She Who Dares

07 22 hoorayI started this blog on July 23rd last year, with the hope of finding something interesting to tell you about each day of the year, so today’s post will be my last one, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s been difficult to find something that I’m happy to finish on. Looking back at some of my favourite recurring themes over the last twelve months, I probably wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a daredevil hoaxer, with a side interest in alchemy, who also happened to be a woman. Unfortunately, no such person exists, but if I ever write a work of fiction, I know what the central character is going to be like. In the mean time, here is a picture of me celebrating my achievement with a cake and a massive sword..

07 22 maria spelteriniBut I do have a daredevil to tell you about. On this day in 1876, Maria Spelterini, walked over the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. It was the last of four crossings that she made as part of the celebration of the US centennial. If you’re thinking this story might have a tragic end, it doesn’t. She lived until 1912. Several people crossed the gorge in the second half of the nineteenth century but Maria was the only woman. She made four crossings between the 8th and the 22nd. She walked across and she danced across. She crossed it backwards, she crossed with a paper bag on her head and she crossed with large peach baskets strapped to her feet. Honestly, you can see them in this photograph. On July 22nd, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Unfortunately, I can tell you very little else about Maria. Most sources insist that she was Italian, but there is one that suggests she was German. She seems to have begun her career in her father’s circus at the age of three and to have performed around Europe and Russia. I also found a report that she crossed the bay at Jersey City, on a wire 125 ft high, in a thunderstorm.

The bridge that you can see in the background is was once used by the Underground Railroad to secretly transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in Canada. The Niagara Suspension Bridge was the first permanent bridge to cross the gorge and it opened in 1855. But before that, there was a temporary bridge, which is worth a mention. It was built by a rather flamboyant character called Charles Ellet Jr. In order to bridge the gorge, he first had to get a rope across. He thought about towing it across on a steamer, he though about attaching it to a cannonball or rocket and firing it across. In the end, he decided to run a competition.

The first child to fly a kite across the gorge and tie the kite string to the other side would win $5. Young people flocked from nearby towns to participate. The $5 was won by sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh, who flew his kite from the Canadian side of the river. The kite string was used to pull increasingly heavy lines over the gorge until they managed to secure a cable that was almost an inch thick. Charles wanted to use the cable to transport materials across without having to take them down to the river. They tested it with an 07 22 ellet's basketempty metal basket, but it kept getting stuck halfway. The whole operation had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers so, to assure them it was going to work, he climbed into the basket himself and was hauled across. He spotted that the cable had been flattened and the basket’s rollers were getting stuck. He fixed it and was pulled over to the other side. So Charles Eller Jr was the first person to cross the gorge. The basket worked very well after that. In fact, people used to pay him a dollar to ride in it. Even though he had been expressly forbidden to do so, he sometimes took around a hundred and twenty-five passengers a day.

When the bridge was finished, he was the first to cross it, in his horse and buggy, standing, like a gladiator. The 700 ft bridge only had railings along one third of its length. In the first year of its operation, $5,000 had been collected in tolls. Charles and the bridge company fell out over the money. He ended up mounting cannons on the bridge and claiming ownership of it. Eventually he was paid off and someone else built the permanent bridge.

07 22 mary toftAs I couldn’t find the ideal candidate for my last post, I’d like to leave you with a hoaxer and an alchemist, neither have birthdays that I can celebrate, but both are women. Firstly, Mary Toft was born about 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. When she was about twenty-five, she managed to convince some fairly eminent physicians that she had given birth to rabbits. At first she brought forth only parts of animals, but later seemed to produce whole rabbits. I won’t go into the details of how she did this, because it’s fairly disgusting and it’s a wonder she didn’t develop some sort of infection. Mary had been pregnant, but had miscarried after, she claimed, she had seen a rabbit whilst out working in the fields. After that, she had become obsessed with rabbits and couldn’t think of anything else. There was, at that time, a widely held belief that a child could be physically affected by what its mother had seen during her pregnancy. A similar story was ascribed to the mother of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many thought a woman capable of producing a small, mouse-like creature known as a ‘sooterkin’. Some doctors believed Mary, others were more sceptical, especially when she later gave birth to a pigs bladder that smelled of urine. When she finally admitted the hoax, it ruined the reputations of those who had believed her. Mary was imprisoned for a while, but then released, as no one could think of anything to charge her with.

