Winnaretta Singer

To continue my recent series of ‘Badass Women’ posts, today I’d like to talk about Winnaretta Singer: heiress, arts patron, two-time princess, open and unapologetic Victorian lesbian.

Oh, and I forgot to add to her bio: fabulous cape-wearer.

I’ll just do some quick bullet points about her life:

1.) She was the 20th of 24 children, so first of all, YIKES. Her father was Isaac Singer, he of the millionaire sewing machine fortune, and his second wife, a Frenchwoman named Isabella Boyer. Of course she had a French mother. Fabulousness was pretty much in her blood.

2.) Her parents had a scandalous damn marriage. Firstly, her mother was thirty years Isaac’s junior (being 22 to his 52). He had divorced his first wife years previously, and had many mistresses over the years. I suppose that’s not really surprising, though, because he looks like a walking hard-on:

Two observations–Winnaretta clearly got her cape-wearing skills from him, and he also looks like the sort of guy who begins every sentence with, “Baby”, Barry White-style.

When Isaac convinced his young second wife Isabella (who was pregnant with his child, but married to someone else at the time) to leave her husband and marry him, it wasn’t Isabella’s former husband who caused the trouble. Oh no. Isaac’s former mistress had him arrested for bigamy, because they apparently had had a common-law marriage.

Turns out he had SEVERAL secret families. While still married to his first wife, Catherine, he had an affair with Mary Ann Sponsler, by whom he had ten children. Over the years, he had other overlapping families, including Mary McGonigal (who bore him five children), and Mary Eastwood Walters (who bore him one daughter).

Well, with three mistresses/common-law wives all named Mary, I guess you don’t have to worry too much about shouting out the wrong name in bed. Unless it’s with one of your actual wives, Catherine and Isabella.

From what I understand, he seemed to settled down once he married Isabella.

3.) Winnaretta’s family seemed to attract scandalous unions. We’ll get to her own marriages and affairs shortly, but it should be known that her nephew, Paris Singer, was the poor, long-suffering sod who was Isadora Duncan’s long-term partner, in this completely banana-pants post I wrote way back in the day.

4.) When Isaac Singer died in 1875, Isabella took the children back to Paris with her. Around 1887, when Winnaretta was 22, she married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, despite it being a fairly open secret that she preferred the company of women.

As the possibly apocryphal story goes, on their wedding night, Winnaretta climbed atop an armoire and told the amorous groom that she would kill him if he came near her. Their marriage went unconsummated until it was annulled in 1892.

5.) Her second marriage, which took place a year after the first one was annulled, was considerably happier. Following in the footsteps of her parents, the ex-princess quickly re-princessed (look at me, making up verbs!) by marrying Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, an aristocrat and amateur compose who was exactly 30 years her senior.

The reason for the success of this marriage? They were both openly gay, were extremely good friends, and both had a deep passion for music.

He died only eight years after their marriage, and was sincerely mourned by Winnaretta. She never remarried, although she did have plenty of affairs (more on that later).

6.) Although her first marriage was an unhappy one, it did give Winnaretta initial access to Paris’s elite artistic circles where she quickly became a patron of the arts. She became even more embedded in the arts scene during her second marriage, and established a salon in 1894, which became known as THE PLACE to go for avant-garde music in Paris.

She was so close with musicians that you can actually find several famous compositions dedicated to her, including Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte“, Stravinsky’s “Piano Sonata” and  Fauré’s “Mandoline“.

7.) During both of her marriages (and before and after them), Winnaretta had many affairs that she never attempted to hide. This was revolutionary, and not only because she was a lesbian. As I’ve talked about in previous posts about etiquette and marriage in the upper classes, affairs were fine (mostly), as long as the participants were discreet. It was discretion, not fidelity, that was the prized trait in aristocratic circles. In short: DON’T FUCKING EMBARRASS YOUR SPOUSE IN THE EYES OF SOCIETY.

I’m not sure about how either of her husbands felt about her quite public love affairs, but an educated guess would be that the first husband was pretty pissed and the second husband probably less so.

Winnaretta was rarely single for long, and seemed to favor other married women. This occasionally led to scenes being made by outraged and embarrassed husbands. At one point in Venice, an enraged husband stood in the middle of a palazzo and yelled up at Winnaretta’s apartment, “If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me.

As far as I’m aware, she did not fight him.

8.) It didn’t help that Winnaretta’s affairs were with other high-profile women. The list includes:

Olga, Baroness de Meyer, (the artist’s model, writer, and socialite who was rumored to be Edward VII’s love-child). The affair lasted from 1901-05.

Romaine Brooks (the American painter). It is rumored that Winnaretta left Olga, Baroness de Meyer, for Romaine Brooks. Quel scandal.

Ethel Smyth (English composer and suffragette). She fell violently in love with not only Winnaretta, but (later?) also Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf, although I’m not sure to what extent those other relationships were reciprocated.

Renata Borgatti (Italian musician). Winnaretta was with her in the early 1920s, presumably until Winnaretta met one of the great loves of her life: Violet Trefusis.

Violet Trefusis (English socialite and author). Violet and Winnaretta were together for ten years.

Previously, Violet Trefusis had a notorious affair with author and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West that ended rather badly. Vita Sackville-West went on to have a famous (if rarely consummated) friendship/love affair with Virginia Woolf. Virginia was so smitten with Vita that she wrote Vita’s fantasy-biography, Orlando. In Orlando, Violet Trefusis is portrayed as the heartless and heart-breaking Russian princess, Sasha, who abandons Orlando early in the book.

Alvilde Lees-Milne, Viscountess Chaplin (British gardening expert and landscaper; daughter of the Governor of South Australia). This was all kinds of messy, not only because of their tumultuous relationship, but also because Alvilde had once been involved with Vita Sackville-West, the one-time lover of Violet Trefusis. It looks a bit like Vita and Violet rebounded, respectively, with Winnaretta and Alvilde after they broke up, only to have their rebounds go on to date each other years later.

Alvilde and Winnaretta had their ups and downs, but were together until Winnaretta’s death in 1943.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad Book Covers – The Hound of the Baskervilles

I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled “Badass Women” posts to bring you another installment of Bad Book Covers. One of the Sherlock Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), was recommended to me by @VictorianMasc and @DrDouglasSmall about a year ago, and I’m only just getting around to it–mostly because one of my followers,  linked me to some damn ridiculous covers that got my butt in gear.

Previous posts in this series include: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The MoonstoneDracula, East Lynne, Lady Audley’s Secret, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Scarlet Letter, Frankenstein, A Christmas Carol, Little Women, Jekyll and HydePamela, Ivanhoe, Anne of Green GablesVanity FairTurn of the ScrewShe,  The Jungle Book, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Usual disclaimers:

1.) These are all professional book covers instead of fan or amateur artwork (or at least I hope so). I’m more than happy to pick on marketing boards who thought these were good ideas, but I don’t want to pick on fans trying to express their love of books. If a fan cover made it in to this collection, then I’m very sorry and you are clearly a good enough artist to make me assume it was professionally done.

2.) I’m ridiculing the covers, not the book itself.

3.) I’m going to swear. A lot. If this isn’t your thing, then don’t read it.

Plot Recap (SPOILERS)

Sir Charles Baskerville croaks mysteriously at his big swanky Gothic-ass estate, and his buddy, Dr James Mortimer, asks Sherlock to check it out. Dr Mortimer says that the official cause of death is a heart attack, but he’s suspicious because Sir Charles died with an expression of horror on his face.

Yeah. Having a painful heart attack will do that.

BUT there were also footprints near his body. Footprints . . . of a giant hound! Dun dun DUUUUUUHHHH! The Baskerville family has been under a curse for hundreds of years when a shitty ancestor offered his soul to Satan so he could sexually assault a woman, and was then immediately killed by a giant black hell-hound. Dr Mortimer now fears for the life of the new heir, Sir Charles’s nephew, Henry Baskerville.

Henry’s had some weird shit happen to him already, including having one of his boots stolen and getting a serial killer-style note that’s like, “STAY OFF THE MOOR, I’M DEFINITELY NOT TRYING TO LURE YOU OUT HERE SO I CAN KILL YOU, UHHHH, DEMON DOGS WILL EAT YOUR SOUL OR SOMETHING, ‘KAY?”

Sherlock and Watson go back with Henry to Baskerville Manor, and a series of other weird-ass nonsense happens, like further boots disappearing and reappearing, a dude with a big beard stalking Henry, and an escaped convict hiding out on the moors.

I gotta ask, has literally anything good ever happened on the moors? Like, name one single thing. I dare you.

Sherlock and Watson get to the house and hear random crying in the middle of the night, and the butler starts acting suspicious, and everyone hears an animal baying. They meet a brother and sister, Mr and Miss Stapleton, who collect butterflies and shit on the moors, and therefore seem utterly uninterested in the concept of their own mortality. Lust for butterfly capture > potential maiming by demon dog.

Miss Stapleton is hot, so she and Henry fall in love, as you do, but her brother gets all weird and possessive.

In a series of totally predictable family secrets, it turns out that the butler is the escaped convict’s brother, and he’s been leaving him supplies on the moor, and also Mr and Miss Stapleton aren’t really brother and sister–they’re married!

Then the convict dies from a fall–because god knows felons can’t escape a Victorian novel happily–but he was wearing some of Henry’s old clothes, so Sherlock thinks he was mistaken for the Baskerville heir and targeted.

Sherlock notices a convenient family portrait that looks a lot like Mr Stapleton–is he secretly a Baskerville relative looking to kill off every heir who stands between him and inheriting the estate?


They rush to Stapleton’s place just in time. He released a giant mastiff to attack Henry as Henry was walking across the moor, and they shoot the dog dead, and discover it looked all creepy because it was painted with phosphorus to make it glow. They kill Stapleton in his attempt to escape, free his sister/wife who he has kept tied up in the basement or some such shit, and also relocate Henry’s missing boot, which Stapleton had stolen to give the dog his scent.

All wrong-doers are dead (and also dog, but no one much cares), and all boots are reunited, and everyone is happy, except PETA.


On to the covers!

We’ll start with a few good covers, shall we?

This is probably the most original take–I have yet to see any other cover that doesn’t reference a hound in some way (even if this does kind of give away the identity of the murderer).

These are all perfectly lovely and ominous portrayals of hounds. No complaints from me!


But I know you guys don’t come here to look at good covers. So let’s get on with it. I call the below category Hounds That Harness the Power of the Sun:

Greg, I don’t want to alarm you, but I think you may be on fire.

“Susan . . . did you give the dog all our MDMA?”

No comment, I’m just going to link to a Doctor Who reference.


This next section is called The Dangers of Crossbreeding Your Pets

There is something significantly wrong with that camel.

The Pregnant Three-Headed Fox of the Baskervilles

In this version, Sherlock goes on an imperial adventure to central Africa, upon hearing reports of an accursed spectral gorilla terrorizing the area.

Hey, this is the height of empire. I’m sure at least 14 stories like that were written. In that year alone.

Honestly not sure if that’s supposed to be a leaf-nosed bat, a panther, or a ‘hound’, but it’s fucking awful, whatever it is.


This leads me to my favorite section, The Fluffy Pupper of the Baskervilles:


I know that’s probably Holmes’s dog, Toby, but COME ON, the title has the word ‘hound’ in it, and THIS is the dog you put on the cover?

“My god, Holmes! The hound has struck again! It shivered, and yipped, and peed itself until the man DIED!”

(the caption his hysterical, by the way, and knowingly so. I kind of love this cover)

I like that Holmes looks like he’s inspecting the world’s tiniest, most pathetic hunting dogs–none of which which, consequently, IS THE FUCKING HOUND BEING REFERENCED.


There is an associated category called Sad Hound Is Sad:

“Don’t shoot, I just want him to LOVE ME”

“What . . . hath . . . I . . . wrought?”

That dog is doing the ugly cry. That dog is me during my entire 8th grade year.

“Rupert, why would you say such hurtful things to me? Didn’t our road trip to the Catskills mean anything to you?”


And the final catch-all category, linked by only one theme: Too Confusing to Make Me Mad

I . . .

Um . . .



Is Holmes doing straight-up opium now? There is no other reason for him to be that louche and also holding a gun.

I have a PhD in loucheness (and Victorian literature), so I am authorized to make this assessment.

“Hey, Craig, do you have any ideas about how we can make the dog on the cover art kind of spooky?”

“You could … give him … a … smoke … tongue?”

“Goddamn it, Craig, you brilliant bastard. You’ve outdone yourself again.”


That’s all I have for you today, but I have at least one other Bad Book Covers post on deck, probably for next month. As always, I am open to suggestions!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Woman Chief, Pine Leaf

Way back in they day I did a series of “Badass Women” posts about understudied nineteenth-century hellions, including Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others. I’ve decided that since I’m going to be cutting way back on my weekly posts, I might as well make an effort to blog about something I enjoy! So for the next few weeks, I’ll do a few of these. A new one out every Friday.

Today let’s talk about indigenous American warrior-queen known as “Woman Chief”, who may or may not also have been the warrior known as “Pine Leaf”.  Part of the confusion comes from the fact that–although Woman Chief was absolutely a real person–Pine Leaf may not have been. The American fur trader and explorer James Beckwourth wrote of his experiences living with the Crow Nation in his autobiography–the same tribe as Woman Chief.

Illustration of Pine Leaf in Beckwourth’s book.

This book, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation (the content of which Beckwourth narrated to Thomas D. Bonner, who actually wrote the text) gives several details about “Pine Leaf” that overlap with what we know of Woman Chief. The problem is that Beckwourth’s account has been heavily challenged as being (at best) largely exaggerated or (at worst) entirely fictional.

He even claims to have had a relationship with Pine Leaf–who had initially refused to marry anyone until she had killed one hundred enemies–which resulted in their marriage. The marriage apparently didn’t last long; five weeks later they parted ways, he left the Crow Nation, and he never saw his wife again. Because people noticed a tendency to exaggerate his own importance in the book, many critics have had a difficult time knowing how much, if any, of it is true.

He could also be referencing a different warrior woman of the Crow Nation, since there were at least a couple more during his time with them: Akkeekaahuush (Comes Toward The Near Bank, c. 1810 – 1880) and Biliíche Héeleelash (Among The Willows, c. 1837 – 1912).

Pine Leaf appears in quite a large section of his memoirs and what he does say about Pine Leaf is exceptionally positive. He writes that she was ‘the bravest woman that ever lived …. she possessed great intellectual powers. She was endowed with extraordinary muscular strength, wit the activity of the cat and the speed of the antelope. Her features were pleasing, and her form symmetrical. She had lost a brother in the attack on our village before mentioned – a great brave, and her twin brother. He was a fine specimen of the race of red men, and bade fair to rise to distinction; but he was struck down in his strength, and Pine Leaf was left to avenge his death. She was at that time twelve years of age, and she solemnly vowed that she would never marry until she had killed a hundred of the enemy with her own hand. Whenever a war-party started, Pine Leaf was the first to volunteer to accompany them …. She seemed incapable of fear‘ (100).

In addition to being given a lot of space in Beckwourth’s story, she is rather remarkably portrayed at the time for being attractive without ever being sexualized, and for having a strong personality and opinions that are recounted even at Beckwourth’s expense. Though he already has several indigenous wives in their village (one of whom is Pine Leaf’s best friend), he eventually asks her to marry him.

She tells him he has too many wives already, and that she will remain true to her vow. He lies to her and says that he’s had his fortune told–if he marries her, he will be invincible in battle. She laughs and says, ‘Okay, we’ll get married as soon as the pine leaves turn yellow and fall from the trees.’ It takes him a little while to realize that pine leaves never turn yellow and fall from the trees. He presses her again, and she says she’ll marry him the day he finds a red-headed Indian, which, of course, he never does.

They do eventually get married in the text, but it takes several years and many adventures, during which time she clearly leads a full and independent life and fulfills her vow.

Is Pine Leaf a real person? If so, is she the same person as Woman Chief? Did Beckwourth know her and/or marry her? We just don’t know.

What we DO know is who Woman Chief was. She was born in 1806 to the Gros Ventres tribe in what is now Montana. We don’t know her Gros Ventres birth name, but when she was ten years old she was captured by the Crow tribe after a raid and was adopted by one of their warriors. She was very tomboyish and was interested only in traditionally male pursuits. Her adoptive father, who had lost his sons, encouraged her.

She was referred to as a “Two-Spirit“, which is an indigenous umbrella term that has come to include LGBTQ identities, but originally (and still) includes a much more spiritual element. It’s not particularly helpful to classify Woman Chief as gay or trans, because firstly we have no idea if she was actually either of those things, and secondly because many indigenous tribes don’t have the same rigid gender structures that white western culture has. As far as I know, it’s fairly common for there to be four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man.

If I have any Crow Nation readers out there, I would love any clarity you could give about historical gender dynamics and how Chief Woman may have been categorized in the early nineteenth century!

Anyway, when Woman Chief’s father died, she took control of his lodge and became a celebrated warrior after a Blackfoot raid. In fact, she even raised her own band of warriors and retaliated on the Blackfoot tribe in retaliation, taking a TON of horses and scalps. Her deeds were so impressive that she was asked to represent her lodge in the Council of Chiefs.

It was at this point she was given the name Bíawacheeitchish, or Woman Chief. She eventually took four wives and made her lodge quite wealthy and important in diplomacy of the area. She negotiated several peace negotiations with other tribes, including the Gros Ventres, the tribe of her birth.

She met with many white westerners who were extremely impressed with her and helped to record her story by writing about her. These meetings included Edwin Denig, the fur trader and ethnographer, and Rudolph Kurz, the Swiss painter and explorer. Of course, they were not immune to exoticizing her and compared her (a woman in a high leadership position in a fairly patriarchal tribe) to an Amazon. Their accounts, which do provide a valuable record of her life, are unsurprisingly considered to be biased, sexist, and racist.

Despite the peace treaty she arranged with the Gros Ventres (I’m not sure if it had broken down before this point), she was eventually ambushed and killed by a party of their raiders in either 1854 or 1858.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carmen Sylva, the Poetess Queen

I’m doing a short series of ‘Badass Women’ posts (see last week’s post on warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa), and I’ve decided to combine this with the series I did a few weeks ago on Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. Previous posts include: Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others.

When we talked about Princess Missy, the eventual Queen of Romania, I touched briefly on the subject of her husband’s aunt, the Queen Consort Elisabeth of Romania, who was also a poetess under the pseudonym Carmen Sylva.

All quotations come from Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004).

Carmen Sylva, as I’ll refer to her for the purposes of this post, was dramatic and romantic and embarrassing and loved stirring shit up, and did not give a single fuck. To briefly summarize details about her from my post on Princess Missy, who took over as Queen Consort after Carmen Sylva’s husband, King Carol, died, here’s some of the shit she did:

1.) She and her husband made a super awkward couple (which also made for a really uncomfortable royal court). He was very cold and formal, while she was extremely theatrical and sensitive. It was like every bad ’90s and ’00s romcom where a manic pixie dream girl changes the life of an uptight dude, except in this situation it was a royal marriage and nobody changed and nobody fell in love, they just got married.

2.) She encouraged her nephew Nando, the future king, to have a love affair with an unsuitable commoner, which caused an international scandal. His uncle, King Carol, told Nando he would either have to choose love or the throne, because he could never take the crown if he married such a lowly woman. Nando chose the throne, and quickly sought out a princess to marry. He found Missy and married her very quickly before she could hear news of his love affair.

Carmen Sylva, for the role she played in encouraging and facilitating the love affair, was banished by King Carol from the court for two years.

3.) As soon as Nando and Missy married, Carmen Sylva instantly ditched her encouragement of Nando and the commoner woman, and became very, ‘NANDO AND MISSY 4EVA’, because she was fickle and romantic like that. To put it in internet parlance, she just desperately wanted someone or something to ship.

4.) “If Missy shrank from Carmen Sylva’s outlandish theatricality at these salons, the same could be said when Elisabeth set her sights on dispensing charity. For she excelled at presenting herself here too in the most absurd light. It was not out of character to find the queen sitting dramatically on a palace windowsill in plain view of the public below her, ready to mete out help to those who approached their benevolent sovereign. Crown Princess Marie often cringed at the spectacle, sensing  that many of Elisabeth’s audience laughed behind her back.

“Carried away by her own monologues, the poetess queen would ‘speak of her soul, of her most sacred and intimate belief . . . of the real and imaginary slights . . . of the non-comprehension . . . of her husband’. It was pointedly obvious that thanks to Carmen Sylva’s outrageous theatricality, the court of King Carol and Queen Elisabeth took on a decidedly bizarre atmosphere” (64).

5.) When Missy had children shortly after her marriage, Carmen Sylva, whose only child died at three years of age, did everything in her power to take the children from Missy and raise them as her own. Missy and Nando had a really unhappy marriage, so Carmen Sylva exploited Missy’s many, many love affairs to encourage servants, Nando, and the King to join in her effort to separate Missy from the children.

6.) When Nando grew dangerously ill with typhoid fever, “the drama held strange appeal for Carmen Sylva‘s disordered personality. She almost gloated at every detail of Nando’s declining condition. Understandably, the crown princess [Missy] was horrified to find the queen standing by the palace windows, ‘with tragic face and finger on lip, pantomime the news to those waiting below‘ (82).

7.) Despite being a queen, Carmen Sylva was of a highly Republican sensibility and believed that monarchy should be abolished in favor of a more democratic form of government. She complained about this in her diary pretty much every week, saying in one instance:

‘I must sympathize with the Social Democrats, especially in view of the inaction and corruption of the nobles. These “little people”, after all, want only what nature confers: equality. The Republican form of government is the only rational one. I can never understand the foolish people, the fact that they continue to tolerate us‘.

8.) Carmen Sylva was known for her obsession with spiritualism and the occult. She spent a great deal of her childhood conducting seances and visiting lunatic asylums.

When King Carol died, “Queen Elisabeth [Carmen Sylva] moved to the bishop’s residence at Curtea de Arges in order to be near the burial site of Carol I. It was a logical move for a woman who believed in communicating with the dead. Though she continued to exasperate Queen Marie [Missy] because of her staunch German sympathies and her peculiar rants about frequent talks with the Archangel Raphael, Marie treated the widowed Carmen Sylva with kindness and understanding. In a gesture of peace and magnanimity, she sought oheal the wounds that had set the two women at loggerheads with each other – wounds that were largely of Carmen Sylva’s making. Queen Elisabeth’s peaceful widowhood was short-lived. She died in early March 1916 from pneumonia caught while taking in the freezing cold air, a habit of the old queen because she feared being suffocated. She was buried next to Carol I” (224), presumably to annoy him for all eternity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yaa Asantewaa

Way back in they day I did a series of “Badass Women” posts about understudied nineteenth-century hellions, including Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others. I’ve decided that since I’m going to be cutting way back on my weekly posts, I might as well make an effort to blog about something I enjoy! So for the next few weeks, I’ll do a few of these. A new one out every Friday.

Today we’re going to talk about Yaa Asantewaa, the nineteenth-century queen mother of the Ashanti Confederacy, an extremely sophisticated kingdom in what is present-day Ghana. She’s famous for many things, including leading a mass revolt against British colonialism. The war in question is named after her, Yaa Asantewaa’s War, also known as the War of the Golden Stool.

Born in 1840 in central Ghana, Yaa Asantewaa led a pretty normal life, with the exception that her brother, Afrane Panin, was the chief of a community called Edweso. During his reign, she and Afrane saw a lot of turmoil, including four wars between their people and the British. Her brother named her ‘Queen Mother’, and she inherited a matrilineal throne from her grandmother and mother, as well. When her brother, died she used that power to nominate her own grandson to take over after Afrane.

The British then demanded not only the total surrender of the Asante Confederacy, but also their Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante people and the throne of the Confederacy. This latter demand was apparently made by British governor Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, who didn’t quite realize the significance of the object.

Unsurprisingly, it caused a flipping uproar. That night, Yaa Asantewaa declared that they would no longer be paying the British taxes and, brandishing a gun and firing it in the air, vowed to rebel against imperialism in any way she could.

The British exiled her grandson/king pretty much immediately, along with some other local rulers. In their absence, she became the regent for the area. Participating in a secret council, whose goal it was to try to bring the rulers back, Yaa Asantewaa gave her famous speech:

‘Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opuku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to the Chief of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.

Apparently the men were too cowardly, because they elected her the war leader of their fighting force. This is the first and only time a woman was given that role in the entire Asante history.

She also urged women to refuse sex with their husbands until they joined the fight and to march around everywhere and participate in victory ceremonies to build morale. It worked.

In 1900, she raised troops and led them to siege a fortress where the British had sought refuge. Her battles and skirmishes were extremely clever. She used a great number of decoys to trap the British, and also fed them bad information about the state of the Asante military.

She also used talking drums to her benefit (which, if you’ve ever read any Victorian or Edwardian imperial literature, were considered very scary by the British; drums were an efficient way of communicating great distances, whereas the British and other imperial forces had the arduous task of setting up telegraph poles and stations to achieve anything comparable). She used one beat on the drum to say, ‘Prepare to die‘, three beats to say, ‘Cut the head off‘, and four beats to say, ‘The head is off‘. It freaked the British the hell out.

The siege went on for several months and finally caused British military leaders to send a force of 1,400 soldiers to break the siege. During this time, Yaa Asantewaa and some of her advisors were captured and sent into exile, the siege was broken, and the Asante empire was made a protectorate of the British crown.

Yaa Asantewaa became known (at least in the west) as Africa’s Joan of Arc. She died in exile about twenty years later, and her body was returned to its homeland.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Félix Carvajal and the 1904 Olympics

I first heard of this story on Knowable here, and it seemed so crazy that I had to check it out for myself. Turns out it was true.

Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto, known as Félix Carvajal or Andarín Carvajal (March 18, 1875 – January 27, 1949) was a Cuban postman and athlete who competed in the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri. His journey there and competition were . . . rather fraught.

Known in Cuba for his walking and running feats (including traversing the entire length of the island), he traveled from his home country to compete in the upcoming Olympic marathon. His journey got off to an extremely bumpy start when his boat docked in New Orleans and he promptly lost all of his money gambling.

Now with no other way to reach the marathon, Félix was forced to hitchhike the 700 miles to St. Louis, and he only just made the start time. I’m not sure if he didn’t come prepared with the proper equipment, or if he also lost his possessions gambling, but Félix did not have appropriate marathon attire. Wearing only street clothes, he hastily chopped some of the length off his trousers to give him pseudo-shorts and began the race. According to the Smithsonian magazineFélix was only five feet tall and made quite a striking contrast to most of the other tall, leggy competitors.

The day was extraordinarily hot, and a former Boston marathon runner competing in the marathon had to drop out after running only two blocks. It wasn’t just that it was hot, either. The terrain was a nightmare. One Olympic official said it was “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”, as the marathon track was laid out over several steep hills, was incredibly dusty, and was strewn with loose rock that made footing on the hilly terrain actually quite dangerous. The track also intersected with busy roads, so runners had to dodge traffic frequently. There were also only two places on the entire 26.2 mile course where runners could get water–once at mile six, and once at mile twelve. They were forced to run the remaining fourteen miles on a blisteringly hot day on possibly the world’s most difficult marathon track without any chance for hydration.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, “James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.”

Great. So even the organizers wanted them dehydrated. Jesus wept, y’all.

Félix seemed to cope alright, and he even stopped on a few occasions to have a bit of a chat with some of the spectators and to eat fruit. He stole some peaches from a spectator’s car, and later ate some apples from a nearby tree. The apples turned out to be rotten and gave him a stomach ache, so he decided to take a nap in the middle of the race.

When he woke from his nap, he continued the race and finished fourth.


According to Wikipedia, “Carvajal returned to St. Louis the following year to run in the inaugural All-Western Marathon, where he finished third, in a time of 3:44.

“Carvajal was selected to represent Cuba in the 1906 Olympic Marathon at Athens, Greece, with his expenses funded by the Cuban Government. However, he disappeared after landing in Italy, and never arrived in Athens. He was thought to be dead, and his obituary was published in the Cuban newspapers, but he later returned to Havana on a Spanish steamer. He then turned professional and would go on to defeat American distance runner Henry W. Shelton in a six-hour race in 1907.”

But if you think that’s all the excitement the 1904 Olympics had, then you are woefully mistaken. In addition to Félix, some other unorthodox marathon runners included:

-Ten Greek men who had never run a marathon before.

-Two men of the South African Tsuana tribe who were there as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit; they shocked people by turning up at the starting line barefoot.

-Len Tau, one of the South African competitors, was chased by wild dogs more than a mile off course.

-Fred Lorz, an American bricklayer whose participation in the marathon was sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union, was initially in the lead but then got cramps at the nine-mile mark. So he decided to hitch a ride with one of the accompanying vehicles and waved at spectators and fellow runners while he took a rest for eleven miles. He eventually got out of the car and continued running. One of the officials saw him cheating and ordered him off the marathon course, by Lorz ignored him and finished in just under three hours, “winning” the race.

All the American spectators started cheering that an American won, and Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice even placed a wreath on his head. She was just about to put the gold medal around his neck when officials caught up with him and exposed the cheating. The crowd turned furious and started booing Lorz, who tried to save face by saying that he only finished the race for a laugh and never intended on accepting the honor. Despite the fact that the gold medal was just about to go over his head. People were pissed.

-Earlier this year I wrote another post about Thomas Hicks, one of the early favorites to win the marathon, whose trainers not only refused to give him water during the race, but instead fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites to keep him going (with small doses of strychnine being commonly used as a stimulant at the time). This was the first known example of “doping” in the Olympics, but since there were no rules against performance-enhancing substances, it wasn’t a problem for anyone except Hicks, who almost died from strychnine poisoning.

Upon hearing that Lorz had been disqualified, Hicks’s trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, and made him wash it down with brandy. He seemed to pick up the pace, but then started hallucinating and nearly collapsed several times. His trainers had to carry him over the finish line. He was still the first person to cross the finish line legally.

It took four doctors about an hour to get him in a fit enough condition to even leave the race track. Hicks had lost eight pounds over the course of the race. Eight pounds in about three and a half hours. I hope he fired the shit out of those trainers.

He went on the next year to win the Boston marathon with precisely zero performance-enhancing substances.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BizarreVictoria Update

Hi, guys, a bit of sad (?) news–due to work-related stuff, I’m going to have to reduce my posting schedule from three times per week to once per week. For the first year of this blog I wrote a post every single day but that was completely unsustainable. For the last few years I’ve been on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, which worked well for a while, but I’m starting to become completely swamped under with work from my day job.

I really, really don’t want the blog to start to feel like a chore (it’s still grand fun, but I could see myself getting fatigued pretty soon if I don’t lighten up my workload), so for the foreseeable future I’ll do one post every Friday. I’m hoping that this means I can write more quality posts, instead of a bunch of quick reblogs.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment