Art//Archives, and a Human Combustion Addendum

First: today (right now!), from 10:30 – 1:00, we’re having our regular open hours in Special Collections. This week we’re featuring books on the topic of fruit, in honor of the raspberries and mulberries that are currently attracting huge numbers of birds to my backyard, much to the detriment of the car parked in the driveway.

Above left are some plums from George Brookshaw’s 1817 Groups of Fruit, Accurately Drawn and Coloured After Nature, with Full Directions for the Young Artist: Designed as a Companion to the Treatises on Flowers and Birds. Above right you can see a frankly terrifying “Banana Trumpeter” from the 1935 children’s book Tommy Apple and His Adventures in Banana-Land.

Second: as a follow-up to our post a couple of weeks ago on the flames of intemperance, I received an email from someone who may or may not have been my mother with a link to this excellent article on the spontaneous human combustion scene in Dickens’s Bleak House, as well as the corresponding 19th century furor over the fact that Dickens was purportedly fueling “a world of spontaneous combustion truthers”.

Here’s Bleak House illustrator Hablot Knight Browne’s rendering of the gruesome scene:

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Bad Children of History #10: Beware the Drunken Bull

Today’s Bad Child of History is, in my estimation, not bad so much as annoying. His name is Jack, and he comes from Charles Bennett’s 1863 book Little Breeches.

Unlike other bad children, who crash about with no regard for the mess they leave behind, or for the stress they cause to undeserving nurses and kind butchers, Jack is a bit of a hand-wringer.

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Here one can see Jack in his perpetual state, namely: positively beside himself with terror. In true 19th-century style, he wanders about the countryside completely unsupervised, leading to a series of terrifying encounters with scary animals, after each of which he wails for his father.

A “genteel Wasp” inquires about the time (which would, truthfully, give me a fright, as well); an upright cat in a jacket with some sort of lumpy club asks “civilly” for directions; a Francophone gander wearing a Chemex as a hat says nothing at all; and yet each time, Jack shouts for assistance.

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Why is he crying for his father? Well, “when anybody said anything to him, he was afraid lest they should hurt him; so he would call out ‘Father!’ as loud as he could, although his father might not be near at the time, and if he were would only be very angry with him for being so silly.”

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As if this isn’t scary enough, Jack also encounters a spider who needs help finding a fly, an oversized frog in pants (alarming enough to cause Jack to fall into the pond), and a bull who is inexplicably wearing leather breeches, smoking a pipe, and enjoying a mug of beer.

Seeing Jack’s state of abject terror, the bull wisely offers him some of the beer (for what negates fear like a mug of ale that probably just had bull lips on it?). Of course, in response, Jack (you guessed it) cries “Father!”

If this is truly to be the story of a Bad Child of History, of course, something ill must befall Jack such that he learns his lesson.

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“Very well,” said the Bull, looking after him. “I tell you what it is: if you come crying ‘Father’ to me any more, I think I know where you’ll go to.”

And the next morning the silly boy did meet the Bull again; again the Bull offered him some beer; the boy cried “Father!” and the Bull, who always kept his word, ran after him. Where do you think he went to?

Why, up into the withered tree, for that was where the old Bull tossed him, and there he is now for all I know.

Modern translation: don’t have a childhood anxiety disorder, or a drunken bull could toss you into a withered tree.

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Impeccable Science, or, the Flames of Intemperance

What do you do when you want to evaluate if an article is a reliable, credible source of information? Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, my favorite wellspring of writing advice, counsels that “responsible, credible authors will cite their sources so that you can check the accuracy of and support for what they’ve written.” Sensible advice, in my opinion.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at this July 1812 issue of The Emporium of Arts and Sciences (vol. 1, no. 3), which features some of the most fantastically impeccable science I have ever encountered in my short but highly scientific life.

The name sounds pretty legit, no? It even says “sciences” in the title!

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How reliable is the author? Does he cite his sources so that we can examine the support for what he’s written?

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Ooo, yes, plenty of (poorly photographed) footnotes, and some of them are even in French! This author does his homework, and he’s bilingual, to boot. I’m leaning towards deeming this a trustworthy source for information about…

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“Combustion of the Human Body, produced by the long and immoderate use of Spirituous Liquors”.

Hang on, what? Drinking too much can make your body catch on fire? I’d consider that “destitute of probability”, as author Pierre-Aime Lair notes that some readers, myself apparently included, may be apt to consider. He promptly addresses our collective doubts:

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Is it more surprising to experience such incineration than to void saccharine urine, or to see the bones softened to such a degree as to be reduced to the state of a jelly? The effects of this combustion are certainly not more wonderful than those of the bones softened, or of the diabetes mellitus.

Point taken– the human body can be strange and marvelous. I still want more proof, though.

In physics, facts being always preferable to reasoning, I shall here collect those which appear to me to bear the impression of truth; and, lest I should alter the sense, I shall quote them such as they are given in the works from which I have extracted them.

