All That Glisters…

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESYou might have heard that the streets of London are paved with gold. Dick Whittington certainly thought so. I didn’t see any the last time I visited, but there may just be a grain of truth behind that story.

On this day in 1577 Martin Frobisher set sail from Harwich for the New World. Frobisher was a bit of a chancer, basically a pirate with a letter from the Queen saying that he could get on with his job. Ostensibly he was looking for the same Northwest Passage that everyone was looking for. Portugal controlled the shipping lanes all along the coast of Africa, so it was difficult for anyone else to trade with the Far East. They were hoping to find a northern route to China and India by finding a way to sail along the north coast of Canada. But Frobisher had a secret mission. He was looking for gold.

An earlier journey in 1576 to the same spot had not gone well. He set off with three ships but lost two of them on the way and five of his crew were captured by Inuit and never seen again. However, he was so confident that he has found the route, he named his landing place ‘Frobisher Passage’. They returned with a few bits and pieces they’d picked up, tokens of possession, including a small black stone “as great as a halfpenny loaf” if you can imagine such a thing. They didn’t think it was worth much to begin with. There is a story that one of the sailors was given a piece of it in payment for his services. His wife was so disgusted by it that she threw it into the fire, where it changed colour and sparkled “with a bright marquisette of gold”. Then, it was examined by experts and most of them thought it was pretty useless. Two men though, named Burchard Kranich and Jonas Schutz thought that it contained gold.

This was enough to send them on the second, much bigger, voyage. They scoured the West Country for miners to take with them and seem to have found only five. Arriving at what is now named Frobisher Bay in Canada, they spent twenty days mining ore and loading it onto their ships. They collected two hundred tons of ore. Significantly, they worked until their baskets wore out and their tools broke. This rather suggests that the men they brought may not have been miners at all, since they didn’t know how to repair the tools of their trade.

Oddly, they returned with only one hundred and forty tons of ore which was locked up in a castle in Bristol. Schutz claimed to have smelted some of the ore and found it to contain £40 worth of gold per ton. Most of it though, he told them, was trapped in the slag and what he really needed was a ‘great workes’ – a really big smelting plant to really, properly get at the gold.

Everyone was pretty excited and set off on a third voyage, this time returning with one thousand three hundred and fifty tons of ore. The smelting works were built at Dartford and everyone thought they were going to be very rich. Sadly, when the ore was treated it was found to yield very little gold. Everyone blamed Schutz for designing such a rubbish 05 31 pyritefurnace but eventually it turned out that the actual problem was that there wasn’t really any gold in the ore in the first place. What it most likely contained were crystals of iron pyrite, which is also called ‘Fools Gold’ and clearly not without reason.

Surprisingly, both Frobisher and Schutz survived the debacle. Frobisher was later knighted for his services in the battle against the Spanish Armada and Schutz went to work for the king of Scotland. His ‘great workes’ were sold and eventually became England’s first paper mill. As for the ore, once it was found to be valueless it was smashed up and used as gravel to pave the streets of London.

Once and Future King

05 30 last battleOne of my great sources for this blog has been Robert Chambers, who published his ‘Chambers Book of Days’ in 1869. It’s full of absolutely fascinating characters and events that I’d never heard of. Today, he informed me that on this day in the year 542, King Arthur died. Obviously, I have heard of King Arthur, but he then went on to describe an Arthur I didn’t recognise at all.

Robert based his entry on the account of the king written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, published some time around the 1130s. Geoffrey’s Arthur defeated the Saxon invaders and made them promise to leave. Then he went to fight the Picts and Scots and eventually forced them all to live on the islands of Loch Lomond. But the lying Saxons had just sailed around the coast a bit and landed again at Totnes in Devon. So Arthur marched back from Scotland and defeated them again. After that, he conquered Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney islands and then Norway, Denmark and Gaul. His conquest of Gaul, which was then still under Roman control, upset the Emperor and he went to war with him too. Arthur and his knights won, but just as they were about to march on Rome, he heard that his nephew, Mordred, who he had left in charge of Britain had married his queen, and seized the throne. So he went home. That was how his final battle with Mordred happened, and how he came to be mortally wounded and taken to the Isle of Avalon. Who is this pro-active Arthur, rampaging across Europe like an early version of Genghis Khan?

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story does contain some elements that I do recognise. He tells us that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel in Cornwall with the help of Merlin the magician and that his father was Uther Pendragon. He also implies that Arthur did not die, but merely passed on the crown, was taken to Avalon to be healed of his wounds and was never seen again. Not many people think that his account is in any way true. His near contemporary William of Newburgh, the man who told us about the Green Children of Woolpit and about revenants who returned from the grave to terrorise their communities, reckoned he made it all up. He said:

“Only a person ignorant of ancient history would have any doubt about how shamelessly and impudently he lies in almost everything.”

