The Daily

On History

What a Way to Go!

September 15, 2014 | by

constans ii

A hexagram of Constans II struck in the Constantinople mint, struck ca. 648.

Sometimes power changes hands. Sometimes, perforce, the change is violent. And sometimes, albeit rarely, it involves a Byzantine emperor who’s assassinated in the bathtub, where his servant bashes his brains in with a silver bucket.

Such is the fate, putatively, that befell Constans II on September 15, 668, unless it befell him on July 15, 669, which is also eminently possible. As a historian on Reddit’s AskHistorians recently explained, “there is basically only one source for this, the eighth-century Theophilus of Edessa, who wrote a chronicle whilst serving the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. This work is now lost, but it was used by several later chroniclers, including the more well-known Theophanes from the ninth century.” Said historian goes on to quote an account by the tenth-century historian Agapius:

When Constans was in the bath, one of his attendants took a bucket, mixed in it mallow and soap, and put this on Constans’s head. While the latter’s eyes were filled with the mallow and soap, so that he could not open them, the attendant took the bucket and struck Constans on the head with it, so killing him. He rushed out of the bath to escape and no one heard any more of him. The servants remained outside waiting for the king to come out, but when they had been sitting a long time and it was getting late and he still had not come out, they entered the bath and found him unconscious. They brought him out and he lived for that day, but then died having reigned for twenty-seven years.

In a paper on the era’s Roman-Arab relations, the Oxford historian James Howard-Johnston collates a number of sources to offer a slightly different account: Read More »

NO COMMENTS

The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

Collect_Pond-Bayard_Mount-NYC

Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

NO COMMENTS

Illinois Jesus

August 18, 2014 | by

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More »

3 COMMENTS

Lost in Music

July 24, 2014 | by

Musical mind control from Mesmer to the Satanic panic.

7760.dd.4 (3), Pl.XX

A hysterical patient in a catatonic fit, supposedly caused by the huge tuning fork. Désiré Magloire Bourneville and Paul Regnard, Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876–1880).

To lose oneself in music is generally regarded as a good thing—an ecstatic experience, or at least an absent-minded pleasure. But despite the Eminems, Daft Punks, and Sister Sledges of the world, Western culture has often had niggling fears about letting go in that way. What if the music can make you do things? What if surrendering to it means surrendering the parts of yourself that hold you back from madness, adultery, and murder? What if heavy metal sends teens on killing sprees? What if rock and roll makes girls shed their sexual inhibitions, causing a rash of nymphomania and pregnancy and the collapse of social order—or what if it can whip crowds into a malleable frenzy, leaving them the pitiful stooges of Communist or other sinister causes? What if it can be used with other forms of thought control to turn people into Manchurian Candidate–style automatons?

The fear, however implausible, that music has mysterious powers—that it can hypnotize or brainwash, making us the playthings of malign manipulators or our own dark instincts—has crept into the public discourse surprisingly often over the past two hundred years. Concerns about the medical, sexual, social, and political consequences of musical hypnosis are an essentially modern business; until the eighteenth century, trance states were often seen in a positive light, even as a way of connecting to the divine. But against the background of the internalized self-control demanded by modern urban society, trance states have been increasingly regarded as pathological symptoms—something to be explained by doctors, not priests. Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Passional Affinities

July 2, 2014 | by

The free-love couple who pissed off nineteenth-century America.

A_Mormon_and_his_wives_dancing_to_the_devil's_tune_1850

A lithograph against polygamy from an 1850 book.

In the summer of 1853, the Tribune of New York published a pointed letter directed at the proprietors of the American Hydropathic Institute, a “health institute” in Port Chester, denouncing the establishment for spreading “free and easy notions respecting Love and Marriage.” Its reputation locally was as a bawdy place, a breeding ground for anarchy, free love, and other dubious socialist practices. Shortly after this public cudgeling, enrollment dropped, the institute closed, and its proprietors disbanded, taking their unsavory ideas with them to Long Island. On one hundred acres of wooded land, they rebuilt the institute with the modest aim of rectifying society’s ills.

The institute was, at least nominally, a school for hydrotherapy, or water-cure, a popular nineteenth-century health movement that rejected drugs in favor of precise bathing regimens and an ascetic lifestyle aimed at keeping the body, mind, and spirit in careful order. The school was the vision and creation of Dr. Thomas Low Nichols and his wife, Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols. She was a freethinking novelist, an early feminist, and a health reformer; he was a physician, a progressive journalist, and a social agitator. Together they amassed fervent followers and passionate detractors, synonymizing the name “Nichols” with licentiousness and radicalism.

In the years before the Civil War, America was inundated with reformist ideologies—a response to societal shifts brought on by rapid social and economic changes. The Nicholses embodied this anxiety: they embraced a smorgasbord of nineteenth-century reform movements, sampling generously from socialism, free love, spiritualism, mesmerism, phrenology, hydrotherapy, and other progressive health and social ideologies. Few radical figures were as devoted to the twin causes of individualism and love. Their ideal union was one in which plurality of love was openly embraced and each individually sovereign man and woman was “drawn together solely by the charm of a mutual attraction,” as they jointly wrote in Marriage: Its History, Character, and Results in 1854. “Such a union seems to us to constitute the true marriage of mutual love in perfect freedom.” Read More »

3 COMMENTS

No Memories

June 4, 2014 | by

Tiananmen_Square_-_20071204

Tiananmen Square in 2007. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. In 2009, The Paris Review published Liao Yiwu’s “Nineteen Days,” an essay in which he chronicles his imprisonment after the atrocity. He wasn’t there, but in his outrage he recorded a poem, which was enough to get him arrested for years. His piece is a haunting testament of a nation still struggling to reckon with the import of the event:

Three years after the massacre, I was in jail. Five years later, police were stationed in front of my house. Seven years later, there were sporadic memorial activities organized by individuals or small groups—petition letters, candlelight vigils, the burning of paper money to appease the dead, poetry readings, and hunger strikes. On the tenth anniversary, I repeated my poem “Massacre” for an overseas radio station by chanting and yelling into my telephone receiver … I remembered the story of Sun Jinxuan, a poet who died of lung cancer in late 2002. On June 4 that year, he woke up with pain. He called a dozen of his friends, most of whom were poets, writers, and celebrities. The first thing he asked on the phone was: “Do you know what day it is?” … Believe it or not, I was the only one who correctly pointed out the anniversary. Sun felt embarrassed and outraged by the answers of his friends. He yelled loudly on the phone, announcing that he intended to stage a one-person demonstration on the street. His slogan would be: “Killings, killings. No memories, no memories.”

In China, June 4 is also known as “Internet Maintenance Day”; authorities censor Weibo, a Chinese social network like Twitter, making it next to impossible for anyone to recognize or remark upon the political weight of the occasion. As a post on Language Log attests, the list of redacted words is remarkably thorough: even the usage of a simple word like today is enough to merit suppression. Subversive workarounds like “May 35,” a coded reference to June 4, are blocked, too, as are many others: Read More »

1 COMMENT