LXVII: A Little Extra

Evolution is a beautiful thing. Over the millennia, it has allowed each unique species to change itself to best be suited for survival in its environment. Every creature alive today exists because it was descended from the very best evolved members of its species.

However, sometimes species need to change faster than evolution can keep up, and they end up with a little bit extra. These useless yet harmless leftover bits that evolution hasn’t gotten rid of yet are known as “vestigial structures”. Whales, for example, have tiny little foot bones inside those big old flippers. Very cute.

Human vestigial structures are distinctly less cute, unfortunately. You’re probably familiar with the appendix, a useless little bit of large intestine that can get inflamed and burst with astonishing ease, flooding the body with dangerous and even deadly toxins. Once upon a time this often-removed tissue was an independent organ, crucial to the digestive process, but modern humans no longer need it, as so it has gradually shrunk and ceased to function over generations.

Another often-removed human vestigial structure is the wisdom teeth. These third molars erupt quite late relative to the other teeth, appear in early adulthood. In an age before dental hygiene, it was important to grow some new molars as the other ones rotted out, but modern grooming practices have led humans to keep most or all of their teeth throughout their lives, meaning that wisdom teeth are often crowded out of the gums and prone to impaction and infection if not removed. Evolution works hard to clear out these now-harmful structures — many members of my family only have two wisdom teeth, and there are some familial lines among indigenous Mexicans documented as having no wisdom teeth at all.

Humans also evolved form creatures with tails, and our coccyx (the five fused vertebrae at the base of the spine) are a vestigial remnant of our long-lost tails. Our ears too possess multiple vestigial structures; about 10% of the population has a small point called the Darwin’s tubercle which is a remnant of our pointed primate ears, which once resembled those of a macaque. Our ears are also attached to several weak muscles, which were once strong enough to tilt and rotate our ears like horses do, but now are only strong enough to make a very underwhelming party trick. Even our highly advanced and delicate eyes have extra parts. The plica semilunaris, the goopy pink bit in the corner of the eye, is all that’s left of a long-lost third eyelid which protected our eyes from dust and debris without compromising our vision millennia ago. Our ability to curl our toes is leftover from our once-prehensile chimp-like feet. Some vestigial structures are present in only small portions of the human population, like the %5.6 of humans who have a supernumerary  nipple.

Evolution is pretty darn good at what it does, but sometimes it just can’t keep up. Humans are full of little extra bits that our species has long outgrown but evolution just hasn’t gotten on to removing yet. There’s some suspicion that one day our sense of smell will become obsolete since we no longer need to track prey or check wild plants for safety and freshness. Some humans like myself already display a congenitally diminished sense of smell. Either way, humans will keep on evolving, keep on moving forward and evolving to fit our new environment as it changes around us.


LXVI: Magic Wolf Cream

Let’s talk about werewolves. Not the fun kind that are trying to steal you from your sparkly vampire boyfriend and don’t wear shirts — I’m talking about the kind that were apparently running rampant in Medieval France.

By “rampant” I really mean rampant. Between 1530 and 1630, there were 30,000 people accused of werewolfery in France. That averages out to roughly one new werewolf being found every day for one hundred years.

Let me remind you that Medieval France was a heavily forested land full of superstitious peasants, home to quite a lot of actual wolves. Wolves dominate their natural environment, and in an era when people tended to go wandering alone and unarmed in the forest in search of food or firewood, the local wolf packs were not too picky about what they ate. Unfortunately for a whole lot of innocent peasants who were mentally ill or victims of torture or both, the French thought that the only thing that would dare eat a human was another human. You saw a wolf eating Sally from down the street? Must be one of your neighbors in the body of a wolf.

