Love, Honor, and Obey

In 1769, inspired by Rousseau’s Émile, British author Thomas Day set out to train the perfect wife. He adopted foundlings of 11 and 12 years old, named them Sabrina and Lucretia, and took them to France, where he tried to rear them in isolation.

This went well at first — under Day’s direction, Sabrina wrote to one of his friends: “I love Mr. Day dearly and Lucretia. I am learning to write. … I hope I shall have more sense against I come to England. I know the cause of night and day, winter and summer. I love Mr. Day best in the world, Mr. Bicknell next, and you next.”

But it fell apart within 18 months. When the girls began to quarrel and tease him, he returned to England, placed Lucretia with a chamber milliner, and concentrated on Sabrina. But she screamed when he fired pistols at her petticoats (trying, at Rousseau’s suggestion, to accustom her to “détonations les plus terribles”), and she winced unheroically when he dropped sealing wax on her arms. Finally he released her to a boarding school, where in time she grew up to be “an elegant and amiable woman.”

In 1780, Day finally did find a wife who “often wept but never repined” at his “frequent experiments upon her temper and attachment.” But even that didn’t last — he died, ironically, while trying to break a horse.

“Feminine Correspondence”

From the Annual Register, 1840: “The following civilities between two ladies lately appeared in the public papers”:

Lady Seymour presents her compliments to lady Shuckburgh, and would be obliged to her for the character of Mary Stedman, who states that she has lived twelvemonths, and still is in lady Shuckburgh’s establishment. Can Mary Stedman cook plain dishes well? make bread? and is she honest, good tempered, sober, willing, and cleanly? Lady Seymour would also like to know the reason why she leaves lady Shuckburgh’s service? Direct, under cover, to lord Seymour, Maiden Bradley.

Lady Shuckburgh presents her compliments to lady Seymour. Her ladyship’s note, dated Oct. 28, only reached her yesterday, Nov. 3. Lady Shuckburgh was unacquainted with the name of the kitchen-maid, until mentioned by lady Seymour, as it is her custom neither to apply for or give characters to any of the under servants, this being always done by the housekeeper, Mrs. Couch — and this was well known to the young woman; therefore lady Shuckburgh is surprised at her referring any lady to her for a character. Lady Shuckburgh having a professed cook, as well as a housekeeper, in her establishment, it is not very likely she herself should know anything of the abilities or merits of the under servants; therefore, she is unable to answer lady Seymour’s note. Lady Shuckburgh cannot imagine Mary Stedman to be capable of cooking for any except the servants’ hall table. — November 4, Pavilion, Hans-place.

Lady Seymour presents her compliments to lady Shuckburgh, and begs she will order her housekeeper, Mrs. Pouch, to send the girl’s character without delay; otherwise another young woman will be sought for elsewhere, as lady Seymour’s children cannot remain without their dinners because lady Shuckburgh, keeping a ‘professed cook and a housekeeper,’ thinks a knowledge of the details of her establishment beneath her notice. Lady Seymour understood from Stedman that, in addition to her other talents, she was actually capable of dressing food fit for the little Shuckburghs to partake of when hungry.

(“To this note was appended a clever pen and ink vignette, by the Queen of Beauty, representing the three little Shuckburghs, with large turnip-looking heads and cauliflower wigs, sitting at a round table, eating and voraciously scrambling for mutton chops, dressed by Mary Stedman, who is seen looking on with supreme satisfaction, while lady Shuckburgh appears in the distance in evident dismay.”)

Madam, — Lady Shuckburgh has directed me to acquaint you that she declines answering your note, the vulgarity of which is beneath contempt; and although it may be the characteristic of the Sheridans, to be vulgar, coarse, and witty, it is not that of ‘a lady,’ unless she happens to have been born in a garret and bred in a kitchen. Mary Stedman informs me that your ladyship does not keep either a cook or a housekeeper, and that you only require a girl who can cook a mutton chop. If so, I apprehend that Mary Stedman, or any other scullion, will be found fully equal to cook for, or manage the establishment of, the Queen of Beauty. I am, your ladyship’s, &c., Elizabeth Couch (not Pouch).’


French science fiction writer Albert Robida has been lost in the shadow of Jules Verne, but in the 1880s he was widely popular for a trilogy of illustrated novels imagining life in the 20th century. He predicted social upheavals around the time of our two world wars and foresaw transatlantic air travel, home shopping, video telephones, and a feminist revolution. But his greatest innovation was one we haven’t reached yet — a president made of wood:

And he is really well made. See the hand that’s holding the pen? It is secured in position. You can try pushing and pulling it all you want, it won’t budge! There is a secret lock. Absolute security! The mechanism is extremely complex; there are three locks and three keys. The prime minister has one, the president of the chamber has another one, and the president of the senate has the third. A minimum of two keys is requested to activate the mechanism. In case of conflict between the prime minister and the president of the chamber, the president of the senate is summoned with his key. He stands with one side or the other and introduces his key into one of the locks. The mechanism is activated, and the automatic president signs away!

“He shall reign, but not govern,” explains a citizen. “The power will remain in the hands of the nation’s representatives. … The monarchists’ main objection to democracy has always been its inherent instability. With this wooden president, democracy equals stability!”


On Feb. 29, 1868, London’s Langham Hotel sponsored a “horseflesh dinner” to see whether the popular prejudice against the eating of horses might be overcome in English society. About 150 influential Londoners dined on “saucissons de cheval,” “aloyau de de cheval farci,” and “gelée de pied de cheval au Marasquin.”

