Ulysses S. Grant, famous American Civil War General and the 18th president of the United States, led a very full life in many ways. But are the stories that he was an alcoholic true? Stephen Bitsoli separates the fact from the fiction…

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

In one of his classic phone call comedy skits, Bob Newhart imagines a conversation between President Abraham Lincoln and his press agent shortly before the Gettysburg Address. Among the many topics they discuss is General Ulysses S. Grant.

“You’re getting complaints about Grant’s drinking? Abe, I don’t see the problem. You knew he was a lush when you hired him.” Asked for a “squelch” for the press, Lincoln’s gag writers come up with: “Tell them you’re going to find out what brand he drinks, and then send a case to all your other generals.”

Supposedly Lincoln did say something like that. Even if he didn’t, he did think highly of Grant. Even after a near disaster at the Battle of Shiloh, when there were calls for Grant to be dismissed, Lincoln said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”


Grant’s Reputation

Ask most people what they “know” about Ulysses S. Grant today, and they’ll probably say three things: he was a great general, a lousy president, and a drunk.


A great general? Well, after being forced to resign his commission as captain (or else be court-martialed) in 1854, he rejoined the army in 1861 at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. There he restored discipline to a problem regiment, won battle after battle, rising through the ranks to become commander of all Union forces. He succeeded – despite political and military enemies and a sometimes hostile press – on the strength and number of his military victories. So, by most conventional measures, he seems to have been a great general.

A lousy president? Well, I guess that depends on how you define lousy. He wasn’t thought of as one at the time, and neither do most of today’s historians. He was easily elected to two terms, and almost won nomination for a third. There was a lot of corruption during his administration, but none was traced back to him. And he was a strong advocate for protecting the rights of the former slaves, especially in the South. He even broke the Ku Klux Klan, and made human rights a national concern. Just before his death he published his wartime memoirs, considered one of the finest by any former president, and it was a best-seller. So, sure, his presidency wasn’t perfect, but lousy seems to be an overly harsh judgment.

What about a drunk? Well, he did resign his commission in 1854 after allegedly being drunk on duty. And there are numerous other anecdotes about his drinking. Even one of his defenders, Civil War biographer Edward G. Longacre, wrote that while “Grant did not fit the stereotype of the falling-down drunk” – he could refuse a drink or drink moderately – “he was, in the clinical sense of the term, an alcoholic.” There are also reports that he sometimes fell down or off his horse, and at least once he was reported to have vomited in public.


But while falling over or vomiting can be indicative of excessive drinking, they can also be caused by eating crappy army rations in unsanitary battlefield conditions. He also had crippling migraines which might have been mistaken for hangovers, especially since alcohol was prescribed for them. Grant did have throat cancer, which can be a physical sign of alcohol abuse, especially when paired with tobacco (and Grant did smoke a lot), but based on the more cosmetic consequences – prominent sores, spidery red veins on the skin, especially the nose and cheeks – there is little evidence that Grant abused alcohol.


Myth and Reality

Why anyone cares that Grant drank is an interesting question in itself. As has been said, he was a successful, even brilliant soldier. If he did that while drinking, or maybe because he was drinking, then Lincoln’s alleged anecdote might even be a sound strategy.

Actually, in those days everybody drank a lot more than we do today. “In 1825, Americans over the age of 15 consumed on average seven gallons of alcohol — generally whiskey or hard cider — each year (today that figure is about two gallons, mostly of beer and wine).”

More likely, according to most sources, is that he was (at least early in his career) a binge drinker who mostly drank when separated from his family or out of boredom. According to his friend Lt. Henry Hodges, “He would perhaps go on two or three sprees a year, but was always open to reason.” Reports that he drank to inebriation during or before his Civil War battles seem entirely fanciful.

So, where did the claims that Grant routinely drank to excess come from? According to Civil War historian and archivist Michael B. Ballard, “Almost all, if not all, the stories about various drunken states are apocryphal.”

Grant's purported drinking problems are largely the result of a smear campaign against him by his rivals and political enemies – both “Lost Cause” Southerners still smarting from their defeat in the Civil War and his political opposition – that began after his two terms as Commander in Chief. In part they were upset over his attempts to enforce Reconstruction and protect the freedmen’s rights. In particular, his use of federal troops to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments and confront the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists was seen as tyrannical and imposing “black domination.”

Then there are those who find it romantic to consider Grant (as one website article dubs him) “a drunken fighting machine from American History.” Even novelist Susan Cheever, the daughter of a famous alcoholic, falls into this fallacy in Drinking in America: Our Secret History, proclaiming that Grant “was known to have a serious drinking problem,” but that this was a time “when alcohol may have had a positive effect.” As if his victories were attributable to the physical signs of alcohol abuse!


And finally there are the journalists, who in those days were far more willing to invent things than journalists in the present. Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter, wrote down one such story (though not printed until after his death three decades after the war), claiming that Grant had a barrel of whiskey in his tent for his exclusive use. No one else ever mentioned it.

It would be foolish to state that Grant never drank, or never drank to excess, but the myth of his being either a pathetic drunk or a hard-drinking man of action isn’t borne out by the evidence.


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Stephen Bitsoli blogs about addiction, recovery, mental health, and wellness. He has asked us to link to a rehabilitation center here.

There are only two known survivors of the April 1717 wreck of the ship the Whydah Galley, commanded by Sam Bellamy: Thomas Davis, a carpenter, and John Julian, a pilot. But were they the only two men to survive the wreck? Laura Nelson, author of The Whydah Pirates Speak (Amazon US | Amazon UK),  explains this American pirate story…

A model of the ship the Whydah Galley. Source: jjsala, available here.

A model of the ship the Whydah Galley. Source: jjsala, available here.

The location of the wreckage of the Whydah Galley in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Cape Cod.

The location of the wreckage of the Whydah Galley in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Cape Cod.

Bellamy and his crew were sailing north along the east coast of what is now the United States. Folklore says their intended destination was Eastham in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where Bellamy intended to pick up Maria Hallett, believed to be his lover, on their way to Rhode Island or Maine. He may also have been hoping to sell some of their booty…


The Storm

April 26, 1717, started out like any other day for the pirates. In the morning, they captured the Mary Anne, “a pink with more than 7,000 gallons of Madeira wine on board… and then the Fisher – a small sloop with a cargo of deer hides and tobacco” in the afternoon.[1] Per customary pirate procedure, smaller groups of pirates were sent over to these ships from the Whydah to act as the new crews of their “prizes.”

At the time of the wreck, the Whydah boasted a complement of about 150 men, all crammed into a ship that measured thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long. With the bulk of the pirates’ booty stored on the Whydah, the decks were probably starting to sag. Along with such items as “[e]lephant tusks, sugar, molasses, rum, cloth… indigo, and… dry goods…there was the precious metal, 180 sacks of coins, each… weighing fifty pounds.”[2] What this meant was the Whydah would have been very low in the water, a dangerous condition in a storm.

Throughout the afternoon a dense fog had rolled in, what should have been an early storm warning for the pirates. In the late afternoon the storm itself began. Instead of steering out to sea, Bellamy chose to stay close to the land, a move which leads many to believe he did indeed wish to try and make port somewhere in Cape Cod.

Sometime after 5pm Bellamy ordered all three ships to light lanterns on their sterns, a common navigational aid. But conditions continued to get worse.

