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.

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.

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.


03 25 canalettoThis day in 421 marks the founding of the beautiful city of Venice. I was surprised that we can be so specific about an event that happened so long ago. Especially when I found out that it happened at exactly 12 noon. A whole city, born in a single moment. The event this date commemorates is the founding of the first church, San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto. March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary with important news, so probably it was a propitious day to found a new city.

The first citizens of Venice were largely refugees fleeing their homes following invasions of Attila the Hun and other tribes from the north as the Western Roman Empire began to crumble. Venice sits on a lagoon which is protected from the sea by a chain of low islands in the north east of Italy, It was a good site for a settlement because it was difficult to reach from land and only the people who lived there knew how to navigate its waterways. But building there was a huge problem. The islands are small and the ground is soft. So the city sits partly on land and partly on water. In order to build foundations, people had to 03 25 santa maria della salutedrive wooden piles into the silt and build on top of them. Wood doesn’t sound like a great material to hold up massive stone buildings. You’d think it would have rotted away, but because the wood is underwater, the micro-organisms that cause decay can’t grow the way they would in the open air. Also there are a lot of them. This church, Santa Maria Della Salute was built on over a million of them, each measuring 4 metres in length. The city is made up of 117 islands, so where a city would usually have streets, Venice has 177 canals. The streets it does have are really just the left over spaces between buildings. The narrowest is just 53 cm wide.

Although a collection of muddy islands wasn’t the most sensible place to build a city, it was excellently placed for trade between western Europe, the still thriving Eastern Empire of Byzantium and the Far East via the Silk Road. Venice became a rich and thriving centre for trade and by the thirteenth century was the most prosperous city in Europe. It was from this Venice that Marco Polo set out, in 1271, on a massive journey overland via the Silk Road to China. His journey lasted twenty-four years. In 1299, a book was published about his travels. It’s a rather fanciful account, that was written by a man named Rusticello. Marco Polo narrated the stories of his adventures whilst the two were both imprisoned following a war between Venice and Genoa.

03 25 marco poloRusticello was a writer of romances, so it’s rather hard to pick out which parts of Marco’s story might be true. He mentions a place where there used to be an island populated by a race of dog headed people, encountered serpents with teeth that could swallow a man and a unicorn. From his description, these are clearly crocodiles and a rhinoceros. He also mentions that the Chinese used paper money and burned coal, both of which were unknown in Europe. The book also claims that he became an important person at the court of Kublai Khan at Xanadu. Marco Polo’s recounted tales were widely read and inspired many to set off on their own adventures. Columbus carried his own, heavily annotated, copy when he set off on his journey that led to the discovery of the Americas. It is also the original source of Coleridge’s famous poem. During his lifetime, people found his stories rather unbelievable and even now there are those who doubt that he ever went to China at all. There is no historical evidence to support the claims made in the book. Marco himself claimed: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”

Kublai Khan died before Marco arrived back in Venice which caused the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the closing of the Silk Road. This would eventually lead to new sea routes being found to the Far East and the declining importance of Venice as a centre of trade. It was ravaged several times by plague. In 1630, a third of the population died. But the city still had it’s beauty and it became an important stop on the Grand Tour. This was a city that encouraged pleasure. It was famous for its masked Carnival, for its gambling houses and for its courtesans. This was the Venice that gave birth to Giacomo Casanova in 1725.

03 25 casanovaCasanova also spent much of his life travelling and his adventures also made it into print. But Casanova’s life was very different, he lived on his wits. Sometimes he was lucky, sometimes he wasn’t. He made his living variously as soldier, a musician, a gambler, a medic, an astrologer, a spy and a librarian. He was also quite a prolific writer. Among other things, he translated the Iliad and wrote a sort of science fiction novel called ‘Icosaméron’, which is about a brother and sister who fall into hidden world beneath the surface of the Earth. It is populated by a race of dwarves who feed mainly by breastfeeding each other. But he is now best remembered for his ‘Histoire de Ma Vie’, the story of his life.

His first big break was when he happened to save the life of a Venetian nobleman after he suffered a stroke. The nobleman adopted him and Casanova lived a grand life until he was arrested by the Inquisition. Among the charges were: cheating at cards, blasphemy and occult practices. He was imprisoned in the Doge’s Palace, but escaped through the roof along with a disgraced monk. After that, he was exiled from Venice but famous for his daring escape. He spent the next eighteen years criss-crossing Europe. He travelled around 40,000 miles. Made a fortune running a lottery in France and lost it gambling. He was involved in duel in Poland and frequented the literary salons of Geneva. He met with Voltaire, Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. He got around. Unlike the travels of Marco Polo his adventures are supported by historical evidence.

