Book(s) of the Month

Since my earlier post on Phrenology, I have been reading a couple of books about similarly obscure causes which would have been part of the package of most self-respecting radicals of the the Victorian period. Both involve challenges to medical science and concerns about the rights of private citizens in the 19th century.

Lunacy and Liberty

The first is Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise. The publishers promise us “Gaslight tales of rooftop escapes, men and women snatched in broad daylight, patients shut in coffins, a fanatical cult known as the Abode of Love…” and we get our money’s worth. It deals with the regular panics about sane people being locked away in lunatic asylums in the UK. For many, the newly emerging profession of the ‘mad-doctor’ threatened the whole idea of English liberty. Using twelve detailed case-studies – not unreasonably described as ‘shocking’ – and covering issues of sexuality, inherited madness, financial greed and fraudulence, it “chillingly evokes the black motives at the heart of the phenomenon of the ‘inconvenient person”. Beautifully written, absolutely full of the forgotten and the footnoted, the book brings the Victorian period vividly to life.

inconvenient

Anti-Vaccination

The second book continues my theme within this blog of history rhyming if not repeating. There has been an upsurge over the last decade in the anti-vaccination movement around the world. Here in New Zealand, a film and a documentary series on anti-vaccination have both been partially banned from public showing. Much of the furore in recent times has been caused by the fraudulently produced work of Dr Andrew Wakefield, who made completely unfounded claims about links between autism and the MMR vaccine, which led to him being struck off the medical register in the UK. But in the 19th century the anti-vaccine movement – mostly battling against the introduction of compulsory smallpox vaccination – was a substantial part of a package of causes tackling the burgeoning science and health professions. Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England ((1853-1907) by Nadja Durbach is a very insightful look at this earlier occurrence of concerns over vaccination, but considering it within the much broader context of concerns about the safety of the body and the role of the modern state, and specifically issues of government intervention in the private lives of its citizens. An excellent analysis from the past with great relevance to the present.

bodily

Posted in Books, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Guest Post

This is a contribution from Dave George, an Australian historian who wrote a PhD thesis on a now forgotten English radical John Baxter Langley. In this post he introduces one of my favourite types of characters, the Victorian Scoundrel

Count Alexander Vitaliamo Borromeo

The story of Count Alexander Vitaliamo Borromeo was heroic, romantic and inspiring. An exiled Italian aristocrat – descended from the owners of the Borromean islands in the Lago Maggiore – he was also a veteran of the Crimean war (it was said his limp was the result of a Russian bullet) and had fought for the revolutionary Risorgimento regime in its doomed defence of Rome. Wanted by the Austrian police he sought sanctuary in England and founded a clandestine alliance of Italian nationalists, ‘exiles from their native lands, driven out of it by the oppression of its tyrants.’ Unlike the radical groups inspired by Mazzini and Garibaldi, members of Borromeo’s group were wealthy, educated and respectable patriots. Regular conferences were held in the capital with delegates attending from across Europe. The Count had sworn never to divulge their location, as ‘the police spies of the hateful Italian potentates were everywhere, even in London’ but he offered to relay details to British journalists for a small financial recompense. Such inside information on the Italian underground was valuable and many newspapers, including The Times, Morning Advertiser, Morning Herald and the Morning Star immediately accepted his offer. The arrangement went well. Reports were delivered on time and in person and newspapers gave their readers details of the new movement’s achievements. For Borromeo the regular press coverage allowed him to petition sympathetic industrialists and members of parliament to secure further pecuniary support. Liberal MP and future Viceroy of India, Viscount Goderich and the ‘Dandy Demagogue’ Thomas Duncombe, member for Finsbury, both publically endorsed his organisation.

But then things went wrong. An Irish sub-editor at the Star remarked that – for an Italian – the Count spoke with a surprisingly strong Cork accent. It was also pointed out that Signor Correnti, a prominent conference attendee, could not have been present as he was addressing the Turin parliament on the day in question. Furthermore, several would-be delegates complained to the paper that they had tried to locate the meetings and found only an empty building. In truth, the conferences did not exist and Count Alexander Vitaliamo Borromeo was an Irish swindler named Charles Tucker. Challenged by the manager of the Morning Star, Baxter Langley, Tucker/Borromeo made excuses, promised to escort his accuser to a conference, failed to do so and disappeared. When he was eventually tracked down it was not as an Italian nobleman but as ‘Dr Tucker – Electro-Biologist’ performing on stage at the Theatre Royal in Reading. According to a handbill he promised to ‘deprive his audience, at their will, of their hearing, speaking or acting’ and even ‘forget their own names.’ A police officer accompanied by Langley apprehended the fraudster mid-show. On May 12, 1858 he was found guilty of obtaining monies under false pretences at the Middlesex Session and sentenced to a year in prison. This was to be only the beginning of his travails.