“An arctic storm from Canada was driving into the warm air that had swept up the coast from the Caribbean. The last gasp of a frigid New England winter, the cold front was about to combine with the warm front in one of the worst storms ever to hit the Cape.”[3] “According to eyewitness accounts, gusts topped 70 miles [113 kilometers] an hour and the seas rose to 30 feet. [9 meters].”[4]

Square-rigged ships like the Whydah Galley did not handle so well in high winds, and since the winds were coming from the northeast, it was now pretty much out of the question for Bellamy to even try to attempt to head back out to sea. With each swell, the ship would have been pushed west by the winds, no matter how hard the pirates tried to keep heading north. One or more of them would have heard the sound of the waves hitting the shore and shouted, “Breakers, breakers!” But it was simply too late.

The accident was succinctly described by Thomas Davis in his deposition before his trial for piracy in Boston, Massachusetts, in October of 1717:

The Ship being at an Anchor, they cut their Cables and ran a shoar, in a quarter of an hour after the Ship struck, the Main-mast was carried by the board, and in the Morning She was beat to pieces. About Sixteen Prisoners drown’d, Crumpstey Master of the Pink being one, and One hundred and forty-four in all.[5]


“Although the beach was just 500 feet away, the bitter ocean temperatures were cold enough to kill the strongest swimmer within minutes. Other crew members were crushed by the weight of falling rigging, cannon, and cargo as the ship, her treasure, and the remaining men on board plunged to the ocean floor, swallowed up by the shifting sands of the cape.”[6] Anyone reaching the shore would then be faced with the challenge of climbing the seventy-foot cliffs (now called Marconi Beach).



When local residents arrived on the beach the next morning, “more than a hundred mutilated corpses lay at the wrack line with the ship’s timbers.”[7] Since the locals had no way of knowing how many men were on board the ship and obviously no knowledge of their names, individual corpses were not identified.


What Happened to the Others?

Around noon that same day nine men were arrested on suspicion of piracy. They had washed ashore off Wellfleet and were taken into the home of a local resident, where one of the original crew members of the Mary Anne, Andrew Mackonacky, exposed them as members of Bellamy’s crew.

First taken to Barnstable gaol in Wellfleet and then to Boston gaol the next day by horseback, Hendrick Quintor, Thomas South, Peter Cornelius Hoof, John Shuan, Thomas Baker, John Brown, Simon Van Vorst and Thomas Davis were tried in Boston, Massachusetts on 18 October 1717. South was the only one the court believed was a forced man and was acquitted. John Julian, also arrested that day, was sold into slavery. Davis was tried separately and also found not guilty.


Strange Tales Begin

Cape Cod folklore has many stories about a man who began to be seen not long after the wreck. The most famous reference to him is made by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about the wreck of the Whydah and this stranger:

In the year 1717, a noted pirate named Bellamy was led on to the bar at Wellfleet by the captain of a snow which he had taken, to whom he had offered his vessel again if he would pilot him into Provincetown Harbor. Tradition says that the latter threw over a burning tar-barrel in the night, which drifted ashore; and the pirates followed it. A storm coming on, their whole fleet was wrecked, and more than hundred dead bodies lay along the shore. Six who escaped shipwreck were executed.


“At times to this day,” (1793) says the historian of Wellfleet, “there are King William and Queen Mary’s coppers picked up, and pieces of silver called cob-money. The violence of the seas moves the sands on the outer bar, so that at times the iron caboose of the ship [that is, Bellamy’s] at low ebbs has been seen.”

Another tells us that, “For many years after this shipwreck, a man of a very singular and frightful aspect used every spring and autumn to be seen traveling on the Cape, who was supposed to have been one of Bellamy’s crew. The presumption is that he went to some place where money had been secreted by the pirates, to get such a supply as his exigencies required. When he died, many pieces of gold were found in a girdle which he constantly wore.”[8]

Before the days of filing birth certificates with the county clerk and the Internet, it was not difficult for someone who wanted to escape the authorities to head a few towns away in any direction, make up a name, and start a new life.

The tales say that at night passers-by could hear screams and wails of torment and shouts of entreaty from within this man’s cabin. It as imagined that he was haunted by demons or the ghosts of his past crimes he had committed while pursuing a life of piracy.

Older tales told about how he frequently spent evenings in private houses, taking advantage of their hospitality to get free meals. If they had trouble getting him to leave, they simply started reading from the Bible or holding family devotions, causing him to leave.

Then, suddenly, they stopped seeing him. Some presumed he had traveled into Boston or another port and found work on a ship. Finally, someone was brave enough to enter his cabin, where he was found dead. Around his waist was a girdle filled with gold coins. He had claw marks around his neck.


A Last Tale

Amongst the many tales of this stranger is this one, which happened many years after the wreck:

One October [evening] in the year 1782, a resident of Eastham, after a great storm, decided to hike down along the beach toward the lower Cape, and reached the scene where the Whidaw had been wrecked… Far in the distance he saw a bonfire, and hastened toward it. Upon drawing closer, he discovered the same mysterious character known to almost every resident of that section.

This sinister individual, with a cocked pistol at his side, was three feet down, in a hole in the sand, and had just struck the top of a chest. The Eastham resident, in his excitement, dislodged a bit of material from the top of the cliff where he was walking, and the pirate, with an oath, sprang for his pistol.

The Cape Cod resident ran for the underbrush and escaped, but not before a close call from one of the pirate’s bullets. He returned several days later by daytime, but never found anything. The pirate was later found dead by the roadside with gold doubloons in his money belt.[9]


This last story is quite improbable, but the idea that someone could have survived the wreck is not impossible. Record-keeping in the early 1700s was rudimentary at best. And nearly all folklore has its basis in reality.


Let us know what you think of the article below.

Laura Nelson is the author of The Whydah Pirates Speak, available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


[1] Clifford, Barry, Real Pirates, p. 130.

[2]The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy,” p. 319. Peter Cornelius Hoof said in his testimony: “The Money taken in the Whido, which was reported to amount to 20000 to 30000 Pounds, was counted over in the Cabin, and put up in bags, Fifty Pounds to every Man’s share, there being 180 Men on Board… but none was to take any without the Quarter Masters leave.”

[3] Clifford, Barry, Expedition Whydah, p. 260. “Technically known as an occluded front, the warm and moist tropical air is driven for miles upward where it cools and falls at a very high speed, producing high winds, heavy rain, and severe lightning.”

[4] Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah.”

[5]The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy,” p. 318.

[6] Clifford, Barry, Real Pirates, p. 131.

[7] Donovan, Webster. “Pirates of the Whydah.”


[8] Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod. p. 186-187.


[9] Snow, Edward Rowe. Boston Sunday Post (28 September


AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

If you ever feel like you’ve made a huge mistake, just remember: it’s probably not bigger than the Battle of Karansebes, during which the Austrian army broke into two and ended up mistakenly fighting itself. At least, that’s what supposedly happened. There actually isn’t much direct evidence to suggest that the Battle of Karansebes is anything more than a legend. Connor Martin of histori.org explains…

An image from the Austro-Turkish War (1788-1791). Here the Ottoman army is advancing towards Sofia, Bulgaria.

An image from the Austro-Turkish War (1788-1791). Here the Ottoman army is advancing towards Sofia, Bulgaria.

