expanded her empire ever south and west. Catherine named Potemkin a prince of the Holy Roman Empire and directed him to rule the vast, treeless steppes of southern Ukraine and annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea (see also cardigan). History gets a little murky at this point, depending on who is doing the telling, but Potemkin’s detractors claim that when Catherine and several foreign dignitaries visited the barren flatlands under his control, Potemkin built entirely fake settlements with glowing fires and mobile herds of animals to make the desolate prairies look more inhabited. What is probably more likely is that Catherine was either party to the ruse (hoping to impress her entourage) or that Potemkin did little more than encourage his denizens to bring some spit and polish to their rural outpost.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many negative eponyms, whether or not the story is true is less important than the fact that it is how most of history remembers Potemkin. Fairly or not, today his name is invoked politically to represent what is believed to be a superficial cover-up of any undesirable truth, applied to everything from the Olympic Village constructed in Beijing in 2008 back to the concentration camps where the Nazis allowed visits during World War II.

Still, despite his notorious namesake, his alleged venereal disease, and the undisputed fact that he lost his marbles near the end of his life, it is safe to say that Potemkin has fared better historically than Catherine the Great. Despite overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, many still claim she died after failed fornication with a horse.

September 23, 2015

Typhoid Mary

Today is the birthday of "Typhoid Mary" Mallon (1869).

n. one that is by force of circumstances a center from which something undesirable spreads
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

When wheezing and sneezing employees show up for work instead of taking an allotted sick day, they are often called a Typhoid Mary—invoking the dead and virulent namesake of hash- and fever-slinging Mary Mallon.

Like many unintentional bacterial gifts, typhoid fever is spread through the intake of food or water contaminated with infected feces (see also Maginot Line). While not typically fatal, it nevertheless plagues its victims with fever, sweating, diarrhea, and furious anger at whoever did not wash up after using the bathroom. The height of its mortality rate in the United States was in the late nineteenth century, just around the time Mary Mallon immigrated to the United States from Ireland.

Mallon was born in 1869, sought her fortune in the New World in 1884, and was well established as a cook in New York City by the turn of the century. However, when members of one of the families who hired her unexpectedly contracted typhoid, they hired civil engineer and typhoid research George Soper to investigate. Soper soon discovered that Mallon had sped through seven jobs between 1900 and 1907, leaving a wake of twenty-two typhoid cases and at least one death. Though a complete stranger to her, Soper approached Mallon, suggested she might have typhoid, and requested stool, urine, and blood samples. The Irish cook refused, and the rest is history.

Tensions escalated. Mallon herself did not feel or appear sick and was convinced she was being unfairly targeted as a working-class Irish woman. Soper, meanwhile, returned to question Mallon again, this time with a doctor, followed eventually by a New York City health inspector. Mallon refused them all. She was finally arrested, found to be a carrier for typhoid, and placed in isolation for three years by the board of health. Though Mallon was eventually released with the agreement that she would no longer work as a cook, she soon discovered that work as a laundress or other house servant paid comparatively little, so she assumed a fake name and took a job cooking again in New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women. While there, Mallon passed along her special sauce to twenty-five more unwitting victims, one of whom died.

Mallon’s identity was eventually discovered, and she was arrested and quarantined again on North Brother Island. By this point, Mallon was known to have infected fifty-three people total (three of whom died) and was referred to publicly as “Typhoid Mary.” Sympathy for her cause had evaporated, and she would spend the rest of her life under quarantine, suffer a paralyzing stroke, and ultimately die six years later of pneumonia in 1938 at the age of sixty-nine.

It has since been theorized that Mallon might have contracted typhoid from her mother before she was born and simply never experienced any symptoms. Though she protested her innocence to the end, an autopsy indicated that Typhoid Mary was still harboring live bacteria in her gallbladder when she died.

Bon appétit.

Salisbury steak

Today is the anniversary of the 1905 death of the titan of TV dinners—Dr. James Salisbury. Bon appétit.

n. Hamburg steak
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Is it more regrettable that Dr. Salisbury’s medical legacy is his chopped beefsteak namesake or that his professional recommendation was to eat it three times a day?

