The Color of Pirating

By Peter T. Leeson

Eighteenth-century pirate features, from skull-emblazed flags to wooden legs, pervade popular culture. One important pirate feature that doesn’t appear in most pop-culture treatments, however, is the fact that upward of a quarter of the average early 18th-century pirate crew was black.

Historical evidence on the free vs. slave status of black pirates is conflicting. Because of this it’s tempting to conclude that pirates, who were no more racially enlightened than their legitimate contemporaries, typically treated blacks as their legitimate contemporaries did: they enslaved them.

But as I argue in my new book, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, this conclusion may be mistaken. Although some black pirates were slaves, it’s probable that many, and perhaps even most, black pirates were not. To be sure, pirates were as prejudiced as their legitimate contemporaries. But unlike in legitimate society, in pirate society, prejudiced thinking didn’t necessarily mean prejudiced policy.

The reason for this is straightforward: pirates were profit seekers. They cared more about gold and silver than they cared about black and white. And granting blacks their freedom was often more profitable than enslaving them.

A pirate crew’s benefit of enslaving a sailor was the additional booty the slave’s wage-less labor brought it. But the crew’s cost of enslaving a sailor could be much higher. If the slave escaped and informed the authorities on his pirate captors, or together with other conscripts succeeded in overthrowing his enslavers and delivered them to the law, the pirates faced the unpleasant prospect of hanging and thus the end of their roguish lives. Since the cost of enslaving a sailor often exceeded the benefit, in many cases, granting black sailors their freedom was simply good business.

Pirate profit seeking, not progressivism, prodded some sea scoundrels to practice racial tolerance. But this doesn’t diminish the tolerance they showed. In their pursuit of self-interest these pirates were led, as if by an “invisible hook,” in some ways reminiscent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” to treat black sailors as equals.

Peter T. Leeson is author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates (Princeton University Press). Image courtesy of the author.

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Book of the Week: The Invisible Hook

Now here's a question that I had never given much thought about: What were the economic conditions for the pirating industry in the 17th century? But what a fascinating question it is!

Peter Leeson's book is very intriguing--and wickedly clever. Who knew that pirates had elaborate systems of what we'd call "constitutional democracy" and "worker's compensation" today? For Leeson, it's all about measured responses to market forces.

To get a better sense of his argument, take a look at these articles or walk the plank mates!

The Pirates' Code (The New Yorker)

Everyone in Favor say Yargh! (Boston Globe)

More to come in the next post. Be sure to sign up for a chance at a free copy. Just click the book cover to your left.


[Image courtesy of author]

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Medical Curiosities, Authorial Resources

By Kirsten Menger-Anderson

Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain began as a short story about phrenology. I was fascinated by the odd idea of determining personality from the bumps in our heads, and intrigued by the diagrams of crisscrossed heads containing "brain organs" ranging from poetic talent to the tendency to murder. What other (now discredited) medical ideas have we held, I began to wonder. And so began my journey through 350 years of medical history.

Early in my research, I discovered the work of Jan Bondeson. His Buried Alive, which tells vivid tales of tobacco-smoke enemas and coffins fitted out with bell towers, inspired a story about a boy who may or may not be dead. Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, an entertaining survey of medical oddities, led to several additional stories that draw from the colorful histories Bondeson tells--tales involving spontaneous combustion and short hirsute women. Past medical techniques and the contemporaneous debates about life, death, and the soul took hold of my imagination. When I came across a review for Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer, I immediately ordered the book.

Soul Made Flesh, which opens in 1662 Oxford, where the "stink of cured fish hanging in fishmongers' stalls mixes with the soft smell of bread in the bakeries," is a history of our search to understand the human brain and the soul--work that inspired the opening story of my collection. From Zimmer, I learned about theories concerning the soul and its relationship to the human body, and how Galen's anatomy, which was accepted well into the seventeenth century, was based on studies of "lower" animals: the brain of a cow, the uterus of a dog, the kidneys of a pig.

I discovered curative radium in Bob McCoy's book Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud. I read about Mesmerism in an essay by Dylan Morgan; I followed the evolution of New York City in Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace's amazing book Gotham. The sciences that drive the characters in Doctor Olaf are the ones I learned about as I researched the book. Only I have the benefit of intervening centuries to see that many of the practices and theories are ill-advised. My characters believe in them.