Casanova’s name is now synonymous with ‘philanderer’ and he is best known for his many sexual conquests. His autobiography was not published until 1822 and it was very heavily edited. Histoire de Ma Vie was not published in full until 1960 and not translated into English until 1966. Giacomo Casanova was remarkably honest about his relationships, his successes and his failures. He opens his memoirs by saying: “I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. … My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.”

Hester, Queen of the Desert

03 12 lady hester stanhopeToday is the birthday of Lady Hester Stanhope. She was born in 1776, the eldest child of Charles, the 3rd Earl Stanhope, at Chevening in Kent. Hester was an adventurous traveller, deeply eccentric and self-styled Queen of the Desert. In her late twenties, she lived at Downing Street where she acted as hostess for her cousin, William Pitt the Younger, who was then Prime Minister. She acted as his secretary and sat at the head of his dinner table making witty and intelligent conversation. Hester was in her element, but it didn’t last. Pitt died in 1806 and she was left homeless, but with a tidy pension of £1200 a year from the government in recognition of her services.

She lived for a time in Montagu Square in London and then moved to Wales. In 1810 she was advised by her doctor to make a trip to the Continent, for the sake of her health. She would never return. She travelled with her private physician and later biographer, Dr Charles Meryon. They stopped off in Gibraltar, where she picked up another travelling companion, a wealthy young Englishman called Michael Bruce. Although he was twelve years younger than her, they were soon lovers, much to the disappointment of Dr Meryon. From there, they travelled on to Malta, Greece and Constantinople. Here, she met with the French Ambassador. She had a mind to go to France and ingratiate herself with Emperor Napoleon. She thought if she could find out what made him tick, she could return to Britain with information that could lead to his overthrow. It was a mad plan and luckily the British government got wind of it and stopped her.

With nothing better to do, she and her swelling entourage decided to head for Egypt. On the way, they were shipwrecked off the island of Rhodes. Everyone lost their luggage and it led to Hester spending the night in a rat-infested windmill with a bunch of drunken sailors for company. Separated from her belongings, she had to find other clothes. Rather than wear a veil, she chose to dress in a robe, turban and slippers. When they eventually arrived in Egypt, she bought a purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, a waistcoat, a jacket and a sabre. She found men’s clothes preferable and dressed that way from then on.

In Alexandria, she and her party set about learning Turkish and Arabic. The East was now in her blood and they pressed onwards to Lebanon and Syria. On the way, she met with many important Sheiks, some of whom would have been very dangerous enemies. They had never seen anything quite like her before and she seems to have been well received. Some accounts tell of how she was hailed as a princess, but it also seems possible that they all thought she was a bit mad and that just going along with her would be the polite thing to do. When she reached Damascus in 1812, she insisted on entering the city unveiled and on horseback, both of which were forbidden, but she seemed to get away with it.

03 12 palmyraThe following year, she visited the ruined desert city of Palmyra. It had once been ruled by Queen Zenobia who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. No European woman had ever seen the city before. It was a week’s ride away from Damascus over a wasteland that was ruled by dangerous Bedouin tribes. She made the journey dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of twenty-two camels. The people of Palmyra were impressed by her courage and gave her a crown of palm leaves. She was a bit carried away by this and later wrote: “I have been crowned Queen of the Desert. I have nothing to fear…I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.”

In case you’re worried that her story is about to end with her being cruelly slain in a lonely desert, rest assured, it does not. Her end is not a happy one, but she has a few years to go yet. After that, she returned to Lebanon where she lived in several places before settling in a remote and abandoned monastery. Her lover returned to England in 1813, her doctor, in 1831. On her travels, she had come by a medieval Italian manuscript that said there were three million gold coins hidden under the ruins of a mosque at Ashkelon on the coast. She gained permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate the site in 1815. It would be the first archaeological excavation in Palestine. Hester found no gold. What she did find was a seven foot tall headless marble statue. The thing she did next would horrify all later archaeologists and you probably won’t like it either. She had the statue smashed up and thrown in the sea. Apparently, she did this because she didn’t want to be accused of smuggling antiquities, although why she couldn’t just have left it there in one piece is beyond me.