05 30 king arthur and the giant, walter craneGeoffrey’s work does have its sources though. ‘Historia Brittonum’ was written in the ninth century. It is the where we find the story of how Britain was settled by the descendants of Aeneus who fled Troy. Arthur is mentioned here not as a king, but as a warrior. He fights, not only Saxon invaders but also dragons, giants, witches, dog-headed people, cat monsters and even an enchanted poisonous boar with a pair of scissors in its head.

Meanwhile, in France, the story of Arthur was developing in a different direction. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the stories focused more on the adventures of his knights such as Lancelot, Galahad and Gawain. This is where we find the introduction of the Holy Grail into the legend and Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere. Arthur became a wise, dignified and frankly rather dull king. A cuckold who was sidelined in his own legend. His nemesis, Mordred became his own son who was the result of an incestuous relationship with his sister. His perfect Utopian court was destroyed by his personal flaws. This version of Arthur became rather fixed in Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ in the late fifteenth century.

05 30 round table

During the Renaissance, people became less keen on medieval romances, but interest in Arthur’s story continued when the Tudors tried to claim that they were descended from him. By the eighteenth century, there was more enthusiasm for the classical texts of Greece and Rome and he rather fell out of favour.

All that changed in the nineteenth century though, when the romantics came along. Le Morte d’Arthur was republished in 1816 for the first time in almost 200 years. Nineteenth century gentleman built an entire code of ethics around the chivalric ideals found in the romantic portrayals of King Arthur’s court. When Alfred Lord Tennyson published his reworking of the Arthurian legend ‘Idylls of the King’ in 1859, it sold 10,000 copies in the first week. This Arthur was a huge influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and their imitators well into the twentieth century.

Arthur has reappeared in various guises throughout the twentieth century, in novels on stage and on film. Maybe the real Arthur, whoever he was, really did die on this day in 542, but we’ll probably never know who he really was. He seems a bit quiet at the moment, but he’s probably sleeping under a hill somewhere, ready to pop up again soon.

05 30 the last sleep of arthur edward burne jones

Tiny Wasp Day

02 07 charles iiMay 29th used to be a public holiday here in Britain. It was called Oak Apple Day. An oak apple is a kind of gall, that sometimes grows on oak trees. It is the home of a tiny wasp larva. But that’s not what’s being celebrated here. Because that would be weird. No, Oak Apple Day is all about celebrating a king hiding in a tree.

We had beheaded our king, Charles I, in 1649 as a result of the English Civil War. His son escaped and was briefly made king of Scotland, but it all went very wrong and he was forced to flee. Despite having a price of £1000 pounds on his head, he found friends to help him. Cromwell’s New Model Army were everywhere, it wasn’t safe to hide in a house so he had to climb an oak tree and hid there. He later told his friend Samuel Pepys that he could see the soldiers passing directly underneath the tree. He eventually managed to make it to France where he stayed for nine years. On 29th May 1660, which was also his 30th birthday, the monarchy was restored and he was made king. The following day, Parliament declared that is would be made a national holiday.

Everyone would wear an oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves on that day in celebration of the event. You need to understand that under Cromwell’s rule, we weren’t allowed to celebrate anything. I mentioned earlier this month that the Puritans, who were in charge during the Commonwealth, weren’t keen on theatre. They also banned alcohol and Christmas. Charles II, on the other hand, was all about fun, which was a bit of a relief and certainly an occasion worth celebrating. In fact, you could get into trouble for not celebrating it. Anyone found not wearing their oak could be beaten with nettles or have eggs thrown at them.

05 29 oak apple dayIn 1859 parliament changed their minds about Oak Apple Day and abolished it. They decided it had become associated with drunkenness and general mayhem. But the day is still celebrated in some places. The picture on the left shows the annual celebration in Castleton in Derbyshire. The person covered in the flowery bell is King Charles and the lady behind him is the Queen. They are both dressed in period costume and the king is certainly hidden, but there’s definitely something else going on here. They ride around the town accompanied by a band, morris dancers and little girls dressed in white. Then the huge garland is hoisted up the side of the church tower where it hangs until the flowers wilt. It’s probably related to an earlier May Day ceremony that would also have been banned by the Puritans. Perhaps the King is a stand in for a Jack-in-the-Green figure representing the pagan spirit of the greenwood. I did find a book from the early 1820s that described a ceremony at Tiverton in Devon, where the procession was led by a figure known as ‘Oliver’. Presumably, he was meant to represent Cromwell. He was dressed in black and had his face smeared with soot and grease and was tied up with a rope. He capered about the crowd in a ludicrous manner and children threw dirt at him.

