Song of the South

Just a quick reblog today. I found this story on Futility Closet’s blog here.

During the course of the American Civil War “generals planned to hear the course of the struggle — and, in some cases, the sounds never arrived.

“‘Acoustic shadows’ typically occur when an expected sound is absorbed somehow or deflected by windshear or a temperature gradient. In the Civil War it had significant effects at Fort Donelson, Five Forks, and Chancellorsville. At the Battle of Iuka, a north wind prevented Grant from hearing guns only a few miles away. At Perryville, Don Carlos Buell learned only from a messenger that his men were involved in a major battle.

“At the Battle of Seven Pines, Joseph Johnston was 2.5 miles from the front but heard no guns. And certain sounds from the Battle of Gettysburg were inaudible 10 miles away but clearly heard in Pittsburgh.”

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Just a quick reblog today. I found this story on Futility Closet’s blog here.

“En route to Senegal in 1816, the French frigate Méduse ran aground on a reef. The six boats were quickly filled, so those who remained lashed together a raft from topmasts, yards, and planks, and 147 people crowded onto a space 65 feet long and 23 wide, hoping to be towed to the African coast 50 miles away. (Seventeen crew and passengers remained aboard theMéduse.)

“The raft sank 3 feet under their combined weight, and the tow line quickly parted. Rather than try to rescue them, the boats sailed on to the Senegalese capital. On the first night, 20 men drowned. On the second, some soldiers broke open a cask of wine and mutinied; in the ensuing melee, at least 60 were killed. By the following afternoon, the 67 who remained were gnawing sword belts to reduce their hunger. Eventually they descended on a corpse embedded among the logs of the raft. ‘We shudder with horror on finding ourselves under the necessity of recording that which we put into practice,’ one wrote later.

“On the fourth day, 48 remained, and that night a second mutiny killed 18 more. By the seventh day their numbers had dropped to 27 and they decided that their provisions would support only 15, so the 12 weakest were thrown to the sharks. The last 15 survived for 13 miserable days, living on garlic cloves, a lemon, and occasionally a flying fish. They were finally spotted by the brig Argus, a moment immortalized by Théodore Géricault (below).

“Of the 17 who had remained aboard the Méduse, three survived. One told his story to a survivor of the raft journey, who wrote, “They lived in separate corners of the wreck, which they never quitted but to look for food, and this latterly consisted only of tallow and a little bacon. If, on these occasions, they accidentally met, they used to run at each other with drawn knives.”

“For all this, the captain of the Méduse was imprisoned for only three years, an occasion for lasting controversy in French politics. ‘It is more difficult to escape from the injustice of man,’ wrote one commentator, ‘than the fury of the sea.'”

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Victoria’s Granddaughters – Princess Ena

I’ve been reading Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004) and am doing a series of posts on Queen Victoria’s five granddaughters, all of whom went on to be European queens themselves. All quotations are from that book.

Today is my last post, and we’re going to talk about Princess Victoria Eugenie (called “Ena”) of Battenberg, who went on to become Queen of Spain. She was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s youngest child, Princess Beatrice.


Y’all, Ena (and her future in-laws) had TRAGIC lives.

This is Ena with her future husband, King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Before we talk about Ena, let’s talk a little bit about Alfonso. The pressure on him was immense, from the very moment of his birth:

“On 17 May 1886, a collective sign of relief was let out in Spain when it was officially announced that Queen Maria Cristina [Alfonso’s mother] had given birth to a boy . . . . The fact that the child was a male was all the more reassuring to the nation because just six months before, the child’s father, King Alfonso XII, had died suddenly, leaving a widow and two daughters. The birth of a posthumous son also meant that Spain might more than likely be spared the violence that had marred the country for much of the earlier part of the nineteenth century” (31).

“Unenviable, then, was King Alfonso’s task when he came of age in 1902 and assumed the reins of power. Alfonso was never to know a moment’s peace ruling his kingdom. In the first four years after reaching his majority, he had to deal with ‘no less than fourteen ministerial crises, and with eight different Prime Ministers. The rest of Alfonso’s reign would prove no less volatile. Just as in Russia, Spain’s hothouse politics would wreak havoc on the country’s dynasty – in the process bringing down the happiness of Queen’ Victoria’s youngest granddaughter” (130).

As discussed in my other posts, a European ruler marrying one of Queen Victoria’s relatives (even one of her many, many grandchildren) could have massively political sway. It’s hardly surprising that one of the most eligible men in Europe, King Alfonso XIII, picked Ena when he could have married just about any woman in the world.

In 1905, the king made a state visit to Britain, at which point various royals and aristocrats started pushing their daughters in his path, ensuring that he sat next to them at dinner, etc. It became a proper ‘Cinderella-style’ competition for the King’s hand. Ena, who was the youngest of all the princesses in attendance, knew she’d never have a shot over all of the other more beautiful and sophisticated princesses, so she didn’t bother trying. Whenever she needed to speak to King Alfonso, she was friendly, cheerful, and without artifice.

He’d probably never been around a woman before who was single, eligible, and utterly without an ulterior motive. He fell for her pretty hard. It helped that Ena was quite pretty, as well.

However, not everyone was thrilled about the match: “As eligible as she was a royal bride, an elusive but sinister shadow nevertheless hovered over Princess Ena of Battenberg. That shadow was the possibility that she might be a carrier of haemophilia. Ena’s own brother, after all, was a haemophiliac.

“The issue did not escape the notice of Alfonso’s Spanish advisers. Once his intentions toward the Battenberg princess became obvious, a whispering campaign broke out in order to try and dissuade the eager king from marrying a descendant of Queen Victoria with a brother who was a haemophiliac. So besotted was he with Ena that he carelessly ignored these warnings. In his eyes, such a beautiful and obviously healthy-looking creature could not possibly carry that dreaded disease. But if she was a carrier, Alfonso was prepared to take the risk. He was, after all, one who never flinched from peril. All his adult life, the king gravitated toward danger. He clearly did not seek out the numerous assassination attempts against him, but when they threatened, Alfonso met them courageously. His hobbies included driving cars at fast speeds and playing a hard game of polo” (132).

“Alfonso spared no expense in seeing that Ena was clothed in splendour. Rumour had it that the king paid no less than £4,200 for the all-white satin gown, cut in Louis XVI style” (147).

Guys. £4,200 in 1906 would be almost half a million pounds today.

“Nearly everything had appeared to go off as planned. The excited throng packed along the wedding route, in the region of 300,000 people, was loudly cheering but well behaved. As the procession arrived at the Calle Mayor, some two hundred yards from the Royal Palace, the king and queen’s coach stopped. Curious about the delay, Ena asked Alfonso what was wrong. He told her not to worry, ‘in five minutes we shall be home’.

“At that moment, a huge floral bouquet was thrown from a nearby balcony, falling just to the right of their carriage. In an instant, a bright red and orange flash blinded everyone in its path . . . Hidden amongst the flowers was a powerful bomb, which exploded with tremendous ferocity. In that split second, thirty-seven people were killed and over a hundred injured, many seriously. So potent was the bomb that ‘all that was found of one of the footmen on the royal carriage was his boots’ . . . . But miraculously, Alfonso escaped, and so did she. Their carriage was so damaged it could not move farther. Several of the eight white horses pulling it were killed . . . . As luck would have it, at the moment of the explosion, Alfonso had drawn Ena’s attention to the Church of Santa Maria, visible from his side of the carriage. Because she turned toward her husband, the queen escaped serious injury. But the effects of the explosion around them were horrifying” (148).

“Throughout the wedding meal, people strained to bring some semblance of normality to the proceedings. But it was difficult. Nevertheless, Ena’s composure was exceptional. Ironically, a number of individuals already were reacting to the queen’s calmness with suspicion and misunderstanding. Some remained unimpressed by Victoria Eugenie’s lack of hysterics. They would now watch her every move with great care. Unluckily for her, she was being labelled as ‘distant'” (150).

This is exactly what happened to her cousin, Princess Alicky, who became Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. What they considered queenly British dignity was considered cold and unfeeling by the people in their respective countries.

That said, Ena was a brave soul. Only just surviving an assassination attempt the day before, Ena was thrust again out into a crowd:

“The day after their wedding, Ena and Alfonso drove unattended through Madrid’s streets in an open car, to the delight of their subjects. The queen remained dignified in her demeanour. Still reeling from all that had happened, a smiling Ena could not shake off her natural reserve and visibly shrank back when the crowds came close to her. Ena’s biographer has noted, ‘She thus failed to gain, then or ever, a deep rapport with the Spanish masses’. It was an understandable reaction considering that the drive with Alfonso nearly frightened Ena out of her wits. People fought to be near her, and ‘the Queen’s dress was actually torn to shreds by the multitude who sought to kiss the hem of her garment” (151).

“Critics had been given ammunition in the  very early days when Queen Ena made her first appearance at a bullfight in celebration of her wedding. Fresh-faced, young and poised, the queen looked exquisite in her white mantilla, seated in the royal box with King Alfonso and Queen Maria Cristina. In front of thirteen thousand people, Ena had to dig deep within herself to show her subjects that she was different from most of her nation, who were known to be revolted by the gory spectacle of Spain’s quintessential sport. Ena, who loved animals, tried to mask her disgust, but this only served to disappoint some subjects, particularly as her first bullfight turned out to be relatively unexciting. In order not to offend the queen’s sensibilities and those of the foreign guests, the bulls were reputedly drugged, and lost their violent edge. Victoria Eugenie was never to overcome her intense dislike of bullfighting. She took up her brother’s suggestion by having special shaded field glasses made. The queen would raise the glasses to her eyes at critical moments; the crowds, in turn, believed she was taking a closer look when in fact she was shielding her eyes” (178).

Despite not fully connecting with the public, Ena did receive her share of good press: “During Ena’s early years in Spain, many found her to be the very embodiment of [the beautiful queen]. Members of the press vied in their rapturous descriptions of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Victoria Eugenie, who looked every inch a queen. Much to Ena’s credit, she did not let such compliments go to her head. On the contrary, a mischievous streak occasionally surfaced. She once asked Alfonso if he had read the newspaper she was holding. When he answered, ‘No, is it anything of important?’ Ena quipped back, ‘Certainly. I demand the instant execution of the editor; he has omitted to hint that I am the most beautiful woman in the world!

“Considering how effusive the Spanish were in the early years, Ena’s remark was not without basis. In Seville, for instance, the young Queen Ena was met with shouts of ‘Viva!’ Flattering phrases poured forth . . . . trying to keep her composure, Ena accepted these compliments. Only when someone loudly proclaimed, ‘you are not only Queen of Spain; you are Queen of all beautiful women‘, did she burst out laughing” (174-75).

She also received good press by fulfilling her ‘duties’ as queen. She became pregnant fairly quickly and gave birth to a boy the year after their marriage:

“The queen’s labour pains began in the early morning of 10 May; they were intense and lasted twelve hours. Like her cousin Missy of Romania before her, Ena was encouraged to get on with it and bear the excruciating pain. Her well-meaning but overbearing mother-in-law was not much help, urging: ‘We Spaniards do not cry out when we bring a King into the world.’ Exasperated, Ena could only murmur to herself, ‘and now they will see what an Englishwoman is like!‘ . . . . Every care was taken to ensure the safe delivery of Ena’s child and the life of both mother and baby. Sacred relics were delivered from different parts of Spain and placed in the queen’s room, in accordance with a centuries-old custom. Ena most certainly had not experienced anything quite like it: according to one historian, the relics consisted of ‘the arm of John the Baptist and the girdle of the Virgin from Tolosa’. The latter ‘is handed to the Queen at certain critical moments, and a prayer while it is held in the hands or being kissed, insures a safe and happy delivery'” (158).

“The new father’s pride was understandable. Ena had given him an heir who showed every promise of being a fine, healthy son. According to one eyewitness, the baby prince, who had ‘an abundance of fair hair, was beyond question an unusually strong and healthy-appearing infant’. Another, describing the presentation ceremony, reported ‘the almost phenomenal physical strength of this baby, looking as if strong enough, like the infant Hercules, to strange serpents in his cradle‘” (159).

“Queen Ena’s happiness in her baby son and King Alfonso’s pride in his heir was dealt a tremendous blow when court doctors carried out a circumcision on the Prince of the Asturias and it was discovered that the  baby’s bleeding would not stop. Shock and consternation set it” (171).

Alfonso was distraught and furious, never really forgiving his wife for being ‘diseased’ and endangering the life of his son. Ena and Alfonso would go on to have four more sons and two daughters, but their marriage would never fully recover.


“Of all the changes Ena faced in Spain, the most painful was Alfonso’s infidelities. In order to compensate for his frustration with Ena, and in keeping with his own restless nature, Alfonso had no compunction in betraying his marital vows with numerous women.” (177).

Alfonso and Ena’s hopes were rekindled by the birth of their second son, Jaime, who (unlike his older brother) had not inherited haemophilia.  “The Infante Jaime was a normal child who came to be a close companion of his older brother. Together, Jaime and Alfonsito were a delightful pair, with the blond Alfonsito so obviously taking after his mother while the dark-haired Jaime resembled his father. In health, Jaime was everything his brother was not – the dreaded haemophilia being absent. If the heir was sickly, then at least ‘the spare’ was robust.

“However, tragedy struck. The boy was felled with acute pain in his ears. The diagnosis was double mastoiditis, required an immediate operation. The procedure went badly, and the auditory bones broke, causing Ena’s second son to become a deaf-mute” (180). In addition to worrying about their son’s health, this was another massive blow to the security of their throne. As seen in the film The King’s Speech, speech and hearing disabilities create significant obstacles to a mandatory career in public speaking and diplomacy. And this is especially true given that it was the turn of the century and horrific eugenicist discourses were very prevalent around the globe. With their country generally tumultuous, their first son unlikely to survive to adulthood, and their second son a target for pseudo-scientific death wishes, it’s hardly surprising that Ena and Alfonso were concerned.

The questions of rulership after Alfonso never came into question: Spain was thrown into revolution and became a republic. The royal family lived in exile for the rest of their lives. Eventually the monarchy was restored through the family line, with their third son (Juan’s) son taking the crown.

Ena and Alfonso eventually separated and Alfonso went on to have six illegitimate children with five different women. Alfonso died in 1941. Ena outlived him by almost 30 years, dying in 1969.

Alfonsito, their haemophiliac heir, died at age 31 after sustaining mild injuries in a car accident. He was twice married, but had no children.

Jaime, due to his disabilities, renounced the Spanish throne but upon the death of his father retracted his renunciation and ALSO declared himself to be the rightful heir to the French throne as well (being the senior legitimate male heir to the House of Capet). Obviously France was a republic, so this declaration didn’t really do anything. There continue to be pretenders to the throne, including Jaime’s grandson, the Duke of Anjou, who calls himself Louis XX. He is celebrated for being one of the handsomest royals in Europe today.

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Benjamin Bathurst

I found this story on Futility Closet’s blog here.

“On Nov. 25, 1809, British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst was preparing to leave the small German town of Perleberg. He stood outside the inn, watching his portmanteau being loaded onto the carriage, stepped out of the light, and was never seen again.

“A nearby river was dragged, and outbuildings, woods, ditches, and marshes were searched, but no trace of Bathurst was ever found. A reward was offered for information, but none came forth.

“Bathurst had been urging Austria into war against the French, but Napoleon swore on his honor that he had played no part in the disappearance. The mystery has never been solved.”

Naturally, many conspiracy theorists speculate that his disappearance was supernatural. Most academics believe the more probable explanation: he was murdered. He already had to flee Vienna in light of approaching French forces, and had decided that the safest way to get back to London was to take a ship from Hamburg. He also traveled under a pseudonym. So there was clearly already the need for him to take significant safety measures.

According to Wikipedia, “The disappearance did not create much excitement at the time, since the country was infested with bandits, stragglers from the French army, and German revolutionaries. Additionally, murders and robberies were so common that the loss of one commercial traveller (which Bathurst was travelling as) was barely noticed, especially since at the time there were hardly any legal authorities in Prussia.”

News of his disappearance didn’t even reach England until several weeks later, when some thought that maybe he–sensing danger–disappeared and went into hiding. There was also some speculation that he could have been kidnapped for political leverage. If either of those two options were the case, no one ever heard from him or about him again.

Almost 50 years later, in 1852, a house nearby the inn where he disappeared was demolished. When the house came down, they discovered a human skeleton under the stable. The skull was fractured, as if by a heavy blow (not related to the demolition).

Bathurst’s sister, who was still living, traveled there to see the skeleton. But after such a long disappearance there wasn’t anything about it that could provide a conclusive identification.

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Colonel William Shy

Remember how I did a post last week on the Fisk Mummy? Well, I found yet another bit of weirdness involving Fisk coffins (this time found on the StrangeRemains blog here).

“William Shy was a colonel in the 20th Tennessee infantry of the Confederate military. He was killed on December 16th 1864 when his unit was overrun during the battle of Compton Hill at Nashville. During the battle he was shot at point blank range with a .58 caliber minie ball to the head. Shy’s family had his body embalmed and buried in a cast iron metal coffin in a small family cemetery on their property. Unfortunately he would not rest in peace.”

“On December 24th 1977 Ben and Mary Griffith had recently purchased an antebellum estate called Two Rivers in Franklin, TN. On the grounds of the property was an old family graveyard where eight members of the Shy family were buried in the 1800’s and 1900’s. While Mrs. Griffith was showing the mansion and grounds to a friend on Christmas Eve she noticed that one of the plots has been disturbed. The grave’s headstone bore the following inscription: “Lt. Col. Wm. Shy, 20th Tenn. Infantry, C.S.A., Born May 24, 1838, Killed at the Battle of Nashville, December 16, 1864.”

“The Griffiths immediately called the Sheriff’s department. Since the sheriff didn’t consider this an emergency, because he believed that would-be grave robbers dug up the plot to steal Civil War memorabilia, he waited until after the Christmas to investigate further.

“When the Sheriff returned on December 29th and inspected the grave he discovered a headless, decomposing body dressed in a formal black jacket, a pleated white shirt, and white gloves. The investigators at the site agreed that this was the body of a recent homicide victim in an advanced state of decay. Their theory was that a murderer (or murderers) had attempted to hide the victim’s body in plain sight by burying it in a used plot, but got scared off by Mrs. Griffith and her guest in the middle of disposing of the corpse.

“Since the sheriff’s department needed help identifying the body and estimating the time since death, they asked forensic anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to help with the recovery and analysis of the remains.

“As Bass excavated what was left of the body he found a small hole in the top of the coffin, possibly caused by a pick or a shovel.   When Bass looked inside the metal coffin he found nothing but sludge, which didn’t surprise him. He had exhumed a 19th century cemetery in Tennessee and found little more than small bone fragments.

“Bass examined the bones back at his laboratory.   According to his osteological analysis the remains belonged to a white male, in his mid 20’s to early 30’s, and was about 5’10”. Due to the presence of pink tissue and decomposing tissue Bass believed that this person had only been dead between six and twelve months.

“Sherriff’s investigators recovered 17 fragments of the cranium and mandible during additional inspection of the coffin (pictured here). When Bass glued them back together he found that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head with a large caliber gun at close range. The entrance wound was in the forehead right above the left eye, and the exit wound was near the base of the skull.

“Dr. Bass began to suspect that he had made a huge error in the time since death when the teeth and clothes were examined. When he examined the teeth he discovered that many of them had cavities, but there were no signs of modern dental care, such as fillings. Then a technician from the crime lab who examined the clothes found that there were no synthetic fibers or labels, things that are typically seen in modern garments.

“Bass realized his mistake. This body belonged to William Shy and it had been pulled out through the small hole in the lid while looters were trying to robbing the grave.

“Dr. Bass reflected on how he could have miscalculated the time since death by more than a 100 years. Though embalming does preserve human remains, a body will not stay uncorrupted forever because embalming fluids only delay the inevitable process of decomposition.

Colonel Shy’s corpse was protected from oxygen and insects inside his hermetically sealed coffin. The cast iron coffins of the 19th century were constructed to be air tight to prevent bacteria, a necessary part of putrefaction, from flourishing. The metal coffin also protected the body from insects, which can burrow through wood coffins and feast on human remains.

“This case and its errors made international headlines and lead to an innovation in forensic anthropology.”

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Victoria’s Granddaughters – Princess Missy

I’ve been reading Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004) and am going to do a series of posts on Queen Victoria’s five granddaughters, all of whom went on to be European queens themselves. All quotations are from that book.

Today we will talk about Princess Marie of Edinburgh (nicknamed Missy), who was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.

Buckle up, nuggets, because Missy led a SCANDALOUS life, and I love her.

Missy was born in 1875 and joined the major cohort of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters who all became eligible brides right around the same time. Missy’s father was often away for his work in the navy, so she was largely raised by her distant mother, the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia, Duchess of Edinburgh.

While there were plenty of eligible princes and dukes abroad (as we’ve seen from some of her cousins’ marriages), there were plenty of British princes available: Queen Victoria had a lot of children, and they had a lot of children.

Missy and her cousin George fell in love, but her mother didn’t think it was the best match. George, after all, was only a second son (even if his father was to be the future Edward VII). Why marry off you daughter to a second son, when you could marry her to a first son and see her become a queen one day?

But the joke was ultimately on Missy’s mother, because after George’s older brother’s untimely death, this ‘unsuitable’ young man would go on to be King of England, the future George V) .

“As George’s love letters arrived, the Duchess of Edinburgh watched her daughter like a hawk. Her fierce opposition to the match doomed any plans for marriage between the two infatuated cousins. Like the Princess of Wales, who refused to countenance any of her daughters marrying Germans, Marie prevented her daughters from marrying British princes. Thus did the duchess destroy all chance of her daughter becoming the wife of the future King George V.

“Unhappy with the sentimental letters her nephew was penning to Missy, Marie convinced the dutiful Missy to tell George that a marriage between them was impossible. As instructed, Missy then wrote to tell George that instead of becoming her husband, he must remain her ‘beloved chum’. It was a bitter blow to Prince George, who had waited patiently for years for his Missy to grow up. His reward was within reach when it was cruelly snatched from his arms.

Though their relationship did not end in engagement and marriage, Missy and George remained on very good terms. Well into the 1920s Missy still kept a crystal ball given to her by George from his courting days. And whenever she handled it, an enigmatic smile lit up her face.

This episode galvanised the Duchess of Edinburgh into action.With a beautiful daughter on the brink of womanhood, Marie knew that she had to act quickly in order to avert another unsuitable romance. Ever the ambitious mother, Marie had her sights set on a glittering future for her eldest daughter. Though the British throne was not to Marie’s liking, the Romanian throne was another matter. Fortunately for the ambitious mother, King Carol I of Romania was also on the prowl for an ideal wife for his nephew and heir, Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, who was nursing a broken heart after an unsuitable romance. Before Missy realised it, and before Ferdinand embroiled himself in another objectional romance, the machinations of King Carol and the Duchess of Edinburgh would work to unite the destinies of these two young people” (33).

“Queen Victoria was active in the ensuing negotiations over the marriage contract between Missy and Nando.  The fact that Missy was marrying a Roman Catholic meant she was automatically forfeiting her place in the line of succession to the English throne. Nevertheless, the queen gave her views on the matter to her prime minister, Lord Rosebery, who duly passed them on [to] the British Foreign Office: ‘Her Majesty considers that there should be a treaty of marriage, as the union is one between a British Princess and the heir to a foreign crown . . . she thinks that the Princess’s renunciation of her British right should appear as an article in the treaty, though it is in fact involuntary . . . . The Queen thinks . . . it could be more graceful if Princess Marie were voluntarily to renounce the Crown of Great Britain and Ireland instead of being ruled out of it.'” (36).

Before Missy particularly knew what was happening, she found herself married to the Romanian Crown Prince, Ferdinand or “Nando”, and was shipped hundreds of miles off to a strange country.

The Romanian monarchy was . . . considerably different than the Victorian royal court society Missy had been raised in. King Carol of Romania, Nando’s uncle, was a cold man more concerned with his own dignity than in listening to the voices of his people. Carol’s queen hyperbolically claimed that he ‘wore his crown in his sleep’. As he and his wife only had a daughter, and the crown couldn’t pass to her, his nephew Nando would inherit.

On the whole, this may not seem too different from the sometimes rather severe court of Queen Victoria. However, there was a bit of whiplash going on: Carol’s wife and queen was a DRAMATIC BOHEMIAN ARTISTE and wanted everyone to know it. Her name was Elisabeth, but everyone called her Carmen Sylva‘, her pen name. She was an embarrassingly flamboyant poet and I’ll do a full post on her in a couple of weeks, because how could I not?

“Queen Elisabeth’s acceptance of Missy was surprising, considering the part she played in inflaming passions between Ferdinand and an unsuitable commoner. Ever the romantic, Carol’s wife Elisabeth – or Carmen Sylva, as the poetess Queen of Romania was known -had been instrumental in promoting Nando’s romance with one of the ladies of the Romanian court, a certain Helen Vacarescu. But the Romanian elite and the king, for that matter, disapproved of the match. To them, for any member of the royal family to marry a Romanian was simply out of the question for political reasons. King Carol ordered Ferdinand to choose between the throne or his love.

“Ever obedient, the crown prince chose duty. Enraged by his wife’s part in encouraging the couple, King Carol I banished his queen from Romania for two years: Elisabeth was sent packing to her mother Germany. Not surprisingly, Missy’s knowledge of the Vacarescu affair was nonexistent at the time of her engagement. Missy and her sisters had been sheltered all their lives . . . . Stories about the affair spread beyond Bucharest. This, combined with the news of Missy’s betrothal, was too much for one member of the British royal family, the Duke of Cambridge, and his confidante, Lady Geraldine Somerset, who wrote, ‘disgusted to see the announcement of the marriage of poor pretty nice P. Marie of Edinburgh to the Prince of Roumania!!! It does seem too cruel a shame to cart that nice pretty girl off to semi-barbaric Roumania and a man to the knowledge of all Europe desperately in love with another woman'” (35).

“Missy’s honeymoon lasted only a few days, but the experience left the young woman in a daze. Completely unprepared for what was in store for her, Missy became suddenly bewildered with married life. The almost brusque fashion in which Nando exercised his conjugal rights left the more mystical and unworldly bride in shock. ‘He was’, recalled Missy, ‘terribly, almost cruelly in love. In my immature way I tried to respond to his passion, but I hungered and thirsted for something more.’ Despite the romantic setting of her honeymoon cottage and the obvious pleasure Nando was deriving from their time alone together, the young bride felt disappointed if not deceived by her experiences” (38).

-“Even more depressing than her gloomy surroundings was the fact that she and her new husband were expected to live under the same roof as King Carol. From the start, Carol I made no concessions to the new arrival. As a member of the Romanian royal family, Missy was expected to fit in – seamlessly. All of the king’s demands were to be assumed without question . . . . In time Carol I was to find to his exasperation that he had to reckon with a spitfire. But in the early days, the new crown princess had little energy to fight back. Shocked at her new role as a wife, depressed at living in a new country, disappointed that her husband was completely subservient to the king, Missy’s first year in Bucharest became an absolute nightmare. She chafed at the restrictions – not even the carefully screened Madame Grecianu, her lady-in-waiting, was allowed to be chummy with her.

“The choice of Missy’s lady-in-waiting had been made with the utmost care by King Carol. Thanks to Queen Victoria’s strict dictums, the king had to tread carefully here. The queen . . . wanted her granddaughter’s lady-in-waiting to be beyond reproach” (49-50).

“To make matters worse, Missy found that her normally healthy constitution was failing her. She was at a loss as to the reason for her lethargy and queasiness. But it was soon apparent what was behind these unnerving changes. Within a few months of her arrival, Missy learned that she was pregnant. It was a bewildering jolt to the innocent young bride. She was still trying to cope with the demands of being Nando’s wife while at the same time battling her deepening homesickness and increasing unhappiness with her living arrangements, and the news of impending motherhood hit her like a bolt of lightning.

“It was the motherly Lady Monson, an Englishwoman who had been of some help to Missy in her early days in Bucharest, who broke the news to the seventeen-year-old princess. Just before leaving for England, Lady Monson found a pale, sullen Missy languishing in her ‘disastrous rococo room’. Usually energetic and eager for exercise, the newlywed was bewildered by her sudden attacks of queasiness. ‘I feel giddy,’ confessed Missy, ‘food disgusts me . . . Everything makes me sick; smells, noises, faces, even colours. I’m altogether changed, I don’t recognise my own self!’ Lady Monson knew exactly what was the matter. She told Missy that everyone would be delighted. But when Missy showed signs of confusion and seemed about to burst out crying, Lady Monson asked her, ‘You don’t mean to say no one ever told you?‘ Nearly panicking, Missy replied frantically, ‘Told me what?‘ It was at that moment that the new crown princess was told about the birds and the bees. It also then dawned on Missy that her primary role was to provide heirs to the throne – and she took the news badly” (50-51).

So poor Missy had to deal with homesickness, her new husband’s overly vigorous sexual appetites, impending motherhood with little to no notion of the birds and the bees, the king’s severity, and the queen’s extreme dramatics. That’s a hell of a lot for a teenage girl:

“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).

Missy gave birth to a son, Prince Carol, almost exactly nine months after her marriage. Quite the scandal. She and Nando had a daughter soon thereafter, and Carmen Sylva did her best to take the children away and raise them as her own.

“Owing to their differing temperaments, Missy and Nando’s marriage continued to remain rocky. In 1897, Nando was struck by typhoid fever. for a while, the prince’s life hung in the balance. Double pneumonia set in, leaving Missy very anxious. To make matters worse, 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 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‘. So close to death was Nando that Missy was summoned to his bedside, where she held his perspiring hands as she knelt to say her last good-bye. Fortunately, however, Nando rallied. But his convalescence was long and slow. Missy stayed close to her husband so that a degree of intimacy, lacking for some time, now entered their marriage.

“This brief interlude was soon broken, for Missy began to chafe. With boredom at her heels, she embarked on a liaison with a Romanian officer, Lieutenant Zizi Cantacuzene, a member of her own Hussar regiment. This scandal played nicely into the hands of Queen Elisabeth. It did not take much for Elisabeth to convince King Carol to impose her latest plan for Missy’s household – one that would ensure that the crown princess had even less control over her son and daughter.

“The ongoing campaign she fought with Queen Elisabeth over the issue of raising the children was truly shaping into a battle royal, and one that continually exasperated Missy, for there was no let-up in the queen’s hold over [Prince] Carol and [Princess] Elisabetta. Much to Missy’s consternation, the childless queen tightened her hold over both children’s minds with the connivance of her own set of servants, who sympathised completely with the queen’s agenda” (82).

“Though the Duchess . . . had raised Missy to be ignorant of marital life, once married, Missy managed to share her marital woes with her mother. ‘All intimate life with a man is difficult for me,’ she once confessed. ‘My husband sees me cry . . . he is awfully sorry, he just wants to console me, he has every intention to do so, his heart is full of love, he begins to kiss me then he forgets that, and tries to console me by giving way to just that, that I dread most on earth. When she wanted Nando to read to her, Missy complained, ‘he hurries it over only to get to bed for other amusements which he does not perhaps think is a one-sided amusement” (91).

Based on Missy’s own randiness with her lover, Zizi, it clearly wasn’t true that all intimate life with a man was difficult for her–it just sounds like Nando was an insensitive jerk.

“Later, the duchess [Missy’s mother] vented her rage at King Carol when the scandal over Lieutenant [Zizi] Cantacuzene swirled . . . . The scandal became widely known and was ended by King Carol. While Missy’s mother admitted that there was no excuse for Missy’s lapse of judgment, the duchess nevertheless took a swipe at her son-in-law. The ‘worst of all’ of Nando’s faults was ‘his sensual passion for Missy [which] finished by . . . repulsing her . . . Nando will himself avow’, fumed Marie, ‘that he treated his wife like a mistress, caring little for her emotional well-being in order to constantly assuage his physical passions.’ And to top it off, Missy had to contend with Nando’s own extramarital escapades which were, according to the duchess, ‘a positive fact.’

“When, in the fall of 1897, Missy found herself pregnant, it was to her mother that she fled for refuge. As this was at the height of her affair with [Zizi] Cantacuzene, the uproar caused by the pregnancy prompted Missy to leave Romania. Nothing was ever known of the child born at Coburg. One historian, has suggested that it may have either been sent to an orphanage or was stillborn at birth. Whatever happened, the story of this mysterious child of Marie of Romania was one secret ‘she apparently took to the grave‘.

Missy then took another lover, Grand Duke Boris  Vladomirovich of Russia, because FUCK YOU, NANDO.

“A precedent had been set when Missy fled to Coburg and to the protection of her mother in 1897. That was why, when Missy found herself pregnant again late in 1899, the duchess did not hesitate. Her instructions were set out with precision: ‘My plan is to take you immediately to Coburg, where we can wait until you give birth . . . I will take care of the rest.’ True to her word, the duchess, like the Romanov that she was, fired off a warning to King Carol, telling him ‘she would not allow Missy to have a miscarriage at Cotroceni [Palace in Bucharest].

“When King Carol held his ground and still refused to allow the crown princess to leave for Coburg, Missy pleaded with him to let her go. Already exhibiting dynamism that was to distinguish her from her other royal cousins, Missy defiantly confronted King Carol and told the king ‘right to his face’ that ‘she wanted a divorce, and that the child was carrying was Boris’s’. The romance that had been kindled in May 1896 while Missy and Nando were in Moscow had continued on and off its erratic course. Missy’s threat worked. The king was aghast. For once, this grizzled veteran of Balkan political intrigue and bizarre behaviour was thrown off course – and by a sprightly young woman who was clearly his subordinate

“Missy gave birth in the more tranquil surroundings of Coburg to her second daughter in January 1900 – named Marie, though all her life she would known as Mignon . . . . [I]n the weeks before the birth, Missy’s attitude toward her husband and her need to follow her duties as a wife and princess had undergone a transformation. Just as Missy was willing to make a go of her marriage, Crown Prince Ferdinand was also overcome by a desire to make amends. Well aware that he had not been an imaginative or understanding husband to his young wife, and conscious of the need to deflect any more scandal on his royal house, Nando swallowed his pride. Where Mignon was concerned, ‘in the end, Ferdinand reluctantly agreed to accept the child as his own.’ (92-93).

True to form, however, she and Nando never really connected and her name was linked romantically to several other prominent men, including Waldorf Astor, with whom she had developed a good friendship during a time of hardship of Missy.

“A sad pall hung over Missy’s life when in 1899 her brother, Alfred, died in tragic circumstances after a botched suicide attempt. Then, in July 1900, Marie’s father died of cancer. By the autumn of 1900, there was little doubt that Queen Victoria was declining rapidly, and in mid-January 1901, it became obvious that the end was at hand” (93).

“Those watching Waldorf and Missy closely during this time could have easily concluded that the crown princess was falling for the rich Astor and putting her marriage in peril. But however distant Ferdinand and Marie had become, the fact was that separation was not an option for the couple. Such a move would have been far too damaging to the Hohenzollern dynasty in Romania. Carmen Sylva was convinced that Missy herself did not want to leave Nando. She wrote to a friend about the crown prince and princess that ‘They are no going to divorce and [she] wants to be a Queen! She feels young and strong and daring!

“Being unhappy in her marriage had certainly left Missy vulnerable. But if Carmen Sylva is to be believed, it would appear that by the time she met Waldorf, she had already determined to stay with Nando and work alongside him for Romania.

Waldorf and Missy opened their hearts to each other during many an intimate ride through the pine-clad forests of Sinaia, the summer resort at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. But despite their shared love of horses and riding, this was not the only thing Missy found attractive about Waldorf . . . . Marriage being out of the question, Waldorf inevitably looked elsewhere fro someone to marry. He found a flame-haired American divorcee, Nancy Shaw, whose vitriolic and mercurial temper would cause her to run afoul of friend and foe alike. As one of the five celebrated Longhorne sisters of Virginia, Nancy was to make a name for herself as the first female member of the British House of Commons. As Nancy Astor, she was also to become famous for her acerbic tongue.

“Missy, though overcome with a sense of sadness at the thought that she and Waldorf could never be as close as when he was single, nevertheless graciously accepted the woman Waldorf chose to be his wife. In fact, she gave Nancy a nudge in Waldorf’s direction when the former Langhorne belle could not make up her mind whom to marry, as Waldorf was not the only one interested in becoming Nancy’s second husband” (110).

“After Waldorf Astor married his Nancy, Missy gravitated to the next male admirer to come her way. Never in want of attention from the opposite sex, the crown princess had easily conquered the heart of the new man in her life, the popular and desirable Prince Barbo” (162).

“Prince Barbo Stirbey and Crown Princess Marie of Romania soon developed into ‘a formidable team’. This friendship, which blossomed into love and took on the added dimension of mentoring, was officially cemented when Prince Stirbey was appointed by King Carol in 1913 to become Superintendent of the Crown Estates. Fortuitously for Missy and Barbo, the post provided them with a cover for their relationship. His new position meant that he and Marie were thrown together every day. But more important, in giving his imprimatur to the affair, King Carol I had shown keen foresight. Realising the potential, as yet untapped, in the future queen, and the significant role the ‘tactful and efficiently influential’ Stirbey was playing where Missy was concerned, King Carol decided to foster the couple’s devotion. He understood full well that the intelligent but indecisive Crown Prince Ferdinand would need strong support once he ascended the throne. Who better to buttress and guide him than Missy [and Barbo]? Carol I’s instincts would prove correct. His hopes were to bear great fruit in the years ahead” (163).

King Carol died the following year and Missy and Nando ascended the throne. Despite both of their very public infidelities and Nando’s general weakness, they were extremely popular both in Romania and abroad. Everything went to the dogs, though, when Nando died in 1926. Their son, Prince Carol, had waived his right to the throne and passed it on to his five year old son, Michael

Missy was therefore the dowager Queen to her child-king grandson. Prince Carol, the young King Michael’s father, had a change of heart and deposed his son–stealing the throne he had willingly given up and becoming King Carol II. Knowing that Missy supported his son instead of him, King Carol II had her banished from court, and she lived the rest of her life in exile before dying in 1937.

King Carol II was a REAL dickbag–he was an anti-Semite and politically realigned with Nazi Germany, eventually developing his role into a dictatorship. He carried on numerous affairs and his debauched lifestyle was pretty legendary. He was pretty well loathed and was forced to abdicate in favor of his son (from whom he had stolen the throne a mere ten years earlier). He lived the rest of his life in exile.

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The Fisk Mummy

I originally found this story on Atlas Obscura’s blog here. Anything in quotations is from that blog. I’ve also done some additional research of my own.

Let’s talk today about the Fisk Burial Case, or the “Fisk Mummy”, a coffin that was too creepy even for the dead-obsessed, creepy-ass Victorians.

“In 1848, Almond Fisk [yes, his name was ‘Almond’] patented a metal coffin he believed would revolutionize death. One problem: some people thought the burial case with its human contours was creepy as hell.

“The ”Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal” — also known as the “Fisk Mummy” — was designed to preserve the corpse in a cast-iron mummy-shaped case for travel or other delayed interment, and also to keep from spreading disease as outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera were being blamed on overcrowded cemeteries.

“This was especially true in the United States where Fisk was born, where formerly contained cities like New York had spilled beyond their bounds many times, including in their cemeteries where churchyards were packed to the topsoil, raising the cemetery ground several feet above the surrounding sidewalk. But with a metal sarcophagus, this grotesque collapsing of the flesh into decay could be contained, even slowed. ”

I’m sure this was also seemed a great idea in terms of imperialism–America was rapidly expanding westward, Britain and France were colonizing much of the rest of the globe, and the financial rewards from the coffins could therefore be endless. Outbreaks of ‘native’ diseases could help be controlled, those who had died in foreign climes for Queen and country could be shipped back home for burial in their family plots, and those who were buried with jewelry and other items of wealth could be significantly safer from grave robbers.

Fisk’s patent reads: “From a coffin of this description the air may be exhausted so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body on principles well understood; or, if preferred, the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

Given the Victorian obsession with death, which is extremely well documented, this provided a far more ornate way to mourn the recently departed: the caskets could be fitted up with loads of ornamentation (angels, roses, etc.) and there was also a (super eerie) window so you could look in at the face of the person you’ve just lost, who may or may not be veeeeeery slowly decomposing before your eyes.

Nope. That’s a whole big bag full of nope.

Fisk encountered a whole lot of business trouble regarding this patent. Firstly, few people wanted to buy them because, let’s be honest, that’s some plain spooky shit right there. Secondly, the coffins cost an absolute fortune, going for anywhere from $7 to over $100 (at its cheapest, that’s about four times as much as a standard wooden coffin). Finally, his factory burned down the year after he registered the patent; one source says that Fisk himself was caught up in the fire and eventually died from his injuries months later. (I don’t know if he was buried in one of his own contraptions or not).

The patents were bought up by other manufacturers, but these manufacturers encountered the same problems, and more.

One hurdle they had to overcome: it was reported that the coffins tended to explode. As bodies break down, they produce various gases that–without room for escape or expansion–would build up to a breaking point. One of the manufacturers wrote a strongly worded letter to the New York Times rebuffing any notion that these coffins could explode. I’m not sure one way or another who was correct (any science people out there able to shed some light on this?)

The coffins stopped being produced by 1888 at the latest, and when these coffins are rediscovered they become quite the big museum attraction:

“You can also find Fisk mummies on display at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee; the Herr Funeral Home Memorial Museum in Collinsville, Illinois; theCanton Historical Museum in Collinsville, Connecticut; and one in a grand windowed funeral carriage at the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And of course, they still rest quietly in crypts and catacombs — 19th century Victorians encased in their own visions of a better afterlife.”

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