During the trial Tucker was confronted by a man named Charles Sadler. Sadler reported to the court that Tucker had married his sister Mary Anne 16 years previously. He had been known at this time as Charles Tucker de St Hilaire. After four years of living as man and wife ‘St Hilaire’ had mysteriously disappeared. Also present in court was a woman named Anna Maria Frogett. She had met Tucker in Preston in 1846. At this time he had claimed to be a French exile named Marco Emile de St Hilaire. After a whirlwind romance they had eloped to Gretna Green. Five years later Tucker had again vanished leaving her to care for their young daughter Madelina. A third wife, named Margaret Murray also gave testimony. She knew Tucker as Alessandro Jiriano Borromeo and had married him in Sligo, Ireland, in 1853. Evidence of a fourth wife named Henrietta Amelia Shelley was also provided. Tucker had conducted their marriage ceremony himself in the family’s living room. This, he had assured her, was an established custom in his Italian homeland. Faced with overwhelming evidence Tucker was convicted on two counts of bigamy and was sentenced to a further four years in prison.

I have been tracking Tucker’s exploits for several years but there is a good deal more for me to discover. He worked as a Chartist lecturer for a time, a fact that caused fury when mentioned to the movement’s leader Ernest Jones. In Bradford he established ‘The Educational Band of Brotherhood’ to improve the lot of the working classes. The ’Brotherhood’ failed to survive Tucker running away with its finances. As Henry Charles Smethwick he was again arrested in 1865, which presumably came as a surprise to the 16 year-old girl he was engaged to. As for the wound received while serving in the Crimean War, the Penny illustrated Paper suggested a rather more pedestrian explanation. He had been caught cheating at cards and a disgruntled player had taken him outside to inflict retribution. ‘It was’ the paper reported, ‘not the first time he had cheated’.

Posted in Guest Post, People | 4 Comments

You need your brain examined

Looking back to the 19th century, there were many social and political causes that now seem, at best, curious and at worst bizarre and ridiculous. As science and capitalism progressed, they brought all sorts of questions, debates and answers. With a further 100 years of ‘progress’, it is easy to look at the answers with disbelief, contempt or self-satisfied humour. One of the most obvious is Phrenology.

1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog

Phrenology focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the notion that certain areas of the brain – about 40 in total – have localized, specific functions. Furthermore, it proposed that these functions could be ascertained by measuring the bumps and indentations in your skull. First developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, in 1796, it was very popular in the UK and the US throughout the 19th century, even though it had been scientifically discredited by 1840. For an interesting summary, see:

http://www.historyofphrenology.org.uk/overview.htm#whatdidtheydo

As I research popular politics in the latter part of that century, I keep bumping into phrenology in the most unlikely places. In 1850 the radical Wilhelm Liebknecht arrived in London, became a member of the German Workers’ Education Society, and was vetted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Liebknecht claimed that, when he was interviewed by Marx, “he not only examined me with questions, but also with his fingers, making them dance over my skull in a connoisseur’s style. Later on he arranged for a regular investigation by the phrenologist of the party.” I have also uncovered detailed phrenological reports on Charles Bradlaugh (the secularist MP for Northampton), Henry George (the radical American political economist), and the founding post of this blog, John De Morgan.

IMG_3746

The reports are all reasonably insightful on the virtues and flaws of these individuals, offering advice on self-improvement. To the 21st century eye, they look suspiciously like the reports of a coach or mentor (or even a counsellor), rather than scientific studies of the head and brain. John De Morgan’s report is a good example. Done by someone who was also a political ally and who knew De Morgan well, the report concluded that his physical power was limited while his mental power was above average; that he had a restless brain and preferred subtlety to brute force; that he had too little of the Scotchman to become rich; was large in self-esteem, fond of praise, and high in the organ of Hope; but had too much imagination, was too easily effected by public opinion, and used his heart rather than his head. Surprisingly for a man who spent much of his life in the public gaze, the report concluded that he was fitted by nature for the studio or cloister, but more realistically that he was an initiator rather than a follower. Much of this makes sense in terms of what we know about the man.