At home in Lebanon, she became fascinated with astrology and alchemy. A fortune teller in London had once told her that she was destined to go to Jerusalem and lead the chosen people. She started to believe in the prophecy about an Islamic Messiah figure called ‘Mahdi’, and that she was destined to become his bride. She even owned a sacred horse that she believed he would ride on. It was born with a deformed spine. There was a prophecy which said that he would ride on a horse that was born saddled, and the animal’s sharply curved spine was, she thought, just like a Turkish saddle. She named the horse Layla and it was soon joined by a second horse named Lulu who she would ride alongside the Mahdi when he came for her.

Despite her eccentricities, she was generous with her hospitality. Any European traveller was well received and, when civil war broke out in the area, she gave shelter to hundreds of refugees. She fed and clothed them and, even though it nearly bankrupted her, never turned anyone away. The monastery at Djoun, which was her final home, was a hilltop house with thirty-six rooms full of secret passageways and hidden chambers. There, she kept thirty cats that her servants were forbidden to touch. In her old age, she was deeply in debt and became more and more of a recluse. Her servants resorted to stealing from her because she could not pay them. Then, in 1838, the government cut off her pension in order to pay her creditors. She sent her servants away and walled herself up in her house with her cats. She died there alone in 1839. Sad.

Choose Your Own Adventure

03 06 cyrano de bergeracToday I want to talk about Cyrano de Bergerac. It isn’t going to be very easy, as details of his life are scant. But he does have one, arguably two, totally fictional accounts of his life that I can tell you about.

The real Cyrano was probably baptised in Paris on this day in 1619. He was the son of Abel de Cyrano, lord of Mauvières and Bergerac. He was first educated in the countryside by a parish priest along with his friend Henri Lebret, who later became his biographer. He didn’t pay much attention to his lessons there and sounds like an awful student. His father sent him to Paris to finish his education. I don’t know where, it might have been Collège de Beauvais, because he later wrote a play called ‘The Pedant Tricked’ which made fun of one of the tutors there.

Alternatively, he was not aristocratic at all, but descended from a Sardinian fishmonger. He was the lover of Charles Coypeau d’Assoucy, a burlesque poet, until 1653 when they fell out horribly and wrote lots of rude things about each other. Pick which one you like best. I suppose it is possible that they might both be true to some extent.

03 06 duellersHe enjoyed a life of drinking gambling and duelling and joined the army when he was nineteen. As he wasn’t keen on discipline, war or the death penalty, he didn’t fit in particularly well there. Cyrano was severely wounded twice, he was shot through the body and wounded in the neck with a sword. In 1641, he left the army and began to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi tried to reconcile Christianity with Epicurean atomism, which I don’t have time to look into today, but it must have been odd as Epicurus didn’t believe any gods were watching us at all, ever.

Cyrano de Bergerac died in 1655, either as the result of a wooden beam falling on his head or because he was involved in a botched assassination attempt and suffered from ill health after he was subsequently confined to a private asylum by his brother. Or perhaps it was syphilis. Again, you choose. Or take all of them…

03 06 benoît-constant coquelin dressed as cyrano de bergeracCyrano’s life was fictionalised in the form of a play by Edmond Rosand in 1897. The fictional Cyrano is a renowned duellist and a gifted and joyful poet. He is also crippled by self-doubt because he has a very large nose. So he cannot tell his beautiful cousin, Roxane, that he loves her. She is also loved by a handsome young man called Christian. Just when Cyrano is about to tell Roxane how he feels, she tells him she is in love with someone. At first he thinks, and hopes that she means him But when she describes him as handsome, he finds out it is Christian. Roxane also asks Cyrano to look after Christian, they are both soldiers and she doesn’t want to see Christian hurt. After that, the two men become friends and, because Christian doesn’t have the gift of poetry, Cyrano agrees to write his love letters for him. Now Cyrano can pour out his heart to Roxane without her ever knowing that the words are his. Roxanne falls deeply in love with Christian because of his beautiful words and eventually confesses to Cyrano that the letters mean so much to her that she would love Christian even if he was ugly. Just as Cyrano is about to confess that he is the author Christian is wounded and dies. So Cyrano feels he can now never confess that it was him all along.

Fifteen years later, Roxane is in a convent, still mourning the loss of Christian. Cyrano comes to visit her, but on the way, someone drops a log on his head and he is mortally wounded. He arrives at the convent, knowing it will be the last time he sees her. She asks him to read Christian’s last love letter to her, which he does. But as he is reading it grows dark. As he continues to read even though it is too dark to see, she finally realises that he is the author of the letters. He denies it to his dying breath. He dies saying that he has lost everything, except one important thing his ‘panache’. The play has been performed many times, rewritten and adapted for film. Off the top of my head, there is the one with Gérard Depardieu, a modern day version starring Steve Martin with an upbeat ending and ‘The Truth About Cats and Dogs’ is a gender reversed version of the same story. It is from the original play that the word ‘panache’ first entered the English language.

