Category Archives: Politics

1637: Church elders complain of dung-hurling

Norwich cathedral

In 1637, an order from Charles I required members of the Norwich municipal corporation to attend cathedral services, if they weren’t doing so already.

This order posed problems for the mayor and aldermen, who petitioned the king for an exemption from attending services in the city’s cathedral. Their “Humble Petition” cited “inconveniences thereof [that were] many and intolerable”. According to members of the corporation, their low seats in the cathedral were subject to gusts of freezing wind.

Not only that, the ordinary folk of Norwich, who were none too fond of the corporation, occupied the seats in the upper galleries. This gave them a vantage point for pelting city officials with anything they could find, from shoes to excreta:

“There be many seats over our heads and are oftentimes exposed to much danger… In the mayoralty of Mr Christopher Barrett a great Bible was let fall from above and hitting him upon the head, broke his spectacles… Some made water in the gallery on the aldermen’s heads and it dropped down into their wives’ seats… In October last Alderman Shipdham, somebody most beastly did conspurcate and shit upon his gown from the galleries above… some from the galleries let fall a shoe which narrowly missed the mayor’s head… another time one from the gallery did spit upon Alderman Barrett’s head…”

The king denied their request for exemption. It is not known if the Norwich elders followed the order and braved the masses in the cathedral.

Source: Tanner manuscripts, Bodleian Library; v.220, f.147. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1861: Abraham Lincoln’s hate mail


Barely literate internet trolls may seem a recent phenomenon but only the medium is new. Ask Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States.

As can be imagined, Abe was less than popular with his constituents in the southern states. An expression of the president’s unpopularity can be found in this barely legible item of hate mail, sent to Lincoln by a Mr A G Frick in February 1861. Frick’s spelling, grammar and punctuation appear exactly as written:

Mr Abe Lincoln

if you don’t Resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling and play the Devil with you you god or mighty god dam sunnde of a bith go to hell and buss my Ass suck my prick and call my Bolics your uncle Dick god dam a fool and goddam Abe Lincoln who would like you goddam you excuse me for using such hard words with you but you need it you are nothing but a goddam Black nigger

Yours, &c.
Mr A. G. Frick

[PS] Tennessee Missouri Kentucky Virginia N. Carolina and Arkansas is going to secede Glory be to god on high”

Source: Letter dated February 14th 1861, cited in Dear Mr Lincoln: Letters to the President, Harold Holzer (ed.), 1993. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1934: Young JFK in hospital

The young JFK, messing around with Lem Billings during their Choate years

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.

While 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”.

Kennedy 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.

Source: John F. Kennedy letters to LeMoyne Billings, June 1934. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1895: Voting turns women into barbarians, says Dr Weir

James Weir Jr. (1856-1906) was an American physician, naturalist and author. Born into a prominent Kentucky family, Weir obtained a medical degree before setting up a practice in his native Owensboro. The wider medical community came to know Weir through his prolific writings.

A student of Charles Darwin, Dr Weir wrote extensively about the distinctions between human beings and animals. He was particularly fascinated by regressive and animalistic behaviours in humans. Among the works published by Weir were Pygmies in the United States, Religion and Lust and Dawn of Reason, or Mental Traits in the Lower Animals. In an essay called “A Little Excursion into Savagery”, Weir confesses to taking a week off every June so he can romp around the Kentucky forest “living like a savage”, dwelling in a cave and eating roasted squirrel.

Weir was also willing to use his pseudo-scientific theories as a political device. In 1894 he penned an essay asserting that striking and rioting workers were “evidence of [evolutionary] degeneration”. The following year Weir went even further, claiming that female suffrage would create to generations of degenerate women with unhealthy masculine features. He cited historical examples of oversexed and overly masculine female leaders, including Messalina, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I (“she was more man than woman”) and Catherine the Great (“a dipsomaniac and a creature of unbounded and inordinate sensuality”).

If women were given the vote and access to political power, Weir claimed, over time they become “viragints”:

“Viraginity has many phases… The tom boy who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances… The loud talking, long stepping, slang using young woman… The square shouldered, stolid, cold, unemotional, unfeminine android…”

According to Weir, those who promote female suffrage and equal rights – suffragettes and campaigners like Susan B. Anthony – are already viragints, “individuals who plainly show that they are physically abnormal”. Extending suffrage to women would cause a slow but inevitable and widespread shift toward viraginity:

“The simple right to vote carries with it no immediate danger. The danger comes afterward, probably many years after the establishment of female suffrage, when woman, owing to her atavistic tendencies, hurries ever backward toward the state of her barbarian ancestors. I see in the establishment of equal rights, the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors…”

Weir died in agony of ‘abdominal dropsy’ while holidaying in Virginia Beach. He was 50 years old. Just 14 years after his death, an amendment to the United States Constitution gave American women full suffrage.

Source: James Weir Jr. MD, “The Effect of Female Suffrage on Posterity” in The American Naturalist, vol.29, September 1895. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1687: Duke dispatched by gangrene in his privities

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers (1628-1687) was an English courtier, politician, writer and, later, the second Duke of Buckingham. His father, also George Villiers, was a favourite (and according to some, a bisexual lover) of King James I. Villiers Senior was stabbed to death shortly after the birth of his son, who was then raised in the royal court alongside the future Charles II.

Young George was sent to study at Cambridge but was bored by lectures, being spotted by Thomas Hobbes “at mastrupation, his hand in his codpiece”. Villiers later sided with the Royalists during the English Civil War, joining Charles II in exile. He returned to England in 1657 and participated in the Restoration, serving in Charles’ court and on the Privy Council.

Villiers’ political career was marked by scandals, intrigues and feuds. Two notable incidents were a hair-pulling brawl with the Marquess of Dorchester on the floor of the House of Lords, and a 1668 duel where Villiers shot dead the Earl of Shrewsbury. Villiers had been having an affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury; he later caused public outrage by moving the countess into his own home and living in a virtual menage a trios.

Villiers retired from public life in the late 1670s and retreated to his Yorkshire estate. He died in April 1687. The official cause of death was a pneumonia contracted while hunting in cold weather – however a letter written by Lord Arran, the future Duke of Hamilton, suggests a more colourful end. According to Arran he called on Villiers and found him dying of gangrenous private parts:

“He told me he was on horseback but two days before… He told me he had a mighty descent [and had] fallen upon his privities, with an inflammation and great swelling. He thought by applying warm medicines the swelling would fall and then he would be at ease. But it proved otherwise, for a mortification came on those parts, which ran up his belly and so mounted, which was the occasion of his death…. I found him there in a most miserable condition.”

Even though he remained conscious and alert, Villiers’ doctors gave him but a day or two to live. They asked Arran to break the news to Villiers, who received it stoically. He deteriorated rapidly and passed away at 11 o’clock the following night.

Villiers was interred in Westminster Abbey, his funeral a somewhat grandiose and overblown affair, given his tumultuous and controversial political career. Having expired without a legitimate heir, Villiers’ title died with him and his estate was broken up and sold. His wife Mary died in 1704 and was interred alongside him in the Abbey. Their graves are presently unmarked.

Source: Letter from Lord Arran to the Bishop of Rochester, April 17th 1687. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1942: LBJ wins Silver Star for “coolness”

In 1942, future United States president Lyndon Johnson was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military decoration – for showing “coolness” during a plane ride.

Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, weeks before his 29th birthday. When Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941 Johnson rushed to enlist in the Naval Reserve, probably thinking that military service would enhance his political prospects.

In mid 1942, Johnson, by then sporting the rank of lieutenant commander, travelled to the Pacific theatre as an observer. There he became friendly with Douglas MacArthur, who allowed Johnson to ‘sit in’ on an aerial bombing raid against Japanese targets. On June 9th Johnson arrived at an airstrip in Port Moresby, New Guinea and boarded a B26 Marauder dubbed the Wabash Cannonball.

Needing to “take a leak”, Johnson left the aircraft for a few minutes. On his return he found the seats occupied by other officers, forcing LBJ onto another B26, the Heckling Hare. As it turns out Johnson’s full bladder saved his life: the Wabash Cannonball was shot down over water near Lae, killing all on board.

Johnson’s plane also came under attack from numerous Japanese Zeros and was forced to abandon its bombing mission. While the pilot, Lieutenant Walter Greer, struggled to evade the Zeros, and the air crew manned the guns, Johnson watched the whole show from his window seat. The attack lasted less than 13 minutes before the Heckling Hare slipped its pursuers and headed back to Moresby on one engine.

Despite playing no active part in the mission Johnson was awarded the Silver Star – apparently for showing “coolness”:

“While on a mission of obtaining information in the Southwest Pacific area, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, in order to obtain personal knowledge of combat conditions, volunteered as an observer on a hazardous aerial combat mission over hostile positions in New Guinea. As our planes neared the target area they were intercepted by eight hostile fighters… The plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favourable target to the enemy fighters, [and] he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved.”