Finally, I want to tell you about a lady who is variously called Mary or Maria the Jewess or, alternatively, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess. According to tradition, Mary was the sister of Moses, but she could have lived at any time up the the first century AD. She is known as the first alchemist of the western world. None of her writing survives. But it is referred to in the works of later alchemists, in connection with the first description of acid salt and 07 22 bain marierecipes for turning plants into gold. She in credited with having invented several items of chemical apparatus, including a sort of double flask. The outer flask in filled with liquid that can be used to heat whatever is in the inside flask. So if you put water in the outside flask and heat it up, whatever is on the inside can never get any hotter than the boiling water. It is still used today by chemists who require gentle heat for their experiments. And by me, for melting chocolate. This type of apparatus still bears her name. It is a ‘bain marie’, Mary’s bath.

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A Scientist Adventurer

07 11 kenelm digbyToday is the birthday of Sir Kenelm Digby, who was born in 1603 at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. Digby was from a wealthy family, but he had a poor start in life. His father was one of the men executed for the Gunpowder Plot. I’ve not mentioned him before, but I’ve come across Digby often in my research. He turns up in all sorts of odd places, I’ve found him fighting duels, practising sympathetic magic, being a founder member of the Royal Society, authoring a cookery book and tragically mourning the death of his wife in quite weird way. So I thought we could have a proper look at him today.

In his early teens, Digby was tutored by a preacher called Robert Napier, who taught him about medicine, astronomy and alchemy. Robert had been a student of Simon Forman, who I mentioned back in December. He later studied at Oxford under the tutelage of a mathematician and astrologer called Thomas Allen.

Kenelm Digby was also in love, with a woman called Venetia Stanley, but his mother didn’t want them to marry. In fact, she sent him to Europe in 1620 so they couldn’t see each other. He spent some time in France, at the court of the mother of the King Louis XIII, Marie de Medici. According to his own account, she was deeply attracted to him, but he had to turn her down because of his love for Venetia. But she was so insistent that he could only get away from her by pretending that he had been killed. After that, he went to Florence where he wrote to Venetia to tell her he was well. But his mother intercepted his letter and it never reached her. Meanwhile, Venetia had heard and believed the rumours of his death and almost married someone else.

Digby also visited Madrid in 1623 at a time when the Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, was visiting the city in secret. Whilst there, Digby became involved in a huge street fight. It all started with a woman singing on a balcony. One of his friends was in love with the woman and stopped to listen. But he had a rival for her affections who had set a trap for him. They were suddenly attacked by a group of strangers. Again, we only have Digby’s, probably inflated, account to go on. But they were set upon by about fifteen men, it was dark, the men were wearing lanterns on their heads, which stopped him from being able to see them well. Everyone’s swords broke but Kenelm’s. They ran away and left him to fight. But he got away and killed two of them.

Digby returned to England later that year, and married Venetia in 1625. In 1627, he became a privateer, which means he had permission from the king to sail around the Mediterranean capturing Spanish and French vessels. So he was basically a legal pirate. Quite early on, his crew fell sick and he had to find a port. He chose Algiers, which was rather a daring choice. Most English captains tried to avoid Algiers, because it was full of pirates. He had a great time there. He made friends with the Algerian pirates and feasted with them. He bought Arabic manuscripts, he visited the steam baths. He met and talked with Muslim women, which was highly unusual, if not unique, for the time. He also managed to persuade the governors of the city to release fifty English slaves. After that he went on to defeat a very large fleet of Venetian ships and then went to Greece and plundered quite a lot of classical statues, which he thought would make impressive gifts when he returned home.

venetia_stanley_on_her_death_bed_by_anthony_van_dyck2c_16332c_dulwich_picture_gallery
photo credit: stephencdickson licensed under creative commons

Sadly, Venetia died in her sleep in 1633. Digby was distraught. He took plaster casts of her hands, feet and face. He asked his friend, Anthony van Dyke, to paint a picture of her on her deathbed. He commissioned poets to compose verses in her praise. He summoned the poet Ben Johnson to come and look at her body, so that he might be inspired by the sight. He insisted on attending the dissection of her body, which was carried out to try to find the cause of her death. The only conclusion was that she “had very little brain”. He built a huge black mausoleum for her body with a gold bust of her on the top. He never married again.

He became less of a gregarious adventurer and more of a solitary scientist. I first came across him in connection with the ‘weapon salve‘, an ointment which could cure a wound by applying it, not to the body, but to the weapon that caused it. Digby claimed to have the secret of the ‘powder of sympathy’ which he used to cure the wound of a friend named James Howell. His hand had been cut when he tried to intervene in a duel and was in danger of developing gangrene. Digby asked for something with his blood on it and was given a garter. Then, he took a bowl of water, put a handful of powder in it and dipped the garter in the bowl. Howell, though he was unaware of what was happening, immediately felt relief. When later, Digby put the garter to dry before a fire, Howell sent word that his wound was burning worse than ever. When Digby put it back in the water, his wound was cooled again.

Kenelm Digby left England during the Commonwealth period and returned at the same time as Charles II. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society. In fact, one of his papers, ‘Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants’ was the first to be published by the society. In it, he claimed that it was possible to burn the bodies of crayfish and resurrect them from their ashes, which, in 2016, seems a bit of a wild claim. But his paper was the first to suggest that plants might draw some of their sustenance from the air.

But Digby had another surprise. After his death, his lab assistant published a book of his recipes. Kenelm Digby was a cook. During his travels, he had collected all sorts of recipes. He has an oriental recipe for ‘tea with eggs’, which is the first Chinese recipe ever published in English. Some of his recipes are European, but many of them are English. It’s a great source of information for what people were eating in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, some of them don’t sound that great. ‘Hart’s horn jelly’ and ‘barley pap’ both sound pretty awful, but his book also contains his recipe for the powder of sympathy, which I’m sure you could seek out if you were interested.

Kenelm Digby died in 1665, and was buried alongside Venetia. Sadly their tomb was lost in the Great Fire of London the following year. The gold bust was looted. Someone once caught sight of it on a market stall but, when he went back for it, it had gone. Digby’s reputation was also largely forgotten. He struggled hard against the legacy of his father’s treachery. He became a learned man, he freed slaves, he brought home plundered wealth. He was an important figure at the courts of both Charles I and Charles II. Yet he was mostly remembered as a bit of a quack, who thought you could get rid of warts by washing your hands in a bowl of moonshine. He did think that, but he also invented the wine bottle.

The Great

06 09 peter the greatToday is the the birthday of Peter the Great, who was born on this day in 1672. I’ve mentioned Peter a few times already when I wrote about about the Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, Frederic Ruysch and the Alaska Purchase. His official title is so ridiculously long that I’m not even going to tell you what it was. So I’ll just stick with ‘Emperor of all the Russias’. But what would you think if I told you that the Emperor of all the Russias spent eighteen months of his reign travelling around Europe in disguise working in dockyards? Well, I am going to tell you that, in a minute.

Peter inherited the throne from his half brother and, from the age of ten, shared the title of Tsar with another step brother. But the real power behind the throne, literally, was his older step sister. There was a hole cut in the back of their double throne and she used to sit behind it and tell them what to say. She later tried to overthrow both of them and got sent to a convent. Then, in 1696, his brother died and Peter became sole ruler. Like anyone who goes about calling themselves ‘the Great’ he wasn’t an entirely good person. He once personally beheaded two hundred people with an axe. But let’s not focus on that.

He seems to have spent most of his reign either trying to start a war or fighting one. His problem was, that although Russia was a vast country, full of all sorts of resources that people might want to buy, exporting them was difficult. What Peter really wanted were ships, he really liked ships, and the only place he could have ships was the port of Arkhangelsk on the northern coast. That wasn’t ideal, because it was ice bound for a large part of the year. What he needed was either a bit of Sweden or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire so he could have access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. So he thought it might be a good idea to start some wars. But he would need allies.

In 1697, Peter organised his ‘Grand Embassy’ which was an entourage of around two hundred and fifty people, including himself. They set off on an eighteen month journey around Europe looking for support for his plan. The Tsar was travelling incognito, calling himself Peter Mikhailov. But I don’t imagine his disguise fooled many people as Peter was unusually tall at 6′ 7”. They didn’t have much luck. People were far too worried about who was going to be the next King of Spain after the unfortunate Charles II, who wasn’t very well at all.

It wasn’t a wasted journey though, because Peter got to see Europe. Russia was, at that time, still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance had passed it by. Peter was the first Russian ruler to leave his country in a hundred years and he was impressed by what he saw. When I try to imagine what that would have been like for him, I think about how I would have felt if someone had given me the internet in 1973. Peter loved two things, well, three things, but we’ll get to that. He loved ships and he loved the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that wealthy people had begun to collect. When he visited the Netherlands, which was a massively important sea-faring nation, he managed to get hands on experience on how ships were built He also recruited skilled workers, who would be able to help him with his plans for a Russian Navy.

06 09 peter and jacobBut it was also in the Netherlands that he got to see how Europeans really lived. In Amsterdam, he met Jacob de Wilde who had a huge collection of books, statues and scientific instruments. Peter was fascinated. Jacob’s daughter made this engraving in commemoration of their meeting. There, he met Jan van der Heyden, who invented the fire hose. That might not sound very significant, but Peter’s capital, Moscow, was a wooden city and fires were quite a problem. He also met one of my favourite Dutch anatomists, Frederik Ruysch, who taught him how to catch butterflies and how to pull teeth. On a second, later, visit, he bought up Ruysch’s entire, extremely odd, collection and shipped it back to Russia.

After that, Peter went to London, where he also studied shipbuilding, in the dockyards of Deptford. This brings us to Peter’s third favourite thing. Drinking. Peter and his men were lodged in a house that belonged to John Evelyn. If you want a historical handle on him, he’s the other man, apart from Samuel Pepys, who wrote a diary that tells us about the Great Fire of London. John Evelyn loved his home, and had spent many years creating its beautiful garden. Peter and his entourage, which I now realise I’ve neglected to mention, included six trumpeters, four dwarves and a monkey, managed to drunkenly wreck the entire place during their short stay. They broke the windows and doors. They tore and burnt the tapestries and ripped up the mattresses. They blew up the kitchen floor. After they left, every single one of the fifty chairs in the house had gone missing. In the garden, they tore up Evelyn’s bowling green and they destroyed his pride and joy, a holly hedge, which they wrecked by pushing each other through it in wheelbarrows. Evelyn was paid £305 9s 6d in compensation, including £3 for “wheelbarrows broke by the Czar”

During his stay in London, he also met with Edmund Halley, of comet fame, who probably helped a bit with the wrecking of Evelyn’s house, so there’s a side of him we haven’t seen. While in England, Peter also visited Manchester. I couldn’t find out what he did there, other than learn how proper cities were built. Despite his behaviour, Peter left England with the gift of a ship and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, in Law, of all things.

Peter had to cut his visit short because of a threatened uprising back in Russia. On his way, he managed to forge an alliance against Sweden with the King of Poland, who was called Augustus the Strong. The rebellion was over by the time he got back, but he set about modernising his country. He outlawed arranged marriages amongst the nobility. He made them wear wigs and European clothes. If he caught them wearing coats with long sleeves, he cut them off with a pair of scissors. He also tried to make them shave off their long beards. Anyone who wanted to keep their beards had to pay a ‘beard tax’ and keep a token with them to prove that they’d paid it. On one side it said ‘the beard tax has been taken’, on the other, ‘the beard is a superfluous burden’.

He also changed the calender in 1699. The Russians had an odd calender, based on the Byzantine one. They reckoned the year from the supposed date of creation. So for them, it was the year 7207. He also changed the date of New Year from September 1st to January 1st, something we didn’t do in England until 1752. So December 31st 7207 was followed by January 1st 1700. It was a big change for everyone. Peter had taken up the practice of smoking and when people saw him with smoke coming out of his mouth, some thought their Tsar had been captured and replaced by the Devil.

Maybe, we’ll leave Peter there. Just before he picks up that axe and starts swinging it. And before he starts forcing everyone to build him a big city in the middle of nowhere. Except, I have one more wild story to tell you. In 1701, while visiting his friend Augustus the Strong, they went on a three day drinking binge which ended with a cannon-shooting competition. Augustus won.

A Mystery Solved

05 17 peter mundayOften, when I’m looking for something brilliant to tell you about, I find a single, intriguing sentence and, when I try to find out more, I just find the same words posted over and over on different sites with no further explanation. It’s very frustrating. Today I found: ‘May 17th 1620, 1st merry-go-round seen at a fair (Philippapolis, Turkey)’ This sort of thing is worse than useless to me if I can’t tell you any more about it…

But, today is brilliant because I’ve got to the truth behind one of these irritating factlets. In May 1620, a Cornish man named Peter Munday set off from Constantinople, where he had been living for three or four years, on a journey overland back to England. He had begun his working life as a cabin boy in 1608 and eventually became a merchant traveller. He estimated that he’d already travelled well over seventeen thousand miles before he even set off on this journey. I haven’t been able to find out why he journeyed overland, but he was accompanying the English Ambassador to Constantinople, Paul Pindar, who had been recalled to London. His four month adventure is described in his book The Travels of Peter Munday in Europe and Asia. On May 17th he arrived at the city of Philippapolis, which he tells us was founded by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. He visited a fair with extremely high swings for the grown ups and a sort of big wheel and a carousel for the children. He even drew us a picture and describes:

“…a great Cart Wheele, on whose circumference is fastned little seats, whereon the Children, beinge sett, the wheele is putt about, they all goeing round Horizontallwise”.

So that clears that up. He tells us about the fair as a bit of light diversion between describing some truly awful methods of execution, which he also illustrated, and how they had to camp on the opposite side of the river because there was plague in the city. This is certainly not brilliant, but you can read about it here if you like. The ambassador seems to have remained in London after that. The most interesting thing I can tell you about him is that the whole facade of his house is preserved in the Victoria and Albert museum. It was saved after the building was demolished to make way for Liverpool Street Station and it’s the biggest thing they have. Peter continued his travelling life. In later years he also visited Russia, China and Japan. He wrote and illustrated accounts of some of these journeys too. If you clicked on the link and read any of his work, you’ll notice that he’s very observant, but not very compassionate. He estimated that, all together, he travelled 100,883 and 5/8th miles.

But I don’t think what Peter Mundy saw was the first merry-go-round. There were probably others. The word ‘carousel’ comes from the Italian word ‘garosello’ or the Spanish ‘carosella’ which mean ‘little battle’. It was a training method for cavalrymen that had been observed amongst Turkish and Arabian horsemen, by crusaders back in the twelfth century. Then, they would ride in a circle tossing a ball to each other as they went. By the seventeenth century, they were , instead, trying to spear rings that were suspended from poles above them. Although it was originally intended to train knights on horseback, it was so much fun that everyone wanted a go. A version with wooden animals was made for children. It would have been powered either by an animal walking in a circle or by people cranking it or pulling on a rope. So that is how it became a popular fairground ride. The animals weren’t originally attached to the floor with poles, but suspended on chains, so they would fly outwards as they went.

You can tell a British merry-go-round horse from an American or European one, even after it is detached, because in Britain, the left hand side of the horse will be more ornately decorated but elsewhere, it is the right hand side. That is because British carousels usually turn clockwise but the ones in America and Europe tend to turn anti-clockwise and the most heavily decorated side faces outward. But, solving one mystery today has presented me with another… I haven’t been able to find out why this is.

Fantastic Voyage

05 16 saint brendanToday is the feast day of Saint Brendon, patron saint of sailors, divers and also whales. He’s a pretty popular saint in his native Ireland, probably second only to Saint Patrick. Though frankly, why people go for Patrick in such a big way when they have a saint like Brendon, I find hard to understand.

Early Irish monks were adventurous souls who loved to set off across the sea in tiny boats, believing that God would take them where they needed to go. Brendan had already travelled quite widely when he met an Abbot named Barrid told him an intriguing tale of how he had ventured west across the sea and visited Paradise.

Brendan built a boat with a hull made from leather stretched over a wooden frame. He gathered together a company of either 14, 16 or 17 other monks and, somewhere between 512 and 530 AD, set off on a voyage of his own. The story of his seven year adventure is pretty amazing. They encountered an island inhabited only by a dog and an Ethiopian devil, an island populated with giant sheep and an island of birds who sang psalms in praise of God. On Easter Day they landed on the back of a whale which they mistook for an island. When they lit a fire it sank beneath the waves. The whale, who was named Jasconius, didn’t bare them any ill will though. The monks celebrated Easter on his back every year for seven years. They met with many fish, birds and sea monsters including one with the head of a cat and horns in it’s mouth. They sailed past a crystal pillar and an island of blacksmiths, who threw fiery rocks at them. They came upon a coagulated sea and fertile islands with giant fruit. On a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, they saw Judas. We are told that this was where he went when he was allowed out of Hell on Sundays. They seem to have revisited some of the islands regularly, so they must have been sailing around in circles. But they did reach the land that the Abbot had spoken of, which became known as Saint Brendan’s Island, and eventually returned home.

The Voyage of Saint Brendon was such a popular tale, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, that Saint Brendon’s Island appeared on many maps. Its location tended to change a fair bit though. When Columbus first set sail for America, he fully expected to find the island on his way. Its existence wasn’t fully discounted until the nineteenth century. More recently, people have started to believe that it could be a partially true account of an early voyage to America. There are certainly some quite big sheep on the Faroe Islands. The crystal pillar could be an iceberg. The blacksmiths throwing fiery stones could be an interpretation of an active volcano. The sea monster with horns in its mouth could easily be a walrus.

It is widely accepted now that the Vikings sailed to North America. The Vikings have tales of a settlement they call Vinland, which could be in America and they refer to the land to the south of it as ‘Irland it Mikla’ – ‘Greater Ireland’.

In 1976 a man named Tim Severin built a replica of Saint Brendan’s boat. He managed to sail it, with a small crew, from Ireland, via the Faroes, Iceland and past Greenland all the way to America. So such a journey would have been possible. When the leather hull was torn by a lump of ice they managed to stitch on a patch. Such a repair would have been impossible with a wooden or metal ship. They were particularly surprised to find that they were visited on their journey by many whales. It’s quite likely that they thought the big leather boat was some new, odd sort of whale that needed investigating.

Adventuress

05 05 nellie bly 1Today is the birthday of Nellie Bly, who was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran near Pittsburgh in 1864. She was a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism at a time when women did not even have the right to vote.

When Elizabeth was sixteen, an article appeared in her local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled ‘What Girls Are Good For’. Its author felt that women should not even attempt to have an education or a career. She was so incensed that she wrote an angry rebuttal to the editor. Her own mother worked to support herself after her second marriage ended in divorce so she had some pretty strong opinions to share. The Editor was so impressed that he asked her to write an article for the newspaper and then he offered her a full time job. She wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly. Many of her early pieces highlighted the plight of working women and the poor factory conditions that they had to endure. She spent six months in Mexico, reporting on the lives and customs of the people there and also wrote scathingly about the Mexican government. Mostly though, she found herself relegated to the so-called ‘women’s pages’ writing about fashion and gardening and she left in 1887.

Nellie moved to New York and, after four months of unemployment, managed to land a job at ‘New York World’, a newspaper belonging to Joseph Pulitzer. She was given an undercover assignment which involved feigning insanity in order to have herself admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. There had been reports of neglect and mistreatment of patients and Nellie would be able to find out if they were true. She checked herself into a boardinghouse where she kicked up a massive fuss. She said she was afraid of the other boarders because they looked crazy and she refused to go to bed. By 05 05 an insanity expert at workthe next morning everyone was afraid that she was crazy and the police were called. Nellie was examined by several doctors who all pronounced her insane and she was taken to Blackwell’s Island. At first she was afraid of being found out as a fraud, but she soon began to think that the doctors were incompetent.

On the island she found out that patients were given terrible food, insufficient clothing and made to sit in silence for long hours. They were given cold baths in filthy water and were often punished by being beaten and strangled by the nurses. Once there, Nellie found that convincing people of her sanity was impossible. Furthermore she doubted the insanity of her fellow inmates. Some women were there because English was not their first language and simply hadn’t been able to make themselves understood. One lady had asked for help from the authorities because she was poor and, when she found herself in the asylum, she had assumed that this was where all poor people went. Nellie was released only with the help of her employers after ten days. The articles she wrote led to an official investigation into the care of patients at Blackwell’s Island and also an $850,000 dollar increase in the budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Nellie’s investigative journalism made her famous and were later reprinted as a book called ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’. Her experiences inspired the TV series ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’. But that is not all she did.

05 05 nellie bly 2In 1888 she suggested to her editor that she make a journey around the world in order to see if she could make the fictional story ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ into a reality. A year later, at 9:40 am on November 14, 1889 she set off on a steamer across the Atlantic, All she took were the dress she was wearing, an overcoat, one small case and £200 in a bag tied around her neck. She travelled to England, across to France, where she met Jules Verne (the author of Around the World in Eighty Days) to Egypt, Ceylon and Singapore. When she arrived in Hong Kong she discovered that a rival newspaper, ‘Cosmopolitan’, had sent another journalist, named Elizabeth Bisland, on a similar journey but in the opposite direction. She was now in a competition to see who would arrive home first. Nellie arrived in San Francisco behind schedule due to storms in the Pacific. Her employer, Pulitzer, chartered a special train and she arrived in back in New Jersey at 3.51 pm on January 25 1890. The journey had taken less that 73 days. Her rival had also been delayed, crossing the Atlantic, and arrived four and a half days later. For a little while, Nellie Bly held the record for the fastest journey around the world. Her trip also inspired this board game…

05 05 nellie bly game

Follow Your Heart

04 03 jane digby 1Today is the birthday of Jane Elizabeth Digby who was born in 1807 in Dorset. She was the daughter of a British naval commander and her grandfather was an earl, so she had a privileged upbringing as a member of the English aristocracy. At seventeen, she married Edward Law, 2nd Baron of Ellenborough, but things did not go smoothly. Jane’s life would be one filled with scandal and adventure. She would marry four times and have a string of lovers which included two kings, (the second king was the son of the first king), a Greek brigand general and a Syrian sheik.

When Jane married the baron, they thought they were in love, but they weren’t. They had one child, Arthur who died shortly before his second birthday. Edward was away an awful lot and she was left alone to amuse herself. She had an affair, first with her cousin and then with Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg who was then attaché to the Austrian Embassy in London. Affairs amongst the aristocracy was pretty normal, but Jane and Felix weren’t very discreet and her husband found out about it. Then Jane became pregnant with Felix’s child. Divorce was, at that time, a very difficult thing that required the permission of Parliament and probably Ellenborough planned just to cast off his errant wife and hide her away in the country while everyone forgot about it. Jane had other ideas though. Much against the advice of her friends and family, she took off after Felix. Jane gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, in Basel, Switzerland in 1829 and her husband started divorce proceedings. This caused such a scandal that the story appeared on the front page of The Times.

Her relationship with Felix soon went sour. He refused to marry her because, as a Catholic, he couldn’t marry a divorced woman. They had another child, also called Felix, who lived for only a few weeks and the Prince abandoned her. She had three failed relationships, two dead children and was unable to return to her home country because of the scandal. At the age of just twenty-three, things weren’t going well for Jane. She moved to Munich where she caught the attention of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her affair with the King didn’t last long and she began a relationship with a German baron called Karl von Venningan. Soon, she found herself pregnant again. She travelled to Palermo in Italy to give birth, hoping to avoid the disrepute that bearing yet another illegitimate child would bring her. Her new son was left temporarily with a foster family and her daughter was in the care of Felix’s sister. She decided to make the best of things and married von Venningan in 1833, though she didn’t much love him. They had a second child, Bertha, in 1834. But guess what? Jane got bored and had an affair.

04 03 jane digby 2Spyridon Theotokis was a Greek count. When von Venningan found out about their relationship he challenged Theotokis to a duel and won. Theotokis was only wounded but von Venningan felt honour was satisfied and Jane left for France with her new lover, leaving her children behind. She converted to the Greek Orthodox religion and they were married in 1841, before her divorce from von Venningan was finalised. Their only son, Leonidas, was born in 1840. Again, the marriage didn’t go well. Spyridon took to drinking and spending time with other women and then, in 1846, their son was killed when he fell from a balcony. Meanwhile, Jane had begun an affair with King Otto of Greece who, as I mentioned previously, was the son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. This did not go down well with Otto’s wife Amelie.

Jane and Spyridon were divorced in 1846 and that was when Jane took up with Christodoulos Hatzipetros, a brigand general who had been instrumental in freeing Greece from Ottoman rule. This was another snub to Amelie as she had her eye on him herself. Jane was queen of his brigand army, riding horses, hunting in the mountains, living in caves. It gave her a taste for adventure. But the she caught him cheating on her with her maid. She left him, but kept the maid.

By now she had decided that men were more trouble that they were worth. She had become fascinated with the story of Queen Zenobia, who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. Like Hester Stanhope before her, Jane decided she wanted to see the ruined city of Palmyra in Syria. In Damascus, she changed to an Arabic style of dress which was more suitable for the five day journey across the desert to Palmyra. On the way she met Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab who saved her when they were, inevitably, attacked by bandits along the way. She was forty-six, he was twenty years younger than her. She was an English aristocrat, he was a Bedouin who usually lived in tents in the desert. They fell in love and were married. The marriage lasted until her death, twenty-eight years later.

Jane built a beautiful house in Damascus where they spent six months of each year. The other six months they spent nomadic style in the desert. Jane learned Arabic and eventually acted as a guide to European travellers who didn’t speak the language. So she probably met every diplomat, every royal visitor, every archaeologist that passed through Syria. Among her friends was fellow adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton who I wrote about back in October. She died in Damascus at the age of seventy-four. Her husband marked her grave with a block of pink limestone brought from the ruins of Palmyra. He wrote her name on it in Arabic in charcoal and had it carved into the stone.