James Rufus Agee: A Death in the Family

I don’t know how I came to buy Agee’s, A Death in the Family, but I’ve had it for some time, unread, and only recently took it with me on a trip to Scotland—more for its convenient size than for any other reason.  This autobiographical novel, which won James Rufus Agee the Pulitzer Prize posthumously, was my introduction to his writing.  I’ve since ordered “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which is another major work of Agee’s on which he collaborated with photographer Walker Evans, and am looking forward to reading it.

A Death in the Family [Penguin Books, 2008],begins with an explanation by the publishers that Agee was not finished with the book at the time of his heart attack and death in a New York taxicab on May 16, 1955, when he was 45 years’ old.

It was Agee’s intention to work on this book over the coming summer, as he says in his final letter (May 11, 1955) to close friend and long-time correspondent, Father James Harold Flye:  “…I am planning to retreat from money work, use this summer free, and finish my book.”  [Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, George Braziller, 1962]

He died just five days later.

The publishers of A Death in the Family further explain that the book is presented exactly as Agee had written it to that point in time, with the exception of seven-or-so pages which they could not satisfactorily fit into the novel.  There were also several sections of text which were outside the time span of the basic story, and which the authors decided to print in italics after Parts I and II to assist with transitions in the narrative.  Agee’s Knoxville Summer of 1915, often described as a ‘prose poem’ was added as a scene-setting prologue by the publishers, even though it was not a part of the original manuscript.

Here’s a selection from this prologue:

Content, silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grass.

A cold toad thumpily flounders.

Within the edges of damp shadows of side yards are hovering children nearly sick with joy of fear, who watch the unguarding of a telephone pole.

Around white carbon corner lamps bugs of all sizes are lifted elliptic solar systems.  Big hardshells bruise themselves, assailant:  he is fallen on his back, legs squiggling.

For those of us whose childhoods were lived in the out-of-doors amidst the creepy-crawly lives of insects and reptiles, these words evoke summer evenings with all the mystery and wonder of moonlight, starlight, and sightless sounds.  “Sick with joy of fear” is an apt description of a child’s sense of the magic, danger, and excitement in the natural world.

It’s tantalizing to wonder what A Death in the Family would have looked like at the end of the summer of 1955 had Agee lived to complete his work on it.  The Pulitzer Prize judges evidently thought that what Agee had completed by the time of his death was sufficient to earn him their prize for the year 1958.  The book was published in 1957 by the publishing house of an acquaintance of Agee’s, David McDowell, of McDowell, Obolensky, Inc.  Agee seems to have known McDowell through Father Flye, since McDowell was a former alumnus of St. Andrew’s, the boarding school where Father Flye taught.  McDowell not only published A Death in the Family, but also both volumes of Agee on Film, a compilation of Agee’s movie reviews, and he was working on a biography of James Agee when he died on April 8, 1985, at the age of 67 (http://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/13/arts/david-mcdowell-dies-a-publisher-and-editor.html).

A Death in the Family is based on Agee’s childhood memories of his family at the time of his father’s death in a car accident when Agee was six years’ old.  Since Agee was born in 1909, age six would take us to the time of the book’s prologue, 1915.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a blind…the nighttime phone call from Agee’s Uncle Ralph, his father’s brother, who imparts the information that their father is seriously ill and seemingly near to death.  We are therefore led to believe that Agee’s grandfather will be the family death for which the novel is named.

All the clues to doubt this are provided by the character of Ralph, and by his brother Jay’s (Agee’s father’s) reaction to the phone call, although we are not ready to relinquish our initial impression until proof that the story concerns another death is later delivered.

Ralph’s character is first indicated by Jay’s exasperation with the phone call and his inability to get a reasoned, common-sense assessment of their father’s condition from Ralph.  Ralph spends much of the telephone conversation wallowing in self-pity and apologies for having to call at such a late hour.

We’re subsequently taken into Ralph’s mind and thoughts at his father’s bedside while he waits for his brother to arrive.  His character as a weak and self-obsessed man, an alcoholic, unreliable son, a volatile and unpredictable father, a jealous, unfaithful and emotionally abusive husband, is provided to us by Ralph himself.  “I ought not ever to have fathered children, Ralph thought.  I ought not ever to have been born.”

And Ralph later believes himself to be the cause of his brother’s death, since it was his phone call that brought Jay out to see their father.

Contrasting with Jay’s brother, Ralph, is the character of Agee’s mother Mary’s brother, Andrew.  While Ralph is, by his own admission, a weak and dissolute man, Andrew is, by his words and actions, a stalwart support to his family.  It is he who goes to the scene of the accident and identifies Jay’s body.  He is also the one to bring the details of the accident back to the family, and help with arrangements.  When Ralph, who works as an undertaker, seeks to assuage some of his imagined guilt by providing for the burial of his brother (“He’s blaming himself for Jay’s…He wants to try to make up for it.”), Andrew tells him firmly, on his sister’s behalf, that she does not want this.

In addition to the skillfully drawn personality profiles of the main characters, Agee takes us inside the mind of the six-year-old boy he was when his father died.  We learn his view of events and the degree to which he is able to absorb the enormity of the changes in his family circumstances at that time.

Some of the six-year-old Rufus’s remembrances have to do with trust, as when his parents’ friends told him that he could whistle and the cheese would jump off the table into his lap.  His parents’ friends, a couple by the names of Ted and Kate,

…were shaking with laughter they were trying to hold in, though he couldn’t see what there was to laugh about in a cheese that wouldn’t even move when you whistled even when Uncle Ted said it would and he was really whistling, not just trying to whistle.”  He was “…almost crying with embarrassment and impatience” and the couple “burst out laughing out loud, but his father didn’t laugh, he looked all mixed up, and mad, and embarrassed, and his mother was very mad, …”   She reacted by saying “…I think it’s just a perfect shame, deceiving a little child like that who’s been brought up to trust people, and laughing right in his face!”

Similar instances of Rufus’s vulnerability to deception happened during his interactions with older schoolboys who habitually teased and tormented him because of his name.  Making Rufus tell them his name was the trigger which started them chanting a derogatory rhyme.  He wanted so much to be friends with these boys that he repeatedly allowed himself to be victimized by them, in the hope, each time, that this time their attentions would be genuine and truly friendly.

Later, after the death of his father was explained to him, Rufus took the information to these schoolboys, some of whom had learned of it through their parents.  Rufus thought that the importance of the event would buy him respect and admiration from these boys,

…he knew that they were all approaching him with the realization that something had happened to him that had not happened to any other boy in town, and that now at last they were bound to think well of him; and the nearer they came but were yet at a distance the more the gray, sober air was charged with the great energy and with a sense of glory and of danger, and the deeper and more exciting the silence became, and the more tall, proud, shy and exposed he felt; so that as they came still nearer he once again felt his face break into a wide smile, with which he had nothing to do, and, feeling that there was something deeply wrong in such a smile tried his best to quieten his face and told them, shyly and proudly, “My daddy’s dead.”

The tragic loss of his father was a concept impossible to grasp on an emotional level by this little boy.  His little sister was even less able to understand anything of what had happened, and could not accept that her father would not be coming home again.

I remember the death of a little friend from a brain aneurysm when I was around seven years’ old, and I remember her funeral, which I attended with my Grade 2 classmates.  Amongst the few, clear memories I have of that day were the sight of her white-sheeted casket, and her emotionally distraught parents.  I also remember the Grade 1 teacher from my previous year in elementary school weeping quietly at the service, which surprised me very much since I found her a harsh, unkind woman as a teacher.  I felt that if she could cry I ought to be crying, too, since Marcy was my friend.  And so I tried, but I was continually distracted by the hornets in the window.  I had a terrible fear of stinging insects, and so I watched them carefully out of the corner of my eye.  There was a strange unreality about that day, and try as I might, I could not feel the grief of it, even though I missed my friend and was sad to lose her.

And so Agee’s childhood remembrances of his father’s death ring true to me.  There is trauma and confusion for a child in an encounter with death at a young age, but not the same depth of sorrow and grief that adults experience at the loss of someone close to them.  I’ve carried the memory of my little friend’s death from that time in my childhood to this day, and I remember her glossy brown ringlets, heart-shaped face, almond eyes, and her cleverness and humour.  She was a perfect child, except for health issues—she was asthmatic, and needed to wear a surgical mask on dusty, dry days walking to school.  I have repeatedly thought of her family’s devastation (her father went into the Anglican ministry afterwards), and wonder to this day what her life might have been had she lived.

Of course, to an even more profound degree, Agee would never lose the remembrance of his father’s loss.  We can surmise that much of the detail of events and adult interactions of that time in his childhood must have been supplied to the adult Agee by his mother.  His re-creation of them in the novel masterfully interweaves words and actions with the personalities that prompted and guided them.  The related misapprehensions and confusions between child and adult, child and child, and adult and adult further evince the emotionally turbulent time between the death and funeral.

Unsurprisingly, the novel engages with religion to a significant extent.  Agee’s own quest for understanding of spiritual and religious matters within the context of his life and art can often be seen in his 30-year correspondence with friend and mentor, Father Flye, Episcopalian priest and teacher, whom Agee met when he was a 10-year-old student boarding at St. Andrews’s school.

Here’s an excerpt from Agee’s January 26, 1949, letter to Father Flye:

My intuition is that God is not a vulgarian. I don’t think He so directs traffic that one truck miraculously stops short on a precipice and another demolishes a child.  I think the former and the latter merely happened, and stand in humility before chance (with its conceivably traceable causes), not God. I would suppose that God leaves the Universe to its own devices (largely, anyhow), as He leaves human beings to theirs—largely.

A memorable scene in A Death in the Family involving spirituality is the one in which Rufus’s dead father’s presence is sensed by his mother Mary, along with her aunt, mother and brother.  Mary’s father, agnostic or atheist, is the only one immune to this perception.  Mary thought at first that it might have been the children waking and moving about, but then

…whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness, which were no part of any child.

Even Mary’s nearly-deaf mother imagined she heard footsteps, which she herself knew to have been impossible, since she could barely hear anything shouted into her hearing trumpet.

She laughed at herself, “I must be getting old and dippy.”

The religious members of the household, Mary and her Aunt Hannah, could readily accept a visitation by the spirit of Mary’s dead husband.  However, Mary’s brother Andrew, who shared his father’s agnosticism or atheism, unwillingly felt a presence, and was chilled (“felt the flesh go cold along his spine”) by his deaf mother’s unprompted remark, ““Has somebody come into the house?” Catherine inquired in her clear voice.”

There was another apparent instance of spiritual presence at the burial when a cloud covered the sun and a butterfly came to rest on the coffin as it was being lowered into the ground.  In the dazzling sunlight that appeared following this, the butterfly took flight out of the grave, much like a soul soaring upward to heaven.  Rufus’s Uncle Andrew told him of this, in a tone of wonder and amazement (Rufus was not permitted to attend the funeral himself).  However, combined with the sense of the miraculous was Andrew’s anger and disgust with the officiating priest who refused to read the full burial service over Rufus’s father, since he was not baptized.  Andrew says…

Genuflecting, and ducking and bowing and scraping, and basting themselves with signs of the Cross, and all that disgusting hocus-pocus, and you come to one simple, single act of Christian charity and what happens?  The rules of the Church forbid it.  He’s not a member of our little club.

And so the story ends on the unresolved conflict between the spiritual and the religious, and the essence of true Christianity versus hypocrisy.  The six-year-old child’s life had been a series of misapprehensions to this point in time, and he leaves the episode of his father’s death and funeral with continued confusion and an inability to understand what his uncle is trying to communicate to him.  One realizes at this point that the adults around him are often unable to understand, either.



This One Is Full o’ Piss and Vinegar…

I had a hard time using the word, “piss” in my title, since in Canada it is, or was, a vulgarism.  Mind you, the expression, “Piss off” to inform someone that you are no longer enjoying their company–or perhaps that you are having difficulty believing something they’ve said–is fairly commonplace now.

It used to be that when I heard someone in the U.K. asking, in polite company, if someone were ‘taking the piss,’ I’d feel a teensy bit startled for a split second.  It is, as I discovered, another fairly commonplace expression, and simply means ‘are you being facetious?’ or ‘are you pulling my leg?’

I also used to be a bit surprised when my U.K. friends and relatives would ask to use the ‘toilet’…since the ‘t’ word is rigorously avoided in Canadian culture.  We will ask for ‘the ladies’ or men’s room’ or ‘the rest room’ or ‘the washroom’ before we’ll ask for ‘the toilet.’  In fact, we’d probably pee ourselves before asking for that.  I will always ask for ‘the loo’ when I’m in the U.K., because I still can’t bring myself to ask for the toilet.  When I first visited Scotland back in the 1970s and asked one of my husband’s aunties if I could use the washroom, she was a little perplexed that I suddenly wanted to do some laundry a few short hours after my arrival.

Anyhow, it’s all to do with accepted word usages, and it’s just that some words did not become commonplace in Canada (within my experience).  We talk about toilets to our plumbers and that’s it.  In the U.K., the word ‘toilet’ probably means the room where the toilet is located, and not necessarily the fixture itself—although I’m not absolutely sure.  We in Canada would expect it to mean the actual receptacle, and so by asking for it by name, everyone within hearing might then know what we intend doing when we get to ‘the washroom’—and, good heavens, we can’t have people knowing that!

We, as Canadians, believe that the necessity to perform bodily functions, even though in a hygienic manner, should be disguised by every means possible.  I suppose that’s why women (in North America, at least), used to excuse themselves from the table at a restaurant by saying that they needed to ‘powder their nose’ or ‘freshen up.’  Perhaps the fact that women habitually retired to the ladies’ room in pairs was to reinforce the notion that the purpose of the trip was for hairdo and makeup restoration.  Chances of two people needing to use the plumbing fixtures at precisely the same time would be remote, right?  So by venturing forth together, one woman would be a cover for the other.

“How on earth did she get onto THIS topic,” you say?  Good question.  I’ve been mentally cooking up an article on vinegar, and wanted to pair it with something.  So I thought, “What goes with vinegar?”  I expect you can answer that by now.

I suppose we don’t know the first appearance of the expression ‘full of piss and vinegar,’ but John Steinbeck used it in his 1938 novel, The Grapes of Wrath:

Grampa walked up and slapped Tom on the chest, and his eyes grinned  with affection and pride.

“How are ya, Tommy?”

“O.K.,” said Tom. “How ya keepin’ yaself?”

“Full a piss an’ vinegar,” said Grampa.

…which generally means, ‘full of vim and vigour,’ apparently, although I’ve been under the impression that it meant, ‘feisty’ (spirited, plucky, gutsy, etc.).  Similar, but not quite the same thing.