James Henry Salisbury was born in New York state in 1823 and worked as a chemist before becoming a physician in 1850. Like Sylvester Graham before him (see graham cracker), Salisbury was convinced that personal diet was the cornerstone of good health, though their theories could not have been more different. Graham was a staunch vegetarian who believed that a carnivorous diet led to lustful urges, while Salisbury was convinced that a daily beef tripleheader could thwart pulmonary tuberculosis, asthma, anemia, and gout.

In addition to other battlefield horrors, Salisbury witnessed widespread diarrhea during his stint as a field doctor in the American Civil War. He eventually posited that a steady flow of coffee and ground beef was the best treatment. By 1888, he was the proponent of a full-fledged fad that called for two-thirds of one’s diet to be filled with meat and claimed that too many vegetables and starch produced poisons in the digestive system that led to heart disease and even mental illness. Salisbury further advised that the beef be well-done and accompanied by hot water before and after meals.

By the time of his death in 1905, the ground-beef patty Dr. Salisbury was prescribing was referred to in many parts as Hamburg steak, though historians (and business owners) often argue whether this refers to Hamburg, Germany, or Hamburg, New York. Regardless, the association with Germany was somewhat inescapable, and the advent of World War I and then World War II prompted some unusual patriotic revisionism. At the same time that sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and the German measles became “liberty measles,” the Hamburg steak officially became the Salisbury steak.

This was by no means the last time such nationalistic menu-tweaking took place. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, restaurants in Greece began serving “Ellinikos kafes” (Greek coffee) instead of “Turkikos kafes” (Turkish coffee). In 2003, following French opposition to the United States invasion of Iraq, the U.S. House of Representatives changed the menus in its cafeterias to serve “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” instead of their French counterparts. Meanwhile, the producers of French’s mustard issued a press release assuring a worried public that its family name should imply no lack of patriotism.

While the original names for hamburgers and sauerkraut have since largely returned to general usage, the Salisbury steak remains a jingoistic holdout. Today, Dr. Salisbury’s prescription—a minced beef patty, shaped like a steak, and typically served with thick gravy—is an all-American icon.


Today is the anniversary of the 1658 death of Oliver Cromwell, one of several individuals upon whose name posterity defecates. Though they do not appear in modern dictionaries, Oliver’s skulls were once another name for chamber pots. Cromwell’s story and the often misunderstood history of Sir Thomas Crapper provide this week’s bathroom reading.

n. toilet
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Mention that you are writing a book on notorious eponyms and you will likely receive a yawn, a condescending eye roll, or an excited outburst that Sir Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet. The first two responses demonstrate that there is just no accounting for some people’s taste, while the third reflects the remarkable staying power of a satirical pseudobiography that launched one of the most ubiquitous urban legends in history. Let us make several things clear. Thomas Crapper most certainly did not invent the toilet, but it might be possible that we invoke his namesake when we ascend the porcelain throne.

Wallace Reyburn was a war correspondent, magazine editor, and humorist who wrote a good many books in his life, some more serious (and factual) than others, but 1969’s tongue-in-cheek Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper and 1971’s teat-in-sling Bust-up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra proved to be swallowed whole by a generous portion of their readership. Despite the rampant puns in the latter “bra-ography”—including an assistant named Hans Delving and a female athlete named Lois Lung—the completely fictional Titzling eventually became a supposedly real answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. Meanwhile, Flushed describes Crapper’s good friend “B.S.” and the “many dry runs” required to perfect the “Crapper W.C. Cistern.” People have been spouting this satire as fact for the last forty years.

The truth is that Thomas P. Crapper did exist. He was a British plumber, born around 1836, who owned his own plumbing company and widely popularized flush toilets, but his connection to modern word usage is somewhat murkier. Certainly the word crap, derived from the Dutch krappe, precedes him by centuries, first appearing in English in 1440. Likewise, the prototypes and early patents for our modern flushing toilets are generally attributed to Sir John Harrington at the end of the sixteenth century and Alexander Cummings in the 1770s, decades before Crapper created his first movement. But Crapper’s company in London did pioneer the use of the floating ballcock (to avoid overflow) and outfitted several royal lavatories including those of Edward VII and George V. The resourceful Crapper was never knighted for his contributions, however, as is often alleged.