Here’s how the story goes: in 1788, Austria was at war with Turkey, fighting for control of the Danube River. About 100,000 Austrian troops had set up camp near Karansebes, a village that is now located in present-day Romania. Some scouts were sent ahead to see if they could find any Turks. Rather than find evidence of the opposing army, they found gypsies who had a lot of alcohol to sell, and they bought it.

The scouts brought the alcohol back to camp and started drinking - since the best thing to do the night before a big battle is get very, very drunk. As their little party became louder and more obnoxious, it attracted the attention of several foot soldiers who wanted to join in. The scouts were not open to sharing their find, and being drunk, they didn’t express this with a lot of tact.

An argument broke out, which soon escalated. The alcohol was confiscated, more people joined in, punches were thrown, and a shot rang out. Amidst the mayhem, someone shouted that the Turks had arrived.

Caught unawares and unprepared, most soldiers fled the scene immediately. Others got into formation and charged at the supposed enemy. Shots were fired, cavalry was assembled, and the defecting soldiers were killing every man they saw without thinking.

Needless to say, the Turkish army had not arrived. They wandered into Karansebes two days later and found 10,000 dead or wounded Austrian soldiers. A little confused by this turn of events, they were nonetheless delighted to take Karansebes without any effort at all.


The truth?

Believers in the battle claim that the army could very easily have become confused. At the time, the Austrian army was made up of people who spoke German, Hungarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian, among other languages. This resulted in a lot of confusion and miscommunication as many troops and officers weren’t able to understand each other. One story claims that as the soldiers were running away, a colonel shouted, “Halt!” in German, but some of the troops who didn’t speak German thought he was saying “Allah!” which only solidified the idea that the Turks had arrived.

Okay, so the battle wasn’t impossible, but given that there is no known record of it until 1831, some 40 years after the event, it doesn’t seem likely. That source is the Austrian Military Magazine. Other sources include the well-titled The History of the 18th Century through the 19th till the overthrow of the French empire, with particular reference to mental cultivation and progress by F.C. Schlosser, which was published in 1843. The best source about the battle comes from the German Geschichte Josephs des Zweiten by A. J. Gross-Hoffinger, and while it’s often cited by people when referring to the battle, it was also written nearly 60 years after the fact. That means there was plenty of time for the facts to become skewed.

While the Battle of Karansebes makes for a good story, there just isn’t enough documented evidence for it to be entirely believable.


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Connor Martin is the founder and historian of histori.org.

The Brain Trust was a small group who came together in 1932 to help Franklin D Roosevelt find ways out of the Great Depression. The group’s legacy was significant as they were closely involved with the New Deal as well as a very famous speech. Ted Harvey explains all.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

They were mocked by some in the media, but the three men who were known as the “Brain Trust” were influential in helping Franklin Delano Roosevelt craft the policies that would become the New Deal. Technically it was a short-lived group, existing primarily during FDR’s run for the White House in 1932. While other advisors became lumped in with the “Brain Trust”, there were originally three who made up the group: Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf Berle. All were professors at Columbia University, Moley and Berle in law and Tugwell in economics.

The idea for the Trust was suggested by Samuel Rosenman, speechwriter and legal counsel of Roosevelt, whom he knew through his time on the New York State Assembly and as a Justice on the New York Supreme Court. Rosenman thought it would be beneficial for the candidate to have an academic team of advisers. The idea was supposedly based on the Woodrow Wilson’s “The Inquiry”, a large group of academics who advised President Wilson on peace negotiations following World War I. “The Inquiry” would eventually become the Council on Foreign Relations.


The Forgotten Man

The “Brain Trust” came together in 1932 led by Raymond Moley, a strong supporter and close ally of then Governor Roosevelt. The country remained trapped in the Great Depression with no obvious end in sight. Moley brought the Brain Trust together to help Roosevelt craft his message, focusing on how his administration would pull the country out of the worst economic depression the country had or would ever face. In some sense the “Brain Trust” was for show, allowing voters to see Roosevelt had a plan to get out of the Depression, and that he wouldn’t stand idly by to let the country work itself out of the depression.

The group’s influence was evident in Roosevelt’s first major campaign speech, now generally known as the “Forgotten Man” speech. In it Roosevelt laid out his plans for his initial 100 days and how he meant to address the continued Depression. The speech focused on the poor, the “forgotten men” who were not receiving the help they needed. It was Raymond Moley who helped write this speech and include the now-famous “forgotten man.” Moley also wrote much of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. It is also thought that Moley came up with the term “New Deal,” which remains influential to this day. Adolf Berle was also heavily involved with Roosevelt’s speechwriting, helping to write the Commonwealth Club speech, focusing on the importance of government involvement in the economy.

Following the election, the original “Brain Trust” gave way to a more permanent group of advisors. These new Brain-Trusters, people like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Harold Ickes, as advisors and Cabinet Secretaries, continued to push New Deal policies forward. As far as the original three, they each pursued a different path. Adolf Berle left the administration soon after Roosevelt’s inauguration, although he continued to be an informal advisor of the President. Later, from 1938 to 1944 Berle returned to work for the White House as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Raymond Moley became disenchanted with the New Deal policies and with President Roosevelt. He continued writing speeches for the president until 1936, after which he left the White House becoming an ardent critic of the New Deal and liberalism, at least the kind promoted by FDR. Nothing exemplifies Moley’s shift in position than his awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

Of the three, only Tugwell transitioned directly from the “Brain Trust” to a role in the administration, becoming Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture. Tugwell would have continued influence as Roosevelt implemented the programs of the New Deal, including the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, the Soil Conservation Service, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Resettlement Administration. He left the administration in 1936 and became vice president of the American Molasses Company. Later he became the first Director of the New York City Planning Commission, where he frequently ran up against the (in)famous Robert Moses. He returned to the Roosevelt administration in 1941 as the last appointed Governor of Puerto Rico.


In perspective

Although the “Brain Trust” was a short-lived loose affiliation, the influence the small group had on Roosevelt and New Deal policies was enormous. While the members of the “Brain Trust” were dismissed by many as advocates of big government and elites, they approached the economic problems of their day through the lens of Progressivism. For example, their goal was not to rely solely on the government or to break-up the large corporations when it came to economic policy, but to have the government regulate businesses. These ideas, supported by President Roosevelt and his Brain Trust, became the backbone of the New Deal economic policies and in many regards remain in place today.


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Kennedy, David. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt . New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Ice is an essential for many of us during the long, hot summer. But just how did people in the 19th century enjoy cool drinks in an age before electricity and freezers? Here, Colette Lefebvre-Davis tells us about ice harvesting…


As winter creeps, the ponds begin to freeze. As they freeze winter sports enthusiasts begin to dust off their ice skates and ice fishing utensils. Suddenly, it is time to play and ice makes a great place for skating. In the past, it was time to harvest ponds and lakes. In the modern world ice harvesting is no longer practiced. Ice can be made now with electric refrigerators, food is easily preserved with the cold. But not so long ago it was a cash crop. Prominent men and women craved it in the summer months, and once a drink was enjoyed cool and not tepid, it was a necessity for those that could afford it. Of course it was only the wealthy who could afford to buy or keep the ice. 

Images of the ice trade around New York City. From an 1884 edition of Harper's Weekly.

Images of the ice trade around New York City. From an 1884 edition of Harper's Weekly.

American Forefathers had to have Cold Butter!

