Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Have a drink with: Robert Louis Stevenson
Under the wide and starry sky…

Ask him about: Self-care Sundays

I need a vacation. This makes me think of Robert Louis Stevenson.

If you believe, as I do, that history is an act of community through which we use the experiences of others to learn about ourselves, there can hardly be a better example than Stevenson. Not merely the author of such beloved thrillers as Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson was a lifelong traveler and spent the last handful of his 44 years living in Samoa in an effort to lessen the pain and effect of lung disease.

Stevenson set himself up on a jungle estate named Vailima, along with his American wife, Fanny, and a shape-shifting cohort of friends, relatives and locals. He learned the local language and advocated politically for the indigenous population, for whom he held great respect despite the fact that most Europeans’ attitudes towards the islanders ranged from interfering to dismissive (the Europeans were eventually dismissive of Stevenson, too – most regarded his later-life books, which told South Seas tales, as indulgent twaddle compared to his earlier adventure stories). The Samoans, for their part, called Stevenson “Tusitala,” or “teller of tales,” and after his death buried him in a place of honor on the island.

And Stevenson’s best life lessons (aside from being wary of peg-legged pirates and making sure it’s your nice personality who makes the CVS run) have to do with something we all need to do: take a friggin’ break.

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The Early Birds

Have a drink with: The Early Birds
There’s only one 10 o’clock in the day, and this ain’t it.

Yell along with them: Go the @%(# to sleep.

In the past week alone, major publications have promised that a good night’s sleep may be the key to successful business, effortless parenting, a better sex life and more enjoyable travel.

That’s all well and good until you consider that some 40% or more of Americans don’t sleep well, despite the assurances that if we deploy the right combination of baths, essential oils, soundproofing, early bedtime and smartphone avoidance, dreamy bliss will follow. So you can take your successful business, Mister-or-Ms. Fancy Journalist, and your perfectly-behaved child, and your one-night stand in Fiji, and get back to me when you have an article on the philosophical ramifications of Netflix asking you if you still exist when you wake up at 1:30 a.m. with no memory of having fallen asleep on the dog.

Despite the tossed-off surety that history cannot possibly understand us on this particular anxiety, let’s check in with one brave journalist from 1870 who was worn out enough to suggest: please, folks, please? Can we just start parties at 6 p.m. for a change, and hit the hay early?

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The Pony Express

Have a drink with: The Riders of the Pony Express
Colt pistols, bacon and beans, buns of steel.

Ask them about: Are horses allowed in the Dunkin’ drive-thru?

Pony Express

It’s December 1860, you live east of the Mississippi, and your options for sending Christmas cards* to West Coast relatives are, shall we say, limited. You can take the overland option, which involves sending your holiday greetings by stagecoach: wagons fording rivers and dodging rocks (and dysentery!) on lousy roads down to Texas and through the unending desert, but that’ll take a good month even at a good clip, so if you’re not on top of things by Thanksgiving, you’re toast. Steamers are no more help: they’re reliable, but since they go to California by way of Panama, that’ll still take 6 weeks.

And yet, all is not lost: the Pony Express can get your elf on the shelf in ten days.

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19th Century Rock Bands

Have a drink with: 19th Century Rock Bands
Are we gonna do Stonehenge tomorrow?

Ask them about: Their roadies’ workout schedule

Last week I wrote for the fine folks over at Atlas Obscura about rock bands of the 19th century. Monster rock bands, to be specific, who played to sell-out crowds, caused riots and advertised an all-caps SOLID ROCK spectacular.

To be clear: in the 19th century, being in a rock band didn’t mean that you cranked it up to eleven so much as that you were playing ON rocks.

Read on for more.

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Oliver Cromwell’s Head

Have a drink with: Oliver Cromwell
He’ll never be the head of a major corporation.

Ask him about: Karaoke hour?

In the last weeks of 1962, if you dug between the photos of miniature poodles and Christmas advertising in your local paper, you may well have read about the solution to a historical mystery: the whereabouts of the severed head of Oliver Cromwell. Under headlines like “Cromwell’s Noggin Found” and “Originator of the GI Haircut,” hometown papers across the United States featured the findings of one Tom Cullen, who claimed to have used “Sherlock Holmes’ own deductive methods” to locate Cromwell’s remains below the chapel of Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge. (In truth, he seems to have called up the university, whose staff matter-of-factly told him that not only had Cromwell’s head been buried in the chapel in 1960, there was a plaque plainly announcing the fact.)

