July 17, 2016


July 17 is the birthday of Elbridge Gerry, 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.

July 05, 2016

graham cracker

July 5 is the birthday of vegetarian, minister, and vehement abstainer Sylvester Graham. Celebrate 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.”

June 21, 2016

tommy gun

June 21 is the anniversary of the death of John Taliaferro Thompson, co-inventor of the infamous Prohibition-era firearm.

n. a Thompson submachine gun
n. loosely, any machine gun
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The 1920s provided dark fodder for the introduction of new words into our lexicon. The gangster era “hijacked” us, took us “for a ride,” and served us “bathtub gin.” But the “gun that made the twenties roar” was the invention of a World War I general and one-time bovine executioner who wanted a compact “trench sweeper” for close-quarter encounters.

Born into a military family in 1860, John T. Thompson quickly distinguished himself as a soldier and, during the Spanish American War in 1898, became the youngest colonel appointed in the Army. He became a munitions expert and even helped form a Gatling gun unit (see Gatling gun) that supported then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s bloody charge at San Juan Hill. Three years later, then-President Roosevelt requested ordnance tests that would eventually bring Thompson to the Chicago stockyards in 1904 to fire different handguns, calibers, and bullet styles at live cattle (in fairness to the steers, Thompson also used human cadavers to assess various ammunitions). Thompson would have an on-again, off-again relationship with the military forever after.

Thompson retired from the Army in 1914 and became a chief engineer for Remington. As World War I was marching along without involvement from the U.S. Armed Forces, Thompson became fascinated by the increased use of trench warfare and convinced that troops could really use a handheld, one-man machine gun that could clear out an enemy’s position. Working with the designer of a similar weapon, he began work on a prototype for a charming, new, compact, large-caliber submachine gun called “The Annihilator.” Thompson briefly returned to the military after the United States joined the fight and was a brigadier general in charge of small-arms production before retiring at the war’s end in 1918.

Though The Annihilator arrived too late to be used by the military, post-war marketing meetings led its manufacturers to rename it the “Thompson submachine gun” and "Thompson Anti-Bandit Gun" for civilian sales. Costing nearly the half the price of a new car, the Thompson soon experienced illicit distribution into the Prohibition-era underworld where it acquired its street names of “tommy gun,” “Chicago Typewriter,” and “Chopper.” Gangsters loved it, and it achieved peak notoriety in 1929 following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which Al Capone’s henchmen delivered seventy machine-gun bullets and two shotgun blasts into seven of “Bugs” Moran’s gang.

It was not until after Thompson’s death at the age of seventy-nine in 1940 that the U.S. military bought substantial numbers of the weapon for eventual use in World War II, the Korean War, and even Vietnam. Thompson was buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Though his namesake was eventually embraced by gangsters and generals alike, its earliest proponent was an unlikely customer—The United States Postal Service—which purchased the first tommy guns in 1921 following a rash of mail robberies. Decades later, the now-infamous “going postal” madness of the early 1990s led to the eventual prohibition of firearms in all mail facilities. 

June 19, 2016


June 19 is the anniversary of the death of one of the great historical villains of Ireland—Charles Cunningham Boycott. Now memorialized in German (Boykott), Italian (boicottaggio), and French (boicot), among many others, Boycott has emerged as one of the most notorious figures of all time.

n. withdrawal from social or commercial interaction or cooperation with a group, nation, person, etc., intended as a protest or punishment
Oxford English Dictionary

Historical relations between England and Ireland have always been strained, and Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott certainly did nothing to help matters. His unwillingness to negotiate resulted in his name being eternally maligned in more than a half dozen languages around the world.

The Emerald Isle has had a rough go of it over the years. St. Patrick and the Christians overwhelmed the pagan tribes in the fifth century AD, the Vikings wreaked havoc for a century or so, and then the Normans and the English settled in for the long haul. As the Irish Catholic landowners slowly lost their property to Protestant British settlers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, times got pretty tough for your average Irish farmer.

Following the Act of Union (which was not nearly as sexy as it sounds) between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, absentee British landlords were common across the Irish isle, with local farmers renting and working the land. One of these landowners was John Crichton, the third earl of Erne, who hired Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott to manage his estates at Lough Mask House in Connaught, County Mayo, Ireland.

Born in Norfolk in 1832, Boycott served in the military before becoming a land agent in 1872. He had unfortunate historical timing for beginning this unsavory career (an 1843 Royal Commission described land-agent “middlemen” as “the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country”). Boycott’s new position came a short twenty years after the end of the Great Famine in Ireland (in which tenant farmers surviving solely on a diet of potatoes died by the hundreds of thousands) and just prior to the formation of the reformist Irish National Land League.

