Thugs

The term “thug” comes from India and centuries of murderous highway thieves.

The word “thug”, used in the common parlance to describe “a violent or brutish criminal or bully”, comes from the medieval highway men of India. Thugs were organized professional criminals. Posing as innocent travelers, thugs would gain the confidence of wealthy people traveling the same roads, sometimes traveling with them for a few days. Then, when the time was right, the thugs would strangle their victims, rob them, and dispose of their bodies. While thugs used a variety of methods for murder, their preferred method of strangulation may have been from a loophole in 16th century Mughal law which specified that a murderer would only be sentenced to death if he/she had shed blood.

Thugs about to strangle an unsuspecting victim.

Colonial Thug Life

Over the centuries thugs murdered & robbed tens of thousands of people. They gained international infamy with the British colonization of India. As the British encountered the thugs, stories of these scandalous criminals made it back home to England. The thug problem was even used in part to justify the colonization of India as the British would be “helping to save the natives from themselves”.

In the early 19th century the British began to break-up, prosecute, and eradicate the thugs. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department was formed in 1830 as a division of the East India Company to address the thug problem – hunting down thousands of thugs. By the late 19th century thugs had largely disappeared from daily life.

The “Cult of Kali”

In the west, thugs were often portrayed as members of a cult to the goddess Kali, murdering and robbing in her honor. It was even said that strangulation in particular was part of a divine mandate. In recent years however there has been increasing doubt as to the legitimacy of these religious claims. Modern thinking is that it’s unlikely these criminals were members of some wide-spread murderous death cult and more likely that the British were using these ideas to further their own agenda.

In portraying what were in actuality informal networks of criminals as a horrifying death cult the British could denigrate, delegitimize, and criminalize indigenous peoples. Over time “thug” became a term used to dismissively denigrate people of all kinds, but especially people of color. By the 1990s, in a reclaiming of the word, “thug” became a fixture of hip-hop especially through Tupac Shakur (who had “thug life” tattooed across his stomach). Today the word “thug” appears in the lyrics or the name of the artist in over 4,800 songs.

Added info: This association with Kali was the inspiration for the thuggee cult members in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Also, Kali is often portrayed with her tongue out, which served as inspiration for the Rolling Stones logo. Further, in Sympathy For The Devil, the lyric “And I laid traps for the troubadors / Who get killed before they reach Bombay” is believed to be a reference to thugs murdering Tibetan musicians on the road to Bombay.

Inoculation Hair Styles & Early Adopters

Early adopters of Parisian fashion helped make smallpox inoculations popular.

Inoculation is when you purposefully give someone an “antigenic substance” (a substance that triggers an immune response) to generate antibodies and help develop immunity to a particular disease. Around 1500 CE the Chinese developed a practice of inhaling a powder made from ground up smallpox crusts. By ingesting a less harmful version of the disease their immune systems could learn to fight the real thing. The Ethiopians and the Turks had a similar but different practice. They would make a small incision in the arm and place a piece of smallpox pustule inside, with the same goal of triggering an immune response and hopefully developing immunity.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of England saw the Turkish method while her husband was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She brought the technique to Western Europe and had her daughter inoculated in 1721. Despite evidence of success, westerners were skeptical of smallpox inoculations. When the Turkish procedure was done incorrectly the patient could get full-blown smallpox which has a fatality rate around 30% (or higher in children). Inoculations were an especially difficult sell in France, until smallpox killed King Louis XV and 10 of his courtiers in 1774.

Elaborate gravity defying pouf hair styles were all the rage in 18th century France.

Inoculation Hairdo

After the death of Louis XV, a nineteen year old Louis XVI was suddenly very motivated to get inoculated (additionally encouraged by his wife, Marie Antoinette, who had previously been inoculated back home in Austria). Soon others in the French royal court chose to follow suit. The royal court getting inoculated helped make the procedure more acceptable but what really helped was Mary Antoinette’s hair.