While fanciful anecdotes and jokes abound, it is still possible that our use of both crapper and crap are connected to the British plumber. Crapper first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as a privy in 1932 in American usage, and crap is not used to mean defecation until 1937. One prevailing theory is that American soldiers serving in World War I traveled to Britain and spent a fair amount of time staring at “Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd.” fixtures while dropping personal bombs and brought Thomas’s namesake back to the United States. Crapper thus slowly entered the lexicon over the next decade. Meanwhile, the name’s close connection to the contents carried helped transform crap (a traditional word for chaff, residue, and rubbish) into its stinking incarnation today. Crapper himself retired from the crapper business in 1904 and is immortalized on a series of manhole covers in Westminster Abbey. He passed in 1910.

Yet while Crapper’s offal association might be debatable, there is a solid quartet of historical heroes who share the dubious distinction of having their names (and, sometimes, faces) directly conjoined with voiding vessels. Because only vespasienne appears in modern usage (Oxford English Dictionary), all have been relegated to footnote status here.

vespasienneIn chronological order, our first stop on the Excrement Express is Italy. One year after Nero committed suicide in AD 68, the great military leader Titus Flavius Vespasianus (generally referred to as Vespasian) became Emperor of Rome. His primary goal seemed to be to institute new taxes, wherever possible, to fill the royal coffers and fund his grand new ventures—including construction of the immense Colosseum, which would not be completed until his son’s rule. One of his most creative moneymaking schemes was a “urine tax” imposed on public facilities. To maximize his supply-chain loop, he sold the collected urine to launderers, who aged it in giant vats (until it converted to ammonia) and then used it for bleaching. Italians henceforth called urinals vespianos, leading to the French vespasiennes, which was then absorbed into English. Vespasian was relieved of his mortal strain in AD 79 when he died of a diarrhea-racked fever.

Oliver’s skull 
Roughly 1,500 years later in England, a civil war over haircuts and political succession was under way. The short-haired, Parliament-supporting Roundheads were facing up against the curly tresses of the monarch-loving Royalists. The Roundheads ultimately won a victory in 1651 that would eventually establish a parliamentary monarchy 150 years later, but short-term leadership of the country fell to the alternately revered and reviled Oliver Cromwell. While soothing their wounds from their military losses over a few pints, the Royalists drunkenly stumbled across the hilarious notion of dubbing their chamber pots Oliver’s skulls. The slang stuck well into the 1800s. Cromwell himself died in 1658 (somewhat ironically) from a urinary tract infection. Three years later, after the Royalists had returned to power, his buried body was exhumed, hanged at Tyburn, thrown in a pit, and then beheaded. His head was then placed on a spike above Westminster Hall.

Details on the subsequent journeys of the head are mysterious. However, in 1799, what was believed to be the head was sold to three brothers named Hughes who set up an exhibit of Cromwellabilia. Despite an extensive marketing campaign, the exhibit was a failure, and the provenance of the head has been in question ever since.

Political tensions were not much relieved in the decades that followed, and soon the divine-right-of-kings-supporting Tories and the crown-threatening Whigs were at each other’s throats. In 1709 ardent Tory and clergyman Dr. Henry Sacheverell successfully pissed off the entire Whig party in a series of sermons that accused the Whigs of being too tolerant of religious dissenters. His fomenting language initially led to his short suspension from preaching and an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for a stove blower, the implication being that he was famous for “blowing the coals of dissension.” However, more germane to the topic here, his name also became synonymous with chamber pots after several resourceful Whigs managed to manufacture the common household items with a portrait of Dr. Sacheverell painted on the bottom.

The Irish thought this piss-pot portraiture hilarious but had no appropriate target for their streams for nearly seventy years until British travel writer Richard Twiss published his decidedly unflattering Tour in Ireland in 1775. It was an enormous bestseller in his home country of England but struck heavy ire in the land to the west by asserting that the Irish primarily consumed whiskey and were notable for little more than the thickness of their legs—particularly the women. In response, a Dublin pottery company began selling a chamber pot called a “twiss” that included a portrait of its namesake, facing forward, with an open mouth. Accounts (and, perhaps, versions) of its caption vary, but the general gist is as follows:
Here you may behold a liar,
Well deserving of hell-fire:
Every one who likes may piss
Upon the learned Doctor Twiss.