Image: Skull inscribed for phrenological demonstration. 19th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

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Book of the Week: Dr. Olaf von Schuler's Brain

Is it possible to have found a fiction writer who shares such wonder at early medicine's marvels? Does Kirsten Menger-Andersen earn an honorary place among medical historians for translating our odd truths about medical beliefs and practices into breath-taking and respectful prose? Answer: YES.

Doctor Olaf von Schuler's Brain is simply gorgeous. Menger-Andersen moves us from early-modern Europe to modern day New York with subtly and historical appreciation of the fine details that bring these moments together--and that make each uniquely different.

For more, here's a review from the New York Times. Stay tuned on Thursday for a post from author herself.

In the meantime, just click on the book cover to your left for a chance to win a copy.

Image: Provided by author

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Food for Thought

Here's a tidbit for any Wonders and Marvels readers out there who may be thinking about starting a family.

Until the late seventeenth century, Galenic notions of the body as a complex system of fluids (humors) dominated. In the sport of baby-making, the end goal was to mix male and female "seed" in just the right quantity and quality to make a boy. So this meant that the hotter the better.

Men were considered hot and dry in humoralist models. So, if the seed mix was hot, a boy would be born.

So, here are a few seventeenth-century tips for all of you out there. If you want a girl, stick with those cold foods like fruit and lettuce. If you want a boy, head straight for foods that early-modern physicians classified as hot: wine, meat, arugula.

I'm not so sure about the recipe for dried stag testicles, though. If it works for you, let us know. Early doctors recommend that you sprinkle them liberally onto your food.

Imagine this: "Excuse me, Sire. But could pass the salt and testicles?"

For more eclectic musings on embryology, childbirth, chastity belts, brothel madams, you name it...
take a peek here.

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The Other Vanderbilt

By T.J. Stiles

In the nineteenth century, there was a man who towered over the American economy, ruthless in business yet true to his word, a physical powerhouse who hated needless chatter. His name was Cornelius Vanderbilt.

There was also a man who lurked in gambling saloons, skipping out on his debts and wheedling money out of celebrities, an epileptic full of self-important bombast. His name was also Cornelius Vanderbilt. Or, to be precise, Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, the second son of that other Cornelius.

The first Vanderbilt—known as the Commodore—was one of the most powerful business tycoons in American history. But the qualities that brought him such success make him a tough subject for the biographer. He was fierce, unrelenting, and kept his mouth shut about his affairs, let alone his feelings.

Lucky for us—if unlucky for him—he had a son who was his polar opposite, who pulled out a chain of ever-changing emotions. Corneil (as Cornelius J. was called) was addicted to gambling. He issued promissory notes he never intended to pay, pledged his allowance from his father to creditors, and even pawned his wife’s jewelry. He had a knack for convincing famous men to give him money. Horace Greeley became his patron, lending tens of thousands of dollars. Greeley even pestered Abraham Lincoln to grant Corneil favors (unsuccessfully).

Corneil violated everything in his father’s code of conduct, but the Commodore still loved his son. “Stubborn inconsistency” is how Sophia, Corneil’s mother, described Vanderbilt’s attitude toward Corneil. “He said that if Cornelius J. had a little more sense he might be fit for business; if a little less, he could be put into a lunatic asylum out of harm’s way, where he sometimes thought he properly belonged,” recalled Bishop Holland McTyeire, the founder of Vanderbilt University. “Poor unfortunate boy,” said the Commodore on his deathbed. “You make good resolutions but are not able to keep them from here to Broadway”—two blocks away.

The Commodore died on January 4, 1877, and left behind the largest fortune the Untied States had ever seen. Just five years later, on April 2, 1882, Corneil put a revolver to his temple and shot himself, dying bankrupt.