To celebrate the king’s inoculation Antoinette had a special gravity-defying pouf hair style constructed, the pouf à l’inoculation. The inoculation pouf featured a rising sun representing the king, an olive tree representing peace, and the rod of asclepius representing medicine. Soon other women wanted the same trendy hair style as the queen, and as the pouf à l’inoculation became popular around Paris so too did smallpox inoculations. An inoculation is a fairly invisible procedure but a spectacular hair style was a walking billboard celebrating that you had been successfully inoculated.

Early Adopters

In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, Dr. Everett Rogers theorizes how and why innovative ideas/products are adopted (or rejected). After the initial stage where innovators introduce a new product, the early adopters evaluate if it’s worthwhile. Sometimes called “lighthouse customers”, early adopters serve as messengers & guides, communicating the values of a new product to others. While members of each stage of the innovation adoption lifecycle require their own marketing strategy, a key to the early majority adopting a new product is the approval of the early adopters. Once early adopters give the thumbs up, the early majority accept the new product and success is all but inevitable.

The work of Dr. Everett Rogers theorized how new ideas & products are adopted (or rejected) by society. Without the approval of Early Adopters the majority will never accept it.

The queen’s hairstyle influenced the royal courtiers, who influenced the bourgeoisie, who in turn influenced the population at large. Smallpox inoculation was an unknown, scary, and seemingly counter-intuitive procedure, but it was made fashionable (desirable even) through early adopters celebrating it. By making medicine a cool status symbol people everywhere wanted it.

Added info: While it’s fairly well known that Mary Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake”, and that “cake” in this case meant a form of bread, she was still unfairly vilified. Overall she seems to have been a decent queen (as monarchs go), but she did live a wildly extravagant lifestyle which certainly made her seem detached from the struggles of the common people.

the Shamrock Shake & Uncle O’Grimacey

The McDonalds Shamrock Shake helped pay for the first Ronald McDonald house.

In 1970 McDonalds introduced their lemon/lime flavored green Saint Patrick’s Day Shake. It eventually changed flavors and names to become the mint flavored, and alliteratively titled, Shamrock Shake. Like the autumnal artificial scarcity of pumpkin spice, the Shamrock Shake is only available around Saint Patrick’s Day in the February through March timeframe (except in Philadelphia where it has two seasons).

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mayor Frank Rizzo, members of the Eagles organization, Fred Hill & his daughter all attended the opening of the first Ronald McDonald House, October 15, 1974.

Philadelphia’s two seasons of Shamrock Shakes goes back to the role it played in creating the first ever Ronald McDonald House. In 1969 Kim Hill, daughter of Philadelphia Eagle Fred Hill, was diagnosed with leukemia. By 1973 the Hills and members of the Eagles organization started the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity which helped pay for the new oncology wing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After seeing parents camped out in the hallways and waiting rooms while their children received treatments, the charity went a step further in 1974 and purchased an old seven-bedroom house at 4032 Spruce St. not far from the hospital. The house would be a place for visiting families to stay free of charge while their children received treatment – a “home away from home”. To help pay for this the Eagles partnered with the local McDonalds restaurants asking them to donate money from their next promotional food item, which just happened to be the Shamrock Shake. The Eagles asked them to donate 25 cents per shake but McDonalds executives asked if they could have the naming rights to the house if they donated all of the proceeds. Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray said “… for that money, they could name it the Hamburglar House.” From this, the first ever Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974. Today there are more than 375 Ronald McDonald House programs around the world which, at what would have been more than 2.5 million overnight stays in hotels, save families around $930 million each year.

Uncle O’Grimacey

As positive as the Shamrock Shake’s impact has been, there have been some missteps. To help promote the Shamrock Shake, McDonalds introduced the new mascot character Uncle O’Grimacey in 1975. The Irish uncle of the purple mascot Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey (complete in his kelly green hat, shamrock-patterned vest, and a shillelagh) would travel from Ireland each year bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland. Uncle O’Grimacey was quietly phased out of McDonalds marketing after a few years due in part to an alleged incident in Philadelphia in 1978 where the person portraying him made statements in support of the IRA and that British soldiers were better dead than alive.

Casual racism isn’t just relegated to the distant past however. In 2017 McDonalds ran an ad promoting the Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they had a man wearing a tartan Tam o’ shanter playing the shake like a set of bagpipes (which would be Scottish) while standing in-front of Stonehenge (which is in England). McDonalds stopped the ad and apologized saying they are “… strongly supportive of Ireland and respectful of its culture”. Begosh and Begorrah.

