December 10, 2022

Nobel Prize

December 10 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel (1896) who both invented dynamite and established the Nobel Peace Prize.

n. each of six (formerly five) prizes awarded annually to individuals who are judged to have contributed most in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, the promotion of peace, and economics
Oxford English Dictionary

It is hardly notorious to have one’s name associated with an internationally recognized award for peace, but it is important to realize that Alfred Nobel bought his legacy of good will to avoid a fate similar to Joseph Ignace Guillotin (see guillotine). Nobel simply did not want to be remembered as the inventor of dynamite.

Premature obituaries occur more often than one might expect. In 1922, a New York newspaper mistakenly announced “Pope Benedict XV Is Dead,” only to feature a later edition headlined “Pope Has Remarkable Recovery.” In 2003, famously leaked in-progress obituaries and templates for numerous celebrities. Fidel Castro’s was apparently derived from Ronald Reagan’s and described the Cuban leader as “lifeguard, athlete, movie star,” while Dick Cheney’s was based on a template from Queen Elizabeth and described him as “UK’s favorite grandmother.” Finally, though not technically an obituary, when an 1897 journalist was sent to ask Mark Twain about his health (mistaking the author with an ill cousin), the humorist later wrote the oft-misquoted “The report of my death is an exaggeration.”

But the premature obituary with the greatest lasting impact on humanity is surely that of Alfred Nobel. In 1888, several newspapers mistakenly published his death notice following the passing of his brother Ludvig. One French newspaper used the opportunity to condemn Nobel’s invention of dynamite and wrote “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel was apparently so horrified by his potential legacy that he ultimately rewrote his will in 1895 to dedicate approximately $9 million to establish the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1833. Trained as a chemist, Nobel became fascinated with explosives and worked to develop a safe way to handle the recently discovered nitroglycerine, which he combined with rock powder and then sawdust to create “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” (i.e., dynamite). He patented his creation in 1867, did the same for blasting gelatin (gelignite) in 1876, and made a fortune. Just as Guillotin believed his invention would humanize capital punishment and Gatling believed his weapon would reduce military casualties (see Gatling gun), Nobel likewise had a naïve faith in humanity’s willingness to eliminate human suffering. Though he invented dynamite to be used in construction, he recognized its potential military use and wrote “My factories may end war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps will be able to destroy each other in one second, all civilized nations will recoil away from war in horror and disband their armies.”

It is ironic that Nobel’s legacy of promoting peace should be borne of a newspaper article describing him as a “merchant of death.” Perhaps it is then fitting that at least three of the recipients of his prize (philosopher Bertrand Russell, president Nelson Mandela, and playwright Harold Pinter) share with him a singularly peculiar distinction—all received premature obituaries.

December 02, 2022


December 2 is the anniversary of the death of Donatien Alphonse François (1740), also known as the Marquis de Sade. 

He is the namesake of the term sadism coined by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886 (for more on Herr Doktor, see sadomasochism). Like masochism (also coined by Krafft-Ebing and named for Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), the Marquis de Sade was a literary inspiration. He was a revolutionary French novelist whose dogged attainment of personal pleasure resulted in his spending nearly half of his life in prisons and insane asylums.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines sadism as “the getting of sexual pleasure from dominating, mistreating, or hurting one’s partner, physically or otherwise.” Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was born into Paris high society in 1740. Before writing the novels that would explore the libertine pursuits of bestiality, necrophilia, and juvenile rape, the young Sade had an aristocratic upbringing, alternating between the titles comte (count) and marquis (marquess) and rising to the rank of colonel during the sweeping Seven Years’ War. Despite marriage and the arrival of three children, Sade gained notoriety in Paris for his frequent employment and (especially) abuse of young prostitutes, resulting in his nearly constant surveillance by the police.

After being imprisoned several times, accused of the then serious crime of blasphemy, and widely rumored to be having an affair with his wife’s sister, Sade was exiled to his château at Lacoste in Provence in 1768, the year after his father’s death. Deeper scandal ensued later that year when a young woman (perhaps a prostitute) claimed she was imprisoned and sexually abused by him before escaping through a second-story window. Four years later, he and a male servant were forced to flee to Italy (with his wife’s sister) after in absentia convictions and death sentences for sodomy and the near-fatal poisoning of several prostitutes with a supposed aphrodisiac. More upset by his extramarital affair than by his more colorful exploits, his mother-in-law obtained a royal order of arrest and imprisonment.

