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?
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.
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.
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?
Have a drink with: Harry Hill
“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.”
Ask him about: How’s your head?
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.
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
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.
Have a drink with: Sarah Winchester
40BR, 30BA; move-in ready!
Ask her about: Extreme Home Makeover, Spectral Edition
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.
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.
Have a drink with: The Winter Olympics
Faster, higher, stronger, colder.
Ask about: Being young and full of sin
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:
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: James O’Connell & Captain Costentenus
Over 7 million blood-producing punctures!
Ask them about: The many uses of coconut oil
The Greatest Showman, the recent Hugh Jackman movie musical about impresario (and frequent blog subject) P.T. Barnum, centers in large part on the “Oddities,” a troupe of human curiosities Barnum brings from social obscurity to delight crowds at his American Museum. Among these is a tattooed man – and, in this case, fact and fiction align: in the early 19th century, “tattooed person” officially became a career option for white Westerners. Many of them were sailors who, as Robert Bogdan points out in the book Freak Show, “rather than getting a small tattoo on their arm, had their bodies extensively decorated by native tattooers. When they discovered that people would pay to view such skin art, a new type of freak was created.”*
Barnum employed tattooed people in his shows throughout the 1800s, and the movie’s burly, bearded tattoo aficionado looks to be modeled on a real man named Djordgi Konstantinus – Captain Costentenus if you’re nasty.