November 23, 2013 Holodomor

Successful farmers, the “Kulaks”, were branded as “class enemies”, an early example of the “fix and ridicule” technique Saul Alinsky would write about years later, in his “Rules for Radicals”.

In the 18th century, our Founding Fathers gave us a self-governing Republic, where authority is delegated upward from an informed electorate, and centered on individual liberty, diffuse authority, and checks & balances. Without such a system of self-government, we’d be left with a political game of chance, in which our future depends on the character of a small and too often self-dealing ruling class.

The 20th century was a time when one malignant governing model after another would assert itself, often leaving death and misery along its path to self-destruction.

These were the top down, authoritarian ideologies, where individual liberty was subsumed by the collective, and cosmic chance was all that separated benign governance from murderous authoritarianism.

Always what comes first is the Balkanization, the identification and ostracizing of one group or another as separate and apart. The Untermenschen. The Other.

You saw this principle take shape during the Chinese Communist regime of the forties through the sixties, when the “cultural revolution” killed between 40 and 70 million of its own citizens.

You’re really playing in the big leagues, when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest 30 million.

killing fieldsIn the “Killing Fields” of 1975-’79 Cambodia, Pol Pot and a cadre of nine or so individuals, the Ang-Ka, led the Khmer Rouge in the extermination of between 1.7 and 2.5 million, in a country of barely 8 million.

The ideological underpinnings of this kind of madness vary between regimes, but they tend to have more in common than they do of what separates them. Communism is a murderous, authoritarian, collectivist ideology with international aspirations and class obsessions. Naziism is a likewise murderous, authoritarian, and collectivist ideology, this one having nationalist aspirations and ethnic obsessions.

The Nazi holocaust of the thirties and forties is well documented, the 1914 genocide of Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire, less so. One of the least well known in this parade of horribles is the policy of extermination by starvation carried out by the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, against the population of Ukraine.  Some called it “Famine-Genocide”, or the “Terror-Famine”.   In time, the deliberate starvation of millions by their own government, came to be known as the “Holodomor”.

Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, took power in Russia before the end of WWI. By 1922 they had formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In 1928, Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the region, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

holodomor-3Many Ukrainian farmers refused to join the collectives, regarding them as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin introduced “class warfare”, that age old bugaboo of the Left, to break down resistance to collectivization.

Successful farmers, the “Kulaks”, were branded as “class enemies”, an early example of the “fix and ridicule” technique Saul Alinsky would write about years later, in his “Rules for Radicals”.

Armed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Almost half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-31, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia, where they were often left without food or shelter. Many of these, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to simultaneously meet quota and feed themselves. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked. Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists were brought in from other regions to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Holodomor-BoysEventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the backbone of the region, the rural population of Ukraine.

At the height of this political famine, Ukrainians were dying at the rate of 22,000 a day, almost a third of them children 10 and under. When it was done, an estimated 6 to 10 million Ukrainian citizens were murdered by their own government, through starvation, deportation, and outright execution.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to have saved every starving man, woman and child. Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, the first use of what historian Robert Conquest called the “Big Lie” technique of Soviet propaganda.

Stalin had willing and complicit support in his lies, from leftists like Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with contributions like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”.

To this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Duranty’s Pulitzer.

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“Bitter memories of childhood”, Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukrainians recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, symbolized by a simple statue in Kiev.  A little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a handful of wheat stalks.  On this day in 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych addressed his people, marking the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor.  “Today, a little candle flame unites us in a prayer for the souls of the Holodomor victims. We also remember those who shared the last piece of bread and saved the lives of compatriots. Our duty is to carry the memory of those dreadful events forever in our hearts. We also must do everything to prevent such a tragedy in the future.”

Here in the United States, you could question 100 randomly selected individuals.  I don’t believe that five of them could tell you what Holodomor means.  We are a self-governing Republic.  All 100 should be conversant with the term.

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Ukranian president Petro Poroshenko vists a monument to Holodomor victims in Kiev, November 2016. (Reuters photo: Valentyn Ogirenko)

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November 22, 1923 Black Tom Explosion

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

In the early months of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the seas of the Kaiser’s ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, and more than a hundred German ships sought refuge in US harbors.

maxresdefaultThe blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas, while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash, but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

To the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral countries were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

Guards discovered a series of small fires around 2:00am. Some of them tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation massive enough to be estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale.  People from Maryland to Connecticut were awakened in what they thought was an earthquake. The walls of Jersey City’s City Hall were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan.  Damage done to the Statue of Liberty alone was valued at over $2 million in today’s dollars. To this day, the ladder to the Statue of Liberty’s torch, remains off limits to visitors.

Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.

black-tom-island-explosionThe explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

Among those responsible for the Black Tom explosion was Naval Lieutenant Lothar Witzke, arrested on February 1, 1918, in Nogales, AZ. Witzke was convicted by court martial and sentenced to death, though President Wilson would later commute the sentence to life.

By 1923, most countries were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A prison report from Leavenworth shows Witzke heroically risking his life in prison, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released.  Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923, and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

 

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November 21, 1942 The Alcan Highway

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

Discussions of a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The idea picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but it was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, but the Canadian government felt the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States and Canada.

alcan-highway

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed.  Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had only 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas. Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

Alcan Lake

The US Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February, the project receiving the blessing of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the US pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Alcan_constructionConstruction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

Alcan BridgeThe project had a new sense of urgency in June, when Japanese forces landed on Kiska and Attu Islands, in the Aleutian chain. Adding to that urgency was that there is no more than an eight month construction window, before the return of the deadly Alaskan winter.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rockies had not even been identified yet.

Radios didn’t work across the Rockies and there was only erratic mail and passenger service on the Yukon Southern airline, a run that locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. It was faster for construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to their assigned locations was one thing, moving 11,000 pieces of construction equipment, to say nothing of the supplies needed by man and machine, was another.

Tent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant they woke up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day, and bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Alcan TerrainEngines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground that had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

On October 25, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line, when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. He slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

Sims, Jalufka

They celebrated the route’s completion at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942, though the “highway” remained unusable by most vehicles, until 1943.

NPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers. I thought the old man’s comment was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

November 20, 1820  The Real Moby Dick

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked.  This one hit the port side so hard that it shook the ship.

The whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819, the month when Herman Melville was born.  The 21 man crew expected to spend 2-3 years hunting sperm whales, filling the ship’s hold with oil before returning to split the profits of the voyage.

Whaleship at seaEssex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean.  They heard that the whaling grounds near Chile and Peru were exhausted, so they sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

They were there on November 20, 1820, with two of their three boats out hunting whales.  The lookout spotted a huge bull sperm whale, much larger than normal, estimated at 85 feet long and 80 tons.  He was behaving oddly, lying motionless on the surface with his head facing the ship.  In moments the whale began to move, picking up speed as he charged the ship.  Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked.  This one hit the port side so hard that it shook the ship.

Wreck of the whale ship Essex

The huge animal seemed dazed by the impact, floating to the surface and resting by the ship’s side.  He then turned and swam away for several hundred yards, before turning to resume his attack.  He came in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water.  Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward.  Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

Essex_photoCaptain George Pollard’s boat was the first to make it back, and he stared in disbelief.  “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”  he asked.  “We have been stove by a whale” came the reply.

No force on earth could save the stricken whale ship. The crew divided into groups of seven and boarded the three boats.  It wasn’t long before Essex sank out of sight and they were alone, stranded in 28′ open boats, and about as far from land as it was mathematically possible to be.

The whalers believed that cannibals inhabited the Marquesa islands, 1,200 miles to the west, so they headed south, parallel to the coast of South America.  Before their ordeal was over, they themselves would become the cannibals.

With good winds, they might reach the coast of Chile in 56 days.  They had taken enough rations to last 60, provided they were distributed at starvation levels, but most of it had been ruined by salt water.  There was a brief reprieve in December, when the three small boats landed on a small island in the Pitcairn chain.  There they were able to get their fill of birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass, but within a week the island was stripped clean.  They decided to move on, except for three who refused to get back in the boats.

EssexThey never knew that this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island, where survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty had managed to survive for the past 36 years.

After two months at sea, the boats had long separated from one another.  Starving men were beginning to die, and the survivors came to an unthinkable conclusion.  They would have to eat their own dead.

When those were gone, the survivors drew lots to see who would die, that the others might live.  Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin Owen Coffin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot.   Pollard protested, offering to take his place, but the boy declined. “No”, he said, “I like my lot as well as any other.”  Again, lots were drawn to see who would be Coffin’s executioner.  Owen’s friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot.