The Land League sought to protect farmers from exploitation, through the “Three Fs” of fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. When his tenants requested more reasonable rents in 1880 after several bad harvests, Boycott unwisely suggested a graphic fourth “F” for them to go and act upon themselves and even tried to evict one of them. The Land League’s president, Charles Stewart Parnell, urged a local audience, “When a man takes a farm from which another had been evicted you must shun him on the roadside . . . , you must shun him in the streets . . . , you must shun him in the shop . . . by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

Boycott’s workers left him, neighbors ignored him, his farm was vandalized, local stores would not serve him, and even the mailman would not deliver to him. Local officials organized a “Boycott Relief Expedition” under military protection to help save his harvest, but the land agent and his family were eventually forced to flee. Local newspapers began referring to successful ostracizing as “boycotting,” and a lamentable legacy was born.

Boycott endured seventeen years of etymological smearing before dying back at home in England in 1897.

June 03, 2016


Today is is the birthday of Henry Shrapnel (1761). 

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.

May 28, 2016


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, born today in 1738. 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.

May 23, 2016


Today is the birthday 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.

May 19, 2016

Melba toast

Today is the birthday of Dame Nellie Melba, heroine of theater and toaster.

n. bread sliced thin and dried by heat until brown and crisp
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It may be hard to believe that saying “I am Melba” once opened doors the world over, but such was the case with the grand opera diva Dame Nellie Melba in the early twentieth century. Regrettably, today it will only get you a side of burned toast.

Helen Porter Mitchell was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, in the spring of 1861. Little Nellie, as her family called her, learned to play the piano but did not even consider pursuing a musical career until adulthood. She married and had a child in 1882 and soon found a rural life in Queensland unbearable. Though she would remain married for two more decades, she abandoned her husband and two-month-old son and fled to London to be an opera star. She was twenty-one years old.

Having no luck in England, Nellie went to study in Paris with Madame Mathilde Marchesi, who quickly identified her incomparable talent, encouraged her to adopt the stage name of Melba (abbreviated from her hometown), and ushered her to stardom. The extraordinary soprano debuted in Rigoletto in Brussels in 1887 and embarked on a spectacular forty-year career, with starring roles in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Paris Opera. She was even made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She was a true prima donna, famous for the silence! silence! signs in her London dressing room; her “I am Melba!” explanations for extravagant requests; and her private train car filled with fresh caviar. So why do we associate her with desiccated bread?

While on her meteoric rise to international fame at the turn of the century, Melba often resided at the Savoy Hotel in London, where Georges Auguste Escoffier was the famed executive chef. Like many opera singers before and since, Melba was frequently concerned about her weight, and she apparently often ordered plain toast in lieu of the heavy French dishes regularly prepared. Legend has it that an assistant chef one day accidentally overtoasted a particularly thin slice of bread and sent it out to the diva, much to the horror of Escoffier. Melba loved it, began ordering it specially, and a culinary legend was born.

Melba prolonged the end of her singing career with four years of farewell concerts from 1924 to 1928, leading to the Australian expression “more farewells than Nellie Melba.” She delivered her swan song in 1931, dying at the age of sixty-nine allegedly from complications following a face-lift. Headlines around the world announced her passing. Dozens of conservatories, music halls, and streets were named for her. Chef Escoffier (who adored the soprano) even named an elaborate dessert of vanilla ice cream, peaches, and raspberry sauce served betwixt the wings of a frozen swan for her (Peach Melba). But it is the inadvertent toast for which she is best remembered today.

May 04, 2016


Put away the patch, throw out the gum, and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Today is the anniversary of the 1600 death of Jean Nicot de Villemain, namesake of your favorite addiction.

n. a poisonous alkaloid, C10H14N2, found in tobacco leaves, from which it is extracted as a colorless, oily, acrid, transparent liquid and used, ordinarily in an aqueous solution of its sulfate, as an insecticide
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

While other Frenchmen have since been described as colorless, oily, acrid, and transparent, nicotine’s namesake was also a diplomat and a scholar.

Ah, young love. In 1559 in Portugal, the regents for fresh-faced six-year-old French princess Marguerite de Valois and strapping five-year-old King Sebastian of Portugal discussed a pre-prepubescent love connection between these two naifs. Jean Nicot de Villemain was the French ambassador to Portugal in charge of negotiations. Though the royal union was ultimately unsuccessful, Nicot did manage to kindle France’s love affair with smoking. He sent back tobacco.