It was especially damning if a person was spotted near the sight of a werewolf attack at a later time, because the apparently only reason a human and wolf would be in similar parts of the forest at different times of day is if they’re the same mystical creature. If you were unfortunate enough to be mentally ill in an era when mental illness was woefully misunderstood, you were likely to be the prime suspect. It is suspected that those confessions not elicited under torture were given by people suffering some sort of manic episode or psychotic break, or possibly by people suffering from schizophrenia. It is also possible that some who confessed to being werewolves were in fact serial killers, who knew it would be easier for society to accept that they were possessed by a demonic animal spirit than that they simply enjoyed killing people — not to mention that the punishment would likely be lesser.

Many werewolves, however, were executed for their alleged crimes. One such case was that of Gilles Garnier, who was actually spotted cannibalizing a young child while in his human form. Though most likely a cannibalistic serial killer, Garnier came to be known as the Werewolf of Dole. According to his confession, he was living his normal hermit life in the forests of France when he encountered a spectral demon in the woods one day, since spectral demons have nothing better to do than wander the forests of France recruiting hermits. Regardless, the spectre offered Garnier an ointment with the power to transfigure whoever applied it to himself into a lion, a leopard, or a wolf. The spectre advised that a wolf was probably the best choice, since it was better adapted to the French climate, so Garnier oiled himself down and headed off to eat some French kids. He claimed he did it out of sheer desperation, because this was a time before Piggly Wiggly and he could not find any food for himself and wife. How in the world a hermit met and married a wife, I have no idea.

Regardless, Garnier’s story was not particularly unique. Although, unlike most of the accused, Garnier probably actually had committed some heinous murders, he was tortured and executed just like the vast majority of those 30,000 accused werewolves. Thankfully, this morbid fad petered out at the end of the 17th century, replaced by the somewhat less criminal but equally bizarre practice of wolf charming, where a person would simply bewitch a wolf into their service and command it to eat people. Like werewolfery, it was complete bunk, but trials for wolf charming continued through the end of the 18th century.

Thankfully the modern concept of a werewolf strongly resembles Taylor Lautner, and the average person meeting one in the woods is more likely to fangirl wildly than to run or sell their soul, but either way, I recommend that if you meet strange men in the woods who offer you magical ointment in exchange for your soul, you don’t take them up on the offer.

LXV: The Six-Legged General

The formation of the nation of Mexico was long, drawn-out conflict which produced some of the greatest heroes in both American and Mexican history. One of Mexico’s most prominent generals during this time was also its future president, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, more often known simply as Santa Anna.

Born in Veracruz in 1794, Santa Anna spent his entire life in the military. He enlisted in 1810 at the young age of 16 and received his first battle wound a year later when he was shot in the hand with an arrow. He recovered quickly and fought in battles throughout Mexico; often cited for his bravery, he moved quickly through the ranks and was a first lieutenant by the age of 19. After his promotion to captain in 1816, Santa Anna led a number of campaigns to suppress Mexico’s native peoples before turning his focus to the liberation of Mexico from the Spanish. By 1821, Mexico’s future emperor and the leader of its main resistance movement, Agustín de Iturbide, had awarded Santa Anna with the rank of general. He acquired a large hacienda, a wife, a governorship, and a gambling addiction. It was all fine and dandy for the young general for quite a few years — until he lost his leg.

In the 1830s, the Texas Revolution was raging. After he served as President of Mexico intermittently from 1833 to 1835, Santa Anna’s army besieged and captured the Alamo in 1836, before being defeated at San Jacinto a month later. Santa Anna was captured and exiled to the United State for a time before returning to Mexico in time for the Pastry War in 1838. At Veracruz, he had his horse shot out from under him and suffered injuries to his ankle the required amputation of his leg from the knee down. A devastated Santa Anna had the leg buried at his hacienda, and when he became President of Mexico for the seventh time in 1843, he had the leg exhumed in order to be buried with full military honors.

The leg was placed in an ornate coach and paraded up to Mexico City, where he staged an elaborate state funeral that included parades, canon salvos, and long orations and poems by guest speakers in honor of the leg before it was buried in an expensive monument. Yet only two years later, the leg was exhumed again, this time somewhat more unceremoniously. Public opinion turned against the president and his leg was dragged through the streets by an angry mob while they shouted, “Death to the cripple!”

