Minnesota experienced thundersnow, our east coast correspondents are reporting temperatures in the 80s; unverified reports of zombie uprisings are coming in from the south, and Alex Trebek has signed on to play Colonel Kurtz in a Michael Bay-helmed reboot of Apocalypse Now. Spring is springing, and for anyone who wants to escape from it all, the trivia roundup is waiting outside your window with one of those big firefighter safety nets.
1. One of America’s lesser-known founding fathers is Benjamin Rush. Rush was a study in contrasts: he was an abolitionist at a time when abolition wasn’t exactly a hot-button political topic, he wrote one of America’s first chemistry textbooks, and he’s known as the founder of american psychiatry. Those are all good things, you might be thinking. Yes they are. Now for the odd: though a famous doctor who guided medical practice of the time, his primary treatment for any problem was bloodletting, which was at least an entire century out of vogue by that time (and for good reason; bloodletting by Rush may have hastened the death of Benjamin Franklin). In treating the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, he said “I consider intrepidity in the use of the lancet, at present, to be necessary, as it is in the use of mercury and jalap, in this insidious and ferocious disease.” He also believed dark skin resulted from a curable skin disease.
That said, historians of a non-medical stripe find his medical contributions of particular utility. Rush supplied the medical kit for Lewis and Clark, which included opium (for nervousness), wine, and more than 500 count of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, which were mercury-based laxatives (fortuitously, they could also treat syphilis; insert a “Corps of Discovery” pun here if you’d like). As it turns out, the Corps’ frequent use of said laxatives has allowed historians to track their exact path through mercury deposits in the soil (not joking, they really did). Rush also had lots of good advice for the intrepid travelers.
His contributions to mental health, in contrast, are surprisingly forward-thinking: he identified alcoholism as a disease (rather than a moral weakness), advocated for more humane treatment in mental wards (incidentally, can we make a list of all the people who have been noted for doing so? Because seriously.), and advocated for the use of occupational therapy. Of course, he also thought that mental illness was a problem of blood circulation (treatment: put someone in a chair and spin them around) or overstimuluation (treatment: the sensory-deprivation Tranquilizer Chair…”we call that a la-z-boy nowadays! durrrrrrrr”).
2. One of America’s even lesser-known founding fathers is Button Gwinnett, whose untimely death and low profile make his signature one of the highest-priced in history. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, his name is Button Gwinnett.
3. Though we typically associate torture with physical abuse, a perhaps larger subset of cruel and unusual punishment (and, one imagines, some indication of our identity as social animals) comes in the form of public humiliation. The stocks and other forms of public imprisonment are common enough (there’s a story I can’t verify that the inventor of stocks was the first person enclosed in them, for the crime of price gouging on selfsame stocks); depilation and public nudity tend to be go-to forms of mob justice. But other forms of public humiliation are almost amusing. For example, the FLUTE OF SHAME was wrapped around the necks of incompetent musicians…
…and those late to church might be forced to wear giant, oversized rosaries. Other objects of shame include the chair of shame, pole of shame, and the schopstoel, which is simply a scaffolding off which people would be kicked, to land in the mud and dirt. There is something so wonderfully uncomplicated about that one. And lest we forget: the literary besmirchment of Hester Prynne, the dunce cap, (Internet sensation) pet shaming, and the Stonecutters stone of shame:
Wikipedia’s description of public humiliation includes this clunky but somehow amazingly pointed and understated quote: “Public humiliation is still practised a lot in the present time, not as a legal punishment, but more informally by the press and media.” It took Paddy Chayefsky two hours of cynicism as poured out through the mouths of some of the finest actors of our time to make as incisive a comment about the state of our media as that.
a) “All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.”
b) “You can blow the seminal prisoner class infrastructure out your ass.”
c) “…that painful, decaying love is the only thing between you and the shrieking nothingness you live the rest of the day.
d) “The Mao-Tse Tung Hour”
e) The best line in the history of anything: “Why does a woman always think that the most savage thing she can say to a man is to impugn his cocksmanship?”
If you don’t have time for the whole thing, carve out five minutes to watch this deliriously good (and eerily prescient) sequence with Ned Beatty as the voice of god:
5. Speaking of corporations, how about the Dutch East India trading company? Did you know it was the first publicly traded multinational company? Prior to that, companies were usually short-lived entities, in which investors went in on a particular project, collected upon its completion, then disbanded. This turned out to be a tough racket given the volatility in prices and the amount of time it took to sail one’s crew to the deepest shores of India in search of the finest spices in all the world. It turns out that if you—like Howard Beale—are concerned about increasing corporate sphere of influence, the 1600s would have been a bad time for you. The Dutch East India Company had the legal authority to wage war, imprison and even execute convicts, coin money, negotiate treaties, and establish colonies (the 19th-century Pinkertons, though smaller, also had a terrifyingly encompassing legal authority). At the peak of the Dutch tulip craze, the Dutch East India company became the single largest company in known history, topping out at a (2013-adjusted) value of $7.4 trillion. The Dutch tulip mania, of course, was one of the first known examples of an economic bubble, and if you think houses overpriced by 2-3x their true value is something, consider that people were trading entire houses and plots of land for a single tulip bulb.
Then the market crashed when no buyers came to a tulip auction. The thing is, their absence may not be because they realized the futility of tulip investing, but because there was a black plague epidemic and potential buyers might have been dead or afraid to leave the house. The “greater fool” theory of economic bubbles suggests that people will invest on the notion that someone (the greater fool) will later buy the commodity at an even higher price. This cycle continues upwards until some poor sap (the greatest fool) is left holding the bag with no one to sell to. In other words, if you can’t spot the sucker, you are the sucker. It’s not clear whether the “greater fool” theory accounts for bubbles that pop when the black plague hits.
6. Speaking of TV (remember when I was talking about Network?), I would like to discuss Airwolf. Why? Because I remembered it from my childhood: the indelible image of Ernest Borgnine in the role of Dominic Santini is seared into my memory.
Airwolf was a craven attempt to cash in on the lucrative Knight Rider market by making a show built around a super-intelligent, super-fast, government-created-but-subsequently-lost-to-a-private-citizen super vehicle. Except instead of a car, it’s a supersonic helicopter, and instead of having the voice of Mr. Feeny and the hair of David Hasselhoff, it’s piloted by Jan Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine. Well, actually, wait. In 1983 a movie about a high-tech police helicopter called Blue Thunder was released. The trailer saves the best “movie trailer pun” for last:
Capitalizing on the film’s success, the major networks rushed to bring cool-ass helicopters to the little screen. The following year, Airwolf went head-to-head against the TV version of Blue Thunder, which starred the amazing triumvirate of Bubba Smith (of Police Academy fame), Dick Butkus (of Chicago Bears fame), and Dana Carvey (as Clinton Wonderlove). For one brief shining moment in american television, we had competing shows about advanced attack helicopters. I’m bringing it up here because the wikipedia plot description is…just, wow.
I heard a story that Allen Ginsberg picked up the scattered pages of Naked Lunch off Burroughs’s floor, and attempted to reassemble them into a coherent narrative (difficult when said pages were written in the depths of a drug binge people who aren’t William Burroughs can never understand). Airwolf’s writers must have been huffing oven cleaner and snorting pharmaceutial-grade animal tranquilizers, and writing kick-ass helicopter stories in the downtime. Some of the finer points:
a) The main character’s name is Stringfellow Hawke. STRINGFELLOW. HAWKE.
b) He lives in a remote mountain cabin and serenades eagles with his priceless Stradivarius.
c) His brother’s name is St. John, inexplicably pronounced sin-jin. No, I don’t know either.
d) The quasi-villain is the leader of an off-the-books faction of the CIA named Michael Coldsmith Briggs III. He wears an eyepatch. AN EYEPATCH. He is codenamed Archangel.
e) Archangel’s assistant has doctorates in aeronautical engineering, electrical engineering, psychology, microbiology, and french literature. She’s working on her MD and is in her early thirties despite having five PHDs.
f) Did I mention: Ernest Borgnine as Dominic Santini.