The Daily

On History

Night Doctors

October 11, 2016 | by

Nineteenth-century medical schools plundered the graves of African Americans.


“I remember a colored lady was going to work early in the morning, about half past five o’clock. She was standing at Twelfth and Market Streets when an automobile came up. A man in the automobile spoke to her, ‘Mary, which way are you going? I’ll take you where you want to go in a hurry. The trolleys are all blocked.’ But the lady wouldn’t get in the automobile.” The story, collected in Tristram Potter Coffin and Henning Cohen’s 1966 Folklore in America, begins with a fair degree of menace but is otherwise unremarkable: a single woman harassed by a stranger in a car, the kind of danger women everywhere in America face. Only at the end does it become strange. “The man kept on insisting,” the unnamed respondent continues, “and the woman became frightened. Just then a colored man across the way saw her and started towards her. At that the man in the automobile left. He was a night doctor and was going to take the lady to the hospital.”

Shadowy, elusive, terrifying—for well over a century after the Civil War the night doctors moved through the cities and through American folklore, looking for their victims. Read More »

Rare Beasts, Birds, and the Calaboose

September 22, 2016 | by

A brief history of London’s Tower Menagerie.


Royal Menagerie, 1812.

It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.

Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)

For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields. Read More »

Tears of a Clown

July 6, 2016 | by

Ralph Emerson’s famous photo of Emmett Kelly.

Seventy-two years ago today, in Hartford, Connecticut, someone photographed a clown carrying a bucket of water toward a fire. It’s a surreal image, haunting in the old black-and-white way. The clown is stepping through an arid landscape littered with what appear to be wooden crates, a lone railroad car, and the suggestion of bleachers. As clowns go, he’s the sad tramp kind, a pained grimace on his face. In front of him, to the left, someone is exiting the frame—a portion of a leg is visible—and the clown follows, gripping his bucket, exuding dread. He’s heading toward something unseen and tragic, something almost ghostly.

The Hartford Circus Fire occurred during a midafternoon Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus show on July 6, 1944. Some 167 people died; about 700 were injured. No one knows for sure how it started. Read More »

When Emperors Are No More

June 15, 2016 | by

Why did an intelligent Jewish scholar write an appreciation of a German tyrant?

From the paperback cover of Inventing the Middle Ages.

In 1992, a medievalist named Norman Cantor published Inventing the Middle Ages, a series of light, biographical sketches intended to show readers how a few historians from the twentieth century had brought the Middle Ages alive to the general public, with, as the flap copy put it, vivid images of wars, tournaments, plagues, saints and kings, knights and ladies.” One chapter, “The Nazi Twins,” was devoted partly to Ernst Kantorowicz, a Princeton scholar who’d written a magisterial study of sovereignty in medieval law, philosophy, and art. Cantor alleged that Kantorowicz—who was not only Jewish, but had spoken up against Hitler at great peril to his academic career, and whose mother has perished in a concentration camp—had “impeccable Nazi credentials”: an outrageous slander, in the eyes of his former students and colleagues. When The New York Review of Books ran a largely favorable essay on Inventing the Middle Ages, the magazine received a flood of angry letters. “Where is this Cantor [a] professor? Disney World?” demanded one reader. 

But “this Cantor” was not entirely specious in his claims. In 1927, when he was only thirty, Kantorowicz had written a seven-hundred-page biography of Frederick II, a Holy Roman Emperor from the thirteenth century. In lofty German that imitated the Latin style of Frederick’s time, Kantorowicz painted the Emperor as a redeemer of the German people who united the north with the Roman south and brought the barbaric East under his iron rule. Kantorowicz had a Hindu good luck symbol, the swastika, put on the biography’s cover, and on its dedication page he recalled laying a wreath on Frederick’s grave in Palermo. “That wreath,” he wrote, “may fairly be taken as a symbol that—not alone in learned circles—enthusiasm is astir for the great German Rulers of the past: in a day when emperors are no more.” Among the book’s enthusiastic readers was Hermann Göring, who gave Mussolini a signed copy for his birthday. Read More »

The Hard-on on Trial

May 18, 2016 | by

Erectile dysfunction and divorce in prerevolutionary France.

Grace under pressure. Photo: Jörg Bittner Unna.

At face value, René de Cordouan was a lucky man: born into French nobility as the Marquis de Langey, rich without effort, pleasant to look at. By generic, century-spanning sort of standards he was a catch, as endearing to unwed Catholics of the early 1600s (those seeking a deep-pocketed partner with bucolic property to share) as to manicured women with manicured nails browsing The actual minutiae of the Marquis de Langey’s appearance remains a mystery—the size of his feet, the straightness of teeth, the presence or absence of dimples—but one part of his anatomy was so meticulously discussed it secured him a minor place in European history. Inside the nobleman’s underpants, between his upper thighs, was an intromittent organ that would be leered at and prodded before a court of law. To put it plainly, in 1657 the Marquis’s penis was subject to public trial. Read More »

Daughters of the Guild

April 4, 2016 | by

Judith Leyster and the overlooked women painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Judith Leyster, Self Portrait, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, 29.4" × 25.6".

In 1892, a painting that had been attributed to Frans Hals for more than a century became the subject of a dispute between two English art dealers. The 1630 painting, known at various times in English as The Happy Couple or Carousing Couple, was typical Hals and Dutch Golden Age territory—a genre scene of a couple making merry in a tavern. Pink-cheeked, bemused, the woman raises a glass while her male companion sings and plays the violin. When the painting changed hands for forty-five hundred pounds, the buyer sued after discovering a signature other than Frans Hals right below the violinist’s shoe. It was a monogram nobody seemed to recognize: a conjoined J and L, struck through with a five-pointed star.


As a result of the court case’s publicity—the media has always loved it when art experts get it wrong—a Dutch collector and art historian, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, recognized the monogram as belonging to Judith Leyster, one of the first women painters to be admitted to a Guild of Saint Luke in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. Though she’d been praised by the observers and historians of her era, Leyster had essentially been erased from art history since her death in 1660. In 1648, when Leyster was not yet forty, the Dutch commentator Theodore Schrevel had noted, “There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called ‘the true Leading star in art.’ ” Since leyster means “lodestar” in Dutch, Schrevel enjoyed a pun to underscore his point. Read More »