Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Category: 19th Century (page 1 of 3)

Madame Tussaud

Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.

Ask her about: working motherhood

Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.

Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…

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Gilbert Stuart

Have a drink with: Gilbert Stuart
The one dollar bill.”

Ask him about: Chinese knockoffs

In August of this year, news outlets reported that the White House opened the door for the United States Trade Representative (an executive agency that advises on global trade policy) to conduct an investigation of potential Chinese intellectual property abuses. Citing the possibility of significant harm to American interests in the research-intensive technology sector, the President’s memorandum requested examination of laws, policies or practices that may be unreasonable or discriminatory and that may be harming American intellectual property rights, innovation, or technology development.”

China has long been regarded as particularly flexible in the intellectual property space, with one commentator calling local law and practice a “decades-long assault on the intellectual property of the United States and its allies.”

Nor is this a recent development, only relevant to modern topics like copycats, trade secret theft and brand piracy – Gilbert Stuart, who painted the iconic dollar-bill likeness of George Washington we spend every day (making him the most-reproduced artist ever) was the subject of something a lot of modern artists would find disappointingly familiar: unauthorized foreign knockoffs of his work. In 1802 Stuart, frustrated with an opportunist dealer shipping his works off to China for reproduction, went to Pennsylvania court to claim his copyright and seek an injunction.

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James Barry

Have a drink with: Dr. James Barry
Poodle enthusiast, dandy, ace physician

Ask them about: trans soldiers

James Barry MD

On July 26, President Trump announced a ban on transgender military service, citing the unsubstantiated likelihood that trans soldiers would subject the military to increased medical costs and an unacceptable degree of “disruption.” LGBT rights groups have since filed suit.

For proof that military accomplishment and gender fluidity readily walk hand in hand, we can look to James Barry, a 19th century military surgeon in the British Army who, unbeknownst to nearly everyone in his life, had been born Margaret Ann Bulkeley.

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The Astor Place Riot

Have a drink with: Edwin Forrest & William Charles Macready
The play’s the thing…

Ask them about: Dead sheep as theater criticism

Astor Place Riot

The New York Public Theater’s recent production of Julius Casear, in which the emperor bears a striking and not unintentional resemblance to Donald Trump, was hounded by controversy throughout its run. On June 16th, the performance was interrupted by protestors after Caesar’s assassination scene, with a right-wing activist climbing onstage to call attention to the “political violence” of the production.

This is not the first time American theater – or American Shakespeare performance, for that matter – has been a forum for bitter fighting over contemporary politics. When actors rallied near Manhattan’s Astor Place in support of the Public Theater shortly after the contested performance, it was no doubt with some specific history in mind: namely, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which a nasty feud between Shakespearean actors led to an actual battle between New York’s elite and a burgeoning nativist movement.

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Tom Thumb Weddings

Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!

Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?

Tom Thumb Weddings

I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.

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The Zoo Hoax

Have a drink at: The Central Park Zoo
Gordon Bennett!

Ask about: Does the gift shop sell firearms?

Highly partisan news engineered to manipulate media and line the owners’ pockets has become particularly virulent in current politics – and, thanks to the wackadoo likes of Alex Jones, highly visible as well – but it is not the first time this has happened. Manufacturing news whole cloth – for personal gain, sensationalism, manipulation or pure amusement – is nothing new. The New York Herald, under the 19th century management of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was a regular exercise in information manipulation and partisan journalism. And if you think the gay frogs were a bad trip, just consider the rhinoceros that wrecked Manhattan.
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James Marsh

Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…

Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases

The Marsh Test & arsenic poisoning

In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:

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P.T. Barnum, again

Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth

Ask him about: elephant agriculture

P.T. Barnum

Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.

Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:

1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.

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Henry Bergh

Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals

Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*

Salamander the Fire-Horse

Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.

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Mary Todd Lincoln

Have a drink with: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry

Ask her about: Levitating pianos

Spirit photography

George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.

Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.

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