When I started to read up a little bit about oak apples, I found out that they weren’t just a weird growth formed by an invasive insect, they were once actually quite useful. Oak galls were used to make iron gall ink. It was made by mixing the tannin from oak galls with iron sulfate. Being both permanent and waterproof, it was the most popular method of making ink in Europe for around 1400 years. Leonardo da Vinci used it, so did Vincent van Gogh. The earliest surviving copy of the Bible was written with it and iron gall ink was used to draft the American Declaration of Independence. So maybe it is worth celebrating tiny wasps after all.

Looking Up

05 28 thalesOn this day in 585 BC a Greek philosopher named Thales successfully predicted a solar eclipse. The Greek historian, Herodotus, who was one of his contemporaries, tells us that the eclipse happened during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. According to him, it began when someone cooked up someone else’s son and served him to the king for dinner. It was a war that had raged for six years without either side gaining any particular advantage. On this day, just as the battle was in full swing it suddenly grew dark. In Ancient Greece, a solar eclipse was taken as a sign that the gods were angry, so both sides put down their weapons and were eager to agree a peace.

Herodotus tells us that Thales had predicted only the year of the eclipse, but it seems impossible to predict the year of a solar eclipse without also knowing the day. In truth, we don’t really know how he did it, history doesn’t tell us. Aristotle regarded Thales as the first Greek philosopher to try to explain the world about him without falling back on mythology. None of his writing survives so we only know what other people said about him. We know that Thales thought the earth floated on water, in the same way that ships do. His theory was supported by the fact that people believed in, and had definitely seen, floating islands. He thought that earthquakes were caused by waves in the water that was holding us all up. He may not have been quite right, but it was a better guess than the ‘angry gods’ explanation that was the ‘go to’ answer for anything bad that happened. He managed to work out that the Earth was round though. He knew it must be spherical, because he had observed ships disappearing over the horizon.

There is a tale that he once fell into a well, because he was so busy looking up at the stars and wasn’t looking where he was going. The moral of the story being, that people should be a bit more practical and not have their head in the clouds. However, it is just possible that Thales got into the well on purpose. The Ancient Greeks knew that the stars were still in the sky during the day, but they were just not visible. Unless there was a solar eclipse of course. But they also knew that if you looked into a very deep well, you could sometimes see the stars reflected in the water. So if you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself at the bottom of a very deep well, look up and you will see that the sky looks dark and full of stars, even in the day time.

Maybe after this incident, he was keen to prove that philosophy had its practical advantages. Thales had managed to pinpoint the dates of the Summer and Winter solstices, and therefore, the length of the solar year. He also noticed the changing of the seasons. He must have kept an eye on the changing weather patterns too, because there was a year in which he managed to predict a particularly good olive harvest. He was so confident that he bought up all the olive presses in his home city of Miletus. These he either used himself or rented them out at a high price when everyone suddenly had loads of olives that needed pressing. Aristotle insists that he did this, not for his own gain, but to prove to people that philosophy was not as useless as they thought.


05 27 christopher leeMostly, I write about people who are long dead. But today I am writing about a person who is, for the first time, not around to celebrate his birthday. So I’m also feeling sad for his family and friends who must be missing of him. After writing such a long post about vampires yesterday, It was lovely to find out that today is the birthday of Sir Christopher Lee who played the part of Count Dracula for Hammer Films, for a little bit longer than he would have really liked. I have a bit of a soft spot for Hammer Horror. They were the films my friends and I dared each other to watch back in the 1970s. Their first Dracula film was well received by both audience and critics, but after that, things went rapidly down hill. The sequel, ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ had such an awful script that Lee refused to speak. He hissed his way through the whole part. The film’s script editor insisted that he had never written any lines for the Count in the first place, but this seems unlikely. Lee appeared in a total of seven films for Hammer in the role of Dracula. He knew they were awful, but he kept doing it because they kept reminding him how many people would be put out of work if he didn’t do it. He begged to be allowed to speak a few lines from Stoker’s original story and sometimes he even managed to sneak a few in.

05 27 charlemagneChristopher Lee was born in 1922 in Belgravia, London. Through his mother, he could trace his ancestry back to the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. Take a look at this portrait of him, you can really see a family resemblance. Lee’s early life was packed with genuine horror. When he was only seventeen, he witnessed the last public execution by guillotine in France. During World War II, he was attached to both the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Operations Executive, otherwise known as ‘The Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’. Both were forerunners of the present day SAS. He, quite rightly, never spoke specifically about anything he had done, but his work would have included espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance. It would have been dangerous and it would have been horrifying. He did all this before he was twenty-five.

After his experiences during the war, he couldn’t really see himself in an office job and he took up acting instead. For a long time, he found it difficult to get cast in major roles because, at 6′ 5”, people thought he was too tell to be an actor. He thought that was stupid: ‘It’s like saying you’re too short to play the piano.’ But, in 1952, he got a break when he appeared in several films for a series called ‘Douglas Fairbanks Presents’ which was filmed at Elstree and where he played alongside Buster Keaton.