After five years of secretive return trips to Lacoste punctuated by repeated accusations of sexual mistreatment by young employees (the father of one nearly succeeded in shooting the marquis at point-blank range), Sade was eventually arrested and imprisoned. He successfully appealed his death sentence but still spent eleven years behind bars and was transferred from the Bastille to an insane asylum a mere ten days before the storming of the famed prison on July 14, 1789—the start of the French Revolution. He was ultimately released a year later, and his wife divorced him soon after.

Sade wrote most of his most controversial fiction while in the Bastille, including The 120 Days of Sodom, which catalogs the horrific exploits of four aristocrats who seal themselves in a castle for four months with four prostitutes and forty-six teenagers whom they sexually abuse and torture before slaughtering them. Likewise, Justine and Juliette chronicle the experiences of two sisters. Justine is the virtuous one, forced to become a sex slave in a monastery and eventually struck by lightning. Juliette, in contrast, is a nymphomaniac who enjoys an orgy with the pope and dies happy.

As with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and masochism, the Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing felt that Sade and his writings represented the embodiment of the sexual pathology that enjoys gratification from domination and abuse. Nearly seventy-five years after the Marquis de Sade’s death, Krafft-Ebing coined the term sadism in his landmark Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886. Sigmund Freud eventually noted that tendencies toward sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals and thus created the term sadomasochism (commonly, S&M).

Most of Sade’s descendants have vigorously tried to dissociate themselves from his name, with the exception of the Comte Xavier de Sade, who found a trunk of letters and manuscripts in 1948 that he allowed to be published over the next twelve years, renewing attention in the controversial author in the 1960s.

After his initial release from the asylum, Sade himself became a political radical during the guillotine-crazed Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. However, despite publishing both Justine and Juliette anonymously after his release from the Bastille, his identity was discovered by Napoleon, who had him incarcerated for the remainder of his life—first in prison and then, after Sade attempted to seduce young fellow prisoners, again in an insane asylum. Sade started an affair with the daughter of a worker at the asylum that lasted four years until his death in 1814. She was thirteen years old.

November 23, 2022


November 23 is the anniversary of the death of Elbridge Gerry (1814), the slippery statesman whose name has become synonymous with the serpentine strategy known as gerrymandering.

v. to divide (a voting area) in such a way as to give an unfair advantage to one political party
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Were it not for the artistic pen of a political cartoonist, the sharp wit of a newspaper editor, and his own brazen corruption, Elbridge Gerry might be remembered for signing the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and serving as both a governor and vice president of the United States. Instead, his legacy is an eternal pairing with a salamander.

Gerry was a lifelong Massachusetts man, born in 1744 in Marblehead, graduating from Harvard, and serving as a delegate from the Bay State (then the Bay Colony) to the Continental Congress in 1776, where he refused to sign the Constitution until it included a Bill of Rights. After a short stint in Congress, Gerry eventually joined the Democratic-Republican Party in 1800 and lost four consecutive bids to be the governor of Massachusetts before finally securing one-year terms in 1811and 1812. He then blew his chance at a respectable legacy with some cartographical chicanery.

As the incumbent political party, Gerry’s Democratic-Republicans hoped to preserve their power by redrawing several voting districts to concentrate opposing Federalist support in a few isolated districts while maintaining their own majority everywhere else. Benjamin Russell, the outraged editor of the Centinel, a Federalist newspaper, allegedly hung a map in his office illustrating the absurd new serpentine senatorial district of Essex County approved by then governor Gerry. Some early accounts report that celebrated portraitist Gilbert Stuart (who drew George Washington’s face on the one-dollar bill) added a head, wings, and claws to the map to create the political “salamander” that Russell dubbed the “Gerry-mander.” However, the more widely accepted theory is that painter, designer, and engraver Elkanah Tisdale drew the political cartoon of the now infamous namesake that would ultimately be published in the Boston Gazette and spawn a household word within months.

Most often employed by an incumbent power, gerrymandering typically either concentrates blocks of voters into one district to minimize their impact on other districts or spreads them out over multiple districts to dilute their power. Though a single word for it did not enter the political lexicon until after the Massachusetts map scandal of 1812, the practice had been around since the country’s founding and exists to this day. In 1778 Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” Henry and his anti-Federalist cronies famously overhauled a Virginia congressional district to keep future president James Madison out of the House of Representatives, while more than 220 years later Pennsylvania Republicans gerrymandered a finger-shaped district so meticulously that it stopped at a rival candidate’s street and included his house but not his parking space.