As an editorial footnote to these etymological footnotes, any reader now inspired to sully the most extraordinarily large urinals east of the Mississippi River needs only swing open the saloon doors of the Old Town Bar in New York City, home to the grand porcelain towers of the Hinsdale Company, whose magnificence dwarfs even the mightiest sword. In contrast, the Old Town’s crappers are nothing to speak of.

September 21, 2015

Big Bertha

n. any very large cannon
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Today is the anniversary of the death of Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach (1957).

After Bertha Krupp’s father committed suicide in 1902, she became the sole inheritor of the most powerful armament and munitions empire in Germany, provided the moniker for some freakishly large artillery, and eventually saw her name attached to a munitions factory that employed and abused concentration camp inmates.

Bertha Krupp was born in Essen, Germany, in 1886—home of her family’s steelworks since 1811. Her father, Friedrich “Fritz” Alfred Krupp, had successfully expanded the company into a world-class arms manufacturer and was creating cannons that used Alfred Nobel’s improved gunpowder (see Nobel Prize) by the turn of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Fritz also seemed to have a penchant for young boys and was caught in a sordid scandal of alleged pederasty that landed his beleaguered wife in an insane asylum and caused his death (reportedly by stroke, but most believe by suicide) in 1902. The kaiser, Wilhelm II, decided that sixteen-year-old heiress Bertha could not possibly take over of one of Germany’s most important manufacturers, so he forced her to marry diplomat Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, who assumed the name Krupp and administrative control of the company.

Frau Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach proved to be more formidable than the kaiser (or her husband) anticipated, and she was instrumental in helping Gustav run the company. In 1914, the Krupp factory produced an extraordinary 420-millimeter, short-barreled and high-trajectory (howitzer) monstrosity. Its designers called it Dicke Bertha (Fat Bertha) in honor of the Krupp heiress and owner, and it wreaked havoc on French and Belgian forts during the early part of World War I. 

The original Fat Bertha paved the way for even larger and longer-ranged howitzers that were all generally dubbed “Big Berthas” by the Allied troops that suffered under their shells. The “Paris Gun” was one of the later Bertha types used to bombard the City of Light in 1918. Its shells weighed more than two hundred pounds and traveled so high (twenty-five miles) and so far (more than eighty miles) that gunners had to factor in the rotation of the Earth when making their trajectory calculations.

Incredibly, the heavy howitzers of World War I are not even Bertha Krupp’s most notorious namesakes. By 1942, intense aerial attacks led the Third Reich to spread out its artillery production beyond the range of Allied bombers. The Krupp company opened a munitions plant in Markstädt (occupied Poland) and named it after its matriarch—the Berthawerk. Unfortunately, labor was scarce, so the Berthawerk used prisoners from the nearby Fünfteichen concentration camp for its frantic production. Bertha’s son Alfried eventually assumed control of the company, was indicted for crimes against humanity (for using and mistreating camp inmates), and was sentenced to twelve years in prison during the postwar Nuremberg trials. His conviction was overturned in 1951 by the U.S. high commissioner in Germany, in part because the United States believed it needed strong German industry to help Europe recover and stave off a new global threat—communism (see McCarthyism).

As the mere heiress to the Krupp dynasty, Bertha was never accused of any wrongdoing. She was reunited with Alfried in 1951 and moved with him back to Essen, where she lived until her death in 1957.


n. zealous suppression of plays, books, etc. considered offensive or dangerous to public morals
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Today is the anniversary of the death of Anthony Comstock in 1915. Comstock was the American incarnation of Britain’s Thomas Bowdler (see bowdlerize), and it was none other than famed playwright George Bernard Shaw who immortalized this moral zealot’s priggery when he wrote, “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.”