But wait. 1960? What does one do in England for 300 years while dead?

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Harry Hill

Have a drink with: Harry Hill
“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.”

Ask him about: How’s your head?

Police Gazette Nov. 22, 1879

Harry Hill was a British-born horse-racing enthusiast and barman who ran a multi-purpose bar, concert hall, fight venue and gambling house at Houston and Crosby Streets in 19th century lower Manhattan, a scant mile and change uptown from Barnum’s American Museum. Hill was a colorful character whose combination of brawn, acuity and street-smarts gained him broad respect and local notoriety: he entertained a rough crowd but strictly enforced house rules about behavior and relative quietude (no swearing or unsanctioned brawling allowed, and while you’re at it, order a glass of wine for your digestion).

His New York Times obituary, printed August 28, 1896, described Hill as “a queer combination of the lawless, reckless, rough, and the honest man.” This was an understatement: Hill was the type of guy who once had been stabbed with a penknife by a disgruntled female patron, and seemed not to consider this out of the ordinary.

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Victorian Kleptomaniacs

Have a drink with: The Store Detective
Enemy of deviant feminist candy thieves!

Ask her about: hiding a football field’s worth of fabric in your skirt

Victorian Kleptomania

The modern department store came into its own in the 19th century, as retailers jumped feet-first into the growing Barnumesque sense of spectacle suddenly required to get a consumer’s attention (and their disposable income) in a mass-media society. In an effort to court customers, and to change what it even meant to “need” something, 19th century department stores went all-out in terms of decor and attraction: one Chicago store contained a “reproduction of a gold mine in active operation,” and a New York store had live lizards on hand to add some extra flair to a display, meaning that eventually “the police had to interfere to disperse the crowds.” Other stores offered enticements – free ice cream, a complimentary tea salon, cooking classes.

Much as people joke today about the porn industry being the inevitable first-to-market as far as any technology is concerned, department stores were that innovator in the 19th century. If you wanted to see huge plate glass windows, elevators and escalators, or grand displays of electric lighting, department stores were the place to go – and they were remarkable in that they were specific retail spaces in ways none had been before. Window shopping, for the first time, became a thing.

Stealing also became a thing.

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Walt Whitman’s Coffee Cake

Have a drink with: Walt Whitman
Contains multitudes; also coffee cake

Ask him about: Baking with pork fat

Walt Whitman is today remembered for a lot of things. He is the expansive, energetic chronicler of vibrant American life and spirit. He liked nude sunbathing. He grew one of history’s great beards. There was nothing he could not solve with a nice walk outside, musing: “Few know what virtue there is in the open air.”

He isn’t, though, remembered for his baking. And that’s a shame. The man made a mean coffee cake.

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Sarah Winchester

Have a drink with: Sarah Winchester
40BR, 30BA; move-in ready!

Ask her about: Extreme Home Makeover, Spectral Edition

Winchester Mystery House

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the star of the recent suspense film Winchester is Helen Mirren. She is, after all, a certified badass; a superb actress; and well kitted out for the job in a dour stare and a dramatic swath of black Victorian lace.

In fact, though, the star of the film is a house, purportedly as haunted in reality as it is on film. The Winchester Mystery House, as it’s popularly known, is a 160-room Queen Anne-style mansion in modern-day Silicon Valley, created by the real-life version of Mirren’s character Sarah Winchester. And as a 1940s tourism brochure points out, “The World’s Largest, Oddest Dwelling” is not your typical real estate listing.

Clipping Winchester Mystery House

So why spend more than three decades building an ooky, nonsensical Queen Anne monstrosity, albeit one with very nice amenities? If you believe the legend, it’s because Sarah Winchester was trying to manage a tenant roster of very unhappy ghosts.

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The Winter Olympics

Have a drink with: The Winter Olympics
Faster, higher, stronger, colder.

Ask about: Being young and full of sin

Winter Snow

Although technically the Olympic Games have been going on since centuries B.C.E., the modern Games as we now know them began in 1896, with the competition of 241 athletes in traditional track-and-field events, wrestling, gymnastics, shooting and the like in Athens, Greece.

The Winter Games, however, are a comparatively recent addition, and did not first occur until very recently, historically speaking, in 1924 (there’s even film!). And there was at least one person who was not happy about it AT ALL, which you can read all about in an edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published ninety-four years ago today:

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