Uncle O’Grimacey bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland.

Acquired Overbites

We have slight overbites because we use forks & knifes.

Before people ate with forks & knifes they used their hands. In the absence of utensils people would have to clench and rip their food with their teeth. While crude, the result of all this pulling meant that people’s top and bottom rows of teeth lined up edge-to-edge. The introduction of utensils changed that.

The use of a fork & knife meant that a person no longer had to use their teeth to pull at their food, they could cut their food on their plate first. As a result anyone who used utensils (including us today) developed an overbite. Most of us have slight overbites where our top teeth hang out a bit in front of our bottom teeth, which comes from using utensils.

This effect can be traced across time, across cultures, and across social classes. Aristocratic classes could usually afford knives & forks before the peasantry, so they developed overbites before anyone else. For example, the more affluent members of 18th century Western Europe developed overbites before the people who couldn’t afford silverware. Even more interesting the overbite took longer to develop in the American colonies, who were poorer than their countrymen back home in Europe.

In China the overbite developed as far back as 800 CE. Instead of knives & forks the Chinese aristocracy used chopsticks, but to eat meat with chopsticks the meat had to be pre-chopped as part of the meal preparation. As a result they didn’t have to pull at their food either, and developed overbites centuries before Europeans.

QI discusses the development of overbites, and as it pertains to Richard III

Indigo & Isaac Newton

Indigo was included in the color spectrum by Isaac Newton because he wanted the spectrum to have seven colors instead of six.

Isaac Newton’s pioneering experiments with light & prisms explained how white light is actually the combination of several wavelengths (colors) of light. He demonstrated this using a prism to break apart white light into its composite colors and then used a second prism to recombine those colors back into white light. When white light is broken apart the “spectrum” (a word Newton introduced to the field of optics meaning a “continuum of color”) has many colors. Exactly how many colors is open to cultural interpretation.

Isaac Newton refracting white light through a prism, demonstrating that white light is comprised of more than one wavelength of color.

Any Color You Like

Most human eyes are essentially the same which means that most of us are physically capable of seeing & differentiating all of the same colors. Where we differ is how we think about color. Your culture & language influences how you categorize colors.

The importance of, and names for, different colors varies from culture to culture. For example, the medieval English didn’t have a name for the color orange until the 16th century, so before then things that were orange were just called red (like “redheads” and the robin “redbreast”). It’s not that they couldn’t see orange, they just didn’t have a name for it because having two distinct names for red and orange wasn’t important until then. Russian, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew all have two different words for idea of blue: one for darker blue and the other for lighter blue.

Hungarian has two different words for red depending on what you’re describing. “Piros” is used for red inanimate objects or red cheerful things, while “vörös” is used for red animate things or red serious things. Irish Gaelic has two words for the idea of green depending on where it’s seen. “Glas” is used for the green of plants while “uaithne” is used for the green of artificial dyes. The hue of a plant and a sweater could be exactly the same, but in Irish Gaelic different words will be used for the idea of green. In a nutshell: the names, categorization, and importance of various colors is entirely influenced by which culture we are a part of.

This cultural influence also applies to the spectrum of color and rainbows. Illustrations of rainbows contain discreet, countable, bands of colors. In nature however they’re continuous gradations of wavelengths/colors. Assigning a fixed number of colors to a rainbow depends on your cultural interpretation. In Islam, rainbows traditionally only have 4 colors corresponding to the four elements of water, earth, fire and air. Western culture should probably only have six colors, but we have seven because of Isaac Newton’s interest in mysticism.

Isaac Newton included seven colors in his spectrum because he felt the number seven was mystical & important. To do this he selected one tertiary color, indigo, to be included in his list of colors.

The Sacred Seven

As scientifically minded as Newton was, he also held occult/mystical beliefs. He believed in sacred geometry and the ideas of Pythagoras that there was an importance to the number seven. At first, after refracting white light, Newton recorded observing five colors (red, yellow, green, blue, violet). Then he recorded seeing six (he added orange). But to Newton six wasn’t as satisfying as seven. There are seven notes in the western major scale, seven days in a week, seven known “planets” in the sky (in Newton’s time), but only six colors in the spectrum of light? This wouldn’t do, so he added indigo.

