trivial affairs

Time for a roundup of the trivial, featuring the English language’s love affair with describing things as affairs…

brown dog :: xyz :: hamilton-reynolds :: agatha :: poisons

• • •

1. From 1906-1910 there was a memorial in London featuring a statue of a terrier mix. The monument was so controversial that it was the focus of multiple riots, and eventually required 24-hour police guard. Why a dog statue, and why did people care? Step into the Delorean and travel back to Victorian England to discover the toxic political hot potato of vivisection (medical experimentation on animals) and the brown dog affair.

The scandalous statue
The scandalous statue

The “brown dog” of the statue—history does not record its name, if it was given one—was vivisected and ultimately euthanized during an anatomy lecture on February 2, 1903. Depending on whom you asked, the dog was a) properly anaesthetized, did not suffer, and contributed to scientific progress and education, 2) operated on while awake, could be seen to writhe in agony during the lecture, and was laughed at by students, or d) somewhere in the middle.

That lecture had been secretly infiltrated by a pair of Swedish anti-vivisectionists, Lizzy Lind af Hageby and Leisa Schartau. The pair described the atrocities of animal experimentation, including the fateful brown dog, in their book The Shambles of Science: Extracts from the Diary of Two Students. Though there’d long been opposition to vivisection in England (including from the queen herself), the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 was so toothless the scientists wouldn’t be arrested. So the secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection society gave a fiery speech condemning them, with the intention of getting sued for libel and having the story heard in court. The getting-to-court part worked, but the scientists won their defamation case.

Shortly after the case ended in 1906, the dog statue went up. Almost immediately, local medical students arrived, armed with hammers and crowbars, aiming to destroy it. They were subdued by police and fined by a local magistrate (later, they gathered to burn an effigy of the magistrate, but in a delightful symbolic impotence, could not get it lighted). They couldn’t get the statue, so they began breaking up local women’s suffrage meetings (I’ll explain why in a second).

A month later a group of 1,000 once more attacked the statue, and were once more pushed back not just by police, by this time by local residents. The Battersea area, where the monument was, happened to be a weird hotbed of political activism, of which suffragettes and anti-vivisectionists were but one part; they were joined by socialists, Marxists, and union members, many of whom had no particular concern about vivisection, but were happy to fight the establishment. The cross-link between feminism, women’s suffrage, and anti-vivisection wasn’t arbitrary: both represented a fight against rules, ethics, and morality presided over by white dudes; women and animals may not have been treated similarly, but they were treated with similar disdain.

The statue was eventually given a 24-hour armed guard until 1910, when the cost was deemed prohibitive. Under cover of darkness, authorities rolled in, took the monument, and melted it down. A replacement was not made until 1985. Additional reading here and here.

Protesting the statue's removal
Protesting the statue’s removal



2. All the way back in 1798, the XYZ Affair led the US directly into the Quasi War. I made neither of those terms up. The roots of the XYZ affair are a deep tale of medium-stakes diplomacy, hot international trade-treaty action, and Franco-American relations. If you have a high tolerance for 1790s political minutiae, by all means read more about the XYZ affair here. The cleft version is that the US tried to remain neutral while France and Britain were at war, but the relationship with France was strained. John Adams sent a three-man team to Paris to iron out a tension-relieving treaty, but they were greeted with an almost immediate demand for a bribe, which they refused. Trying to defray anti-Franco tensions, Adams refused to release reports from his diplomatic team, as they detailed the scurrilous French actions. Finally bowing to political pressure, he released the communiques, replacing the names of the guilty French parties with the letters W, X, Y, and Z. Hence the name.

XYZ Affair
XYZ Affair

Hence also the Quasi War (a/k/a Half War and Pirate’s War). French privateers and warships robbed, commandeered, and scuttled some 2,000 US merchant ships in just over two years; the embryonic US navy was ineffectual (even with assistance from, weirdly, Britain…our ally naught but a quarter-century after the revolutionary war). A treaty ended the war in 1800, by which time Jefferson had been elected. Some historians argue that Adams would have won a second term had the treaty been ironed out before the election. Shades of the Iran hostage release when Reagan came into office, perhaps?

The Franco-American brand name—once the callsign of Spaghetti-Os—has been phased out. In the 1970s the jingle “Who can? Franco-Ameri – can!” was sung by Barry Manilow.


3. Moving now to affairs of the heart. In 1791, Secretary of the Treasury and face of the sawbuck Alexander Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, who asked him for money on account of having been abandoned by her husband. In Hamilton’s own delightful words, “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” Thus began their affair, with the pair administering “non-pecuniary consolation” to one another for the better part of three years (is that a triple entendre?).

Maria’s husband was a forger and con-man, a flim-flam artist then working a scheme to get rich (somehow) off the unpaid back wages of Revolutionary War veterans. Rather than seek redress through a duel—as was the style at the time—Reynolds saw a mark and blackmailed Hamilton. Treating Hamilton like a personal ATM, he milked him for more than $1000 of solely pecuniary consolation over the years while the affair continued. It is not at all clear whether Maria was in on the scam, or was stuck in the middle.

A. Hamilton: Federalist, cocksman
A. Hamilton: Federalist, cocksman

When Reynolds was (inevitably) arrested for forgery, he threw Hamilton into a sort of prisoner’s dilemma by giving his name to political enemies. This, he thought, would force Hamilton to either a) admit knowledge of Reynolds’s veteran-based fraud, or b) admit his adultery. The philandering Hamilton opted for the latter, sating his rivals’ reputation-bloodlust by showing them his accumulated love letters (one-party consent if ever I heard it, though).