In 1844, many years before the Village People convinced a 1970s generation that it was fun to stay there, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in London to give factory workers an alternative to a sinful life on the street. It provided prayer and Bible study to improve “the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades.” It was also the same year that Anthony Comstock was born. Two decades later, after serving in the American Civil War, Comstock worked in the New York City YMCA before launching a Victorian crusade against birth control and what he deemed to be obscene literature.

In 1873 a politically savvy Comstock conceived the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and persuaded Congress to enact the Comstock Act, a federal law that criminalized sending “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail—which included not only pornography but also contraceptive “equipment” and advertisements as well as anatomy textbooks. For his definition of obscenity, Comstock relied on the standard set by the unfortunately (or aptly) named Lord Cockburn in England five years earlier. In 1868, Lord Chief Justice Alexander James Edmund Cockburn defined as obscene materials those that “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence.” Inspired by Cockburn’s articulations, Comstock soon became an armed U.S. Postal Inspector, conducted raids on bookstores, prosecuted more than 3,500 people, and destroyed more than 160 tons of allegedly obscene material.

Comstock attacked George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession in 1905 and referred to Shaw as an “Irish smut dealer,” to which Shaw responded with his now famous comment (quoted above) forever linking Comstock’s name with bigoted censorship. Not to be outdone, Comstock embraced the term and described it as “the applying of the noblest principles of law . . . in the interest of Public Morals, especially those of the young.” Referring to himself as a “weeder in God’s garden,” Comstock referred to his liberal targets as “long-haired men and short-haired women” and boasted that his prosecutions had driven at least fifteen people to commit suicide.

One hilariously titled chapter of the Comstock chronicles, however, involved a confiscated shipment of contraceptives from Japan to New York City in 1932. The slightly ribald case of United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (diaphragms) in the U.S. Court of Appeals directly confronted the standing prohibition against importing or mailing birth control. It had been these laws that led to the decidedly not hilarious multiple arrests of Planned Parenthood founder (and coiner of the term birth control) Margaret Sanger. The ban on contraceptives was eventually declared unconstitutional, but many other portions of the Comstock Act still stand today.

Anthony Comstock died in 1915. Lawyer, author, and free speech activist Theodore Schroeder later railed that Comstock “stood at the mouth of a sewer, searching for and devouring obscenity for a salary.” It is perhaps fitting that the encyclopedic collection of pornography currently owned by the Library of Congress was established with contraband confiscated under the Comstock Act of 1873.

September 17, 2015

Star-Spangled Banner

Today in 1814, poet and lawyer Francis Scott Key placed the finishing touches on his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which would eventually become “The Star Spangled Banner”—national anthem of the United States. Three days earlier, Key had been held captive aboard a British ship and watched the spectacular moonlit bombardment of the fort during the Battle of Baltimore of the War of 1812.

There are two men who can take inventive credit for the horrors that kept Key awake that night and prompted him to write the now infamous description “…and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air….” The red glare was provided by Congreve rockets, designed by Sir William Congreve in 1804 but whose inaccuracy and tendency to explode prematurely led them to be discontinued by the 1850s.

Meanwhile the bursting shells (and scattering hellfire) were the handiwork of Henry Shrapnel and were so effective that they remained in use through the Vietnam War. You can ready my full entry on Shrapnel here.

Francis Scott Key has one more bizarre connection to Tawdry Knickers. He served as the lawyer for Sam Houston—senator, governor, and first and only president of Texas (when it was a republic)—after Houston beat the buckeyes out of Ohio congressman William Stanbery in 1832. Stanbery had publicly insulted him on the floor of the House of Representatives, and Houston beat him with a stick in broad daylight on Pennsylvania Avenue. He was found guilty, and to “Houstonize” became the word (not often used, obviously) for beating up a congressman.

As for “The Star Spangled Banner,” its tune was based on a British drinking song, and it wasn’t designed as the national anthem (in fact, the United States had no national anthem) until President Herbert Hoover signed it into law in 1931.

September 13, 2015


Today is the anniversary of the 1881 death of the whimsically whiskered Ambrose Burnside.

n. short whiskers grown only on the cheeks
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Though they enjoy a popular counter-culture resurgence every few decades (and remain a fashion mainstay for particular niches of the entertainment industry), the golden age of sideburns was unquestionably the American Civil War—led by the hirsute charge of Ambrose Burnside, who will long be remembered not for his positions as a general, governor, senator, or even president of the National Rifle Association, but for his outrageous facial hair.

