Ida B Wells & Sophia Duleep Singh

Ida B Wells & Sophia Duleep Singh

The true pioneering heroes of the Edwardian Era were not The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. This supposedly tranquil time was in truth the most turbulent age of social activism between the Civil War and the 1960s, and naturally the real drivers of this new “Progressive” age were less likely to be old, white or male than the usual famous names of the age.

Sophia Duleep Singh was born a princess, the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Indian prince in the Sikh Empire. Goddaughter to Queen Victoria, she was raised in luxury in England, but as an adult grew to realise that her sheltered upbringing had hidden from her a world of opression, and on a visit back to India she realised what had been done to her homeland. Returning to live in her own house in England in 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) demonstration alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, where more than 150 women were assaulted. In 1911, on the day of the King’s Speech to Parliament, she launched herself in front of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s car and pulled out a ‘Give Votes to Women’ banner from her fur muff. In the 1910s she refused to pay her taxes, saying “If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?” – but with her royal connections, the police were too scared to arrest her. Here she is pictured selling a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace.

Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, born into slavery during the Civil War, then orphaned by a yellow fever outbreak at the age of 16, forcing her to become a teacher to support her siblings. In 1884, she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis after having been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket. After the lynching of one of her friends, she started publishing anti-lynching pamphlets and writing for newspapers, until one exposé led to her office being burned down. Driven out of Memphis, Wells began traveling internationally to tell the world about lynching, and confronting women’s suffrage organisations who refused to take the issue seriously. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, and was there at the founding of the NAACP in 1909.

Here is a history podcast about Ida B Wells, and here is another about Sophia Duleep Singh.


Billy Possum

You may already have heard the inception myth of the teddy bear. Teddy Roosevelt, the definitive POTUS and all round man’s man, out on one of his regular hunting trips, refuses to kill a female bear as it has a young cub. A political cartoonist uses the story to illustrate Roosevelt’s humanity and sense of moral duty to protect lesser beings, two companies start making toy bears based on said cartoon, then for some reason this fad turns out to be the one in a thousand that becomes a permanent fixture. It doesn’t particularly matter that most of the story is probably not true, or that the bear was, in fact, killed, by 1909 the teddy bear is already embedded in popular consciousness, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic is one of the most-played bits of sheet music (though it – bizarrely – doesn’t have lyrics yet) and toymakers worldwide are producing masses of different stuffed toy animals, hoping to catch the next craze before everyone else.

Into this world let’s bring our new president – the portly mustachioed figure of William Howard Taft, newly elected President of The USA, who wanted a bit of that teddy bear action. From an article on the generally excellent Mentalfloss:

In January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta. At Taft’s request, the main course was “possum and taters”—a toasty pile of sweet potatoes topped with an 18-pound whole cooked opossum. (Taft gobbled up the roasted marsupial so quickly that a nearby doctor advised him to slow down.) When Taft’s belly was stuffed, local boosters presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum. The toy, they told Taft, was destined to be the next big thing—it was going to replace the teddy bear. They dubbed it “Billy Possum.”

To find out what happened to the billy possum, and why it never took off, take a look at the full post or listen to the story on the 99% Invisible podcast.

Jack Johnson

A truism that bears continual restating; the Edwardian / “progressive” era was really, truly racist. Even the most diehard bigots these days would be unlikely to begrudge a black man his boxing career, but it took the best part of a decade of being the best boxer in the world, and two years of stalking his opponent, before Jack Johnson was able to compete for (and win) the world heavyweight title from Canadian Tommy Burns.

This was not, of course, allowed to pass unnoticed. The next two years saw a host of competitors put up against Johnson as “the great white hope” until finally superstar world champion James J Jeffries was brought out of retirement to challenge Johnson in “the fight of the century” – the film of which was distributed across the USA. The viewing of Johnson’s victory sparked race riots, which led to a nationwide ban on the distribution of fight films. Nearly a hundred years later, it would be entered into the National Film Registry.

A decent podcast about Jack Johnson can be found at Stuff You Missed in History Class – usual provisos about excessive advertising apply.

Strychnine, Egg Whites, Brandy and a Human Zoo: The Terrible 1904 Olympics

The third modern olympiad, despite the dropping of such noble sports as kite flying, pigeon racing, cannon shooting and fire fighting, is still talked about as one of the strangest and most misguided sporting events in history.

A few reasons:

  • The games was moved from the fairly reasonable location of Chicago to the comparative backwater of St Louis, Missouri in order to coincide with the Worlds’ Fair being held there. Consequently most countries didn’t take the event seriously enough to send any athletes
  • The fair featured a ‘human zoo’ where African exchange students dressed up in tribal costumes and acted out an imagining of tribal life for paying visitors. This apparently not being dehumanising enough, the games organisers made these non-athlete exchange students compete in sporting events, in order to demonstrate that “the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view” (to repeat once more, 1900s America was really racist)
  • A lack of clarity as to what constituted the ‘Olympics’ meant that the competition ended up stretching over an indeterminate period of time up to around 6 months
  • Some competitors were discovered to be imposters, including local boxing hero Caroll Burton.
  • George Eyser earned three gold medals in gymnastics, despite being encumbered with a wooden leg

The most bizarre and unforgivable moment in the games, however, was the marathon, which proved to be a perfect storm of poor planning, pseudoscience, lack of concern for human wellbeing and sheer bad luck. – a few highlights from this truly astonishing account of the race:

William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs… At the nine-mile mark cramps plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed… Hicks came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites… Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”… Hicks’ trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down… He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea… His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.

