Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Garfield’s terrible doctors and Alexander Graham Bell’s metal detector

Friday, September 18th, 2015

When President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2nd, 1881, a mere three months and 28 days after his inauguration, the nation was shocked. Lincoln’s assassination was deemed a sort of war casualty, a freak occurrence brought on by Civil War, not the opening of a floodgate, so presidents had no security detail and moved about in public places like anyone else. It was easy, therefore, for a disgruntled office-seeker/nutjob with a delusional amount of self-regard like Charles J. Guiteau to approach Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C., and shoot him twice. One bullet penetrated his lower back; the other grazed his right arm.

Even from a few away and taking his victim by surprise with a shot to the back, Guiteau was too incompetent to kill immediately. Garfield lived for 79 days, two months and 17 days of agony, before dying of blood poisoning on September 19th, 1881. Sadly, as you might have deduced from his cause of death, Garfield’s doctors were in part, maybe even in large part, responsible for the president’s painful death, a point that Guiteau made at his trial when he took responsibility for shooting Garfield but not for killing him. That outcome he laid at the doctors’ door, with a little help from God, of course, who was behind the whole thing, according to Guiteau.

Although Joseph Lister had first published his successful tests of disinfection with carbolic acid in 1867 and had traveled across the United States in 1876 lecturing on his method, even though by 1879 Lister’s antiseptic protocols were almost universally adopted in Europe and Great Britain, the majority of American surgeons in 1881 rejected Listerism. They took pride in that “good old surgical stink” caused by years of accumulated blood and pus and god knows whatall assorted fluids on their surgical gowns. Garfield’s doctors were no exception.

The first doctor to arrive at the scene was the District of Columbia’s health officer Dr. Smith Townsend. He gave Garfield brandy and smelling salts to keep him conscious, and then stuck his doubtless germ-laden fingers into the entrance wound, fishing around hoping to find the bullet. Nine more doctors followed, each poking and prodding the suffering man. As a crowd gathered, Townsend ordered the President be moved to a room on the second floor. Garfield’s cabinet members, who had come to the station to see him off, kept vigil by his side. One of those cabinet members, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, was particularly traumatized by seeing so painful a history repeat itself. He sent for Dr. Willard Bliss, one of the surgeons who had tried (and failed) to save his father’s life.

Bliss arrived and immediately took over. He administered morphine and had a go at tracking the bullet, sticking his pinky finger and a number of metal probes into the wound. One of the probes was jammed in so deep that it got caught in Garfield’s broken rib and had to be jiggled this way and that to remove it. Only after this examination was done did Bliss order Garfield transported to the White House.

There even more doctors showed up, including Dr. Jedediah Baxter, Garfield’s personal physician. Baxter was turned away at the door by Bliss who insisted on taking complete control of the illustrious patient. Bliss dismissed all the doctors who had “helped” at the station and assembled his own team. Only two doctors were allowed to attend Garfield against Bliss’ wishes at the insistence of First Lady Lucretia Garfield: Dr. Susan Ann Edson, Mrs. Garfield’s personal physician and one of a very few women doctors in the country, and Garfield’s first cousin Dr. Silas Boynton. Bliss still managed to shut them out from making any decisions on treatment, relegating them to a nursing role.

When Garfield survived the night and woke feeling refreshed, his breathing even, his temperature normal and his pulse rate a high but not alarming 114 beats per minute, it seemed his strong constitution might pull him through after all. His team of doctors did not leave well enough alone, however. They continued to obsess over the bullet, trying to find it so they could determine whether to remove it surgically or leave it in place. Without X-rays or other non-invasive technologies at their disposal and rejecting Lister’s precautions, unwashed fingers and probes were the method of choice.

Enter Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was then at the crest of the wave of his fame. His telephone, patented in 1876, was a sensation that would make him a very rich man. Spurred by interference on the line caused by telegraph lines running near the a telephone conductor, in 1877 he patented an induction balance system that used two conductors with equal and opposite induced currents to create a “quiet circuit.” Induction balance machines weren’t new (a certain Professor Dove in Germany had invented one in 1841), and metals were known to interrupt the currents. What Bell thought of when he learned of the President’s predicament was how to connect his telephone technology with induction balance technology so that the interruption in the current could be heard as a ring through a handheld earpiece.

Using an induction balance device by Professor D.E. Hughes, with the help of his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter and the input of many eminent scientists (read his detailed report here), Bell created an amplified induction balance machine that would hopefully detect the bullet inside the President. Bliss wouldn’t let him near his patient until the machine was tested on another human guinea pig, so the doctor directed Bell to try it on Lieutenant Simpson who had been carrying a bullet inside of him since the Civil War. On July 22nd, Bell tested the machine on Simpson. He heard a signal but it was weak so he added a condenser which increased the hearing distance and made the sound more detectable.

Bell arrived in Washington on July 26th and passed the induction balance machine over Garfield’s right side and only his right side. That was at Dr. Bliss’ insistence since he was sure the bullet was on the right and wanted to move the President as little as possible. The machine made a feeble sound over Garfield’s abdomen, the area Bliss and his crew thought the bullet was lodged in, but Bell was dubious that it was a legitimate signal. He went made more modifications to the machine, tested it on another Civil War veteran, a side of beef he’d stuck a bullet into and a thick bag of cotton he’d hidden a bullet in, and returned to the White House again on August 2nd. He got much the same results. The doctors took it as confirmation of their assessment. Bell thought it was interference from external metal elements, perhaps the springs under the mattress.

In the end, Bell’s induction balancephone was unable to accurately pinpoint the location of the bullet, and even if it had, by then it was too late. By July 23rd, sepsis had set in. No surgical intervention, filthy or clean, was going to save James Garfield. The pathogen-rich wound probing had already claimed his life. It was just a matter of time. Unable to keep down food, President Garfield lost 65 pounds in those 79 days, shrinking from a stout 200 pounds to a gaunt 135 pounds. His doctors gave him nutrient enemas to keep him from starving to death. Feverish and hallucinating, his poor, infection-riddled body developed painful abscesses which were lanced only to pop up in new places.

