A Rum Tale

07 31 drunken sailorsToday I am marking the passing of a three hundred year old tradition. On July 31st 1970 at 11 am the last daily rum ration was issued to sailors of the Royal Navy. It is known as Black Tot Day and was a sad event. Some wore black arm bands to mark the solemnity of the occasion. One navy training camp held a mock funeral. But instead of being sad, let’s take a look at how the bizarre tradition of giving alcohol to troops on active service came about.

The rum ration had been introduced in the seventeenth century as an alternative to beer. Sailors on a long voyage couldn’t drink water because in couldn’t be stored without spoiling, so they drank beer instead. On a long voyage though, it did mean carrying an awful lot of liquid. The daily ration per seaman was eight pints a day. In 1665 the British captured Jamaica from Spain and they discovered rum. It quickly replaced beer and the ration was a generous half a pint of rum. I’m surprised anybody got anything done at all. However this situation persisted until 1740. An admiral named Edward Vernon (whose nickname was Old Grog for reasons too dull to explain) decided it was causing a few problems. He said it led to many fatal consequences to their morals as well as their health and decided to water down the ration at a rate of four parts water to one part rum. He also added lemon or lime juice to disguise how awful the water was. The new drink ‘grog’ was named after him. He didn’t realise it at the time, but the citrus juice was also helping to prevent the sailors developing scurvy. The ration was still half a pint but mixed with two pints of water and split into two servings.

In 1824 it was decided that the half pint of rum was causing a bit of a discipline problem and the ration was reduced to a quarter of a pint a day. In 1850 there was talk of ending it altogether, but instead it was halved again to one eighth of a pint, which is still around three measures a day. Then in 1969 it was put to the government that The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend. The government agreed adding that it definitely not a money saving exercise.

The rum that was issued to the Navy was overproof, which means that it was stronger than the rum we can buy. It was 50% ABV (alcohol by volume) rather than 40% proof. The word ‘proof’ in relation to alcohol comes from the way pre-1740 sailors used to check that their rum had not been watered down. They would pour a little on some grains of gunpowder and set fire to it with a magnifying glass. If the flame went out, it was underproof and had been watered. If the powder burned it was proof. If it was overproof, the whole lot would explode.

Venereal Combat And Libidinous Imagining

07 30 de graaf 4Today is the birthday of Regnier de Graaf who was born on this day in 1641 in Schoonhoven in the Netherlands. He is one of a group of medical students who studied at the University aof Leiden. They’re an odd bunch, and all interesting in their own way. The university was founded in 1575 by William I of Orange. It seems that the people of the city were asked to choose between a university and a cut in taxes. They chose the university. Good choice.

De Graaf was really interested in anatomy. He devised a syringe that was capable of injecting a wax substance into the veins of anatomical specimens which would then harden. This made their structure much clearer during dissection. His fellow student, Frederik Ruysch put this method to a very unusual use, but we’ll save that for his birthday in March (or just look him up now, you won’t be disappointed).

07 30 de graaf 1To get back to Regnier, his particular field of interest was the reproductive organs of mammals. Mainly he worked on rabbits but also performed some human dissections. He discovered the mass of tiny tubes that make up the inside of a testicle and concluded that it must be where semen came from. De Graaf’s publishing of his findings sparked a massive row, first with former tutor and fellow students and then with members of the Royal Society in London over who had come up with the idea first. It ended with de Graaf sending a dormouse testicle in a bottle to the Royal Society. They had to admit that he had made his point but wished that he had sent them a larger testicle. His book, with the catchy title of ‘Treatise concerning the generative organs of men; on enemas and on the use of syringes in anatomy’ also contains a method of filling a dissected penis with water to make it erect, thus creating hours of fun for medical students for hundreds of years to come.

07 30 de graaf 3Since the time of Aristotle in had been generally assumed that in humans, fertilization occurred due to a mixing of semen with menstrual blood in the womb. Anatomists had noticed ovaries and called them female testes. They didn’t really know what they did though. De Graaf suggested that fertilization took place in the ovary, involving an egg that originated and pre-existed there. He knew that the already fertilised egg must travel down the fallopian tube into the womb because he had observed ectopic pregnancies.

It also seems that he discovered and described female ejaculation. He describes ducts around the inside of the urethra, which appear to be what are now called Skene’s ducts. He describes a structure surrounding the urethral canal as a kind of female prostate which he says secretes a pituito-serous juice which makes women more libidinous with its pungency and saltiness and lubricates their sexual parts in agreeable fashion during coitus. He believed that the liquid came from a variety of sources including the urethra and vagina. He does not appear to distinguish between the lubrication of the perineum during arousal and an orgasmic ejaculate, though he does describe a fluid which rushes out with such impetus during venereal combat or libidinous imagining. This is obviously a translation as he wrote in Latin but still delightful.