As for the original gerrymanderer, the stinging portmanteau did little to ruin the Massachusetts governor’s political career. The year after his namesake was coined, Gerry was chosen to be the fifth vice president of the United States, under James Madison, serving for a year and a half before dying of heart failure in 1814.

November 12, 2022


Today marks the anniversary of the first public appearance of trapeze artist Jules Léotard in 1859. 

n. a close-fitting one-piece garment worn by acrobats and dancers
Oxford English Dictionary

Our word for the classic (and revealing) uniform of ballerinas and gymnasts is the namesake of Jules Léotard, a vainglorious French acrobat who wanted nothing more than female adoration of what he considered his “best features.”

Perhaps the directors of the 1984 Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret! had Léotard in mind when they featured a ballerina gracefully leaping from loin to loin in a gauntlet of male dancers, resting each time on their ridiculously exaggerated accoutrement to an appropriately chosen accompaniment from The Nutcracker.

Jules Léotard was born to circus performer parents in Toulouse, France, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Though originally on track to become a lawyer, he became enamored with the trapeze bars (and, apparently, his own physique) and joined the Cirque Napoleon in 1859. Donning his invention, what he called a maillot—a skin-tight, one-piece garment with long sleeves to allow free movement and to display his muscles—Léotard became the first trapeze artist to execute a mid-air somersault and the first to swing from one trapeze to another. All of this was in the days before safety nets (introduced in 1871). Léotard often performed over a stack of mattresses or, more often, directly over the heads of diners in music halls.

So impressive were his flights and flips that in 1867 he was the direct inspiration for what has become the anthem of aerial acrobats—”The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

“The girl that I loved she was handsome,
I tried all I knew her to please,
But I could not please her one quarter so well
As that man upon the trapeze.
He’d fly thro’ the air with the greatest of ease—
A daring young man on the flying trapeze—
His movements were graceful, all girls he could please,
And my love he purloined away.”

Léotard’s word maillot is now used for jerseys or swimsuits, having been replaced by leotard in 1866, nearly twenty years after the acrobat’s premature death from smallpox before his thirtieth birthday. The design was certainly created for men, and Léotard was quite explicit about the effect he hoped his invention would have, as he describes in his Memoires:

“Do you want to be adored by the ladies? [I]nstead of draping yourself in unflattering clothes, invented by ladies…put on a more natural garb, which does not hide your best features.”

November 11, 2022

Typhoid Mary

November 11 (1938) is the anniversary of the death of "Typhoid Mary" Mallon.

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.

November 08, 2022

Molotov cocktail

November 8 is the anniversary of the death of Vyacheslav Molotov (1890).

n. a makeshift incendiary device for throwing by hand, consisting of a bottle or other breakable container filled with flammable liquid and with a piece of cloth, etc., as a fuse
Oxford English Dictionary

How will history remember perhaps the only man to have shaken hands with Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? With a riot-rousing, tank-busting, flaming bottle of Finnish pride.

Just three months after Germany invaded Poland and sparked World War II, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 and began what would be called the Winter War. Struggling against woefully outnumbered but frustratingly plucky Finnish snipers and camouflaged ski troops, the Soviets began relying on the RRAB-3, a cluster bomb dispenser. At the time, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov insisted in radio broadcasts that Russia was dropping food, and not bombs, on the starving Finns—which led to the RRAB-3s being dubbed “Molotov’s bread basket.” The Finns had used incendiary devices developed during the Spanish Civil War three years earlier to combat the invading Soviet tanks and called them “Molotov cocktails” as “a drink to go with the food.”

Molotov’s name came to encompass both the flaming mixture of ethanol, tar, and gasoline and the bottle that delivered it. The devices proved to be so successful that nearly a half million were mass-produced (and bundled with matches) during the Winter War. Early prototypes with burning rags in the mouth of the bottle were replaced by storm matches attached to the bottle and then to ones that ignited on impact.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Skriabin was born the son of a shop clerk in 1890. Before he turned twenty he had become a Bolshevik and decided he might bolster his political career by changing his name to Molotov from the Russian word for hammer, molot. Though many of his rivals considered him simply a mindless bureaucrat, he eventually became the protégé of Joseph Stalin. He was reviled by some and feared by many. Leon Trotsky famously called him “mediocrity personified,” while Winston Churchill considered him “a man of outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness.”