Image: Cover of Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, showing Vanderbilt's personal physician, Dr. Jared Linsly, testifying on the first day of the trial over Cornelius' will. He left about 95% of his estate to his oldest son, William and one of his daughters sued to break the will. Corneil joined in the lawsuit at one point. William won, but he doubled his siblings' stake in the inheritance. (New York Public Library)

T.J. Stiles is author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

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Book of the Week: The First Tycoon

By Holly Tucker

In the spring of 1873, a seventy-nine year old Cornelius Vanderbilt made a $1 million dollar gift to allow the Bishop Holland McTyeire to establish a university just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

Vanderbilt University now consistently ranks among the top twenty universities in the United States. As a faculty member at Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt's legacy is quietly woven into my daily life. But I have to admit that I didn't know much about the university's namesake other than the basics.

T.J. Stiles' new book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is a masterful biography of a deeply complicated and, at times, volatile character. I know that you'll find T.J.'s upcoming guest post on the ruthless Commodore's complicated family life as fascinating as I have. As his son Corneil's travails remind us, life as a child of Vanderbilt could not have been easy.

(Image: Vanderbilt University. Kirkland Hall, which still stands--minus the right tower--on campus and serves as the central administration building.)

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Galileo Goes to Jail

By Holly Tucker

There are some books that are just too good not to mention. Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, is one of them.

Just out from Harvard University Press, Galileo tackles some of the enduring legends in the history of science. To wit:

*That the Medieval Christian Suppressed the Growth of Science

*That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection

*That Galileo was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism

*That Rene Descartes Originated the Mind-Body Distinction

*That Evolution Destroyed Darwin's Faith in Christianity--until He Reconverted on His Deathbed

*That Creationism is a Uniquely American Phenomenon

The book debunks 25 myths in all--and the short chapters are written by top scholars in the history of science, medicine, and religion. This is one of those brilliant books that appeals to folks outside of the halls of academe, while also showcasing the talent within it.

For folks trying to separate fact from fiction, Galileo Goes to Jail is one very enjoyable and informative read.

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Revolutionary Tidbits

David Andress offered up his thoughts on one of history's busiest years: 1789.

Of course, 1789 makes me think of the French Revolution, which also makes me think of guillotines. And this offers up a good excuse to repost a favorite, though gory, tidbit on the art of dying... (thanks, Kris!)

by Kris Waldherr

Of the many m├ęthodes de la mort presented in my book Doomed Queens, it's beheading which generates the most buzz. After all, thanks to Henry VIII and his infamous wives, it's a rare person who hasn't seen Hollywood footage of one of his queens losing her head. These cinematic scenes are usually acted with a trembling lower lip, defiant last statement, then cue birds flying away (no doubt symbolizing the flight of the soul to heaven).

Beheading has been utilized worldwide since ancient times. It's considered a quick and effective way to end a life, provided the executioner is skilled. In the case of Mary Stuart, it took three blows to sever her head. During Henry's era, the condemned were usually blindfolded after they made a pious last statement that included forgiveness of the executioner and praise for the monarch. Next, they placed their necks upon the block; in the case of women, sometimes someone held their hair to the front, to steady them for the blow to come. Though an ax was traditionally used, Henry sent for a French swordsman to execute Anne in 1536; it was rumored that he was so skilled that she would feel no pain. Anne quipped, "He shall not have much trouble, for I have a little neck." The queen was killed with a single sword stroke while kneeling upright mid-prayer.

The much-married king did not splurge for the French swordsman in 1542 for Catherine Howard, his fifth queen but second conjugal beheading; she was dispatched in the usual way. The story goes that poor little Queen Kitty was so nervous about her upcoming date with death that she requested the block to be brought to her. She spent the night before her execution rehearsing how to place her head on the block. Presumably these efforts left her exhausted; her legs gave way as she climbed the scaffold and she had to be helped up.

As for Marie Antoinette, she was beheaded with a guillotine in 1793, which was a la mode in France due to the efforts of Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The good doctor submitted a modest proposal in 1789 to an assembly evaluating changes to the French penal code. Within it, Guillotin made the audacious suggestion that all men be treated equal when executed—that is, without pain and without torture. He wrote, "In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same. . . . The criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism." Contrary to popular belief, Guillotin was not a fetishist fascinated by executions; he was a lapsed Jesuit who hoped that a more humane method would lead to the abolition of the death penalty. Nor did he design the "simple mechanism" that bore his name. Variations of the guillotine have been around since the fourteenth century. After nearly two years of debate, the Assembly approved his measure in time for the Reign of Terror's communal bloodletting.

Did the guillotine really render its victims a painless, swift death? The jury is out on that, since no one can tell us. However, one story suggests that consciousness did not immediately cease after the blade fell. Charlotte Corday, the infamous murderess of Marat, was recorded to have blushed with "unequivocal indignation" after her severed head was slapped by her jubilant executioner. That written, a neuropsychologist recently informed me that it was likely that individual consciousness would end within four seconds, in response to the severing of the aorta during decapitation. More probably, Charlotte's famed blush was in reaction to the slap itself. Since the guillotine operates so quickly, her blood would be caught still circulating toward her brain, leaving her skin responsive to physical force after consciousness ceased—unless that was one really fast slapper.

Kris Waldherr is the author of Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends From Cleopatra to Princess Di from Broadway Books.

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Book of the Week: 1789

By David Andress

The year 1789 is so packed with significant events that one of the main problems I had in writing my book (1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age) was deciding how much I could squeeze in.

Clearly the French Revolution is the iconic episode automatically associated with the date, but before I started work on this project I hadn't realized how intimately it was connected to the effectively parallel process of drafting and enacting the US Constitution. And parallels and coincidences run in other directions too - who would have known that George III of England was celebrating his recovery from madness with a service at St Paul's Cathedral in London at almost literally the same moment that George Washington was being rowed across the Hudson to his new capital, New York, and acclaimed with new words to the tune of 'God Save the King'?

But though the story of 1789 is one of celebrations and struggles for rights and freedoms, it also has a much darker side. We remember the famous mutiny on the Bounty - brewing even as Washington stepped ashore in Manhattan – for the mutineers' resistance to the tyranny of Captain Bligh. But how many realize that the mutineers' idea of a South Seas paradise included kidnapping and enslaving Tahitian men and women to serve them, in the fields and in their beds?

These and other fascinating stories fill the year, from the rampages of settlers on the Ohio frontier to the rise of abolitionism in England, alongside empire-building in India, and the first hesitant attempts to communicate with Aboriginal Australians – by kidnapping one and forcing him to learn English.

Overall, writing this book has been a reminder of how complex the lessons of history can be. When we tell stories of our heroes and our villains, we risk losing sight of how much of both kinds of quality – of sacrifice and greed, justice and exploitation, generosity and contempt – is always bound up in the deeds of real people struggling to build the future.

David Andress is author of 1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age (Basic Books).
Image: The Execution of Louis XVI (Helman 1793)

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Chubby Cherubs

By Holly Tucker

Kids, I've told you a million times...Quit Dissecting the Dog!

I came across this image quite by accident today in the extraordinary Wellcome Library image collection. I've been working on some descriptions of early-modern dissections for my book manuscript--and was having a hard time putting into words the tools that anatomists used in their work: their size, shape, and use. Often when I'm stuck, I dip into my favorite arsenals of images to reawaken my creative juices.

It was only after I had flipped through a good hundred images or so that I realized: I'm too jaded. What an odd life it is when you can scan illustrations that are hundreds of years old and think "seen that," "been there," "done that" as you hit enter.

And then, just when I was thinking that nothing surprises me anymore: the putti magically appeared.

Putti (putto in the singular) are what those portly little babies are called. While they are regular features in Renaissance religious art, they show up from time to time as well in later scientific, and especially, medical illustrations.

One of my putti favorites has to be the frontispiece to Regnier de Graaf's De mulierum organis generationi inservientibus (1672), which announced the discovery of the human egg. (Spermatazoa were discovered in 1677--see post on Little Men in Sperm and The Chicken or the Egg).

The putti in the bottom left-hand portion of the illustration have just dissected a hare. They have put its ovaries on a tray and are looking at it close-up through a telescope-like device. Behind them stands a statuesque figure who holds a hand-drawn image of the female reproductive system.

But for as much as the Regnier image is eye-catching (and figures prominently on the cover of one of my books), I have to say that this new set of putti amuse and mesmerize me while also creeping me out in no small measure.

Related posts:

Gross Anatomy

Realism in Dissection

Dissection of Syphilis Patients

Anatomy of a Teaching Gig

Image: Etching by Bernard Picart, 1729. Wellcome Library, London.

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