Phrenology also attracted such notable figures as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, President James Garfield,  Honoré de Balzac, Charlotte and Emily Bronté, George Eliot, and Otto von Bismark. Queen Victoria employed a phrenologist to look the royal children’s cranial bumps.

The successful popularization of phrenology was partly due to the idea that scientific knowledge was important and that embracing it was a sign of sophistication and modernity. It became popular with the masses because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were in harmony with the liberal Victorian world view. It was also seen as a tool for self-improvement and upward mobility, while providing fodder for attacks on aristocratic privilege through reformist rather than revolutionary action. As its later critics noted, however, it was also underpinned by racist assumptions.

Phrenology was particularly popular in the U.S. fitting in well with the emergent view of the American dream, and the belief that a humble past did not preclude future success. The brain was portrayed as something like a muscle that could be exercised and which offered the opportunity to improve your life through simple solutions. By the second half of the 19th century it had become a commercial success, spreading throughout people’s lives. Phrenologists would test couples for compatibility, potential suitors for marriage, and job applicants for different positions. Lorenzo and Orson Fowler dominated the business, successfully marketing the idea, setting up phrenology clinics, selling phrenological pamphlets and supplies and, and establishing the American Phrenological Journal which ran from in 1838 to 1911. As a result phrenology’s popularity outlasted its scientific credibility by 60 years or more.

In the 21st century, the ridicule that eventually led to phrenology’s demise, has been tempered by an acceptance that – in its assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain – it was both influential in the development of 19th-century psychology, and , an important historical advance toward 21st century neuropsychology. As Erika Jarika commented in The Atlantic in 2014:

“The 19th-century fascination with the brain isn’t all that far removed from our modern obsession with the mind. We have once again elevated the brain to cultish status, celebrating and perhaps even aggrandizing its power and purpose to shape the world and ourselves. Many of us continue to hope, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of human nature that, once known, will allow for personal improvement and transformation….And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro”…. a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation….It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/the-shape-of-your-head-and-the-shape-of-your-mind/282578/

Posted in Echoes | Leave a comment

Cartoon of the Week: Cartoon Characters

dmcartoon

In the UK in the late 19th century, political cartoons were prolifically pasted around a constituency during an election. This is one of 270 in a spectacular collection held by Leeds Public Library. It shows a third party candidate – John De Morgan (whose biography appears on this blog) – being supposedly offered money by the Conservative candidates to split the Liberal vote. The election went so badly for De Morgan (he withdrew) that, within a couple of months, he emigrated to the US. For some excellent insights to these cartoons by Anthony Ramm, see:

https://secretlibraryleeds.net/2016/05/

 

 

Posted in Cartoons | Leave a comment

Cartoons of the Week: US Immigration in the 1890s

Image result for judge magazine 1890

The Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site, from Judge magazine 1890.

history.png

Above a group of prosperous Americans refuse entry to a new immigrant, while the shadows of their own immigrant past watch over. From Puck magazine 1893

Image result for judge magazine 1890

And finally, entitled “Who is to Blame”, from Judge magazine 1891

 

Posted in Cartoons | Leave a comment

Cartoon of the Week: Going to the Opera in 2000 (a view from 1882)

Source: The Public Domain Review. This is a great site, see http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/page/16/?time=19th-century

 

Posted in Cartoons, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cartoon of the Week: Skype in 1879

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Trumpery and Fake News

The surname Trump is a burden that the US President must carry with him, and he must be used to hearing about ‘trumpery’. He will probably discard it as ‘fake news’. Given his track record on understanding history, he will be almost certainly unaware of the long history of both ideas.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, identified three senses to trumpery: something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems; falsehood, empty talk; something of no value; trifles. Earlier, and more concisely, the Dictionarium Bratannicum called it “Trash, sorry, pitiful, paultry Stuff.”

Over the centuries it has also been used to refer to weeds, people (especially women of doubtful character), religious matters (especially those that are superstitious in nature), and generally worthless things in a broad sense.

In the 19th century, the word became attached to the burgeoning newspaper industry. In the 1870s, Albert Sorel, the French historian, said that “Our trumpery newspapers are the newspapers that pay.” Later in the century, the editor of the ‘Nation’ in the US wrote that “The journalist’s business was not to make life moral, but to make it interesting; to furnish raw material for preacher and moralist to use” but cautioned – over optimistically – that “the trumpery side of the Press must sooner or later go, for we could not afford to keep it.”