Oh good, facts! The author’s “facts” are henceforth presented in nine thoroughly footnoted pages of wildly gruesome recollections wherein women, in their drunkenness, were reduced to piles of ash, often with a few extremities preserved in near-perfect condition. It’s an awful lot to take in, and I’ll spare you the bulk of it, lest you be haunted by nightmares like the ones I’m sure to have tonight. Highlights include a woman whose maid found her as “a heap of ashes, in which could be distinguished the legs and arms untouched”, a room full of “a moist kind of soot” which was “conveyed to a neighbouring kitchen… a piece of bread in the cupboard was covered with it, and no dog would touch it”, a woman whose trunk had “the appearance of a log of wood”, and an ash pile next to an extremely small hearth with a “right foot… found entire, and scorched at its upper junction”.

So, that’s terrifying. For readers who are, no doubt, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of this horrific evidence, the author sums up commonalities in a handy list:

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1. The persons who experienced the effects of this combustion had for a long time made an immoderate use of spirituous liquors.
2. The combustion took place only in women.
3. These women were far advanced in life.
4. Their bodies did not take fire spontaneously, but were burnt by accident.
5. The extremities, such as the feet and the hands, were generally spared by the fire.
6. Water sometimes, instead of extinguishing the flames which proceeded from parts on fire, gave them more activity.
7. The fire did very little damage, and often even spared the combustible objects which were in contact with the human body at the moment when it was burning.
8. The combustion of these bodies left as a residuum fat foetid ashes, with an unctuous, stinking, and very penetrating soot.

All of my modern, feminist sensibilities are offended by the idea that this fate only befalls older women. Why do women have to bear the brunt of the ill effects of heavy drinking? How on earth do fiery accidents distinguish between male and female bodies in the first place? How does one become so deeply imbued with liquor that one’s body is essentially a figgy pudding?

Not to fear, Pierre-Aime Lair can explain.

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The female body is generally more delicate than that of the other sex. The system of their solids is more relaxed; their fibres are more fragile and of a weaker structure, and therefore their texture more easily hurt. Their mode of life also contributes to increase the weakness of their organization. Women, abandoned in general to a sedentary life, charged with the care of the internal domestic economy, and often shut up in close apartments, where they are condemned to spend whole days without taking any exercise, are more subject than men to become corpulent. The texture of the soft parts in female bodies being more spongy, absorption ought to be freer; and as their whole bodies imbibe spirituous liquors with more ease, they ought to experience more readily the impression of fire.

Um. Women have weak fibers and are spongy. But why older women, specifically?

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Dancing and walking, which form salutary recreation for young persons, are at a certain age interdicted as much by nature as by prejudice. It needs therefore excite no astonishment that old women, who are in general more corpulent and more addicted to drinking, and who are often motionless like inanimate masses, during the moment of intoxication, should experience the effects of combustion.

Older women are “spongy”, AND they’re “motionless like inanimate masses”?! They’re more likely to be drunk, and therefore more likely to light on fire while going about their daily business? This is amazing! This is impeccably scientific! Surely our female readers are now convinced not to imbibe in excess.

Does that mean that nothing bad ever happens to men who drink? Not the case, according to dear old Pierre-Aime. It’s just that men don’t burn in place, leaving behind forlorn hands and feet, but rather tend towards having flames shoot out of their bodies.

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Sturmius says, that in the northern countries flames often burst from the stomach of persons in a state of intoxication. Three noblemen of Courland having laid a bet which of them could drink most spirits, two of them died in consequence of suffocation by the flames which issued with great violence from their stomachs. We are told by Thomas Bartholin, on the authority of Vorstius, that a soldier, who had drunk two glasses of spirits, died after an eruption of flames from his mouth.

There are the facts, folks. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Wonderpictures, Russian Checkers, Toy Printing, Irish Certificate

Just a quick post with updates on some of the latest additions to Special Collections.

Thanks to donor David Nudelman, we’re now home to 356 Russian books on checkers. They join our already rich Haynes collection on checkers, and they should be of interest to anyone with an interest in Soviet book design. Here are two examples:

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Another donor has given us a collection of toy printing/sign-making sets. They’ll join our Updike Collection on the history of printing.

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We purchased a rare certificate of membership in the Repeal Association of Ireland:

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And a very fun item that you’ll have to visit to get a proper sense of. “Stulz Wonderpictures” is a small advertising booklet that doubles as a visual toy. The images inside are printed in two colors and in such a way that the first image presents a scene and text (“Where are the fish?” for instance, with a picture of a fisherman). When the included red plastic sheet is placed over the image the original scene disappears and a new one takes its place (in the example above, fish swimming in a stream). Not only is it a whimsical complement to our children’s collections, it’s a fascinating piece of printing ephemera. And best of all, this amusing toy, seemingly aimed at children, advertises whiskey made by the Stulz Brothers company in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Historic Book Person of the Week #3: George Trautz

Binder George Trautz, looking every inch the craftsman:

Read all about him in Gustave Brunet’s Bibliomania in the Present (i.e. 1880) Age.