That was, briefly, the end of it, especially when Maria sued for divorce (her lawyer? Aaron Burr, who later murdered Hamilton…wheels within wheels). In 1796, though, the love letters—which had been secretly copied—were published by pamphleteer James Callender, a muckraker who’d also pressured Adams to release the XYZ documents, published claims that Jefferson had children with Sally Hemmings (I actually had no idea this was ever suggested contemporaneously), and even complained about the inequities of the electoral college…in the 18th century. Thus shamed, Hamilton publicly admitted his indiscretions. His damage control included a response titled On Certain Documents in which he begged forgiveness for his “irregular and indelicate amour.”

I would love to say more about this, but there’s really shockingly little in the way of details on either of the Reynolds or the blowback from the nascent nation’s first sex scandal. I actually kind of hope Maria was an anti-Federalist who played a long-con to get out of a loveless marriage, imprison her husband, and destroy the nation’s preeminent Federalist all at the same time. The aristocrats! Further reading here and here.


4. Agatha Christie’s (1890-1976) first novel was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published 1919. On Friday, December 3 1926, Christie kissed her sleeping daughter good night at 9:45 pm and disappeared. She told no one where she was going, and no one heard from her for days. Her car was found wrecked in a nearby ditch (the ditch was near a pond that had featured as a body-dumping site in one of her novels, sparking rumors that her husband had killed her and dumped the body). All told she was missing for 11 days, and was found living at a spa under an assumed name. She claimed no memory of how she ended up there, or why.

Christie's return
Christie’s return

No one’s entirely sure what happened. Theory 1 holds that she was in a car accident and was suffering acute memory loss due to mental trauma. Theory 2 holds that, pissed because her husband was sleeping around, she abandoned the car near his mistress’s house and staged the disappearance to thwart a clandestine fling. Theory 3 holds that she was in a “fugue state” brought on by depression and anxiety (possibly, again, owing to distress over her husband’s unfettered cocksmanship). Theories 4-∞: illuminati, lizard people, aliens, men in black, aliens again, government conspiracy, thermite, grassy knoll, patsy, bigfoot, faked moon landing, pagans, engine that runs on water, fluoridation, precious bodily fluids, magnets.

Is it just me, or does the whole thing bear a startling similarity to Gone Girl? (Spoilers ahead) Philandering husband, whip-smart writer wife, a disappearance that casts suspicion on the husband, amnesia providing plausible deniability, a reunion following her reappearance (a brief one; they divorced soon thereafter and she eventually married to a knighted archaeologist)? I mean I’m not saying, but I’m just saying…

Christie’s books include: The Elephants of Murder, Dumb Witness, Sparkling Cyanide, Murder is Easy, and N or M?


5. Police uncovered, in the summer of 1678, a plot to poison King Louis the XIV of France. This was perhaps the signal event of a near five-year scandal involving alchemists, witchcraft, the aristocracy, more than 400 arrests, and more than 30 executions: the affair of the poisons.

France at the time was laden with alchemists and seers, fortune-tellers and dark artists, probably necromancers if you looked hard enough. They peddled aphrodisiacs, held seances, organized black masses, and—this wasn’t so publicly advertised—sold “inheritance powder,” which is to say poison. Famed fortune teller Marie Bosse got drunk at a party, and boasted that she’d made a fortune selling poison to aristocrats. She was arrested, and like an onion, layer after layer was pulled back, revealing that Bosse was merely a bit player in a massive cottage industry of…well, poison.

Before being sentenced to death, Bosse gave authorities the name of her chief rival, “La Voisin.” Catherine Monvoisin was a fortune teller, chiromancer, and sorceress; she sold amulets and aphrodisiacs, potions and powders, and held black masses for her clients—dozens of whom were French nobility, including counts, countesses, dukes, duchesses, princes, princesses, and all manner of sir, madams, viscounts and viziers, many of whom she sold poisons to, and virtually all of whom dabbled in the dark arts with her.

La Voisin
La Voisin

Voisin held in her thrall Madame de Montespan, who became a mistress of the king shortly after Voisin provided her various powdered aphrodisiacs and conducted a black mass for her (I am not exaggerating when I suggest that those aphrodisiacs likely contained eye of newt or powdered mummy). When the king spurned Montespan, she convinced Voisin and three other alchemists to poison him. That was the plan that got uncovered.

By this point hundreds of poisoners (peddlers and clients) had been arrested. Some had already been executed, many others were awaiting trial. But the king was faced with a) the revelation that many (many) of Voisin’s clients were near to the royal family and b) he had potentially been lured into a sexual dalliance through the powers of the dark lord. Fearing scandal, he called off the investigation, though not before Voisin was burned at the stake. Of course, rather than releasing the jailed/suspected, he simply imprisoned most of them for life through extrajudicial fiat (the so-called “lettre du cachet”).

What’s interesting about this story to me is that while the Salem witch trials are a great example of mass hysteria (and possibly mass hallucination), here (as best I can tell, and I could be wrong, history being written by the victors and all) a not-insubstantial portion of the accused actually were conducting weird rituals and selling powdered concoctions and poisons; there was actually a thriving poison-selling ring. Extremely detailed further reading here. Wikipedia further reading here.


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