Because Santa Anna apparently couldn’t decide whether he liked being a general or a president, he returned to the battlefield in 1847 wearing a prosthetic leg made of cork. He was sitting down eating lunch when the 4th Illinois Infantry road up and surprised him. Instead of capturing or killing the general, a sergeant grabbed Santa Anna’s cork leg an rode off with it. The sergeant displayed the leg at a dime a look until it was donated to the Illinois National Guard in 1922 and went on display in the Illinois State Military Museum, where it remains to this day, despite Mexico and Texas’ requested for repatriation.

Down two legs and a whole lot of ego, Santa Anna had a new leg made and became president a few more times before switching careers for the zillionth time and heading back out onto the field of battle, this time leaving his fancy leg at home and using a simple wooden peg. But wouldn’t you know it, the 4th Illinois Infantry was not done with General Santa Anna. Out of pure spite and bravado, they capture Santa Anna’s new leg too and reportedly used it as a baseball bat before putting it on display at its current home in the residence of former Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby.

After losing three of his six total legs, Santa Anna was president a few more times (for a grand total of 11 separate terms) before eventually being exiled and dying a pauper in 1876. He was buried in Mexico City with exactly one leg.

LXIV: Tigerish Woman

n the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s massive Mongol Empire was parceled out to be ruled in small khanates by his numerous heirs. Genghis Khan’s great-grandson Kaidu was the head of his Khan’s dynastic household and emperor of the Changatai region of the Mongol Empire, rapidly rising to become the most powerful ruler in Central Asia by the year 1280. Renowned travelers Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din both visited (or claimed to have visited) Kaidu’s empire, but instead of writing about the khan himself, they wrote about his remarkable daughter.

Kaidu had fourteen sons and an unknown number of daughters, but his clear favorite was his daughter Khutulun. In the Mongol Empire at the time, it was not at all uncommon for women to take full administrative authority over a region while their husbands or fathers went to war, and it was even standard protocol for Mongol women to ride out into battle and to be extremely skilled and renowned warriors. Khutulun was one such warrior. Marco Polo wrote of her great boldness in battle; while most female Mongol warriors were expert archers, easily shooting down the enemy while riding at full gallop, Khutulun was the absolute best athlete in Mongolia’s national sport: wrestling. As commander of her father’s heavy cavalry, she was known to ride out onto the field of battle and snatch up the most valuable enemies with her bare hands before beating the absolute crap out of them and dragging their sorry butts back to Kaidu’s court as prisoners. Marco Polo referred to her as “Kaidu’s hawk”.

Eventually Khutulun reached marriageable age (because she was only a teenager when she became the greatest cavalry warrior in Mongolia) and had to find a husband. Reminiscent of the mythical Atalanta, who said she would marry any man that could outrun her, Khutulun told her father she would marry any man who could beat her in a wrestling match, and the losers would be required to pay her a debt of 10 horses each.

When Marco Polo met her in 1280, when she was about twenty years old, Khutulun owned ten thousand horses and was still single.

Eventually Khutulun did get married to an soldier from a neighboring khanate who had been captured as a prisoner of war and spared for his courage to face execution without fear. Ironically, he was the only suitor who never tried to wrestle Khutulun; she personally selected him as her husband after witnessing his skill and bravery as a warrior. It is also possible that she was in a hurry to quell rumors that she was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with her own father, which seems to be par for the course for many powerful historical women. Presumably there were quite a few Mongol men out there who wanted to be commander of the heavy cavalry, plus fourteen older brothers who feared that she, as the favorite, would get her father’s throne.

Which is exactly hat happened. Kaidu attempted to install Khutulun as katun (the female version of a khan) in Changatai, but was met with stiff resistance from his fourteen sons. Her brother Chapar challenged her while her other brother Orus stood by her side, and Khutulun eventually agreed to withdraw her claim on the condition that she would serve as Chapar’s highest general when he became khan. It didn’t matter though, because the khanate eventually selected a counsin, Duwa, as Kaidu’s successor, leaving both Chapar and Khutulun out of the equation.