By the mid-1950s, Nikita Khruschev and other Communist leaders began denouncing Stalin’s legacy, and Molotov was first removed as Foreign Minister and then expelled from the Communist party altogether in 1961. He was eventually allowed to rejoin the Party in 1984, but died two years later at the age of ninety-six. The Soviet Union dissolved five years later.

Early in his career, the Soviet leader’s name was also attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin, a non-aggression treaty that lasted only two years before Hitler turned his conquering eyes from France to the Soviet Union. But this association is just a historical footnote. Molotov’s etymological infamy will forever reside with his “bread basket” and, especially, “cocktail” namesakes—somewhat ironically, as Molotov was actually a teetotaling vegetarian. 

March 29, 2021

Big Bertha

March 29 (1886) is the birthday of Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach--namesake of the original Big Bertha.

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

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.

March 28, 2021


March 28 is the anniversary of the death of James Thomas Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan, in 1868.

n. a usu. collarless sweater or jacket that opens the full length of the center front
—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell, Rode the six hundred” in…cardigans. Alfred Tennyson’s rousing retelling of the historic Charge of the Light Brigade is a poetic testament to the exploits of James Thomas Brudenell, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, whose namesake knitwear unfortunately far surpasses his military legacy.

Brudenell was born in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1797 and inherited his father’s earldom of Cardigan in Northamptonshire forty years later. Always an aristocrat, after entering the army, Brudenell capitalized on the then-ubiquitous British practice of selling military commissions to noblemen and purchased his own promotions to lieutenant, captain, major, and lieutenant-colonel in five short years. He was much loathed by superiors and subordinates alike—thwarted in an attempt to court martial one of his soldiers and deemed “unfit to command” by his senior officer—and was apparently no more charming in his personal life. He endured an unhappy marriage of twenty years before eventually separating from his wife and indulging a notorious affair while his wife was on her deathbed.

He eventually became a lieutenant general and in 1854 was placed in charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava of the Crimean War. While a cavalcade of finger-pointing followed the attack, a small handful of details seem to be agreed upon. While English, French, and Turkish forces were trying to capture Russia’s primary naval base on the Black Sea and orders were given to retrieve several captured British guns, Brudenell’s 600 mounted troops were mistakenly directed (under protest) to charge blindly through Balaclava’s North Valley under the sweltering hellfire of Russian guns and marksmen. Upon heroically and inconceivably reaching the end of the valley and realizing a catastrophic error had been made, the brigade retreated back through heavy fire. Roughly 100 troops were killed, though Brudenell survived unscathed. Despite spending most of the war aboard his steam yacht in Balaclava harbor and failing to keep his troops properly supplied, Brudenell returned to England a hero, (self-) proclaiming his great valor. Subsequent reports eventually maintained that Brudenell might never actually have engaged the enemy, but the general never retracted his claims. He died after falling from a horse in 1868.

What has since brought Brudenell sartorial infamy, however, is the stylish woolen vest he wore to protect himself from the bracing elements of the Russian winter in Crimea. Brudenell insisted that all of his officers be flamboyantly dressed, and he led the charge in splendid regalia. His knitted waistcoat was soon embraced by clothiers hoping to capitalize on his widespread popularity and eventually morphed into the collarless V-neck sweater embraced by such pacifists as children’s television luminary Mister (Fred) Rogers in modern times.

Pierre François Joseph Bosquet was a French commander who witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade, and it is difficult to know whether he was referring to the battle tactics or the Earl of Cardigan’s fuzzy sweater vest when he famously observed “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness.” 

March 26, 2021


If there is one word that epitomizes the spirit of the Tawdry Knickers project and the entire notion of “unfortunate ways to be remembered” it is surely guillotine—namesake of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who died today, March 26, 1814. It is a historical tragedy that with such humanitarian intentions, he is doomed to association with so macabre a device. Pity this poor Frenchman today, and hold out hope that your own neck and legacy might remain intact.

n. an instrument used in France (esp. during the Revolution) for beheading, consisting of a heavy knife blade sliding between grooved posts; also, execution by this instrument
Oxford English Dictionary

Despite not supporting the death penalty, not advocating public executions, and not himself dying under the blade of his namesake, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin will forever be associated with the sanguinary symbol of the French Reign of Terror.

The historical parade of torture paraphernalia would seem to support novelist Joseph Conrad’s assertion that “Man is a cruel animal. His cruelty must be organized.” In eighteenth-century France, popular execution methods included the breaking wheel, burning at the stake, hanging, and beheading. The speed with which prisoners died usually depended on social status, with the well-to-do able to bribe executioners to sharpen their ax and the lower classes dying of strangulation at the end of a noose or suffering multiple whacks from a dull blade.

