The casual re-writes of history...the interesting case of Mary Ingalls and Helen Keller.
Mary Amelia Ingalls (1865-1928)
Until yesterday, if you had asked me what I knew about scarlet fever, I would have been able to tell you two things: A lot of people seemed to have contracted it in the nineteenth century, and in severe cases, a person could die, or at least go blind.
Well, Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House" fame attributed her sister Mary's blindness to scarlet fever.
I, for sure, took this diagnosis at face value. Why wouldn't I?
However, as it turns out, Mary probably suffered from viral meningoencephalitis. In a recent Pediatrics article, Dr. Beth Tarini and some colleagues reported their reassessment of Mary's condition, having spent years pouring over Laura's letters and other documents which alluded to Mary's symptoms.
Even though Mary had indeed contracted the disease as a child--in both the TV show and the book, we were infomed that "her eyes had been weakened as a child"--other symptoms were more telling. She went blind as a teenager, in 1879. Half her face had apparently been paralyzed, along with her eye muscles. Most telling of all, Laura later refers to Mary's "spinal sickness" in a letter to her daughter Rose. In 1881, Mary went to the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School.
Helen Keller, 1880-1968
Interestingly, a thousand miles away in Alabama, Helen Keller--an infant-- had also just contracted a disease that caused her to lose her sight and vision. Like Mary Ingalls, her condition was also attributed to scarlet fever. Physicians now suspect, however, meningitis was the more likely culprit.
Was the assumption of scarlet fever simply a misdiagnosis?
In the case of Helen Keller, this is quite possible. In the case of Mary, no. Dr. Tarini's team concluded that the family was aware of Mary's true disease, but that Laura had deliberately obscured the nature of her sister's condition when she discussed it in her books.
Why would Laura have changed her sister's disease?
Dr. Tarini conjectured that scarlet fever, being a common malady, would have been more relatable to the author's audience. There's something to that hypothesis, for sure.
However, at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a real stigma associated with "brain fever," a catch-all term for neural sicknesses like meningoecephaliti and meningitis). After all, this was the era of both the rise of psychology and neurology, and the accompanying classification of mental disorders and illnesses. So Laura's rewriting of her sister's history was likely because scarlet fever was more palatable, not just more relatable.
Laura is certainly not the first person to hide her family's secrets, or to rewrite her narrative. The tragedy of her own husband--Almonzo--is another example of how she reconstructed her past.
But perhaps that's the greatest feat of a storyteller. Telling the story we want to hear, not what really happened. In this case, however, Laura's retelling has probably caused generations of people to associate scarlet fever with blindness, which is certainly incorrect.
Yet another reason to constantly question what we read; to question what we know to be true.
But what do you think?
The beau's academy, 1699 Wing / 2854:35
In honor of the new year, I thought I'd offer some words of wisdom from the late 17th century. Granted, these words came from Edward Phillips, The beau's academy, or, The modern and genteel way of wooing and complementing after the most courtly manner (1699).
So basically a book on how to be witty with the ladies.
I selected a few of Phillips' -er- wisest statements and accompanying commentary (although a few are a tad hard to understand).
On prudent spending:
He that spends beyond his ability,
may hang himself with great agility.
For he is lighter than he was by many a pound.
(I have to say, this is one of Phillips' more sensical statements!)
On the perils of whispering sweet nothings:
Good words cost nothing.
Unless it be love verses, for some men do pay.
He that cannot fight let him run.
Tis a notable piece of Machiavelian policy.
(I'm envisioning some poor battle-shocked Redcoats being relieved of their weapons and released to the elements....Machiavelian indeed!)
Better no pies, than pies made with scabby hands. (um, definitely one to keep in mind!)
He's an ill cook that licks not his own fingers. (Methinks Tom Colicchio would concur!!!)
On being a good provider:
Good at meat, good at work.
Therefore, 'tis the best way always to eat stoutly in the presence of women.
(Got that, men?)
...and a few I can't easily categorize, but which sound a little naughty:
Of idleness, comes no goodness.
For that is the reason so many maids have the green sickness.
(The "green sickness" [chlorosis or hypochromic anemia] was once considered "pecuilar to virgins." So being idle won't do anyone any good!)
Hungry dogs love dirty puddings.
There's many a man hath lost his nose by verifying this proverb. (I'll let someone else interpret this one!)
Just a little something to ponder!!!
Rare hosting tips! (Wing A3032A )
Hosting a dinner party? Why not try these fun seventeenth-century tips... Richard Amyas has 53 in his treasury, I'll give you ten..
First, you'll want to make your house ready for your guests:
1. Make Rats forsake a House:
Burn Assafettida in the Roof of the House often, and the Rats will forsake and fly from the House in a short time. (Assafettida, also known as "devil's dung, tastes like leeks. Apparently. Someone can let me know).
2. Make a Light that will continue always: Take the Liquor of Glow-worms, mix it with a quarter of the quantity of quick|silver, and put it into a Vi[...]l, hang it up in the Room, and you may see all night long by the light. (Nifty, if you've got lots of glow-worms on hand!)
3. Catch Fleas in a trap: Take a piece of Tin made like a dripping-pan, the length and bigness of a small trencher, then put over it 5 or 6 small wires made fast to the Tin, bowed like the hoops over a waggon, then fill the Tin with Venice Turpentine mixt with a little honey, then put this Trap in the Bed in the morning when you rise, between the sheets, and there you shall find the Fleas stick in the Turpentine, as thick as Wasps in a Honey-pot. (Alrightee then!)
Why not try these parlour--ahem, withdrawing room--tricks? Wow and amaze your guests!!!
4. Write your name on a piece of Paper, and burn that piece of Paper & the same letters to appear on the back of your hand. (Got that?) To do this, first write the Name on a small piece of Paper; then privately write the same Letters on the back of your hand, with a Pen-ful of your own Urine, which none can perceive: then burn that Paper· and as it is almost burnt, clap it upon the back of your hand, and rub it, & there will strangely appear the same letters on the back of your hand, with admiration to the Beholders. (Ah, the secret hidden urine trick. Classic!)
5. Make Pease leap out of the pot as if they were mad.
Put a Quill or two of Quick-Silver into the pot, and all the Pease shall leap out of the pot. (Well, now that just sounds fun!)
(They're seem to be a number of related tricks like this: To make a blown Bladder dance and skip about the room; to make a penny-loaf tumble, and skip up and down on it self; to make a ring dance on a table of it self...Basically, just add quicksilver to anything, and the object will look mad!!! A handy substance, to be sure!)
6. Make an Apple to move on a Table of it self: A fine secret. (and guess what, no quick silver!) Cut an Apple in the midst, and in the one half make a round hole, putting therein a black Beetle, and so lay the half on the table, and it will move about the table.
7. Make a Chamber to appear full of Addors and Snakes. (Now THAT'S got to be a parlor trick you don't see every day!) Kill a dozen Adders and Snakes, and take the oyl of them, and mix it with wax, and make a Candle, light it in a Chamber where rushes are, and the rushes will appear to be Adders and Snakes about the Room. (Somehow I feel there's a corollary woodcut somewhere--how to trick your friends into being bitten by a poisonous snake by letting them think they are preparing a neat trick themselves...)
And at the end of the night, if your guests aren't bidding timely farewells...
8. Fright the people of a house, and make them believe there are Spirits walking in a Room. To do this, take a black or gray Cat; then take 4. Walnut-shells, put Pitch in them, beat it, and put on every foot one; and tye a certain piece of rotten wood, which you shall find to shine in a dark night about the Cats Neck, and put her in a boarded Room, she will so trample about the Room, to the amazement of them that know not what you have done; and the moist piece of rotten wood (if they peep in at the key|hole, or chink of the door) it will seem to be like fire.
And if the scare-the-bejezus-out-of-your-guests doesn't work...
9. Clear a Room of drunken or rude company. Take a Chafingdish of clear Charcoals, or live Wood-coals; throw Giney Pepper on it, and put it under the table, and they will both cough, sneez, fart, and spew, if they have drunk hard. (What can I say? What can I say?)
And to make sure everyone thinks your party was a success (even if it wasn't)...
10. Make a Tell-tale or Gossip, to trump about: the house an hour or two shooting off the great Guns. Take the Liver of a Hare dryed in an Oven, and made into fine Powder; mix it with the Eggs of yellow Ants, or Pismires, put it into the Parties broth, or into Beer with Sugar and Nutmeg to discolour it: then an hour after employ the party to draw off a straight pair of Boots, or the like Exercise, and he'l make cracking off about bravely. (Okay, I have to admit, I'm not sure I understand this one. I think this mixture will make people think they've been to the coolest party ever...)
And just think--Amyas had 43 more of these gems! Who wouldn't want to party 1659-style?
The woman with horns upon her head--a glimpse into the early modern book trade
Early English Books Wing / B4610
Is bookselling today so very different than it was a few hundred years ago?
Certainly, some similarities can be found. For example, an author could write a piece and see it published and distributed the very next day if he or she chose.
Some printers would pay the authors for particularly compelling (read: sellable!) chapbooks, ballads, broadsides and woodcuts. Authors might also have paid a printer to see their work published.
However, there was one notable difference: Early modern booksellers and chapmen might chant or 'sing' their wares, in order to garner reader interest and directly engage their audiences. (Unlike today where authors read their own books. So fun, though, to think of modern publishing executives standing on street corners, singing their clients' books!). Authors often wrote their pennypieces, knowing they would be read out loud.
So, take a typical seventeenth-century woodcut. A Brief Narrative of a Strange and Wonderful Old Woman that hath a Pair of Horns growing upon her Head (London, 1676).
Having identified a busy intersection near a market, church or tavern, the bookseller would call out to passers-by:
"You that love Wonders to behold
Here you may of a Wonder read.
The strangest that was ever seen or told,
A Woman with Horns upon her Head."
Horns upon her head? Surely a crowd would gather. The bookseller would continue, acknowledging that the tale about to be told was completely preposterous.
"It may be, upon the first View of the Title of this short Relation, thou wilt throw it down with all the carelessness imaginable, supposing it to be but an idle and impertinent Fiction..."
But the author's stated goal was to make the incredible seem credible, and the bookseller needed to convey that in order to sell the piece. Evidence, eye-witness testimony, whatever worked:
"Take but a Walk to the Swan in the Strand, near Charing-Cross, and there thou mayest satisfie thy Curiosity, and be able to tell the World whether this following Narration be truth or invention."
And a few more specifics intended to help the reader/listener connect and visualize the story: The 76 year old woman had been born and bred in "the parish of Shotwick in Cheshire." Married for 35 years before being widowed, she had lived a "spotless and unblameable life," helping her neighbors in her role as a midwife.
The groundwork laid, now the bookseller might offer some more sensational details. How did the woman's horns first emerge?
"This strange and stupendious[sic] Effect began first from a Soreness in that place where now the Horns grow, which (as 'tis thought) was occasioned by wearing a straight Hat."
Would the audience believe that? While some authors might have portrayed this hapless woman as a monster, this one took a more sympathetic view. Good booksellers might have changed their tone here, to cull the sympathies of their listeners....
"This Soreness continued Twenty Years, in which time it miserably afflicted this good Woman, and ripened gradually unto a Wenn near the bigness of a large Hen Egg... After which time it was, by a strange operation of Nature, changed into Horns, which are in shew and substance much like a Ramms Horns, solid and wrinckled, but sadly grieving the Old Woman, especially upon the change of Weather."
And yet the poor woman could not rid herself of the horns. You can almost imagine the audience leaning in, taking in each of the bookseller's words...
"She hath cast her Horns three times already; The first time was but a single Horn, which grew long, but as slender as an Oaten straw: The second was thicker than the former: The two first Mr. Hewson Minister of Shotwick (to whose Wife this Rarity was first discovered) ob|tained of the Old Woman his Parishioner: They kept not an equal distance of time in falling off, some at three, some at four, and another at four Years and a halfs Growth. The third time grew two Horns, both which were beat off by a Fall backward."
And if the pennies weren't being loosed from tightly clasped purses, the bookseller might offer one more fantastic detail about what happened to the horns...
"One of them an English Lord obtained, and (as is reported) presented it to the French King for the greatest Rarity in Nature, and received with no less Admiration."
(Yes, it seems the poor woman's horns may have been given to King Louis XIV of France! Surely, owning a woodcut detailing the story was the next best thing to seeing the horns with one's own eyes?)
The early modern townspeople and merchants and fishwives--and anyone else who enjoyed the strange account--might purchase the piece to share with family and neighbors later.
After passing it around, and thoroughly re-reading the story, the buyers might even paste the pennypiece somewhere on their walls, a cheap way to decorate their homes.
Hmmm....maybe we should go back to pasting strange and wonderful stories on our walls. What do you think?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.