The emergence of newspapers more interested in sensation than facts grew rapidly with the new technologies of the 19th century and it was not long before ‘fake news’ became a focus of attention, as this section of an 1894 Puck cartoon.

SnipImage (0000000C)

Ironically, among the greatest purveyors of this sort of journalism – what was often called ‘Yellow Journalism’ – was Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World. For more on this read: https://daily.jstor.org/to-fix-fake-news-look-to-yellow-journalism/ and http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/yellow-journalism-the-fake-news-of-the-19th-century/.

This is yet another example of Mark Twain’s reputed claim that “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Mr Wilde’s Thrilling Legs”

Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour around the US in 1882 is well known and oft-mentioned and hardly a footnote. It was a considerable commercial success and the stories of him endearing himself to a wide range of audiences including Colorado miners are standard. However, he received a deluge of vitriol and criticism from the press wherever he went, and this has received less attention.

Image

In a piece in the Brooklyn Eagle in January 1882, entitled “Mr Wilde’s Thrilling Legs”, Wilde, ‘estheticism’, the British aristocracy and indeed Britain itself, were ridiculed and reviled in a way that was reasonably typical of the response of newspapers.

Beginning with his appearance, it noted that ‘this intense young’ was well known for ‘a habit of wearing very decollete shirts, and exposing to an extent considered at least unconventional, the snowy whiteness of his chest, but it was not expected that he would abbreviate his nether garments to any extent in order to display the symmetrical beauty of his legs’. His enlarged ‘lappels’, knee breeches, black silk stockings, and silver buckles had the desired effect on the ‘rapturous maidens of both sexes whose eager eyes danced from his legs to his beautiful throat and back again’. This, commented the Eagle, ‘undoubtedly afforded a rich treat, overwhelming their most disordered and extravagant anticipations by his revelations of carnal beauty.’

The reporter was less overwhelmed than the audience either by the orator or the set. Of the latter, he noted that: ‘The walls were of pink, relieved with preposterous Cupids Indulging in impossible feats of agility and marksmanship….From an antique bronze pitcher placed upon an ebony a sunflower of unhealthy appearance rose above a collection of choice ferns and grasses’. He appeared even less impressed by Wilde himself who ‘read in a dull monotone, failing of emphasis, neglectful of his periods and drawling altogether as if he bad been down the road or somewhere else and caught a bad cold’.

The Eagle made much of Wilde as a reflection of the dissolution and decline of those living on the other side of the Atlantic. Convinced that Wilde was a ‘sincere flamboyant imbecile’ rather than the ‘keen witted satirist’ his agents marketed him as, they easily found explanations for him in the behaviour of a British aristocracy whose minds were ‘enfeebled with generations of wantoness and idleness’ and whose ‘worn out, exhausted natures concentrate themselves on the languid adoration of formal beauty’. And these needs for a cult of beauty were, proclaimed the Eagle, met by the ‘Swinburnes, Rossettis, Burne Jones and a pack of people who are never happy unless they are reading erotic verses or looking at the bare arms and legs of professional beauties’. The pleasant vices of Rome, it said, were being revived in Europe.

Wilde was therefore a symptom of this, a charlatan and a boor who ‘has come across the water to scoop in the dollars of credulous and curious Americans’. Noting that the ‘fervidly fervid’ response of the audiences was ‘too too’ and ‘utterly utterly’ silly, the Eagle looked forward to Mr Wilde’s eventual departure, on his well developed calves’, to Australia, hopefully never to return.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Opening Ceremony

The Auckland University of Technology celebrated its tenth year as a University in 2010, but is always keen to remind everyone that it has a history stretching back to the late nineteenth century when it was set up as Auckland Technical School. The institution was officially opened on 10th June 1895.

There had in fact been an Auckland Technical School as early as 1888. An advert for such a School in the Auckland Star of March that year, announced classes in Applied Mechanics and the Steam Engine taking place on Wellesley Street. The teacher was a Mr Walter I Robinson. At a prize giving ceremony it was noted that practical education was not inferior to literary education and ‘it was absolutely necessary that our youth should have the opportunity of becoming inventors and discoverers’. By 1894, clearly not having established a workload allocation policy for himself, Mr Robinson was teaching architectural drawing, construction as well as applied mechanics. Having however developed some 21st century style marketing expertise, the new advertisement noted optimistically that “First Class Honours” were available in these subjects. By now Mr Robinson, with remarkable foresight, was suggesting that a School of Design should be established in Auckland.