Cyrano de Bergerac also wrote stories with a hero named Cyrano which were published after his death by his biographer Lebret. But they are not obviously about his life. Cyrano’s Cyrano travels to the moon and the sun. ‘L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune.’ (The other world: states and empires of the Moon) and ‘Les États et Empires du Soleil.’ (The states and empires of the Sun) are, in a way, science fiction novels before there was any such thing as science fiction.

03 06 bottles of dewCyrano first tries to reach the Moon by strapping bottles of dew to his body. The sun shines on the bottles which become clouds and lift him into the sky. When he comes down again he is in New France (Canada) because the earth has moved round beneath him. He meets a tribe of people who are naked. He, thinking he is in France, wonders how long French people in the provinces have gone about naked but expects that they are equally surprised to meet someone wearing bottles. Eventually he meets the governor of New France and explains to him that all matter is formed inside, and expelled by stars, which is a pretty surprising idea coming from the seventeenth century. He thinks that the reason the Americas have been only recently discovered is that they have only just been put there by the sun.

In his second attempt to reach the moon, he builds a flying machine and launches it off a cliff. It crashes but he escapes from the wreckage. Then some soldiers find it and think if they attach rockets to it, it will fly into the sky and look like a dragon. He catches them and is upset. He climbs into the machine to try to unfasten the rockets and is blasted into space. On the moon he meets people with four legs who have musical voices and weapons that can cook game at the same time as it is being shot. He also meet the ghost of Socrates and a man named Domingo Gonsales. Domingo is a character from an earlier novel by an English bishop, called Francis Godwin, who flies to the Moon in a chariot drawn by swans. They all decide that the concept of God is nonsense and that men have no souls. Cyrano returns to earth and lands in Italy.

03 06 flying machineHe builds a second flying machine that focuses solar energy, using mirrors to create burst of air. It takes him to the sun. He lands on a sun spot and the beings that live there explain to him how the solar system works by comparing it with the movement of atoms. On the sun, he is tried by a court of birds for all the crimes of humanity But luckily, he is saved by a parrot who recognises him. Then he meets an Italian philosopher called Tommaso Campanella. They start to discuss what sex would be like in Utopia and the book pretty much ends there. As I said, it was published posthumously and it is likely that there was more but Lebret was not brave enough to publish it. There may also be a third story about a journey to the stars, but his original work is now lost. So, if you read it, you’ll have to decide how it ends.


02 17 isabelle eberhardtToday is the birthday of Isabelle Eberhardt, who was born in 1877 in Geneva, Switzerland. Her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a Lutheran German and a Russian Jew. Her father was a Russian anarchist who had once been an Orthodox priest. Her father taught her to speak French, Russian German and Italian. She also knew Latin Greek and Classical Arabic. She and her father read the Koran together. From an early age she enjoyed dressing as a boy because of the freedom it allowed her. I love this photo of her, dressed as a sailor and wearing a hat that appears to say ‘vengeance’. Isabelle’s life was unlikely to be a mundane one, and it wasn’t. It was also sadly rather short. She died at twenty-seven.

Isabelle is rather hard to pin down. She was a writer and a wanderer. A hedonist who also longed to find peace and stillness. She wrote her first published short story at eighteen under the pseudonym Nicolas Podolinsky. It was about a medical student who falls in love with corpses. Her second story was about male homosexuality. She also started to write about life in North Africa. She had never been, but she had a brother in the Foreign Legion and also a pen pal who was a French officer stationed in the Sahara. Her ‘Vision of the Maghreb’ so impressed an Algerian-French photographer that he invited Isabelle and her mother to come and stay with him. Algeria was then under French colonial rule. They arrived in 1897 and stayed for a little while but soon moved into an Arabic style house far away from the European quarter. They both converted to Islam. Isabelle dressed as a man because Muslim women were not allowed to go out alone or unveiled. They were shunned by both the French settlers and the colonial administration. Later that year Isabelle’s mother died and she devoted herself to the Muslim way of life. Apart from the fact that she often drank a lot of alcohol and smoked a lot of marijuana.

02 17 in arab dress - about 1900In 1899 her father died. Free from family ties, she began to live a rather nomadic life style. She now dressed in men’s clothes all the time and called herself Si Mahmoud Saadi. She both wrote and spoke as if she were a man, specifically an Arabic man. When asked why that was, she replied that it was impossible for her to do otherwise. She wasn’t particularly fooling anyone into thinking she was a man, The people who met her knew perfectly well that it was a disguise. The Algerians just accepted her decision whereas the Europeans she met were critical. They couldn’t understand why, if she wanted to wear men’s clothes at all (which they thought was ridiculous anyway) she had not chosen to dress as a European man. I don’t think she had any specific yearning to be a man, but it would have been impossible for her to get about and do the things she wanted if she appeared to be a woman. It seems as though she hoped to find herself by pursuing a simple desert life, but also by turning inward by smoking marijuana and kief

Often running out of money, she made several trips backwards and forwards between North Africa and Europe seeking funds. At one point she was employed to investigate the death of a French marquis who had been assassinated by Tuareg tribesmen. She readily accepted, but there is no evidence that she did much investigating.

She met and fell in love with an Algerian soldier called Slimane Ehnni and also joined the Sufi order of the Qadiriyya. The Qadiriyya had a widespread network of zawiya, religious houses where she would be able to find hospitality on her travels. There was no love lost between the Algerians and their French rulers and, in her writing, Isabelle tended to favour the Algerian point of view. The French didn’t like her, they thought she was a spy. They put her on a blacklist and transferred Slimane Ehnni to another post. She was too poor to follow. While she was trying to seek assistance from the Qadiriyya, she was attacked by a man with a sabre. She managed to dodge most of his blows, but her left arm was almost severed. She believed that her attacker was an assassin paid for by the French. She was taken to a military hospital and once she had recovered the Qadiriyya paid for her to travel and be reunited with her lover. They considered her survival a miracle. The French responded by ordering her to leave Algeria. She left for France but returned briefly when her attacker was put on trial. She told the court that she held no grudge against him and even pleaded successfully for his life to be spared.

In 1901, Ehnni was posted to Marseille in France. They were married, which meant she could return to Algeria. She worked for a newspaper in Algiers, having several short stories published and did some work as a war reporter. Isabelle also seems to have worked for the French Foreign Legion as liaison between themselves and the local Arabic people. In 1904 she rented to a mud house in Aïn Séfra, a village at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. She and her husband had been apart for some time and she asked him to join her, which he did on October 20th. The next day there was a flash flood which washed away their house and Isabelle was drowned. Among the works she left behind were an unfinished novel called ‘Trimardeur’ (Vagabond), a semi-autobiographical story about a Russian student who tires of his anarchist friends, becomes absorbed by Arabic culture and spends his life wandering and observing. She also wrote a series of short stories that are gathered under the title ‘The Oblivion Seekers’. Isabelle was not afraid of dying, she said: “I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way.” I’m not sure whether drowning in a desert is obscure and pointless or not.

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…

Stove By a Whale

11 20 whaleToday I have the story of the real event that inspired author Herman Melville to write his novel ‘Moby Dick’. It isn’t a happy story. People die, some people get eaten, some people go mad. If you’re not up for that, maybe give this one a miss. But it’s so spectacularly awful in every way, that I really can’t ignore it.

The whaling ship Essex was an old ship when she set out from Nantucket, in August 1819, on a whaling voyage that would take its crew down the east coast of the Americas, around Cape Horn and on into the Pacific. They expected to be away for two and a half years. She had already completed many successful missions and was considered to be something of a lucky ship. But this was about to change.

Two days out of harbour, they were hit by a squall. They lost one of their sails and, of the five smaller whaleboats that were kept on the ship, one was damaged and another completely destroyed. Whaleboats are pretty important if you want to go whaling, but rather than stopping for repairs they decided to press on. They reached Cape Horn in January 1820 and it took them five weeks to get through to the Pacific. When they arrived at the whaling ground off the coast of South America, they found there were no whales there. But they met other crews who told them about a new hunting ground way out in the middle of the Pacific. The middle of the Pacific was a worrying place to be. It was dotted with islands reputed to be populated by cannibals. Also it was around 2,300 miles from the mainland, a phenomenally long way to go and they would need more supplies. The ship set sail for the Galápagos Islands. They reached Hood Island on October 8th and there, they hunted down 300 Galápagos Giant Tortoises to supplement their stores. On October 22nd, they moved on to Charles Island where they captured a further 60 tortoises. Then the helmsman thought it would be really funny if he started a fire. It was the dry season and the fire quickly got out of control. The crew were forced to run through the flames to escape. By the time they reached the ship, the whole island was on fire. They sailed away for the hunting ground, leaving the burning island behind them, but even after a day at sea, the smoke was still visible on the horizon. It was an environmental disaster of huge proportions, thousands of animals must have died and it probably contributed to the extinction of some species.