The first six colors he observed are a logical western division of the spectrum:
• three primary colors (red, yellow, blue)
• three secondary colors (orange, green, violet)

Indigo is a blend of blue + violet and as such is the only tertiary color he included. It’s not that indigo isn’t part of the spectrum (it’s definitely there), but rather the problem is that it’s the only tertiary color listed because Newton shoehorned it in. Why indigo? Why not vermillion or cerulean? Indigo’s inclusion was an arbitrary choice driven by Newton’s desire to have seven colors instead of six so he picked one tertiary color but ignored the five others. Cultural influences pushed him to find seven colors instead of six (or eight, or twelve, or any other number). Centuries later we still divide the spectrum into seven colors because of Newton.

The Human Cannonball

The most dangerous act in the circus.

William Hunt (aka “The Great Farini”) was a well known Canadian tightrope walker & daredevil. He crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope multiple times performing different tricks. He eventually became an inventor & a (manipulative) talent manager as a safer way to make a living. In 1876 he invented a spring-loaded platform that could launch a person 30ft. He further developed this idea into the first human firing “cannon”.

14-year-old Rossa Richter, aka. “Zazel”, the world’s first human cannonball.

The Cannon

The cannons used in the human cannonball act are not true cannons, there is no gunpowder used to propel the performer. Some are spring loaded but many use compressed air which pushes a small platform up the barrel firing the person out while the platform stays hidden inside. Sometimes a little explosion takes place outside the cannon to create smoke for dramatic effect, but there is no gunpowder used inside the cannon.

On April 10th, 1877 a 14-year-old Rossa Richter (aka. “Zazel”) became the first human cannonball with a performance at the Royal Aquarium in London, flying out of Hunt’s new cannon invention. She was chosen because of her size and her circus experience. The Royal Aquarium was chosen because they were looking to increase their profits, and it worked. The human cannonball act soon became integral to circus performances as it could bring in thousands of paying spectators.

Zazel gained world-wide fame, but little money, as the human cannonball.

The Dangers of Being The Cannon Ball

The upsides of being a human cannonball are usually a fun stage name and that you only have to “work” for about 5 seconds a day. Unfortunately the dangers are obvious and quite real. Today’s cannons can apply 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of pressure on the performer as they accelerate from 0 to 70+ mph into the air. This can put enormous G-force pressure on a performer, sometimes up to 9 times normal gravity. All of this is damaging enough on the human body, but the greatest danger is the landing. After reaching heights up to 75ft in the air and coming down sometimes 200ft away from where they started, human cannonballs have to land in the target area – there’s no other option. Some use nets, some use airbags, but to miss the target is as devastating as you might imagine.

Anton Barker (aka. “The Human Rocket” aka “Capt. George Wernesch”) incorporated a trick where he was inside a shell which he would break out of in mid-air. On March 29, 1937 he was set to travel 84 feet but only went 64, crashing into the ground injuring his spine. Mary Connors wanted to break a record by being shot from one side of the River Avon and land on the other. On August 24, 1974 she failed to make it to the other side and ended up in the river. To make matters worse the rescue boat then capsized so she and the rescue team had to be rescued.

On January 8, 1987 human cannonball Elvin Bale (aka. “the Human Space Shuttle”) knew something was wrong the instant he was in the air. He tried to adjust for it in mid-air but he overshot the airbag by a few feet, landing on the ground feet first. He broke his ankles, knees, and his back in two places.

The Zacchini family performed for 70 years as human cannonballs.

The multi-generational Zacchini family produced numerous human cannonballs, performing for 70 years. Mario Zacchini ended his career as a human cannonball after he flew over a Ferris wheel at the 1939–40 World’s Fair in New York, but landed wrong breaking part of his spine, shoulder, and some ribs. On February 7, 1970 Emmanuel Zacchini and his wife Linda collided after being fired from a double-barreled human cannon. He fractured his spine while she broke her neck.

The Zacchini family performing different versions of their human cannonball act.