And at this point we shall switch from piss to urine, shall we?  (If you don’t want to go there, I will understand…Bye for now, and have a nice day.)

Urine and vinegar have both been around a very long time, and humans have apparently wanted to put them to beneficial use whenever possible.  This has required a great deal of experimentation, as you might imagine.

We know where urine comes from, so let’s talk about where vinegar comes from.

The word vinegar comes from the French word vinaigre (vin for wine and aigre for sour).  Bacteria spores in the air convert a fermented liquid into a weak form of acetic acid.  So basically it is this second fermentation of sugars or starches while the liquid is exposed to air that produces vinegar.  Vinegar can come from the juice of sweet fruits and grains such as barley (malt beer), apple (cider) and grape (wine), yet it can also be made from roots or wood (often the base of white distilled vinegar).

As for how we use vinegar, we have records dating back to the ancient Greeks.  Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) recommended a vinegar preparation for cleaning ulcerations and for the treatment of sores.  Also, a popular medicine composed of honey and vinegar was prescribed for persistent coughs and other uses…

On the Articulations, by Hippocrates, written 400 BC, translation by Francis Adams:  “The treatment, if no fever be present, consists in the administration of hellebore, but otherwise it is not to be given, but oxyglyky (decoction of honeycombs and vinegar) is to be given for drink, if required.”  [http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/artic.86.86.html]

Today, vinegar is being investigated for cardiovascular benefits, improved calcium absorption, antitumor effects in cancer, and so forth.  Home remedies suggest vinegar as a treatment for ALL sorts…arthritis, hemorrhoids, insect bites, athlete’s foot, you-name-it.

Modern medicine (non-home-remedy) findings on the benefits of vinegar are interesting…

Blood Pressure Regulation, Cardiovascular Disease, and Vinegar:

In the rat model, acetic acid administration enhanced calcium absorption and retention; moreover, in humans, calcium absorption in the distal colon was enhanced by acetate. Clearly, much work is needed to establish whether vinegar ingestion alters calcium absorption and/or blood pressure regulation in humans.

Whether chronic vinegar ingestion affects other risk factors for cardiovascular disease in humans is not known.  Hu and colleagues reported a significantly lower risk for fatal ischemic heart disease among participants in the Nurses’ Health Study who consumed oil-and-vinegar salad dressings frequently (5-6 times or more per week) compared with those who rarely consumed them…”  [http://www.medscape.com]

Good enough reason to use oil-and-vinegar salad dressings!

Cancer and Vinegar:

In a separate trial, mice fed a rice-shochu vinegar-fortified feed (0.3% to 1.5% w/w) or control diet were inoculated with sarcoma 180 (group 1) or colon 38 (group 2) tumor cells (2 x 106 cells subcutaneously).  At 40 days post-inoculation, vinegar-fed mice in both experimental groups had significantly smaller tumor volumes when compared with their control counterparts. A prolonged life span due to tumor regression was also noted in the mice ingesting rice-shochu vinegar as compared with controls, and in vitro, the rice-shochu vinegar stimulated natural killer cell cytotoxic activity.

The antitumor factors in vinegar have not been identified.


Thus, because acetic acid in vinegar deprotonates in the stomach to form acetate ions, it may possess antitumor effects.

Reducing Cancer Risk with Vinegar:

Vinegars are also a dietary source of polyphenols, compounds synthesized by plants to defend against oxidative stress. Ingestion of polyphenols in humans enhances in vivo antioxidant protection and reduces cancer risk.

A case-control study conducted in Linzhou, China, demonstrated that vinegar ingestion was associated with a decreased risk for esophageal cancer.  However, vinegar ingestion was associated with a 4.4-fold greater risk for bladder cancer in a case-control investigation in Serbia. [http://www.medscape.com]

Well, the fact that vinegar DOES have antitumor factors is all I need to know.  I don’t have the details of the Serbian study that indicated a greater risk for bladder cancer, but perhaps if vinegar is consumed with other foods there will be less likelihood of any problems in that area.

Some comparisons between home remedies using vinegar, and modern medicine, are instructive:

Disinfecting Using Vinegar, Home Remedy:

Apple cider vinegar’s ability to draw out toxins is one reason why it is good for applying to insect bites. As an immediate solution, you can place vinegar directly on the area and rise it off.  Dip a cloth in the vinegar, press it against the bite and the itchiness will cease, sealing some of the broken capillaries at the surface of the skin.

If the bite has drawn blood, the vinegar will disinfect the area and prevent further bacteria from entering the wound. [http://blog.emergencyoutdoors.com/home-remedies-the-many-medicinal-uses-of-vinegar/]

Disinfecting Using Vinegar, Modern Medicine:

Recent scientific investigations clearly demonstrate the antimicrobial properties of vinegar, but mainly in the context of food preparation.   Experts advise against using vinegar preparations for treating wounds.

“…experts caution against using vinegar as a household disinfectant against human pathogens because chemical disinfectants are more effective. However, undiluted vinegar may be used effectively for cleaning dentures, and, unlike bleach solutions, vinegar residues left on dentures were not associated with mucosal damage. [http://www.medscape.com]

Seems that modern medicine does not advocate vinegar for wound treatment, but it might be good for cleaning your kitchen countertops or dentures.

Dentures are made of acrylic, so the acid in vinegar should not damage them.  I notice in one of my ‘uses of vinegar’ sources that they recommend brushing your teeth with undiluted vinegar…not sure that it’s a good idea to brush teeth with anything acidic. In fact, I would guess that it’s not.  There might be damage to tooth enamel.

Swimmer’s Ear, The Home Remedy, using Vinegar:

If the itchiness is more than you can bear, try a few drops of white vinegar in the ear canal (much like medical ear drops). Ensure the vinegar gets deep into the ear canal by moving your head slightly. Then after 30 seconds allow the fluid to drain out.  Aim for two drops for each ear and continue for five days.   [http://blog.emergencyoutdoors.com/home-remedies-the-many-medicinal-uses-of-vinegar/]

Swimmer’s Ear, Modern Medicine, using Vinegar:

Although investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of diluted vinegar (2% acetic acid solution at pH 2) for the treatment of ear infections (otitis externa, otitis media, and granular myringitis), the low pH of these solutions may irritate inflamed skin and damage cochlear outer hair cells.   [http://www.medscape.com]

Sounds like there’s an acknowledgement from modern medicine that ear treatment with vinegar is effective–but with caution.

Jellyfish Stings, The Home Remedy, using Vinegar: 

To treat the stings immediately, pour vinegar over the affected area to inactivate the stinging cells.  Any kind of vinegar will do,. If tentacles cling to the skin, avoid touching them with bare skin. Above all do not rub or scratch the skin as this will further inflame it.  [http://blog.emergencyoutdoors.com/home-remedies-the-many-medicinal-uses-of-vinegar/]

Jellyfish Stings, Modern Medicine, re using Vinegar:

Immediate vinegar application at the site of jellyfish stings is practiced at various coastal locations around the world because vinegar deactivates the nematocysts. However, hot-water immersion is considered the most efficacious initial treatment for jellyfish envenomation because the venom is deactivated by heat.  [http://www.medscape.com]

Well, if one is on a beach after having just been stung by a jellyfish, and a bottle of vinegar is available from an attendant for first-aid treatment, I think that more immediate relief is to be had from that source.  Chances are that it will be more difficult to treat with hot-water immersion quickly.

Nail Fungus, Home Remedy, using Vinegar:

Fungus growth under the toenail can become extremely painful if not treated properly.  If possible cut the dead part of the nail off and soak the toe in diluted white vinegar for ten minutes.  Repeat this twice daily, once before putting your shoes on and again at the end of the day when you take them off.  [http://blog.emergencyoutdoors.com/home-remedies-the-many-medicinal-uses-of-vinegar/]

Nail Fungus, Modern Medicine, re using Vinegar:

In the popular media, vinegar is commonly recommended for treating nail fungus, head lice, and warts, yet scientific support for these treatment strategies is lacking.  [http://www.medscape.com]

I note that the ‘Modern Medicine’ statement does not actually refute the Home Remedy recommendation.  Chances are that ‘scientific support is lacking’ because there has been no investigation.

Weight Loss, Home Remedy, Using Vinegar:

Allow your system to adjust to the process. Apple cider vinegar can assist with dieting as it works as a diuretic, draining the body of excess fluid while also reducing the appetite.

Take one teaspoon in two cups of warm water before each meal, coupled with regular exercise.

Weight Loss, Modern Medicine, Using Vinegar:

Subjects were also asked to rate feelings of hunger/satiety on a scale ranging from extreme hunger (-10) to extreme satiety (+10) before meal consumption and at 15-minute intervals after the meal. Bread consumption alone scored the lowest rating of satiety (calculated as area under the curve from time 0-120 minutes). Feelings of satiety increased when vinegar was ingested with the bread, and a linear relationship was observed between satiety and the acetic acid content of the test meals.

In a separate trial, healthy adult women consumed fewer total calories on days that vinegar was ingested at the morning meal…. Thus, vinegar may affect satiety by reducing the meal-time glycemic load. Of 20 studies published between 1977 and 1999, 16 demonstrated that low-glycemic index foods promoted postmeal satiety and/or reduced subsequent hunger. [http://www.medscape.com]

Seems to be something promising there, of which I am taking note!  If bread is desired at a meal, perhaps providing a dip of oil-and-vinegar dressing to have with it would be helpful.

And now let’s explore the uses of urine, shall we?  How about running your car, for starters…

Sarah DeWeerdt for Conservation Magazine, Wednesday 9 March 2011 11.57 GMT

“…Gerardine Botte, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio University who has developed a technology to generate hydrogen fuel from urine.

Botte recognized that urine contains two compounds that could be a source of hydrogen: ammonia and urea. Place an electrode in wastewater, apply a gentle current, and voila: hydrogen gas that can be used to power a fuel cell.

Her system operates similarly to the electrolysis of water, a process that can be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells – except that ammonia and urea hold their hydrogen atoms less tightly than water does, so less energy is required to split them off. Botte isn’t the only scientist with her mind in the sewer. A group of scientists in the UK, for example, is working on a fuel cell powered directly by urine.

Okay, now there’s a sustainable resource put to good use!  And as for medicinal purposes…

Urine has, in fact, had an impressive range of practical uses for much of history. A key area was medicine. In Rome, Pliny the Elder recommended fresh urine for the treatment of “sores, burns, affections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings”, while stale urine mixed with ash could be rubbed on your baby for nappy rash [a.k.a. ‘diaper rash’]. In early-modern Europe numerous medical luminaries went further. Pioneering French surgeon Ambroise Paré noted that itching eye-lids could be washed in the patient’s urine – provided that it had been kept “all night in a barber’s basin” first. The father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, advised certain patients to drink every morning “a moderate draught of their own urine”, preferably while “tis yet warm”. Anyone indignantly demanding a second opinion would find that Thomas Willis – the richest doctor in England at the time – was instructing a young gentlewoman to drink her own warm urine against “extreme sourness” in her throat.

Other cases could be far more urgent. In about 1550 the Italian doctor Leonardo Fioravanti  saw a man’s nose sliced off in an argument, and promptly urinated on the fallen organ before stitching it back on. Henry VIII’s surgeon, Thomas Vicary, recommended that all battle wounds should be washed in urine; and others advised the same for potentially gangrenous ulcers, or poisonous bites and stings. Being sterile when it leaves the body, urine was then a far safer cleaning agent than the kind of water typically available.


Ingesting urine as medicine seems to have been thought efficacious in France during the 17th century.   On 13 June 1685, for example, we find Madame de Sévigné telling her daughter of how, “for my vapours I take eight drops of essence of urine.”

I have the book, Lettres Choisies de Madame de Sévigné (published 1866), and her letter to her daughter of June 13, 1685, does say, “ Pour des vapeurs, ma chère enfant, je voulus, ce me semble, en avoir l’autre jour : je pris huit gouttes d’essence d’urine, et, contre l’ordinaire, elle m’empêcha de dormir toute la nuit : mais j’ai été bien aise de reprendre de l’estime pour cette essence, je n’en ai pas eu besoin depuis.”   Evidently she thought the treatment served its intended purpose, other than causing insomnia through that night (unusual, as she says, for her), since she did not require a repeat dose.

And if you’re wondering whether you can drink your own urine in a survival situation where you’re dehydrated and unable to find water, you basically can, IF you distill it.  Apparently the sodium and other minerals in urine actually make you more dehydrated, in much the same way as drinking sea water.  And best only use your own urine, since pathogens from your own body are not likely to cause problems for you.

Apart from its potential uses as a medicine taken by mouth (which has limited appeal for some of us, I have to say), urine had other uses in the ancient Roman world…the fullers who washed and dyed Roman clothing used it in their processes, and tanners used it in theirs.

Ancient Roman Fullers

It might not be surprising for the advocates of urinotherapy, but our pee has been used for centuries as a cleanser. The Romans not only brushed their teeth with it, but regarded it as an effective laundry soap. In order to wash the tunics, pee was collected on the street by means of vessels that were carried away as soon as they had been filled up by the urine of passers-by. Specific workers called fullones (fullers, washers) had the task to stomp (always with bare feet, of course) on clothes placed in tubs full of water and old urine.

Do you wonder how this worked? Well, urine contains urea, a nitrogen-based organic compound. If stored, over time it decays into ammonia. This has a high pH and is a caustic, yet weak base when added to water. Therefore, it serves to break down organic material, neutralise dirt and grease, produce cleaning foam and help disinfect fabrics. Tellingly enough, most of the household cleansers we use nowadays do actually contain it. Ammonia was also helpful in keeping the clothes white and soft and make the colours brighter. Oh yes, stale urine can work both as an extracting agent and as a mordant too, that is it serves to bind dyes to a cloth. In the first case (pee as extracting agent), soaking certain natural substances in stale urine provides fine pigmentation, which is useable to dye wool and cotton. Let’s say you want to get purple: then let lichen orchil ferment in old pee and you’ll have the desired colouration.


And this from the Ancient History Encyclopedia [http://www.ancient.eu/article/46/]

Arguably the most important job in the Roman clothing industry was that of the cleaners, or the fullers (Latin fullones). The fullers’ shops serviced an entire town, where they dyed, washed, and dried garments of all types.

The typical fullonica needed tanks for washing, dyeing, and rinsing the garments, as well as space to dry and finish them. Garments were usually washed in human urine, which would have been collected from the public restrooms around the town, and also possibly imported from outlying areas.

Okay, that’ll do for corroboration for urine’s use in cleaning and dyeing clothing.

