Would you like fries with your mouse pie?

August 25, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

Bus in Grenada Nicaragua by KimI have received a few emails from ThinkingShift readers asking me what I am currently reading – so I’m thinking about a regular post on the stuff I read. But to answer the question: I am currently reading a fabulous book by Eric Burns – Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. Part of my ongoing love fest with history really. Burns is actually a journalist but has done a great job of writing an historical account about what can only be described as the wild, unruly west of nascent American journalism in the 1700s and 1800s.

There were no intellectual property or defamation laws back then so journalists could swipe slabs of text from incoming British newspapers and reprint. Or journalists (maybe more accurately described as muckrakers) could sling accusations and mud at such legendary figures at George Washington (first Prez of the US) and Alexander Hamilton (Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury). In fact, it’s suggested that Washington, after eight years as Prez, left office because his sanity was being worn down by the constant allegations that he had monarchical pretensions. From what I’ve read before about Washington, he was fairly tall and imposing but here’s what the Aurora had to say about this famous historical figure:

You seem to have entered life with a mind unadorned by extraordinary features or uncommon capacity. Equal to the common duties of private life, it emitted none of those sparks of genius, however irregular and inconstant, which mark the dawn of future eminence….Fortuitous circumstances yielded you in early life a small measure of military éclat, which arose chiefly from the barren talents of your predecessors in the Indian warfare. For some time after this you reposed in unambitious ease till the chances of a Revolution called you to the supreme command of the American army. An inoffensive neutrality had heretofore characterised your actions, and it was probably because you were in principle neither a Briton nor an American, a whig nor a tory, that you slid into this important station.

Phew…what a mauling! The Aurora was a Philadelphia newspaper (this city being the then-capital of the newly formed United States) and was printed by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson – Benjamin Franklin Bache. It was Republican in tone and was described as “filth” by contemporary critics. Washington (who I once read never uttered an expletive) commented on the Aurora and other newspapers of the time as a “malignant industry…persevering falsehoods” with which “I am assailed in order to weaken, if not destroy, the confidence of the Public”.

I’d love to go back in a time machine and check out the fur flying – Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton apparently hated each other’s guts. If you were for Jefferson you were a Republican; for Hamilton, you were a Federalist. And then there were the newspaper dudes who physically attacked each other on the street: Bache and Fenno (who published the Gazette of the United States) slugged it out for an hour or so before an audience of several thousand people in Philadelphia’s State House Yard. Apparently, everyone was at each other’s throats in those days. Can you imagine what the Aurora might say if it was around today and commenting on John Howard? Mmmm…..okay won’t go there!

People weren’t flush with money during the Revolutionary period, so papers were often handed on to family and friends, which was the only way information could really flow. They didn’t exactly have the Internet, radio or TV way back then, so the newspapers were the only information channel for political information or news about your city or town.

But you might wonder what on earth mouse pie has to do with all this? Well, what was also fascinating about this book was the contextual stuff: fashions of the time, physical descriptions of major historical figures and….a footnote that really piqued my interest. I’ve always wondered how people in that time period dealt with such regular horrors like smallpox and yellow fever. Of course, we live in a world where smallpox has been eradicated and a vaccine was found for yellow fever in the 1930s. But back then, a smallpox outbreak could wipe out a whole district or large slice of the population. So what remedies did they use to try and ward off infection? Well here’s a selection and let’s all take a moment to say thanks that we are not living in the 1700s or 1800s.

  • if you were suffering from a toothache, your local dentist (well, actually doctor as modern dentistry wasn’t around then) would have rushed around helpfully locating a centipede for you. Said centipede would have a needle stuck into it and that needle would then be inserted into your gum.
  • if you had a tumor, well basically I think you constantly prayed that you didn’t really have one, because here’s the cure – you or your doctor would dig up a corpse, cut off a hand and apply it to the tumor or area. The severed hand would remain in place “till the Patient feel the Damp sensibly strike into him”. I have no idea what “the Damp” is, but I would think the patient felt a whole lot of things – violent nausea from knowing you had the hand of a corpse strapped to you; socially ostricised because there’s no way anyone would want to come near you; probably in the divorce courts as your partner would be a little put off by sharing a bed with a corpse’s hand.
  • should you have the misfortune to contract typhoid, your doctor would prescribe several cups of chimney soot mixed with water, sugar and cream – ditch your late night cocoa because I’m sure this concoction tasted good!
  • and now to the mouse pie – and any mice reading this blog should run for their lives. If you suffered from bed-wetting, no problem. Your doctor would hunt down some mice, bake them up into a delicious mouse pie and serve up for dinner. The sight of a mouse tail sticking out from a pie would bring on bed-wetting if you ask me. And was the pie served with fries?

Regular ThinkingShift readers would know how I can suffer a touch of hysteria about privacy issues (wonder if a mouse pie is a cure for this?), so you won’t be surprised to find out I’m also reading:

Expect posts soon on what I discover from these books.


Entry filed under: Books, History.

How do you say ‘Big Brother’ in China? It’s patently absurd

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Oohlala  |  August 27, 2007 at 12:19 am

    Mouse pie sounds better than other treatments. Many people in this world still eat mouse in these days. Anyway, being healthy is the best luck- no matter you were born in 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, or 2000s.

    Best wishes,


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