Super Size Me

01 31 mastodonThe brilliance of January 31st has proved a bit elusive, so I’m going to tell you about an exhibition that you could definitely have seen on this date if you were in London in 1842, and again in 1843. It was at the Egyptian Hall which was a rather unusual, but now sadly lost, building in Piccadilly. The main exhibition hall was very large and Dr Albert Koch, a fossil collector from St Louis, had something really big to exhibit. In 1840, he had discovered an almost complete skeleton of a mastodon in Missouri. The mastodon was a large mammal, related to the mammoth and the elephant that, up until 10,500 years ago, ranged across the northern hemisphere. His specimen, Mastodon americanum, would have stood somewhere between seven and ten feet high. Koch had reassembled the bones and then added a few extra bits, according to his own fancy.

01 31 koch's missouriumThe result was impressive. He took the bones from no less than three mastodons and added extra vertebrae and ribs. He even added some extra pieces made from wood. Koch had constructed an animal that was thirty-two feet long and fifteen feet high. As a final touch, he added the tusks, but he put them on upside down so they looked like horns curving over the animal’s head rather than pointing down and outwards. He named his new animal ‘Missourium’. Koch had already had some success hauling his monster all over the United States. Although in Philadelphia, a leading fossil expert, Dr Richard Harlan, had gently suggested that he might be able to do a bit better job of it when he’d done a bit more research.

At the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Koch’s exhibit was extremely popular. But it did draw the attention of England’s foremost anatomist and palaeontologist, Sir Richard Owen. Owen was immediately suspicious. It seemed to have far too many ribs and its horns looked like upside down elephant tusks. Of course, he was completely right. In February, he read a paper to the Geographical Society, in which he said that Koch’s Missourium was a mastodon that had been incorrectly mounted. In April, Koch had the gall to address the same society, insisting that it was definitely a new species. None of this affected public interest in his monster and the exhibition remained until the summer of 1843. Then Koch moved on to Ireland and Germany, where he met with equal success.

01 31 mastodon skeletonIn 1844, Koch returned to the United States, but stopped over briefly in London where he sold his Missourium to the British Museum. He sold it for $2,000, with a further $1,000 to be paid every year for the rest of his life. Maybe they were hoping he wouldn’t live quite so long as he did, because they paid $23,000 in the end. The British Museum knew perfectly well they were buying a fake. As soon as it arrived, they took it all apart, removed all the extra bits, reassembled it, put the tusks on the right way round and correctly labelled it Mastodon americanus. They had themselves a very fine specimen. It is still in the collection, at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt wasn’t very long before Koch was up to his old tricks. Later that year, he was on the road with a 114 foot long sea serpent he had named Hydrarchos. We mentioned the creature back in August when we wrote more about sea serpents. Koch’s skeleton was soon identified for the fake it was, the fossil of an extinct whale with the bones of at least four other animals added to it. When he travelled to England with it, he met a similarly frosty reception. He eventually sold it in Germany.

Dr Albert Koch was thought of as a complete fraud. He wasn’t even really a doctor of anything, it was a title he awarded to himself. It’s a pity his career took a wrong turn, because early on, he actually discovered something quite important. In 1838, he had found the bones of a mastodon along with arrow heads. It proved that this animal had lived alongside, and been hunted by, early man. But no one believed him.

Off With Their Heads

NPG D1306,The execution of  King Charles I,after Unknown artistToday is the anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, following his overthrow by Oliver Cromwell. No one knows who wielded the axe because the executioner wore a mask to hide his identity. It is also the anniversary of the time, in 1661, we ritually executed Oliver Cromwell by hanging and beheading his body over two years after he died. We put his head on a pole and left it outside Westminster Hall for fourteen years. His empty tomb was used to bury the remains of King Charles II’s illegitimate 01 30 execution of cromwellchildren. After that Cromwell’s head passed through the hands of several private collectors and was finally re-interred in 1960. No-one is now completely sure that it was even Cromwell’s body that they dug up in the first place. Neither of these events exactly represent our country’s finest hour, but it seems both factions were still commemorating the whole regrettable thing many years later. King Charles was styled as a martyr by the Church of England. The day of his death was declared a day of fasting and repentance. He was canonised in 1660 and remains the only person to be formally made a saint by the Church of England.

In contrast to this, it seems that, there were a group of people who continued to celebrate the beheading of their king as late as 1735. They called themselves ‘The Calves Head Club’. We know about them partly because of an altercation in that year between the celebrants and a mob who thought the whole thing was a disgrace. We also know about them because of a book titled ‘The Secret History of the Calves Head Club’ which was revised and reprinted several times between 1693 and 1716. They adorned their meeting place with an axe, which they hung on the wall. The evening featured a lot of drinking to specially composed toasts. There was also a meal which we are told included a dish of calves’ heads “dressed several ways” to represent the king and his friends. ‘Dressed’ probably means either the sauce or stuffing used to prepare the dish, but it is a bit fun to imagine that they might have put wigs on them or something. There was also a pike’s head, with the head of a smaller pike in its mouth, to represent tyranny. There were also a cod’s head and a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth that specifically represented the king. Basically they spent the evening drinking (sometimes out of a calf’s skull) and eating some heads. After that they took a book called ‘Eikon Basilike’ which was supposed to have been written by the king before he died, and burned it on the table.

According to ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, on January 30th 1735, several young noblemen had met for their feast at a tavern in Suffolk Street at Charing Cross. They dressed a calf’s head in a napkin and threw out of the window onto a bonfire in the street below. Passers by were pretty upset when they saw people having a massive celebration on a day when everyone was supposed to be fasting and being very sorry about what had happened to the king. But then, the club members made things a lot worse by leaning out of the tavern windows, toasting the crowd and waving handkerchiefs dipped in claret that looked a bit like blood. The people outside, who had also had a fair bit to drink (and probably on an empty stomach) grew angry and started to throw things. Another account says that they threw stones, broke all the windows and tried to set the building on fire. The celebrants were lucky to escape relatively unscathed.

01 30 calves head club

The men who attended the dinner tell a different story. According to them, they met on January 30th by accident and definitely didn’t stick a calf’s head out of the window. There is a letter from Lord Middlesex to his friend Joseph Spence which also tries to explain the event. It begins: “Dear Spanco…” He admits that everyone was very drunk and that they had looked out of the window to see: “a little nasty fire made by some boys in the street”. They had immediately wanted a fire for themselves and ordered their waiter to build them one. He then refers to the waiter as “an impudent puppy” and more or less blames him for following their orders. Then, suddenly, they realised what day it was and that people might be upset by the bonfire. They thought a good way to alleviate the situation would be to lean out of the windows and drink a toast to the passers by. The toast was definitely to the king and not to the executioners of Charles I, But people had got annoyed anyway and started throwing stuff at them.

As a person who is often in charge of small children, I have to say that this sounds like the sort of made-up-on-the-hoof, and immediately detectable lie that I’ve heard a ton of in the playground. It is akin to ‘I don’t know how it happened, I put out my fist and he must have somehow run into it.’ Quite a lot of the people at this dinner became politicians in later life.

Whereabouts Unknown

01 29 elizabeth canningToday I have an unsolved mystery to tell you about. At around 10 pm on January 29th 1753, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Canning turned up at her mother’s house at Aldermanbury in the City of London. She had been missing since the night of January 1st. Her face and hands were black with dirt, she was wearing only a shift, a petticoat and a bedgown. Around her head, was wrapped a filthy rag that was soaked in blood from a wound on her ear. Her mother fainted.

Elizabeth had worked and lived not far from her mother’s home as maidservant to a carpenter named Edward Lyon. He described her as honest but shy, and her previous employer thought the same. On New Year’s day, having the day off, she had gone to visit her aunt and uncle and spent the evening with them. They had walked her part way home and left her near St Botolph’s Church in Houndsditch. She did not arrive home. Her employer and her family searched the city, but no trace could be found. Advertisements were placed in newspapers, prayers were read in church. The only vaguely useful evidence was that someone had heard a woman cry out from a hackney coach in the early hours of of January 2nd.

01 29 loftMrs Canning’s house was soon filled with concerned neighbours but Elizabeth was, at first, unable to speak. She was attended by an apothecary and when she recovered a little, she told everyone what had happened. On her way home she had been attacked by two men near the Bedlam Hospital. They had robbed her, partially stripped her of her clothes and then hit her across the temple rendering her unconscious. She had awoken, still with the two men, but beside a large road where there was water. They had made her walk to a house where an old woman asked her if she would ‘go their way’, by which she meant become a prostitute. When Elizabeth refused, the woman had cut off her corset, slapped her face and pushed her upstairs into the loft. She had remained there until January 29th. She had spoken to no one, but thought she heard the name ‘Wills’ or ‘Wells’. She had been given only bread and water and had scavenged the clothes she was wearing from a fireplace in the loft. The loft’s only window was boarded over but she had been able to see, in the yard, a coachman she thought she recognised and guessed that she was on Hertford Road. She had made her escape by prying the boards away from the window and jumping out.

Her neighbour’s identified the house as that of ‘Mother’ Susannah Wells at Enfield Wash and they quickly obtained a warrant for her arrest. Several of them went, along with the warrant officer and peace officers to the house. They took Elizabeth with them, despite her poor health, so that she could identify her captors. The warrant officer searched the house and found the loft to be not at all as Elizabeth had described it. Nor could he find evidence that she had jumped from the window. But when Elizabeth came into the house, she immediately identified an old woman who was lodging there, Mary Squires as the woman who had cut off her corsets and another two women, Virtue Hall and a women presumed to be Mary Squires’s daughter, as having been also present at the time. She also recognised the loft and it seemed as though the boards on the window had been put there recently. Wells and Squires were arrested. Wells for keeping a disorderly house, Squires for cutting off the corset.

01 29 mary squiresElizabeth was very much perceived as the wronged party and received a great deal of support. The trial was huge, press coverage was massive. It involved the novelist Henry Fielding, who was then a magistrate. Support was very much in favour of Elizabeth who appeared to be, and perhaps was, an innocent young woman. Imprisoned after refusing a life of prostitution by a person who the press portrayed as an ugly old gypsy. Pamphlets were published (there were always pamphlets in the eighteenth century – think of them as twitter, but before the internet and considerably more verbose), public subscriptions were raised to help her with her case. Eighteenth century law bore little regard for an individual’s personal safety and it was rather chilling to find out that Mary Squires was not charged with either assault or kidnapping, but the theft of a corset, which was worth ten shillings. It was a crime that, if guilty, was punishable by hanging. Both Wells and Squires denied having ever seen Elizabeth before she came to the house with the warrant officer. Elizabeth Canning’s supporters behaved appallingly at the trial. There were several people willing to speak on behalf of Mary Squires, but all save three were prevented from attending by a mob outside the Old Bailey. They wanted to testify that Mary, a lady who travelled about, selling bits and pieces, had been nowhere near Enfield Wash on January 1st. Susannah Wells said the same. The three men who did make it through were beaten up by the crowd as they left.

Wells and Squires were convicted. Wells to be branded on the thumb and imprisoned, Squires to be hanged. But the case really rested on the testimony of Virtue Hall, who had at one point admitted that she had been there and seen it all. But Virtue changed her story so often that it was really impossible to tell what was true and what was not. I can’t entirely blame her for this. Fielding’s questioning of her was extremely rigorous and it seems likely to me that the poor woman was just trying to guess what he wanted her to say.

After the trial, the judge, Sir Crisp Gascoyne (excellent name) had his doubts and applied to the king, George II, for a stay of execution. More investigations were done, more press, more pamphlets, more threats of violence. Eventually Mary Squires was set free and Canning was arrested. It was all a huge mess that was not helped by the recent change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian one, the previous September. People were still trying to get their heads around the fact that they had lost eleven days and had difficulty knowing on what date they had seen anybody. Canning’s defence seems to have rested largely on the idea that she was too stupid to have made it all up, but when it was proved she could write a little, it was decided that she wasn’t an imbecile after all. The witnesses who claimed to have seen Mary Squires at Enfield Wash were discredited and Elizabeth was convicted of perjury. She was transported to America and lived there for the rest of her life. People tried subsequently to ask her what had really happened, but she refused to speak of it.

So no one knows what really happened to Elizabeth Canning during January 1753. Perhaps she really was kidnapped, but was it by Wells and Squires? It has been speculated that she disappeared for almost a month because she was pregnant and needed to keep the birth a secret. If so, what happened to the child? Was it given away to a wealthy family in need of an heir? If so,where did her head injury come from? It is a case that has fascinated writers, conspiracy theorists and lawyers for over two hundred and fifty years. But likely, we’ll never know what really happened.


09 24 horace walpoleBack in September I wrote about Horace Walpole and mentioned that he invented the words ‘gloomth’ and ‘raint’. Today I want to tell you about another word he came up with that is a little more widely used. On January 28th 1754, we find the first written use of the word ‘serendipity’. Serendipity is a beautiful word for a delightful thing. Most often, it is used to describe a happy coincidence, but Walpole really meant it to convey more than that.

Walpole used the word in a letter to his friend Horace Mann, which is why we know the exact date. Specifically, he was talking about a chance discovery he happened to make about a coat of arms belonging to the Cappello family at the same time as he acquired a painting of one time Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Bianca Cappello. He said he was often making discoveries like this and he called it ‘serendipity’. It was a word he had coined from a Persian fairy tale he read as a child called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’. Serendip is derived from the old name for Sri Lanka, which was in Persian ‘Sarandip’. The story concerns three princes who were sent away by their father to learn wisdom, so that they would grow up to be good kings. On their travels, they divined that there was a camel (which they could not see) on the road ahead of them. They began to speculate, by means of clues they picked up along the way, what the camel was like. They concluded that the camel was blind in one eye, missing a tooth, was lame and was carrying a pregnant woman. It was also carrying a load of butter on one side and honey on the other. A little further down the road, they met a man who had lost his camel. They described the animal so exactly that he thought they must have stolen it. They were arrested and wound up in front of the Emperor to explain themselves.

They said they had noticed that the grass had been eaten on one side of the road, but not the other, even though the grass was better there. So they thought the camel was blind in one eye. They had found lumps of chewed grass in the road, the size of a camel’s tooth and guessed the grass had fallen out through the gap left by its missing tooth. They could see from the animals tracks that it was dragging one of it’s legs, so they knew it must be lame. Their conclusions about what the camel was carrying were made because ants had been attracted by a trail of melted butter on one side of the road and flies to the dripping honey on the other. But what about the pregnant woman? Well that’s a bit weird. One of the princes noticed a spot where the camel had knelt down and some human foot prints where someone had dismounted. Following the footprints he found some urine on the ground. The person had got off the camel for a wee. He dipped his fingers into it and smelled it. He said he was so affected by ‘concupiscence’, which is a way of describing ardent and sensual longing, that he knew the person must have been a woman. So he was a bit strange. Another prince had guessed she was heavily pregnant because, where she had squatted, there were also hand prints in the ground which showed that she had needed her hands to help herself up. Luckily, at that moment the man’s lost camel was found and they were rewarded and appointed as the Emperor’s advisers.

Walpole intended his new word to mean not just a happy coincidence, but a chance discovery by a person who has the intelligence to make use of. As he explained in the letter, the princes were: “…making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. So serendipity also involves finding a thing that you were not looking for. Serendipity is about thinking creatively and making connections that others can’t see. We owe a lot of our medical advances to serendipity. If Alexander Fleming had thrown out his mouldy Petri dish instead of taking a closer look, we might not have penicillin. If Wilhelm Röntgen had not been experimenting with a primitive cathode ray tube and a piece of cardboard, we may not have x-rays. It has worked in other areas too. Dr Harry Coover was trying to make an optically clear plastic when he first made superglue. Spencer Silver, who really was trying to make a strong glue, came up with something so pathetic it peeled straight off. But then he used it to invent the post-it note.

There is, should you want it, a word that means the opposite of serendipity. It was coined by William Boyle in his 1998 novel ‘Armadillo’. That word is ‘zemblanity’. Much as the serendipity was formed from the name of a beautiful island in a warm climate that is teeming with life, zemblanity is also named for an island. The island of Nova Zembla is the very opposite of that. It is in the extreme north of Russia and so rocky and inhospitable that they decided to use it to test out their nuclear weapons. Zemblanity means the inevitable discovery of something you’d rather not know. I hope you don’t need it.


01 27 samuel footeToday I want to tell you about Samuel Foote. I don’t know when he was born exactly but he was baptised on this day in 1720 in Truro, Cornwall. He was an actor, dramatist and theatre manager. He was also an eccentric character with a talent for mimicry. He was good at turning situations to his advantage, even his own misfortune. In 1766, he had to have one of his legs amputated and he even managed to turn that into a joke. Samuel’s father was variously mayor of Truro and Member of Parliament for Tiverton. His mother was the daughter of a baronet, and it is probably from her side of the family that he inherited his oddness. It seems their peculiarities ranged from ‘harmless’ to ‘malevolent’. It was because of two of her brothers that Samuel first came to public prominence. His uncle John was murdered by his uncle Samuel on board the HMS Ruby in 1741 and Samuel Foote published a pamphlet about it. He claimed that his uncle John had strangled himself.

He attended Worcester College, Oxford for a while but they dis-enrolled him in 1740 and he left without finishing his degree. He seems to have been skipping classes, developing his talent for mimicry and playing pranks, such as making some cows ring the college alarm bells by tying hay to the bell ropes. After leaving university, he was meant to be studying law, but spent most of his time hanging out in coffee shops doing impressions of lawyers. He married for money, which didn’t go well. Plus his wife wasn’t as wealthy as he had hoped and he wound up in the Fleet Prison for debt.

After that, he took up acting, on the advice of his friends. He was often to be seen swanning around Covent Garden in an orange suit lined with pea-green velvet. Samuel learned acting under the tutelage of Charles Macklin, who was at the time, only slightly less famous than David Garrick. The two acted together in Shakespeare’s Othello in 1744 at the Haymarket Theatre. Samuel in the title role, Macklin as Iago. It wasn’t a great production, but the most interesting thing is that they were doing it illegally. They weren’t really allowed to perform plays there at all. They got round this by also staging a musical performance as part of the programme. They claimed that people were paying for a concert. The play came for free.

Samuel played several comic roles after that, but often using his part to do impersonations of other actors and poke fun at them. But he was still not making enough money to support his lifestyle. In 1746, he became a theatre manager, taking a lease on the Haymarket Theatre. There he continued to dance a fine line between what is legal and what is not by presenting his own play: ‘The Diversions of the Morning or, A Dish of Chocolate’, which was a satire on contemporary actors and public figures, performed by himself. The ‘Dish of Chocolate’ refers to the refreshments he served to his audience. The conceit being, that they had all come for the dish of chocolate and he just happened to be performing a play while they drank it. The authorities didn’t like it. The people he was satirizing didn’t like it. He was closed down after one performance. Fortunately though, he had some influential friends and his theatre was re-opened. He was soon offering a revised version of his play. He called it ‘A Cup of Tea’. Samuel Foote had inadvertently invented the matinee.

The reactions of the various targets of his satire, seem to have caused him either a lot of trouble, or an immense amount of joy and I suspect it was the second one, because he did not stop doing it. He had a quarrel with fellow satirist, Henry Fielding, which went on for ages, both on stage and in written form. Here is what Henry Fielding had to say: “…you Samuel Fut be pissed upon, with Scorn and Contempt, as a low Buffoon; and I do, with the utmost Scorn and Contempt, piss on you accordingly.” It was all very funny unless you were the one favoured by his attentions. Dr Johnson thought he was hilarious until he caught wind of the fact that Samuel was planning to do an impression of him. Then he let it be known that he had ordered a heavy oak cudgel, and that he would not hesitate in stepping onto the stage, and using it. Samuel did not do Dr Johnson.

When his mentor, Macklin, boasted the he could memorise any text at a single reading, Samuel wrote this nonsense for him:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! No soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

01 27 panjandrumPanjandrum, by the way, was the name given to a ridiculous, and fortunately never deployed, British secret weapon of World War II. It was a ten foot high rocket propelled drum packed with 400 lb of explosive. If you wanted to, you could probably find a film of it’s disastrous test run on You Tube. Also, If you’re reading this quite close to the time I’m writing it, and happen to be in London on the 4th, 5th, or 6th February, I’d like you to know that Panjandrum is also the name of a show by Pat Cahill, which you can see at the Soho Theatre. You can read about it here.

But, back to Samuel Foote. In 1752, he wrote a play called ‘Taste’ ridiculing a fashion amongst aristocrats for collecting art and antiquities, without really knowing what they were looking for. In it, there is a Lord Dupe, who claims that he can tell the age of a coin by tasting it. Another character, Sir Positive Bubble, is persuaded by an unscrupulous auctioneer that broken china is worth more than perfect pieces. The same auctioneer talks Dupe into buying a canvas with all the paint scraped off. Samuel played the part of Lady Pentweazel, a woman who thought that the Venus de Medici and the Mary de Medici were sisters in the Medici family. You can see him in this role in the picture below. He was actually extremely fond of playing women’s parts, and not just in the theatre. He had an alter-ego called Miss Dorothy Midnight, who used to perform, along with his friend Christopher Smart, in taverns and Molly-Houses. Here, I need to explain that, in the eighteenth century, a Molly-House was a term for a place where homosexual men met and, whether they were or not, were often regarded as brothels.

01 27 lady pentweazelIn 1766, whilst staying at a country house in Yorkshire, Samuel recklessly boasted about what a great rider he was. He wasn’t, he was terrible and all his friends knew it. Like a lot of eighteenth century men with too much money, they loved a bet. So they took wagers on whether or not he would be able to ride the horse they gave him. The animal they gave him was a fierce stallion belonging to the Duke of York. A touch of the spur was all it took for the horse to immediately throw him off onto the cobbles of the stable yard. His leg was so badly broken that the bone stuck out through the leather of his boot. His leg had to be amputated. Not a pleasant procedure before the invention of general anaesthesia. The Duke felt terrible about the whole thing and wanted to know if there was anything he could do by way of reparation. And it turned out there was something the Duke could do. All Samuel really wanted was a Royal Warrant and Patent for his ‘Little Theatre in the Hay. This is how the theatre became ‘The Theatre Royal, Haymarket’. So, although he lost a leg, his future was secure.

Samuel Foote continued to act and even wrote himself a couple of plays which incorporated his new disability: ‘The Devil on Two Sticks’ and ‘The Lame Lover’. Although he admitted that he was no longer able to run he would ‘hop with any man in England’ He is also the originator of the joke: ‘Heard the one about the one-legged comedian called Foote? What’s his other leg called?

Samuel rather fell from grace after he wrote a play which was clearly about Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, who was accused, and later convicted of bigamy. One of her supporters, William Jackson succeeded in having the play suppressed and it was never performed. He also published articles accusing Samuel of homosexuality. Later his coachman accused him of sexual assault, for which he was tried and acquitted. Jackson then published a pamphlet called ‘Sodom and Onan’ which was obviously about Foote. Samuel Foote responded by rewriting the play with a new character in it based on Jackson. It was his last play. He died the following year.

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t

01 26 bessie colemanToday is the birthday of Bessie Coleman, who was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her mother was African American and her father was part African American, part Cherokee. Bessie would grow up to be the first African American woman and also the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license. She was also the first person of African American or Native American descent to hold an international pilot license. Before you read on, you probably need to know that, as was sadly often the case with people of her chosen profession, Bessie’s life did not end peacefully in old age.

Bessie was the tenth in a family of thirteen children. When she was two, the family moved to the cotton town of Waxahachie. She lived at a time and in a place where black and white people were segregated. The school she attended was for black children only. She was an excellent student, particularly in mathematics, despite having to walk four miles to get there. It wasn’t a great school. It was in a one room shack, often lacked paper and pencils and was closed during the cotton picking season. In 1901, her father left the family and moved to an Indian Reservation. During her education, Bessie also found work as a laundress and saved enough money to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but after only one term, her money ran out and she had to go home.

In 1915, she followed her elder brothers to Chicago. By 1918, she was working as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. Her brother John, who had been a soldier in France during World War I, used to tease her by saying that she could never be as good as the French women, because they could fly planes. He told her she would never be able to fly a plane. It was the proverbial ‘red rag to a bull’, Bessie decided that she absolutely would learn how to fly a plane. But she found no American flight schools would admit black women and she couldn’t find anyone else willing to train her either. On the advice of Robert Abbot, founder of the African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, she decided to go to France to learn to fly. She received some sponsorship, but also took a higher paid job as manager of a chili parlor to raise the funds to go. She also took French lessons.

Bessie went to France in 1920 where she attended the best flying school in the country and was awarded her FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) license the following year. As I said, the first person of her ethnic background to do this anywhere in the world. When Bessie returned to the United States, she quickly realised that there were very few opportunities for a civilian pilot to make a living. There was no such thing as a commercial flight. You could deliver mail (boring), you could be a smuggler (no), or you could be a barnstormer. Barnstormers were people who had bought up planes cheaply from the army following the war, as they were now surplus to requirements. They flew from town to town and could make a good living offering ten-minute rides to locals. They also performed stunts. Bessie wanted to be a barnstormer and she would need to improve her skills. She returned to Europe where she received advanced training in France, Holland and Germany.

01 26 bessie coleman and her planeWhen she returned to the United States, she was a media sensation. Her first air show, near New York City, was sponsored by the Chicago Defender, it was an event honouring the all-black 359th Infantry regiment of World War I and she was billed as “the world’s greatest woman flier.”. Bessie could perform barrel rolls, near-ground dips and loop the loops with the best of them. She also had big plans. She didn’t just want to fly, she wanted to give lectures that would inspire other African Americans to take up aviation. She wanted to open a flying school that would be open to all people of all races. Bessie was very keen to use her position in the public eye to promote racial equality. She was offered a role in a film which could have advanced her career, but declined when she found out that, in the opening scene, she would be appearing in tattered clothes, with a walking-stick and a pack on her back. It was just the sort of image of black people that she didn’t want to see perpetuated. When she performed in her home town of Waxahachie, she knew that it was common at public events, that black and white people would be segregated and had to arrive by separate entrances. She refused to perform unless everyone was allowed in together through the same gate.

Barnstorming is a dangerous occupation and there were many accidents. In 1920s America there were no flight regulations whatsoever. Bessie crashed her first plane less that three months after getting it, breaking her leg and three ribs. She spent three months in hospital and another eighteen months recuperating and, undeterred, trying to find a new sponsor and a new plane. During 1925, performing in borrowed planes and making lecture tours, she managed to raise enough money for a new plane. She was sure her dreams of a flying school were within reach.

On April 30th 1926, her mechanic, William D Wills, flew her new plane from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida, where she was to take part in an air show for the benefit of Jacksonville Negro Welfare League. He had to stop three times on the way because of mechanical problems. The plane was clearly not safe and everyone begged her not to fly. But Bessie and William went ahead and made a test flight. Bessie was not wearing her seatbelt, as she needed to lean over the side to scout out possible sites for a planned parachute jump. Ten minutes into the flight, the plane went into an unexpected dive and started to spin out of control. Bessie was thrown out at 2,000 feet, fell to the ground and was killed instantly. Wills could not control the plane and it crashed and burst into flames, also killing him. Afterwards it was found that a loose spanner, that had been used to fix the engine had slid into the gearbox and jammed it.

So Bessie never achieved her dream. But after her death, a Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established in her honour, to promote aviation in the black community. In 1931, they sponsored the first all-black air show in US history, which was attended by upwards of 15,000 people. She has been commemorated on coins, with stamps and had a road named after her. You can even buy a Bessie Coleman doll. Bessie’s determination took her from an unpromising beginning to her dream job, but then also to an unfortunate and premature demise. So I suppose what we can learn from her is, don’t listen to people when they tell you that you can’t do something; but then, sometimes do…

Nullus in Verba

01 25 robert boyleToday is the birthday of Robert Boyle, a famous chemist and founder member of the Royal Society. He was born on this day in 1627 in County Waterford, Ireland. He was the fourteenth child, and seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. So he was born in a huge castle, Lismore Castle, which his father had bought from Sir Walter Raleigh. But Robert, like his brothers before him, was fostered out to a local Irish family so that he could learn the language. The idea was that the boys would be able to act as translators for their English-speaking father.

He spent three years at Eton before taking off, along with a tutor and an elder brother, on a six year Grand Tour of Europe. He visited France, Switzerland and Italy. He visited Florence shortly before Galileo died. He became a firm believer in Christianity when, in December 1640, he was awakened by such a tremendous thunderstorm that he believed the Day of Judgement was at hand. He remained devout for the rest of his life and his later experiments in no way compromised his religion. He firmly believed that God wanted us to properly understand the way the world worked. Why else would he have made it so complicated? Whilst Robert was away his father died, leaving him a large country house in Dorset and estates in Ireland. So he never really needed to worry about money. But when he arrived in England in 1644, the country was in the middle of a Civil War. Boyle did a pretty good job of steering clear and was careful not to appear to be on either one side or the other.

Some time in 1646/7 he became passionately interested in science and built himself a laboratory. Like many scientifically-minded people of his day, he was hoping to find the Philosophers Stone. A substance which would transmute lead into gold and hopefully confer on its creator, the gift of eternal life. He failed at this, which is no surprise, but he does seem to have been a little disappointed. But he was undeterred and began to visit London to meet with other like-minded people. Around 1655 he moved to Oxford. Although he was never officially part of the university, he met plenty of people who were, including Robert Hooke who would help him build some of his most important experiments.

01 25 boyle air pumpIn 1657, they began to experiment with vacuums, using the equipment pictured above. It looks terrifically complex, but what it is, is a large glass container that they could put things inside and then pump all the air out to see what happened to them. They put a bell inside and used a magnet from the outside to move the bell and make it ring. As they pumped out the air, they observed that the sound of the bell became more and more faint. They had discovered that sound cannot travel through a vacuum, yet magnetic forces can, or else they would not have been able to make the bell move. Also, the experiment showed them that light could travel through a vacuum, because they could still see the bell inside. They found that a lit candle went out when they removed the air, proving that a vacuum will not support combustion. Boyle made a further guess that it was only a small part of the air that allowed the flame to burn. No one was yet able to separate the different gases in the air but, over a hundred years later he would be proved right.

In 1660, following the Restoration of the Monarchy, he was one of a group of individuals who formed the nucleus of the Royal Society with the support of King Charles II. They dedicated themselves to revealing nature’s secrets through experiment and their motto was, and still is, ‘Nullus in Verba’ which means: ‘take nobody’s word for it’. If they couldn’t prove something for themselves, they couldn’t believe it was true. Boyle was instrumental in detaching science from alchemy. Alchemists were notoriously secretive about their methods, whereas Boyle insisted that his experiments must be shared so that anyone could repeat them. He published all the methods of his experiments and the results. He also realised that experiments and their results must be repeatable, just to make sure what they concluded was really right. This is the absolute bedrock of modern scientific investigations and we have Boyle to thank for it. He also realised that there was as much to be learned from a failed experiment as a successful one.

Boyle has a scientific law named after him which states that the volume of a gas will decrease, in a predictable way, in inverse proportion to the amount of pressure put upon it. This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t at the time. If you couldn’t compress a gas, the size of the propane bottles I use to run my gas cooker would be unfeasibly large. He also rejected Aristotle’s idea that everything was made up of earth, air, fire and water. He believed that some substances were elements, while others were compounds, made up from those elements. This was, for him, just a theory as there were no experiments to identify which was which. He also believed that everything was made up of tiny particles suspended in a void. What we would call atoms. His alchemical roots meant that he firmly believed that one element could be transmuted into another, such as lead into gold, he just didn’t know how to do it. This is not entirely untrue as, in 1919, Ernest Rutherford successfully transformed nitrogen into oxygen.

Robert Boyle was able to spend his whole life pursuing his scientific curiosities because, being wealthy, he had no need to earn a living or to find a patron. But he still thought of plenty of things that he hoped science would be able to give us in the future. In fact, he wrote a list. It reveals just how widely his thoughts ranged. Many of his hopes have now become reality. It’s a great list:

1. The Prolongation of Life.
2. The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
3. The Art of Flying.
4. The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
5. The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
6. The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
7. The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
8. The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
9. The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
10. The Transmutation of Metalls.
11. The makeing of Glass Malleable.
12. The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
13. The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
14. The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
15. The making Armor light and extremely hard.
16. The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
17. The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
18. Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
19. A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
20. Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
21. Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
22. Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
23. A perpetuall Light.
24. Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.