Sawney Bean

Sometimes Wikipedia is a real buzzkill.

When we were last in Edinburgh, I heard the legend of Sawney Bean for the first time.  According to the legend, some time during the reign of James I, there lived in East Lothian a man named Sawney Bean.  Born to honest people, Sawney Bean was an idle sot, and when he met a likewise evil woman, they ran away together and took up residence in a cave on the sea in Galloway.  There they set to breeding.

Eventually, they produced a large family (Wikipedia puts it at “eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters,” an impressive and creepy brood when you consider it was just the two of them).  And to feed this growing family, the committedly unemployed Mr. and Mrs. Bean would kidnap, murder, and eat local travellers.  

It’s not known exactly how many people met this fate – estimates range from several hundreds to over a thousand.  Whatever the number, it seems to have taken the local authorities a surprisingly long time to figure out what was going on, and to organize effective resistance.  Several innocents, innkeepers in particular, came under suspicion and were executed for the Bean Family’s crimes; yet the disappearances continued, and body parts kept washing up around the caves in Galloway.

One night, the Bean crew attacked a man and his wife on their way back from a fair on horseback.  The woman was dragged to the ground and ripped to shreds, but before they could kill the man, they were interrupted by a crowd of fair-goers, who chased off the Beans and reported their existence to the magistrate.  News then reached the King, who organized a search party over 400 strong.

When this party located the Beans’ cave, they found human limbs, from men, women, and children, hanging from hooks to dry.  Human bones were everywhere.  The Bean family was taken in its entirety into custody and transported to Leith.

It was decided that the Beans did not require due process, and so they were executed right away.  The men were castrated, their hands and feet were cut off, and they were left to bleed to death.  The women were forced to watch, and were then burned alive.

The legend of Sawney Bean is close to the heart of the Edinburgh tourist industry, and they make a very good show of it around town.  However, when I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was archly informed that “historians tend to believe that Sawney Bean never existed, or that his story has been greatly exaggerated”.  Well, fine.  That’s one less monster to believe in.


Don’t Read ‘Mein Kampf’ – Read Clive James

    “God does not rule the world outwardly by gravitation and chemical affinity, but inwardly in the heart of man: as in your soul, so will the destiny of the world in which you live and do.”  – Egon Friedell

If one ever attempts to read Hitler’s writings (and, for heaven’s sake, don’t – take my word for it), one is bound to be impressed by how boring he was.  There is an astounding amount of scholarship on the subjects of Hitler’s personality and thinking, an abundance which is puzzling when you consider that he left an entire book for us on the subject.  Crack open Mein Kampf and the need for all that scholarship becomes clear: the man was basically incoherent.

Which is maybe better for everyone – Hitler’s ideas were toxic and demented and the world would have been better off without them.  But we run a risk if we forget them: we need to be able to recognize them if we see them again.  And to do that, we need to understand them.

All this was brought to mind by something that Clive James wrote in his late-life masterwork, Cultural Amnesia:

“Hitler needed no telling that there were a lot of brilliant Jews from whom German-speaking culture had gained lustre.  That was what he was afraid of: of a bacillus being called clever, and of the phosphorescence of decay being hailed as an illumination.”

It is worth noting that, while this may in fact be what Hitler thought, he could never have expressed it so well.  And though it is impossible to read James and not be grateful for his lucidity of thought, it pains one to see Hitler’s thoughts expressed so well.  They do not deserve so graceful a presentation.

That quote is taken from James’ essay on Egon Friedell.  Friedell was a Jewish actor and writer living in Vienna in the first half of the twentieth century.  James may indeed understand Hitler’s thinking; Friedell certainly did: during the Anschluss, as the S.S. came down his street to arrest him, he jumped out his window to his death, shouting as he did to the pedestrians below to warn them to safety.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia really is a wonderful book, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in twentieth century history, the arts, or the general emotional arc of humanity.