It was at Hammer, between 1957 and 1976 that he really became typecast as a villain. Their films might seem very dated and terribly camp now, but I defy you not to enjoy his ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’ in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ or his ‘Nicholas, Duc de Richleau’ in ‘The Devil Rides Out’. One of his favourite roles, and probably mine too, was not for Hammer at all, but for British Lion Films when he played the part of Lord Summerisle in ‘The Wicker Man’.

Feeling typecast in horror films, he moved to Hollywood in 1977 but never really got away from playing villains. But he was really good at it and they are the best parts. He has played the James Bond villain ‘Scaramanga’ he has been the Devil, he has even played the part of Death himself.

Lee was a huge Tolkein fan. In fact, he once ran into the author in a bar and managed to persuade him that if ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was ever filmed, he’d be a great Gandalf. When he heard that it was going to be made by Peter Jackson, he deliberately accepted a part as a wizard in a terrible television series about Robin Hood, just to prove that he would make a good wizard. Then he sent a personal letter to the director, along with a picture of himself, dressed as a wizard. But, because he was a natural villain, the part of Gandalf eluded him, but he did make a brilliant Saruman.

05 27 vincent priceI cannot let today go by without telling you that today is also the birthday of one of his co-stars in the horror genre. Vincent Price was also born on May 27th, in 1911. Vincent was cast in some very over-the-top films such as ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’. If you haven’t seen it, I truly recommend ‘The Tingler’ from 1959. It still feel a little disturbing, even now. Its director, William Castle, was a master of the cinema gimmick. If you’d gone to see it when it was released you would have found a nurse at the cinema, ready to treat anyone who fainted with terror. You might also have found you were sitting on a seat that vibrated suddenly and unexpectedly, to make you jump out of it.

Vincent loved a practical joke. He once stood in for his own wax dummy at a museum. He suddenly moved and squirted the visitors with a syringe filled with water. As they shared a birthday, he, Christopher Lee and also Peter Cushing, who celebrated his birthday the day before on May 26th, all hired out the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s for a party. He said: “It was wonderful fun. You couldn’t tell who were the actors.”

Many Happy Returns

05 26 draculaToday, it is Dracula’s birthday (sort of). ‘Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ was published on this day in 1897. As I was born in Whitby and lived for a time in the house that the author visited on his holidays, I feel I can’t let the occasion slip by without mention. I probably don’t need to tell you his story. Aside from Sherlock Holmes, he is the most frequently portrayed character on film. But I thought I could tell you a bit about the history of European vampires and of the Count himself.

I’m afraid it isn’t going to be pretty. Some of the stories, supernatural elements aside, describe people who were not so much ‘undead’ as clearly just not dead. At least at the point when they were put in the ground. In centuries past it was not always so clear whether a person was actually dead or not, especially if there was a plague or something and you were trying to bury a lot of people, quite quickly.

Tales of supernatural beings that feed on the flesh or blood of the living are present in almost every culture. In Europe, it can be traced from the Ancient Greeks, who told stories of a bronze-footed demon who seduced men before feasting on their blood, through to the the Romans, with tales of nocturnal bird-like creatures who feasted on human flesh and drank their blood. None of these early, blood-drinking fiends were human. But there are a couple of English accounts, dating from the twelfth century which describe men who had risen from the grave to terrorise their family and neighbours. One comes from William of Newburgh, from whom we also have the earliest account of the Green Children of Woolpit, whose story you will find here.

William doesn’t give a name to his walking dead, but they certainly seem very difficult to lay to rest. The approved method appears to have been: burn their bodies and scatter their ashes to the wind. He recounts four stories about beings who return after death, get into bed with their wives, riot among the animals, poison the air with their foetid corpses and generally run about the countryside with packs of dogs. His description of the revenants is not one we would recognise from the vampire stories we are used to. They were not pale and thin. Their bodies, when exhumed, were found to be bloated and red, as though filled with the blood of their victims and their shrouds were torn to pieces.

It is, however, a description that was familiar to the people of Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which is where vampires really started to get seriously out of hand. In 1656 a man named Jure Grando, who lived in Istria which is now in Croatia, died and was buried. But it seems he returned to terrorise his village and bother his widow for a further four years. This horror was brought to an end after some brave villagers opened his grave and sawed off his head. This is the first historical record of an actual person being described as a vampire. Digging up bodies to have a look at them and make sure they were really dead must have become quite widespread because, by 1679, a man called Philippe Rohr wrote an essay on the subject of dead bodies who were found to have chewed through their shrouds.

