True Stuff: Mortality record from 1665

(click image for bigger)

I love this: Via Slate’s The Vault, “In 16th- and 17th-century London, in response to recurrent epidemics of bubonic plague, authorities instituted the tradition of publishing a bill of mortality each week.”

See Slate’s brief article, with more links, here.

They also link to Craig Spence’s Bills of Mortality blog:

The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths. It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis…

The content of the Bills was provided by the parish clerks who reported weekly accounts from each parish to the Hall of the Company of Parish Clerks. The Company then collated and printed a weekly sheet; one side held a listing of the number of burials by parish and from the mid 17th century the reverse listed a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’.

These covered a wide range of illnesses, some of which are readily identifiable to the modern reader and some which are not.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been suffering from ‘scowring’ for weeks

(h/t to @PublicDomainRev, where I first saw this)

True Stuff: The Internet According to 1995

One of my recurring fascinations is reading pearl-clutching editorials over the menacing march of technological advance (such as the telephone, the printing press, or writing itself). So I loved this 1995 column from Newsweek by astronomer and Klein-bottler Clifford Stoll:

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works…

“Why the Web won’t be Nirvana” — Newsweek, February 26, 1995

Stoll is the author of the 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, in which he was wrong about basically everything the Internet turned out to be. To his credit, he seems to have come around in the years that followed…And I wonder how many of those early curmudgeons eventually came around to the telephone, and how many of them railed against the infernal motor-car! to their dying day.

In a way, it seems Stoll’s pessimism wasn’t from a lack of understanding of the technology — he was an early adopter of Usenet and from what I can tell, was born on a BBS via 200 baud modem, or something.

It’s that he was too close — he only saw the structure as it was, and as he knew it; he couldn’t imagine what someone else, without that depth of understanding, could reimagine for it. (Or even if he could imagine great changes, didn’t think them possible, or likely to occur.)

But they did. It’s amazing what one can accomplish if one doesn’t know that what one is attempting is impossible.

True Stuff: Paul Jones, the Earth-Girdler

The late nineteenth century was full of daredevils, fame-seekers, and people doing absurd things for the sake of doing absurd things. Mass communication was new, and could bring nationwide notoriety to anyone able to break some barrier or accomplish something no one else had. The age of the media-savvy showman had dawned.

Enter “Paul Jones”, described here by George Dollar in The Strand Magazine as “An Earth-Girdler.” (Note: The events described took place in the United States, but Mr. Dollar converted the monetary amounts involved into pounds for the sake of his English readers. At the time, a pound was worth about five dollars.)

What did “Paul” (a pseudonym) claim he would do? Walk around the Earth, starting without a penny to his name and completely nude, and promising to end a richer man than he began. It’s a strange story of completely manufactured celebrity. From the article linked above:

GLOBE-TROTTING is now so common that no one pays much attention to any plan of putting “a girdle roundabout the earth” unless that plan possesses daring originality impossible of execution. The plan of Mr. “Paul Jones,” who recently became the most-talked-of man in Boston, the “Hub of the Universe,” fulfilled the two requirements. It certainly was daringly original, and the chances seemed dead against its accomplishment. Moreover, the fact that Mr. “Paul Jones” was, owing to the nature of the plan, forced to hide his identity under an assumed name, lent a lustre to the exploit that clinched public attention at the outset.

The plan, in short, was as follows: “Jones” had made a wager that he would start out on a trip around the world as Nature made him — that is, naked. He guaranteed that he would make the trip in a year, starting without a penny in the world, and without begging or borrowing on the way. He also stipulated that he would make five thousand dollars (£1,000) during the trip, although he was not compelled to bring that amount back with him. If he won he was to get £1,000, and if he lost he was to pay that amount. The minor details of the wager were completely overshadowed, however, by the first clause in the agreement, which made it imperative that he should start out in the “altogether.” How would he do it, and wouldn’t he be arrested? These were some of the questions that were asked.

But the man who made the wager had a surprise in store. A Monday night was appointed for the start, and the Boston Press Club, which had taken a keen interest in “Jones,” offered its rooms for the occasion.

At the appointed time, Jones found himself the centre of a large gathering of newspaper men, sports, men about town, politicians, and others interested. As the moment approached when he was to make the start, the interest grew intense. A committee took him into a private room, removed all money from his person, and Jones, himself, quickly stripped. A placard was now placed on the door as follows:—


Of course, the fee was quickly paid, and the tall, athletic frame of a handsome man dressed on the Garden of Eden plan was now visible to the spectators.

The crowd wondered what Jones would do next. They did not wait long in suspense. With the money that had been taken at the door, Jones sent out a paid messenger for some wrapping-paper and pins. The wrapping-paper soon came in, and with a big pair of scissors the ingenious man set to work. A few deft movements of the scissors, and the paper began to assume the form of trousers. The legs of these were joined together with pins. Then a covering for the waist was quickly made, and a sort of cape to cover the shoulders. The progress of the work was followed with immense interest, and the spectators were lost in amazement at the cleverness and rapidity with which the man worked.

In the illustration on this page we see him as he stood before the Press Club and its guests — a paper man, without a penny to his name, except those which, in a few short minutes, he had collected by the exercise of his mother wit.

At the end of the first evening Jones was two pounds richer than when he began. He sang an original song, and a small admission fee was charged to hear it. He also made copies of the song and sold them to the Pressmen and others who would buy. He sold his autographs for five cents apiece. He also let the spectators feel his muscle, for a nominal sum, and offered to spar anybody for a stake. Nobody, however, accepted. He had several offers for his paper-suit, but would accept none of them. The clever man knew that when the morning papers came out with the account of the previous night’s doings, that suit would have a money value far in advance of the prices offered. So, in his paper-suit, he went out to one of the best hotels — and went to bed.

The next morning everybody in the city knew of Jones’s feat. He spent the early part of the day in making a new suit out of blankets which he had bought from the proceeds of the previous night. This suit served a temporary need for warmth, as it was a cold winter’s day, and, as one may see from the illustration, the suit was somewhat like pyjamas. As yet, Jones had no shoes. The night before he had hastily manufactured a pair of sandals out of two pieces of purchased leather, and these he wore until he had collected money enough to buy some shoes. The purchase of the blankets left him 5 1/2d. short on his breakfast, but a reporter gave this to him for an interview. He now struck the proprietor of the hotel for a job, and got a dollar for one hour’s work. For carrying placards on his back advertising the hotel restaurant he got £2. Thus his morning’s work brought him in 44s.

A clothing-house now came to the front with an offer of £2 for the papersuit, which they prominently exhibited in their window. They also hired him as salesman for the afternoon —- a coup that attracted a large number of people into the shop to see the man in the blanket-suit. The autograph business still went on with profit, and with the proceeds Jones bought a large quantity of new and shiny cents, which he sold as souvenirs at a fancy price. He paid for his supper by working forty minutes as a waiter in a restaurant, and everywhere he went in his blankets, he was followed by large crowds.

After supper he added materially to his store by inviting people to a “smoker” in the hotel. It cost nothing to get in, but lots to remain. To sit on the bed for five minutes cost a halfpenny. A chair was let at the rate of a halfpenny a minute, and standing-room was sold for a halfpenny per half-hour. The crowd was large and enthusiastic, so Jones bought a box of cigars and liberally passed them round. No one, however, was allowed to expectorate without paying a halfpenny! This brought in a large profit. Jones now announced that he would sing his original song at 2 1/2d. per head. The audience then unanimously and gratuitously paid him a like amount to quit. At the end of the evening Jones was £20 to the good.

The next day he made preparations for leaving Boston. His plan was to visit several of the Eastern cities, which, through the Press reports, had already been apprised of his wager and the remarkable events of the first two days, and, in these cities, collect enough money to buy a steamship ticket to the Old World. He expected little success in Europe, but would push on steadily to the East, and when he arrived in San Francisco, would begin a lecturing tour in all the principal cities of the United States. Already, indeed, offers for lectures were pouring in upon him. Commercial houses, also, made arrangements with him to advertise them on tour, and to peddle their wares. For this he was promised astonishing sums, and on the second day his thousand pounds were assured.

