The Beard Tax

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In his efforts to reform Russian society, Peter the Great once resorted to banning beards. To bring Russian society more in line with Western Europe, in 1698 he began to charge a fee for the privilege of wearing whiskers, ranging from 100 rubles a year for wealthy merchants down to 1 kopek for a peasant entering a city. Police were empowered to shave scofflaws forcibly.

If you paid your tax you were given a “beard token” with a Russian eagle on one side and a beard on the other. One coin bore the legend THE BEARD IS A SUPERFLUOUS BURDEN.

Because Russians generally resented the law, the tokens are quite valuable now. As early as 1845 collector Walter Hawkins wrote, “The national aversion to the origin of this token probably caused their destruction or dispersion, after they had served their purpose for the year, as they are now very rarely to be met with even in Russia.”

Short-Timers

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Pedro Lascuráin served as president of Mexico for less than one hour. The country’s 1857 constitution dictated that the line of succession to the presidency ran through the vice president, the attorney general, the foreign minister, and the interior minister. On Feb. 19, 1913, general Victoriano Huerta overthrew President Francisco Madero as well as his vice president and attorney general. To give his coup some appearance of legitimacy, he had foreign minister Lascuráin assume the presidency, appoint him interior minister, then resign. Lascuráin’s presidency is the shortest in world history.

Charles Brandon was Duke of Suffolk for one hour in 1551. He inherited the title when his elder brother Henry died of sweating sickness, then succumbed himself to the same disease, giving him the shortest tenure of a British peer.

Louis X of France died while his wife was pregnant, so that their son, John I, was born onto the throne. That makes him the youngest king in French history and the only person to have been king of France since birth. He lived only five days, so he’s also the only person to have held the French throne throughout his life. He’s remembered as “John the Posthumous.”

The Poverty Map

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When H.M. Hyndman claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in abject poverty, Charles Booth was skeptical. So he organized his own investigation. His findings, published as Life and Labour of the People in 1889, showed that fully 35 percent of residents in the East End were poor.

In the map above, the red areas are “middle class, well-to-do,” light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family,” dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want,” and black areas are the “lowest class … occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals.” (More of Booth’s maps can be seen here.)

A second volume, covering the rest of London, was published in 1891, and a third, in 17 volumes, appeared in 1902. He pressed for many reforms, but he remained optimistic. “What is needed is more vigorous life in every direction: social, educational, industrial, political and religious,” he concluded. “If they be evidences of vigour, pleasure seeking and extravagance need not be condemned, nor even some excess be dreaded. We may confidently trust in the balance of forces; a running stream is always wholesome; a stagnant pool, the danger.”

A Modest Proposal

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On March 28, 1912, bacteriologist Almroth Wright wrote a letter to the London Times arguing that women should be denied the vote and in fact kept away from politics altogether in light of their psychological shortcomings. Two days later the Times printed this response. It was signed “One of the Doomed” but in fact had been penned by 26-year-old Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston:

March 30th, 1912

To the Editor of The Times.

Sir,

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have votes?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’

I have been so much impressed by Sir Almroth Wright’s disquisition, backed as it is by so much scientific and personal experience, that I have come to the conclusion that women should be put a stop to.

We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitiveness, and that their presence is distracting and irritating to men in their daily lives and pursuits. If they take up a profession, the indelicacy of their minds makes them undesirable partners for their male colleagues. Later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and, if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up.

Now this being so, how much happier and better would the world not be if only it could be purged of women? It is here that we look to the great scientists. Is the case really hopeless? Women no doubt have had their uses in the past, else how could this detestable tribe have been tolerated till now? But is it quite certain that they will be indispensable in the future? Cannot science give us some assurance, or at least some ground of hope, that we are on the eve of the greatest discovery of all — i.e., how to maintain a race of males by purely scientific means?

And may we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented, and immoral species which has infested the world for so long?

Yours obediently,

C.S.C.
(‘One of the Doomed’)

First Things First

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During World War I, Ernest Rutherford worked tirelessly on a secret project to detect submarines by sonar. But on one occasion he did decline to attend a committee meeting.

“I have been engaged in experiments which suggest that the atom can be artificially disintegrated,” he wrote. “If it is true it is of far greater importance than a war.”

An Overlooked Death

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Late one night in 2001, Polish immigrant Henryk Siwiak set out to find a Pathmark supermarket in Brooklyn in order to start a new job. Around 11:40 p.m., residents in the area heard an argument followed by gunshots. Siwiak was found dead face down in Decatur Street, shot in the lung. A trail of blood showed that he had staggered there from Albany Avenue seeking help.

