The Bizarre Byways of Research
A goodly while ago, Pat Punt asked the Wenches to
. . . share some of the strangest trivia they have come across in their research. Having done my share of surfing the 'net, I have encountered many a fact stranger than fiction. Their experience must be even more bizarre.
Bizarre does seem an appropriate description for what we come across.
From Pat Rice:
The only trivia I remember is from my childhood. I play a mean game of 60's Trivial Pursuit. <G>
But I just recently wrote about the poisonous green paint that might have killed Napoleon (Kill Your Hero with Regency Wallpaper) and given a whole lot of other people pneumonia, asthma, and the winter blues.
But the one bit of history that sticks clearly in my mind—probably because it affected the area where I lived for twenty years—is the Mississippi flowing backward during the 1811 New Madrid earthquake. Can you imagine how powerful an earthquake would have to be to send the mighty Mississippi backward? And weirder yet, Shawnee tribe leader Tecumseh and his brother predicted the earthquake before it arrived. For some other weird stories about the period: see here.
From Mary Jo Putney:
Lord Uxbridge’s Leg
Many wonderful bits of bizarreness appear in research, and one recently caught my eye. Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge (later Marquis of Anglesey) was colorful enough to merit a blog all on his own—even his right leg has its own story.
Uxbridge was one of Britain’s leading cavalry commanders during the Napoleonic wars, though he was sidelined for several years because he ran off with the wife of one of Wellington’s brothers, and Wellington was understandably not pleased. (Uxbridge and his lady love both divorced their spouses and married each other.)
Uxbridge’s talents were needed at Waterloo, where he led his cavalrymen bravely and well. One of the last cannonballs fired smashed into his right leg. In a classic example of British stiff-upper-lipness, Uxbridge exclaimed, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”
Wellington, who was nearby, said, “By God, sir, so you have!”
Uxbridge was taken to his headquarters, a house in the village of Waterloo, and the leg was amputated while he sat in a chair. Note, in those days no anesthesia, and I’m not sure he even had a swig of brandy. Amputations were done very, very fast, in a couple of minutes or under—but a bad couple of minutes.
In more stoicism, instead of screaming hysterically like a sensible man, his only comment was that the knives seemed rather dull. Probably they were, given the number of amputations that day.
Uxbridge asked his friend General Sir Hussey Vivian to inspect the amputated leg to see if it might have been salvageable. The inspection was duly performed, and Hussey Vivian assured Uxbridge that the leg had been smashed and mangled and was better off than on. (Though really, if a an amputated limb looked like it could have been saved, would you have told a friend that when it was too late?)?
So Uxbridge went home to the loving arms of his wife and got a famous artificial leg, the saw that cut off his leg went to the National Army Museum, and the mangled leg and the blood-stained chair in which he sat went on to provide many years of income to Monsieur Paris, the owner of the house.
At first, visitor were shown the chair, then escorted to the garden where the leg had been buried. It had its own headstone. Later a wit wrote:
Here lies the Marquis of Anglesey's limb;
The Devil will have the remainder of him.
Other poetry was written to the severed limb. Royalty visited. Revenue flowed to the Paris family, who owned the house. In 1878, one of Uxbridge’s sons visited and found the bones openly displayed. The Paris family claimed they’d been washed into the open by a storm.
The Pagets wanted the bones back. The Parises offered to sell them. The Paget family was NOT amused. The Belgian Minister of Justice ordered the bones reburied. They weren’t—they were hidden away, finally to be burned by the widow of the last Monsieur Paris in 1934. So you could say that Uxbridge’s leg had a good long run.
A number of Paget family members lost limbs in the Napoleonic wars, including one of his daughters who lost a hand nursing her husband on a Spanish battlefield.
But only Uxbridge’s leg became a shrine.
During his Russian campaign, after a narrow escape from Cossacks, Napoleon asked his physician to prepare a 'suicide packet' so he wouldn't fall into Russian hands alive. He carried the little envelope of belladonna, opium, and hellebore — 'strong enough to kill two men' — in a black taffeta pouch around his neck. He still had it 18 months later when Allied forces of Russia, Prussia, England and Sweden crossed the border of France and swept into Paris. France had fallen. On April 12, 1814, at the Palace of Fontainebleau, Napoleon swallowed the poison.
Maybe it had lost some of its potency. Maybe the physician got his dosage wrong, not being a professional poisoner. Napoleon was seriously ill, but he lived — to be exiled to Elba, to escape, to gather his army, to march one last time across Europe, and to meet Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.
If the poison had been a leetle more effective, none of our heroes would have faced the battlefield of Waterloo.
From Nicola Cornick:
I love research and the distracting byways it can take me down. Three pieces of strange trivia in particular come to mind when I think about the research I’ve done.
Firstly, that denim has been in fashion for more than 300 years. There are paintings from the 17th century featuring people dressed in denim. In the Regency period some half-boots were made from the material. I had no idea. I thought it was a modern invention!
In the early 19th century, chamber pots were made that contained a musical box. In 1820 Prince Metternich was awoken in the night by a musical chamber pot that played the flute. He found and pressed a button and the music stopped, only for it to start again an hour later. The musical chamber pot eventually ran out of steam and made what he described as “disturbing little noises.” When he complained in the morning the valet commented that there was another chamber pot in the castle that played trumpet music.
There were laws regulating hackney carriages that were never repealed and still apply to London taxis today. One of them is that the cab driver is supposed to ask you if you have any “notifiable diseases such as smallpox or the plague.” As carrying sufferers is illegal, he should refuse anyone who looks as though they may be infected because if you die on the journey he will be committing the offence of carrying a corpse.
From Anne Gracie:
All kinds of odd things crop up in research. One that tickled my fancy was the various attitudes to the whole notion of plague and contagion that existed in the early 19th century. The question polarized the medical profession into two camps, contagionists and anti-contagionists, and was hotly debated, even in Parliament. These reports are from Hansard (the official UK parliamentary record) here.
Mr. Trant said: The plague prevailed at Alexandria while he was there. A surgeon with whom he was acquainted disbelieved the theory of contagion, and went among the patients in the hospital. He did not then take the infection, but wishing to push his experiments to the utmost, he got into a bed which had been occupied by one who had the infection. He did then become infected, and he died in consequence. General opinion, however, attributed the disease to atmospheric influence.
Sir Robert Wilson said, that when he went to Egypt, the impression on his mind was, that the plague was contagious; but he was soon satisfied of the contrary. When he was in Egypt, the army formed two
divisions. The one which was stationed at Alexandria took the plague; the other, which was generally in motion, was not touched with it. The difference was attributed to atmospheric influence. The Turks had no hesitation in entering the infected places. The bodies of those who died of the plague were buried in their clothes, and were generally dug up and stripped by those who had less fear of the consequences. The moving division of the British army passed through villages infected with the plague, without being touched with it...
It appeared to be one of the extraordinary phenomena of this disease, that persons who remained stationary were liable to it, and that those who passed rapidly through various currents of air escaped it.
However some historians have suggested that much of the medical fraternity's conversion to anti-contagionism was less a result of medical conviction and more a desire to oppose "expensive, arbitrary and draconian" quarantine measures that hampered trade. Doctors declared yellow fever, the plague, and cholera — the main diseases affected by quarantines — to be non-contagious. Other diseases were less controversial
From Jo Beverley:
Torpedo War, and Sub-marine Explosions, That's the title of a book by American, Robert Fulton.
But it was not published recently. Instead, in 1804
However a submarine vessel was demonstrated for King James 1 (early 17th century) and the Americans tried out an armed submarine during the Revolution.
There are many odd ideas in the wonderful Century of Inventions, by the Marquess of Worcester, written in the 17th century. Here.
The "century" refers to there being 100 bright ideas. On the above page there's a description of "certain short muskets of an inch, or very near an inch bore, out of which you may shoot either chained bullets, or half a score pistol bullets, or half a dozen harquebus bullets at one shot, or you may shoot out of the same fire arrows made with strong shafts, feathered with horn, or with common feathers, glued and bound on with thread. When you are to shoot a fire arrow out of any of these pieces, you must not give the piece her full loading of powder." He further notices that " The string made fast to the end of the fire-work is to keep the arrow straight in his passage."
The illustration gives one serious doubts!
From Cara Elliott/Andrea Pickens:
I love doing background reading and research for my books, so I often come across arcane and unusual trivia-for me, that's half the fun! There have been a lot of weird little facts that I file away in my mental storage drawers . . . but if I have to pick one to pull out, I would say it's fact about gunpowder and how it is made.
There are three main components in gunpowder: charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter, or niter. Saltpeter, is the waste product of two strains of bacteria . . . waste product is the operative word here, as you shall soon see.
During the Napoleonic Wars, gunpowder was, as you can imagine, a crucial ingredient for military might. And both England and France were pressed to be inventive in order to find enough domestic saltpeter to meet the demand. Traditionally, the best source was barnyard soil, for it was so rich in animal waste. And so, according to Jack Kelly's wonderful book, “Gunpowder, Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics,” the British government actually toyed with the idea of ordering all innkeepers to require that their patrons urinate in large wooden barrels, which would then be used to make gunpowder for the army (A sidenote is that the urine of churchmen who drank brandy was supposed to make the most potent powder-go figure!)
For some reason, the plan fizzled, but it still remains one of the more curious bits of trivia I've come across!
What's your favorite nugget of bold, bizarre research trivia?