The metal detector wasn’t the only invention mothered by the necessity of keeping James Garfield alive and as comfortable as possible. The Navy Corps of Engineers created a rudimentary air conditioning system consisting of wool strips soaked in water and hung over blocks of ice. An electric fan was positioned to blow air through the strips and ice into the President’s room, keeping it at a steady 75 degrees during one of the hottest summers on record when it was 100 degrees outside and 90 indoors for weeks in a row. When Garfield was moved to his cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, to spend his final days bathed in the dulcet breezes of the Jersey Shore, the Navy Corps of Engineers devised a waterbed to keep him from being jostled mercilessly over the train journey. It worked; Garfield reported the trip — which ended literally on his doorstep thanks to a mile-long spur built overnight by the Pennsylvania Railroad — had been quite pleasant.

James Garfield, born dirt poor in a log cabin in Ohio, who worked his way through college as a janitor, rose to the rank of General fighting in major battles of the Civil War, became state senator, then Representative, then Senator-elect, then President before he could take his seat in the Senate, died in Franklyn Cottage in full view of the ocean, his beloved Lucretia and children by his side. An autopsy found that Bliss was completely wrong about the location of the bullet. It had traveled through the first lumbar vertebra and stopped near the spleen, on the left side of Garfield’s body where Bliss insisted it was not.

As for presidential security, believe it or not it took another 20 years and yet another assassination in full public view, that of William McKinley on September 6th, 1901, for Congress to task the Secret Service with protecting the person of the President of the United States.


Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The New York Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow as they digitize their huge collections of photographs, manuscripts, maps. They’re up to 838,384 individual items from The New York Public Library’s collections digitized and uploaded to its website. Many of the scans are in high resolution and while the interface can be a bit clunky (no easy mechanism to move from page to page, for example, in some of the books and pamphlets), they make for riveting browsing.

Arranged in subcollections, there are groups with thousands of items — 2,027 turn of the century posters, 64,243 portraits culled from the library’s Print Collection, 8,915 documents from the Emmet Collection of manuscripts focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the Revolutionary War — and single items like book covers or individual pages.

One striking group of photographs that has recently been uploaded is the William Williams collection. Williams was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island from 1902-5 and 1909-13, some of the busiest years of immigration to the United States. He left his papers, including the pictures he collected from his days at Ellis Island, to the New York Public Library and now the photographs are online. There are an eminently browsable 100 or so pictures and article clippings in the Williams collection, 41 portraits of immigrants going through the process of being allowed into the United States, 49 focused on Ellis Island itself.

Most of the latter were shot by Edwin Levick, a professional photographer with a particular focus on maritime views, which explains why many of his pictures of Ellis Island are taken from the water. The portraits of the immigrants were mostly taken by an amateur, Augustus Frederick Sherman, Chief Clerk of Ellis Island. In sheer fascination and impact, the amateur puts the professional to shame.

Sherman was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1889. In 1892, he got a job as a clerk at Ellis Island. He was competent and dedicated and came up through the ranks, ultimately getting promoted to Chief Clerk in 1905. Part of his job was to deal with appeals by detained immigrants who had been blocked from entering the mainland by one of the Boards of Special Inquiry because of illness, crime, suspect associations, etc. The Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration adjudicated the appeals and determined whether an immigrant could enter the country or was deported. As Sherman had access to detained immigrants as well as immigrants passing through with comparatively few difficulties, he was able to take about 250 photographs of them between 1905 and 1925.

With his eye for the striking image, Sherman was selective about his subjects. He often asked them to pose in their native costumes and he loved to a nice, big family line-up. (The National Parks Service has my favorite photograph along those lines: Mrs. Johanna Dykhof and her 11 children on their way to Minnesota from Holland.) Incidentally, the handsome woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe pictured left was not actually an immigrant to the United States. She was part of a group of Guadeloupean women on their way to Montreal, Canada, where jobs as domestic servants awaited them. They spent one night in Ellis Island — April 6th, 1911 — which was long enough for Sherman to capture beautiful pictures of them.

There are more photographs of people at Ellis Island in this NYPL collection. They were taken by Lewis Hine who was very famous in his day for his compelling images of the working poor. Click on his name in the sidebar to see all of photographs capturing labourers, tenements and a variety of social ills in the NYPL. The Library of Congress has thousands of pictures of poverty-stricken children working in dreadful conditions taken by Hines for the National Child Labor Committee. They will haunt you.

Today Ellis Island is a National Park and has been extensively restored. The main building opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. In May of this year, the Peopling of America Center® (note to self: trademark the Verbing of Museum Names before someone else beats me to it) opened, expanding the scope of the museum to cover the whole history of immigration before and after Ellis Island was in operation.


Rare portrait ivories acquired by Scottish museum

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Ivory has been carved since the earliest days of human figural art. In Europe it reached its peak popularity in the high Middle Ages and Paris became the center of production in Europe. (See the caskets with scenes from Arthurian romances in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the British Museum for top notch examples of peak Gothic ivories carved in Paris.) The art form went out of fashion in the Renaissance and for a few century ivory carvings were found integrated into other media (faces on wooden figures, for example) rather than as stand-alone pieces.

The 17th century saw a revival of ivory relief ivory and sculptures, and Dieppe, a bustling Normandy port town on the English channel that was the main port of entry for West African ivory, became the new center of continental ivory carving. Dieppe ivory carvers were known for decorative items and consumer goods like large and complex model ships made hull to rigging from single pieces of ivory, folding fans, rosaries, combs and snuffboxes, many of which can be seen on display now in the spectacular ivory collection of the Castle-Museum of Dieppe.

David Le Marchand was born in Dieppe on October 12, 1674, to a family of Hugenot artists and ivory carvers. When the Edict of Nantes granting religious freedom to French Protestants was revoked by King Louis XIV in 1685, more than 3,000 Hugenots a significant percentage of the population, fled Dieppe for greener pastures. David Le Marchand, then just 10 years old, and his family may have been among them, or he may have fled in 1694 when an Anglo-Dutch fleet bombarded the city to rubble. Whenever he left Dieppe, we know he arrived in Edinburgh in 1696 because a document has survived granting “Liberty and Licence to David Lemerchand designer and cutter in Ivory to exercise the sd. Arte” on condition that he take on the aspiring artist sons of local burghers as apprentices.

Ivory was rare and expensive in Scotland and David Le Marchand’s skills were immediately in demand. The same year he arrived, he secured the patronage of the powerful Mackenzie family. His first dated and signed relief portrait medallion made in Edinburgh was of Sir James Mackenzie, the 22-year-old hellraising son of Sir George Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Cromartie. Three more low-relief portraits — one of the father Sir George, one of Lady Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, one of her 10-year-old son George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh — and one small portrait bust of Sir James followed in quick succession, all completed before 1700.