Then we have cosmetics…

The Elizabethan surgeon William Bullein advised those “whose faces be unclean” to wash their skin with “strong vinegar, milk and the urine of a boy”. In 1675 The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physic, Beautifying, and Cookery told of how one’s own urine was “very good to wash the face withal, to make it fair”. Compare the northern Scottish author Mary Beith, who (writing in 1995) emphasises that, “today, urea remains an important ingredient in medicinal skin creams,” also recalling “babies having their faces wiped with their own wet nappies” by way of skin care…”

And urine must have been a handy commodity during WWI…

“…soldiers of the first world war…used cloth patches soaked in their own urine as rudimentary gas masks (the ammonia in the urine counteracting the chlorine in the gas).


Wikipedia offers this bit of information…

Starting in 1918, British naturopath John W. Armstrong prescribed urine-therapy regimens that he devised to many thousands of patients, and in 1944 he published The Water of Life: A treatise on urine therapy, which became a founding document of the field.

But…”There is no scientific evidence of a therapeutic use for untreated urine.”

As J. R. Armstrong says in the introduction to his book:

It has been argued that it cannot be right to take back into the body something which the body is apparently discarding. Yet this objection ignores the principle of composting as practised by organic gardeners. Rotting dead leaves, when dug back into the soil, provide valuable mineral salts to nourish new plant life.

Not sure I can wholeheartedly agree with that.  But, on the celebrity front, British actress Sarah Miles has drunk her own urine for over thirty years…

Published 16/09/2007

“…Miles has a dottily eccentric English charm that makes it impossible not to warm to her — even when our chat turns to what she is most well-known for after acting. “On my tombstone will be engraved: One of the untouchables — she drank her own pee,” she told the New Statesman in 1998. “That’s what all Indians do!” she harrumphs. “That’s what Ghandi did. That’s what Nero did! That’s what everybody that I think looks fantastic in old age does! I thought: ‘Well, if they all look that bloody good, I think I’ll have a go!’ It tastes like good beer. You take it mid-flow every evening and morning. You just swig it down. It tastes fine.”

And for how many years have you been drinking your own urine, Sarah? “Thirty.”

She can tell by the look on my face that I’m horrified. “Urine! It immunises you against your own allergies. Clinics use it for cancer. It is used for all kinds of illnesses.

“Why does humanity have a problem with me drinking my own urine? I can’t wait to get off this planet!”

Some would say Sarah Miles was never truly on it.


Well, I think that after looking at all this, I will probably try to use more apple cider vinegar in my diet, and continue to use vinaigrette dressings for salads.  I already soak my fish and chips in malt vinegar, just because I like it.

As for the benefits of drinking urine, well…umm…yuck to that.  Have to wonder if they’re ‘taking the piss.’


A Grand Home is a Castle: Dirleton and the Ruthvens

The crumbling ruins of a formerly great edifice can put one in mind of the bones of dinosaurs.  One cannot see the entity at its peak of strength and function, but its remains hint at the grandiosity that was.  Even when all that’s left of a castle are a few stones marking the outer perimeter of a former bulwark against the elements, one can feel awed by the ghostly presence of the massive structure that once stood on that spot.  In the absence of the long-departed people who sustained and maintained it from centuries ago, a castle’s ruins can be evocative of an ancient, neglected graveyard in which even the monuments commemorating the remains of former lives are themselves gradually disintegrating with every passing year.

In bygone times, a castle was the physical manifestation of wealth and position, and its impressiveness was an adjunct to its defence along with the actual fortifications themselves.

Dirleton Castle gate, built by the Halyburtons, photo, Jonathan Oldenbuck

Dirleton Castle gate, built by the Halyburtons, Photo by Jonathan Oldenbuck, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

The nobility were the castle-owners, and they were significant political forces in Scotland’s history, owing to their role in supporting the sovereign militarily, monetarily, and judicially.  Their alliances were vitally important, not only for prosperity, but also for survival.  This was not just posturing; it was a way to keep one’s foothold on the political landscape–of being influential, consulted and considered.  Any wealthy, noble family without power and alliances would be vulnerable, and potentially under threat.

A great structure housing a noble family could speak in mute eloquence of power and influence.  If its beholder is an enemy, he is meant to feel daunted, and be dissuaded from engaging in a dispute with the laird.  If a potential friend, he is meant to feel the desirability of an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship.  A castle therefore fulfilled its purpose not only when it sheltered and protected, but when it played a part in courting potential allies, and cowing potential enemies.

But perhaps not all castles fulfilled their promise in this respect, as we shall see…

My featured image is a painting by Andrew Spratt (used by permission).   Andrew has researched and reconstructed Dirleton Castle, which is located twenty miles east of Edinburgh on a rocky outcrop that was, during its early history, surrounded by marshland.  A deep moat once encircled the castle’s rock base, and two drawbridges provided entrance:  one for foot traffic, which faced eastwards toward the village; and one for horse, cattle and wagons, which faced south.

A wooden palisade enclosed the moat and extended east to protect the village.


Dirleton Castle, painting by Andrew Spratt. Used by kind permission.

The castle was situated to guard the coastal approach to Edinburgh from England via the port of North Berwick.

Today the ruins comprise a 13th-century keep and a 16th-century house adjacent to it, which the Ruthvens built during the time the castle was in their hands.  During the 14th and 15th century occupancy of the Halyburtons (prior to the Ruthvens), a large hall and tower house were added, of which only the basement levels survive today.

When originally built by the de Vaux family in the 13th century (after 1240), it was quite a complex structure, with five round towers, three of which were D-shaped in plan, and two additional square plan towers, all joined by a battlement wall.  The de Vaux based its design on the Château de Coucy in France, north of Paris.

[Description, Andrew Spratt:  http://www.maybole.org/history/castles/dirleton.htm]

The de Vaux were originally from Rouen, and migrated to England after the Norman conquest of 1066.  Two de Vaux brothers or cousins were among the Anglo-Norman knights granted land in Scotland by King David I in the 12th century.  John de Vaux was the first builder of Dirleton Castle.

Dirleton Castle was besieged in 1298 by Bishop Bek on behalf of King Edward I of England (the “Hammer of the Scots”) during the Wars of Independence with England.  The de Vaux continued to resist even after Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk, but they were eventually overcome and allowed to surrender the castle and flee.  By 1311, Dirleton was re-captured by the Scots, and, following King Robert the Bruce’s policy of dismantling fortifications to prevent their re-use by the English, the castle was ‘slighted.’  Three towers were destroyed and significant damage caused to the others.  When the Halyburtons married into the de Vaux family in the 1350s they rebuilt much of the castle, although they did not restore it to its original state.

Moving ahead to 1363, the Halyburtons’ former allies, the Douglases and Dunbars, seized Dirleton castle as part of their rebellion against King David II of Scotland.  The rebellious families were defeated by King David II at the battle of Lanark, and Dirleton was returned to the Halyburtons.

In the early 1500s, Direlton passed to the Ruthven (Scottish pronunciation, “Rivven”) family through marriage, when William Ruthven, 2nd Lord Ruthven, married Janet Halyburton, Lady Dirletoun.

Some of Sir William Ruthven’s history includes being fined in 1532, along with other barons, for not appearing to sit as jurymen at the trial of Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, for poisoning her husband.  He was a member of the privy council in 1542, and appointed keeper of the privy seal in 1546.  At the parliament held at Edinburgh in March 1543, after the death of King James V,  Ruthven spoke on behalf of the laity being granted liberty to read the Scriptures in the English tongue; and at the same parliament he was chosen to be one of eight noblemen who were to have the charge of the young queen, two at a time, every three months.

The earliest recorded ancestor of the Ruthven family was Thor, “who may have been the Thor, son of Swein (or Swan), who appears as a witness to royal charters between 1127 and 1150.  He was the owner of the lands of Travernent or Tranent, the church of which he granted to the monks of Holyrood.  He was also not improbably the overlord of the extensive territory of Crawford.”  (The Scots Peerage, Vol. IV, p 254)

William, second Lord Ruthven, was Provost of Perth in 1528, and made custodier of the royal manors and hospitals within the burgh.  He was appointed an extraordinary Lord of Session in 1539, and Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1546.

He died between December 3 and 16 of 1552.

“He married, and by so doing greatly added to his estates, Jonet, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Patrick, Lord Haliburton of Dirleton…” ( The Scots Peerage, Vol. IV, p. 259)

And so it is apparent that at this stage in the history of the Ruthven family, William, second Lord Ruthven, was a respected nobleman, and in a position of trust in the ruling classes of Scotland.

Below is a portrait of Sir William Ruthven, second Lord Ruthven (again, he was my 13x great grandfather), which was taken from the frontispiece of The Ruthven Family Papers, by Samuel Cowan, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd., London, 1912.

William Ruthven

Sir William, 2nd Lord Ruthven, 1528-1552, Keeper of the Privy Seal, and Provost of Perth, 1529

His son, Patrick, who succeeded his father as the third Lord Ruthven, was born about 1520, and educated at St. Andrews.  “He was an adherent of Darnley, and was the principal actor in the murder of Riccio, March 9, 1566, having risen from a sick-bed for the purpose.  After the murder, abandoned by Darnley, he fled to England, where he died at Newcastle, June 13, 1566.” (The Scots Peerage, Vol IV, p. 261)

Patrick’s sister, Lilias Ruthven, who married David Drummond, 2nd Lord Drummond, was my 12x great grandmother…

Lilias Ruthven

Lady Lilias Ruthven, daughter of the second lord, and wife of David Drummond, 2nd Lord Drummond

William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie and son of Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Lord Ruthven, was also implicated in the murder of Rizzio (a.k.a. “Riccio”) in 1566.

Here’s an account of Rizzio’s murder in the apartments of Mary Queen of Scots at Holyrood Palace, taken from The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, The Folio Society, London, 1969, pp 51-52…

It was supposed also that the Earl of Lennox knew of the said design.  For he had his chamber within the palace, and so had the Earls of Atholl, Bothwell and Huntly, who escaped by leaping down out of a window towards the little garden where the lions were lodged.  This vile act was done upon a Saturday [9 March 1566] about six hours, when the queen was at supper in her cabinet.  A number of armed men entered within the close, before the closing of the gates, and took the keys from the porter.  One part of them went up through the king’s chamber, conducted by the Lord Ruthven and George Douglas; the rest remained in the close with drawn swords in their hands, crying, ‘A Douglas, A Douglas’ for their slogan, for it was in the gloaming of the evening.  The king was before gone up to the queen and was leaning upon her chair, when the Lord Ruthven entered with his helmet upon his head, and George Douglas entered in with him, and divers others, so rudely and irreverently that the table, candles, meat and dishes were overthrown.  Riccio took the queen about the waist, crying for mercy; but George Douglas plucked forth the king’s dagger that was behind his back and struck Riccio first with it, leaving it sticking in him.  He, making great shrieks and cries, was rudely snatched from the queen, who could not get him safe neither for threats nor fairness.  He was forcibly drawn forth of the cabinet and slain in the outer hall, and Her Majesty kept as a captive.

Mary Queen of Scots would have been around seven months pregnant at this time, since James VI was born on June 19 of that year (1566).

In addition, William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, supposedly “devised” the 1582 plot to seize King James VI, known as the ‘Raid of Ruthven.’ As a result of that action he was attainted, with all his honors forfeited.  He was executed in May, 1584.  (But there’s more to that story below.)

The following photo shows Huntingtower Castle, which was known as the Place of Ruthven when it was owned and occupied by the Ruthvens.  The ‘Ruthven Raid’ took place here, to which the 16-year-old son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, was taken while out hunting.  He was subsequently held against his will for a year, being moved to various locations during that time.

Huntingtower_Castle,_near_Perth, Ruthven

Huntingtower Castle, near Perth, formerly ‘Place of Ruthven’ Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0 By Brian D Osborne, CC BY-SA 2.0

Notably, Mary Queen of Scots honeymooned here with Lord Darnley in 1565.

Sir William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, and his allied nobles purposed, by having James VI within their control, to present him with (and gain his agreement to) a ‘supplication’ intended to reform the government of Scotland and limit the influence of French and pro-Catholic policy.  During this time, the earl of Gowrie remained at the head of the government, assisted by other like-minded nobles.  The Regime was endorsed by influential ministers of the Kirk of Scotland, from the pulpit. These churchmen were called “Melvillians” after their spokesman, Andrew Melville.  [Andrew Melville was the uncle of Sir James Melville, diplomat and writer.]

Portrait_of_James_I_of_England_and_James_VI_of_Scotland, public domain, wiki

James VI of Scotland

In addition to the concerns over French influence and pro-Catholic policy, the coup was also prompted by the urge to curb excessive spending at court. Because of its (the court’s) extravagance, the Earl of Gowrie as Lord High Treasurer of Scotland was owed £48,000 Scots. This debt was never repaid.  [Julian Goodare, ‘Debts of James VI’, in Economic History Review, vol. 64, no. 4 (November 2009), pp.926-952 at p.934-936, and see also, Boyd, William K. ed., Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol. 6 (1910), 240.]

Sir James Melville records these words of Andrew Melville’s, spoken to James VI:

“Sir, we will humblie reverence your Majestie always, namlie in public, but sen we have this occasioun to be with your Majestie in privat, and the treuthe is, yie ar brought in extream danger bathe of your lyff and croun, and with yow, the country and Kirk of Christ is lyk to wrak, for nocht telling yow the treuthe, and giffen of yow fathfull counsall, we mon (must) discharge our dewtie thairin, or els be trators bathe to Christ and yow! And thairfor Sir, as divers tymes befor, sa now again, I mon tell yow, thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes in Scotland. Thair is Chryst Jesus the King, and his Kingdome the Kirk, whase subject King James the Saxt is, and of whose kingdome nocht a king, nor a lord, nor a heid, bot a member!”

Andrew Melville evidently never hesitated to inform James VI, boldly and bluntly, of the error of his ways, despite his kingship.  It occurs to me that the king, having acquired his sovereignty during his minority, might have developed a sensitivity to being dictated to by Scottish nobles and churchmen, no matter how well intentioned.  So this degree of frankness carried its risks.

Here’s a bit of information about Andrew Melville from Britannica.com:

Andrew Melville,  (born Aug. 1, 1545, Baldovie, Angus, Scot.—died 1622, Sedan,  Fr.), scholar and Reformer who succeeded John Knox as a leader of the Scottish Reformed Church, giving that church its Presbyterian character by replacing bishops with local presbyteries, and gaining international respect for Scottish universities.