Some more on this here:

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever (

Citrus, Altus, Fortius, Horrendius (The Memory Palace)


Alessandro Moreschi, the Last Castrato

This month’s mix features one of the only recordings in existence by a ‘castrato’ – a man who was castrated as a youth in order to maintain his choirboy-like vocal range. Most recordings featured in my mixes have little, if any, information available about them, and few of the artists even have a biography online, but Alessandro Moreschi has multiple books and documentaries dedicated to him. Naturally, this is less to do with his qualities as a performer than the sheer alienness of his existence to a 21st century audience. The music industry has done some terrible things recently, but the idea of permanently mutilating children in order to dedicate them to a life as an artist has such a bizarre combination of brutality and aestheticism to it that it’s simply incomprehensible that people could let such things happen. But with the horrors of the 20th century in mind, we should know that humans are capable of this and worse.

And of course there’s the curiosity. The sound of an extinct (human) creature lost to time until these recordings emerged, and then, well… Most listeners – that is, people interested in the history of opera, so not exactly representative of the public at large – find Moreschi’s voice not only strange, but actually not very nice to listen to. It isn’t just in a higher octave, the manner of singing is distinctly different, highly mannered, with a deliberately emotional style which sounds like the cheesiest of melodrama. Judging Moreschi on these lines betrays an understandable lack of experience of listening to opera recordings from the first years of the 20th Century.

Recording into a brass horn always changed a performance. Most singers would naturally attempt to do what they always did, perform as if they were on a grand stage in a theatre to a packed crowd, with all the theatricality that would entail. A few – notably Enrico Caruso – realised that an entirely different approach was needed, directing their voice carefully into the horn, exploiting the particular dynamics of the medium, and working with engineers to ensure that the instrumentation was matched to their voice. Most important, perhaps, was the move from ‘chest voice’ to ‘head voice’ – which made most of this possible. This different style fueled the boom in home listening, and formed not just the expectations of audiences, but the earliest training of the next generation of singers. Within a couple of decades the chesty emoting style of the Victorian stage would be forgotten, save for a few forgotten cylinders and discs. And maybe that’s a shame.

Here is Moreschi’s recording of ‘Ave Maria’. I’ve decided that I quite like it.


Here is very good article by Samantha Ellis about castrati, and here is a really quite excellent episode of an actually-always-excellent podcast called ‘Between The Liner Notes’ on Moreschi and castrati in general.

The Landlord’s Game

Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian era as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag” – but aside from the fashionable cliques of the upper class, nothing could be further from the truth. Radical politics was in the air on both sides of the Atlantic, with Socialist and Suffragist movements gaining strength all the way up to the start of the First World War.

Most of the cultural artifacts of the age bear the mark of this turbulence in one way or another, and no more so than The Landlord’s Game – a board game designed by American Socialist Elizabeth Magie as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” It ended up in the hands of Parker Brothers within three decades, now morphed into Monopoly, a game which celebrated the same terrible forces its predecessor aimed to eradicate.

99% Invisible have an episode on the topic, and of their usual high standard. You can listen to it here:


Bertrand Russell – The Principles of Mathematics

A book in which Bertrand Russell proved, for the first time, that 1 + 1 = 2.

…and he’ll still be going, and still be relevant (in quite a different way) in the 60s.

Usual high standard for this episode of the BBC’s In Our Time podcast, in which a group of historians discuss his life.

The Iroquois Theater Fire

A bit of a grim story today, though it is perhaps illustrative of the golden age of Vaudeville. Just after Christmas 1903, comedian Eddie Foy was starring in a sold-out matinee performance of a musical comedy, “Mr. Bluebeard,” in Chicago’s prestigious Iroquois Theater. 2000 people, mostly children and their mothers, were crowded into the theatre. During the performance, an overhead spotlight burst into flames, setting fire to the backstage rigging. Workers attempted to beat the fire out with sticks, but this was no help.

When flaming cloth began to fall on stage, panic set in. Foy asked the band to continue playing, but the audience began a mad dash for the exits. These, however, were not properly marked, or were even blocked. In the resultant stampede and inferno, 602 people died, and its a miracle that the toll wasn’t higher.

Stuff You Missed In History Class have an episode about the fire, and the changes in the law that followed, usual provisos about excessive advertising apply.

Harvey Washington Wiley’s Poison Squad

A staple of weird history sites, the Poison Squad were a self-selected group of healthy young men who willingly ingested food laced with untested food additives including formaldehyde and Borax. From their brave efforts come the foundations of the US FDA.

Stuff You Missed In History Class have an episode about them, usual provisos about excessive advertising applies.

Atlas Obscura have a very informative article with some good original pictures.

Science History have a general biography of Harvey Wiley.

….and here’s a short video for anyone who doesn’t have enough patience for those.




Moses B. Cotsworth’s Reformed Calendar

Everyone knows that the calendar we use  makes very little logical sense, but once such a fundamental standard it set, would anyone ever go to the trouble of trying to change it? Well, it turns out that the answer is yes – Moses B. Cotsworth did, and he got surprisingly far too, until the more pressing issues of the early 20th century got in the way.

Have a listen to (or a read of) the always excellent 99% Invisible podcast and find out exactly how close we came to sorting this thing out.

Exit mobile version