My wild New Years: A sound thrashing by a lady cyclist. Bad presidential poetry. Snakes in the White House. Yale's widow-loving namesake. Cholera "before and after"—and much more!
Upcoming virtual events: I’m featured in Preserving Democracy: Pursuing a More Perfect Union, a new PBS series premiering tomorrow night. (On a related note.) On January 19th, I’ll be in conversation with Evan Hughes about his great new book, The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup.
ICYMI: I talked about presidential formality on RadioLab and my favorite sad Martha letter on Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant (featured on SMK and here). I waxed nostalgic about Tito’s Tacos and the local fast food of my youth with Pulitzer prize-winning historian Marcia Chatelain (also featured in Preserving Democracy and on SMK) in her aptly named newsletter, Your Favorite Professor.
Dear History Cranks and Fiends,
Happy New Year! I spent the holidays at home. Again. But this time around, I was optimistic. Scientists and doctors have made extraordinary progress and quarantine works, so a pandemic Groundhog Day is actually good news.1
On December 31st, I was newly boosted and ready to party, by which I mean getting into bed far before midnight and reading random primary sources on my phone while nursing a glass of wine. My first selection was, of course, base: James Madison’s collegiate attempt at dirty poetry. In 1771, the “Father of the Constitution” still had a lot to learn about writing.
Urania threw a chamber pot
Which from beneath her bed she brought
And struck my eyes & ears & nose
Repeating it with lusty blows.
In such a pickle then I stood
Trickling on every side with blood
When Clio, ever grateful muse
Sprinkled my head with healing dews
Then took me to her private room
And straight an Eunuch out I come
Next, fueled by my toddler’s current obsession with theoretical snakes, I looked into an anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt. Snakes, by the way, were just one of the pets Roosevelt’s six children brought to the White House. During his two terms, the White House was home to:
Joe (lion cub)
John Edwards (bear)
Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, other Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, “Fighting” Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady (guinea pigs)
Fierce (one-legged rooster) and Baron Spreckle ( hen)
Unnamed barn owl
Jack (terrier), Skip (mutt), and Pete (bull terrier)
Eli Yale (blue macaw), after the university’s namesake.
Yale is a worthy tangent, starting with the epigraph on his tomb in a church cemetery in Wales.
Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell'd and in Asia wed
Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even
And that his soul thro' mercy's gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.
I’m not saying this is weird, but I’m also not saying it isn’t weird: Yale was into widows. Everyone knew it. When he was living in Fort St. George, Madras, circa 1690—before he was removed as the president of the East India Company—he was the talk of the town for impregnating Hieronima de Paiva. Her late husband, Jacques de Paiva, was a Portuguese Jew who made a fortune in the diamond and coral business. Yale helped Hieronima take over his affairs. She also fenced supplies that Yale stole from the East India Company. This was almost a decade after he married Catherine Hynmers, a colleague’s widow, and had four children with her. After he left Madras to retire in London, he donated a portrait of the king of England, money, and bushels of stuff to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, run by Cotton Mather. American Heritage magazine declared him the nation’s “most overrated philanthropist.” Tom Wolfe named a Black police chief in A Man in Full after Yale, who oversaw the slave trade in Fort St. George.
Back to the snakes. Quentin, Roosevelt’s youngest, returned from an outing with four snakes he was eager to introduce to his father.
I was discussing certain matters with the Attorney-General [Charles Joseph Bonaparte] at the time, and the snakes were eagerly deposited in my lap. The king snake, by the way, although most friendly with Quentin, had just been making a resolute effort to devour one of the smaller snakes. As Quentin and his menagerie were an interruption to my interview with the Department of Justice, I suggested that he go into the next room, where four Congressmen were drearily waiting until I should be at leisure. I thought that he and his snakes would probably enliven their waiting time. He at once fell in with the suggestion and rushed up to the Congressmen with the assurance that he would there find kindred spirits. They at first thought the snakes were wooden ones, and there was some perceptible recoil when they realized that they were alive. Then the king snake went up Quentin's sleeve—he was three or four feet long—and we hesitated to drag him back because his scales rendered that difficult. The last I saw of Quentin, one Congressman was gingerly helping him off with his jacket, so as to let the snake crawl out of the upper end of the sleeve.
Quentin’s sister Alice had a better-behaved snake, which she called Emily Spinach. (She chose that name “because it was as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily.”) He was forced to return his unruly four and settle for all those other animals—and I didn’t even list every one. I was in the process of compiling the full menagerie when a friend sent me side-by-side photos of herself ringing in the New Year from 2019 and 2021. In the Before Times, she wore a sequined dress at a glamorous rooftop party, but on that night, she was sitting in her living room drinking champagne straight from the bottle with a straw. My eyes went to the cheese plate in front of her, which I would want to be alone with, too.
And just like that, I had a commission. I was no longer the receiver of primary sources. I was the giver. But unlike that brilliant downer, Lois Lowry, I was in the business of delighting people.
The recipient knew, though you may not, that I look nothing like the engraving of this woman in 19th century Vienna. On the left, she is a healthy young woman of twenty-three. On the right, she’s four hours from dying of cholera.
My second commission was also on the theme of survival. Another friend named it as his central New Year’s resolution. Others were more specific. They intended to “restart virtual therapy,” and “finish Glennon Doyle’s Untamed.” I liked the pandemic spins on traditional salubrious New Year's resolutions. Maybe they’ll influence my own. I never make them before my birthday in late January. It gives me a chance to respond to the momentum of the New Year. My progress is usually noticeable by then, so setting the bar a little higher doesn’t feel too ambitious.
And on the subject of change: Thanks to all of you who spent time on the survey. It guided me on changes I’ll be making now that my Substack Pro deal, which came with perks like a grant and an editor, is over. I would like to continue offering most of these newsletters for free, so I’m going to try out a sponsor, whom I’ll introduce in the next edition. If that works, I won’t be publishing any paid content this year; all 2022 content will be open access. The first year’s archives, however, will only be available to paid subscribers. (Other options: Email a receipt for You Never Forget Your First and/or Alice+Freda Forever to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll grant you access. If you can’t afford either option but want access to specific posts, email me there, too.)
Most of you preferred to receive one to two newsletters a month, give or take, on Wednesdays. That’s my preference, too, so you’ll see me again in a couple of weeks.
See you in a couple of weeks! In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram and my books, as well as others mentioned on SMK, on Bookshop, Amazon, and your local bookstore or library. If you have a question or comment, I want to hear it! email@example.com.
There’s much more to say about the severity of past viruses and the occurrence of natural immunity, but I keep thinking about two historical examples.
The least relevant: The population of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, neared 500,000 before ships full of goods brought the Plague in waves. Death docked in Constantinople’s port from the sixth century on. By the time the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453, the population had been reduced to 50,000. An estimated 30 to 50 million people died throughout Europe and beyond. (According to the census, there are 332,410,182 people in America. As of last month, 832,390 Americans have died from COVID-19.)
The most relevant: Smallpox was the very first epidemic to end with a vaccine that supplements natural immunity. I promise this isn’t hyperbole from a George Washington scholar: Had the General made vaccination optional for the Continental Army, we might be subjects of the queen of England. Can you imagine? A woman in charge of America? America is 245 years old and that’s only happened for a couple of hours, during President Biden’s colonoscopy.