By November 16th they had got to the new hunting ground but weren’t having much luck and another of their boats, captained by First Mate, Owen Chase, had been destroyed by a whale surfacing directly beneath it Then, on the morning of November 20th 1820, they sighted a pod of whales and the three remaining whaleboats were launched and set out in pursuit. The two boats led by Ship’s Captain George Pollard and Second Mate, Matthew Joy, both speared whales and were being dragged off towards the horizon. But the whale harpooned by Chase’s crew thrashed out with it’s tail, damaging his boat. So Chase was back aboard the Essex repairing his boat when the crew noticed a whale behaving strangely. It was an enormous whale, around 85ft (26m) long and it was lying motionless on the surface facing towards the ship. Then it began to swim towards them, faster and faster. It rammed right into the side of the ship, battering it and causing it to tip from side to side. Then it dived underneath them and came up on the other side. It appeared to be stunned and they considered harpooning it, but its tail was inches from the rudder. If they lost that, they’d be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way of steering the ship. The whale recovered and swum a few hundred yards, then turned and faced the ship again. This time it was facing the bow. Here is Chase’s description of what happened next:

“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (500m or 550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”

11 20 essex and whaleThe whale crushed the bow, hitting it so hard that the ship was driven backwards. It then swam away, never to be seen again. But the Essex was sinking fast. The crew barely had time to launch their remaining whaleboat, add some rigging to it and collect a bit of navigational equipment. When the captain returned to the scene of devastation he was completely speechless. When he was eventually able to ask what had happened, Chase replied “We were stove by a whale.”

The whaleboats were only around 28ft (8.5m) long and completely open. They were not at all suitable for a long voyage, but the men had no choice. They gathered together what supplies they could from the wreckage but had neither enough food or fresh water for the journey they faced. The nearest land was the Marquesas Islands 1200 miles (1900km) west. Captain Pollard wanted to head that way, but Chase was concerned. He thought they might find cannibals there, he wanted to head back to South America. Because the winds were unfavourable this meant they would have to sail south for 1000 miles before turning east and sailing another 3000 miles to reach land. Recklessly, they went for the second option. Within two weeks, all their food was contaminated with sea water and they were forced to drink their own urine. In mid December, just as they were all about to die of thirst, they reached the Pitcairn Islands where they found fresh water, crabs and birds eggs. There was not enough food to sustain them for long. After a week they decided to leave, though three of the crew insisted on remaining on the island.

The Second Mate died on January 10th and the next day Chase’s boat became separated from the others. As they drifted south, a man in Chases boat died and was buried at sea. When a second man died on February 8th, they realised they would have to resort to cannibalism if they were to survive. They kept his body. They were rescued on February 18th by another whaling ship called ‘Indian’. The other two boats similarly ran out of food and were forced to eat the bodies of their dead crew members. On January 28th the two boats separated. We know what became of Captain Pollard and his crew, but the three men in the other boat were never seen alive again. Pollards crew ran out of food on February 1st . Faced with starvation, they decided to draw lots to decide which of them would sacrifice himself to save the rest. The black spot was drawn by the captain’s seventeen-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin. They drew lots again to decide who would be his executioner. It fell to his friend, Charles Ramsdell, to pull the trigger. Pollard, Ramsdell and another man called Barzillai Ray lived on the remains of Coffin until Ray died on February 11th. Then they ate him too. When the two men were finally rescued by another whaling ship, ‘Dauphin’, on February 23rd, they had survived only by gnawing on the bones of their shipmates. They had become to detached from reality that they did not notice the ship pulling along side them, and they were terrified by their rescuers.

11 20 owenThe three survivors on the Pitcairn Islands were also eventually rescued, although they were close to death. Several years later a whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island that had four skeletons in it. They were believed to be the remains of the crew from the missing boat. All of the survivors returned to sea within months of the incident. The ship’s captain, Pollard, sailed on two other ships that were wrecked. People started to think he brought them bad luck and he was forced to retire. Owen, the first mate, spent another nineteen years at sea. But after his retirement he took to hiding food in his attic and was eventually institutionalised.