Unfortunately, this happened on September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks. Siwiak spoke poor English and was wearing camouflage clothing, which may have led his assailant to think he was associated with the attacks. In any case, with the city in chaos, police could not attend as closely to the case as they otherwise would have, and that day’s news coverage was devoted to the attacks, which may have prevented residents with potentially useful information from coming forward.

The case remains unsolved. “I’m afraid this is forever,” Henryk’s widow Ewa told the New York Times in 2011. Because the terror victims were not included in the city’s crime statistics, Siwiak’s death is the only homicide recorded in New York City on that day.

The “Dicta Boelcke”

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Principles of aerial combat devised by World War I German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, the “father of air fighting tactics”:

  1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
  2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
  3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
  4. Always keep your eyes on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
  5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
  6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to avoid his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
  7. When over the enemy’s lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
  8. For the Staffel [fighter squadrons]: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.

“He certainly didn’t love war and he personally disliked killing,” writes Dan Hampton in Lords of the Sky, his history of fighter pilots and air combat. “It was not a sport to him, as it was with others, nor was it a game. It was something he had to do, so he did it well.” When he died in a crash, his British enemies dropped a wreath behind German lines with the message “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous opponent. From the English Royal Flying Corps.” French, Italian, and British pilots sent wreaths and messages from prisoner-of-war camps, and Manfred von Richthofen said of his mentor, “I am only a fighting airman, but Boelcke was a hero.”

Short Notice

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Having lost both his legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run, James Tanner had settled into life as a government stenographer in the Ordnance Department in Washington, D.C., when on April 14, 1865, he was suddenly summoned to the building next to his boarding house, where Abraham Lincoln lay dying. Between midnight and 1:30 a.m., using shorthand, he recorded the accounts of those who had witnessed the assassination, and, he said later, “in fifteen minutes I had testimony enough to hang Wilkes Booth, the assassin, higher than ever Haman hung.” Here’s a sample, the statement of actor William Henry Hawk, who had been performing at Ford’s Theatre that night:

I was on the stage at the time of the firing & heard the report of the pistol. My back was towards the Presidents box at the time. I heard something tear & somebody fell & as I looked towards him he came in the direction in which I was standing & I believe to the best of my knowledge that it was John Wilkes Booth. Still I am not positive that it was him. I only had one glance at him as he was rushing towards me with a dagger & I turned and run & after I run up a flight of stairs I turned and exclaimed ‘My God that’s John Booth.’ I am acquainted with Booth. I met him the first time a year ago. I saw him today about one o’clock. Said I ‘how do you do Mr. Booth’ and he says ‘how are you Hawk.’ He was sitting on the steps of Fords Theatre reading a letter. He had the appearance of being sober at the time. I was never intimate with him. He had no hat on when I saw him on the stage. In my own mind I do not have any doubt but that it was Booth. He made some expression when he came on the stage but I did not understand what.

Tanner’s notes are known as the Tanner Manuscript — you can read them at the Internet Archive.

Onward

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1893, intrepid Englishwoman Mary Kingsley decided to visit West Africa, where she collected beetles and fishes, negotiated the Ogowé River rapids in a canoe, and climbed the Great Cameroon. One evening she was forging through some underbrush when she found herself “in a heap, on a lot of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit.”

It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England, who ought to have known better, and did not do it themselves, and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fulness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out. The Duke came along first, and looked down at me. I said, ‘Get a bush-rope, and haul me out.’ He grunted and sat down on a log. The Passenger came next, and he looked down. ‘You kill?’ says he. ‘Not much,’ say I; ‘get a bush-rope and haul me out.’ ‘No fit,’ says he, and sat down on the log. Presently, however, Kiva and Wiki came up, and Wiki went and selected the one and only bush-rope suitable to haul an English lady, of my exact complexion, age, and size, out of that one particular pit. They seemed rare round there from the time he took; and I was just casting about in my mind as to what method would be best to employ in getting up the smooth, yellow, sandy-clay, incurved walls, when he arrived with it, and I was out in a twinkling.

Of her Rudyard Kipling said, “Being human, she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.”

(From her 1897 book Travels in West Africa.)

Comment

In the 14th century, after copying a 614-page handwritten manuscript in double columns, an unknown scribe entered this in the colophon:

Explicit secunda pars summe fratris thome de aquino ordinis fratrum predicatorum, longissima, prolixissima, et tediosissima scribenti: Deo gratias, Deo gratias, et iterum Deo gratias.

It means, “Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God.”

(From M.B. Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes, 2017.)