Thomas Jefferson had a problem with his self-designed ice house around 1806, namely keeping his ice house dry and filled. ”About a third is lost to melting.”[1] Thereafter, it was imperative to catch the water that was in the ice house. Jefferson filled the ice house with snow to insulate the ice and keep it from melting, and still men were employed to empty it.  Jefferson wrote to his overseer, to harvest from the nearby Rivanna River.  Being who he was, a philanthropist, and knowledge seeker Jefferson no doubt waited patiently for his experiment to unfold. He wasn’t around when the first ice house on his property was built; rather he monitored the progress from Philadelphia in 1803. Yet letters were constant between himself and the people at his estate, because he knew that the harvest of ice would allow him to have cold drinks in the summer as well as cool desserts. Cold, heavy, backbreaking work - ice was worth it not only for the famous American President and creator of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson also built an ice house at the President’s house in Philadelphia. It has been excavated in recent years and is on display. For Jefferson there was no other method to nicely preserve his butter and meat. Ice was for those with money at that time. During heat waves, while others sipped tepid water, those who were able to drank cool drinks.

Even, Benjamin Franklin is credited with cooling off the palates of the delegates of the constitutional convention while idle one evening. He secured cream from a neighbor’s cow, and used his ice from the storehouse. There were satisfied palates, and certainly cooler tempers.


The Hazards of Ice Harvests

Harvesting ice was a cash crop, a winter crop. In New England, just as the ice grew thicker during plunging temperatures, a harvest was pending. Men of the early twentieth century and before slipped on their shoes, tightened their belts and prepared their horses for a harvest at a local pond.  In their inventory were the necessary utensils for harvesting which included an ice gaff, ice pick, ice tongs and ice saw. It was hard, laborious, cold, dangerous and rewarding. People were excited to go to work, to come together as a community of workers, despite the dangers that harvesting presented. Despite cold conditions, accidents and frostbite the harvest was a much looked forward to event.

Now, ice harvest festivals remain, as a fun reminder of the past. Communities gather over ice-covered ponds and snow banks to watch local historians as they demonstrate 19th and 18th century harvesting techniques. Some audience members are invited to participate, carrying large chunks of ice to a sled where it is pulled by a horse to an ice house - if one is available.

But it was made into a lucrative business when Fredric Tudor decided to make money from old fashioned New England winters. Tudor, born in 1783 in Boston, Massachusetts would be known as the “Ice King”. Now, Boston in 1783 was just recovering from the American Revolution. For most it was a depressed and poor place. The population that had once thrived was small; most had left during the revolution to escape the ravages of war and military takeovers. The population was 10,000 in 1780 and many were struggling to make money. Tudor was by no means poor himself though; in fact he had the opportunity to go to Harvard. It wasn’t his destiny; instead he and his brother hunted, fished, practiced courting rituals, and learned the life of the privileged. It was a passing comment at a summer picnic that drove him to think of their pond as a possibility to make money. It not only would change the Caribbean, with ice being shipped from Boston to Martinique, but it would also change the United States. 

Tudor decided that hot climates like Martinique were the best place to start. So he sent his brother out to forge the path for their soon to be booming ice trade. Yes, he was crazy, and if anybody had asked people in Boston, they would have said that it was preposterous to send ice to the warmer climates safely and then once there store it away. 

But ice harvesting became popular, and with a few tweaks in shipping it and preserving it, people began to ask for it. Competition began to sprout up in Maine along the rivers, and other ice companies emerged as the demand grew.


How to Harvest Ice

Step 1: First scrape the snow off the ice, it should be six to thirty inches (however to transport it needs to be at least eight inches).

Step 2: Measure grids on the ice and bring horses along to help with the measurements.

Step 3: The next step was to cut through the grooves on the grid, until the blocks break off and float down the cleared channel to the chute where they were hauled up and into the ice house.

Step 4:  Men used breaking off bars and one-handed crosscuts on the ice which they gloated or poled down like a raft to the ice house.

Step 5: Each block was moved up the chute with hooks to various levels as the ice house filled with layers of ice separated and surrounded by layers of sawdust supplied by lumber mills as an insulator.


Ice created American Cuisine

Ice harvesting changed the way in which Americans ate. Soon after Mr. Tudor suggested ice in drinks, it became more and more necessary to have it. Newspapers of the time would report that ice harvests were either plentiful or hardly there at all. In the latter case, men would be commissioned to take a voyage to the Arctic, to chip pieces of ice from huge icebergs to satisfy the need back home.

It was an easier way to keep meat and dairy products longer. It sure beat the time it took to preserve with canning or salting. The flavors were reportedly fresher, and that was all the public needed to know. While the ice business boomed, so too did inventors who strove to create ice.

In the 1920s, ice consumers purchased ice boxes lined with zinc or lead to preserve their foods. There were magical, icy cold drinks, ice box cookies, cakes, and pies. The iceman was soon a staple person in most American cities and towns. He would drive in on a horse drawn ice wagon, and simply unload a nicely squared piece with ice hooks, haul it into a person's home and lift it into the ice box. The ice boxes or cold closets as they were also known were created as pieces of furniture, admired and handsome. They were made with trays to catch the water at the bottom, and once they melted the ice man soon came again.

Leftovers were preserved longer, most likely to the chagrin of the children in a home, and around the same time inventors were working on creating American frozen food meals. Refrigeration techniques had been utilized by breweries and then spread to Chicago’s meat packing industry. They were using refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride which were harmfully impacting people who were exposed to it. That type of refrigeration was not going to be placed in homes. In 1884 it was reported that almost every home but the poorest had ice boxes. It became normal for homes to post a sign in the window whenever they needed more ice. However up until the 1930s these meals were mushy, frozen with ice shards, and not very appetizing. Regardless of the early pitfalls of frozen foods, there was still a lot to benefit from in having a home ice box.



For now, the last remnants of ice harvesting are exhibits produced in museums, and small sects of those who are bent on living off-grid sustainable lives. The rest of the world relies on refrigeration for ice. Americans, who scoffed at the initial idea of an ice trade, instantly became hooked when they were shown the advantages of using it. Fredric Tudor, the “Ice King”, went bankrupt many times, but leaves an enduring legacy.


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[1] Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 11:439.

Vikings conjure up certain images in the popular imagination; however, those images are often incorrect. In fact, the truth about the Vikings is even stranger than you might believe!

Following his recent piece, Captain Max Virtus (aka Adrian Burrows) returns again to the site and tells us about the Vikings in his own unique way…

PS – Max has just released a new book, Escapades in Bizarrchaeology (Amazon US | Amazon UK).

Leif Ericsson on the shore of Vinland (Newfoundland). From a book by Mary McGregor, Stories of the Vikings.

Leif Ericsson on the shore of Vinland (Newfoundland). From a book by Mary McGregor, Stories of the Vikings.

Vikings. Brilliant weren't they?

Stinky, bloodthirsty, horned helmet wearing barbarians.

Only that sentence is depressingly untrue.

Firstly, Vikings were not stinky. In fact they were considered a fragrant bouquet of delight compared to their Saxon neighbors. Vikings bathed once a week and fashioned beauty products out of small animal bones, tweezers to pluck out unwanted hair and ear spoons to scoop out gunk from the lugholes of even the most fearsome warrior.

Secondly, Vikings weren't all that bloodthirsty. In fact, their raiding hobby fast moved on to rather more boring interests, such as trading, settling and exploring (YAWN!).