Tips for Avoiding the Black Death

Plague Doctor

From People Who Were There

  • Plague is carried by “miasmic air”, so avoid the coast – miasmic air might waft off the sea.
  • Avoid marshes and windy places for the same reason.
  • Burn nice-smelling woods and plants to drive off the miasmic air: ash, juniper, musk, cyprus, laurel, rosemary.
  • Likewise, fill your home with flowers.
  • Bad smells also compete with and drive off miasmic air, so hang over the latrine and breathe deeply.
  • Sprinkle rose-water and vinegar on the floor of your house.
  • Carry around an apple – smell that.
  • Live in a house that faces north.
  • Avoid lepers – they are jealous and may try to poison you.
  • Lie around – do not exercise. When you exercise, you breathe more heavily and will breathe more miasmic air.
  • For this reason, definitely do not have sex, under any circumstances.
  • Don’t sleep on your back.
  • Don’t sleep after eating.
  • Speaking of eating, don’t eat fish – they come from the miasmic sea.
  • Don’t eat hard-boiled eggs.
  • Don’t eat lettuce.
  • If you must eat, mix ten-year-old treacle with wine and chopped snake – eat that.
  • Grind an emerald into powder so strong that “if a toad looked at it, its eyes would crack” – eat that.
  • If you must drink, mix a drink of lemon, rose-water, peppermint, and apple-syrup – drink that.
  • Mix one ounce of gold with eleven ounces of quicksilver over heat, “let the quicksilver escape”, add forty-seven ounces of water of borage, store for three days over heat in an air-tight container, then drink that.
  • Take an amethyst, etch onto it a picture of man bowing and holding a snake, its head in his right hand, and its tail in his left. Set the amethyst in a gold ring. Wear that.
  • Definitely do not bathe.
  • If you must wash, only wash your hands with vinegar or rose-water.
  • Get bled – try to give eight pounds of blood.
  • Even though everyone around you is dying, don’t get sad. This makes you more susceptible to the miasma.
  • And above all, stay calm.

For all of the listed proscriptions, read Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death.

Image from wikipedia.


The Society for the Suppression of Eating

     H.L. Mencken once famously described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.  It would be easy to assume that Mencken, who was often accurate but almost never fair, was exaggerating for humorous effect, but perhaps he had encountered the Society for the Suppression of Eating.

     Most of the evidence on the Society for the Suppression of Eating has, like the society itself, vanished from the face of the earth, but tantalizing clues remain.

     The Society was created in 1832, in Boston, by a man whose name has been lost to posterity, but who has been described as “a gloomy New Englander” and a “misanthrope”.

     Two quotes are ascribed to this elusive Bostonian:  “When I go to a dinner party, I see the incarnate forms of gout, apoplexy and fever coaxing their victims to take one more slice”, and the more succinct and menacing, “Disease lurks behind every sirloin”.

     The Society seems to have been very focused – they had only five articles:

     a) To obtain from the Massachusetts Medical Society a statement of the quantity of food most convenient for a healthy man.

     b) Offer a premium for the best treatise setting forth the pernicious effects of over-eating.

     c) Members shall pledge to go without dinner once a week.

     Which is particularly stringent when considered against:

     d) No member shall eat more than once a day.

     e) No member shall eat after 8 at night.

     The Society for the Suppression of Eating was merely an extreme manifestation of the impulse to temperance that swept America in the mid-19th century and which culminated in the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

     Still, prohibiting the consumption of alcohol is one thing – suppressing eating is another.  The unpopularity of the Society for the Suppression of Eating can probably be adjudged by the near absence of information available on it.  The last mention of the Society appears in the November 5th edition of The Day, from 1937:

     “When last heard from the Society was not flourishing.”

For more, check the Reading List

‘A Disgrace to Civilization’

     On March 29th, 1889, William Kemmler murdered his common-law wife, Matilda Ziegler, with a hatchet.  A little over one year later, on August 6th, 1890, he became the first person to be electrocuted in an electric chair.

     Kemmler was a very public casualty of the War of the Currents, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for the future of American electricity.  Edison favored the direct current (DC), which he had developed; Westinghouse produced alternating current (AC), which had several distinct advantages over DC, most particularly its ability to travel over long distances more efficiently at higher voltages.

     Edison went to great lengths in his campaign against AC.  He invented stories about people being electrocuted by AC.  He tried to convince people to refer to death by electrocution as “Westinghousing”.  He had his assistants hold public demonstrations during which they “westinghoused” stray cats and dogs with AC.  Finally, he arranged for the creation of an AC-powered electric chair for state executions, in the hope that it would persuade the general public of the lethality of AC electricity.

     The chair itself was designed by Harold P. Brown.  Brown worked for an electric company that used DC electricity, and he threw his lot in with Edison against AC.  The chair, as it was eventually assembled by Edwin Davis, the ‘State Electrician’, had two electrodes, one to be placed on the top of the head, and the other to be placed on the back.

The Kemmler Electric Chair

The Kemmler Electric Chair

     The day before the execution, the chair was successfully tested on a horse (the logistics of which tax the imagination).  On the day of, Kemmler, dressed in a suit and tie, was taken into the execution chamber at 6:38 a.m.  He apparently remained composed, even while the warden cut a hole in the back of his suit for the second electrode.  When he was all strapped in, the warden said, “Goodbye, William”, the signal to turn on the current.

     Accounts differ on the exact voltage to which Kemmler was subjected, and for how long.  From somewhere between seventeen and fifty seconds, anything from seven hundred to seventeen hundred volts of AC electricity coursed through Kemmler.  He smoked, gasped, and passed out.  The attending physician, Dr. Edward Spitzka, declared him dead.

     When several attending witness noticed that Kemmler was still breathing, Spitzka revised his diagnosis.  A second current, of one thousand thirty to two thousand volts, was initiated.  The New York Times described it thus:

“Blood began to appear on the face of the wretch in the chair.  It stood on the face like sweat…But there was worse than that.  An awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing.  The stench was unbearable.”

     In all, Kemmler remained in the chair for eight minutes from the first moment the current was turned on.

     A subsequent autopsy found that, despite the imperfect nature of the procedure, Kemmler had become unconscious during the first instants of electrocution, and that death had been painless.  The autopsy also indicated that the skin contact of the electrode on Kemmler’s head had been obstructed by his hair, which Kemmler had refused to cut.  The electrode on his back had been insufficiently wetted; according to the New York Times,

“The result was a terrible burning of the back clear through to the spine.  The skin in contact had been burned to a black cinder and the flesh above had been cooked until yellow, while the inner tissues had been baked.”

     Despite these hiccups, many considered Kemmler’s execution a success; indeed, it was hailed as an humanitarian triumph.  Proponents offered that it represented a significant improvement over hanging, which often took fifteen to thirty minutes to choke the life out of its victims.

     The New York Times was not convinced.  In an editorial dated August 7th, 1890, it wrote,

“A sacrifice to the whims and theories of the coterie of cranks and politicians who induced the Legislature of this State to pass a law supplanting hanging by electrical execution was offered to-day [sic] in the person of William Kemmler, the Buffalo murderer.  He died this morning under the most revolting circumstances, and with his death there was placed to the discredit of the State of New York an execution that was a disgrace to civilization.”

 Image taken from The Times

I first encountered the story of William Kemmler and the Society for the Suppression of Eating, oddly enough, in Bill Bryson’s fabulous Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.

Without Blandishments

     Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (called Stupor Mundi, ‘Wonder of the World’, and not to be confused with Frederick I, Barbarossa), reigned from 1220 A.D. to 1250 A.D., and was, apparently, of a scientific bent.  His experiments were recorded by a monk, Salimbene di Adam, who met Frederick and whose admiration for the Emperor was moderated heavily by the fact that he considered him a heretic.  One of the experiments concerned natural language.  Frederick wanted to know what man’s original language was, the language imparted to man in the Garden, the language of man before Babel.  Accordingly, he took several infants and put them alone in rooms, making sure that they would be adequately fed, clothed, cleaned, and warmed.  However, so that their language development might remain pristine, he bade the

     “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born.  But he labored in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”  

     Without nurturing and affection, the children all withered and died.

     The quotation can be found several places, most easily Wikipedia.