On February 18, the British whaleship Indian spotted a boat containing Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson.  It was 90 days after Essex’ sinking.  Five days later, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin pulled alongside another boat, to find Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell inside.  The pair was so far gone that they didn’t notice at first, gnawing on the bones of their comrades.

The three who were left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  The third whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island several years later, with four skeletons on board.

The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale, though it would not be the last.  The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both attacked by whales a year later, and the Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander were sunk by whales in 1850 and 1851.

31 years after the Essex sinking, a sailor turned novelist published his sixth volume, beginning it with the words, “Call me Ishmael”.

November 19, 1904 Another Man’s Shoes

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there have been times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

One such was Iacob Somme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943. We can only imagine a world in which Nazi Germany was the first to build a nuclear bomb.  We might thank this man that that world remains entirely imaginary.

Sven SommeAnother such man was his brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother Iacob, Sven Somme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. He photographed strategic German military bases using a covert camera, sending tiny maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the stamps on letters.

In 1944, Somme was caught taking pictures of a German U-boat base on the island of Otteroy. Guards saw the sun glint off the camera’s lens, and they came running. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it and he was put in cuffs.

That night, Somme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a two months-long race between life and death.

Sven Somme, treeThe Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start, and the Nazis couldn’t let this guy get away. He knew too much. Somme was pursued through streams and ravines as he worked his way into the mountains.

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but this family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots that saved his life.

Somme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a technique he had learned as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner, dodging bears and wolves, all the while being pursued by 900 German soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

news-graphics-2007-_655294aSomme finally made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Sven Somme passed away in 1961 after a fight with cancer.  Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant written out in German and Norwegian.

Somme had written a memoir about his escape, calling it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know.  It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

November 18, 1863 Gettysburg Address

The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s remarks as “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances”, but it all came out in the end.  Lincoln’s address went into history as one of the finest pieces of English language prose since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, at Agincourt.  The names of the haters at the Chicago Times, are all but forgotten.

154 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Washington.  He’d been asked to make “a few dedicatory remarks” on the following day, dedicating the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg where, even now, workmen labored to re-inter the dead from the carnage of July.

Lincoln was the President of a country torn by Civil War, a war so terrible that, before it was over, would kill more Americans than all the wars from the Declaration of Independence to the Global War on Terror, combined.

Lincoln had been feeling poorly the day of the train ride, telling his secretary, John Hay, that he was feeling weak.  He would feel worse over the course of that day, and Hay noted that Lincoln’s face was ‘a ghastly color’ the day of the address.  No one knew it at the time, but Lincoln was in the early stages of smallpox.

gtsburgaddress2
“A rare photo of the ceremonies. A group of boys stand at the fringe of a crowd. In the distance, several men wearing sashes can be seen standing on the speakers’ platform. Analysis of an enlargement of this photo reveals the image of Lincoln sitting to the left of these men”. Tip of the hat to http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com, for this image

His was not the keynote address.  That would be a 13,607 word, two-hour oration delivered by Boston politician Edward Everett.

After Everett’s speech, photographers thought they had all the time in the world to prepare and set their glass plates.  They did not, and no photograph exists of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address.

The 16th President of the United States stepped to the rostrum and delivered 271 words, in ten sentences.  In just over two minutes, Lincoln captured an entire vision of where the country was at that moment in time, where it had been, and where it was going.

Lincoln himself thought his speech a flop, but Everett later wrote to him, saying “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

There were haters then, as now, as always prepared to fire their little spitballs.  The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s remarks as “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances”, but it all came out in the end.  Lincoln’s address went into history as one of the finest pieces of English language prose since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, at Agincourt.  The names of the haters at the Chicago Times, are all but forgotten.

Oddly, we do not know the precise form in which the President delivered his address.  Lincoln wrote his own speeches, lining out words and writing into margins as he developed his thought process.  That working copy is lost.

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“The only known image of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg was uncovered in 1952 at the National Archives. It was taken by photographer Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)” H/T Smithsonian.com, for this image

There are five known copies of the Gettysburg address, written in Lincoln’s own hand, each varying slightly in wording and punctuation.  He wrote two after the address, giving them to his two personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay.  He sent one to Edward Everett early in 1864, and another to George Bancroft, the former Secretary of the Navy turned historian.  Lincoln wrote a fifth copy, known as the Bliss copy, for Colonel Alexander Bliss, in February, upon learning that the Bancroft version was unsuitable for publication, due to its having been written on both sides of the same page.

images (11)Lincoln signed, dated and titled the Bliss copy.  This is the version inscribed on the South wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

One of my stranger childhood notions, was the idea that sounds never went away, they just diminished as they spread outward, like ripples on a pond.  If that was true (thought my nine-year-old self), could we not somehow capture and listen to the Gettysburg address, as it was actually delivered?

It’s a funny thing how some ideas, even the goofy ones, never completely die away.

For the terminal history geek, the full text of all five copies may be discovered at www.abrahamlincolnonline.org

November 17, 1558 Strange Beauty Secrets

Cleopatra bathed in the milk of donkeys, as did the 12th century Queen Isabeau of France, who followed it up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars. Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either. Novelist George Sands used to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

Popular ideas of what is beautiful have changed with time and place, but strange beauty secrets are as old as history itself.

In ancient Greece, blond hair was perceived as beautiful, probably because it was unusual. Women would lighten their hair using a mixture of ashes, olive oil & water, and sometimes arsenic.

Cleopatra bathed in the milk of donkeys, as did the 12th century Queen Isabeau of France, who followed it up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars.

During the Heian period in Japan, 794 to 1185AD, a woman’s beauty was judged by the length of her hair. The ideal was considered to be about two feet below her waist.

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“Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

The Hungarian “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory, who lived from August 7, 1560 – August 21, 1614, may have been the most prolific female serial killer in history, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins, to keep herself looking young. Her four cohorts were convicted of killing 80, while Erzsébet herself was neither tried nor convicted due to her rank. She was simply thrown in jail on her arrest in December, 1610, and left there to die, four years later.

On a considerably less macabre note, Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either. Novelist George Sands used to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

elizabeth 1
Queen Elizabeth, I

Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was crowned this day, November 17, 1588. As queen, Elizabeth followed a path taken by women for thousands of years, sporting the high forehead and daubing her face with a powder makeup called ceruse. High lead content made the practice deadly enough, but they would top it off with a rouge containing mercury, leading to an untold number of birth defects and miscarriages. It’s all but certain that the combination of lead and mercury led to her complete loss of hair. Little wonder that she was the “Virgin Queen”.

The quest for the perfect, porcelain complexion would last well into the 19th century, for which some women ate clay. Marie Antoinette and other ladies of the French Court obsessed over flawless, alabaster skin, until the end of the 18th century. They would fake it with thick layers of white powder, made from white lead, or talcum powder, or pulverized bone, whatever they could get hold of. Combined with wax, whale blubber, or vegetable oil, it had a nice, greasy consistency that stayed where they put it.

boat hairThis was a time of big hair, when hair was piled high on top of the head, powdered, and augmented with the hair of servants and pets. The do was often adorned with fabric, ribbons or fruit, sometimes holding props like birdcages complete with stuffed birds, and even miniature frigates, under sail.

It wasn’t just women’s hair, either. Fashionable European men of the 18th century wore wigs made of both animal and human hair, a practice which spread across the pond into North America. The wealthy wore longer wigs, often powdered and curled, while those who couldn’t afford them wore shorter versions, often styled into a braided ponytail.

George Edward Pickett, he of the famous charge at Gettysburg, was acclaimed for his oiled and perfumed locks. Same with the “Boy General”, the youngest Civil War General in the Union Army: George Armstrong Custer, who would anoint his hair with cinnamon oil.

pickett6q
George Pickett

Well into the 20th century, women chose between slicking their hair down with a greasy brilliantine, or spraying it with shellac dissolved in an admixture of water and alcohol.

Weird beauty tips are easy to find on-line, and I have to believe that each has its adherents. Some say that Preparation H under the eyes reduces puffiness (I hear it works), hot pepper sauce applied to the roots of your hair will help it grow, (the jury’s out on this one). Some believe that urine works as an astringent to clear up acne, (it doesn’t), and rubbing your face with a potato dries up oily skin (that one’s false as well).

Today, we look on past practices as bizarre, but maybe we shouldn’t. If those people from the past were to peer into their own future, they’d see spray tanning, teeth bleaching, and Brazilian bikini wax. They’d see people injecting the neurotoxic output of Clostridium Botulinum into their faces, and sticking metal objects through all manner of body parts.

You have to wonder what our own future will bring. Not even Nostradamus foretold tattooed grandmothers.