Thirdly, there's no evidence to suggest that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. After all, why would anyone think it would be a good idea to stick two big easy to grab horns on the side of their head? It would allow a quick thinking opponent to either yank your head in position for a well-timed slash of a broadsword or simply pull your helmet over your eyes and provide chortlesome fun for all their friends as you stumble blindly around the battlefield. In fact, there's very little evidence to suggest that Viking wore helmets AT ALL. Illustrations from the period show them wearing lousy leather caps or being boringly bare headed.

So if Vikings aren't stinky, bloodthirsty, horned helmet wearing barbarians then doesn't that make them rather boring? Oh no dear reader, Vikings did plenty of bizarrely brilliant things.


Vikings loved Skiing

Who doesn't love Skiing? The answer is not Vikings. They loved it. Their skis were about 2 meters long and made of pinewood. However, Vikings didn't just ski, they also went ice-skating. The skates were made from the foot bones of horses, cows or elks and were strapped to the feet of the Viking as they propelled themselves over the ice with two short sticks.

Are you thinking about a giant bearded Viking warrior involved in a pretty spectacular and surprisingly flexible ice skate dance routine whilst clad in horribly florescent and skin tight lycra? If not, you are now.


Wee Dye

Vikings considered the ideal hair color to be blonde. They could also suffer from horrible infestations of lice and nits in their finely combed (yes, they had combs too) hair.

So what better solution than dunking your head in a month old bucket of wee?

Not only would it eliminate any rogue lice if would also lighten the color of your hair.

However, having to keep month old buckets of wee could clutter up even the longest longhouse. So Lye Soap was developed instead. The key toxic ingredient of yee olde Lye Soap? Wee.


Vikings had a Weird Sense of Humor

Vikings took their reputations very seriously indeed. An insulted Viking would often respond to the verbal bashing by challenging the bully to a physical bashing instead. Duels would be held (not always resulting in death, sometimes the warrior who managed to disarm the other or draw first blood would be the victor) but what happened to the person who lost? Well, they were given a rather odd challenge. A wild cow would be brought into the hall where the duel had taken place. The cow’s tail would then be shaved and coated in grease. Then the Viking who had lost the duel would have their feet covered in grease too. Then the cow would be made angry (calling it names or poking it in the eye with a stick should do the trick). Then the loser would have to grip the cow's tail (can you tell where this is going yet?).

On a given command the Viking would then have to pull the cow's tail 0- which would make the cow go WILD! Bucking and stomping, kicking out with its hooves like a whirlwind of death. The poor Viking would simply have to keep hold of its tail until it calmed down. If he succeeded, then not only could he keep his life, he could also keep the cow as well!


Secret Bonus Fact: Viking warriors wore eyeliner! It was called kohl and it was a dark colored powder that kept the harsh light of the sun from damaging sensitive eyeballs.


We do hope you enjoyed the article! You can read Max’s new book Escapades in Bizarrchaeology: The Journals of Captain Max Virtus (The History Book For People Who Don't Like History - Yet!) - available in both print and electronically.

Book available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

And if you want to find out more, you can Tweet Max @adeauthor.


AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

A multitude of myths and legends surround first US president George Washington. Some of these turn out to be true - but surely the first American president wasn’t a drug addict? Simone Flynn assesses how George Washington used drugs and drank alcohol to determine the myth and the reality…

Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon by Julius Brutus Stearns, 1851. But did Washington's activity on his Mount Vernon estate include excessive drug or alcohol consumption?

Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon by Julius Brutus Stearns, 1851. But did Washington's activity on his Mount Vernon estate include excessive drug or alcohol consumption?

My name is George Washington and I’m a laudanum addict – maybe.

In a spoken word section of The Fugs song “Wide, Wide River” (from the 1968 album “It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest), the singer/speaker bemoans, a “supposedly democratic system, where you end up always voting for the lesser of two evils? I mean, was George Washington the lesser of two evils? Sometimes I wonder...”

By modern standards we’ve long known that Washington, the father of the US, was not perfect. For one thing, he was a slave owner. He may have been an adulterer. And, according to some sources, he may have been a drug addict or an alcoholic. The tricky aspect of assessing these claims are that, like much of his life, it’s sometimes hard to separate the reality from the myth - although the well-known cherry tree myth seems unequivocally to be the latter!

The evidence pointing to Washington as being a possible addict is:

1.     Washington grew hemp, which like marijuana contains THC (but much less)

2.     After his two terms as president, he opened a whiskey distillery at his plantation home at Mount Vernon

3.     Washington seemed fond of Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine, and complained that he thought his servants were drinking it up

4.     Washington was known to consume laudanum, an addictive substance


Scant evidence?

While Washington was upset about how much Madeira his servants might be drinking, it was the outrage of a rich person upset over being taken advantage of by the help, not an alcoholic worried about his stash. The distillery, too, wasn’t for personal consumption (at least not primarily) but as a moneymaking enterprise.

And while he drank a lot, at alcoholic levels to modern sensibilities, so did the other Founding Fathers. At the last meeting of the Continental Congress, enough alcohol was consumed for each delegate to have more than two bottles apiece to themselves. And alcohol such as hard cider was served with most meals, including breakfast, in part because water often wasn’t safe.

The hemp use isn’t particularly damning either, as hemp then was used mainly for rope, paper and other commercial purposes, not recreational drug use, and there’s no documented and little circumstantial evidence that Washington smoked its flowers.

Washington’s laudanum consumption is another matter. Laudanum, a mixture of opium tincture and alcohol, was a widely used medicine at the time, an analgesic and nostrum used for many maladies and ailments. It was cheaper than simple booze because it was considered medicine, so not subject to alcohol taxes. Although it retains some legitimate uses, such as for diarrhea, laudanum is highly addictive, especially if used more often or in greater doses than prescribed. Back then, it might have been as casually abused as other opiates and opioids today. Until 1868, laudanum was pretty much unregulated, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that its risks were well known.

Washington needed laudanum because of his famously ‘wooden’ teeth, which were actually made of real teeth, both human and animal, and carved ivory (probably from hippopotamus tusks). They were so ill fitting that they caused him constant pain. The belief that they were wooden may be because they would become stained and cracked, thus resembling wood grain. Washington had only one remaining tooth to anchor his dentures.

Many other notable people have been known for or suspected of laudanum addiction over the centuries including poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and authors Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

If Washington was addicted to laudanum, it wasn’t for the purpose of getting high, or even coping with the stress of being the Revolutionary War hero and first President of the United States (talk about pressure). Washington took laudanum for intense pain. He was at worse a high-functioning addict who accomplished a lot and lived to age 67 after suffering from smallpox, tuberculosis and other life-shortening disabilities before the invention of penicillin. That’s quite an achievement.


Please share your thoughts below…







Simone Flynn blogs about addiction, recovery, mental health, and wellness. She has asked us to link to a rehabilitation center here.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most published figures in history. Hundreds of books have been written regarding his most important legacies on the United States. With all of that publishing there are still many misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln that are taught today in schools and in popular culture. Some misconceptions are obviously inaccurate, while others can be intelligently argued in several directions. Here are the debates around ten of the most common ‘misconceptions’ about Abraham Lincoln as shared by Scott M. Hopkins.

A close-up of the official White House portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

A close-up of the official White House portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln the Rail Splitter

Most students of history today are confused when they hear the term rail splitter. It had nothing to do with creating railroad tracks, but actually building rail fences. The task was difficult in the 19th century without the use of modern equipment. It was immensely important in keeping livestock managed and property lines separated. Lincoln excelled at the task as a youth and retained the skill as an adult. The chore lent itself to Lincoln’s peculiar physical attributes; tall and lanky, skinny legs, with robust arms, and mammoth hands.

What many people do not realize is that Lincoln actually hated his backwoods upbringing. Even as president he would outperform his own Union Soldiers in exercises of physical endurance, many half his age. Still his preference was for being indoors and reading. In fact he often did extra manual labor to be paid in borrowed books, then subsequently more labor in order to pay them off when he accidently destroyed the treasured texts he had borrowed. Even during the election, Republicans desperately sold the idea of Lincoln as the backwoods hero. City slickers loved the rail splitter image. Lincoln hated it.


Abraham Lincoln the Atheist

Like many Americans before and after him, Lincoln struggled with his religious faith. The traditional frontier Baptist tradition he was raised with left him with many more questions than answers. His uncertainty should not be confused with Atheism though. As a child Lincoln made great efforts to memorize passages of scripture and to orate them to his siblings and mother.

Following the demoralizing death of his mother Nancy Lincoln in 1818 to milk poisoning, Lincoln denounced Jesus as the Christ repeatedly in public settings. It was further worsened when his first love, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835. He fell into a melancholy state many today might term depression. Some even worried about him taking his own life. William Herndon, a close friend and the earliest biographer maintained Lincoln was not a Christian, though many more biographies have surfaced challenging that. However, towards the end of his life he made several public announcements for the praise of a higher power. He even attempted to contact the spirit of his dead son, Willie, in séance rituals.


Abraham Lincoln Started the Civil War

This topic is contentious in the southern half of the United States as it is commonly understood there that Lincoln was an aggressor to a peaceful separatist movement, known as the Confederate States of America. It does not help that the majority of battles took place in the South, Reconstruction was a failure, and that much of the wealth of the South was invested in slavery, which immediately put businesses, industries, and families out of business at the end of the war. At the height of the Lost Cause movement Lincoln blaming was beginning to receive immense respect among historians.

States’ rights are usually cited as one of the main reasons that Lincoln can be blamed for starting what is still sometimes known as The War of Northern Aggression. Just as states had the right to vote for or against slavery, there is the belief that they could vote to leave the Union. Lincoln held that the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860 - before he would take over the White House - was firmly illegal and pledged not to start the war, but do everything to prepare for it. Imagine today if Donald Trump were elected president. Should states have the right to leave the Union because a majority of people disagree with the candidate who won?

Ironically, Abraham Lincoln advocated for minimal punishment for the Confederacy at the conclusion of the war. His desire to return to investing in infrastructure and creating jobs in the South cannot be measured as he was assassinated before his ideas could become reality.


Abraham Lincoln: The Classic Rags to Riches Story

It is true that Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky (it’s where we get Lincoln Logs from) and that his father barely completed enough labor to provide for the sustenance of his family, let alone save much money. He also spent much of his youth in the frontier of Indiana in another log cabin.

As a teenager though he learned the importance of entrepreneurship after taking a raft to New Orleans and earning a two fifty cent silver coins from two merchants that he assisted with travel of their cargo. He applied himself to his work thereafter, managing a shop, delivering mail, surveying, and even leading a militia in the Black Hawk War of 1832. None of this gave him wealth, nor did his hard work at teaching himself law pay the dividends it does today. Wealth only came to Lincoln through chance that his wife, Nancy Todd Lincoln, came from a prominent Kentucky plantation family with money invested in land and slaves. Even so, Lincoln himself never lived lavishly.


Abraham Lincoln owned Slaves

According to historian and East Carolina University Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz in Did Lincoln Own Slaves And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln it is one of the most commonly asked questions by all age groups, races, and creeds regarding the fourteenth president. It’s puzzling to consider why someone would have had such an inclination. It is well documented that Lincoln often supported the end to slavery, but only when he supported an end to rebellion and a return to the Constitution. Nevertheless, he never harbored any desire in owning slaves, despite his wife’s immediate family background.

The case that is sometimes made to argue that Lincoln owned slaves is that during a White House function, short on labor, the Lincolns hired a group of ex-slaves to assist with serving guests. The history suggests that they may not have been ex-slaves as the White House thought, nor were they compensated financially, leading to a slavery connotation. The hiring was handled by the White House staff and not Lincoln, and nor were his staff aware of the workers’ situation.

Lincoln detested slavery and wanted its demise ever since he experienced the sight of it on one of his riverboat trips as a teenager to New Orleans. He never owned a plantation property to necessitate slaves and preferred to do the majority of manual labor himself, even while at The White House.


Abraham Lincoln Would Vote for My Party Today

One of the most politically charged assertions is when non-historians attempt to pigeonhole Lincoln into their political party today. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, right at the time of the founding of the party and was the first Republican President of the United States. Initially Lincoln was a Whig, though the party dissolved prior to the 1861 election over the issue of slavery. The formation of the Republican Party was almost exclusively made up of abolitionist former Whigs, hell-bent on ending the spread of slavery into new states and territories.  

Still many of his efforts can be argued to be more in line with today’s Democratic Party. Most notably Lincoln introduced the country’s first income tax, spent lavishly on infrastructure and public assistance, and promoted social justice initiatives like attempting to buy all slaves and then relocate them to Liberia for freedom’s sake. Interestingly much of Lincoln’s support in the election of 1861 is today firmly Democrat, while the South, who failed to put him even on the ballot, is firmly Republican.

Lincoln would not fit conveniently into either party today as his political views were often changing as the Civil War changed. He made decisions that he knew were best for the country and its future. Although he filled his cabinet with Republicans, they were all his most fierce competitors and differed from him in many ways, as evidenced in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s essential Lincoln text, Team of Rivals. Lincoln viewed each competitor as the best at what they did and took advantage of their skills, regardless of personal relationship, social, or political persuasion. In fact, his class of politicising is rarely seen today amongst the careerists and party loyal.


Abraham Lincoln the Abolitionist

We cannot take away the magnitude of what Abraham Lincoln did to end the Civil War and end slavery. His disgust at slavery was apparent and those closest to him knew he waited for each opportunity to rid the United States of it. Ambitious steps like the Emancipation Proclamation – which didn’t actually free slaves – are not the same as the Abolitionist Movement. Abolitionists were on the front lines and often had no support or funding.

Founded in the Atlantic States, the Abolitionist Movement advocated an end to slavery and largely equal rights for black men and women of the United States. It had its roots in Evangelical churches. It was a tireless and often dangerous commitment. Not only was it unpopular prior to 1861, helping slaves through the Underground Railroad was illegal - often leading to business and political suicide. Well-off business owners, church preachers, and hardworking mothers risked everything and often lost everything hiding slaves and defending the equality of others. Many eventually made their way to Canada where slavery was expressly illegal.


Abraham Lincoln Was a Racist

Those that understand Lincoln know that he was not an Abolitionist and certainly did cooperate with slavery until he could remove it. Children of several different generations learned of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator in school. That title is largely dismissed as inaccurate today. Many in the 1960s - namely prominent black journalist Lerone Bennet Jr. - have labelled him nothing more than a typical racist of the time. That was in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.

The claim set off a firestorm of controversy as several prominent historians arguing both sides began to take shape. Besides the political and war reasons for withholding the end of slavery, Lincoln made a number of outright racist comments during the Douglas Debates in rural Illinois. Comments like: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” He went on to deny the possibility for intermarriage, blacks to public office, and suggested separation was the best possible outcome.

Today the belief by most historians is that Lincoln was a realist. Many of his decisions while President were motivated by aiding the Union war effort and reuniting the country as whole. They see him shaped and melded by the Radical Republicans of his party. And they recognize that many of his efforts to end slavery and granted citizenship to blacks were revolutionary and hardly necessary for the president.


Abraham Lincoln was Homosexual

One of the most important jobs for historians is to teach subsequent generations of what life was like before them.  As we are further removed from that time it becomes more difficult. In Lincoln’s time, men slept with other grown men when it was feasible. Beds were expensive and it was impractical for Lincoln to have attempted to rent his own room and own bed in rural Illinois in the 1840s.

So when Joshua Speed offered Lincoln a room to rent it was Joshua’s room that they shared. On the lawyer’s circuit, the traveling band along with the judges shared a room and bed because they could rarely find an establishment in backwoods Illinois equipped like a hotel is today. It took time for many of these communities to populate themselves and commerce was slow to adjust. Fortunately for the judge, he was so large and overweight, he had his own bed.

Besides sleeping together, those who believe Lincoln was homosexual, cite the many ‘love letters’ exchanged between Lincoln and Speed as evidence of an erotic relationship. In Lincoln’s age it was not uncommon for two men to have shared such an intimate relationship that was not based on eroticism or sexual attraction. Writing to each other in eloquence, respect, and a desire to see a friend again were quite common. Expressing it through letters was nothing to be ashamed of.


Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed all Slaves

The accuracy to which Lincoln’s achievements are  taught in primary and secondary schools is haphazard, with this topic perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly taught. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Confederacy to be free. It did not actually make them free. That required a slave owner to acknowledge the proclamation as law. Border States such as Lincoln’s home state of Kentucky were not necessarily required to follow the new Proclamation, nor were Union states and territories like Maryland or Washington, D.C.

The Proclamation set a precedent though. Lincoln took a gamble in making it public after months of drafts and consultation with his cabinet. He wanted to only release it upon high Union morale and only when he could sell it both as the right thing to do, but also as a way to help win the war. It nullified the Fugitive Slave Act which required northerners to return runaway slaves to their masters and allowed the Union to prevent slaves from assisting the Confederacy on the battlefield with supplies and chores vital to their efforts.

Even more important to teach was that not all of America rejoiced at The Emancipation Proclamation. One more egregious error taught in our schools is that all of the North was in unison in opposition to slavery. After Lincoln’s announcement many families began to question what their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting for. Certainly they would not fight for African Americans, who experienced segregation and black codes – prohibitive living and working laws – in big cities across the North.


Scott M. Hopkins is a personal property appraiser focusing on numismatics. Do you have a rare coin at home that you believe might make you rich? Send Scott a message on his website. He will give you a thorough understanding of what to do with your rare coins.










When Bram Stoker wrote his novel ‘Dracula’ in 1897, he probably never imagined the impact his work would have on popular culture. If the book had not been written, the vampire myth would, in all likelihood, never have grown as big as it is today. But was there anything in it in the first place – or was it all just the product of a rich imagination?

Lucille Turner, author of ‘The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer’ explains all.

An image from the 1958 film version of Dracula. Available here.

An image from the 1958 film version of Dracula. Available here.

It is easy to forget that Count Dracula was in fact a real man. He lived in Wallachia, present-day Romania, in the fifteenth century, and his name was Vlad Dracula.

The name Dracula means, ‘son of Dracul’, and it was attributed to Vlad as one of at least three children born to Vlad Dracul the father. His mother is said to have died giving birth to him in 1431. His childhood was spent with his two brothers first in Sighisoara then in Targoviste from where his father ruled as Prince. So, was the family really a band of blood sucking fiends? It is true that reports exist that Vlad Dracula (the son) became a tyrant once he took the throne of Wallachia, and that he not only tortured his enemies by impalement, but also drank their blood. However, such accounts should be considered carefully before they are believed. The Dracul family had enemies, plenty of them. Saxon merchants from the north of the country may have taken pleasure in slurring the reputation of a man whose political opinions did not always coincide with their own. Such things are done all the time, and are still being done. Nevertheless Vlad Dracula probably did, at one point in his life, allow his darker side to get the better of him, and he was certainly no saint. He was also said to have been afflicted by a number of mysterious illnesses, which later came to be associated with the vampire persona. He may have been prone to seizures for instance, and could even have had a skin condition that made him allergic to daylight.

The turning point in his life certainly came when he was taken hostage by the Ottoman Turks in return for his father’s fealty. Already the Dracul family was caught between a rock and a hard place politically. The Holy Roman Empire in the north was exerting pressure on them through the Hungarians, who feared that the Ottoman armies were engulfing too many Balkan countries and fast becoming a threat to the rest of Europe. And to the south, the Ottoman Turks were likewise tightening the screws. Vlad Dracula’s father must have found himself in an impossibly tight corner, and the fact is that in the end it cost him not only the lives of his sons, but his own life too. His eldest son, Mircea, was murdered, and he never saw his other two boys again, since they were only released upon his death. Perhaps the Dracul family might be better remembered as martyrs than as vampires?

A sixteenth century painting of Vlad the Impaler.

A sixteenth century painting of Vlad the Impaler.

Romanian folklore

That as it may be, they may not have been the only inspiration for Stoker, for there was plenty of other material to be found, which connected Romania to the myth of the vampire.

Romanian folklore is infused with the cult of the dead. Rituals and superstitions were, at one time, endemic in the region once known as Wallachia. Transylvania lay just on the edge of it, to the north. The belief in vampires, or strigois, as they were known, was common. These pagan beliefs go back a long way. The history of Wallachia includes the history of the Goths, and the Getae who once lived on the shores of the Black Sea. There are many legends and tales that emerge from these shores, notably connections with the wolf men of the Goths, and the ‘twice-born’ of the Getae. The myth of resurrection crops up too in the folklore, in the form of a demi-god called Zalmoxis.

Zalmoxis, Herodotus writes, was a man who became a god. Thought dead, he emerged again as living, spreading awe among his people. Such tales of resurrection are really quite widespread, although they do not always endure. Perhaps some cultures are more disposed than others to take them on board. The Persians gave report of resurrected beings in their art. To the Indians they were ghouls, returning after death to feed on the living. Only when the Christian Church emerged was the vampire myth taken by the throat. The Church used it as a warning, and made the vampire a symbol of evil. But was it one, really?



A Legacy of Hope and Fear

While he was holidaying on the Yorkshire coast of Britain sometime before 1897, Stoker discovered Whitby Abbey and the churchyard with its ruins and its bats. He is said to have visited Whitby’s library, where he fell upon some books about Wallachia and Transylvania. Perhaps it was these books that inspired him to create his infamous fictional character, Count Dracula, from a real historical figure. But whatever the inspiration, Stoker opened a door on a history that had almost been forgotten. Now he would immortalize it in such a way that it would cause a public sensation. The book became a bestseller, with its daring claim of the existence of vampires.