He managed to make all his observations without access to a microscope, which is pretty amazing.

07 30 de graaf 2


07 29 theda bara 5Today is the birthday of Theda Bara who was huge film star of the silent era. Her movie studio, Fox Films, told everyone that she was the daughter of a French woman and an Arab sheik who was born in the shadow of the Sphinx. This is not true at all. It is also probably the first studio publicity stunt. She was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1885.

07 29 theda bara 3Her first big film, A Fool There Was appeared in 1915. It was based on a 1909 stage melodrama, which was in turn based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling called the Vampire after a painting by Edward Burne Jones of the same name. It was about a beautiful temptress who robs men of their fortune, their dignity, even their lives. It is because of this film that femmes fatales are also called vamps. Theda was the original vamp. The film made her an overnight sensation. She starred in a further eleven films that year alone. It also led to her being typecast. She was labelled ‘hell’s handmaiden’ and ‘the wickedest woman in the world’. She was hugely popular and received two hundred fan letters a day and over a thousand proposals of marriage.

07 29 theda bara 4The costumes she wore seem surprisingly revealing for the time. All of her films were made before the introduction of the Hollywood Production Code in 1930 which banned any suggestion of nudity. It also banned any use of profanities such as ‘God’ and ‘Christ’ along with any scenes showing actual childbirth and white slavery. It makes me wonder what sort of films people were making.

07 29 theda bara 2As well as her adoring fans, Theda also had plenty of critics. Sometimes then, as now, people would confuse the person with the characters she played. When someone told her: “It is such women as you who break up happy homes.” She answered, “I am working for my living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.” Her on screen persona was really the archetypal sensual and powerful woman. Her films have titles like The She Devil, The Vixen and The Eternal Sapho. To those who criticised the way that men faired in her films (it wasn’t well) her answer was: “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist.”

Sadly almost all of her were lost in the Fox vault fire of 1937 which was caused by the spontaneous combustion of poorly stored old nitrocellulose film. A Fool There Was is one of the few that survive.

 07 29 theda bara 1

A Busy Man

07 28 Hooke 1Today I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Hooke who was born on this day in 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. He was a sickly child, though I haven’t been able to find out what the problem was. He was also the sort of child who loved to take things apart to see how they worked. He was also pretty good at drawing and used to make his own drawing materials from chalk, coal and iron ore. His father expected him to find work as a clockmaker or an illustrator of manuscripts.

He studied at Westminster School and afterwards at Christ Church College, Oxford. He quickly discovered his lifelong love for mechanics, he really enjoyed building things. At Oxford, around 1665, he became assistant to Robert Boyle, refining the equipment that he used for his experiments.

To put him in some sort of historical perspective King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and his successor, Oliver Cromwell, was not keen on scientific research. He didn’t like anything very much, except God, the Bible and being very serious. Hooke became part of a small group of people who were trying to keep alive the spirit of scientific enquiry. They may or may not have called themselves the Invisible College. I hope they did, because it’s a great name. Then in 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. He was a much more enlightened person, as we have discussed before when we’ve talked about theatre. Under his reign Hooke and his circle formed the nucleus of the newly formed Royal Society.

Hooke’s role in the Society was as Curator of Experiments, which meant the when he or anyone else came up with a theory, he would design an experiment to test it. He must have learned loads of different things from this work but it led to his tendency to claim credit for other people’s ideas. Not that he didn’t have plenty of his own. He invented the anchor escapement, which regulates the movement of a pendulum clock and the balance spring inside a watch. He improved the design of the microscope to make it easier to focus and also introduced a way of lighting the specimen being examined. Through it he observed a microscopic structure inside plants which he named ‘cells’ because they reminded him of the cells in a honeycomb. He also observed the same structure in fossil samples and was able to conclude that they were once living things.

07 28 Hooke 2In 1665 he wrote a book called Micrographia. It was the first book to be published by the Royal Society. It contained loads of detailed drawings of things that he had observed through his microscope. It was a hugely important book because it revealed a world that nobody knew existed. It was also the first scientific best seller. Samuel Pepys said it was “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.” The drawings are pretty amazing and Hooke drew them all himself.