The Most Dangerous Act

Breaking bones is bad enough but fatalities are very common. One of the most cited human cannonball statistics comes from British historian A.H. Coxe. He estimates that of the 50+ people who have been human cannonballs, 30 have died while performing their act (almost all of which missed their landing). That’s a fatality rate of around 60%, making the human cannonball the most dangerous act in the circus.

Added info: Being a human cannonball is different than being a human catching a cannonball. Frank “Cannonball” Richards was a carnival performer famous in pop culture for taking a cannonball shot directly to the stomach.

Similar to the cannons used for human cannonballs, Frank Richards used a spring-loaded cannon instead of a real one fired by gunpowder. This slowed down the speed and force of the cannonball considerably … but he still took a 104lb cannonball to the stomach twice a day for years.

Frank “Cannonball” Richards, as parodied by The Simpsons

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is halfway between the winter solstice & the spring equinox, and has its roots in Candlemas which has even older pagan roots.

Every February 2nd since 1887, people have gathered in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day, the day Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) predict whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. The idea of marking the transition between winter and spring existed long before Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day sits halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Before Groundhog Day

February 2nd sits halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The ancient Celts of Europe marked this solar event with a festival which, after the Celts made it to the British Isles, became the the Imbolc festival. Imbolc began at sundown on February 1st and ended at the following sundown on February 2nd. In Ireland it evolved to honor the pagan goddess Brigid. When Christianity took over Ireland Brigid the pagan goddess became Brigid the Catholic Saint whose feast day (conveniently) was also on February 1st. The church Christianized the following day as well and made February 2nd Candlemas, the day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Candlemas has its own customs. People take their candles to the church to be blessed, a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world. For some Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season and is the date they take down their Christmas decorations. German speaking areas of Europe also marked Candlemas as “Badger Day”, a folkloric day when a badger would help predict the weather. If a badger was seen in the sun on February 2nd there would be a “second winter”, ie. four more weeks of winter.

Punxsutawney

The tradition emigrated from Germany to North America where the groundhog was substituted for the badger, since groundhogs are native to the areas were these immigrants settled (especially Pennsylvania). Similarly, where badgers weren’t common in parts of Europe other regional animals had been used such as foxes and bears.

The small western Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney has the most famous observation of this tradition, creating what has become the modern day Groundhog Day. The first “official” event was in 1887, where six more weeks of winter was predicted. Groundhog Day is presided over by a group of men in top hats & tuxes dubbed the “Inner Circle.” This amusing secret-ish society originally began as members of the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge, where the groundhog was not only use for weather prediction, but was also served as food at the lodge.

Phil the groundhog wasn’t a named element of the ritual until 1961. As the tradition goes he is the only groundhog to have ever predicted the weather for Groundhog Day, on account of the “magical elixir” he drinks every year which adds 7 more years of life, keeping him alive so long. Otherwise, a normal groundhog has a life expectancy of about 3 years (or up to 14 in captivity). Phil’s popularity as the prognosticator of prognosticators, the seer of seers, has led to many imitators.

Punxsutawney Phil tends to pick “6 more weeks of winter” and has debatable accuracy.

Track Record

Much is made of Phil’s prognostication track record. As of 2021, he has called for:
• Saw his shadow / 6 more weeks of winter: 105 times (84%)
• No shadow / early spring: 20 times (16%)
• No record of his prediction: 10 times

Stormfax has said that Phil has 39% accuracy in predicting the weather, but the Inner Circle has said that Phil is 100% accurate. Any “wrong” predictions must have been Inner Circle error in interpreting Phil’s prediction.

Added info: the 1993 movie Groundhog Day was filmed not in Punxsutawney but in Woodstock, Illinois. The movie was so popular that Woodstock started hosting their own Groundhog Day festival. Meanwhile the popularity of the film took the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day event from attracting around 2,000 visitors to bringing in tens of thousands each year with the 2020 celebration bringing in an estimated 40,000 people (about 8 times the town’s population).

the 1954 Eldorado Bullet Wheel

Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye on the steering wheel of a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Cadillac Eldorado (named for the mythical tribal chief / city of gold) began production in 1953. It was decorated with aeronautically inspired fins and conical “bullets”, as was the style at the time. The “Dagmar bumper” was the chrome front bumper that had two decorative bullet projections, named for the buxom American actress Dagmar. Included in this ‘50s bullet styling was a hard bullet shape at the center of the steering wheel, nicknamed “the bullet wheel”. The car had no seat belts.

