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.


03 10 harriet tumban 1Today I am celebrating the life of Harriet Tubman. Harriet was born a slave in Maryland. Because of this, we don’t know when her birthday was. Harriet did not even know what year she was born, never mind what day. It was probably some time between 1820 and 1825. Harriet escaped from slavery in 1849. Then she returned to free many other slaves. She was a spy for the Union during the Civil War. In later life she was active in the cause of women’s suffrage and built an old people’s home for coloured people. So we can’t celebrate her birthday, but because she did so many fantastic things in her life, we do know that she died on March 10th 1913.

Harriet was born Araminta Harriet Ross (Minty) to parents Ben Ross and Harriet ‘Rit’ Green who were both slaves. They were owned by Anthony Thompson and Mary Brodess. Ben and Rit had nine children and three of their daughters were sold to a distant plantation, separating them from the family forever. When someone else came to buy her youngest son, Rit hid him for a month and then threatened to split open the head of anyone who tried to take him away. The sale was abandoned. It was probably a formative experience for young Minty and likely influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.

She had a terrible childhood, being hired out to people who beat her. As an adolescent she witnessed an incident when a slave was found out of the fields without permission. His owner ordered Minty to assist him in restraining the man but she refused. The slave owner then threw a 2 lb metal weight at him, but it missed him and hit her on the head. It was a serious injury that she never recovered from. She suffered from seizures and periods of narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Already a deeply religious person, she also began to experience visions and vivid dreams that she interpreted as signs from God.

Her father was freed at the age of 45, though in fact, this made little difference to his status, as he still had to keep working for his former owner. Later, Harriet would find out that her mother was also supposed to have been freed at 45, but her owners had ignored the fact. She was not in a position to challenge this legally. In 1844 she married a free man called John Tubman and it was about this time she changed her name to Harriet. Not much is known about their marriage but if they had any children, they would have had the same status as Harriet and would also have been slaves.

In 1849, she escaped from her owners along with two of her brothers. They lost heart and returned to the plantation and Harriet went back with them. Shortly afterwards, she escaped again, this time alone. She would have got away using a series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad and she managed to get across the state border to Pennsylvania where there was no slavery. Later she said: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

But rather than stay safe in the north, Harriet returned to Maryland in 1850 to free members of her family. It would be the first of many covert trips she made across the border. Occasionally she came across a former owner but she cleverly managed to avoid detection. Simply by carrying a few chickens around, or pretending to read a newspaper (she couldn’t read) she found that the men simply didn’t notice her. As well as members of her family, including her parents, she guided many other slaves to freedom. In 1851, she attempted to free her husband, John Tubman, but found that he had married someone else and was quite happy where he was. Rather than make a scene, she just found other slaves who did want to be free and took them instead. Harriet Tubman was given the nickname ‘Moses’ because, like Moses, she led her people to freedom.

In 1850, the US government passed a law that allowed escaped slaves to be returned even when they were living in a state where there was no slavery. Harriet re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, where people would be safe. In 1859 she was sold a piece of land in Auburn, New York by a US senator called William H Seward who was a fervent opponent of slavery. Despite the risk of arrest she brought her parents, who were then in Canada, to live with her there.

During the Civil War she worked for the Union Army as a cook and a nurse, but she was later employed as a spy. Her ability to travel in secret in enemy territory was extremely useful. In 1863, she led an assault on plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. She guided three steamboats around mines that had been laid by the Confederate Army. They burned the plantations and freed more than 750 slaves.

Harriet was never paid very much for her work during the Civil War and she remained poor. She worked to support her family and also took in boarders. Among them was a Civil War veteran called Nelson Davis. They fell in love and were married in 1869. He was twenty-two years younger than her. They lived together for twenty years. Later in life, she devoted herself to the cause of women’s suffrage. She travelled New York, Boston and Washington DC speaking of women’s right to vote. She described her actions during the Civil War and used many other examples of women from history as evidence of women’s 03 10 harriet tubman 2equality to men. In 1897, in Boston, there were a series of receptions honouring her lifetime of service to the nation. Harriet had spent so much of her hard earned money helping others that she had to sell a cow in order to buy the train ticket to get there.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, she donated a piece of land to build a home for aged and poor coloured people. In 1911, she was admitted there herself and died in 1913. Since her death, Harriet Tubman has become a magnificent source of inspiration for civil right activists. She devoted her whole life to helping others and freed somewhere in the region of a thousand slaves. It was dangerous work but they all made it through, she never lost a single life.