He was a busy man, his work at the Royal Society was not his only job. He was also Surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he seems to have been responsible for surveying more than half the buildings damaged by the fire. He also had a hand in the design of the Greenwich Observatory, Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, in later life he grew rather bad tempered and fell out with a lot of people. There was an argument about who invented the watch spring between himself and Christiaan Huygens which raged on long after the death of both of them. Probably his most famous falling out was with Isaac Newton and it was over who had come up with a theory about gravity. The two men just didn’t get on at all, Newton was a single minded sort of a fellow whereas Hooke had a much more creative approach and his ideas were all over the place. It was probably his irascible nature that is the reason we have no real idea what he looked like. There must have been paintings of him, but no one bothered to keep them. The Royal Society certainly had one but it mysteriously went missing after Isaac Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society.

Apologies for such a long post. Thank you for bearing with me. I can’t show you a picture of him, so here are some of his lovely illustrations instead. Also, as you’ve read this far I’m going to reward you by telling you that in Hooke’s personal diaries he often inserted a special symbol that recorded every time he had an orgasm.

07 28 hooke 3

Not Wanted On The Voyage

07 27 jeanne baretToday is the birthday of Jeanne Baret who was born on this day in 1740 in a village called La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. She was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

She was housekeeper, nurse, assistant and almost certainly more to a man named Dr Philibert Commerçon. We know that their relationship was a close one because, after sometime in his employment, she had become pregnant. She refused to name the father but it was generally believed to be Commerçon. The child was fostered and died young. Also he had made out a will leaving her money and all the furniture in their Paris apartment.

In 1766, Commerçon was asked to join a round the world expedition as naturalist. He would collect and catalogue new botanical species. It was a huge thing, the first circumnavigation for France, but the doctor was not sure that he wanted to go. He was not a well man. But he eventually agreed if he could have a servant along who would be paid out of royal expenses. Of course he had just the person in mind. But there was one problem. Women were absolutely forbidden on French ships. Baret still managed to get aboard though, she simply disguised herself as a man.

Because they needed to bring a lot of equipment for their work, they were able to commandeer the Captain’s cabin for themselves. This must have been a great help in their deception as it meant that Jeanne didn’t have to use shared toilet facilities. The doctor was terribly ill and needed a lot of looking after. He had an ulcer on his leg and was also very seasick. When they reached Montevideo and began searching the countryside for plants, it was Jeanne who had to carry all the specimens and supplies. By the time they reached Rio De Janeiro, Commerçon was confined to ship, so she had to do the collecting too. One of the new species, Bougainvillea, was named after the voyage’s navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville.

Although there seems to have been some speculation about Jeanne Baret, they managed to keep up their pretence until they reached Tahiti. The people there immediately identified her as a woman and their cover was officially blown. When a Tahitian named Ahu-toro was questioned later, he said he thought she was a transvestite. The word he actually used was mahu, which means a third gender person, who had traditional roles in some Pacific societies.

When they arrived in Mauritius in 1770, Commerçon was pleased to find that a fellow botanist was governor there. When their ship sailed, the pair decided to stay on the island which was probably a huge relief for everyone else. The doctor died there in 1773 leaving Jeanne stranded and penniless. She seems to have run a tavern for a time and then in 1774 she married a French Officer who was passing through. She was able to return with him to France, completing her nine year round the world voyage in 1775. Once home she was able to claim everything that had been willed to her by Commerçon. She also later recieved a pension from the Ministry of Marine in recognition of her achievement, devotion to the late doctor and her bravery.

Huge Mystery

07 26 jane bunford coloured and croppedToday I want to tell you about Jane Bunford who was born on this day in 1895 in Bartley Green in the Northfield area of Birmingham. She is the tallest person British person ever. When she died in 1922 her height was estimated at 7′ 11” (2.41 metres) and until 1982 she was the world’s tallest woman.

At age 11 she was 5′ (1.52 metres) tall, which is not unusual. But in 1906 she fell off her bicycle, hitting her head on the pavement. She suffered a fractured skull. It was a serious injury but she eventually recovered, or seemed to. Her pituitary gland, which controls growth, was damaged and Jane began to grow. She was always a shy child and didn’t enjoy the attention her height brought her. Before she was thirteen, her parents took her out of school because she was too tall to sit comfortably in the classroom. She was 6’6” (1.98 metres) tall. Two years later she had reached 7′ (2.13 metres). By her 21st birthday she was 7′ 10” (2.39 metres).

The role of the pituitary gland in growth was not proved until 1915, so, at first, her sudden growth must have seemed very strange. She was diagnosed during her lifetime, but no treatment was available.

It is also thought that she held the record for the worlds longest hair. She wore her long, straight auburn locks in two plaits which fell to her ankles. Her hair was 8′ 1” long, she must have looked amazing. Someone even tried to buy her hair but she refused. She rejected several other opportunities to benefit financially from her size and appearance. Fair enough, it just wasn’t her thing. It does mean though that there are no known photographs of her. We only have stories from local people who remembered her as a shy and gentle woman with a deep voice who was much loved by children. She was also seen standing outside, cleaning the upstairs windows of her home whilst standing on the pavement.

After her death on April 1st 1922, her body was placed in a coffin that was 8′ 2” (2.5 metres) long which was locked in the church overnight on 4/5 April, awaiting the funeral the following day. Her pallbearers were four schoolboys who remarked that the coffin was rather light for someone of her size. Unfortunately, they never thought to ask why.

In 1971 the Guinness Book of Records heard about a medical specimen that was held at the University of Birmingham. The skeleton of an unidentified giantess who died in Northfield, Birmingham in the 1920s.. A photograph of the skeleton appeared in the 1972 edition of the Book of Records and the discovery piqued interest. Who could she be? Birmingham University were pretty cagey about it and refused to reveal the identity of the skeleton or how they had come by it. None of her relatives admitted having given (or sold) her body for medical research, but by that time her close relations had all died. Eventually the university admitted that the skeleton was Jane’s but we still don’t know how they came to have it, or what became of her beautiful hair.

Despite controversy, the skeleton remained on display until 2005, although no more photographs were allowed. Then the law changed and her relatives were able to reclaim her remains and she was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave. I’m not going to show you the photograph of her skeleton as, from what I’ve read about her, it’s clearly not what she would have wanted. So I’ve drawn you this picture instead.

Dog Head

07 25 saint christopherToday is the feast day of Saint Christopher. For anyone who has ever had a Saint Christopher medallion to protect them on their travels and come to think of it, a fair few who haven’t, I should probably deal with this image first. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christopher is often pictured with the head of a dog. Probably it is due to a mistranslation. Someone who meant to say that he was a person who came from the land of Caanan (in Latin, Cananeus) accidentally said that he was a dog (canineus). Alternatively it might have been because, in less enlightened times, people thought that there really were tribes of people who had the heads of dogs, who barked instead of speaking and who dined on human flesh. The medieval mind was extremely credulous and people believed all sorts of unexpected things about people from lands far away.

You’ll also notice that Saint Christopher’s tunic is rather short and that his stockings only come up to his knees. This is because Christopher was also a giant. According to wikipedia, he was five cubits tall, that’s seven and a half feet (2.3 metres). If we look at the Golden Legend though, which was written some time in the thirteenth century and much more fun, we find that he was twelve cubits, that’s eighteen feet (just over five and a half metres)

Christopher was in the employment of the king of Caanan but decided that he wanted to serve a more powerful master. He travelled until he met the most powerful king in the world and was received into his court. The king was a Christian and Christopher noticed that he crossed himself whenever the Devil was mentioned. Surely, if the king was afraid, the Devil must be more powerful. So Christopher thought he should be serving the Devil instead and went in search of his new master. He met a group of Knights who demanded to know what he was about. He explained that he was looking for the Devil so he could serve him. So one of the knights said ‘That would be me then…’ and Christopher became his servant. But when the saint found out that his new master was afraid of the cross, he set about finding out about how he could serve God.

He met a hermit who suggested a life of fasting and prayer, but Christopher didn’t think he’d be very good at that. Fair enough really, we expect giants get pretty hungry. Instead he settled on helping people across a dangerous and fast-flowing river. Then one day a child appeared asking to be carried. The tiny boy proved to be so heavy that Christopher was almost drowned. When he set him on the opposite bank the saint said that he didn’t think the whole world would be as heavy as his passenger. The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”

Saint Christopher was also a martyr and the Golden Legend has a couple of interesting things to tell us about that too. When Christopher refused to worship other gods, a pagan king had him tied to a red hot iron stool which melted like wax beneath him and Christopher was unhurt. Then he had him tied to a stake and made his knights shoot arrows at the saint. But all the arrows stopped short and hung in mid-air. When the king approached to find out what was going on, one of the arrows turned about and shot him in the eye. Christopher explained that the king must cut off his head, mix the saint’s blood with a little earth, apply it to his wounded eye and he would be healed. Christopher was then beheaded and his instructions successfully followed. The Pagan king immediately became a Christian.


07 24 william gilletteToday I want to tell you about William Gillette, who was born in Hartford, Connecticut on this day in 1853. He was an actor who quickly realised that he could earn a lot more money if he was also a playwright and director as well. Luckily he was really good at all three.