Other Scottish patrons include the Drummond family, the Earl of Leven, the Earl of Cromartie and the Duke of Perth, but even so illustrious a client list wasn’t enough to keep in Edinburgh after the death of Jean Cavalier, London’s premiere ivory artist, in 1699. With the competition gone, David le Marchand moved to London and again hit the ground running, quickly taking Cavalier’s place as the most fashionable portrait sculptor in the city. He counted among his patrons King George I, Queen Anne, the Duke of Marlborough, Sir Christopher Wren, John Locke, Samuel Pepys and Bank of England directors the Raper family. The Rapers commissioned one of his most famous pieces: a bust of Sir Isaac Newton donated to the British Museum by a Raper descendant which features prominently in a painted portrait of Le Marchand by Joseph Highmore now in the National Portrait Gallery.

The low relief, slender plaques of ivory of his early Scottish days evolved into much larger, more dynamic works once he was established in London. The carving on his portrait medallions went deeper, creating portraits that projected outwards. This is likely a combination of his artistic development and of his having better access to larger pieces of ivory in London than he had in Endinburgh. One of the greatest examples of Le Marchand’s later work in high relief medallions sold at Sotheby’s in 2013 for $478,732.

His career seems to have nosedived in the 1720s. The last datable portrait he carved was of antiquarian Reverend William Stukeley in July of 1722. Less than four years later, on February 3rd, 1726, Le Marchand was admitted to the French Hospital in Rochester, outside London, a charity for sick and destitute Hugenots. He died there a few weeks later on March 17th.

The Mackenzie portraits remained in the family for 300 years, unpublished, unphotographed and known only from published correspondence until 1996. When John Ruaridh Grant Mackenzie, the current Earl of Cromartie and chief of Clan Mackenzie, decided to sell the collection, he wanted to ensure this unique group remained in Scotland. Instead of putting them up for auction, he negotiated privately with National Museums Scotland which was able to acquire the portraits with funding from National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust and the Art Fund.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “This interesting group of ivories, with its excellent provenance and rich object biographies, is an ideal fit for National Museums Scotland, particularly given the Museum’s interest in Scottish identity and its relationship with the rest of the world. Scotland now has a meaningful presence of works by Le Marchand, which will appeal to scholars, students, artists and families alike. I look forward to seeing them in the new galleries.”


When Emily Post drove from sea to shining sea

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

One hundred years ago, future etiquette guru Emily Post was given a challenging writing assignment by Collier’s Weekly: travel from New York to San Francisco by automobile in as much style as humanly possible. It was a challenge Emily was enthusiastic to accept, so on April 25th, 1915, Emily Post (riding shotgun), her son Ned (behind the wheel) and her cousin Alice Beadleston (crammed into the back seat with a troubling amount of baggage) set out on a grand adventure in a custom car entirely unsuited to the task.

In 1915 cross-country motoring was a new trend, the offshoot of a decade of publicity that aimed to lure travelers out west. Railroads, politicians and assorted other commercial interests in the western states had been exhorting Americans to “See Europe if you will, but see America first” since 1906. Keen to get a piece of the $500 million Americans were spending each year in travel to the Old World, they promoted the unique natural wonders of the American west from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean in contrast to the inconveniences and expense of travel to Europe. Traveling towards the Pacific rather than across the Atlantic was advertised as a patriotic duty, a means to commune with the “Great Architect” through his greatest works.

Don’t be hypnotized by weird tales of European travel. There is not an attraction in the Old World that cannot be duplicated and discounted by the phenomena of America. Facilities for travel are superior and cheaper at home than anything you may expect in foreign lands. Accommodations for the affluent, and others in more moderate circumstances, await the tourist at every turn of the road. You get what you want, and pay for what you get, and are not hounded to death by a horde of mendicants. You encounter the frank-faced business-like American who intuitively knows your wants and sees that they are supplied. [...]

Come by rail, come in your auto-car, come afoot if you like, but come!

The railroads vigorously embraced the “See America First” slogan, encouraging people to enjoy rail voyages to the majestic vistas of the expanding National Park system, the pioneer experience without the pain of pioneering, all of the splendor, none of the survival cannibalism. The Great Northern Railway, whose owner Louis Hill had been instrumental in the creation and funding of Glacier National Park, marketed the park as “America’s Switzerland.” The Northern Pacific Railroad offered summer deals from Chicago to Puget Sound through the “Wonderland” of Yellowstone National Park.

The most coveted target of the campaign were wealthy Easterners who toured the opulent capitals and resorts of Europe, but they weren’t persuaded that a log cabin stay in Yellowstone was comparable to the en suite bathrooms and Escoffier dinners of the Paris Ritz. It wasn’t until war broke out in 1914 making travel to Europe potentially fatal that the elite turned their eyes west. The next year even more eyes turned west as the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama–California Exposition in San Diego, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, drew huge crowds.

The railroads appealed to people looking for ease and comfort, but automobile travel offered the promise of entirely private, self-directed journeys in the most exciting (and expensive) technology of the day. Enter Mrs. Emily Post. Born Emily Price, she was the daughter of prominent Baltimore architect Bruce Price and mining heiress Josephine Lee Price. Emily was educated by governesses and in private schools before graduating from Miss Graham’s Finishing School in New York City and making her debut in society in 1892. She was the talk of the season and before the year was out, she married wealthy businessman Edwin Post. They went to Europe, of course, for the de rigeur luxurious honeymoon.

Their marriage fell apart in 1905 when Edwin Post testified in a sensational trial against Col. William D. Mann, a gossip columnist who had attempted to blackmail Post over his showgirl mistress. The distance between them and the public humiliation of the trial drove Emily to divorce him in 1906. With no alimony forthcoming (Edwin had lost much of his fortune in bad investments), she had to work to support herself and her two sons at their fancy private boarding school in Pomfret, Connecticut. Emily took commissions as a decorator and architectural model-builder from her late father’s architect friends and she wrote. She had already had some success as a novelist during the later years of her marriage — her name was spoken in the same breath as Edith Wharton’s in a Washington Post article about working society women — and in 1909 was able to parlay the public’s avid interest in the flood of American heiresses trawling Europe for noble marriage prospects into a popular novel, The Title Market.