Mr Robinson has disappeared from the formal history of AUT which officially starts with the opening ceremony in 1895 in a new three storey School in Rutland Street (formerly Foster’s Boot Factory). Reading the Star’s report of the ceremony, the gap of 105 years between the opening of the school and the establishment of the university, doesn’t seem quite so great as you might imagine.

The School was formally opened by the President of the Council, Sir George Maurice O’Rorke (MP for Manukau) in front of a large gathering of were what described as influential citizens (an old fashioned term for ‘stakeholders’).

Sir Maurice O’Rorke, AKA George

Sir Maurice (before he was knighted, he was George) noted that the opening of a Technical School had been discussed for many years, notably with Auckland University College, the Grammar School, as well as the Board of Education. The Board of Education considered that technical education might possibly be a supplement to the ‘scientific teachers and well-stocked laboratories of the University College’. The University College itself thought technical education would be good for those people who wanted to go to night school, ie the working classes. The Grammar School, while claiming to want to assist the cause, ‘entertained a delicacy lest the new School should encroach on the proper functions of academic education’.

The establishment of the School was based on a public subscription (what we would now call sponsorship) and had raised $120 which was supplemented pound for pound by the Government. A humble beginning  commented the Star, contrasting this money with the much bigger amounts spent on technical education overseas.

100 students had enrolled for Freehand Drawing; algebra and geometry; mechanical drawing and machine and building construction; coachbuilding; architectural drawing; wood carving; plumbing; cookery; and dressmaking: in modern parlance engineering, hospitality, design and fashion.

Sir Maurice went on to explain the meaning of technical education. There was, he asserted, no antagonism between technical education and general education. Indeed, he would go one step further and say that if students did not acquire some technical education, their progress in life would be impeded at every turn. Referring to his audience, he noted that ‘they were men who brought their practical knowledge to bear on the subject and lifted the subject out of the hand of theorists and breathed the breath of life into it.’

He did think there could be strong links with the University College with students from the school being able to go to the university to ‘reap the advantages of an academic education that was imparted by gentlemen: the professors of physics, chemistry, electricity, botany, geology, agriculture and astronomy’.

Showing a distinct lack of understanding of branding, mission or strategic development, he concluded that ‘I entertain no hope that the school is going to strike out any new path for itself, or that it was to become a shining light in the firmament of technical education though, as with many after him, he did advise all those connected to the school to look to America, Europe and Australia for inspiration.

A few weeks earlier there had been the first general meeting of the subscribers of the Auckland Technical School Association with the Mayor presiding, in effect AUT’s first Strategic Retreat. After a great deal of time discussing the purposes of the school, a constitution was adopted in what was called a ‘slightly’ amended form to that originally proposed. The amendment was ‘to confine the object of the institution to provide technical education merely and eliminate from the syllabus all those subjects included under the term ‘general education’. A reminder for us all that apparently minor events, slight amendments  – and, particularly, long meetings – can change history.

The late 19th century was, of course, a very different context, However, for those who believe that the changing world is restricted to the 21st century, the 1895 advert for the Technical School appeared next to another advert which noticed the great success of the wondrous new invention, the typewriter, which had caused a ‘revolution’ among business men ‘who are no longer the slaves of the pen’. Sedately reminiscent of the hyperbole around the iPad, the Auckland Star had commented 20 years earlier that: ‘In this age, when practically there are no bounds to the flight of inventive genius…our American cousins have accomplished great things..including the writing machine…a very ingenious apparatus…and a perfect substitute for the pen…meeting the necessity of the age’.

Looking back to that opening ceremony provides an interesting, if sometimes salutary reminder. It reminds us that we are always surrounded by the echoes of our history, not always clear and loud but part of the fabric. It reminds us that we ourselves are mostly the footnotes of the next century. That isn’t a cause for existential angst. It is how history works. Without the millions of footnotes, the heroes (and villains) would get nowhere. And finally the world was changing just as much a century ago, and undoubtedly the century before that. But while there have been huge changes both to the School/University and the society in which it is embedded over the last century, there are always some things which change slowly, if at all.

Posted in Events, Organisations | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment