June 9, 2019 • No Comments
So you want to be a necromancer. As jobs go, there are worse prospects. It’s a niche market with an exclusive but loyal clientele. Pay days may be less than regular, but that’s common with most freelance gigs. Plus, it’s still better than slogging it out as a laboratory assistant for the so-called scientific community. Just ask Igor, who is still trying to file his worker’s compensation claim after the last thunderstorm.
Necromancy is an old profession. The name comes from the Greek nekros, meaning the dead and manteia, meaning prophecy. In other words, necromancy is all about raising the dead and asking them for prophecies. This presupposes the dead are able to divine the future while they are quietly decomposing in their graves. That may seem a stretch, but why not? On one hand, they have nothing else to do. On the other—well, that one fell off. Yeah, there’s a reason necromancers aren’t out there killing it on Wall Street.
Necromancers also claim to have summoned demons to do their bidding. While there is no doubt that demons are more exciting than rudely awakened dead people, this is an expert level maneuver. To prepare for the arduous rituals, adepts practice for months summoning timely pizza delivery, cable TV installers, and teenagers to the dinner table. Only when they are able to command reliable customer service in under ten minutes do they move on to conjuring the forces of darkness. How many survive the attempt is unknown. No doubt a few end up as wizard origami. Those that succeed are definitely barred from doing show and tell at Grade Five career day.
Spoilsports claim necromancy went out of fashion along with witch burnings and the blunderbuss. After all, predictive data modeling looks so much better in an annual report. While that may be true, no software can beat the traditional necromancer for sheer style. Dark robes and glowing sigils are classic and definitely slimming. Custom detailing can be costly, but definitely worth the spend for branding purposes. All the same, choose carefully. Skulls are overdone and don’t get the raven unless you can afford constant dry-cleaning.
If you are serious about a future career in raising the dead, be prepared to entertain a wide variety of requests. Not every job is filled with zest and brimstone. Only fifty percent of clients will ask for a prophecy. Others just want one more conversation with the dearly departed, while a few hire an army of the dead for cinematic purposes. Price accordingly, and be prepared to subcontract cleaning professionals. Zombie armies are unhygienic at best.
So, all you wannabe wizards, are you interested in a profession with a long and fascinating history? Do you like to meet new people with unique (and occasionally demonic) perspectives? Are you a self-starter prepared to work flexible hours? Then necromancy may be for you. It offers the opportunity to work at the cutting and occasionally sacrificial edge. Be prepared to show group leadership skills with your freshly raised dead! Just fill out the attached application and be sure to sign in your own blood.
June 8, 2019 • No Comments
There are so many ways a lady could be deadly without wrinkling her gown. Forget the garter daggers and muff pistols and sword canes in the parasol—those are all terribly stylish but just scratch the surface of potential mayhem. Here are some juicy examples torn from the pages of yesteryear’s headlines:
1. A Fashionable Murder
The New York Times of March 1, 1898, reports that Barotholomew Brandt Brandner, a Parisian visiting Chicago, entered a saloon on State Street only to be murdered by an unknown assailant. Autopsy results showed a concussion, probably from a blow with a liquor bottle. But there was also a puncture that entered the left eye and extended far into the interior of the skull. This was assumed to be caused by a lady’s hat pin. Brandner survived for a week but eventually died from the injury.
Women’s hat pins, while pretty, were sharp steel and usually six to twelve inches long, depending on the style of the hat. Women were well aware of the pin’s potential for self-defence.
2. A Tried and True Method
A true Black Widow, Mary Ann Cotton (née Robson) was born in 1832 in a mining town in the northeast of England. Life in the laboring classes was hard, but enterprising Mary Ann discovered the modern miracle of life insurance. During the course of her forty years, Mary Ann had four husbands (two at once), several lovers, thirteen children, and lots of insurance claims. She was survived by one husband and two children. The estimated number of her victims was around twenty. She was hanged in 1873.
In the age of cholera, gastric fevers, and no refrigeration, stomach complaints were common. So were rodents, and arsenic was a common component of rat poison. Although the sale of arsenic was somewhat regulated, it was still available at the local chemist. Mary Ann brewed in tea, serving unwanted relations until a doctor noticed the body count. Too bad for her, tests for arsenic poisoning were available by the time her final victim was exhumed during the investigation.
Poison has a reputation—deserved or not—as a woman’s weapon. It’s true that the nineteenth century saw a number of cases with wives wishing to be merry widows. However, the amount of hysteria generated by the Victorian press regarding “secret poisoners” makes it sound as if every female forced into a corset and bustle was out for revenge. Then again…
For an excellent biopic of Mary Ann Cotton, check out the mini-series Dark Angel starring Joanne Froggatt.
3. Speaking of Exhumation
Back in the day, medical students had limited access to corpses for dissection. The law of supply and demand gave rise to “resurrectionists,” who dug up the newly dead and sold them to surgical schools. Needless to say, grave robbing is a tedious business and someone was bound to find a way to skip the muddy bits. Why bother with all the midnight shoveling when you could murder someone in the comfort of your own home?
William Burke and William Hare did exactly that in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828, when they killed sixteen people and sold their remains. These deaths gave rise to the term “burking,” or asphyxiating the victims by sitting on their chests. It was a low-tech and largely undetectable means of murder.
However, as so often happens in history, the women are often left out of the story. Helen McDougal, Burke’s common-law wife, and Margaret Hare, wife of William Hare, shared in the crimes. Incredibly, of the four, only Burke was eventually convicted.
4. Heavy Metal
There’s always someone in the crowd who goes for the direct approach. When it comes to lethal historical ladies, no one cuts (or chops) to the chase like Lizzie Borden. It’s a good reminder that a lady’s weapon does need to be dainty, just effective.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was tried and acquitted for the August 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. Experts and hobbyists alike still debate her innocence and whether her gender impacted the verdict.
For fun, check out Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft for a fantasy interpretation of the case.
5. Fun with Corsets
Corsets or “stays” come in different configurations, depending on the fashion of the day. At the center front is the busk, a slender piece of bone, wood, or other hard material that slides into a pocket of material sewn into the garment. The function of a busk is to keep the corset rigid in order to shape the figure of the wearer. Busks were often highly decorated and given as sweetheart gifts—given the intimate way they were worn, one can only imagine the delicious banter involved.
There is also the suggestion that a small dagger could be slipped into the front of a corset in place of the busk. Although a popular trope, I’ve never been able to find an actual historical precedent for this—probably for good reason. One problem is the hilt sticking out of one’s bodice. Another is the awkwardness involved in drawing a stabby thing that close to one’s face. I leave the option here for consideration, but my money is still on the hat pin for wardrobe weaponry.
June 7, 2019 • No Comments
Here are some truly fascinating clips of real nineteenth-century street life.
This is Manchester in 1901. It looks like rush hour to me.
This is a trip through Paris in the late 1890s. Partway through is a horse-drawn fire truck and a moving pedway!
June 4, 2019 • No Comments
June 2, 2019 • No Comments
Nothing quite says modern hustle like burger joints, food trucks, and grabbing junk food for that night’s Netflix binge. Fast food answers the problem of our hectic lives, where there’s places to be and work to be done and absolutely no time to spend crafting artisan eats in the kitchen. Plus, many so-called kitchen nooks in new apartments are barely big enough to comfortably butter toast, much less mess around with stock pots and canning jars. Picking up something to go is the obvious answer.
This need isn’t new. As long as there have been hungry people, there’s been food for sale in easy-to-eat forms. Ancient Roman thermopolia provided affordable take-out. Street vendors have been around as long as hungry urbanites have existed. Pretty much every culture has the “stuff wrapped in bread product,” whether that’s samosas, Cornish pasties, or the Czech klobasnek/kolaches. In the old days, if you were out harvesting in the fields or heading down a mine shaft, you wanted food that can be stuffed in a pocket to eat later. We might have better health regulations, but the principles behind fast food remain the same.
The pedigree of some current favorites is fun to look at. Hamburgers and hot dogs immediately come to mind, since they follow the meat-in-bread pattern. Speculation has it the essential ground meat that makes up the hamburger patty was introduced to Europe by invading hordes in the thirteenth century. Tartar horseman stashed raw meat beneath their saddles to tenderize it, a practice that was happily abandoned by later chefs. In the seventh century, Russians brought their version of the dish, steak tartare, to Hamburg, Germany, where it morphed into the cooked version we know now. In the early 1800s, the “Hamburg steak” was well-enough established to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The dish emigrated to America in the mid-1900s and eventually appeared with a bun at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The first burger chains appeared in the 1920s and the cheeseburger debuted a decade later.
Hot dogs followed a similar path. Sausages have been around since the ancient world, ultimately establishing themselves in the German cuisine that came to America in the mid-1800s. Around 1870, a German immigrant named Charles Feltman set up a food cart on Coney Island and did a brisk business selling sausages in a bun. From there they were introduced at ball parks as a snack to go with beer.
What about sides? The history of French fries is contested, with origin stories dating back to the seventeenth century. Belgium is petitioning UNESCO to endorse the fry as an icon of Belgian heritage. The story goes that in 1680 the River Meuse froze over, preventing citizens of Namur from catching and frying the small fish they were used to, so they fried potatoes instead. American soldiers, evidently confusing French-speaking Belgians with their neighbors, encountered the fried treat during WWI, taking so-called French fries back to the US.
There are other contenders for title of fry inventor. Spain has a claim. After all, they introduced the potato to Europe in the late 1500s after learning about it in the New World. France maintains an eighteenth-century street peddler on Paris’s Pont-Neuf bridge introduced French fries to the world. Canada has a special affinity since fries are an integral ingredient in poutine (invented in Quebec the 1950s). Without argument, America eats the most per capita.
The first recipe for onion rings is more certain. It’s generally agreed to have been published in John Mollard’s 1802 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined.” Mollard was a cook and proprietor of the Freemasons’ Tavern at Lincoln Inn Fields in London. However, the dish did not become popular until it emerged in its full cholesterolific glory in twentieth century America.
Speaking of fried food, the potato chip was invented by the appropriately-named George Crumb in 1853, a chef in Saratoga Springs, New York. Originally called Saratoga Chips, they were eventually made and marketed by a company in Cleveland, Ohio. Herman Lay introduced potato chips to many customers from Atlanta to Nashville by selling them from the trunk of his Ford Model A. He eventually founded H.W. Lay & Company, which merged with the Frito Company in 1961, which eventually merged with Pepsi-Cola.
Naturally, we want something to drink after eating all these salty foods. Mineral waters have been consumed since Roman times, as they were believed to have curative powers. Readers of Regency novels will be familiar with invalids “taking the waters” at various spas. A man-made version of carbonated beverages was first produced in the 1760s by adding chalk and acid to regular drinking water. Initially, wine was added as flavoring, but various sweet syrups followed and by the 1840s, soda fountains began appearing in pharmacies.
In 1876, Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires concocted a mixture of herbs, roots and berries and added it carbonated soda water to produce the first root beer. In 1886, another formulation containing coca leaves and the caffeine-rich kola nut became Coca-Cola. Marketed as a tonic, the original formula contained extracts of cocaine, which wasn’t illegal at the time. In 1893, Pepsi-Cola was introduced as a digestive aid. Soon bottling facilities replaced soda fountains and, by the 1920s, soft drinks were available via vending machines. The medicinal claims surrounding such beverages were dropped and as early as 1942, the American Medical Association was specifically mentioning soft drinks as it recommended consumers limit their intake of sugar. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Slow Food movement aims to recover the joys of delicious home cooked cuisine, along with traditional methods of preparation. However, as the hipsters rush to rediscover bone broth and artisan sauerkraut, it’s worth remembering that food is as variable as the people who eat it. Our cuisine has a complex family tree, along with a few crumpled food wrappers tucked in the branches. Fast food—despite the overwhelming corporatization involved—is equally traditional, with a centuries-long story of its own.
June 1, 2019 • No Comments
I love illustrated books, especially older ones with hand-drawn and tinted plates. While lots of my favorites are illustrations of novels and children’s stories, I’m fond of old scientific works as well. Botany texts, seed catalogues, and gardening manuals offer a wealth of gorgeous illustrations (as well as information on how to grow things without a boatload of chemicals). Some varieties that show up aren’t that common in modern gardens, so they are great references when looking for heritage specimens.
Recently I brought home a lovely old English (1843) volume because, y’know, book research.
Here’s a sample page of The Floricultural Cabinet and Florist’s Magazine, conducted by Joseph Harrison, editor of the Gardener’s Record, etc.:
I find a quick dose of happiness in the New York Botanical Garden page a day calendar (willowcreekpress.com). It alternates modern photographs of their amazing facility with antique botanical illustrations. I keep this on my desk at the day job so I can take a quick mental vacation to a beautiful green space as required.
Here’s a link to the garden itself: https://www.nybg.org/. The online shop is fun for gardening fans.