John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader. Continue reading

Thomas Dallum (ca. 1575 – ca.1614): Don’t Shoot, I’m Only the Organ Player

Back in the day, the day being any time between, say, 1520 and 1600, the way to the heart of the Turkish sultans was through clockwork.  Makes sense.  When you have the wealth of the world at your disposal,  you want the unusual and the unique. Toys, essentially, the fiddly wind-up spring machine types that whirred and turned and chimed and bonged.  Fortunately for Europe,  there were men who excelled in this kind of trivia.

As with anything that is not a mere commodity, the novelty value had to gear up over time.  A simple one handed  pocket watch becomes a bore, and so further complications – second hands, moon phases,  twittery birds – have to be grafted onto the basic work.  By the turn of the seventeenth century, it would take something very complicated indeed to turn the head of a jaded potentate.   And as at that time, Britain, not yet fully engaged with its eventual empire,  was still wooing the sultans in hopes of profitable trade arrangements for the Levant Company,  the gift had to be spectacular indeed.

So in 1598, what were the good merchants of London going to send to Mehmed III? Continue reading

George Hoby (1759 – 1832): Boots, Boots, Boots, Boots

Long boots and half boots, Hessians,  Hussar,  top boots, and for the ladies, low cut shoes or pumps – if you wanted them in the age of Hornblower, you went to the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s Street and the establishment of George Hoby, boot maker to George III.   The king was not alone.  The Iron Duke thought so much of the man that he worked with the bookmaker to  modify a Hessian boot a bit higher up than was standard,  and so created the Wellington.

Which gave him particular interest in the battles the Iron Duke was waging in Spain.  He was fitting the Duke of Kent when news of the victory at Vittoria came in.  “If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.” Continue reading

Caresse Crosby (1891-1970): America’s First Girl Scout

It’s true! In 1910, Robert Baden-Powell came to America to help get the Boy Scouts going here and brought Lady Baden-Powell with him.  She somehow wound up at our  subject’s school  and had lunch with Miss Ruutz-Rees.

Mrs. Crosby writes:  “I am sure it was in exchanging modern ideas over the after luncheon coffee cups that they together with Miss Loundes and Miss Lewis (both as British as buns) brewed the scheme for instigation of a Girls Scout movement right there at Rosemary.”

Polly was chosen as the first initiate, and got the name Policumteenawa, signifying Little-Possum-By-the-Fire, or some such.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Continue reading

John Harrington, 1561-1612 : Toilet Humor

Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
If treason prosper, none dare call it treason

Old joke, and a good one.  The other night we were trying to remember whose it was.  Too light hearted for Milton.  Too old timey for Dr. Johnson.  Not quite good enough for Shakespeare, but about that period.

It was John Harrington.

He was one of your basic old Etonians who went on to Cambridge. He was also the godson of Elizabeth I, which connection helped him get a minor place at court.  He was witty, or close enough for courtly work.   Seemed to have a taste for dirty jokes.  They must have been utterly filthy – the story is they got him exiled to Kelston, near Bath.*  Well, the jokes, and the stuff insulting the government in general Continue reading

Count Alfred D’Orsay, 1801-1845: Charmed, I’m Sure

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

Ewald Georg von Kleist, 1740 -1748: Shock of the New

The recent death of Ewald von Kleist, last of the July 20 conspirators,  who but for bad scheduling would have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1944, set me to wonder  about the rest of the family.

There are the usual suspects, a long line of more or less prominent military men, the writer Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist  (who started out as a solider), minor professionals who left no particular marks behind them.   And then there was Ewald Georg, jurist and cleric and Bishop of Pomerania.   Continue reading

Gaetano Giulio Zummo (aka Zumbo), 1656-1701: The Wax Man Cometh

I came across a review of Rupert Thomson’s novel Secrecy, which sounds like one for the to read list. What struck me was the protagonist Zummo, aka Zumbo.*

He was an historical personage, as it happens, born in Sicily, possibly to impoverished aristocrats, certainly in reduced circumstances, and was initially schooled to be a cleric.  The records give him the title of Abate.   Somehow his talents in the plastic arts emerged (he was self taught) and it was clear that this was a man destined for something other than performing Mass and taking confessions.

Perhaps because he was self taught, his first public appearance as an artist comes relatively late in life, in the 1680s, in Bologna.  The work was good enough to encourage to try for Florence, where in 1695 Grand Duke Cosimo III put him on the payroll.  Continue reading

Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading

Elizabeth Phillips,1866–1948: Hotels on Boardwalk

When the power went for better part of a week during Super Storm (not Hurricane) Sandy, our household was thrown back to earlier, more primitive diversions than television or the internet.   Among these was Monopoly.

I’d only vaguely remembered just how irritating a game it really was after the first dozen or so rotations.  Memories of irritated, not to say angry, young children who were left out on the street despite having hotels on Board Walk and Park Place.  What kind of crummy game was this, anyway?

Turns out, anger and irritation was the whole idea. Continue reading