Major-General Rudolf Anton Carl Freiherr von Slatin (1857-1932): Three Faiths

Said to be the inspiration for one of Karl May’s characters, von Slatin is one of those characters who make us feel utterly inadequate.

Born the son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism near Vienna, he was in the commercial academy when his father died rather suddenly.  By chance he heard of an opening at a German bookstore in Cairo.  The sheer unlikelihood appealed to him, and he was off to Egypt.

All thoughts of bookselling left him as he joined Theodore von Heuglin,  explorer and ornithologist into the mountains of Dar Nuba in Sudan.  Rough times and much rebellion in the area at the time, and Europeans were few.  Before he was through, von Slatin met such luminaries as botanist Dr Eduard Schnitzer (aka, Emin Pasha on his conversion to Islam, later to relieve Henry Morgan Stanley) and General Charles George Gordon. Continue reading

George Fabian Lawrence aka Stoney Jack (1861-1939): Items of Interest

Son of a  pawnbroker and initially a pawnbroker himself.  The standard objects of failed enthusiasms (musical instruments) or changing tastes (mustache cups) or romance gone bad (old wedding rings) held only so much interest for him.  He had a taste for the unusual and put word out among the mudlarks who scoured the Thames at low tide and the navvies who dug the foundations of new construction over old that he would pay cash and ask few questions if they had anything of interest to show him.  Continue reading

Lady Anne Blunt (1837 – 1917); Horse Sense

Née Lady Ann Isabella Noel-King.

Her grandfather was Lord Byron, her father the Earl of Lovelace, her mother Ada Lovelace, who is credited (not quite accurately) as the first computer programmer for Babbage’s calculating machine.  With that kind of pedigree, anything was possible.

She grew up on her father’s considerable estate at East Horsley Park,  home-schooled in languages, mathematics, and violin.  She learned drawing from John Ruskin.  As befits a proper country blueblood,  she found her  real passion from  a young age was horses (indeed, it was said that she could jump a mount well into her seventies).    This meshed nicely with her husband’s passion for the Middle East.  It was about the only thing on which they could make a real partnership. Continue reading

Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov 1907-1970: More Things on Heaven and Earth

That’s him on the left.

You will have seen those documentaries or serious crime shows where experts put layers of clay directly onto human skulls and show us how they looked in real life.  Most recently/interestingly this was done with Richard III, which proves if nothing else that Olivier was right to play the part.*

Among the early practitioners of this art/science was Gerasimov.

He came by it honestly enough.  He was the son of a doctor and an artist and managed to bring the two strains together in Stalinist Russia – no mean feat at all.  He started out on pre-historic men and other bi-peds, and somehow managed to work his way up to real people.  Famous people.   Starting with Dostoevsky’s mother, which seems a bit of an odd choice. Continue reading

Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, 1746- 1819: Lord of Alaska

I’ve heard it suggested that America could pay off its debt to China by giving them Alaska.

There’s a nice symmetry to this idea.  After all, before the U.S. showed up, the place was part of the Russian Empire.  In large part, this is thanks to A. A. Baranov.

Alaska was known to Europeans, vaguely, as far back as 1741 when Vitus Bering of Denmark made a note of the strait that bears his name.  Captain Cook had a look-see, as did others (George Vancouver), but in general it was too far away from the world’s cash centers to garner much sustained interest.

This changed when the locals began offering passers by the local specialty.  The entire coastline, it turned out, was crawling with fur covered critters,  whose pelts were of a great deal of interest to colder cash centers.  The market was insatiable, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.  Ruble signs lit up in the eyes of the ambitious and there was, in effect,  a fur rush.

Which is where Baranov comes in. Continue reading

Gilbert Imlay, 1756-1828: Jersey Boy

No picture of the fellow seems to have survived, which is appropriate, given the man’s furtive nature.

He was born in Freehold, New Jersey and was of an elevated enough class to be come a lieutenant in the  American Revolution, serving as paymaster to a New Jersey Regiment. Salesmanship seems to have come naturally – he was allegedly able to talk some English prisoners of war into signing up.

With America’s tiresome British ties eventually cut, he went west. Land grants were something of an early GI bill perq for veterans, and the aftermarket proved an opportunity for the young and ambitious and unscrupulous. Imlay got a position as a surveyor, which made him well placed indeed for gaming the system. Continue reading

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919; Bully for Him

 Theodore Roosevelt by Lewis L. Gould, Oxford University Press.

In an age of the kitchen-sink-and-all cinderblock biography,  the art of the short potted life story was for some years neglected.  Then Penguin began to put out the Brief Lives series and rekindled the format.  A good thing, really.  Life is short.

At 78 pages of text, Gould’s Theodore Roosevelt  runs the risk of being a little too brief, not quite Wikipedia fodder, but still, pushing the limits.  Bit of a tour de force, considering all that the author has to include-  Roosevelt forebears, childhood, schooling, stints as New York State Assemblyman, Governor of New York, Vice President, deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York  City, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant Colonel United States Army, Vice President, president, and post-president.  Each one is enough for a book, and in some cases have gotten them. Continue reading

Filchner of the Antarctic, 1877-1957

We are now in the centenary year the race to the south pole.  That story is too well known for this blog; enough to say that Amundsen got the gold, Scott the silver. Less well known are the other two polar expeditions of 1912.  There was a Japanese expedition headed by Nobu Shirase.

Then there was Wilhelm Filchner.

If Amundsen had a smooth time, Scott a dreadful time, Filchner lay somewhere in the middle, tending towards the really bad: bedevilled by climate, clashing personalities, sabotage, suicide, death, a proposed duel – the Antarctic is a harsh testing ground.    Continue reading

Joseph Kyselak, 1799-1831: “Kyselak Was Here.”

A modest official in the Imperial Austria Exchequer, Kyselak was by avocation a mountain climber and even wrote a book on the subject. Possibly on a bet, he vowed that his name would be known throughout the kingdom within three years.   His claim to fame – graffiti.   Soon after making his declaration, Kyselak began to write his name down on rock faces across Austria.   If this were not bad enough, his name also began appearing on building faces in Vienna itself.

Eventually, an unamused Emperor Franz I had the young man brought to his office and forbade him from defacing things in this manner.  Kyselak bowed, promised to behave, and was a allowed to leave.

A little later, the Emperor found the name KYSELAK carved into his desk top.

(For all his fifteen minutes of fame, not a single portrait of the fellow seems to exist. By the way, if you encounter any of his markings, the Kysalek Project wants to hear from you.)