Later that year Emily’s mother died in a car accident leaving her daughter a large enough fortune that she wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again. She kept on writing, though, mainly fiction of the “write what you know” variety. It was her background as a wealthy, cultured, widely traveled woman of refined tastes that made her the ideal author for the Collier’s Weekly assignment. Her goal was to see if she could cross the country in the kind of comfort to which her peers were very much accustomed, or at least how far she could get, and to write about the journey in a series of articles.

The opening of the first article underscores what a cockamamie scheme people thought it was.

“Of course you are sending your servants ahead by train with your luggage and all that sort of thing,” said an Englishman.
A New York banker answered for me: “Not at all! The best thing is to put them in another machine directly behind, with a good mechanic. Then if you break down the man in the rear and your chauffeur can get to rights in no time. How about your chauffeur? You are sure he is a good one?”
“We are not taking one — nor servants, nor mechanic either.”
“Surely you and your son are not thinking of going alone! Probably he could drive, but who is going to take care of the car?”
“Why, he is!”

Even the nice young man at the Automobile Club recommended she stick to the eastern roads.

“Unfortunately,” he said suavely, “we have not all our information yet, and we seem to be out of our Western maps! But I can recommend some very delightful tours through New England and the Berkshires.”
“That is very interesting, but I am going to San Francisco.”
“Oh, I couldn’t advise that, madam; the New England roads are very much better.”
“But, you see, San Francisco is where I am going. Do you know which route is, if you prefer it, the least bad?”
“Oh, I see.” He looked sorry. “If you must cross the continent, there is the Lincoln Highway!”
“Can you tell me how much work has been done on it?”
“No, I really couldn’t. But it is the best known route.”

The Lincoln Highway, the first road to cross the continental United States from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, had been inaugurated less than two years before that conversation and was very much a work in progress. Unbridged rivers had to be forded and there were significant stretches in the desert west where the car would be the only sleeping facility. Not to mention the difficulty in finding gasoline stations even in towns and cities, never mind once the stretches between developed areas got long.

Undeterred, Emily and her team hit the road. The search for luxury quickly became desultory as they left the crowded east for the wider open spaces of the midwest and west, but even though Collier’s had told her to turn around the minute she hit discomfort of any kind, Emily kept on trucking through crappy hotels and crappier food and the car getting stuck in the mud outside Chicago (on the Lincoln Highway, no less). The heavy silver picnic set they set out with was shipped back and replaced with a modest ceramic bread basket filled with paper plates. In New Mexico they were mired in a whole new kind of mud on its “natural roads.” The car’s extra long chassis, imported English motor and skinny wheels were no help in handling the challenges of the terrain. Eventually the car broke down altogether in the Arizona desert. They had to get the car to Los Angeles by freight train before picking up the drive again up the Pacific coast. After 27 days and close to $1,800 spent, they finally made it to San Francisco.

It was far from luxurious, but it was a great adventure and Emily Post lived to tell the tale. The story was published in three parts on September 4th, September 11th and September 18th and was well-received. In 1916, a revised version of the series was published in a book entitled By Motor to the Golden Gate.


1813 shipwreck survivors’ camp found in Alaska

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Archaeologists in Sitka, southeast Alaska, have found the camp made by survivors of the wreck of the Russian ship Neva in January of 1813 while they awaited rescue.

The Neva was a famous ship in its day. The three-masted 200-foot vessel began life in 1801 as the British merchant ship Thames but was acquired by Russia in 1802 and renamed Neva after the river that flows through Saint Petersburg. The Neva and another formerly English ship (the Leander, renamed Nadezhda) that had been purchased at the same time set sail together in 1803 from Kronstadt on a three-year voyage that would be the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth.

In October of 1804, the Neva, now separated from the Nadezhda, was in Sitka where the Russian-American Company deployed it against the Tlingit nation. The Tlingit had been fighting to get the Russians out of their territory for years, culminating in the destruction of the Russian outpost of Redoubt Saint Michael in 1802. It took a couple of years, but Russia got its revenge when the Neva and three other smaller ships bombarded the Tlingit fort for three days, ultimately forcing the tribespeople to retreat north to Chichagof Island.

After their victory in the Battle of Sitka, the Russians founded the permanent settlement of New Archangel which in 1808 became the capital of Russian America. A flourishing commercial center when Seattle, Portland and San Francisco were but a twinkle in Manifest Destiny’s eye, New Archangel is where Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl and Secretary of State William Seward signed the agreement selling Russian America to the United States for $7.2 million in April of 1867. The official transfer of the territory from Russia to the United States took place at New Archangel on October 18th, 1867. The city’s name was changed to Sitka when Russian America became the U.S. Department of Alaska after the transfer.

A month after the battle, the Neva continued on its long, slow trip around the world, carrying fur seal pelts from Alaska to China and in 1807 becoming the first Russian ship to visit mainland Australia. In 1812, the Neva headed back to Sitka but was damaged in treacherous weather on the three-month journey from Siberia. With a stop in Prince William Sound, the ship almost made it only to wreck less than 10 miles from Sitka off Kruzof Island on January 9th, 1813. Of the 75 souls on board when the Neva departed Okhotsk, Siberia, in August, 32 died in the wreck. Another 15 had died on the way leaving 28 men to make it to dry land. The survivors had to make do on their own in the depths of an Alaskan winter for 24 days until they were rescued. Two men didn’t make it.

The rescued crew members were taken to safety in Sitka, but despite the importance of the wrecked ship, their experience was barely documented at the time. There are no known official records extant today relating to the wreck, the rescue of the survivors and their month of hardship. The location of the camp was lost.

In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology and the Sitka Historical Society sponsored a survey of a site they had reason to believe might be the survivors’ camp. They dug a few test pits and found two caches of Russian axes. Using archival research, Tlingit oral histories, and analysis of the landscape, the team also found an area near the shore they think may be the site of shipwreck.

This year an international team of Russian and American researchers funded by the National Science Foundation returned to the site for a more extensive archaeological excavation.

In July, researchers discovered at the campsite a series of hearths with early 19th century artifacts such as gun flints, musket balls, pieces of modified sheet copper, iron and copper spikes, a Russian axe, and a fishhook fashioned from copper. Well-preserved food middens–or refuse heaps–will allow reconstruction of the foraging strategies the sailors used to survive.