But before he left Boston he bought a good suit of clothes and a necktie out of the proceeds of the previous day. The remainder he put in the bank. He got shaved, paid £1 for a pair of shoes, and 30s. for an overcoat. He made his breakfast by shining an admirer’s boots, and this gave him the idea of hiring a bootblack’s outfit for a few hours, by which means he made a good sum quickly. Previously he had had photographs of himself taken in his three suits. These he sold at good prices in the various cities he visited. He regularly charged 2 1/2d. for a hand-shake, and thus loaded his pockets with loose “nickels.”

The first city he visited, after leaving Boston, was Providence. He arrived in his quadruple capacity as travelling salesman, advance agent, lecturer, and “globe-trotter.” The Providence Press Club entertained him, and he entertained them by repeating his Boston experiences. In the evening he was advertised to appear at the Pawtucket Opera House, to be examined by a mind-reader. The house was crowded. He had also made an engagement to appear in Boston the same evening, and to get to Boston in time, he was compelled to hire a special train. He appeared on the stage promptly, before an overflowing audience, and made a speech, for which he was paid, it is said, £30. He also sang his song and gave an exhibition of sawing wood. […]

From Providence he went to Springfield, and here repeated his success. He gave a lecture to a large crowd, sang his song, and sawed wood. An enterprising haberdasher hired him to tend in a shop for an afternoon, and a chemist drew a large trade by getting him to stand at a soda-fountain, draw fruit syrups and lemonade, and sell cigars and tobacco. One of his customers was a police-inspector who had come to arrest him for the non-payment of a debt contracted in Boston before he made the wager. This debt Jones paid. Two days after a claim for £10 was made against him by a firm which had secured him a position as teacher in a Massachusetts town. Another claim for £17 was later produced. Jones paid neither claim, and was locked up. The newspapers then investigated the whole affair, and found that “Jones’s” real name was Pfeiffer, that he had had a college education, and that, being in hard straits, he had invented the story of a wager, and had hoodwinked the Press into giving it publicity. His success was enormous, but short. Strange to say, also, the very people who had become tired of the name of “Paul Jones” were the first ones to express sorrow over his untimely end.

To summarize: E.C. Pfeiffer, Harvard graduate, fabricated a $5,000 wager, stripped naked and offered gapes for a penny, sang songs and figured out how to be paid both to start and to stop, became a celebrity who could sell the clothes from his back and pennies from his pocket…and then ended up in a debtor’s prison. It was a whirlwind two weeks in which he dominated the Boston press.

The interesting part of this story — besides, you know, all of it — was that Pfeiffer’s strange enterprise and ultimately facetious wager inspired a legitimate round-the-globe attempt: the longest bicycle trip ever attempted by a woman.

Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a.k.a. Annie Londonderry, took off on a bicycle on June 25, 1894, traveling only with a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver. Her story is chronicled in the 2008 book Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutin.

More about Annie, and the book, here. I will be honest with you: I started writing this post because I wanted to share the story about the weird man in the paper suit. But then I found this very inspiring story about Annie Londonderry and now I want to read this book myself! LET’S MAKE A BOOK CLUB



A Brief Survey of Victorian Science Fiction

At Chicon the other week, I moderated a panel on Victorian and Edwardian science fiction. I’ve read some of the classics — Verne and Wells and so on — but I was excited to moderate this panel because it meant I could ask questions of my far more informed co-panelists, Randy Smith and Matthew Bennardo.

Randy was a charming gentleman and incredibly knowledgeable about the subject. (I can’t seem to find that he has a website, or I’d link to it.) He’s working on compiling a reprint anthology of period genre fiction, which I eagerly await. He also recommended a book that sadly seems to be out of print: Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911. In 1974, editor Sam Moskowitz sought out and reprinted only stories that had never before been reprinted. This is one I’ll be seeking out at my local library! (And so can you.)

Matt’s my friend and Machine of Death co-editor, as well as a short story writer of growing renown. He’s also been pursuing an informal research survey of period genre fiction, and mentioned many titles during the panel that I was unaware of. At my request, he’s been kind enough to compile an abridged list of titles for you to check out. Here’s what he has to say:

Over the course of the Victorian and Edwardian science-fiction panel, about 50 books and short stories were mentioned or discussed. It’s not possible to reproduce all the discussion here, but the list makes a fair starting point for those who may be looking for a general introduction to the science-fiction of the period.