After Kaidu’s death, Khutulun’s story becomes unclear. Some say she served as a general for many years before dying in battle, while others say she turned on Duwa trying to claim her rightful throne and was executed for treason. Her life story inspired a tale called “Turandot”, a Persian phrase meaning “Central Asian Daughter”, which eventually evolved into a famous opera by the same name that portrayed her as a once-strong “tigerish” woman forced into submission by her love for a stronger man, completely leaving out the fact that she was one hell of a princess.

LXIII: Sea Silk

These days you can make clothes out of everything. People are wearing gold shirts, duct tape prom dresses, and even red carpet outfits made of meat. But back in the day (way, way back), the most valuable fabric on the market was made of mollusc beards.

The fact that mussels even have beards was fairly novel to me. If you’re imagining a cheerful little clam with some very hipster facial hair, we’re in the same boat (weak pun intended). Apparently, bivalve molluscs like clams have a bit of a hard time attaching themselves to solid objects, so they secrete sticky threads made of keratin and other proteins out of their feet in order to adhere themselves to rock crevices; these filaments are known as byssus.

In the Mediterranean, the mollusc species Pinna nobilis (also known as a pen shell) has been harvested for its byssus for thousands of years. Although the pen shell can grow up to a meter long, its byssus filaments are rarely over 6cm long each, and must be woven together to create threads finer than silk. When treated with lemon juice, these fine threads acquire a permanent golden color and can be woven into highly prized cloths which are both extremely lightweight and extremely warm.

Byssus was highly prized in the ancient world. In some scholarly interpretations, the Golden Fleece sought by the mythical Greek hero Jason was woven byssus cloth. The Veil of Manopello — the fabric believed to have been used by Saint Veronica to wipe the face of Jesus as he carried the cross and then miraculously imprinted with the image of Jesus’ face, now kept as a sacred relic in Rome — is also almost certainly woven of byssus.

Also known as “sea silk”, byssus was one of the most valuable commodities in ancient markets, even more so than other better-known treasured textiles like silk or purple dyed cloth. Byzantine records list byssus robes as being reserved exclusively for the ruling class, sometimes given as gifts by the emperor to his governors. In Persian and Arab chronicles, a robe made of sea silk would cost over 1000 gold pieces, and its origins were treated as almost mystical.

Today, due in great part to the Industrial Revolution and the rising popularity of less expensive, mass-produced synthetic textiles, byssus weaving is nearly a lost art. Most existing sea silk is found in museums, and wearing it is nearly unheard of. Perhaps being clothed in the luxurious, lemon-soaked foot secretions of clams has just fallen out of fashion.

LXII: You Can’t Kill Old Hickory

If you know anything about American history, you’re probably aware that presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were very famously assassinated while in office. You may even be familiar with the two lesser-known assassinated presidents, James A. Garfield and William McKinley. But what a lot of people don’t know is that trying to kill the POTUS is a shockingly common phenomenon. An astonishing 45.4% of the country’s 44 presidents have been the victim of an assassination or a legitimate assassination attempt or plot, including every single president since Kennedy. Even incumbent Barack Obama has had at least five legitimate threats or attempts on his life since taking office in 2009.

You’d think it’s political. It seems obvious that someone would kill a political figure for political reasons. But the fact that the president’s immediate successor, the vice president, always belongs to the same political party means that killing the president is highly unlikely to result in any change other than an increase in fear and security. The real reason behind most presidential assassinations and attempts is complete delusion insanity.

Take the attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson, for example. He was generally disliked as a president and a human being and did a lot of not-so-nice things while in office, so obviously somebody was out to get him. That somebody was Richard Lawrence, and he was completely nuts.

Lawrence worked as a house painter, and in the days before product regulation, this meant he came into contact with outlandish amounts of lead on a daily basis. He was known to sit in his shop muttering to himself about Jackson, who he believed owed him money. Lawrence decided that in order to get his money, he had to kill Jackson, and cash in hand, he would then sail to England and become King Richard III, who had in fact been dead for 350 years. On January 30, 1835, Lawrence was sitting in his paint shop laughing maniacally to himself (not an exaggeration) when he suddenly stood up, declared, “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!” and headed off to the Capitol to kill the president.

Jackson was attending the funeral of Congressman Warren Davis in the Capitol, and had just exited the service via the East Portico when Lawrence approached and drew one of his two Derringer pistols. Known as “garter guns”, Derringers were small, delicate, temperamental, and carried almost exclusively by women. Lawrence’s misfired, exploding the percussion cap but not discharging a bullet. He drew a second Derringer and the exact same thing happened. Whether Lawrence has misloaded the guns or it was just too humid to spark the powder is unknown, but the odds of both guns misfiring one after another is 1 in 125,000 (when tested in the 20th century by the Smithsonian, both guns fired perfectly on the first try). Realizing he had nearly been killed, the 67-year-old president — who had once killed a man in a duel for dishonoring his wife Rachel, was known as “Old Hickory” for his propensity to start duels, brawls, and mutinies, and spent the majority of his adult life wandering around coughing up blood from the bullets and shrapnel lodged permanently in his lung — proceeded to beat Lawrence with his cane*. Presidential security was more or less crowdsourced at this point in history — if you were near the president and someone tried to harm him, you tackled that guy. So that’s exactly was Congressman Davy Crockett did. It was like some sort of historical soap opera. davy Crockett and the crowd subdued Lawrence while a very panicky Vice President Martin Van Buren swore always to go to the Senate armed from that day forward.

Lawrence was brought to trial in April of that same year. He dressed himself like an English noble and was prone to wild rants in the courtroom, insisting that he was the king of England and declaring, “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.” The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, lyricist of “The Star Spangled Banner”(America’s national anthem), because in the 1800s, if there was something important happening, literally every famous person in the whole country got involved apparently. It took the jury exactly five minutes to declare Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity. According with U.S. law, this verdict meant he was to be committed to a psychiatric facility, where he spent the rest of his life. Jackson lived a further 10 years after his attempted shooting, and his assassination attempt went down in history as both the first attempt on a sitting president’s life and the most utterly ridiculous one.

*In the linked engraving, Crockett is labled “3”, Jackson is labeled “2”, and Van Buren is labeled “5”.

LXI: Cloudy with a Chance of Meat

One of the most popular traditions in world folklore is the notion of things falling from the sky. The only region truly out of reach to human explorers (at least until recently), the sky is a place of mystery, intrigue, and imagination. We didn’t know what was up there, so it didn’t seem that unreasonable to think it could drop water, ice, fire, frogs, birds, golf balls, cats and dogs, non-dairy creamer, or even raw meat on us at any given moment.

If you’re enjoying a meal right now, you’re about to stop enjoying it.

It was a delightfully sunny March morning in 1876 outside the small town of Olympian Springs, Kentucky. One Mrs. Allen Crouch was going about her usual business making soap in her yard when a stomach-churning thwack startled her from her work. She looked around in surprise to see what appeared to be a piece of raw meat lying on the ground, about the size of a saucer. Several thwacks later, she realized that the meat was falling from the sky. Talk about a day-wrecker.

Mrs. Crouch told her neighbor, a Mr. Harrison Gill that the pieces of meat varied in size from half-dollar to small plate, and that they floated gently down from the sky “like large snowflakes” before smacking unceremoniously into her yard. Mr. Gill told a Louisville newspaper that he himself had seen the pieces of meat strewn about the 5000 square foot farmyard and “sticking to the fences,” and that it appeared to be “perfectly fresh”.

There was, of course, a massive debacle over what exactly the meat was. Two brave gentlemen and decided to taste it (*gag*) and declared it to be “either mutton or venison” and were apparently somewhat miffed that it had been left out overnight and had become dry and spoiled. A cat who also sampled the meat had no comment. The locals seemed to think it was beef, but a hunter declared it to be unusually slimy bear meet, while a butcher insisted it was some new, unknown meat, the likes of which he had never smelled before.

Some people decided to do the smart (and safe) thing and send it off for professional analysis. One professor declared it to be frog spawn, sucked up from a nearby pond by the wind. A chemist decided to dunk it in some chemicals and light it on fire, declaring that it smelled like burning mutton and some pieces even had wool still on them. One particularly horrifying analysis identified it as the lung tissue of a human infant. A writer at the New York Times called it “cosmic meat” that he said had come from outer space, which makes sense because “there revolves about the sun a belt of venison, mutton, and other meats, divided into small fragments,” according to him. Many simply identified it as mystery meat.

Thankfully, someone eventually got a sample of the mystery substance to someone with some common sense, namely, scientist Leopold Brandeis. He did some tests that involved actual science and not guesswork or randomly lighting things on fire to sniff them, and he believed the substance to be Nostoc, also known to the common folk as “witch’s jelly” or “star-slubber” or “troll butter”. Great job naming stuff, old-timey people.

Known to science as cyanobacteria, Nostoc is a phototrophic (“light-eating”) bacteria that lives in large, gelatinous colonies and is generally pretty gross. According to Brandeis, there is a vaguely meat-colored aquatic variety which could in theory be absorbed into a cloud where it would swell with water and then fall from the sky. The problem was, it was a cloudless day, which led to only one conclusion: vulture vomit. When black vultures and turkey vultures, which are common to that region of Kentucky, gorge themselves too much, they have difficulty flying, which leads to mid-air projectile vomiting. This vomit was then carried by the prevailing winds onto the Crouch farm, which explains both the clear sky and the vaguely meaty consistency of the “rain”. It also means so pretty unpleasant news for those two brave gentlemen and a cat.

LX: The Bessemer Saloon

Motion sickness is a phenomenon to which all of us can relate (unless you’re one of the lucky 5% of the population whose bodies don’t object to being tossed wildly through space), and it probably has more cures — traditional and otherwise — than any other medial condition. Motion sickness, also called kinetosis, occurs when there is a conflict between the ear and the eye with regard to whether or not the whole body is moving. When sicking in a car or boat or airplane, the eye can see that the body is surrounded by fixed points. Instead of recognizing that the vehicle is moving with the body, the eye assumes that the body and the vehicle are both stationary. The inner ear is filled with fluid that moves when the body moves, so it knows that despite what the eye is saying, the body is in fact moving. This conflict between the inner ear and the eye occurs in the brain’s area postrema, which is responsible for visual input, audio input, and vomiting to clear the body of toxins. The confused input from the eyes and ears leads the area postrema to assume that the individual is hallucinating, and rather than trying to understand the subtle nuances of vehicular travel, it does what it does best and induces vomiting.

Naturally, people don’t particularly enjoy vomiting, so they have come up with ridiculously wide range of creative and bizarre solutions to motion sickness. From ginger to acupressure to scopolamine patches, there are a thousand different methods to make your kinetosis disappear. One particular unfortunate sufferer of severe seasickness was British inventor Sir Henry Bessemer. Born in 1813, he was more hands-on than most other inventors of the time, and he managed to make a decent profit off of some of his inventions. His creation of the Bessemer Process of steel manufacture revolutionized the industry, but not all his inventions were so successful.

In 1868, Bessemer had suffered a particularly dreadful bout of seasickness and decided he needed to invent something to prevent that from ever happening again. Naturally, he decided to build a boat. It was not just any boat, however. The SS Bessemer was built in two pieces: the ship itself and a separate passenger saloon. He mounted the saloon onto the ship using gimbals and hydraulics, which allowed it to move independently of the ship. The luxurious cabin was furnished with hand-painted murals mounted on hand-carved gilt panels, spiral columns of carved oak, and seats upholstered in rich Morocco-leather. Bessemer hoped that the independent movement of the saloon would provide a smoother ride and therefore less seasickness. Tests in his backyard had proved very promising. How he managed to test an entire steamship in his backyard, I have no idea. Bessemer also apparently had a fundamental misunderstanding of seasickness, because his saloon had exactly zero windows.

It didn’t really matter though, because the construction of the SS Bessemer kept it from making really any gains as an effective seasickness solution. The massive extra weight of the saloon, combined with its ability to move independently of the ship, made it extremely difficult to pilot. The ship was so heavy and unstable that even in the hands of a highly experienced captain, it ended its maiden voyage from Dover to Calais by crashing into the pier and destroying it. After extensive repairs, the ship launched again a month later, this time with a crucial difference: to prevent the saloon from unbalancing the ship, Bessemer secured it firmly to the ship so the saloon could no longer move, which defeats the entire purpose of the invention.

With the same excellent captain at the helm for SS Bessemer Round 2, the ship again sailed from Dover to Calais. It made two failed attempts to enter the harbor, each time rolling dangerously and failing to respond to the helm at low speeds. On the third attempt, the ship entered the harbor, but once again, it smashed directly in the Calais pier, this time destroying it entirely. This apparently was huge surprise to all the people of Calais who had thought that standing on the pier to watch the same boat that had crashed into the pier last month piloted by the same guy who had crashed it into the pier last month was a great idea.

Needless to say, the investors panicked and withdrew their funding. I’d say this doomed the SS Bessemer, but I think it was pretty doomed to begin with.

LIX: The Patron Saint of Revenge

As I’m sure you’re all aware, the 10th century C.E. was not exactly the greatest time to be a woman, especially if you were a woman who really didn’t like taking orders from men. If you were a woman who liked to stand up for herself, you were promptly suppressed and probably married off to someone old and nasty, but if you were a woman who insisted upon standing up for herself in the most epic, no-nonsense way possible, you got to be a saint.

Holy Equal-to-Apostale Olga, also known as Princess Olga of Kiev, was most certainly one of the latter. Born circa 890 (although possibly later), Olga was from Pskov in modern-day Russia and was married to Igor of Kiev sometime around 903. Igor ascended to the throne of Kievan Rus’, a loose federation of Eastern Slavic states, in either 914 or 941. It’s really difficult to keep track of this sort of stuff when there’s only one book that covers a full 300+ years of Slavic history.

Either way, Olga and Igor’s son, Sviatoslav, was born in 942, which puts the date of Olga’s birth into serious question. But who knows, maybe she was just a supermom and gave birth at age 52. Sviatoslav didn’t get to spend much time with his father, who was killed by the Drevlians in 945 while gathering monetary tributes. The Drevlians had some real nerve, because after tying each of Igor’s legs to a separate bent birch tree and then allowing the trees to straighten and rip his body in half, they immediately sent a message to Olga, now Princess Regent of Kiev on behalf of her young son, telling her she need to marry the Drevlian Prince Mal and make him king of Kievan Rus’.

Obviously that was not going to happen.

Olga was more than a little upset about the behavior of the Drevlians, but she was a reasonable queen, so she asked for 20 Drevlians to come before her and present their case for her marriage to Mal. She had trenches dug in their path so that their carriages fell into them, and all 20 were buried alive before they could even lay eyes on Olga. She assured that the Drevlians would not know of her revenge scheme and instead sent a message that she had agreed to marry Mal but needed the most distinguished Drevlians men to accompany her to Mal’s home to assure her safety. When they arrived in Kiev, she offered them a bathhouse in which to clean themselves and relax. When they were all inside, Olga had the bathhouse set on fire.

Determined to destroy every last one of the people who murdered her husband and tried to steal her throne, Olga invited the remaining Drevlians to her husband’s funeral feast as a show of good faith. When they were too drunk to defend themselves, the 5,000 Drevlian men were murdered by Olga’s soldiers. She then besieged the Drevlian city until the remaining villagers begged for mercy. She asked them to send her a token of surrender in the form of all the pigeons and sparrows residing in the Drevlian homes. Her soldiers tied live coals to the legs of each bird and released them, whereupon they promptly returned to their nests in the buildings of the Drevlian village and burned the whole place to the ground. Any survivors were scooped up by her soldiers and sold as slaves to other villages that respected Olga’s authority. When she was all done destroying the Drevlians, she also carried out Eastern Europe’s first recorded legal reform by completely changing the way monetary tributes were gathered to be extra sure what happened to her husband would never happen again.

Years later, Olga became the first Rus’ ruler to convert to Christianity and was baptized in Constantinople. For her efforts to spread Christianity in her own kingdom, the Orthodox Church sainted her and named her Equal-to-Apostle, but an equally fitting title would be Equal-to-Badass.

LXVIII: The Broad Street Pump

In terms of television characters, few are more loved by modern audiences than the famous Jon Snow. He was born in the North, one of many children, apprenticed to a distant land at a young age, and destined to become the man who would stop people from pooping themselves to death.

Wait. Wrong Jon Snow.

John “Not from Game of Thrones” Snow was born on North Street in York, England, in 1813. The eldest of nine children, he was sent to Newcastle upon Tyne to be a surgeon’s apprentice at the age of 14. There he was first introduced to cholera, a disease that causes sufferers to poop their guts out until they dehydrate to death. Not a pretty picture.

Cholera was a particularly big problem in urban England at the time. It was gruesome, virulent, and worst of all, nobody knew what to do about it. Medicine at the time ascribed to the miasma theory of disease, which held that illness was caused by “bad air” and that going somewhere where the air smelled nice could cure you. Also called “night air”, it was believed that these noxious gases were the source of all disease. The germ theory of disease — the modern concept of microscopic organism as carriers of contagion — wouldn’t come along until much later, coined by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s. Since everyone thought cholera was caused by stinky air, they were not doing a great job curing it. They were completely unaware that the disease was passed through contact with contaminated feces. For several decades, much of Europe had a deadly case of the runs.

In 1854, the particularly unsanitary Soho district of London had a massive outbreak of cholera. It began on August 31, and within three days, 128 people had died. In a week, three quarters of the district’s residents had fled, and by the time the epidemic ended in late September, 616 people had died — an astounding 12.8 mortality rate. Trusting in the miasma theory of disease, the people of Soho, with their basements full of fecal cesspools, their water supply thoroughly contaminated with waste of all varieties, and no sewage system whatsoever, were entirely confused as to why they were getting sick.

That’s when John Snow stepped in. He began monitoring the outbreak and soon noticed that the majority of the deaths occurred in close proximity to the Broad Street Pump, a major water source in Soho. He also discovered that five infected schoolchildren from a different neighborhood had stopped at the Broad Street Pump for a drink on their way to school. He drew this map, marking cholera deaths with black bars. He was soon able to tie all the cases but two to drinking water from the Broad Street Pump. The outliers were a woman from the other side of town and her niece visiting from the country. Perplexed at first, interviews with the woman’s son revealed that she had once lived in the Broad Street area and was so fond of the taste of the water from the pump that she regularly had it bottled and brought to her. She served this bottle Broad Street water to her visiting niece, and both were infected. The local monks also seemed totally unimpacted, but it was discovered that they only drank beer and never visited the pump.

Snow concluded that the water from the Broad Street Pump must be the cause of the infection. He also determined that the Southwark & Vauxhall Waterworks Company had been taking water from the sewage-polluted Thames and selling it as drinkable. The Broad Street Pump Handle was removed and further outbreaks were avoided.

Eventually, John Snow was even able to locate Patient Zero — a baby whose mother washed its dirty, cholera-ridden diapers in a leaky cesspool only 3 feet from the pump that was draining into the pump’s well. Ironically, cholera can now be easily cured by simply providing the infected person with antibiotics and large amounts of oral fluids.

Moral of the story: please do not put your sick baby’s poop in the drinking water.