The Eldorado’s “Dagmar bumper”, named for the buxom figure of American actress Dagmar
The “bullet wheel” of the 1954 Cadillac Eldorado had a hard “bullet” at the center of the steering wheel, similar to the styling found elsewhere on the car.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s career as a song & dance man started when he was a child in the 1930s. In the early 1950s his career was on the rise and he was performing in the clubs of Las Vegas while also working on projects down in LA. On November 18, 1954 Davis and his valet Charles Head left the New Frontier Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in Davis’s Eldorado to drive through the night to Studio City in LA the next morning.

Helen Boss was a widower from Akron, Ohio that liked to live as a snowbird, traveling to LA in the winters to avoid the cold of Ohio. She was traveling down Route 66, not far from San Bernadino around 7:00am on November 19th, when she missed her turn. Instead of turning the car around she simply put it in reverse and went backwards to the fork in the road where she went wrong. At the same time Sammy Davis Jr. was driving the same road and before he realized the car in his lane was driving backwards, slammed directly into the back of Boss’s car.

The Accident

The resulting accident sent people flying. Charles Head, who had been sleeping in the backseat, was launched into the front seat where he broke his jaw. Helen and her friend broke bones when they were sent into the backseat of their car. The V-8 engine of Davis’s car was pushed backwards into the dashboard as Davis was sent forward, his head colliding with the steering wheel. He hit his head hard enough that he dislocated his left eye on the bullet portion of the wheel.

The accident was a front-page story around the country. This brush with death, combined with a visit by a rabbi chaplain, led Davis to convert to Judaism. In the hospital Davis’s damaged eye was removed by doctors. He wore an eye patch for the next few months. His debut album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., was released the following year and the album cover features Davis wearing an eye patch. Eventually he switched to a glass eye. Later in life Davis would say “I’m a one-eyed Negro who’s Jewish.”

Davis initially wore an eye patch but eventually switched to a glass eye.

Form Follows Function

In the words of architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function”. The bullet wheel was a costly example that the style of the steering wheel (its form) was less important than its purpose (its function). After Davis’s accident the Eldorado’s bullet wheel was discontinued and replaced with a safer design.

Typhoid Mary

How one asymptomatic woman spread typhoid to dozens of people and raised a host of bioethical questions.

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in Ireland in 1869. She emigrated to New York City when she was 15 and worked her way up through the servant ranks to the highly respectable position of cook. Over the years she ran the kitchens & cooked for various families around the city. In the summer of 1906 she was the cook for the Warren family (Charles Warren, banker to the Vanderbilts) as they vacationed in a rental house in the very upscale Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Over the course of that summer, 6 members of the household got sick with typhoid. No one else in Oyster Bay contracted the disease, a disease typically associated with the poor. Concerned for the reputation of the rental house, the owner of the home knew the source of the typhoid had to be found or it would be difficult to ever rent the home again. George Soper, a freelance civil engineer, was hired to investigate the source and he traced it back to the Warren family’s former cook, Mary Mallon.

Tenement housing in New York provided ideal conditions for the spread of diseases including typhoid.

Typhoid

Typhoid, or more formally typhoid fever, is a form of salmonella (a bacteria) that can spread through tainted water or food that has come into contact with fecal matter. You find it in places with poor hygiene and poor sanitation, which is why it is generally associated with the poor.

New York City in the early 20th century was a much dirtier place than today. The population of the city was doubling every decade. The tenement housing of Manhattan’s Lower East Side was an overcrowded jungle of people and it was common for a family of 10 to live in a 325 square foot apartment. Add to the mix the 150,000 – 200,000 horses of the city, each of which created about 25 pounds of manure a day. It all led to filthy conditions that were ideal for typhoid and other bacterial diseases.

Mary, seen in the first bed, during her first quarantine at North Brother Island.

Forced Quarantine

Soper tracked down Mary and he documented a trail of typhoid in her wake. Over 10 years Mary worked for 8 different New York families, 6 of those families contracted typhoid and 1 person died. Despite this evidence Mary was adamant that she never had typhoid and she never felt sick. She was partially right.

It turned out that she was a “healthy carrier” of typhoid, someone who had the disease but never really felt sick. She was asymptomatic and went about her life unaware that she even had the disease, let alone that she was spreading it to other people (not unlike asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19).

Eventually she was forced against her will into quarantine by the New York City Health Department. In 1907 she was sent to North Brother Island in the East River which was being used as a quarantine center for people sick with infectious diseases. She remained there for 3 years, during which time her story of forced quarantine made it into the papers where she was dubbed “Typhoid Mary”.

In 1910 she was released from quarantine on the condition that she would never work as a cook again, since she had most likely transmitted typhoid through the food she prepared. She kept to this agreement for a while, working as a laundress, but eventually she disappeared from public health officials and started work as a cook again under assumed names. The pay and working conditions of a laundress were far below that of a cook for a wealthy family. She was caught working at Sloane Hospital for Women after an outbreak of typhoid infected 25 people and killed 2. She was sent back to North Brother Island where she lived until she died in 1938 at the age of 69 (still carrying typhoid).

Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon’s legacy is one of bioethical questions. In the early 20th century the science of communicable diseases was in its infancy, and Mary’s suspicion of the New York Health Department was not unusual. She felt fine, so how could she be carrying/spreading a deadly disease?

Her quarantining raises ethical questions of how far the government should go to protect the general public. When weighing an individual’s civil liberties against the health of the public which is greater? Despite never being convicted of a crime she was imprisoned on North Brother Island for the safety of the public. Was it more ethical to quarantine her the first time or the second time, or at all? Knowing that other people were also asymptomatic carriers of typhoid why was she kept in isolation for nearly 30 years while others walked free? As a healthy carrier she was an unlucky innocent victim of a disease, but she also chose to go back to cooking which she knew might endanger lives. The questions raised by Typhoid Mary are still relevant today.

Added item: There is a good hour-long documentary by PBS, The Most Dangerous Woman in America, on the story of Mary Mallon. You can also find a bootleg copy of the documentary on YouTube:

Animal Names vs Meat Names

In English we have different names for animals vs those same animals as food because of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE.

From the 5th century until the 11th century England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were descendant of Germanic tribes which is why English is related to German. In looking along the language family tree we can see that English is actually related to a host of Germanic languages. The early English language of the Anglo-Saxons took a turn however in 1066 CE when the Normans invaded and conquered the country.

The Normans were a French speaking people from Normandy, the northwestern area of France named for them. After crossing the channel and conquering England, they became the ruling class. This led to a tri-lingual system where:

  • Latin was the language of the Church
  • Anglo-Saxon English was the language of the common people, and
  • Norman French was the language of the nobility, courts, and government administration
A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry documenting the Anglo-Saxon defeat to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE.

What’s For Dinner?

Anglo-Saxons became the working-class hunters and farmers of England and, as they were the ones tending to the animals, they called the animals by their English names. The Norman rulers however more frequently encountered these animals when they were served on a plate, and in this culinary context called them by their French names.

Over the centuries this practice of using two different names was adopted into Middle English which then evolved into our Modern English. This linguistic duality, where a living animal is called one name in English while also being called by a different French name as food, has continued through to the present.

English animal vs French meat dual names include:

  • cow vs beef
  • calf vs veal
  • pig vs pork
  • sheep vs mutton
  • deer vs venison (although originally any hunted animal was called “venison”)
  • snail vs escargot

Interestingly we use the word “chicken” for both the animal and the meat. This is likely because chicken was one of the few meats that everyone could afford and since the common people were raising them and eating them, their practice of using the English language name in both context carried on.

Also the word for “fish” in French is “poisson” which is too close to the word “poison”. It’s thought that this linguistic similarity, and the danger if you get them confused, is why we kept the English language word for both the animal and the meat. We also tend to use the specific name for what kind of fish we are referring to (avoiding “fish” and “poisson” altogether).