Native Americans had been smoking tabaco ritualistically for literally thousands of years before Christopher Columbus and crew were introduced to it by the islanders of Hispaniola. On Columbus’s second voyage to the New World, a tribe of Haitians demonstrated the sniffing of dried tobacco leaves as snuff. Though it is believed that French monk and explorer André Thévet may have been the first person to introduce the tobacco plant to Europe in the early sixteenth century, it was Nicot who garnered fame after sending plants and seeds to the French court. It was snuff, in particular, that turned queen mother Catherine de’ Medici’s head. She used it medicinally to treat her son’s migraines, and the Parisian elite soon could not get enough of this new wonder drug. Part of the often poisonous nightshade family, by the late 1500s all tobacco plants fell under the genus Nicotiana, in honor of the French diplomat.

It took more than two hundred years for nicotine itself to be isolated by chemists as a poison in 1828, and there was an early forensic case in 1851 where Belgian count Bocarmé was found guilty of murdering his brother-in-law with tobacco leaf extract. Created from dried tobacco leaves, a typical cigarette contains approximately one milligram of Nicot’s legacy as a stimulant, which is believed to be largely responsible for smoking’s addictiveness. In addition to its appearance in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes, nicotine was widely used as an insecticide into the twentieth century. Outside of recreational and pest-control use, tobacco leaves are also used to induce vomiting in Brazil, to prevent baldness in Colombia, to ease painful menstruation in Cuba, to treat snake bites in Ecuador, to repel insects in Iran, and to induce labor in Tanzania.

It is impossible to estimate how many lives Jean Nicot de Villemain has touched over the centuries, whether in leaf, gum, or even patch form. Despite being a true intellectual and the creator of one of the very first French dictionaries (published posthumously in 1606), it is the addictive weed for which he will always be remembered. His (perhaps self-promoting) dictionary defined nicotiane as “an herb of marvelous virtue against all wounds, ulcers, lupis, or other eroding ulcers of the face, herpes, and other such things.” He died in 1600 at the age of seventy.

May 02, 2016


Today is anniversary of the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the political leader so successful (for a short time) at fomenting the second Red Scare of 1947 to 1957 that the Cincinnati Reds baseball team temporarily changed their name to “Redlegs” to avoid being branded as communists. Born in 1908, it is from the junior senator that we draw the word McCarthyism.

n. a mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations esp. on the basis of unsubstantiated charges
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

The word still used today to chastise demagoguery and bullying political douchebaggery is the namesake of Joseph Raymond McCarthy, voted “the worst U.S. senator” by the Senate press corps even before making his famous unsubstantiated claim in 1950 that he had an extensive list of known communists working in the State Department.

The early years of the Cold War in the United States were fraught with anxiety over Commie infiltration, and the government conducted more than one hundred investigations in the early 1950s trying to root out the Red Threat. Born in 1908, “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy was a marine combat pilot in World War II before becoming a senator in the 1940s and building his political reputation making unsubstantiated accusations of espionage and treason, leading to the imprisonment of hundreds of Americans and the unemployment of thousands. His namesake was first coined in a political cartoon in 1950 when Herblock (Herbert Lawrence Block) famously drew four Republicans trying to force a party elephant to balance atop a swaying stack of tar buckets, the largest one, on the top, labeled “McCarthyism.”

While he is often associated with the sexier witch hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthy never browbeat any starlets or blacklisted any directors. As head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy was his own jackanapes and focused on communist infiltration of the State Department, government broadcasters, overseas librarians (whose card catalogs were allegedly bursting with burnable communist propaganda), and the U.S. Army. However, his name has since come to represent the entire era of paranoia and persecution.

McCarthy was ultimately unable to prove any wrongdoing by anyone anywhere, and his attacks on the army for alleged security lapses were followed the next year by separate and unrelated charges of abuse of power brought against him by the army (it is the thirty-six days of televised proceedings of these hearings that people most remember). He was ultimately acquitted, but the damage to his reputation was done. McCarthy’s fellow senators ultimately censured him in 1954 through a decisive dressing-down vote of 67–22, and he lost all of his political power, leading President Eisenhower to refer to his former nemesis’s legacy as “McCarthywasm.” The senator slipped increasingly into bouts of alcoholism and finally died from inflammation of his liver in 1957 at the tender age of forty-eight.

During his life, McCarthy had fully embraced his namesake, even co-opting it for the title of his book McCarthyism: The Fight for America. But cartoonist Herblock ultimately had the last laugh regarding his creation. He insisted there was “nothing particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he’s welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap."