In 1912 conservatives in New York declared war on “mashing”. Flirtatious and inappropriate behaviour towards women had reached plague proportions in the Big Apple, they claimed. Attractive females could not walk down a New York street without being wolf whistled, propositioned or subjected to a barrage of provocative remarks. State assemblyman Richard F. Hearn carried out his own research into ‘mashing’ and declared it the leading cause of divorce in the United States. In early 1912 Hearn sponsored a bill that introduced prison terms for convicted “mashers”. This crackdown produced several arrests over the next two years – though judges tended to be lenient, if not dismissive. This was not always the case, however, as revealed in this report from November 1913:
Alonzo Bertram See (1848-1941) was a prominent elevator manufacturer from New York City. Born in Yonkers, See started his own company in 1883 and began to ride the skyscraper boom to success and wealth. By the turn of the century See was a millionaire several times over and his business – the quirkily named A. B. See Elevator Company – was the third largest manufacturer and installer of elevators in the United States. New Yorkers rode in See’s elevators and so were familiar with his name – but knew little of him until the 1920s. In 1922 Adelphi College, a Brooklyn women’s college, started a fundraising drive and wrote to Mr See seeking donations. He responded in the negative, explaining his views bluntly:
“Of all the fool things in the world, I think colleges for women are the worst… College girls are slangy, they swagger, smoke cigarettes, have bold and brazen manners, paint and powder their faces, use lipsticks, wear high heeled shoes and dress indecently… When they graduate from college they cannot write a legible hand; they know nothing about the English language; they cannot spell… All women’s colleges ought to be burned.”
See’s letter found its way into the hands of the press. Coming shortly after the passing of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing voting rights for women, See’s views unleashed a flood of protest from women’s rights campaigners. As the New York Times put it, many women “hit the ceiling faster than they ever ascended in one of See’s elevators”. See, however, remained steadfast. When a prominent suffragette challenged him to a debate, See publicly declined, saying that:
“I never discuss anything logical with women. They can talk straight for about five minutes and then they go off the handle. They haven’t got the reasoning power a man has, and I wouldn’t think of debating with any woman on any subject.”
Apparently enjoying the notoriety, Alonzo See became something of a social critic. His two favourite targets were women and education, both of which he seemed to regard as a waste of time. When reformers sought legislation to outlaw child labour in 1924, See wrote agitated letters to the press, claiming that it was physically harmful to keep 13-year-old boys in school. Two years later he penned a lengthy essay on education, arguing that school causes some children to go blind and others to physically “waste away”. “Children must be rescued from their mothers and from pedagogues,” See wrote, and “women must be rescued from themselves”. The New York press published smirking references to See’s sexism for many years. In 1936, however, it was revealed that A. B. See had undergone an epiphany with regard to women and had “changed his mind on them altogether”.
Sir William Osler (1849-1919) was a Canadian-American doctor, academic and medical pioneer. The son of a British naval officer and a pious Christian woman, Osler was born in Ontario and educated in Toronto, Montreal and London. In the 1880s be became chief of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding member of the Association of American Physicians. In 1889 Osler relocated to Baltimore and became a co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. He remained at Johns Hopkins for 12 years, overseeing its rapid growth and evolution into one of America’s foremost medical research facilities. In 1905 Osler accepted the Regius Professorship at Oxford University. Just before embarking for England he delivered a controversial farewell address to the Johns Hopkins alumni, in which he suggested that the most important work was done by younger folk:
“The effective, moving, vitalising work of the world is done between the ages of 25 and 40, these 15 golden years of plenty, the anabolic or constructive period in which there is always a balance in the mental bank and the credit is still good.”
In contrast, Osler argued, people over 60 had outlived their usefulness and were only capable of producing “evil mistakes and drivel”:
“It can be maintained that all the great advances have come from men under 40, so the history of the world shows that a very large proportion of the evils may be traced to the sexagenarians… Nearly all the great mistakes, politically and socially, all of the worst poems, most of the bad pictures, a majority of the bad novels, not a few of the bad sermons and speeches.”
Osler’s solution drew on the writings of Anthony Trollope. Men (and only men, as he considered elderly women a “good influence” on society) should be subject to compulsory Logan’s Run-style euthanasia, once they hit the age of 60:
“The uselessness of men above 60 years of age and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political and professional life [if they were to] stop work at this age… the plot hinges on the admirable scheme of a college into which, at 60, men retired for a year of contemplation, before a peaceful departure by chloroform.”
The popular press seized on Osler’s proposal and hounded him for the best part of a year. Great presidents, philosophers and inventors in their 60s were held up as potential victims of Osler’s program. “Oslerization” and “Oslerizing” became synonyms for euthanasia. Some newspapers queried whether Osler, who was 56 at the time, would volunteer to be first in line for compulsory chloroforming. Osler’s suggestion was tongue in cheek, of course, something he later pointed out – however his negativity about older people, their lack of productivity and resource-sapping uselessness was certainly well documented. Osler himself died in 1919, aged 70, from influenza and pneumonia. Ironically, he once described these diseases as “friendly” to old people because of their capacity for a relatively painless death.
On this day 100 years ago, a New York newspaper announced the sad tale of May Gallick from the Bronx. May, aged 12, was under arrest in hospital after attempting suicide. What drove her to this desperate act? Teasing from her four year old brother:
In the summer of 1934, future United States president John F Kennedy was in his junior year at the prestigious Choate School in Connecticut. He was also plagued by ill health. Kennedy was unwell through much of his childhood, beginning with a near-deadly case of scarlet fever before his third birthday. At Choate, a good deal of his time was spent in its sick bay. Though active and seemingly fit, 17-year-old Kennedy struggled with a number of ailments including fatigue, dizziness, fainting spells, joint soreness, back pain and dangerous weight loss. Baffled doctors suggested everything from influenza to an ulcer to leukaemia. In June 1934 his frustrated parents booked Kennedy into the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was subjected to a battery of tests. Doctors at Mayo pricked and probed the future president for two weeks, trying to find a reason for his general illness and fatigue. Some of these tests were painful and humiliating, leading Kennedy to describe Mayo as the “god-damnest hole I’ve ever seen”. He went into more detail in letters to a high school friend, Lem Billings:
“I’ve got something wrong with my intestines. In other words, I shit blood… Yesterday I went through the most harassing experience of my life… [A doctor] stuck an iron tube, 12 inches long and one inch in diameter, up my ass… My poor bedraggled rectum is looking at me very reproachfully these days…”
Kennedy’s notes to Billings were also filled with banter about girls and sex. The two boys had lost their virginity earlier in the year, Kennedy to a white prostitute in Harlem, and sex was very much on his mind:
“I’m still eating peas and corn for food, [but] I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde. That is the height of cheap thrills…”
“The nurses here are the dirtiest bunch of females I’ve ever seen. One of them wanted to know if I would give her a work-out last night… I said yes, but she was put off duty early…”
“I have not [experienced] orgasm for six days, so feel kind of horny, which has been increased by reading one of the dirtiest books I’ve ever seen…”
Kennedy was eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and placed on a bland diet of rice, potatoes and milk. This did not improve his health – and as later history suggests, it did nothing to alleviate his sexual appetite either.