Dorothy Levitt, “The Goddess in the Car”

Continuing my “Badass Women” series today with Dorothy Levitt, or “The Goddess in the Car“. I first heard of Levitt from Futility Closet’s blog here.

Dorothy Levitt (1882-1922) was born into a prosperous British family in the Victorian era. It seems that she had a love for speed from an early age and was an experienced horse rider who participated in steeplechases.

At age 20, she got a job working for an engineering company, Napier and Son, as a secretary. Three years previously, the company had expanded to start manufacturing automobiles. With the automobile industry still in its infancy, people were equally fascinated by and nervous about motorcars, with races especially getting people riled up (both positively and negatively).

In order to maximize publicity, Selwyn Edge (a famous British race car driver who drove all Napier’s cars in their races) thought it would be a good idea to find a lady racer. Not only would it compound the idea of glamour and excitement, but it would also imply that cars were safe and easy to drive, if “even women could do it”.

Edge noticed Levitt in the office one day and found her to be so beautiful that he firstly promoted her to being his own personal assistant, and secondly began training her to become Napier’s newest racer.

While it is widely presumed that she became Edge’s mistress, Napier and Son worked with the papers to invent a romantic (and more respectable) backstory: Levitt had lived in the country with her parents, only to run away to London to escape an unhappy upcoming marriage her parents had arranged for her. Now free of a tiresome fiance, Levitt pursued an exciting career of her own. Cars and cities are the future! The country and arranged marriages are the past!

In 1903, she took part in her first-ever race, and was in fact the first-ever British woman to do so (that we know of). She didn’t place, but got a taste for the competition, and was determined to do better next time.

True to her word, that same year, she became the first woman driver to win an automobile race.

And it wasn’t just cars. Dorothy was into everything with a motor, and everything you could race. Also in 1903, she took up powerboating and won Britain’s first international powerboat race (her top speed being a whopping 19.53 mph–very fast for the time).

In 1905, she drove from London to Liverpool and back, covering 205 miles in just 11 hours. This set a women’s distance record. She took three things with her on her journey: an official observer (to make sure she didn’t cheat and to accurately mark the time), her pet Pomeranian, Dodo, and a revolver, just in case of trouble.

She broke another record in 1906 (the ladies’ land speed record), becoming the “fastest girl on earth” at the impressive 90.88 mph.

Please keep in mind that these are only a very few select excerpts from her many, many races and trials and feats.

Having conquered both land and water, in 1909 she began flight training in France. Before she could qualify for her pilot’s license, her life took a strange turn. In 1910, Dorothy disappeared entirely from the public eye. Her life from 1910, until her death, is totally undocumented.

She was found dead in her apartment 12 years later in 1922, and her cause of death is just as complicated and mysterious as her life. The official cause of death was threefold: “the cause of death was morphine poisoning while suffering from heart disease and an attack of measles. The inquest recorded a verdict of misadventure.” So, in short, she had a long-term and a short-term illness, both of them serious, but died from taking too much morphine (or her illnesses gave her a bad reaction to the morphine), and it was all a tragic accident.

No one knows what really happened, and it was never recorded why she became reclusive from the public eye.

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The Jefferson Bible

I first heard of this on Futility Closet’s blog here. It reads:

“Thomas Jefferson once composed a secular version of the Christian Gospels. He said he wanted to study Jesus’ teachings without ‘the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves.’

“He called the Bible’s supernatural content ‘nonsense,’ from which Jesus’ ideas were ‘as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.’ His narrative ends like this:

“‘Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.'”

Though we commonly call this The Jefferson Bible today, Jefferson would have been displeased with that: he never referred to his own work as a Bible and it was actually titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. This is actually the second (non-?)religious text written by Thomas Jefferson, with the first being The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, written in 1804. No copies of Jefferson’s first text exist today.

The later text was written in 1820 when–from what I understand–Jefferson took a razor to a copy of the New Testament and glued the secular extracts together to form his text. He excluded all of Jesus’s miracles and every other supernatural event in the Gospels, including Jesus’s resurrection and any reference to him being the son of God.