“Men looked at each other curiously while eating, and each course ran the gauntlet of puns and satire,” reported Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round.

But the consensus was negative. “There are, no doubt, numerous proofs that the flesh of the horse is, at any rate, a wholesome food, and indeed there seems no reason why it should not be,” opined the Medical Times and Gazette. “The dishes we tasted … were all palatable. … [But] horseflesh leaves a pungency on the palate that is not agreeable — a pungency that reminds one of what one has been eating for some time after the meal is over.”

“I came back from it a wiser and a sadder man,” reported zoologist Francis Trevelyan Buckland. “In my opinion, hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country; for, firstly, it has to fight against prejudice, and, secondly, the meat is not good.”

Also: “During the dinner, photographs of the horses which we were eating were handed round, and the appearance of one of these was, I think, the turning point of the argument.”

Heir Apparel

A rector of a Yorkshire parish, who died in 1804, left a considerable property to his daughter on the condition that she should dress with greater propriety than theretofore. ‘Seeing that my daughter, Anna, has not availed herself of my advice touching the objectionable practice of going about with her arms bare up to the elbows, my will is that should she continue after my death in this violation of the modesty of her sex, all the property, personal and real, devised for her maintenance, shall pass to the oldest of the sons of my sister, Caroline. Should anyone take exception to this, my wish, as being too severe, I answer that licence in dress in a woman is a mark of a depraved mind.’

— Virgil McClure Harris, “Wills and Will-Makers,” in Trust Companies, December 1921

Frontier Justice

In 1881 a federal trial judge in the Territory of New Mexico, presiding at Taos in an adobe stable used as a temporary courtroom, passed sentence on murderer José Gonzales. We don’t know the details of Gonzales’ crime, but it must have been extraordinary — here’s the sentence:

José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, in a few short weeks it will be spring. The snows of winter will flee away, the ice will vanish, and the air will become soft and balmy. In short, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, the annual miracle of the years will awaken and come to pass, but you won’t be here.

The rivulet will run its purring course to the sea, the timid desert flowers will put forth their tender shoots, the glorious valleys of this imperial domain will blossom as the rose. Still, you won’t be here to see.

From every tree top some wild woods songster will carol his mating song, butterflies will sport in the sunshine, the busy bee will hum happy as it pursues its accustomed vocation, the gentle breeze will tease the tassels of the wild grasses, and all nature, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, will be glad but you. You won’t be here to enjoy it because I command the sheriff or some other officer of the country to lead you out to some remote spot, swing you by the neck from a nodding bough of some sturdy oak, and let you hang until you are dead.

And then, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, I further command that such officer or officers retire quickly from your dangling corpse, that vultures may descend from the heavens upon your filthy body until nothing shall remain but bare, bleached bones of a cold-blooded, copper-colored, blood-thirsty, throat-cutting, chili-eating, sheep-herding, murdering son of a bitch.

Cleopatra Mathis discovered the transcript in the records of the U.S. District Court, New Mexico Territory Sessions. She published it in Antaeus in autumn 1976.

Us Do Part

The will of John George, of Lambeth, who died in London in June, 1791, contained the following words: ‘Seeing that I have had the misfortune to be married to the aforesaid Elizabeth, who ever since our union has tormented me in every possible way; that, not content with making game of all my remonstrances, she has done all she could to render my life miserable; that heaven seems to have sent her into the world solely to drive me out of it; that the strength of Samson, the genius of Homer, the prudence of Augustus, the skill of Pyrrhus, the patience of Job, the philosophy of Socrates, the subtlety of Hannibal, the vigilance of Hermogenes, would not suffice to subdue the perversity of her character; that no power on earth can change her, seeing we have lived apart during the last eight years, and that the only result has been the ruin of my son, whom she has corrupted and estranged from me; weighing maturely and seriously all these considerations, I bequeath to my said wife Elizabeth the sum of one shilling, to be paid unto her within six months after my death.’

Albany Law Journal, March 24, 1900

Lieutenant Colonel Nash got even with his wife by leaving the bell ringers of Bath abbey 50 pounds a year on condition that they muffle the bells of said abbey on the anniversary of his marriage and ring them with ‘doleful accentuation from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.’ and on the anniversary of his death to ring a merry peal for the same space ‘in memory of his happy release from domestic tyranny and wretchedness.’

The Bar, November 1908

“To My Old Master”

In August 1865, Col. P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tenn., wrote to his former slave Jourdon Anderson, now emancipated in Ohio, and asked him to return to work on his farm. Anderson dictated this letter in response:

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, — the folks call her Mrs. Anderson, — and the children — Milly, Jane, and Grundy — go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, ‘Them colored people were slaves’ down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it come to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

(Thanks, Simon.)

A Social Invention

Thomas Edison popularized the word hello. Working in AT&T’s Manhattan archives in 1987, Brooklyn College classics professor Allen Koenigsberg unearthed a letter that Edison had written in August 1877 to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone in Pittsburgh. Edison wrote:

Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON

At the time it was thought that the line would remain open permanently, so a caller needed a way to get the other party’s attention. Apparently hello was a variation on the traditional hound call “Halloo!”

What should the answerer reply? Alexander Graham Bell pressed for Hoy! Hoy!, but Edison equipped the first exchanges, so hello gained the ascendancy there too.

That’s all it took — by 1880 the word was everywhere. “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Koenigsberg told the New York Times. “If you think about it, why didn’t Stanley say hello to Livingston? The word didn’t exist.”