Gun flints found at the site appeared to have been used by survivors to used start fires, by striking them against steel. Historical accounts credit a firearm used in this manner with helping save the crew from hypothermia. Physical evidence indicates the survivors tried to whittle down musket balls to fit a smaller caliber weapon, such as a flintlock–most likely the same firearm mentioned in the historical accounts. Some of the copper spikes recovered by archaeologists had been broken through shear stress, such as a wreck would produce. The researchers believe one copper or brass artifact is part of a set of a navigator’s dividers, saved by a crewman as the ship violently broke apart over rocks.

The nature of the artifacts seems to strongly indicate that survivors of the shipwreck were active in ensuring their own survival. They modified wreckage in desperation, but with ingenuity.

No artifacts indicative of settlement — ceramic, glass — were found, just the kind of cleverly improvised objects that shipwreck survivors would fashion to make it until the rescuers arrived.

Even though Russians had a hugely significant presence in Alaska for more than a century before 1867, very few Russian sites have been excavated. The Neva survivors’ camp and the shipwreck therefore have the potential to answer a great many questions about the history of Russian America, particularly because they are so narrowly focused in time. They are a snapshot of the Russian presence in Alaska as it was in January of 1813.


Woolly rhino calf died 34,000 years ago

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Sasha, the woolly rhinoceros calf discovered last year by hunters preserved in the permafrost of Siberia’s Sakha Republic, is 34,000 years old. When the find was announced, scientists hadn’t yet had the chance to date the remains. They knew it had to be at least 10,000 years old because that’s when the woolly rhino went extinct. Radiocarbon testing found that Sasha lived and died during the Karginsk interglacial period, a time between ice ages when what is now the Sakha Republic had a much warmer climate than it does today.

Researchers from the Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha who performed a necropsy on Sasha estimate the baby was around one and a half years old when it (the sex of the animal hasn’t been determined) died. This was determined from the size of the skull which is the same as it would be for an 18-month white rhinoceros calf. Its age will be pinpointed with more accuracy when scientists take detailed measurements of the teeth.

Meanwhile, the initial necropsy has already pinpointed a probably cause of death.

Dr Albert Protopopov, head of the Department of Mammoth Fauna Studies, in Yakutsk, said: “The nasal passages of the rhinoceros were clogged with mud, so that we can say that most likely it drowned.” He explained: “Paleontologists believe that the mortality rate in babies of such large animals was very low. We will try to find out in the course of these research what killed this very rhino calf.”

The rhino is missing its midsection, but even so it’s exceptionally well-preserved. The front and back legs and most of its skin, covered with thick light grey hair, are intact. The head is in such condition Sasha looks asleep. The eyes, ears and tongue are all still there. The excellent state of preservation gives scientists confidence that they will be able to recover viable DNA for testing, a prospect that excites scientists all over the world who will be given the opportunity to study this unique specimen. Dr. Protopopov again:

“The DNA of woolly rhino is poorly studied indeed. This find gives us the opportunity to compare the woolly rhino with the modern rhinos and find out how far they are from each other on the evolutionary path.”

The University of California, Santa Cruz will analyze any DNA in the hope they can sequence the woolly rhinoceros genome and compare it to modern rhinoceroses. A plethora of Russian scientists will have a crack at the Sasha apple, as will researchers from the University of Amsterdam, the University of Groningen, the University of Leeds, the University of Bristol and the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha were thoughtful enough to film the necropsy and release clips of it on YouTube.


The long, strange tale of The 120 Days of Sodom

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, served a total of 32 years in prisons and insane asylums for transgressions that by the standards of ancien régime aristocrats were comparatively modest. His first prison stay (two weeks in 1763) in the donjon of the Châteaux de Vincennes was the result of a prostitute complaining not that he had abused her, but that he had engaged in and forced her to engage in blasphemies like stomping on a cross and cursing God.

The second time he was arrested his victim was a destitute widow named Rose Keller who he had promised a job as a housekeeper. When she arrived at his home in Paris, there was no housekeeping job waiting. Instead, de Sade forced her to strip, whipped her and locked her in a room from which she escaped a few hours later. She also claim he cut her buttocks with a pen knife and poured sealing wax in the cuts, although when she was examined two days later the authorities found no cuts. For this crime he was imprisoned for seven months in 1768, before being banished to his family estate in La Coste, Provence.

The third incident ultimately sealed his fate, but only because it pissed off the one person he should have taken special care not to piss off: his mother-in-law, Madame la Présidente de Montreuil. On June 23rd, 1772, de Sade had his valet Latour hire five prostitutes in Marseilles. The seven of them spent the morning whipping each other and having sex in various configurations. None of that was in any way remarkable. What went wrong was that the marquis tried to persuade the women to eat aniseed candies coated in Spanish fly. Only one of them ate any, but a sixth prostitute he hired that evening ingested several. Both of them became ill, with the evening shift women who had eaten the most becoming so violently ill that the last rites were administered.

All six of the women were questioned by the police and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the Marquis de Sade and Latour for poisoning and for sodomy (with each other). The marquis was tipped off that the cops were after him again, so he fled to Italy taking his wife Renée-Pélagie’s sister Anne-Prospère de Launay with him. Sade was then 32; Anne-Prospère was just nineteen years old, 11 years younger than her sister, and was a secular canoness of the Benedictine community in Alix. La Présidente had fished her son-in-law’s overactive chestnuts out of the fire every time before this, but the seduction of her youngest daughter crossed a line that could not be uncrossed.

Sade and Latour were tried in absentia, sentenced to death and burned in effigy. The marquis and his sister-in-law/lover traveled under assumed names to various cities in Italy for a month before Anne-Prospère left him and returned to her sister and mother. Because he was nothing if not reckless, Sade wrote to La Présidente mentioning that he was in Savoy. She promptly alerted the Savoyard authorities and the marquis and his valet were arrested and imprisoned in Fort Miolans. They escaped four months later and returned to La Coste where Sade’s unbelievably loyal wife protected him from her mother’s wrath and kept him just out of reach of the law’s long arm.

After five years on the lam, he was lured to Paris on a pretext and arrested. He was imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes in 1777. It was the beginning of 13 years of imprisonment because even though his sentence was overturned on appeal in 1778, his formidable mother-in-law had obtained a lettre de cachet, the controversial means by which the king could order someone jailed without charge or trial indefinitely with no possibility of appeal, against him. Even when the liberal reformist zeal of the 1780s freed hundreds of disgraced debauched nobles imprisoned by lettres de cachet, the marquis was not among them. The official in charge read his letters for signs of repentance and found the polar opposite. Sade never did know when to keep his mouth shut.