Jefferson had harsh words for the writers of the New Testament (saying that they were peddlers of superstition and nonsense) and he called the Apostle Paul “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus”.

Jefferson’s goal was to achieve a deeper philosophical understanding of the ancient world. He believed that Jesus had a rough but “most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man”. He was pleased that his new version of the Gospels produced a short, simple text that even a child could easily comprehend.

In 1895, the Smithsonian purchased Jefferson’s original razor-and-glue version of the text from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter for $400.

The text is in the public domain and can be read in full here.

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King of the Toilets

I first heard this story on an episode of QI (series L, episode “Landmarks”).

In 1902, King Edward VII of England was crowned, about a year and a half after the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. You can watch a silent film documenting the event here:

One problem, though. The man in the video is not Edward VII.

The man in the video is a French lavatory attendant.

Let’s back up: in the extremely early days of cinema, France was really the world-power of film making. French director Georges Melies (who directed A Trip to the Moon also in 1902) sought permission to film the actual coronation of Edward VII, which was granted.

That is, until the officials organizing the ceremony heard how loud the film making equipment was, and promptly banned him from Westminster Abbey.

Frustrated, Melies decided to re-stage the entire coronation on a sound stage in France. He managed to stumble across a lavatory attendant who–at least from the front–looked extremely similar to Edward VII.

Edward VII came down with appendicitis on the day of the coronation, which enabled Melies to arrive early and film the actual carriages arriving for the ceremony and splice that into his re-staged footage. Melies worked closely with those involved with the coronation to make sure he got all the details as accurate as possible–with a few exceptions.

Firstly, Queen Alexandra was much taller than Edward VII, a fact of which the husband was extremely sensitive. Organizers quietly instructed Melies to make sure that whatever actor and actress he got, the actress must be shorter.

Secondly, the film version was a bit more ceremonial than the actual royal ceremony, because Edward had been ill so they had cut a few unnecessary elements out of the actual coronation.

Thirdly, because this was a film, events went a great deal more smoothly (since they had more than one take). At the actual coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was extremely old and nearly blind) put Edward’s crown on backwards. When the Archbishop knelt down to swear fealty to the king, he wasn’t able to get back up again. Edward had to help him.

The film, meanwhile, was a massive critical and financial success. The man who played Edward, whose name I can’t find anywhere, briefly became one of the biggest stars in the world. He reprised his role as Edward VII in Melies’s 1907 film, Tunnelling the English Channel. Edward VII saw the coronation film when it came out, and was reported to have enjoyed it immensely. Melies’s great-great-granddaughter, Pauline Melies, still has a letter of thanks from Edward VII to her ancestor.

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Denby Dale Pies

Like most people who live in the UK, I am currently obsessed with The Great British Bake Off. While waiting for new episodes to come out I started watching some of the older seasons, which is where I first heard this story (series 6, episode 7).

Denby Dale is a little village in West Yorkshire, and it is (in?)famous for its pies. Known colloquially as “The Pie Village“, they started a tradition in the late eighteenth century where the town would get together to bake pies that celebrated national events or milestones.

Since 1788, the town has held 9 pie festivals with their corresponding epic pies. It is said (perhaps accurately, perhaps not) that this first festival in 1788 was to celebrate King George III’s return to sanityPrecisely why they decided to celebrate with a pie, as opposed to any other food, I’m sure I don’t know.

The other events that the town has celebrated through the art of pie-making are:

-Wellington’s victory at Waterloo (1815)

-The repeal of the Corn Laws (1846)

-Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887), and it’s replacement pie made a week later called the “Resurrection Pie”–more on this in a bit

-A belated WWI victory pie to raise money for a Royal Infirmary (1928)

-A pie to celebrate a year that saw 4 royal births (1964)

-A pie to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of making pies (1988)

-A pie to celebrate the millennium (2000)

A few crazy stories about some of these pies:

The 1846 pie celebrating the repeal of the Corn Laws was apparently the first time the village attempted a record-breaking pie. The pie was so big that the Master of Ceremonies accidentally fell into it an almost drowned. This cut the festivities short, and the whole idea of creating record-breaking pies was shelved for the next 40 years.

When the town once again took up the task of making a record-breaking cake for Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, things went even worse than the last time. When this pie was cut, they discovered it had gone off: it “emitted such an intolerable stench that a number of persons were injured in the stampede to escape.”

The pie was so foul that it had to be buried in an abandoned field. I wish I were joking.

As stated before, a second pie was baked a week later named the “Resurrection Pie“, which to my mind sounds like the buried, accursed pie rose from its grave in the abandoned field and went on a RAMPAGE.

And if you think the disasters stop there, you’re wrong. When they next attempted it in 1928, the pie was so massive it got stuck in the oven.

Things got considerably better after this point. The 1964 pie (pictured below) was a success and was able to serve 300,000 people. And in 1988, the pie went on to win the Guinness World Record for biggest meat and potato pie.

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Regency Slang – Section G

I’ve really been enjoying the previous posts I’ve done on Regency slang, so I’ll keep it up for this week before switching over to something else. I found this list of on The Regency Assembly Press, here. I’m only picking a few excerpts, so visit their site for the full list.

Gallied–Hurried, vexed, over-fatigued, perhaps like a galley slave.

Gander Month–That month in which a man’s wife-lies in: wherefore, during that time, husbands plead a sort of indulgence in matters of gallantry.

Gap Stopper–A whoremaster.

Gaying Instrument–The penis.

Gentleman of Three Ins–In debt, in gaol, and in danger of remaining there for life: or, in gaol, indicted, and in danger of being hanged in chains.

Gentleman of Three Outs–That is, without money, without wit, and without manners: some add another out, i.e–without credit.

Giblets–To join giblets; said of a man and woman who cohabit as husband and wife, without being married; also to copulate.

Gluepot–A parson: from joining men and women together in matrimony.

Go by the Ground–A little short person, man or woman.

Gollumpus–A large, clumsy fellow.

Goose Riding–A goose, whose neck is greased, being suspended by the legs to a cord tied to two trees or high posts, a number of men on horseback, riding full speed, attempt to pull off the head: which if they effect, the goose is their prize–This has been practised in Derbyshire within the memory of persons now living.

Gotch-Gutted–Pot bellied: a gotch in Norfolk signifying a pitcher, or large round jug.

To Gouge–To squeeze out a man’s eye with the thumb: a cruel practice used by the Bostonians in America.

Gravy-Eyed–Blear-eyed, one whose eyes have a running humour.

Green Bag–An attorney: those gentlemen carry their clients’ deeds in a green bag; and, it is said, when they have no deeds to carry, frequently fill them with an old pair of breeches, or any other trumpery, to give themselves the appearance of business.

Green Gown–To give a girl a green gown; to tumble her on the grass.

Green Sickness–The disease of maids occasioned by celibacy.

Greenhorn–A novice on the town, an undebauched young fellow, just initiated into the society of bucks and bloods.

Grim–Old Mr–Grim; death.

Grinagog, The Cat’s Uncle–A foolish grinning fellow, one who grins without reason.

To Grind–To have carnal knowledge of a woman.

Grog-Blossom–A carbuncle, or pimple in the face, caused by drinking.

Gropers–Blind men; also midwives.

To Grubshite–To make foul or dirty.

Grumbletonian–A discontented person; one who is always railing at the times or ministry.

Grunter’s Gig–A smoaked hog’s face.

Gum–Abusive language–Come, let us have no more of your gum.

Gummy–Clumsy: particularly applied to the ankles of men or women, and the legs of horses.

Guts and Garbage–A very fat man or woman–More guts than brains; a silly fellow–He has plenty of guts, but no bowels: said of a hard, merciless, unfeeling person.

Gut Scrapper, or Tormenter of Catgut–A fiddler.

Guzzle Guts–One greedy of liquor.

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Regency Slang – Sections E and F

I’m taking a quick break from my “Badass Women” posts to indulge in my other love: weird vocabulary and slang. I found this list of on The Regency Assembly Press, here. I’m only picking a few excerpts, so visit their site for the full list.

Earth Bath–A Grave.

Elbow-Crooker–Drinker.

Elbow Shaker–A gamester, one who rattles the dice.

Eternity Box–A coffin.

Eve’s Custom-House–Where Adam made his first entry; the monosyllable [i.e. “cunt”].

To Fag–To beat; a fag also means a boy of an inferior form or class, who acts as a servant to one of a superior, who is said to fag him, he is my fag.

Fallen Away From a Horse Load To a Cart Load–A saying on one grown fat.

Fancy Man–A man kept by a lady for secret services.

Fart Catcher–A valet or footman from his walking behind his master or mistress.

Fartleberries–Excrement hanging about the anus.

Feague–To feague a horse; to put ginger up a horse’s fundament [i.e. anus] …to make him lively and carry his tail well.

Fice, or Foyse–A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs [i.e. a silent-but-deadly fart].

Figure Dancer–One who alters figures on bank notes, converting tens to hundreds.

To Fire a Slug–To drink a dram.

Fire Priggers–Villains who rob at fires under pretence of assisting in removing the goods.

Fit Of The Blue-Devils–Depressed.

Fizzle–An escape backward [i.e. a fart].

Flap Draggon–A clap, or pox.

Flash Of Lightning–Gin.

To Flash the Hash–To vomit.

Flaybottomist–A bum-brusher, or schoolmaster.

Flyer–To take a flyer; to enjoy a woman with her clothes on, or without going to bed.

Foreman of the Jury–One who engrosses all the talk to himself, or speaks for the rest of the company.

Foxey–Rank–Stinking.

Frenchified–Infected with the venereal disease–The mort is Frenchified: the wench is infected.

Frigate–A well-rigged frigate; a well-dressed wench.

Froglander–A Dutchman.

Frosty Face–One pitted with the small pox.

Frog’s Wine–Gin.

Fruitful Vine–A woman’s private parts, i.e–that has Flowers every month, and bears fruit in nine months.

Fusty Luggs–A beastly, sluttish woman.

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Sutematsu Oyama

I’m continuing my series of Badass Women posts with the discover of this FAB website called Rejected Princesses, which tells many, many stories about kick-ass women in legend and history kind of through the narrative style of Disney. I love it. I forgot who initially recommended this site to me, but I salute you!

Today we are going to talk about Sutematsu Oyama, the daughter of a samurai who, in a weird reversal of the common trope, was forced to go on adventures and go to college instead of being forbidden from it. In the long run, this experience and her later work had massive international impact and led to great cultural exchange and a total reworking of the Japanese educational system.

As my knowledge of Japanese culture and history is shaky at best, please let me know if any corrections or clarifications need to be made. Trigger warning for discussion of battle, explosions, and death.

Let’s back way up.

In 1868, Sutematsu’s family was caught up on the losing side of a civil war which, much like the American civil war happening at roughly the same time, would prove to be Japan’s last ‘war of the sword’. She was involved in the last major battle action, in which enemy forces closed in on Aizu castle, the local samurai estate for which her family were retainers.

Despite being very young, she did her part by running ammunition to the gunners and–extremely dangerously–using wet blankets to smother live artillery shells that landed inside the walls before they exploded. Her sister-in-law was doing the same thing when a shell exploded before she could reach and smother it. Sutematsu caught a piece of shrapnel in the neck, which gave her a major scar for the rest of her days. Her sister-in-law, meanwhile, took the brunt of the explosion and begged the other women to give her quick death. They couldn’t bring themselves to do it, so she died slowly while young Sutematsu looked on.

When the war was over, Japan opened its borders and realized that survival depended on reversing their centuries of isolation. The government offered significant financial rewards for any Japanese citizens who would be wiling to take part in the Iwakura Mission: to live abroad for ten years and promote good international relations and a cross-pollination of cultures.

Despite the large amount of money, almost no one signed up. Without consulting her, Sutematsu’s brother signed her up to go to America. For ten years. She had never left the country, and certainly didn’t speak English. She was 11 years old.

His motives were very pragmatic–it would increase the family’s prestige and it would ease their financial burden.

Sutematsu’s situation was not unusual. She and four other girls, from age 6 to 14, were shipped abroad as the first Japanese women in living memory to go to the west; all of the other girls were signed up without being consulted, either.

They landed in California and made their way to the eastern United States which was only just starting to recover from the effects of the American Civil War. There were a lot of firsts for Sutematsu–as it is pointed out on the Rejected Princesses site, it was the first time she had seen blackface (and it was probably the first time she’d come to understand the concept of racial tensions, or at least racial tension between black and white groups). In Colorado it was the first time she’d seen snow. And the girls had saw the unpleasant aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire when they passed through the city. They were hounded by the press and equally mocked and fetishized by the public. All in all, a totally bewildering, disorienting time for a kid.

The girls, unsurprisingly, clung to each other and isolated themselves–not really surprising given their age, the culture shock, and the fact that their every move was recorded by the press who wouldn’t leave a group of little girls alone. As a result, they had hardly been able to learn any English. The two eldest girls in the group found the strain to be too much and returned to Japan, leaving the three youngest girls to continue on without them.

Then the three younger girls were separated and given over to foster homes. Sutematsu was promptly renamed (“Stemats”) because her American family found “Sutematsu” too difficult to pronounce. Despite her early difficulties with the language, she excelled in school and was the only girl in her class to go to college. She went to Vassar and graduated valedictorian, making her the most highly-qualified Japanese woman living.

After she graduated, she then had to return to Japan–to a family that she hadn’t seen since she was a child and with whom she no longer really shared a language. When asked about how she felt about her return, she said, “I cannot tell you how I feel, but I should like to give one good scream.”

In her time away from Japan, there had been a regressive backlash to the early push for progress that had sent her westward. With the political climate grasping for tradition, Sutematsu realized that she didn’t really have a place in her own country anymore. So she and two other girls, who had also been sent abroad, decided they would need to push forward on their own and change Japan themselves. Their first goal was to open a school for girls. Securing the funding and the social acceptance for such an endeavor was going to be an uphill climb.

Then, out of nowhere, this dude asked for her hand in marriage:

His name was Iwao Oyama, he was almost 20 years her senior, and he was an Imperial Japanese Army General who had also fought at the battle of Aizu, where the then-child Sutematsu had smothered shells in wet blankets.

But he had fought for the other side.

And he was an artillery man. It is entirely possible that he fired the shot that killed Sutematsu’s sister-in-law.

Sutematsu’s family, upon hearing his proposal, said no and gave him his marching orders, no two ways about it. It was, surprisingly, Sutematsu who insisted on the match. She saw in him a chance to accomplish more than she might be able to do on her own. She didn’t love him, but he had the significant prestige to get her girls’ school off the ground.

Through her new husband, she managed to secure funding from the EMPRESS, of all people. The school started out teaching only noble women, but, hey, it was a foot in the door. Of course, such a marriage, such an accomplishment, and such close proximity to the empress raised Sutematsu’s profile even higher than it already was. People got jealous and suspicious and terrible, criticizing her for being too westernized, for being too buddy-buddy with the empress, for being some sort of power-hungry villain set on changing Japan.

In a truly terrible series of events, Sutematsu’s step-daughter got ill and died. That would be a strain on any household. Except it was made ten times worse when one of Sutematsu’s critics decided to write about it, turning the event into a novel, in which the Sutematsu is portrayed as a scheming social climber responsible for the death.

The book was a best-seller.

Over the years, Sutematsu suffered from extreme stress. She said, “My husband grows fatter every year, and I thinner.” After decades of pushing, though, her stress and work paid off. In 1899 it became law that every prefecture must have at least one school for girls.

Her husband died in 1916, but Sutematsu kept working. When the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic reached Tokyo, many others left the city for fear of contracting the illness. And, indeed, it was the same illness that had killed her step-daughter years ago. When teachers fled, Sutematsu stayed on so she could guarantee that the school would continue to run and that girls could continue to learn.

She caught the flu and died two weeks later, having found a replacement for herself at the school before she died. She almost single-handedly changed the structure of the Japanese educational system and was one of the leading figures who introduced Japan to the west.

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