He eventually ran seriously afoul of James VI after James succeeded Elizabeth I and became James I of England as well as James VI of Scotland, uniting the two countries:

…his [Melville’s] satiric Latin poem composed to combat constant Anglican pressures on him turned his own career in another direction. Imprisoned in the Tower of London  for four years for his intransigence, Melville was released only to accept a chair in France, that of biblical theology at the University of Sedan, where he remained until his death.  [britannica.com]

Here’s a ‘fanciful Victorian illustration’ of Andrew Melville at the court, in the presence of James VI:

Andrew_Melville_upbraids_a_bishop_at_the_court_of_James_VI, public domain, wiki

Andrew Melville Upbraids a Bishop at the Court of James VI

That aside, I think we can determine from the Raid of Ruthven, and Andrew Melville’s lecture to James VI, that there were indications James might have been brewing two undesirable characteristics in a monarch that perhaps manifested even more strongly in James VI’s descendants.  James’s son, Charles I, believed firmly in the ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ and his arrogant refusal to consider the participation of parliament resulted in his execution by beheading in 1649.  Evidently he was not inclined to accept wise counsel.  As for money management, James’s grandson, Charles II’s profligacy and spendthrift ways were often in evidence.  Both James’s son and grandson married Catholic princesses, Henrietta Maria of France (Charles I), and Catherine of Braganza (Charles II), so apparently the concerns of the Scottish nobility with regard to religion and foreign influences was not something James VI espoused nor instilled in his son, and, by extension, his grandson.

As for the outcome of the Raid of Ruthven, there were meetings and negotiations, and eventually a reconciliation between James VI and his nobles.  Sir James Melville gives an account of the king’s actions after obtaining his liberty:

“Of a truth His Majesty was of a merciful mind, and gently inclined toward all the nobility, intending to win all their hearts by his own discreet behaviour, and to that effect he went first to the house of Ruthven, to let the country see that he was entirely reconciled to the Earl of Gowrie; who, after he had made His Majesty a great banquet, fell down upon his knees, lamenting that His Majesty should have been retained in that unhappy house as his last being there, which, he said, fell out rather by accident than deliberation, only for the safety of the Earl of Arran’s life; alleging that he knew no other thing than that at His Majesty’s being at Dunfermline they were all minded to present him an humble supplication, asking pardon for that accidental fault:  which His Majesty graciously promised never to impute to him, knowing how blindly he was brought upon it, by the practices of others.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, The Folio Society, London,  1969, p. 114]

But my guess is that James VI harboured a grudge, although he was canny enough not to give evidence of it at this point.  Sir James Melville believed that the eventual execution of Sir William Ruthven was the result of the Earl of Arran’s influence on the king, who was, after all, only 17 years and 11 months old at that time in 1584…

Melville thoroughly disapproved of Arran’s influence over the king, and believed that Arran frustrated James’s own intention of settling his government on the principle of conciliation all round.  After a bitter quarrel with Arran, during which Melville said, ‘I would get more honest men to take my part than he would get throat-cutters to assist him’, Melville resolved to retire from the court.  ‘At my leave-taking His Majesty said he doubted not but I would return when called for.  By which I understood that I should not come back till sent for.’  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, The Folio Society, London, 1969, p. 124]

It seems that the Earl of Arran was a thoroughgoing ne’er-do-well, according to Sir James, and mis-used his influence and power…

“Now the Earl of Arran triumphed, being chancellor, and captain of the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling.  He made the whole subjects to tremble under him, and every man depended upon him, daily inventing and seeking out new faults against divers, to get the gift of their escheats, lands, benefices, and to procure bribes.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 124]

The Earl of Arran hated Sir William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie…

“…for Gowrie had been his first master, and despited his insolent pride, oppression and misbehaviour plainly in council, which few others durst do; therefore he hated his person, and loved his lands, which at length he obtained.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 124]

And so the Earl of Arran obtained William Ruthven’s lands by engineering his execution, after Ruthven was implicated in the seizure of Stirling Castle.  This action against Stirling was a move by other nobles (the Earls of Angus and Mar and the Master of Glamis among them) against Arran.  William Ruthven would have wanted to support them in this, but he was by no means the only one…

“…His Majesty had compassion upon him, and had no intention of taking his life.  But the Earl of Arran was resolved to have his lands, which he divided afterwards with others, to get their votes and consents that he might be ruined.  At his death upon the scaffold, he showed himself a devout Christian and a resolute Roman, much regretted by many that were present and heard his grave harangue, and did see his constant end.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 125]

I have to say that I was inclined to believe the Ruthvens were ‘a bad lot’ from the bare facts…but there’s a great deal more to this than the bare facts can supply.  Another thing that Melville says is that when James VI was first taken ‘prisoner’ he was brought to the Place of Ruthven (Huntingtower Castle), for undetermined reasons—although it was speculated that the other lords involved might have wanted this, “to embark the Earl of Gowrie [whose house it was], more deeply in their bond.”  [Memoirs of Sir James Melville, p. 109]

Another alleged attempt by the Ruthvens to capture King James VI occurred in 1600 in the “Gowrie Conspiracy.”

The suspicious circumstances of the event in 1600, combined with the fact that by obliterating the Ruthvens in ‘officialdom,’ King James VI would realize enormous benefit—wiping out the debt of money owed by him to the Ruthvens, and seizing their property to bolster the royal coffers—raised questions at the time.   No doubt previous actions by the Ruthvens—the murder of Rizzio, and the Raid of Ruthven—were expected to give credence to King James VI’s account of what happened in 1600.  Since the father of the two Ruthvens (John and Alexander) killed during that altercation was William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, who was executed in 1584 for treason (as stated previously), doubtless James VI thought that his version of the encounter with William Ruthven’s sons would likely be believed.  Remember, too, that William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie’s father was Patrick, 3rd Earl of Ruthven who was the purported ringleader of the Rizzio murder.

Guilt in the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ would have made three generations of Ruthven in contravention of the law.  The first with Rizzio’s murder (Patrick, and also son William), the second in the ‘Raid of Ruthven’ (William), and the third would have been the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ (William’s sons, John and Alexander)–IF the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ were real.

“In that notable and momentous event, the so-called Gowrie Conspiracy, of which we have now unquestionable proof, there has always been mystery surrounding it, evidently founded on the refusal of the Scottish Clergy and Magistrates of Perth, and the majority of the Scottish people of that period, to recognise it as a conspiracy of the Ruthvens, and the Clergy’s refusal to pray for the King’s deliverance; believing, as many of them did, that the King was himself the author of the plot.”  (The Ruthven Family Papers by Samuel Cowan, 1912, p. 5)

Samuel Cowan’s book is based on:

“…a paper of historical value, in respect that it confirms the views of the Scottish Clergy and Magistrates of Perth of 1600, that the King, and not Gowrie, was the conspirator, and stamps the King and his six nobles, amongst whom were divided the illegally confiscated Gowrie estates, as the sole conspirators, enterprisers, and negotiators of the plot, and alone responsible for the consequences of that catastrophe with all its brutalities, cruelties and persecutions.”  (The Ruthven Family Papers by Samuel Cowan, 1912, p. 6)

This is what happened following the events of the “Gowrie Conspiracy”:

The dead bodies of the Earl and his brother were carried to Edinburgh, and an indictment of high treason was preferred against them. Witnesses being examined, the Parliament, 15 November 1600, pronounced sentence, declaring them to have committed manifest treason on all points contained in the summons ; and therefore decerned their names, memory, and dignity to be extinguished ; their arms to be cancelled ; their whole estate, real and personal, to be forfeited and annexed to the Crown, their bodies to be taken to the Cross of Edinburgh, and drawn, hanged, and quartered; the name of Ruthven to be abolished, and their posterity and their surviving brethren to be incapable of succeeding to, or holding, any offices, honours, or possessions.’ Their lands were parcelled out among those who had supported the King during the slaughter.” (The Scots Peerage, Vol IV, p. 268)

If, as modern-day scholarship is inclined to believe, the Ruthvens were innocent of the charges, it was certainly a severe and unjust punishment for innocent men and their families.  Mind you, they avoided the stress of the trial and pain of the execution by being already dead at the time they were tried, pronounced guilty, hung, drawn and quartered.

It can easily be seen from this episode in history how precarious the lives and fortunes of the nobility were in those brutal times–and not just in Scotland, of course.  One would expect that the lives of drudgery, dirt and disease suffered by the common folk in that era to be infinitely worse, but it would be quite a jolt to fall from grace in the way that the Ruthvens did in 1600.

The Ruthvens returned to the Scottish peerage 50-ish years later with the title “Lord Ruthven of Freeland,” which was granted to Thomas Ruthven in 1651–by Charles II while he was still in exile.

The following is the 1600 act of parliament abolishing the surname of Ruthven.

Long citation The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2016), 1600/11/11. Date accessed: 2 March 2016.

Act abolishing the surname of Ruthven

Forasmuch as the surname of Ruthven has been so naturally bent these many years bygone to attempt most high and horrible treasons against his majesty and his most noble progenitors that his majesty is thereby brought in vehement suspicion of their whole race and of his natural clemency, being careful that the infamy justly inflicted to the guilty shall not disgrace such of his subjects as are innocent of the said treasons, for extinguishing of the memory of the treasonable committers of the crimes foresaid and removing of the blot that with the surname might follow such of his highness’s lieges as have not been participant of the said crimes, his majesty, with advice and consent of the estates of this present parliament, statutes and ordains that the surname of Ruthven shall now and in all time coming be extinguished and abolished for ever, and that such of his highness’s subjects bearing the said surname in time past as are free and innocent of the said crimes of treason attempted against his majesty and his predecessors in manner foresaid shall be held and astricted to renounce the said surname of Ruthven, and never to use the same in any time coming, and to take to themselves, their bairns and posterity any other honest and undisgraced surname between now and Whitsunday [31 May] next, whereby they, their bairns and posterity shall be called in all time coming, and to use the same in all contracts, bonds, pacts, infeftments, writs, securities, proclamations of banns, subscribing of letters, speeches, conferences and other occasions whatsoever under the pain of banishment during the king’s pleasure to be executed against them and every one of them with all [rigour] and extremity as often and so often as they or any of them does in the contrary; and ordain the name of the barony and place of Ruthven to be changed and called in all time coming the place and barony of Huntingtower. And to the effect that the foresaid odious fact may abide and remain manifest to the posterity, the said estates ordain the round of the said lodging in Perth within the which his majesty’s murder was treasonably attempted to be demolished and razed to the ground and a monument to be erected in the place thereof containing inscription of the danger wherein his majesty was and form of the same conspiracy and manner of his highness’s delivery.

I suppose I have to admit some partiality to the Ruthven side of things, although I don’t know what to make of the murder of Rizzio. Patrick Ruthven was apparently very ill at the time of the murder, and was drawn from his sick-bed to participate.  That doesn’t excuse him, but I’m inclined to think that there might be extenuating circumstances surrounding his participation–possibly he was compelled to do it, at King Consort Darnley’s instigation.  In all likelihood his son William (later the 1st Earl of Gowrie), who was among those implicated in the murder, wasn’t even there.  William would have been around 23 years old at the time of the murder in 1566.  His father Patrick is variously reported as ‘abandoning’ King Consort Darnley and fleeing to England after the murder, and being himself abandoned by Darnley, and thus forced to flee to England.  In any event, he died in England two months after the murder.  So…bad guy or ‘fall guy’?  I don’t know.




Dirleton Castle This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 License

Dirleton Castle ended up in the hands of the Earl of Arran after the execution of Sir William Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, in 1584, and he entertained James VI there in 1585.  The following year it was restored to Lady Dorothea, widow of the 1st Earl of Gowrie, passing to her son John, the 3rd Earl of Gowrie, in 1600, but he didn’t hold the castle for long.  He was killed in the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ and the castle was forfeited by the Ruthven family yet again…this time to Thomas Erskine, later 1st Earl of Kellie.

Dirleton Castle then passed to the Nisbet family, who abandoned it as a residence.  It is now in the hands of Historic Scotland.

When the Ruthven were forced to forfeit the ’Place of Ruthven’ (named Huntingtower Castle in James VI’s act abolishing the surname of Ruthven), the Murrays, earls of Tullibardine and later dukes of Atholl, acquired it.  It is also in the care of Historic Scotland now.

Finally, we can conclude that while a castle was an important acquisition for the nobility in the early centuries of Scotland’s history, it seems that even multiple castles were no protection if a king is one’s debtor–and he casts covetous eyes on one’s land and fortune.


VITALOGY, Lesson the Third: How to Become Fat or Plump, and The Evils of the Waist Belt

This will be our third lesson in 19th-century health management, and we’ll start, as in the previous two, with some information about the source:  Vitalogy, or Encyclopedia of Health and Home was originally published in 1899 (I believe), and my edition is dated 1922.  It was published by the “Vitalogy Association, Chicago, Illinois,” and there are two copyrights:  1904 and 1913.

The authors are Dr. Geo. P. Wood, and Dr. E. H Ruddock, whose photos appear in the banner image.  In their book they instruct the reader on various aspects of turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) medical practice, which can be quite surprising from our 21st century perspective.

Here are some excerpts that you might find interesting:

waist belt


This and its kindred waist compressor are the most destructive inventions to human health on the Face of the Globe.  King Alcohol claims his victims by the hundred thousand; but these by the millions.  Abominations:  Dr. Ellis, in his Book on Health, says:  “The majority of our women are partial invalids, and most of our misses are miserably ‘peaked or puny,’ because they or their mothers before them wore those abominations, and that many of them are unfit, and should not be allowed to become, mothers of families.”  He further adds:  “The strong arm of the law should by all means be evoked to stay this deterioration and destruction of the human race.”

The very least compression, almost, on the waist is a great foe to the human system and to health.  The consequence is, no father should ever allow a Waist Belt to enter the portals of his home.

Deaf to Reason:  It is often said that it is useless to protest, preach or proclaim against this evil.  It is true that the ignorant and giddy are deaf to reason or advice, but not always so with the more thoughtful.

Diseases Produced by Tight Clothing

Medical authorities agree on the following as being a list of the principal diseases that are caused by tight dressing:  Apoplexy, headache, consumption, giddiness, jaundice, womb diseases, cancer of the breast, asthma, spitting of blood, palpitation of the heart, water on the chest, cough, abscesses in the lungs, eruptions, diseases of the kidneys, also of the liver in some of its manifold complications, bad digestion and loss of appetite.  And to these consequences should be added that of bearing generally unhealthy and deformed children, a large proportion of which soon find a premature grave, while others swell the list of the inmates of asylums and almshouses, thus carrying into the next generation the ill-starred fruit of a sinful indiscretion.