His first forays into prison literature were revisions of Italian travel notes, later published as Voyage d’Italie. He began to write verse plays a couple of years into his time in Vincennes. This was his original literary dream, to be a respected playwright. He wrote to his former teacher and lifelong friend Abbé Amblet in 1784: “It would doubtless be a great pleasure for me to see my works played in Paris and if they were successful, a reputation for being a man of intellect might perhaps lead people to forget my youthful trespasses and would in some way rehabilitate me.”

Sade was an incredibly prolific correspondent and wrote 20 plays during his imprisonment. When his long-suffering wife Pélagie and Amblet didn’t gave less than glowing critiques of most of them, the marquis eschewed verse and drama and turned his attentions to pornographic prose. He kicked off his new literary pursuit in high style and in a new location. On February 29th, 1784, he was dragged naked out of his cell in Vincennes and moved to another prison on the other side of Paris, a little place you might have heard of called the Bastille. It was there that he began to write what he would consider his masterpiece: The 120 Days of Sodom.

To ensure this vomit-inducing catalogue of violent horrors and sexual depravity (I couldn’t get past the 9th day and it’s a walk in the park compared to what comes after) was not confiscated by his jailers, Sade wrote it in the tiniest of handwritings on sheets of paper five inches wide. Once he’d filled in a page, he’d glue it to the next page so the whole manuscript could be rolled up tightly and hidden in a crack in the wall (one biographer says he hid it in a dildo). He wrote for three hours a night over 37 days, producing a working draft of 250,000 words. The scroll was 39 feet long.

He intended the finished work to be twice or three times longer, but for unknown reasons he never did complete it. He certainly had the time. The Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille for five years. He was abruptly transferred, naked again, from the Bastille to the insane asylum of Charenton on July 4th, 1989, 10 days before the fortress was so famously stormed. This too he brought on himself by yelling “They’re killing prisoners in here!” out of his window to the disgruntled crowds below on July 2nd. His precious scroll was left behind in the transfer and he assumed it was destroyed for good after the storming of the Bastille. In a 1790 letter to his steward Gaufridy, Sade said he shed “tears of blood” over the loss of of this manuscript and all his other writings (plus the expensive furniture, paintings and his library of 600 books) and blamed his poor wife for not recovering his belongings from his cell when she had 10 whole days to get it done.

His first transit in Charenton lasted only a year; he was freed in 1790 when the French Revolutionary legislature abolished the lettre de cachet. He was elected to the National Convention that same year and served until he was arrested in late 1793 during the Reign of Terror for “moderatism.” Sade was freed seven months later in July of 1794 after the execution of Robespierre. Then Napoleon came along and he wanted a piece of the marquis too. In 1801 de Sade was arrested and imprisoned. Two years later his family had him declared insane and got him transferred back to the Charenton asylum where he would live out the rest of his days until his death in 1814.

Many of his surviving papers and writings were destroyed by his son Donatien-Claude-Armand after his father’s death. He was the first in a long line of de Sades to repudiate their notorious ancestor’s writing and to erase all obvious signs of their family connection to him. They stopped using the Marquis de Sade title or even the first name Donatien for 300 years. (The current family has reversed the trend. They make significant bank off their notorious ancestor and the heir to the title is named Donatien.)

Although de Sade died believing his magnum opus was gone forever, in fact The 120 Days of Sodom had been found in its hidey hole by one Arnoux de Saint-Maximin who took it home with him two days before the storming of the Bastille. Eventually it was acquired by the wealthy Villeneuve-Trans family and it remained in their hands for three generations until it was sold in the late 19th century to Berlin psychiatrist Dr. Iwan Bloch, who published the first edition in 1904, 119 years after it was written. Bloch used the pseudonym Eugène Dühren to keep the censors off his case and printed 180 copies replete with transcription errors. Bloch emphasized that he was publishing the book because of its “scientific importance … to doctors, jurists and anthropologists” and compared its anecdotes to those recorded by pioneering psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing who was the first to popularize the term “sadism” in his seminal work Psychopathia Sexualis.

The manuscript stayed in Berlin until 1929 when it was purchased by Maurice Heine at the behest of Viscount Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure who was a direct descendant of de Sade’s. Heine published a new version in three quarto volumes from 1931 to 1935 available to subscribers only. This is considered the authoritative version because it is free of Bloch’s transcription errors.

The original scroll remained in the possession of the Vicount and Marie-Laure’s daughter Natalie de Noailles until 1982 when she entrusted it to someone she thought was a trusted fried, publisher Jean Grouet. He turned out to be a con man who told her it had been stolen while he smuggled the manuscript out of the country to Switzerland where he sold it to erotica collector Gérard Nordmann for $60,000. Natalie sued and in June of 1990, a French court ruled that the manuscript was stolen and should be returned to the Noailles family. Nordmann just ignored the French judgment and since Switzerland at that point was not a signatory of the UNESCO convention, Noailles had to sue again in the Swiss courts. The dispute was ongoing when Nordmann died in 1992. In 1998 a Swiss federal court found that it was lawfully acquired because Nordmann had acted “in good faith.” I mean, the Noailles had reported the theft to Interpol and everything. Why even have laws against theft if legal title can be transferred based only on the buyer’s supposed state of mind? Absurd.

Anyway, it went on display for the first time in 2004 at the Martin Bodmer Foundation library and museum near Geneva. Nine years later, Nordmann’s heirs decided to sell the manuscript to a French collector. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France geared up for a fight, raising more than $5 million to purchase the scroll. The money would then be divided between the Noailles and Nordmann heirs, a necessary step because the manuscript would be confiscated as soon as it crossed the border into France unless the people French courts declared the legal owners were part of the deal. Negotiations fell through and a year later, in April of 2014, it was bought by Gérard Lhéritier, founder of Aristophil, a company which owned the world’s largest private collection of manuscripts (including Napoleon and Josephine’s prenup), for seven million euros ($9.6 million).

Lhéritier put the unfurled scroll on display at his private Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris and proposed to donate it to the Bibliothèque Nationale after five years. The library didn’t respond immediately to his overtures. Seven months later, anti-fraud officers raided the Paris headquarters of Aristophil and freezing all the company’s accounts forcing it into insolvency. The firm appears to have been a giant Ponzi scheme built around its historic document collection.