Burnside was born in Indiana in 1824 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843. He guarded garrisons in the Mexican-American war, protected Western mail routes in the U.S. cavalry, and received an Apache arrow in the neck before first leaving the Army in 1853. He remained in the Rhode Island militia, however, and manufactured his namesake Burnside carbine rifle until a string of bad luck forced him to sell his patent after his factory burned down and he lost an expensive Congressional race.

The outbreak of the Civil War seemed to give him a second chance and, rising up from his position as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island militia, he commanded an entire brigade at the Battle of Bull Run. Despite his acknowledged lack of military experience and his repeated insistence to Abraham Lincoln that he was not qualified for the job, Burnside was eventually appointed to succeed General George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. However, after disastrous defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and later the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Burnside finally decided to resign.

Widely regarded in retrospect as being unfit for high command, Burnside is nonetheless remembered as an extraordinarily nice guy. He shook enough hands and slapped enough backs to become a railroad mogul, a governor and senator of Rhode Island, and the very first president of the NRA. But it was his signature facial hair—flamboyant mutton chops conjoined by a hearty mustache with a clean-shaven chin—that gave him infamy. His “burnsides” eventually flipped syllables to give us our sideburns today.

Sideburns have varied in length, shape, and name in subsequent years. They are called side-whiskers or sideboards in the United Kingdom. They have spanned the social map from presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to actors (James Dean) to singers (Elvis Presley) to footballers (Joe Namath). There are mutton chops (flaring out across the jawline) and friendly mutton chops (connected with a mustache). There is even a special category for them in the bi-annual World Beard and Moustache Championships. A hairless chin remains sacrosanct, however, lest the jowls be joined to form a beard.

Among the most spectacular sideburns of history were the jaw-line drapes sported by Edward Sothern in his portrayal of the eccentric and dim-witted Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin (later made extraordinarily famous for being the featured entertainment the night Abraham Lincoln was shot). Sothern’s sweeping facial locks eventually merited their own name (see dundrearies).

But the original hipster, Ambrose Burnside, died in 1881. He was quickly immortalized in stone, and his boundless whiskers, astride his noble steed, are now permanent residents in Providence, Rhode Island’s Burnside Park.

September 12, 2015

Gatling gun

Today is the birthday of Richard Jordan Gatling (1818).

n. a form of machine gun, with a cluster of barrels into which the cartridges are automatically loaded at the breech
­—Oxford English Dictionary

In one of history’s great oxymoronic moments, well-intentioned doctor and inventor Richard Jordan Gatling devised his hand-cranked killing machine as a militaristic solution to the inconceivable loss of life in the American Civil War.

Gatling was a Southerner born in North Carolina in 1818 to a farmer and inventor. He initially followed in his father’s footsteps and developed a seed planter, grain drill, and shovel plow before earning a medical degree in 1850. Gatling moved north to Indianapolis to practice medicine but never strayed far from inventing. It was while watching returning Civil War soldiers die more often from battlefield illnesses than gunshot wounds that he decided to work on a hyper-efficient weapon.

Gatling was not so much a pacifist as a pragmatist. He did not seek to end wars, only to reduce the number of soldiers it took to fight them. Gatling wrote that “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” Sadly, this proved not to be the case, and Gatling had succeeded only in creating a precursor to the modern machine gun, which has been responsible for countless deaths in the past century (see also tommy gun and AK-47).

Individual reloading during the Civil War was a time-consuming process. The Gatling gun featured multiple rifle barrels mounted around a crankable shaft, so one gunner could fire as many as 400 rounds per minute and pick off countless unlucky single-shooters at a range of up to twenty football fields. There were many eponymous machine guns invented during the Civil War (e.g., the Gorgas, the Ripley, the Claxon, and the Williams), some of which also featured rotators and multiple barrels to avoid overheating, but only the Gatling had a fool-proof, gravity-fed reloader that meant it could be operated by anyone.