And in case anybody doesn’t already know…


Activity of mind or body prevents fattening.  Sufficient rest and sleep must be taken.  Persons who desire to become plump and remain so should retire about 9 or 10 p.m. and sleep until 6 or 7 a.m.  A brain-worker needs more sleep than a muscle-worker.  Pleasure or recreation, before going to bed at night, is desirable.  A drink of water should be taken immediately on rising.  It should be fresh water, and not that which has stood in lead pipes or in a pail, nor should it be too cold.  The breakfast should be plain and substantial, the year round, especially in summer.  A course of fresh, ripe fruit should first be eaten, then potatoes, meat or fried mush, or oatmeal porridge, bread and butter.  The drink may be cocoa, or milk and water, sweetened.  If tea or coffee is used, it should be weak and taken with plenty of milk.  A drink of water may be taken an hour or two after a meal; it aids digestion.  If one becomes faint before dinner, a cracker should be taken with a glass of water.  The hearty meal of the day should not come later than five hours after breakfast.  Soup should be taken at this meal; it helps digestion.

There are certain Brahmins or Priests in Asia who are very corpulent.  Their diet consists of vegetables, milk, sugar, sweetmeats and “ghee.”  Dr. Fothergill states that a strict vegetable diet produces fat more certainly than any other means.  Condiments, spices, and stimulants should not be taken unless they are very mild.  Much cold water, at meal-times, should be avoided.  It chills the stomach.  Every meal should be eaten slowly and with pleasant company, and a half hour, at least, of rest taken afterwards if possible.  If a full, hearty meal lies heavily on the stomach, as it often does, with dyspeptics, a drink of hot water, sweetened or salted to the taste, aids much to complete digestion.  About 3 or 4 p.m. a drink of water should be taken.  Supper should be light; bread and butter and tea, with some mild sauce.  Children and old people should retire early.

Another method of becoming plump is a free diet of oysters.  They may be taken in any form, raw or cooked, but they should be eaten without vinegar or pepper.  To sum up, then:  to become plump one must use plenty of water, starchy food, oysters, fats, vegetables, sweets, and take plenty of rest.

Strangely, I cannot find anything in this 971-page volume on ‘diet’ or ‘weight loss.’

I find it interesting that much of the advice for gaining weight in Vitalogy is what we are told for losing weight today…drinking water, eating vegetables, getting sufficient sleep.  And if one is feeling faint before dinner, why not have a little something more substantial than a cracker with a glass of water if one wants to GAIN weight?—although perhaps the rationale was to avoid impairing the appetite before a main meal.  And how does Dr. Fothergill imagine that “a strict vegetable diet produces fat more certainly than any other means”?  Perhaps we’d have to look at how vegetables were prepared and served at meals for the answer to that.  Maybe they used pastries and/or rich sauces…creamed peas and suchlike.  And what made them think that a “free diet of oysters” would promote weight gain?  One raw oyster might contain around 10 calories, and there’s nothing sweet, fatty or starchy about it.  But again, it may have to do with preparation.  (Six Oysters Rockefeller pack a calorie count of 220.)

I think the good doctors were a little ‘over the top’ in their condemnation of the waist belt, but I suppose we have to assume that the purpose of the belt in their day was never to hold clothing in place on the body, but to cinch the waist unnaturally tightly for reasons of fashion.

This photo of Lillie Langtry might explain why there was no need to counsel people on ways of losing weight.  If, as we believe today, one of the main causes of weight gain could be too-generous portion sizes at a meal, the fashion for a constricted waistline in the late 19th century might have been the reason that obesity was not a problem in that era.  A surgeon today might put a ‘gastric band’ around an obese person’s stomach to reduce its size and prevent excessive food intake.  In the late 19th century, it seems that the waist belt or band did the same job…

Lillie Langtry

Be well!


You Can’t Get There From Here

I was sitting at a traffic light the other day, and since it was a busy time on the roads (when is it ever NOT a busy time on the roads in my part of Ontario?), I had about three changes of the light at the same intersection to sit through.  Plenty of time to listen to the French language radio station and repeat some of what I was hearing, for practice.  Nobody thinks you’re odd to be in a car all by yourself while talking anymore, thanks to the cellular phone.   Traffic being what it is these days, most people are probably talking to themselves out there.

Not much to see in the lines of traffic all around me on that day, or any other day, come to that.  Cars are all ‘much of a muchness’ aren’t they?  They all look alike to me.  I don’t know how many times I’ve walked from a shopping mall to the parking lot and tried to get into somebody else’s car.  Thankfully there’s usually no one sitting in them at the time.  Except once.  People really ought to keep their car doors locked when they’re sitting in a shopping-mall parking lot–so that strangers won’t walk up and try to get into the car with them.

As I was saying, on that day I sat at the intersection (and sat and sat) and finally noticed the name on the back of the car ahead of me.  It was a Prius.  That piqued my interest a little.  Where did they come up with that name?  Where do they come up with car names in general?  Take Volkswagen, for example.  The word volkswagen means “People’s car” in German, as I think we all know.  The car company was founded in 1937 at Adolph Hitler’s instigation for the express purpose of manufacturing a car that would be affordable for the average worker.  The first beetle (although not called that initially) was designed with aerodynamics in mind by Ferdinand Porsche, in case you didn’t know.  Porsche’s own company made car designs for other companies at the time, so he needed Hitler’s collaboration to make the Volkswagen.early Volkswagen2

And also, as we all know, the name ‘Beetle’ evolved over time based on its appearance, and it is now officially the name of the car model—or its present incarnation.  I like the Beetle for the same reason that I like the Mini Cooper…it’s distinctive, and easily recognizable.

I was shopping for a small SUV a couple of years ago, and the Volkswagen Tiguan was looking like a good bet.  It was hard to get excited about it, mind you, but it looked solid enough and I expected a Volkswagen to be a good quality vehicle.  So I test-drove it, and got a price quote from the sales rep.  One key feature under consideration at that time was colour choice—I knew I’d have to pay extra for a non-standard colour, so I wanted to know what colours were on offer as a standard.  She said to me that they had five colours:  grey, black, red, and two shades of white.  I said, “So you only have one colour?”  She said, “No, we have five.”  I said, “No, you have one…white, grey and black are not colours.”

I lost interest after that, and never bought the car.  If cars all look alike, the only thing you can do to add an interesting feature is select a pleasing colour.  I forget what I would have had to pay for something other than white, black, grey or red, but I was so bored with the car-shopping experience by that time I just abandoned the project.

I guess I’m spoiled by the car designs of yesteryear.  Thunderbirds and Cadillacs and Corvettes and Mustangs all had something to say in terms of design back in the 50s and 60s.  I drove a Camaro Berlinetta at one time–1980s, I think–in a sable-brown colour.   Wish I’d kept it.

For me, performance, reliability, reputation, are all good, but why can’t we have something ‘fun’ to look at?  Something with a luxury interior as well.  Is that so wrong?  Am I asking too much?

Nobody writes songs about cars anymore, have you noticed that?  There are songs about driving, but no songs about particular car makes or models—at least none that I can find.  The most recent songs that mention particular car models are Little Red Corvette, (Prince, 1983), and Freeway of Love, (Aretha Franklin, 1985)–Aretha’s music video features a 1950s pink Cadillac.   [Here’s a great place to look at 1950s tail fins, incidentally:  http://www.westside-59.com/50s-Cars-and-Fins.htm] .

Freeway of Love (Aretha Franklin, 1985)

We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love

Wind’s against our back

We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love

In my pink Cadillac


Then there are The Beach Boy songs…

Fun Fun Fun (The Beach Boys, 1964)

Well she got her daddy’s car

And she cruised to the hamburger stand now

Seems she forgot all about the library

Like she told her old man now

And with the radio blasting

Goes cruising just as fast as she can now

And she’ll have fun fun fun

Till her daddy takes the T-bird away.

The Little Old Lady from Pasadena (ca 1964)

The Little Old Lady from Pasadena (Go Granny, Go Granny, Go Granny, Go)

Has a pretty little flower bed of white Gardenias (Go Granny, Go Granny, Go Granny, Go)

But parked in a rickety old garage

Is a brand-new, shiny-red, super-stocked Dodge

And of course, Wilson Pickett…

Mustang Sally (1966)

I bought you a brand new Mustang

A 1965

Now you come around

Signifying woman

You don’t want to let me ride.

And this one was fun…

Hot Rod Lincoln (1972)

All of a sudden in a wink of an eye

A Cadillac sedan passed us by

I said, “Boys, that’s a mark for me.”

By then the tail-light was all you could see.

Now the fellas was ribbin’ me for bein’ behind,

So I thought I’d make the Lincoln unwind.

Took my foot off the gas and man alive,

I shoved it on down into overdrive.

A Thunderbird, Cadillac, Mustang, Corvette, and a souped-up Lincoln and Dodge…I think we’re unlikely to see the same car-centric songwriting again anytime soon.

Even the 1983 horror movie, Christine, which was based on a Stephen King novel by the same name, featured an older-model car:  a 1958 Plymouth Fury that went around killing people.  (Well, you’d hardly expect a 1972 Toyota Corolla to try to kill you, right?  Even if a Toyota Corolla DID try to kill you, it’s not something you, or the movie-going public, would be too awfully worried about beforehand.)  My friend Christine used to have the bumper sticker ad for the Christine movie stuck on her fridge door:

Watch out for me

I am Pure Evil


Let’s have a look at some of those old cars–they weren’t all T-birds and Mustangs.  When I saw this model (below), I immediately thought of George F. Babbitt from Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Babbitt, although he dates from at least a couple of decades earlier.  Don’t know the exact year of this one, but it’s probably ca 1955.  The car is a ‘Zephyr’—which means a ‘soft, gentle breeze.’  It looks a little too ‘bowler hat’ to suit that name, I think…

george babbitt2


Here’s a bit from ‘Babbitt’…

Babbitt’s spectacles had huge, circular, frameless lenses of the very best glass; the ear-pieces were thin bars of gold. In them he was the modern business man; one who gave orders to clerks and drove a car and played occasional golf and was scholarly in regard to Salesmanship. His head suddenly appeared not babyish but weighty, and you noted his heavy, blunt nose, his straight mouth and thick, long upper lip, his chin overfleshy but strong; with respect you beheld him put on the rest of his uniform as a Solid Citizen.

The gray suit was well cut, well made, and completely undistinguished. It was a standard suit. White piping on the V of the vest added a flavor of law and learning. His shoes were black laced boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots…

He was, to the eye, the perfect office-going executive—a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway.

And there was just something about the front-end of this car that put me in mind of C-3PO from Star Wars.  Something about the eyes…

3cpo and car

Granted, this car is evidently of more recent vintage, but I thought it was interesting that they might have borrowed some features from a creature…

Shark and Car

Some of those old vehicles looked dangerous, too…they had TEETH…


And evil eyes…


They carried missiles…MISSILES2

And as for distinctiveness, here are three red cars.  Would you ever mistake one for the other?maybe corvette3

maybe pontiac belair2

mustang convertible2Found an article on the internet (on ‘wheels.ca’) that agrees with me on the ‘generic’ character of vehicles these days.

When Jim Mattison was growing up in the early 1950s, he remembers visiting Detroit car dealerships with his family each fall to check out the new models. By the time he was in kindergarten, he could name any car’s make and model just by looking at the hubcaps. “At 60 miles an hour and 60 feet away, you could identify a Chrysler from a Ford from a DeSoto,” said Mattison, who spent his career in the auto industry and now runs a Pontiac archive.

These days, even Mattison has trouble telling one brand from another. Government regulations, increased competition and profit-squeezed carmakers have filled the streets with bland look-alikes. With the cost of developing a new car easily climbing to $1 billion, automakers are loath to take risks.

[See more at: http://www.wheels.ca/news/why-do-so-many-cars-look-the-same/#sthash.3EhS2zqB.dpuf]

So car manufacturers don’t have the same flexibility and independence in terms of design anymore, and we end up with all these vehicles looking practically alike.

There’s only one good way through the wind. You can’t have a wide variety of shapes and have them be aerodynamically correct,” said Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book.


I don’t know why anybody is worried about aerodynamics and saving fuel when you can’t get above 15 km/hr on the highway because there are so many other dratted cars out there that you can’t move.

Well, I started out talking about the names of vehicles…”Prius” as you may know, means “something that precedes or takes precedence.”

Cadillac, on the other hand, has written its own definition into the Oxford dictionary:

  1. a large luxury car that is the most prestigious brand of General Motors
  2. something that is an outstanding example of its kind, especially in terms of luxury, quality, or size

So, if you say that something is ‘the Cadillac’ of something-or-other, it means that it is among the best of its type.

I doubt that any of the car manufacturers these days will find their products written up in the Oxford dictionary—unless it’s already there, like ‘Prius.’  And not because it’s a car.

Also, I’m pretty sure we won’t be singing about them.

I suppose that cars are ultimately just a means of conveyance, unless you’ve got a squillion to spend and can afford something REALLY fun.  But they’re expensive enough for us average types, and I wish there were more to be had from the car-buying and car-ownership experience.

Oh, and I forgot one.  This is Janis Joplin, 1970…

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.

Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,

So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

Amen to that.


VITALOGY, Lesson the Second: How to Choose your Life’s Partner, and Warnings against ‘Secret Vice’

In this second installment, I’ll just repeat that the information comes from a wonderful book I discovered at a flea market, with the title of, “Vitalogy, or Encyclopedia of Health and Home.”  It is described on the title page inside the cover as:  “Beacon Lights for Old and Young, Showing How to Secure Health, Long Life, Success and Happiness, from the Ablest Authorities in this Country, Europe and Japan.”  The date of publication is 1922, it’s published by the “Vitalogy Association, Chicago, Illinois,” and there are two copyrights:  1904 and 1913.

The authors are two doctors by the names of Dr. Geo. P. Wood, and Dr. E. H Ruddock, and their photos appear in the banner photo for this article.  I’ve been trying to discover some biographical information on the authors, but can’t find anything on the internet.  It seems that the first edition of this book was in 1899…at least that’s the earliest edition I can see ‘out there.’

In any case, judging by the photos, the doctors were over 50 years old at the time of writing it, so likely received their medical training in the 1870s.  That’s an important point to note in terms of this particular article, because their advice on choosing a marriage partner largely derives from physiognomy (analysis of a person’s character based on physical attributes, predominantly facial features), which was the predecessor to phrenology (analysis of a person’s character and intellectual attributes based on the shape or irregularities of the head or skull).  The doctors have expanded on the main focus of  physiognomy to include other physical attributes, but it’s the same basic premise:  that the interior of a person can be learned from their exterior.

Physiognomy has been around a long time, apparently, and was posited by the ancient Greek, Aristotle—or at least the school of Aristotle, if not Aristotle himself.  “The principal promoter of physiognomy in modern times was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801).  The principal sources from where Lavater found ‘confirmation’ of his ideas were from the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), and the Italian Giambattista Della Porta (1535–1615).”  (Wikipedia)

The following gives us an idea of the type of interpretation that would be applied to various features.  This is from Faces we meet and how to read them, by R.D.B. Wells, published by Vickers, London, in 1870, p 14:

Anatomical interpretations :

The forehead is the principal seat of reasoning, reflective and perspective qualities.  Prominence of the lower part of forehead is indicative of a desire to see the world, to study science, learn languages and master matters of fact. Fleshy and blunt foreheads show obtuseness of mind, dullness of comprehension and weakness of understanding. Large and prominent eyes indicate power of expression. Deep-seated penetrating eyes suggest far sightedness and shrewdness. Upward and oblique eyes are seen in cunning, plotting and enthusiastic people. In men a large nose is suggestive of strong character and endurance, whereas in women a large nose is suggestive of aggressiveness and of dominance. A short, flat and upturned nose indicates weakness, inquisitiveness and dependant nature. A large mouth shows possession of good character. If the corners of the mouth are drawn downwards, it shows a gloomy and morose nature. A pointed and narrow chin indicates that the person may be crafty while a small and square chin shows an affectionate nature. If the chin is retreating, the person may show lack of perseverance and feebleness of organization. Large ears suggest generosity while small ears suggest greed for money.

Physiognomy and phrenology were largely discredited as pseudosciences during the late 19th century, but would have had a following during the time Drs. Wood and Ruddock were in training, or in the early years of their medical practice.  Which explains a lot, as you will see from these sections excerpted from Vitalogy

woman to shun

“A Man Hater” Sexually

It is in the nature of things that man should desire to “multiply and replenish the earth.”  With some women and with many men the chief object and aim in marriage is to bring into the world healthy, intelligent and robust children to illumine their early and cheer their declining days.

With all who seek the married state the expectation is that it shall result in a prolonged intimacy with the chosen one and in securing a home—a peaceful, happy home.  It is not then of the utmost importance that steps should be taken, intelligently, to so choose as to gain the ends desired? And is it not the height of folly to go blindly into this, by far the most important relation of his lifetime?

If a man is full-blooded, sexually vigorous and strong, do you suppose that he could reasonably expect satisfaction if he married a girl like the one illustrated as “A Man Hater Sexually”?  A woman whose sexual development was arrested in early youth—who has not enough sexual passion to last her through two years of wedlock?  Assuredly not.  Such women usually have flat chests, narrow hips, bloodless and thin or peaked features, indicative of arrested sexual development and a lack of that warmth and softness that attracts and holds the affections of men.  Some women marry because they want a man to support them.  They will have a horror of bearing children or rearing a family.  Sexually they are man haters.  Let them alone, young man, unless you likewise are indifferent to such things.

How to Find Happiness in Conjugal Relations

When mother or sister perceive, as they are apt to do, that the son or brother designs to “get married” to or is “keeping company” with some member of the other sex whom they have reason to believe would be altogether unsuitable as a life companion, it is of the most vital importance that promptly and tactfully some word of warning be given to that son or brother before it is too late—before the final step is taken that is to result, and so often does result, in a life of misery and sometimes of sin or of crime.  The young man, as a rule, is blind to the facts, attracted by some fancy or some alluring trait; he cannot distinguish its evanescent quality or note that this attraction of feature or mind, as it may happen to be, will not stand the test of intimacy or of time.

If, then, other and sterling qualities are lacking in the woman of his choice love soon fades to discontent, then to apathy, and then to disgust and loathing.  Hence the importance of “whispering in his ear” the timely word that as he values his future happiness or would avoid a life of misery and wretchedness he must stop.  Many may not listen to the timely warning but more will, and thousands of affectionate sisters and often mothers have thus saved a much-loved brother or son from that “hell on earth”—an unhappy, mismated married existence.

woman to marry

Test for a Good Husband

Prof. Goodrich, one of the greatest experts in reading human character, was once asked by a young lady to tell her how she could determine whether a certain young man, who was keeping company with her, would make a kind-hearted husband.  She was a little afraid about getting married because it was such a very important step.

The professor declared that his best advice was, to introduce her young man to some old lady and leave him alone with her for awhile, the longer the better.  Then ask the old lady what she thought of him.  Also, to introduce the young man, incidentally of course, to a young baby, and “do not stay around yourself.”  Get the baby’s opinion of the young man from the baby’s mother or nurse.  If the baby likes him and pulls his mustache or “crows” to him, it is a sure sign that the young man may be trusted.  Babies and very old persons are the very best judges of human nature.  With either, the young man will be off his guard, unless he thinks that he is being watched, and act out his inner nature.  The baby will intuitively feel an unkind presence and promptly turn from it.  The old lady whose sight has grown dim depends more upon her inner or intuitive impressions, and is rarely mistaken when she does.  This, he declared, was his very best advice.


The man who has what is often termed a “bad eye” or a crafty expression should be shunned, as he will surely lead any woman who marries him a miserable life.  Sometimes these eyes are fierce, often restless, while the eyebrows have a tendency to lower.  Notice them when their possessor meets strangers or people he does not like, and the evil spirit back of the eye will be apparent, although otherwise well hidden.  Then, too, we hear much said nowadays about degenerates, not because people have changed, but simply because some scientific students have gathered the actual facts about the number of people who have been deteriorating and have given the proofs to the world.

Anybody looking at the young ladies in any of our large cities cannot help noting how the very slim, narrow-hipped, and narrow-shouldered girls and young women predominate.  This is attributed by the scientists to the very general habit of wearing tight clothing and of tight lacing that prevailed among their mothers a generation ago.  These pretty, trim, vivacious, nervous, sexually undeveloped young women make the poorest kind of wives and still worse mothers.  They are degenerates suffering for the sins of their ancestors.

Young men would do better and be happier to remain bachelors than to marry such girls.

man to shun

Defects of Men

In any city or town one has not far to go to find young men with a more or less slouchy gait, low forehead, chin narrow, jaw widening rapidly until it becomes prominent under the ear, eyes near together, and generally restless, receding forehead and chin, back of head almost in line with the back of the neck, etc.  Such a man, even though of pleasing address, will prove to be cruel, selfish, heartless, liable to fail in business or commit some crime,–if a workman, likely to engage in strikes and frequently out of work.  They are degenerates in whom the natural mental qualities are illy developed and who are sadly deficient in that most important of all qualities, self-control.  They are like an engine without a safety-valve or balance wheel.  They may run all right for a time, but trouble is sure to come before long.  So it is with the degenerate.  He may make a fairly good appearance for a time, but it is not in him to do well.  He, too, will cause trouble.  To a careful observer, the signs of degeneracy are always apparent, and such persons should be shunned for companions and especially avoided when matrimony is the end of the companionship.

True, not many will show all the signs of degeneracy noted in a very marked degree, but some will show marked deficiency in some one feature and slighter ones in others.  Some will show slight deficiency in nearly all, though marked in none.  But all alike are unfitted for parenthood.  It is not their fault, but their misfortune, and society must come to the point where it shall protect itself from the perpetuation of such blemishes of character before it can hope to make real progress and secure a preponderance of noble, capable citizens.


There are various names given to the unnatural and degrading vice of producing venereal excitement by the hand, or other means, generally resulting in a discharge of semen in the male and a corresponding emission in the female.  Unfortunately, it is a vice by no means uncommon among the youth of both sexes, and is frequently continued into riper years.

Symptoms—The following are some of the symptoms of those who are addicted to the habit:  Inclination to shun company or society; frequently being missed from the company of the family, or others with whom he or she is associated; becoming timid and bashful, and shunning the society of the opposite sex; the face is apt to be pale and often a bluish or purplish streak under the eyes, while the eyes themselves look dull and languid and the edges of the eyelids often become red and sore; the person can not look any one steadily in the face, but will drop the eyes or turn away from your gaze as if guilty of something mean.

The health soon becomes noticeably impaired; there will be general debility, a slowness of growth, weakness in the lower limbs, nervousness and unsteadiness of the hands, loss of memory, forgetfulness and inability to study or learn, a restless disposition, weak eyes and loss of sight, headache and inability to sleep or wakefulness.  Next come sore eyes, blindness, stupidity, consumption, spinal affection, emaciation, involuntary seminal emissions, loss of all energy or spirit, insanity and idiocy—the hopeless ruin of both body and mind.  These latter results do not always follow.  Yet they or some of them do often occur as the direct consequences of the pernicious habit.

The subject is an important one.  Few, perhaps, ever think, or ever know, how many of the unfortunate inmates of our lunatic asylums have been sent there by this dreadful vice.  Were the whole truth upon this subject known, it would alarm parents, as well as the guilty victims of the vice, more even than the dread of the cholera or small-pox.

How to prevent Secret Vice

[Along with preaching the evils of it to the young…] The regular daily use of the sponge bath conduces greatly to the cure or prevention of self-abuse.  The too free use of meat, highly-seasoned dishes, coffee, wine, late suppers, etc., strongly tend to excite animal propensities, which directly predispose to vice.

A Terrible EvilIn the City of Chicago in one school, an investigation proved that over sixty children under thirteen years of age were habitually practicing this degrading, health and life destroying habit, while among the older ones the habit was even worse, though not so easily detected.

In a country school in Black Hawk Co., Iowa, one bad boy secretly taught all the rest until the entire school practiced this private vice during the noon hour when the teacher was away.

In New Orleans nearly all the pupils in a large female boarding school were practicing this horrible vice and the scandal of the fearful discovery is not yet forgotten.

Worth MillionsThe foregoing article on self-abuse should be in the hands of every young person as it would be the means of saving many bright intellects from becoming stupid or imbeciles, or lunatics or from filling premature graves and be worth to them more than Astor’s millions.

And so we are given photos of this unfortunate fellow, whose name is published, along with his city of residence, Harris, Pennsylvania.  As we are told in the captions, the second photo was taken three years after the first, when the practice of ‘secret vice’ began to take its toll (helped along by a bit of manual touching-up, we think!).  Puts me in mind of The Portrait of Dorian Gray…

vice before and after

I’m fascinated that photos of actual people are included in this book, only one of whom (the type of woman a man may safely marry) might find it complimentary.

In any case, I trust that you are now well instructed as to the best means of choosing a suitable mate, as well as stringently warned of associated evils.  If this advice comes too late to save you from error, I humbly apologize, on behalf of the good doctors, that their wise words were not brought to your attention in a more timely fashion.

Be well.


Mustard: From Prehistoric Pot to Ballpark Dog

This is my favourite condiment, absolutely.  I have a book on mustard:  A Dash of Mustard, Mustard in the Kitchen and on the Table, by Katy Holder and Jane Newdick, Firefly Books, 1996]

Mustard has a long history–not only in our cuisine, but also in our medicaments.  Most of us have heard of a ‘mustard plaster’ no doubt, although its utility has passed out of fashion long since.  Where did the use of mustard for food or medicine start, we wonder?  Archaeological evidence tells us that early humans used mustard seeds to season their food…

Prehistoric Humans Used Spices Too

Shards of 6,000-year-old cooking pots from northern Europe show traces of mustard seed, likely used as a seasoning for fish and meat

By Joseph Stromberg, smithsonian.com, August 21, 2013

A new analysis of food residue encrusted on millennia-old pottery shards collected from sites in Germany and Denmark shows that prehistoric humans used the spice mustard seed to season the plant and animal staples that made up the bulk of their diet. The artifacts…are between 5,750 and 6,100 years old, an era during which people in the area were in the midst of transitioning from hunter-gatherer to nomadic societies. [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ancient-pottery-fragments-show-that-prehistoric-humans-used-spices-too-849452/#f3cRLs8S0ObMMb6w.99]

pottery with mustard seed

Food residue encrusted on 6,000-year-old pottery fragments from Northern Europe, such as the one above, show traces of mustard seed, which was likely used as a seasoning for fish and meat. Image via Hayley Saul

So how did mustard wend its way from prehistoric Europe to a baseball fan’s ballpark hotdog?

First a few basics, for ‘them as doesn’t know’ (which included me until I read this).  The flower of the mustard plant is always yellow, but the ripened seeds are of three types:  white, black, and brown.  White (sinapis alba, a.k.a. brassica alba) is naturalized throughout northern Europe and North America; black mustard (brassica nigra) is native to southern Europe and western Asia; brown mustard (brassica juncea) is native to India.  Mustards are part of the same plant family that includes all the cabbages and broccolis, radish and watercress.  None are poisonous.  (p. 10, A Dash of Mustard)

Here’s a bit on medical uses:

“Mustard seeds when crushed produce an oil which is fierce and pungent.  Used externally, this oil first irritates then partially anesthetizes the sensory nerves and so it has been used for centuries to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism, gout and arthritis as well as colds and fever.  Taken internally in large quantities, mustard oil is a powerful emetic, but used in smaller doses it has the effect of a digestive and diuretic, and also a stimulant.  Other remedies incorporating mustard include chewing the seeds to relieve toothache and gargling for a sort throat with an infusion of mustard and warm wine.  Mustard footbaths were a popular everyday treatment until quite recently, and mustard baths for the whole body have been in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Poultices have definitely gone out of vogue, but these messy “bandages” were regularly prescribed for all manner of ailments at one time and often included mustard in their list of ingredients.”  (p. 7, A Dash of Mustard)

I’ve heard of mustard plasters, but not mustard poultices…

While most people have heard of “mustard plasters”—and some still remember from their childhoods when their mothers stuck those smarting congestion-alleviators on their chests—there is less awareness of mustard “poultices,” used not only by Hippocrates, but well into the 20th Century in the United States.

What is a poultice? Picture mixing some mustard into a hot porridge, wrapping it in a towel and putting it on your chest. That’s the basic concept.

Applying a mustard poultice was less drastic than using a plaster (mustard paste spread inside gauze, towels, or other dressing). A medical doctor, Finley Ellingwood, explained in his 1919 work, “The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy”:

“When mild counter-irritation only is desired, which is to be prolonged for some hours, a poultice is made in the proportion of one part of mustard to four or six of linseed meal or flour. This is not, however, effective in acute pain, but only where there is soreness or prolonged distress. Vinegar and mustard also make a good poultice for prolonged use, as vinegar destroys an excess of activity of the mustard.”

REMINISCING (Column), Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Page 15

Mustard Poultice: a Gushy Version of the Mustard Plaster

By ROGER M. GRACE, Thursday, February 24, 2005,

And as for the origins of mustard for medicinal use…

The ancients held that mustard was good, and good for you, if not a virtual panacea. The Greeks credited Aesculapius, son of Apollo and god of medicine, with creating it. Dioscorides, the first-century a.d. Greek physician whose De re medica was the standard pharmacological text for centuries, prescribed mustard for everything from swollen tonsils to epilepsy, and as a tonic against “feminine lassitude.” The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder ground mustard seed with vinegar and used it as a poultice for snakebite and scorpion stings, while the Greek physician Hippocrates favored mustard poultices for treating bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism and neuralgia—ample precedent for today’s folk medicine remedy of a mustard plaster for many of the same ills.

—Smithsonian, June 1, 2000

In medieval cooking, mustard was used to make old meat or fish edible by masking rancid flavours.  The seeds were either roughly crushed or used whole.  At one point in its history it was considered a cheaper way of adding heat to a dish, instead of the more costly black pepper, and it was around before the arrival of chilies in Europe.  (p. 8, A Dash of Mustard)

The Romans first introduced mustard to France (or Gaul, as it was then known).  The epicenter of the French mustard industry was and is Dijon in Burgundy, which is also a major wine- and vinegar-producing area.  It seems that the mustard makers of this region adapted Duke Philip the Bold’s motto (Moult me Tarde) for their own commercial trademark, and it is surmised that this was abbreviated to “moutarde”—the French for “mustard.”  The Dijon area saw the beginning of the great family companies Maille and Grey Poupon (this last named for the partnership formed by  Maurice Grey and Auguste Poupon in 1866).  (p. 9, A Dash of Mustard)

Very little mustard seed, however, is actually grown in France today; most of the world’s supply comes from western Canada.

Here are a couple of interesting anecdotes from the days of mustard’s popularity in medieval France:

“King Louis XI of France (1423-83) carried his own personal pot of mustard, made for him by a Dijon mustard maker.  He had a disconcerting habit of arriving unannounced to eat with his Parisian subjects, producing the mustard pot at each meal.” Louis-XI

King Charles VI (1368-1422) of France also had a weakness for mustard in all his food, especially a peasant dish consisting of herb-coated chicken with a mustard sauce.  (p. 17, A Dash of Mustard)Charles VI of France

In Britain, mustard was used as frequently in cooking as it was in France, being a very cheap spice and also native grown.  Mustard was essential eating with salt fish, particularly herrings and stockfish (dried and salted cod and similar fish).  Tewkesbury was an early centre for mustard production, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II:

DOLL TEARSHEET:  They say Poins has a good wit.

FALSTAFF: He a good wit? hang him, baboon! his wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard; there’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet.

Another manufacturer was Keen’s from Garlic Hill in London, established in 1742 and believed to be the reason for the saying, “as keen as mustard.”

Their advertisements united beef with mustard in the public imagination, so that beef and mustard were inextricably linked, although serving these two together had a long history preceding that point in time.  There’s apparently an expression that embodies this culinary pairing:  “Sympathy without relief is like to mustard without beef.”  The origins of the expression are apparently unknown, but perhaps connected with this conversation from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew? (ca 1590-92)…


I cannot tell; I fear ’tis choleric. What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?


A dish that I do love to feed upon.


Ay, but the mustard is too hot a little.


Why then, the beef, and let the mustard rest.


Nay then, I will not: you shall have the mustard, Or else you get no beef of Grumio.


Then both, or one, or any thing thou wilt.


Why then, the mustard without the beef.


Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,

Beats him

That feed’st me with the very name of meat: Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you, That triumph thus upon my misery! Go, get thee gone, I say.

Colman’s is another famous mustard name, and well known to this day. When the appeal of mustard was waning in the 1920’s in Britain, Colman’s advertising agency came up with a campaign that used the sides of London buses for the message, “Has father joined the Mustard Club?”  The members of the club were fictitious characters, and there was a list of rules published for Mustard Club members:

  1. Every member shall on all proper occasions eat Mustard to improve his appetite and strengthen his digestion.
  2. Every member when physically exhausted or threatened with a cold, shall take refuge in a Mustard Bath.
  3. Every member shall once at least during every meal make the secret sign of the Mustard Club by placing the Mustard pot six inches from his neighbour’s plate.
  4. Every member who asks for a sandwich and finds that it contains no Mustard shall publicly refuse to eat same.
  5. Every member shall see that the Mustard is freshly made, and no member shall tip a waiter who forgets to put Mustard on the table.
  6. Each member shall instruct his children to “keep that schoolboy digestion” by forming the habit of eating Mustard.

The Password of the Mustard Club was “Pass the Mustard, please.”

Colman's Mustard Shop and Museum

I’m going to gratuitously include a photo of my particular favourite, along with some of its variations and permutations.:

Mustard-Family Frenchs

The following excerpt from an article by Joanna Blythman and Rosie Sykes is for ‘the foodies’ and comes from The Guardian online, Monday 18 November 2013:

Mustard, and mustard seed, is an indispensable ingredient in any cook’s larder. Whole, mercury-black mustard seeds, either dry roasted, or “tempered” in a hot oil with fresh curry leaves, show off their nutty character in southern Indian cooking. Once ground, mustard seed releases its warmth, earthiness and pungency. Smooth mustard brings a kick to otherwise mild and cuddly dishes, such as croque monsieur, quiche and cauliflower cheese. The emulsifying properties of smooth mustard make it handy in vinaigrette, or to help bring together and thicken a sauce. It’s a taste thing whether you go for the yellow, English, sinus-clearing type, or the mellower European sort. Wholegrain mustards can be aggressively vinegary, so be sure you want that acid note before you add it too enthusiastically.

Why is mustard good for me?

The Greeks and Romans were on to something when they used mustard seeds for medicinal purposes. The mustard plant, like broccoli, radish and cabbage, belongs to the brassica family, a group of vegetables that contain health-promoting glucosinolates. Enzymes in the seeds then break these down into isothiocyanates. These compounds give mustard its eye-watering pungency, and many studies now suggest that they also seem to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, most notably in the gastrointestinal tract and colon. Mustard seeds are an excellent source of selenium, a trace element that is also thought to have an anti-cancer effect.  UK soils are generally low in selenium so eating mustard, and mustard seeds, can help boost your selenium level.


And here’s a reference to mustard seed in the Bible, which reminds me of a dear friend who wore a mustard-seed pendant beginning at the time her baby son was born with a heart defect…

Matthew 17:20 – And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

necklace, all things are possible

And so the mustard seed became a symbol of faith and hope, and that, as inscribed on the pendant pictured above, “All Things Are Possible.”

And finally, what is the origin of the phrase “doesn’t cut the mustard”? There are a variety of explanations on the internet, but I thought this one was the most plausible:

“WHEN MUSTARD was one of the main crops in East Anglia, it was cut by hand with scythes, in the same way as corn. The crop could grow up to six feet high and this was very arduous work, requiring extremely sharp tools. When blunt they “would not cut the mustard.” All this and everything else you could ever want to know about mustard can be found at the Mustard Museum in Norwich.”  [http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-2242,00.html]

Of course the expression “doesn’t cut the mustard” usually means that someone is not capable of meeting requirements in some way.

So, while it’s nice to be ‘keen as mustard,’ it’s even better to be ‘cutting the mustard.’

If you are suspected of ‘cutting the cheese,’ however, it would be quite another matter.


VITALOGY, Lesson the First: Baldness, and How Hair Indicates Your Character

I have a wonderful book that I picked up at a flea market.  Its title is, “Vitalogy, or Encyclopedia of Health and Home.”  It is described on the title page inside the cover as:  “Beacon Lights for Old and Young, Showing How to Secure Health, Long Life, Success and Happiness, from the Ablest Authorities in this Country, Europe and Japan.”  The date of publication is 1922, it’s published by the “Vitalogy Association, Chicago, Illinois,” and there are two copyrights:  1904 and 1913.

It gives us a snapshot of medical knowledge at the turn of the century—last century, that is.  I find it hugely entertaining, and suspect that there may be hidden gems in it as well.  At the very least, it is a captivating history of medicine in the pre-antibiotic days, when there was much confusion about the causes of disease–and perhaps a little too much confidence in anecdotal evidence regarding potential cures.  Be that as it may, I’ll give the authors, Dr. Geo. P. Wood, M.D., and Dr. E. H Ruddock, M.D., Ph.D.,  top marks for trying.

I think that I’m going to make this a series, and present two or three excerpts from the book each time, detailing the causes and cures of various ailments.  May we all learn thereby ways to improve our health and happiness…


Causes—Excessive action of the brain, such as intense study, great mental anxiety, etc., producing unnatural heat of the brain-surfaces, thus causing the hair to drop off.

Remedies—People are often led to try many so-called specifics to prevent the hair falling off, but they are generally either useless or worse.  Doubtless, there are many thousands of pounds of hog’s fat sold every year as bear’s grease, etc., to cause the hair to grow abundantly and prevent its falling off.  Washing the head often with warm salt water and combing it with a fine comb, together with regular and temperate habits, are the best preservatives and restoratives of the hair.

The head should be as thoroughly washed as any other part of the person, and that weekly.  When the hair is very thick and long, its roots can be washed without wetting its entire length.  This is important for ladies and those children whose custom and fashion it is to wear the hair long.  The outside of the head has more to do with its inside than many people suppose.  A muddy and confused mind is often the effect of external dirt and neglect.  The natural perspiration is thereby suppressed, and serious evils are sometimes the result.

A very common cause of injury to the hair-glands is the practice, among families as well as barbers, of using the combs and brushes of others.  A comb or brush for the head should no more be used in common, by two or more persons, than a brush for the teeth.

The following is one of the best remedies in general use for baldness.  It has produced a luxuriant growth of hair for persons who have been bald for many years, and will nearly always restore it, if the hair-follicles are not dead.

Tincture of Spanish fly (Cantharides), one ounce; aromatic spirits of ammonia, one ounce; oil of rosemary, one drachm; alcohol and water, of each, two tablespoonfuls.  Mix.  With a sponge, rub this mixture well over the scalp, so that it will come in contact with the roots of the hair.  The use of it may have to be persevered in for six months or a year, and should be applied twice a week.

A celebrated physician called our attention to a fine head of hair succeeding baldness, which was obtained by a moderate use of kerosene, gently but persistently rubbed on the bald spot.


The character of persons is sometimes indicated by the color of the hair.

The bilious temperament, black hair and dark skin are generally found associated.  These indicate strength of character and sensuality.

Fine hair and dark skin show purity, goodness and strong mind.

Stiff, straight and abundant black hair and beard are usually combined with strong, unyielding, straight-forward and rather bluff character.

Fine, brown hair indicates exquisite sensibility, with a strong will for what is good and right, when unperverted.

If the hair is straight and lies flat on the head, the temperament is melancholy, but you may safely rely on that person, be it man or woman.

If the hair is coarse, black and sticks up, there is not much sociability, and much that is stubborn, sour and harsh, in the character.

Coarse, red hair indicates much fire and energy, with unusual strength and firmness.

Auburn hair, with a florid face, gives purity, intensity, and great capacity for enjoyment or suffering.

Fine, silky, pliable, easily dressed hair indicates delicacy, sensibility and goodness.

Hasty, impetuous and rash people have crisp, curly hair, but if it is straight and smooth, even and glossy, a warm heart, a clear head and superior talents are indicated.

White hair, as a general rule, indicates a good, easy, lazy fellow.

The hair, naturally parting in the middle and falling on either side, indicates womanly refinement, purity and delicacy.  When the hair extends and lies on the forehead in rings, it indicates a frank, open and genial nature.

The light-haired races are the thinkers, the poets and the artists of the world.

Dark-brown hair combines the two, and is the most desirable.

To sum up:

Black hair indicates physical strength.

White hair, mental vigor.

Red hair, a fiery temperament, passion and devotion.

Wavy hair, a pliable, yielding, accommodating disposition.

Straight, stuck-up hair, stubbornness and fidelity.

Very smooth, close-lying hair is “Oily Gammon.”

The good doctors do not tell us what sort of a character a bald person would have.  Evidently these people are capable of tremendous mental activity (which, as we are informed, is what caused their hair to fall out), so it seems likely that they might be the entrepreneurs of the world.

bald headed entrepreneur

Image by marin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


At least I think we can agree that this white-haired man might be a good, easy, lazy fellow with mental vigor…



But some of us would have a hard time agreeing that the light-haired races are exclusively the thinkers and artists of the world.


Well, there you have it.  I trust that you will use this information to your general betterment.  I’ll just finish with a disclaimer regarding the advice to use kerosene for curing baldness…if you decide to try this, stay away from any and all sources of open flame.  Or you’ll be missing more than your hair.

Be well, and don’t use anyone else’s hairbrush, okay?


Sugar in the Morning, Sugar in the Evening, Sugar at Suppertime…

…be my little sugar, and love me all the time.  (‘Sugartime’ song written by Charlie Phillips and Odis Echols and published in 1958.  The McGuire sisters made it popular at the time—and, strangely (for me), ‘The Man in Black,’ Johnny Cash, also recorded it in 1961, six years after ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’)

But back to sugar…yes, it would never do to live in our world of convenience foods and not like sugar.  The trouble is that sugar is the current demon responsible for the epidemic of obesity in the Western world–the root cause of high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritic joints, etc., secondary to the excess body fat produced by over-consumption, perhaps.

And it’s hard to avoid sugar, if one uses convenience foods.  Food manufacturers put it in darn near everything that they process, package and sell.  I once wrote a letter to Dempsters, telling them that their multigrain bread was TOO SWEET.  If I want a sweet bread, I’ll buy a sweet bread (although I would never want a sweet bread).  I can make French bread in my bread machine and not put a grain of sugar in it—so why can’t they?

A problem (maybe THE problem) with sugar seems to be that it turns off our ‘satiety switch’…the physiological indicator that we’ve had enough and can stop eating.  So the point at which we should want, or need, to eat any more food at one sitting is thereby hidden from our awareness and consequent behaviour.  We continue to eat to the point where our stomach is stretched beyond its normal dimensions–if the doctors performing gastric bypass surgery on the “My 600 lb Life” television program are to be believed.   So, if we eat to the point of discomfort–until we’re in pain and our eyes bug out–next time we feel hungry we’ll need more food.  And so the fat is larded-on to our skeletal frame with consequent health problems of all sorts.

And sugar is implicated in other disease processes, not necessarily related to obesity (although possibly connected in some cases)…cancer for one.  It has been noised abroad that cancer cells somehow feed on sugar/glucose in our systems.

This is from the Canadian Cancer Society site:

Over the past few years, there have been reports, e-mails and websites that say eating sugar feeds cancer or that sugar makes cancer grow faster. All cells in your body consume sugar as they grow and divide, but eating sugar does not make cancer cells grow faster.

Here’s their website: http://www.cancer.ca/en/prevention-and-screening/be-aware/cancer-myths-and-controversies/sugar-and-cancer/?region=on#ixzz4040W5iwo

Hmmm, okay…but let’s examine that further…

I’ve read anecdotal evidence of people with certain cancers changing their diets to follow the macrobiotic diet–just for palliative purposes, to alleviate some of the symptoms of the cancer–and then after a time experiencing a remission of their disease.

But you’ll wait a long time before you can find any medical acknowledgement of this possibility.  (Please note that I’ve said POSSIBILITY.)  And why is that, we wonder?  I just did a quick search on ‘macrobiotic diet and cancer’ and hit on this link from the U.K…


They say (the emphasis in all cases is mine):

“Available scientific evidence does not support claims that a macrobiotic diet can treat or prevent cancer.”


“Some people think that a macrobiotic lifestyle may help them to fight their cancer and lead to a cure. There is no scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can treat or cure cancer or any other disease.”


“Some organisations say that a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle can help people with cancer and other health conditions. But researchers have not tested macrobiotic diets in randomised controlled clinical trials as a way of preventing, treating or curing cancer. So we don’t know whether they work.”

The trouble is that the earlier statement, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that a macrobiotic diet can treat or prevent cancer” indicates to me that the “available scientific evidence” is the result of investigation.  Then there’s the later statement, “there is no scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can treat or cure cancer.”

Ah, SO…if there IS NO scientific evidence, WAS there an investigation, we ask?  And the third statement is the clincher, “researchers HAVE NOT TESTED macrobiotic diets.”

AHA! we say.  So THE EVIDENCE doesn’t support it—but wait a minute–THERE IS NO EVIDENCE—and why not?–because researchers HAVE NOT TESTED macrobiotic diets in connection with cancer treatment.

That is my biggest gripe with the medical profession…that they somehow feel justified in claiming that something does-or-doesn’t help, OR is-or-isn’t bad-or-good DEFINITIVELY, as a bald statement of FACT, even though they really don’t know one way or the other.  Because they don’t have any proof.

I’d prefer that they said, “Well, there’s anecdotal evidence that this is helpful, but there are no scientific studies to support it.”  And then go on to assess whether the alternate therapy would help or hinder in terms of a particular person’s overall physical condition and stage of disease.  What would be wrong with that?

Maybe because then they’d have to explain why there are no scientific studies, for or against.  I hate to cast aspersions, but the pharmaceutical industry (Big Bad Pharma) would not profit from a prescription for a macrobiotic diet.  There’s no MONEY in it.

And then there’s this from “Oncology Nutrition,” from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (https://www.oncologynutrition.org/erfc/healthy-nutrition-now/sugar-and-cancer/):

They say:

The idea that sugar could directly fuel the growth of cancer cells can lead some people to avoid all carbohydrate-containing foods. This is counter-productive for anyone struggling to maintain their weight while dealing with side effects of cancer and treatments. More importantly, the inevitable anxiety of trying to completely avoid “all sugar” creates stress. Stress turns on the fight or flight mechanisms, increasing the production of hormones that can raise blood sugar levels and suppress immune function. Both of these things may reduce any possible benefit of eliminating sugar in the first place.

Much research shows that it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels and related growth factors that may influence cancer cell growth the most, and increase risk of other chronic diseases. Many types of cancer cells have plenty of insulin receptors, making them respond more than normal cells to insulin’s ability to promote growth.

All carbohydrates you eat are broken down to simple sugars in the intestine, where they are absorbed into the blood, increasing blood sugar levels. The pancreas releases insulin in response, which travels throughout the blood stream, and performs several important jobs…

Good grief.  Trying to avoid sugar in one’s diet might produce stress at a level sufficient to trigger the ‘fight or flight mechanism’?  Very bizarre statement.  One would have to be pretty neurotic to experience an  adrenaline rush from the stress of declining the chocolate cake after a meal.

“When our fight or flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cell firing occur and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared—physically and psychologically—for fight or flight. We scan and search our environment, “looking for the enemy.””


Yes, where lurks the murderous mousse, the killer cake, the predatory pudding?  This is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

And what’s wrong with me that I don’t get this…they appear to be saying that sugar does not directly fuel the growth of cancer cells BUT that research shows that, “it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels…that may influence cancer cell growth” AND that “many types of cancer cells have plenty of insulin receptors, making them respond more than normal cells to insulin’s ability to promote growth.”

So, they say:


But that sugar is not implicated in cancer in any way.

And we’re supposed to believe that.

Oh well…

We started with a song and we’ll end with a song…

For a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,

the medicine go down, the medicine go down.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,

in a most delightful way.

I’m sure you’re right, Mary Poppins.


Having the Last Word

When my sister and I toured Italy some years ago, we made a point, during our stay in Florence, of visiting the English Cemetery.  It seemed only right to pay our respects to Elizabeth Barrett Browning while we were there.

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning 2

Number 43 from ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Her tomb surprised me.  I found it beautiful in design, but surprisingly devoid of words for a monument of remembrance to a poet who had been married to another famous poet (Robert Browning).  She died in 1861 and he died in 1889, so it wasn’t that he predeceased her and could have no say in the inscription on her monument.  Mind you, I think now that the words would have interfered with the design, and were probably superfluous anyway.

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning, tomb in the English Cemetery, Florence

I wonder what the Scorpioni thought of it.  They were, as you may know, a small group of genteel, expatriate English ladies who lived in Florence in the 1930s and 1940s, and who were in the habit of visiting the English Cemetery.  Supposedly they were called Scorpioni (scorpions, in English translation) because of their arch humour and stinging wit.

I cannot tell you how much I love that.  I picture–rightly or wrongly–a 1930s/40s Italian world wherein the choices of ideal womanhood would be divided between the voluptuous young woman (à la Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida), or the plump, kitchen-loving mama.  In that world, I imagine elderly women subsided into black-shawled nonentities scuttling back and forth between home and market–on those rare occasions when they could be seen at all.

What would Italians of the time possibly have made of these English ladies?  OF COURSE those women would have packed a sting like a scorpion for the dominant sex in Italy.  They operated outside the cultural boundaries for that time and in that place.  There must have been occasions when the Scorpioni and the local Italian authorities locked horns over one issue or another, with neither side willing to give an inch, because it would be unthinkable for either that they should need to.  Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, Tea with Mussolini (1999), gives us a small window on that worldI wish I could discover what happened to the Scorpioni after they were sent to an internment camp at the start of WWII.

Back to my topic, which, incidentally, is the character of inscriptions on grave markers for famous writers, poets, philosophers, and suchlike–people who worked with, and lived for, words and ideas.  I was curious about what words might have accompanied them (or their family members, in some cases) to their last resting places.  It’s a large topic with plenty of scope, and I can only skim the surface.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet, who died at the ‘dingy’ Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease.  It is believed that Wilde had a cholesteatoma, a destructive form of chronic suppurative otitis media (for you medical types).  The ear infection first occurred in 1896 during his imprisonment for sodomy, four years before his death on November 30, 1900.  (Ashley H. Robins, Sean L. Sellars, The Lancet, Vol 356, November 25, 2000)

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, where he was re-interred in 1909 after his first burial at Bagneux at the time of his death in 1900.

The inscription on his tomb consists of these lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written by Wilde in 1897…

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Wilde was bankrupt at the time of his death, and so his friends could provide only un enterrement de sixième classe (a sixth-class burial) at Bagneux, outside the city.  Robert Ross, Wilde’s friend and literary executor, eventually succeeded in annulling Wilde’s bankruptcy with the sale of some of Wilde’s works, and subsequently purchased a burial plot “in perpetuity” at Père Lachaise.  Helen Carew, a friend of Ross’s who had known Wilde in his heyday, anonymously offered £2,000 to commission a monument for Wilde by sculptor Jacob Epstein. This was unveiled in 1914.  (This information was taken from The Guardian, Nov 27, 2011; they were quoting Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson.)


I can’t discover who chose the words from The Ballad of Reading Gaol for the inscription on Wilde’s tomb, but it was likely Robert Ross.  Another possibility might be Helen Carew. In any case I think that those lines are very suitable, reflecting, as they appear to do, not only his broken life and career but his self-imposed exile.  Wilde’s wife even had to change her surname and that of their children to ‘Holland’ to escape notoriety.  It was tantamount to a total erasure of his former life.  How tragic that someone with such sparkling wit and humour–who gave us so much enjoyment and entertainment–should have been ostracized, reduced to poverty, and tormented with terrible suffering before his too-early death.

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had more than his share of family grief, with the loss of an infant son to diphtheria in 1872, the loss of his daughter, Susy, from spinal meningitis at age 24 in 1896, the loss of his wife at age 58 in 1904, and the loss of his 29-year-old daughter, Jean, from an epileptic seizure which resulted in her drowning in the bath at Christmastime, 1909.  Of his four children only his daughter Clara outlived him; she died in 1962 at age 88.

Mark Twain

Susy, it seems, was a particular favourite of Twain’s.  In a 64-page unpublished document he wrote after her death, he said: “She was a magazine of feelings, & they were of all kinds & of all shades of force; & she was so volatile, as a little child, that sometimes the whole battery came into play in the short compass of a day. She was full of life, full of activity, full of fire, her waking hours were a crowding & hurrying procession of enthusiasms … Joy, sorrow, anger, remorse, storm, sunshine, rain, darkness – they were all there: They came in a moment, & they were gone as quickly.”

Susy Clemens, ca 1885

“In all things she was intense: in her this characteristic was not a mere glow, dispensing warmth, but a consuming fire.”  (Ed Pilkington quoting Twain in The Guardian, April 21, 2010)

For her gravestone, Twain borrowed from the poem “Annette” by poet Robert Richardson published in a book titled Willow and Wattle (1893).

These are the actual lines borrowed from Richardson’s poem…

Warm summer sun, shine friendly here/Warm western wind, blow kindly here;/Green sod above, rest light, rest light,/Good-night, Annette!/Sweetheart, good-night!

Susy Clemens tombstone

As we can see, Twain altered the poem a little for Susy.  Interestingly, when the poem is viewed in its entirety, there is a line shortly before the ones chosen by Twain that says, “Broke a foolish heart in twain.”  By her early death, Susy did indeed break a heart in Twain.

As for Twain’s own tombstone, it has no verse.  I should imagine that this would have been according to his wishes, since his daughter Clara would have been there in 1910 to carry out his burial arrangements.

Mark Twain headstone

Here’s an interesting anecdote…In 1909, Twain said:

“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh! I am looking forward to that.” (Mark Twain: A Biography, The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine.)  [The perihelion (point at which it comes closest to the sun) of Halley’s Comet for 1835 was November 16th; for 1910 it was April 20th.  Twain was born on November 30 of 1835, and died on April 21 of 1910.]

I tried to find George Bernard Shaw’s tombstone inscription, since various internet sources report it to be:  “I Knew If I Stayed Around Long Enough Something Like This Would Happen!”  It looked a bit unlikely to me, and in fact that does not appear to be correct–at least, not that I can find.  I’ve read that he was cremated after his death on November 2, 1950, his ashes mixed with those of his wife who predeceased him in 1943, and then scattered in the garden of his home, Shaw’s Corner, in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England.

George Bernard Shaw

Internet sources for tombstone epitaphs can be very unreliable—I believe it only when I see the photographic evidence.  To borrow a quote from David Hume, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”  Also wise women, I think—or at least women making an effort to be wise.

For example, the following was advertised on some internet sites as the inscription on David Hume’s own monument in Edinburgh:

David Hume (1711-1776)

“Within this circular idea/Called vulgarly a tomb/The ideas and impressions lie/That constituted Hume”

…but I couldn’t find it. I read all sorts of articles about the tomb, but this inscription was in nothing that I read. Just as well, since I find that inscription pretty feeble. The ideas and impressions that constituted Hume lie in his tomb? Hmmm…don’t think so, actually.

Hume was a “Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.” (Encyclopedia Britannica’s description) He also shocked the ordinary folk of his time with his atheism. It was apparently expected by them that he would do a volte-face and embrace religion as he lay dying of what is thought to have been an abdominal cancer of some kind. After Hume’s burial, his friends reportedly had to stand armed guard in case his grave was interfered with–so many people lurked nearby to see if the devil would come to claim him.

David Hume

“The populace of the day took a certain interest in his interment, but it was not of a flattering kind. They visited the cemetery afterwards, expecting to find a rifled sepulchre. Satan, it was confidently believed, would come, or had come, in person to remove the body of his very own. Not without a certain horror the citizens for years watched the figure of an elderly gentleman with broad face and benevolent smile and a somewhat corpulent habit of body though his life was simplicity itself. Day by day he trod their streets, as familiar as the Tron Kirk or the Crown of St Giles. As the years went by the step became less active and the corpulency more accentuated, but there was always the same placid smile, with a depth of humour and irony which none probed.” (Edinburgh and The Lothians (1912), by Francis Watt, Chapter XV – The Graveyards of Edinburgh, from electricscotland.com)

These are the instructions Hume left in his will, concerning his memorial:

“I also ordain that, if I shall dye any where in Scotland, I shall be bury’d in a private manner in the Gallon Church Yard [also known as the Calton graveyard], the South Side of it, and a Monument be built over my Body at an Expence not exceeding a hundred Pounds, with an Inscription containing only my Name with the Year of my Birth and Death, leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.”

The Ancient-Roman-style cylindrical mausoleum was designed by Hume’s friend, the famous architect Robert Adam, and construction was completed in 1778.

Old_Calton_David_Hume tomb

Interestingly, the mausoleum became something of a family vault, and subsequently adulterated with religious symbols and a decidedly Christian-inspired verse above the doorway:

“Behold I come quickly Thanks be to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.”

This was added much later, when Hume’s nephew memorialized his wife by inscribing her name on a funerary urn in a niche above the door, with the religious verse shown between it and David Hume’s name. It was intended for her and not him, but it would be difficult to determine that from looking at it.

David Hume monument inscriptions

It does rather give the impression that the great man’s atheism was little more than a rumour.

So, be ye hereby warned: if you wish for something in particular to be engraved on your memorial stone after your passing, you might want to get busy now, while you’re still around to see that things happen as they should.

Otherwise, chances are that somebody else will be having the last word.