From 1725, we have the story of Petar Blagojevich, a Serbian peasant who was believed to have returned from the dead and killed nine of his fellow villagers. His body had been exhumed, declared a vampire and then staked through the heart and burned. Around the same time, there is the case of Arnold Paole, who claimed he had been plagued by a vampire, but cured himself by eating soil from its grave and smearing himself with its blood. He died and then returned to kill four people. His body was exhumed and staked, as were the bodies of his victims. In 1731, there was another outbreak of vampirism in which seventeen people died. It began with a woman named Milica, who had eaten two sheep that had been killed by vampires. When the bodies of the dead were dug out of their graves for examination they were found to be plump with a ruddy complexion. Classic signs of the vampire. Their heads were removed and their bodies burned.

Also in 1725, a man named Michael Ranft wrote another essay on the subject of ‘ Masticatione Mortuorum’ – ‘The Chewing Dead’. He also described corpses who had been found to have eaten the linings of their coffins, even their own limbs. An unimaginable horror. He did, sensibly, suggest that it might be the practice of constantly digging up and handling the dead that was actually causing the all the unexplained deaths and he thought people should probably stop doing it. It didn’t really help. Vampire mania raged on, with the dead being burned, beheaded, pinned to the ground with stakes, to stop them getting up and having bricks forced into their mouths, to stop them chewing. In 1755, Empress Marie Theresa sent her personal physician to investigate. He concluded that it was all superstitious nonsense and, in 1768, she passed a law forbidding the desecration of graves.

The dead may have escaped further indignities, but their stories had been translated into other languages and they soon spread across Europe. The tales caught the imaginations of those who were so inclined, and it wasn’t long before they began to turn up in romantic poetry, where they began to take on the erotic overtones we recognise today. The earliest seems to be Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s ‘Der Vampir’ from 1748. The first Vampire 05 26 varney the vampireappeared in English fiction in Robert Southey’s 1797 poem ‘Thalaba the Destroyer’. On the night that Mary Shelly came up with her story of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati, in 1816, Lord Byron produced his ‘Fragment of a Novel’ about a mysterious aristocrat called Darvell. Darvell dies and his body turns black and decomposes within minutes. Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, later expanded on the story and published it as ‘The Vampyre’ in 1819.

In the mid 1840s a story called ‘Varney the Vampire’ was published in a series of cheap pamphlets known as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. It’s a bit of a confusing story, but it does introduce several familiar tropes: The fangs, the two puncture wounds left on the victim, hypnotic powers and superhuman strength.

When ‘Bram Stoker wrote his novel, he was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, and probably based the appearance and mannerisms of his Count Dracula on his boss, the05 26 henry irving actor-manager Henry Irving. This was probably not a slur on his character but more likely a hope that Irving would play the leading part in a stage version of the story. Stoker spent seven years researching European folklore for his book and he spent some of that time in Whitby. Dracula’s dramatic arrival to our shores on a wrecked ship piloted by a dead man was, almost certainly, based on a real shipwreck in the town. The name of the ship and its place of origin are practically identical to the one in the novel. If Stoker did not witness the wreck himself he would certainly have heard of it and seen a photograph of the beached schooner taken by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. He may also have heard stories from the locals about how the ship was full of coffins whose occupants continued to wash up on the shore for weeks afterwards.

05 26 Dmitry

Also, it is believed that Stoker came up with the name ‘Dracula’ for his character whilst doing some research in Whitby Library. ‘Bram had, at first, intended to name his character ‘Count Wampyr’. But after reading a book with the catchy title of ‘Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them.’ he came across the name Dracula and liked it. Vlad II, King of Wallachia, took the name ‘Vlad Dracul’ because he was invested in the Order of the Dragon who were all about fighting off the Turks. The name ‘Dracula’ derives from that. There’s nothing particularly sinister about it. However, his son Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler, does not have a good reputation.

I’ve often been asked by passing visitors to Whitby where they might find Dracula’s grave and I’m not entirely sure what they mean. If Dracula, the fictional character, has a grave anywhere, it is in Romania. Fictional characters can’t really die though. Just open the book and there they are again. But they can be born and I like to think that if Dracula was born anywhere, he was born in Whitby.

American Beauty

05 25 marie doro 3Today is the birthday of this lady, a long forgotten star of silent film called Marie Doro. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart in 1882, in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Like most early film stars, she began her acting career on the stage. Also like most stage actresses, she began working in the chorus. By 1901, she was appearing in a play by David Belasco called ‘Naughty Anthony’. It doesn’t seem to have been one of his better plays and she appears to have been the best thing in it. She played a hosiery model who, in one scene, has put on a pair of silk stockings and is demonstrating their fit to three shocked Salvation Army women, when… a man walks in. It doesn’t sound like much to you and me, but in 1901, it was pretty scandalous.