Following the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the newly formed National Assembly decided that Égalité! applied to death row as well—that is, that all classes of condemned prisoners should be treated the same and that the death penalty need not also be the pain penalty. A crack team of consultants convened to review available options, among them surgeon Antoine Louis and professor of anatomy Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who was also part of the committee five years earlier to decide if Franz Anton Mesmer was a blooming crackpot—see mesmerize). They studied existing beheading devices (including the mannaia of Italy, the Halifax Gibbet of England, and Morton’s Maiden of Scotland) and finally designed a suitably French version, complete with an elegantly angled blade.

The prototype head-lopper was originally called a louisette in honor of the good surgeon Louis, but after Guillotin passionately lobbied for a more humane alternative to hanging during a debate on capital punishment, a royalist journal called Les Actes des Apôtres wrote and published a catchy song mocking the efforts of Guillotin (and his supporters) and asserting “his hand suddenly makes the machine that will kill us ‘simply’ and that we will call the Guillotine!”—thus sealing his eponymic fate. 

Though both Louis and Guillotin had hoped that humane (and private) executions would be the first step toward complete abolition of capital punishment, their ideals would not be realized in France for nearly two hundred more years. Instead, the newly “painless” beheadings became public spectacles in France. The scaffolds were surrounded by cheering families and tricoteuses (women who would knit and purl as the heads rolled). Small-scale toy models became children’s playthings, and some women even wore earrings modeled after “Madame Guillotine.”

During the Reign of Terror (1793–94) thousands were guillotined, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In the century that followed, its use spread around the world. Even Adolf Hitler was impressed with its speed and efficiency, and it is estimated that more than fifteen thousand German convicts lost their heads between 1933 and 1945. The last public execution by “the National Razor” in France was in 1939, but loppings continued in private through 1977, and the guillotine remained on the books as the official method of execution until the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.

Guillotin himself died of natural causes in Paris in 1814, but his lamentable legacy with “Madame Guillotine” did not. His children spent many ensuing years unsuccessfully petitioning the French government to formally change the name of the device before eventually changing their own names instead.

March 13, 2021


March 13 is the anniversary of the death of Henry Shrapnel in 1842.

n. shell fragments scattered by any exploding shell
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

War is hell. The historical trick seems to be figuring out the most unpleasant ways of unleashing that hell on your opponents. Our modern usage for the maiming detritus of an explosion actually originates with a very specific type of explosive developed by Henry Shrapnel for the British artillery corps at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Shrapnel was an inventive British lieutenant in the Royal Artillery who was bucking for a promotion. Without a doubt, the canister shot that the British had been using since the 1400s did a pretty good job of killing people at close range. Canister shot essentially relies on the shotgun principle, in which you blast a bunch of metal balls, nails, or shards out of a muzzle and spray your enemies with hellfire. An alternative technology is the cannon, which hurls a larger ball, loaded with powder, much farther but only kills those in the immediate vicinity of its landing. Shrapnel wondered if there might be some way to marry these two widow-makers. Enter the delayed-action fuse.

In the mid-1780s, Shrapnel figured out a way to pack a projectile with all sorts of unpleasantness and have it detonate above the heads of enemy troops. Eventually his namesakes became so effective that the bullets he filled his shells with became superfluous as the shell casings themselves proved deadly enough.

The British army administrators did not embrace Shrapnel immediately. While they liked killing people, particularly at a distance, they did not come around to accepting the volatile invention until 1803, at which point Shrapnel was quickly promoted to captain, then major, and then colonel-commandant. By 1814, Shrapnel had been awarded a lifetime stipend of £1,200 for his good deeds. The Duke of Wellington used Shrapnel’s shells successfully to kill scores of Napoleon’s soldiers during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Shrapnel would ultimately be promoted to major general.

After Waterloo, the world could not get enough of Shrapnel’s shells. Few refinements to it were made through the course of World War I and into World War II. Even the modern cannonades of Vietnam featured the canister-shot artillery that Shrapnel had pioneered. It was not until the advent of the modern high-explosive charges that soldiers enjoy today that Shrapnel’s shells faded into military history. But his name lives on in any small projectile fragments that shower a battlefield. And his invention will forever be remembered in the national anthem of the United States. Francis Scott Key describes not only shrapnel, but also the Congreve rockets (another notorious namesake) during the terrifying British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814):

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Henry Shrapnel died in 1842, presumably of natural causes.