This list has many shortcomings. It is nowhere near comprehensive. In fact, the panel largely jumped over the well-known catalogues of writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. This doesn’t mean that the unnamed books by those writers aren’t worth reading. But most readers are likely to already be aware of many of them, and the discussion veered more often towards some less commonly read works.

In a few places, the list strays from all reasonable definitions of “Victorian” and “Edwardian”. Some books and stories that fall into different periods were discussed as points of comparison. I’ve included all those that I remember, whether or not they are technically “Victorian” or “Edwardian”.

Finally, the list is not very diverse — it consists almost entirely of books written by American, English, and French men. Mary Shelley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are the only women mentioned, and no writers from other countries make an appearance.

Bear in mind that this list was generated organically during a conversation, and wasn’t intended to be a full survey of the field. The titles, authors, and dates are all correct to the best of my knowledge, but I have not attempted to correct omissions in this post. However, I have sorted the works into broad categories in an attempt to provide at least some context for them. Where free etexts are available, I have linked to them.












I’m very grateful to Matt for compiling this list, and I hope it’ll inspire you to check out some (freely available) period fiction you might not otherwise have run across!

I’ll mention as well one other thing that the panel brought up: there is a lot of genre fiction by non-English-speaking writers that has never been translated. Matt is currently doing what research he can to try and compile a list of possible non-English-language works that might qualify for consideration as part of this same historical canon, but of course this effort is hampered by the obvious difficulties — finding the texts to begin with, and translating them once found. Still, I hope that his search bears fruit! I’d love to read some turn-of-the-century Romanian science fiction.

This is also a fair place to mention that even the translations we do have of non-English-language works may not always be reliable. The works of Jules Verne are notorious for having been translated many different times with wildly varying faithfulness — a fascinating topic that deserves a post by itself. (See this article for more background on the Verne translation controversy.) That same website lists all the various published English editions of Verne, rated by faithfulness of translation. William Butcher has released several new and highly-regarded editions of Verne’s most famous works, which are available as free PDFs on his website.

NEW BOOK UPDATE. My new collection Emperor of the Food Chain will be out soon! Here’s the release schedule:

SEPT. 15-16 : SMALL PRESS EXPO, Bethesda MD. I’ll be there to sign and sketch!

SEPT. 17-30 : ARTIST EDITIONS will be available online in my TopatoCo store. Since some of my earlier books are close to being out of print, we have set aside a limited number for Artist Edition 5-packs. But once these are gone, they’re gone!

My other new books will go online at this time too — the Machine of Death Disposable Edition and the animal-themed Classy Lady Like You Will Love The Smell Of My Butt — as well as a few other new trinkets and doodads.

SEPT. 21 : REGULAR EDITIONS (with no sketch included) will become available online in my TopatoCo store.

Artist editions will stay available through SEPT. 30 only. Two weeks to get a sketched-in copy! I’ll be making two trips to TopatoCo to do sketches, so any Artist Editions ordered by 9/21 will ship right away; any ordered after 9/21 will ship around October 8. While I’m at TopatoCo, I’ll also sign or personalize any poster or print you order for free! So if you’re about to order a poster or print, hold off until Monday.

I’ll link to everything once it goes online! Hope to see you this weekend at SPX!

True Stuff: Old Timey Ads

I have a new tumblr! It’s called Old Timey Ads, and it’s just what it says on the tin: old-timey ads, short articles, funny images and the like from old books and periodicals, usually with a bit of commentary.

If you like the True Stuff from Old Books series, check this out! It’s similar, shorter, more frequent, and snarkier.

Old Timey Ads on Tumblr:
All entries also post to the @wondermarkfeed Twitter account
And there’s an Old Timey Ads RSS feed as well.
(I also have a personal tumblr.)

So far I’ve been posting multiple times per day! We’ll see how long that lasts. But I’m having lots of fun unearthing strange, funny, and remarkable things that maybe aren’t worth a long blog posts, but that I want to share anyway. Check out Old Timey Ads!