In 1903 she was spotted by impresario Charles Frohman who took her to Broadway. In 1905 she travelled to London where she worked alongside William Gillette in a play called ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Gillette was the first man to play the role of the detective. I mentioned this play when I wrote about Charlie Chaplin back in April. The sixteen year old, then unknown, Chaplin also had a small part in the play. He still remembered seeing her for the first time when, years later, he wrote his autobiography. He said:

“She was so devastatingly beautiful that I resented her. I resented her delicate, pouting lips, her regular, white teeth, her adorable chin, her raven hair and dark brown eyes… But oh God, she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”

And who can blame him? The photograph below was taken around 1902 by a Broadway photographer called Burr McIntosh. It’s a wonderful picture, she is indeed, radiant.05 25 marie doro 2 I was glad I managed to track down the name of the photographer. I only wish I could tell you who was responsible for her costume.

Ten years later, Marie and Charlie were both in Hollywood. Marie told a friend that she was a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin and would like to meet him. She had no idea that they had once acted together. When they were introduced he said: ‘But we’ve met before. You broke my heart. I was silently in love with you.’ She answered ‘How thrilling.’ He told her how he had timed exactly when she would leave her dressing room, just so he could meet her on the stairs and gulp ‘Good evening’.

Marie appeared in several plays alongside Gillette, including one he wrote himself called Clarice in which she had the title role. It is about a doctor and his young ward who are in love but neither knows the other’s feelings. There are some suggestions that Gillette wrote the play with her in mind. Frohman and Gillette exerted a strong influence on her development as an actress and she later admitted that she had been ‘hypnotised by them.’ She was rather typecast as the weak and pretty woman but people who knew her described her as very intelligent and funny. She was an something of an expert on the work of Shakespeare and on Elizabethan poetry.

After Frohman was killed in the sinking of the Lusitania she made a sideways move into cinema. She appeared in eighteen films all together, almost none of which survive. Old films were shot on cellulose nitrate film which tends to rot away. Either that or it spontaneously bursts into flames. It will carry on burning, even if you submerge it in water. Maybe 75 % of all American silent films are lost. The titles of her films are intriguing, I’d love to be able to show you a clip from ‘The Mysterious Princess’ orMidnight Gambols’, but I can’t. She does have the honour of having appeared in the first 3D film to be shown to a paying audience, in 1915. It was just a few test shots, but still, that’s quite a claim.

I can’t tell you a great deal about Marie Doro’s life. She married in 1915, was divorced quite soon after. She never married again. She never had any children. In the 1920s, she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left. Marie later made a few films in Italy and at least one in the UK. After returning to New York, she became increasingly reclusive and died in 1956, leaving $90,000 to the Actors Fund, which provides financial support for workers in the performing arts and enntertainment industry. Her life and career may be lost to us but, thanks to Burr McIntosh, we still have these lovely images…

05 25 marie doro 1


Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the StageLast month, when my laptop was broken, I thought all my notes for this blog might be lost forever. So I was scratching round for something to write about and came across Robert Chambers article about mountebanks. He then went on to describe a bunch of fascinating people that I’d never heard of. Mountebanks were quack doctors who travelled about pedalling their cures and often performed operations on stage in front of an audience. As I wrote about Franz Mesmer yesterday, the link between medicine and theatre is still on my mind.

Today marks the death of Sir William Read who died in 1715. He wasn’t destined to be a knight. Originally, he was either a tailor or a cobbler and he was barely literate. He somehow became a mountebank and travelled the country peddling his wares. His specialities were diseases of the eye and the removal of tumours. He did all this with the aid of a substance he called ‘styptic water’ which was, I believe, designed to stop bleeding. In fact, you can still buy styptic pencils today for the same purpose, so perhaps it worked. Anyway, he managed to rise to the position of eye doctor to Queen Anne and her successor George I. People didn’t like him very much. When he was knighted, Beau Nash, a dandy from Bath turned down the offer of a knighthood because he did not want to be associated with Read. Beyond that, I couldn’t find out very much about him, apart from the fact that he published a book about eyes which was mostly lifted from someone else. But it does give me the opportunity to tell you about a couple of Robert Chambers mountebanks.

05 24 gustavus kattafeltoGustavus Katterfelto was a Prussian conjurer, scientific lecturer and mountebank who travelled about England and Scotland towards the end of the eighteenth century. He found fame in London during a flu epidemic in 1782. Part of his performance included a solar microscope, which he used to project images of micro organisms found in water, on bread or in cheese. He claimed these were the insects which caused the influenza. Unfortunately, people started to think he might be releasing the insects and actually causing the disease. He quickly took out an advertisement announcing that all his insects had died in a rain storm. Then, three days later, he took out another announcing that he himself had caught influenza. Not long after that he claimed to have found the cure, which he would sell at five shillings a bottle. Among his other claims were, that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion and that he had launched the first hot air balloon fifteen years before the Montgolfier brothers. Katterfelto lectured on electricity and magnetism and performed with a black cat, who he claimed was evil. When the cat later gave birth kittens, its offspring were very much in demand. Marie Antoinette may have had one of them. The kittens that he kept would sometimes magically convey themselves into the pockets of his audience members, but they might also find that they had been relieved of their money and watches at the same time.