He is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Although he was not the very first to play the part on stage, he was the first to do so with the approval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1893, Doyle had killed off his famous character at the Reichenbach Falls but found that he missed the income that his stories provided. So he started looking at the possibility of putting Holmes on the stage. Doyle wrote a play and approached a couple of people about the leading rôle including Henry Irving but he failed to engage their interest. Reading between the lines, it might not have been very good. Eventually it was sent to Broadway theatre producer Charles Frohman who suggested that Gillette would be the man to help with a re-write.

Doyle agreed on condition that the Holmes character should have no love interest. “Trust me” replied Gillette. At that point he had not read a single word of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Gillette began to work on the script whilst in San Francisco touring another of his plays. Telegrams flew back and forth between the two which show that Doyle had either got over his misgivings or just given up trying to get his way. Gillette writes “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle replies “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”

It was Gillette’s play that firmly established many of the props we associate with Holmes character. The magnifying glass, the violin and the syringe are all drawn from the Canon. The famous deerstalker hat had appeared in the illustrations of Sydney Padget in the original Strand Magazine publications. The curved pipe was Gillette’s own addition along with the really fancy dressing-gown that you see in this picture. He also introduced the phrase: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow” which would become “Elementary, my dear Watson.” So when we think about what an archetypal Sherlock Holmes would look like it is really Gillette’s vision we are seeing, not Conan Doyle’s.

During the whole writing process Gillette and Doyle had not met in person. When they finally met, much to Doyle’s surprise, Gillette alighted form his train dressed as Holmes and entirely in character. He whipped out a magnifying glass and examined Doyle’s face closely before declaring “Unquestionably an author!” The two became lifelong friends.

Gillette’s play, in which of course he took the leading rôle, was a huge success and was performed many times in both America and Britain. He played the detective around 1,300 times. He even starred in a 1916 silent movie which was believed to be lost until quite recently. It is likely that it was this success and the friendship between the two men that lead to Conan Doyle reviving his famous character in later years. In a story called The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, Doyle includes the character of Billy the Buttons (a page boy) who was first named by Gillette in his play.

In a 1903 London production of the play, the character of Billy was played by a very young Charlie Chaplin which I mentioned in a couple of earlier tumblr posts back in April and May.

Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes was so popular that he had great difficulty in retiring. He began a farewell tour in 1929 aged 76. It didn’t finish until 1932. His success did allow him to build himself a pretty splendid castle for himself in Connecticut with 24 rooms and it’s own miniature railway. You can read about it here, or even visit if you’re in the area.

Leap Of The Imagination

07 23 steve brodie

On this day in 1886 a man either did or didn’t jump from the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River. Of course you could argue that quite a lot of men didn’t jump from the Brooklyn Bridge on the twenty-third of July 1886, and you’d be right but I’m talking about one man in particular. His name was Steve Brodie.

The bridge, then known as the East River Bridge, had only opened three years earlier and had already claimed one life. The previous year a swimming instructor named Robert Emmet Odlum had attempted the same thing. He intended to prove that one did not die simply from falling, hoping to encourage people who were trapped in a burning building to jump into a net. Sadly,the jump killed him. Brodie began to brag that he could make the same jump and live to tell the tale. His reasons were not so altruistic. He took bets on his survival, including one from a man who offered to set him up in a bar in the Bowery if he lived.

Brodie never told anyone at what time of day he was going to make his 135 ft leap (the equivalent of a fourteen storey building) Witnesses only saw something fall from the bridge and Brodie was certainly pulled from the river by the captain of a passing barge. Many claimed that he had thrown a dummy from the bridge before swimming out from the bank and surfacing near the boat. The New York Times believed him though. They reported that he had practised by jumping from other bridges, piers and the masts of ships. Those who lost their bets were more sceptical but Brodie did collect around $200 dollars (which would be worth around $5,000 today) and also got to open that bar. His bar was decorated with a large painting of his supposed leap and an affidavit from the boat captain who had pulled him from the water. The floor was inlaid with silver dollars, just to make it extra flashy. He loved to tell his story to anyone that would listen, and in 1894 he starred in a Broadway play about his feat called On the Bowery.

Steve Brodie’s name became synonymous with taking a massive and stupid risk. There is even a Bugs Bunny cartoon about him. You can see it here, go on, it’s only about six minutes long. He may or may not also have made another leap from the Niagara Falls in 1889. Though people seem even more sceptical about that than they did about the first one. But you can read about it here.