The Heckling Hare’s other crew members – including Lieutenant Greer, whose brilliant flying had saved Johnson’s life – were awarded no medal of any kind. Greer was not even aware of Johnson’s Silver Star until reading of it in the press. The men who died on the first B26, the Wabash Cannonball, received only the lower rated Purple Heart.

As for Johnson, he showed some initial embarrassment about his Silver Star, telling a Washington reporter he didn’t deserve the medal and drafting a letter declining to accept it. Nevertheless, accept it and wear it he did. When Johnson returned to the campaign trail in Texas his Silver Star, perhaps the least deserved military decoration in American history, became one of the most worn and referenced.

Johnson continued to wear the Silver Star citation in the Senate, as vice president and during his tenure in the White House.

Source: Silver Star citation, General Orders No. 12, Southwest Pacific Area, June 18th 1942. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1862: Paul Keating jailed for voting as Ronald McDonald

In August 1861, a Ballarat man who shared his name with a future Australian prime minister was charged and remanded in custody for voter fraud. During a general election for the Victorian parliament, witnesses saw Paul Keating attempt to cast two votes using false names – including another famous name from the future:


Problems with identification and record-keeping made personation (the criminal act of voting illegally under someone else’s name) an occasional problem in 19th century elections. When discovered it was dealt with harshly by the courts.

After a lengthy investigation by the police and the Victorian colonial government, Keating was convicted in April 1862 and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. On release from prison he went into gold mining in Ballarat, though his subsequent fate is unknown.

The 20th century Paul Keating was elected to the Australian parliament in 1969, later serving as treasurer (1983-91) and prime minister (1991-96).

Source: The Star (Ballarat), August 14th 1861; April 16th 1862. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1909: Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy your possum

In November 1909, several US newspapers reported that President William H. Taft and family had enjoyed a gargantuan Thanksgiving feast at the White House. The Tafts reportedly enjoyed a huge Rhode Island turkey, a 50-pound mince pie and a 26-pound possum, straight from the Georgia woods.

Little wonder that President Taft weighed in excess of 330 pounds while in office and, according to legend, couldn’t fit in the White House bath:

Source: The Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 25th 1909. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1905: Ohio woman asks governor if she may wear trousers

In May 1905, an unnamed woman from southern Ohio wrote to the state’s governor, Myron T. Herrick, requesting “permission to wear trousers”. The woman was single and lived alone so had no father or husband she could ask:

“As reason for the request, she says she is forced to work out of doors in the management of a farm and male attire would be much more convenient for her than petticoats.

Press reports suggest that the governor replied, telling the woman that he could not grant permission for her to wear trousers – but he intended to consult the attorney general with a view to forming “an amendment to the laws to suit such a case”.

Source: The Washington Times, May 7th 1905. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1739: Mrs Stephens receives £5,000 for snail recipe

In June 1739, the British Parliament passed a private member’s bill granting Joanna Stephens a gratuity of £5,000, the equivalent of more than £8 million in today’s currency. The reason for this princely sum? Mrs Stephens claimed to have a recipe for dissolving bladder stones and was willing to share it for a hefty fee.

Bladder stones, or cystoliths, are caused by dehydration that facilitates high mineral concentration in one’s urine. In the 18th century world, where water was fetid and potentially deadly, men quenched their thirst with beer, wine and spirits, making bladder stones a common ailment.

Mrs Stephens announced her “dissolving cure for the stones” in 1738 and demanded £5,000 to share it. A public subscription raised only one-third of this amount, so she took her request to Westminster. Despite Mrs Stephens being the daughter of a landed gentleman with no medical training, some MPs took her seriously and pushed her request through parliament.

Their enthusiasm seems even more incredible when Stephens’ recipe was unveiled:

“My medicines are a powder, a decoction and pills. The powder consists of eggshells and snails, both calcined [dry-roasted]. The decoction is made by boiling some herbs, together with a ball which consists of soap, swine cress and honey in water. The pills consist of snails calcined, wild carrot seeds, burdock seeds, ash seeds, hips and hawes, all burned to a blackness, soap and honey.”

The £5,000 did come with conditions. Before payment was made, Stephens’ recipe was tested for several months on four men, all of whom suffered from bladder stones. These trials were overseen by a panel of 28 trustees, including the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In March 1740, a majority of the trustees declared that Stephens’ recipe had fulfilled its promise and was capable of dissolving bladder stones. Stephens accepted her £5,000 and withdrew to spend it, while doctors quibbled over whether her recipe had any real value.

Stephens returned to private life and was never heard from again; she died in 1774. Modern historians suggest she was either a fantastic charlatan or a lucky beneficiary of government stupidity.

Source: The London Gazette, Saturday June 16th 1739. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.