Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Category: 19th Century (page 1 of 5)

Halloween Superstitions

Have a drink with: Single Ladies (Halloween Edition)
Burning hair, apples, chicken guts, lead poisoning.

Ask her about: Do you know the Heimlich maneuver?

Halloween Superstitions

For most of American history, Halloween was not a holiday for children. Quite the opposite: to the extent Halloween was celebrated at all, by the 19th century it was known as an occasion for creepy seances or playful mischief-making by the adolescent set, where “playful” is mostly a euphemism for “requiring the assistance of the fire department.” (So intense was the prankster habit that one local fire chief sighed that, while he had no problem with teens celebrating the holiday with some reasonable pranking, “when droves of youngsters march through the streets pelting citizens and houses with vegetables he will make somebody answer for it.”)

People at the turn of the century would have had no concept of Halloween as the sort of holiday with small children playing charming dress-up, adults playing unnecessarily sexualized dress-up (seriously: WHY?), and everybody just doing it all for the Snickers bars.

They were too busy looking for their future spouse in the basement mirror.

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Henry Opukaha’ia

Have a drink with: Henry Opukaha’ia
Aloha oe.

Ask him about: No pineapple on Pepe’s, right?

Henry Obookiah

We’ve talked before about how Connecticut has given the world a wide assortment of innovations, some good, some bad: speed limits, law schools and scary Puritan judges, sure, but also Pepe’s pizza, submarines, constitutional government (maybe?) and P.T. Barnum.

With a check mark in each column: Henry Opukaha’ia. Good news: remarkable Hawaiian visits Connecticut, absolutely crushes scholarly agenda and impresses the pants off of the leading religious voices of his day. Bad news: his fan club includes a legion of New England missionaries bound for the Pacific.

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John Tyler

Have a drink with: John Tyler
His Accidency

Ask him about: Sick of that song yet?

John Tyler

In the anonymous New York Times opinion essay about staff dissent within the White House published earlier this month, the author mentioned (among many other things) deliberation over use of the 25th Amendment in response to perceived presidential instability.

To be fair, this is not a new topic: the the 25th Amendment has been a common topic in shouts and whispers over the past two years as pundits consider whether its terms would or wouldn’t realistically attach to the current occupant of the White House.

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1967 in direct response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the questions involved had well predated the 25th Amendment even if they had not been presented so directly: what to do when the Presidency changes fundamentally and irrevocably, due to death, removal, resignation, or disability?

Dealing with matters of succession and power transfer, the 25th was invoked in the 1970s around the Nixon administration, and is occasionally put into action when a sitting President is temporarily incapacitated (despite the promise of intrigue and drama inherent in the amendment, in reality it’s been used, for example, to cover the duration of each of the Bush presidents’ colonoscopies).

But for the first word on the matter of presidential succession, you’ll need to go back to 1840 and then-Vice President John Tyler, who set up a century-long American precedent on succession that boils down to a very Trumpy word: MINE.

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Fanny Fern

Have a drink with: Fanny Fern
Reform yourselves, gentlemen!

Ask her about: Menswear styles for fall

Fanny Fern & Lucy Van Pelt

“Fanny Fern” was the pen name of Sarah Willis Parton, a popular 19th century writer who advocated for women’s independence, kept her pencil sharp and her wit sharper, and insisted on being paid handsomely for her output: she got $100 a column, making her the highest-paid newspaper writer in the nation at the time, and was therefore criticized for “certain bold, masculine expressions that we should like to see chastened.”

Like fellow 1800s firebrand Delia Bacon, she was educated by Catherine Beecher and came into her adult fame and abilities after exercising considerable survival skills (her second husband was an abusive turd, and she overcame initial rejection and the opposition of her own family to get herself published).

Clear-eyed and honed sharp by the time she began publishing in her forties, Sarah was a dynamo, and did not shy from conspicuously poking at any hypocrisy or injustice that reared its head within her view.

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Presidential Hats

Have a drink with: Presidential Hats
Come at me, bro.

Ask them about: how buff was Teddy Roosevelt?

Hat in the Ring

With the collective American mind very much on upcoming midterm elections, and with a host of new and nontraditional contenders running for office, one phrase pops up perhaps a little more than usual: the announcement that one candidate or another has tossed his or her hat in the proverbial ring.

It’s a common, casual phrase in American English – but where does all this hat-throwing come from?

Perhaps the first public use of the phrase was on November 30, 1804, when the London Morning Post recapped a boxing match between fighters Tom Belcher and Bill Ryan. The sports reporter set the stage for the bout by writing:

“The parties arrived at Wilson Green, soon after ten o’clock, where a ring was formed by the spectators, who anxiously waited the event of the fight. Belcher appeared confident of success, and threw his hat into the ring, as an act of defiance to his antagonist, who entertained the same confidence of success, and received this bravado with a smile.”

(FYI: Belcher was favored in pre-fight betting with 6:4 odds, but went down in the 37th round on a knockout. )

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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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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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