After he had outworn his welcome in the capital, he took off on a less successful tour of the provinces. In Shrewsbury, he accidentally set a haystack on fire with a hot air balloon and was jailed when he couldn’t afford to pay for the damage. I was delighted to find out that he performed, and was well received in Whitby, which, you might have gathered, is my home town. One of his favourite tricks there was to put his daughter in a massive steel helmet and lift her to the ceiling with a giant magnet.

05 24 james grahamThe other mountebank I want to tell you about today is James Graham, who operated in London at the same time as Katterfelto. Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh, but never took a degree. He travelled to America where he learned about the principles of electricity from a friend of Benjamin Franklin. He left before the revolution and travelled Holland, Germany and Russia before setting up in Bath in 1776. By 1780, he had opened his ‘Temple of Health’ in London. There, he offered electrical and magnetic cures with a heavy emphasis on the electrical. You could sit on an electric throne, put on an electric crown or soak yourself in an electric bath. He sold medicines with names like ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’ and gave medical lectures. These he performed with the aid of a succession of ‘Goddesses of Health’, who were supposed to represent physical perfection. One of his goddesses was Emy Lyon, who later became Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.

The following year, he opened another premises, his ‘Temple of Hymen’ in Pall Mall. This held his most impressive piece of equipment. His ‘Celestial Bed’. The bed was designed to help couples who were having difficulty conceiving a child. It was twelve feet by nine and was surmounted by a dome filled with fresh flowers, automata, a pair of live turtle doves and also a large mirror. The mattress could be tilted into a favourable position and was filled with fresh wheat or oat straw, rose petals, lavender flowers and, just for good measure, hair from the tails of the best English stallions. If you think this all sounds a bit much, I want to tell you that it was also a musical bed. The movements of its occupants would cause organ music to play which increased in intensity with their ardour. You could hire this bed for fifty pounds a night. That was an exorbitant sum in the 1780s but there were plenty of aristocratic families who desperately needed an heir and who were probably so riddled with syphilis that they were having difficulty producing one. I was a bit sad that I couldn’t find a picture of it, but then I came across this lovely re-imagining of Graham’s Celestial Bed by an artist called Tim Hunkin.

Graham was a great showman but sadly not very good with money and, by 1784, he was bankrupt. Two years later, he was back in business and promoting ‘earth-bathing’. He claimed that bathing in soil was the secret to immortality. That a person could absorb through their skin, all the nutrients they needed. He claimed that he had survived for two weeks immersed in his earth bath, with nothing but a few drops of water for sustenance. He even gave lectures whilst burieded up to his neck in a flower bed. In later years, he became extremely religious and founded the New Jerusalem Church. He was its only member. In 1792, he began to experiment with prolonged fasting as a way of extending his life-span. He died two years later. He was forty-nine.


05 23 franz mesmerToday I am celebrating the birthday of Franz Mesmer who was born on this day in 1734, in a German village on the shore of Lake Constance with the lovely name of Iznang. Mesmerism is named after him. Now, the word is synonymous with hypnotism but it meant something rather different to him. He studied medicine in Vienna and learned the technique of using magnets to heal from a Hungarian astronomer called Maximilian Hell, which is an excellent name.

Belief in the healing property of magnets stretches back a long way. In the sixteenth century, a physician named Paracelsus claimed that he could cure diseases using magnets to draw out the infection. It was a belief that was partially responsible for the whole ‘weapon salve’ debacle that I have mentioned elsewhere.

Mesmer had developed a theory that all living creatures produced waves of energy that could flow from one body to another. He called this energy ‘animal magnetism’. In 1774, he created what he called a ‘magnetic tide’ in a patient who suffered from hysteria. He achieved this by having her swallow a preparation containing iron and then applying magnets to parts of her body. She reported a feeling of mysterious fluids running through her body and was free from symptoms for several hours. This is something like the feeling reported by Kasper Hauser who I mentioned last month.

Later, he decided that he didn’t need the magnets at all but could create the same effect by moving his hands over the patient’s body. In 1777, he treated a blind pianist in an attempt to restore her sight. There was some disagreement over whether or not this had been successful. Mesmer insisted that he had cured her. Everyone else pointed out that she was still blind. He insisted that the girl and her family were pretending she was still blind, just to discredit him. He was forced to leave Vienna.

He moved to Paris where his new treatments became extremely popular. Marie Antoinette and Mozart were huge fans. To treat a single patient required him to lay his hand on the person’s belly, sometimes for several hours. His patients, who were mainly female, would often experience convulsions which he referred to as ‘crises’. These, he thought, were a necessary part of the cure. Then, he found that he could treat up to a dozen patients simultaneously by using a wooden tub filled with bottles of water (just go with this). He charged the water with animal magnetism by stroking the bottles. Then he placed one end of long wire into the neck of each bottle. The other end protruded from the tub and could be applied to the affected part of the patient. All this took place in a lavishly furnished and overheated room at the Hôtel Bullion. At first the patients would be attended by Mesmer’s assistant magnitisers, all strong young men, who would stroke the patient’s body while staring directly into their eyes. This generally led to convulsions and hysterics. Then Mesmer would appear, dressed in long purple robes embroidered with gold flowers. He carried with him a long, white magnetised rod, a wand really, and touched his patients with it to calm them. All the while, strong incense would be burning and he would play music on his glass harmonica. For him it was all about creating the right atmosphere. There was almost certainly an element, among the louche and idle rich of Paris who just liked to go along to see a woman in convulsions.

His treatments were a subject of controversy. There were plenty of people who were uncomfortable with what he was doing. Some thought him a quack, others that he had sold his soul to the Devil. In 1784 the king, Louis XVI, suspected this was all nonsense and gathered together a group of people to help him prove it. One was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a doctor who was an expert in pain management. So it is really rather unfair that the guillotine was going to be named after him. Another was Benjamin Franklin, who was then United States Minister to France. They devised a test to disprove his claims. Mesmer sent a deputy in his stead, a man named Charles d’Eslon. A smart move as he could claim credit if it worked but blame d’Eslon if it didn’t. The idea was that d’Eslon would magnetise a tree in Franklin’s garden and a blindfolded boy would attempt to sense which tree had been affected. The boy failed to identify the tree and the experiment ended when the boy fainted.

While mesmerism was being ridiculed by some, others were concerned that it could be used as a form of mind control. Mesmer himself left Paris a year later and rather disappeared from public life. He died in 1815. He still had many followers though. In the 1780s the Marquis de Puységur, an avid disciple of Mesmer, succeeded in putting people into a kind of trance which he called ‘somnambulism’. He found that he could question the people he put into a trance and they would answer clearly and honestly. He also found that he could control their movements. By the next century some doctors were using a ‘mesmeric trance’ to perform operations instead of using anaesthetic. In 1842 a Scottish doctor named James Braid discounted the animal magnetism idea behind mesmerism, believing it to be entirely psychological. He coined the term ‘hypnotism’ after the Greek word for sleep.

Dead Man Saved From Fire

05 22 chudleighToday, I want to tell you about the Great Fire of Chudleigh which happened in 1807. Chudleigh is a small town in Devon, and, like the Great Fire of London, the blaze began in a bakery. At around noon, a pile of gorse stacked near a baking oven caught light. Normally, it might have been easily controlled, but there had been a long spell of dry weather. Then, a breeze blew up which carried burning flakes from the fire to neighbouring properties. Many of the dwellings had thatched roofs which had become tinder dry in the hot sun and they quickly caught light. The same breeze then carried large pieces of burning thatch and soon, three whole streets were on fire.

The Chudleigh residents had little time to gather their belongings before they had to abandon their homes. The few items they managed to save were taken to the Market House for safe-keeping. As it had been newly rebuilt and had a slate roof, people thought that would be a good place and it filled quickly. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they took in was already on fire, so that burned down as well.

The town did have their own fire engine, but it is not clear whether they had any water after such a long dry spell. In any case, the fire engine caught fire and was no help at all. Then, at around two o’clock a barrel of gunpowder that everyone had forgotten about exploded, giving a fresh impetus to the blaze.

The body of a recently deceased gentleman lay in one of the houses in the centre of the town and someone had thoughtfully carried the coffin out into the street to protect it from the flames. But, unfortunately, people also began to pile some of their own smouldering possessions around it. His bereaved son, whose own house was on fire, was told what had happened and he rushed through narrow, burning streets to rescue his father’s body. He got there just in time to pull off the burning pall that was covering the coffin. With the help of a few friends, he managed to carry it to the churchyard. In the midst of the chaos, a hurried funeral was conducted. The vicar and two mourners were the only attendees as everyone else was pretty busy.

Also, like the Great Fire of London, the fire was only halted when the houses in its path were pulled down. In only four hours, almost two thirds of the town had been lost. Amazingly though, no one was killed. But many people had lost everything and were left homeless. Help flooded in from neighbouring communities in the form of money and clothes. They also sent bibles and prayer books. The money was used to compensate people for their losses, but it was felt that some people had made larger claims than they were entitled to. The largest claim, of one thousand two hundred and seven pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence, went to a Mr Richard Rose, an innkeeper, who used the money to rebuild his coaching inn, pictured above, which had been destroyed by the fire.

In the course of my research today, I discovered that in 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the fire, the Chudleigh Historical Society planned to commemorate the event by setting fire to a seventy foot long scale replica of the village, complete with exploding barrel of gunpowder. I’ve no idea if it came to anything, but if it did, I really hope everyone was okay.