Lhéritier invented a new way to sell in his niche market. For the past 11 years, he has been actively purchasing valuable documents such as the manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton, Louis XVI’s will or Napoleon’s wedding certificate. He offered them for sale, divided into hundreds of shares. Clients were told that, after five years, Aristophil would buy back their share with at least a 40% interest payment. Here was the catch, claim the investigators: the clients thought the company was guaranteeing the payment; in fact, there was no obligation of the kind in the contract.

But in fact, the company has always done so, winning the confidence of 18,000 investors, who in the past year alone paid €160m for a share of the action. According to the judge’s order, of which The Art Newspaper has a copy, this was made possible only by launching new sales, so that new investors paid those selling their shares.

In March of this year, Gérard Lhéritier, his daughter, his accountant and a prominent Parisian bookseller were indicted on charges including fraud, money laundering, creating false accounts and embezzlement. In August, a court in Paris ruled that the vast Astrophil collection was to be sold as the company was completely insolvent.

And so it seems The 120 Days will be on the move again. Lhéritier denies all the charges and says the entire case is a government conspiracy to get its greedy mitts on his collection. Honestly, I hope it is, because otherwise those 135,000 documents will be scattered to the four winds unless the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s director Bruno Racine manages to get the whole lot of them declared national treasure, which I expect he’s working on right now. At least the iconic The 120 Days of Sodom manuscript is certain to qualify. Then for the first time it will belong to the country which imprisoned its author under two kings, one Committee of Public Safety
and one Consulate, and which banned his books until 1957.


Drought turns Vistula into archaeological dig

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Another summer of severe drought has dropped the water level of Poland’s Vistula river to just 16 inches, creating what is basically a vast archaeological buffet table through the middle of Warsaw. Three years ago when the Vistula was 24 inches deep it was already the lowest level since recording began in 1789, and archaeologists were able to recover a trove of marble and alabaster architectural features looted from the city’s Royal Castle by Swedish invaders in 1656. More pieces of the Royal Castle are being recovered now, but that’s not all.

Other items to emerge from the Vistula this summer include pieces of bridges and boats, as well as ceramic objects dating as far back as 700 to 400 BC.

They include obelisks and bases of columns that likely came from Warsaw’s Kazimierz Palace, which was built in the 17th century and is today a Warsaw University building.

Last week archaeologists were able to recover pieces of two destroyed bridges. One of them is the Poninski Bridge, a wooden pontoon bridge built in 1775 that was supported by a line of 43 boats spanning the river. It was burned on November 4th, 1794, on the orders of Thomas Wawrzecki, leader of the Kosciuszko Uprising against Russian occupation. (Its leader and namesake, American Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, had been captured and imprisoned by the Russians a month earlier.) The Russians had just broken the Polish lines on the outskirts of Warsaw and massacred 20,000 civilians in the suburb of Praga. Wawrzecki hoped that disabling the bridge would keep them reaching the left bank of the Vistula and taking Warsaw proper.

The tactic failed. Wawrzecki and what was left of Poland’s army retreated and Russia took Warsaw unopposed. Russian General Aleksandr Suvorov had the bridge temporarily repaired a few days later. Poninski Bridge was fully repaired by April of 1795 only to be destroyed again in November of 1806 by the allied Prussian and Russian forces retreating from Napoleon’s army.

The other bridge is the Poniatowski Bridge, originally built between 1904 and 1914. Just a year after it was completed, the bridge was severely damaged when the retreating Russian army exploded four of its eight spans to hamper the German army on its heels. It was reconstructed in the interwar period only to get blown up again this time by Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising on 13 September 1944. The Germans went ahead and blew up all eight spans, leaving only the piers still standing. Archaeologists have retrieved parts of the stone benches that were once on the bridge.

Two weeks ago the wreck of a Soviet bomber was unearthed from the black muck of the Bzura River, a tributary of the Vistula. The wreckage was moved to the Vistula River Museum in nearby Wyszogrod. The instrument panel, engine, one wheel from the landing gear and radio equipment were recovered, the radio in good condition. Inside they found fragments of a uniform, a parachute, a sheepskin coat collar from a bomber jacket, fragments of boots, heavy ammunition and a Soviet semi-automatic TT pistol.

While the plane was too twisted and torn by the crash for the model to be identified, based on the winter gear and some of the markings on the plane, museum experts believe it may be a bomber witnesses saw shot down in January of 1945, when the Red Army was pushing the Nazis back towards Berlin. The Russian Embassy believes the bomber and its crew might be identified from numbers on what’s left of the plane. Remains of the pilots were found and the embassy hopes they can be identified for proper burial.

The lowering Vistula continues to reveal Jewish tombstones thought to have been stolen from the Brodno cemetery during and right after World War II and used to line the banks of the river. Another artifact found may also be connected to the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s a freight wagon of German manufacture that historians believe was used to transport rubble from the Northern District of Warsaw which was razed after the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


Ventnor artifacts seek owner

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

On October 27th, 1902, the steamer SS Ventnor left Wellington, New Zealand, carrying the mortal remains of 499 Chinese miners. It was taking them to Hong Kong where they would be transported to China’s southern Guangdong province, the birthplace of the 499 dead, so the remains could be reburied in their native soil in accordance with Chinese custom. New Zealand had recruited Chinese labourers to extract gold from mines that Europeans had already worked to near exhaustion, and despite the passage of draconian exclusion laws, the Chinese community grew. Choie Sew Hoy, a wealthy Dunedin merchant and leader of the Cheong Sing Tong, arranged for the repatriation of the bodies and when he died suddenly a year before the ship’s departure, his remains joined the others on board the SS Ventnor.

A day after its departure, the ship struck the shoals near the coast of Taranaki and was damaged but seemed to be capable of limping its way to Auckland. It was not. The Ventnor took on water and sank on October 29th. The crew and a half-dozen Chinese passengers tending to the remains managed to scramble onto four life boats. One of the four capsized killing all 13 people on board, including the captain and third officer.

The tragedy caused great distress in the Chinese community of New Zealand and in Guangdong. Choie Sew Hoy’s family offered a reward of $25,000 for the recovery of his remains, but the heavy coffins held in the cargo of the ship could not be retrieved. The Tong hired another steamer that searched for remains without success. A few coffins stored on deck did float ashore where the remains were buried with respect by the Maori of the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes.

While the general area of the wreck was known, the precise location of the ship wasn’t discovered until 110 years after it sank. The Ventnor Project Group (VPG) found the wreck 15 kilometers (nine miles) off the Hokianga Coast with sonar in 2012 and later divers confirmed its identity. In April of 2014, divers returned to the wreck and recovered a few artifacts: a ceramic plate, the ship’s bell, a lamp holder, a porthole and the ship’s telegraph. At the time, the organization thought the artifacts could be given to a museum in Guangzhou, but the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) was vocally opposed to the idea because of how significant they were to the Chinese community in New Zealand.

The NZCA was also concerned that the wreck site was in danger from looters, so it worked with New Zealand Heritage to fast-track protection of the site. All sites from before 1900 are automatically accorded protected status, but the Ventnor was just outside that dividing line. New Zealand Heritage quickly gazetted the site, protecting it under the provisions of the Historic Places Act 1993, making it illegal for anyone to interfere with the wreck in any way.

Now the question is what to do with the artifacts removed from the shipwreck before it was protected. On Monday New Zealand’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage published a notice on their website and in newspapers asking that claims of ownership be submitted to the ministry.

New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage invites submissions of claims for ownership and/or possession from parties who may have an interest in some or all of the objects. We also invite submissions from parties who are not claiming ownership and/or possession but who wish to make submissions for consideration regarding the future care of the objects whether by them or by another party. Submissions should be received by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage by 23 November 2015.

It seems to me that the only people with a legitimate ownership claim to pieces of the Ventnor would be the owners of the ship, but as far as I could find, the Glasgow-based shipping company is no longer in business. Perhaps it has legal corporate descendants. Even so, I doubt they’d want to take an old porthole out of the context where it has such profound meaning. The NZCA plans to make a submission to the ministry with the goal of creating a traveling exhibition. The government reserves the right to make a claim as well. Once the claims have been submitted and the deadline expires, the Chief Executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage will decide who gets custody of the artifacts.


Scottish soldiers found in Durham mass grave

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

In November of 2013, construction crews building a new coffee shop for Durham University’s Palace Green Library came across human skeletal remains. Construction was halted immediately and an archaeological excavation ensued. Under an internal courtyard at the south end of the site, archaeologists unearthed a jumble of bones, the remains of more than a dozen people who had been buried in two pits. The mass graves extend north, south and east past the excavated area under buildings and walls and only the area directly impacted by construction was excavated so there are likely many more human remains still underground. The bones in the path of construction were removed for study before reburial.

University researchers found that there were at least 17 individuals and as many as 29 buried in the pits. Because they had been buried with little care, the skeletons were disarticulated and it wasn’t possible to identify the exact number. Most of them ranged in age from 13 to 25 with a few older individuals. All the adults were male and the adolescents probably were as well but their sex could not be conclusively determined. The sex and age indicate these individuals were soldiers. If they had been general population struck by plague, say, there would have been a representative proportion of men, women, children and elderly. (They also probably wouldn’t have been buried in the city center on the castle grounds.)

Stable isotope analysis from tooth enamel revealed that six of the deceased were likely from Scotland, four from Scotland or Northern England, one more likely to be Scottish than English and three who were not from the British Isles. They grew up further east, in a cooler climate or a higher altitude; they may have been German or Dutch. Two of the men had crescent-shaped notches in the teeth called “pipe facets” caused by habitual biting on the stems of clay pipes.

That’s a key date marker because clay pipe smoking became popular in Britain in the early 17th century, so the bodies can’t have been buried before 1620. A building was constructed over some of the mass grave in 1754 which narrows the date further. Radiocarbon testing dates the remains to 1625-1660. That range is mighty suggestive. There was a civil war going on in Britain in the middle of those dates, after all.

Durham University experts believe all the evidence points to the men buried in these mass graves being soldiers in the Scottish army who were on the losing side of the Battle of Dunbar, fought on the southeast coast of Scotland exactly 365 years ago today on September 3rd, 1650. It was a short but brutal fight in which Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army crushed the Royalist Scottish Covenanter army in less than an hour. According to contemporary sources, up to 5,000 men lost their lives on the battlefield. Modern historians estimate that 4,000 Scottish soldiers were captured by Cromwell and marched through Newcastle upon Tyne 100 miles south to Durham. Approximately 1,000 of them died on the way, mainly from starvation, exhausting and dysentery.

When the 3,000 or so survivors reached Durham, they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral which at the time was no longer functioning as a church since Cromwell had kicked out the Dean and Chapter. Conditions were appalling. It was cold and there was little food or water to be had. The Scottish prisoners stripped the cathedral’s wood to burn for heat, sparing only Prior Castell’s Clock out of deference for the Scottish thistle carved on it. (That’s the romantic story. The more practical version is that the clock was dismantled and removed when the cathedral was converted into a prison.) An estimate 1,700 of the prisoners died in captivity.

As for the survivors, some of them were forced to work in salt and coal mined in northeast England or to drain the Fens in Norfolk. About 500 were conscripted to fight in the Parliamentarian army in Ireland. Others were sold as indentured servants to the tobacco plantations of Virginia and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. About 150 of them were sent to New England where they were sold as indentured servants to sawmills and ironworks for £20 a head. The term of indenture was limited and if they raised sufficient funds they could buy themselves free before the term was up.

There is no evidence of cause of death in the bones exhumed from the mass grave, nor are there extensive healed wounds or perimortem wounds as you might expect to find on soldiers’ remains. Counterintuitively, that supports a Dunbar connection because the Scottish soldiers who fought there are known to have been largely inexperienced fighters and the ones who suffered severe injuries either died on the field or were released back to their side right after battle. Only the soldiers who had made it out of the fight relatively intact were taken prisoner and marched down south where they eventually died of starvation or disease.

The presence of non-Scots is also in keeping with what we know about the Scottish army. Contemporary sources note the presence of Dutch and German soldiers in the Scottish army just weeks after the Battle of Dunbar. It seems likely they were at the battle too.

Richard Annis, senior archaeologist at Archaeological Services Durham University, said: “This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.

“Their burial was a military operation. The bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham Castle grounds, as far as possible from the castle itself – they were out of sight, out of mind.

“It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now university buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-17th Century.”

The remains will be reinterred as required by the terms of the exhumation license. Durham University and Durham Cathedral are working together with other interested parties (the Church of Scotland, for instance) to determine the most respectful approach. Certainly burial in the cathedral is out given that most of the dead were probably Presbyterians and even if they weren’t the last place in the world they’d want to be buried is in the prison where they experienced so much death and misery.





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