Gatling’s gun was perfected by 1862, but Union forces did not buy any great number until 1866, after the war’s end. Gatling sold his gun patents to Colt in 1870 but remained president of the Gatling Gun Company for nearly twenty years as he pursued other invention patents including an “Apparatus for Cleansing Wool” in 1892 and a “Flushing Apparatus for Water Closets” in 1901 (see also crapper). Even in the final days before his death in 1903, he was working on a patent for a type of tractor that he called a steam-powered “motor plow.”

Though no one speaks of true Gatling guns being used anymore, the doctor’s legacy has been preserved in a shortened slang form first used by the criminal underworld at the turn of the twentieth century and more recently by urban rappers—the gat. 

September 11, 2015

graham cracker

Vegetarian, minister, and vehement abstainer Sylvester Graham died today in 1851. You can mourn with a flavorless biscuit, a glass of water, and a steamy session of hand holding.

graham cracker
n. a slightly sweet cracker made of whole wheat flour
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The innocuous brown bookends surrounding the toasted marshmallows and melted chocolate of a s’more are the namesake of one of the founders of the American vegetarian movement—Sylvester Graham. While many associate graham crackers with the dessert course of a summer campfire feast of hot dogs and hamburgers or they pour a hefty serving of milk over a breakfast bowl of Golden Grahams cereal, poor Reverend Graham is rolling over in his grave.

Graham was a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister who was convinced that an austere diet and healthy living could help curb sexual urges—particularly “self-abuse,” as he called it—as well as alcoholism. Graham was born in 1794, the seventeenth of seventeen children, and became ordained as a minister in 1826 at the peak of a health food craze and temperance movement in the United States.

Though an early and ardent member of the Pennsylvania Temperance Society, Reverend Graham was, first and foremost, a crusader against lust—and he believed that bland foods were just the ticket to put out the forbidden fire. For Reverend Graham, unhealthy diets awoke excessive sexual desire, which led to disease. He once posited that ham and sausage “increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs.”

The Graham Diet, as it was known, was comprehensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables were okay; meat and spices were not. Only very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs could be consumed, while butter was discouraged. Modern graham crackers, which would not be named as such until nearly thirty years after his death, would have horrified Reverend Graham with their refined, bleached white flour. His original versions—called Dr. Graham’s Honey Biskets—called for the use of a hard, unsifted, and coarsely ground whole wheat flour called “Graham flour,” which was introduced in 1829. The Graham Diet eventually worked its way even into the houses of higher learning. Oberlin College instituted such a strict version of it (abandoned in 1841) that many students opted to eat off campus, and a professor was terminated for bringing in contraband pepper to season his food.

To be sure, Graham was an early whistle-blower on some pretty reprehensible food industry practices. He opposed the increasingly popular bakery additives of the time, such as alum and chlorine, used to make bread bake faster and appear artificially whiter. Many consumers, particularly in urban areas, regarded “refined” bread (i.e., white bread) as a more pure product. Responding to this perception, unscrupulous dairies added chalk and even plaster of paris to their milk to make it whiter. Unfortunately, Graham’s rejection of meat and industrialized bread and dairy led to frequent riot threats from commercial bakers and butchers when his lectures were advertised.

But food was merely one part of a larger puritanical lifestyle. In addition to restrictions on eating, he advocated frequent bathing and hard mattresses and he opposed social drinking. Zealots attended his lectures in droves, and he was famously explicit in his descriptions of despicable behavior. Women allegedly fainted when he outlined the adverse effects of masturbation.

Grahamites, as his followers were called, stayed in “Graham Boarding Houses” in New York and Boston, where they abstained from alcohol, tobacco, meat, and sexy thoughts while reading his many writings—including Lectures to Young Men on Chastity. Among these followers were newspaperman Horace “Go West, Young Man” Greeley and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes.

Reverend Graham was instrumental in founding the American Vegetarian Society in 1850, one year before his death.

Though Americans today enjoy a sweetened, less wholesome, and perhaps more lustful version of Reverend Graham’s tasty namesake, it is perhaps more fitting that we remember him as Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed him—“the poet of bran and pumpkins.”