Some fans of history believe that Bram Stoker has a good deal to answer for in having breathed life into the vampire through his novel, ‘Dracula’. By setting his novel in Romania and using the name of Dracula, the genesis of the vampire appeared to come from a real historical figure, but of course Stoker was not really responsible for the myth of the vampire. Vampires are much older than Stoker’s book; they have been around for centuries in one form or another. Even so, although many cultures relate stories of vampire-type figures, it is in Romania that the historical vampire has made its deepest mark.

The association of the Dracula name with the vampire character has become so entrenched in Romania that ‘Dracula’ tours of Vlad the Impaler’s haunts are on offer for tourists and lovers of horror fiction. However, and paradoxically, Vlad Dracula is nevertheless perceived as a national hero in his home country. Which then, is the real Dracula, the hero or the villain, the good guy or the bad?


In the end, it is hard to say exactly why the belief in strigois and the myth of the vampire was so persistent, and why it continues to exist even today. One explanation is that the myth of resurrection gives people hope. The need to believe in life after death, regardless of the form it takes, is strong. And when this need is combined with the fear of the unknown, the myth gains a power that is almost intuitive. The sinful associations that Stoker attributes to his vampire, Count Dracula, are partly typical of the time in which he lived, and partly typical of the way the vampire myth evolved, under the influence of the Christian Church. But the folklore of the Black Sea region, where the vampire myth is most prevalent, does not necessarily paint the vampire as a villain or a figure of sinfulness, but rather as a victim, an unredeemable soul condemned to a second life of despair. The strigoi thus becomes a symbol of our deepest, darkest fears. When Stoker wrote his novel, perhaps what he was really doing was tapping into a well of anxiety almost as eternal as the vampire itself.


Lucille Turner is the author of the historical novel ‘The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer’ which brings to life the character of Vlad Dracula and gives historical context to the powerful Dracula myths. Available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

About the book

1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.

When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?

‘The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer’ weaves a web of intrigue in a world that will divide forever. As Eastern Europe struggles against the tide of a Muslim advance it cannot counter, Western Christendom needs only one prize to overthrow its enemies – the ancient scrolls of the library of Constantinople.


The Author

Lucille Turner has a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature and has worked as a translator, journalist and teacher.

A fan of Big History and Ancient Mythology, Lucille is inspired by myth and folklore in her writing. Fascinated by the real icons of history and legend in her works she sets out to breathe life into key historical characters.

She divides her time between Bournemouth, UK and Nice, France and blogs about historical fiction at www.lucilleturner.com.

Lucille’s first novel, ‘Gioconda’, about the life of Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, was published by Granta Books in 2011. It won the Hislibris prize for historical fiction and was translated into several languages.

‘The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer’ is her second novel. A visit to Istanbul and the chance discovery of a book on Romanian folklore brought the two inspirations for her new book together.


RRP: $19.99/£16.99

ISBN: 9781527202061

Lucille’s website: http://www.lucilleturner.com/

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

The word ‘Ninja’ has interesting connotations in most Western countries; however, Ninjas have a long and fascinating history as secret agents or mercenaries in Japan. Here, Captain Max Virtus (aka Adrian Burrows) returns to the site and, in a light-hearted way, tells us what you don’t know about Ninjas…

PS – Max has just released a new book, Escapades in Bizarrchaeology (Amazon US | Amazon UK).

Ogata Shuma (later Jiraiya) raising his sword to kill a python attacking a large toad, Jiraiya is portrayed as being a ninja. From mid-19th century Japan.

Ogata Shuma (later Jiraiya) raising his sword to kill a python attacking a large toad, Jiraiya is portrayed as being a ninja. From mid-19th century Japan.

Everyone loves a Ninja! I know that I, Captain Max Virtus, and the rest of planet Earth certainly do. But what do we really know about those Shinobi?

Not a lot. And what we do know is usually wrong. And what we don't know is mostly right.

The problem is that information is scarce due to Ninjas being so mysterious and secretive. Which was the whole point - after all they were the feudal Japanese equivalent of a Secret Agent. Each Shinobi was trained in espionage, sabotage, infiltration and assassination (although not necessarily in that order). Ninjas saw most activity during the Sengoku (or Warring States) period of Japan in the 15th century, which is when local lords vied for power and land, but had pretty much ceased to exist by the 17th century when Japan was unified. They were at the height of their powers for approximately 200 years, a drop in the historical ocean, yet we still fondly remember them today.

Now thanks to my warehouse of Bizarrchaeology, I have learnt a great deal about the ways of the Ninja. Sure, they more than likely spent a lot of time doing the things you would expect a ninja to do; setting explosives, tree climbing, making poisons, throwing shuriken and eating pizza in their sewer layer. But what are some things that you don't know about Ninjas? Glad I asked myself that question!


Ninjas love Cricket(s)

As I discovered when trying to sneak up on an owl whilst covered in bells (don't ask, I've set myself some fairly strange and highly unnecessary challenges during my time as a Captain of Bizarrchaeology) even the stealthiest of Ninja's footsteps can be heard. The best way to avoid this? Simple, bring a box of crickets with you wherever you go. Those chirp chirping chappies are heard throughout Japan, so a roaming Samurai won't be alerted by hearing their familiar stridulation (that’s a fancy word for chirp but seeing as I had already used the word chirp in the previous sentence, I thought I had better use a different word. I wouldn't want to type chirp again now would I?). A skilful Ninja can release the crickets from their containment into the wild and then continue with their sneaking, safe in the knowledge that they will not be heard.

A (possibly) Stridulating Cricket. Is it just me or would giant Crickets be freakin' terrifying? Let's all just take 12 minutes and 32 seconds out of our day and think about that. Available: here.

A (possibly) Stridulating Cricket. Is it just me or would giant Crickets be freakin' terrifying? Let's all just take 12 minutes and 32 seconds out of our day and think about that. Available: here.

Ninjas had fake feet

It makes sense, after all, the last thing you want that roaming Samurai to notice is a trail of footprints belonging to a highly skilled and deadly ninja. So instead Ninja footwear would have 'ashiaro' (fake footprints) affixed upon them, making it appear that the feet belonged to an elderly woman or a young child rather than a trained Ninja carrying a deadly Kunai (which was actually a simple gardening tool, it's going to look much less suspicious if a Ninja is caught carrying some hedge clippers rather than a skull split-tingly sharp Katana and a yumi long bow). In actual fact, Ninjas rarely used the weapons that you'd expect them to.


Real Ninjas don't wear Black

Yes, I know, I was shocked and saddened by this discovery too. When I think of a Ninja I like to imagine a man of shadow, clad in the distinctive Shinobi Shizoku, dressed from head to toe in an awesome looking black onesie of death (or a giant mutant turtle, either or). But that is exactly the point - the last thing a secretive Ninja would want is to LOOK like a secretive Ninja. Instead a Ninja should look like everyone else.

What would a Ninja have most likely worn? I’m glad you asked. A loose fitting Gappa travel cape that conceals light armour worn in layers beneath it (loose parts of the clothing would be tied with rope to prevent the total embarrassment of tripping out of a tree and ending up incapacitated in front of a startled would be victim). It's still worth wearing dark colours though, the last thing you would want is a red blood stain on your chest for everyone to see.

So there you have it, several things that you probably didn't know about Ninjas. Whilst reading this escapade you have also discovered how you can be a Ninja. Because the best way to be a real Ninja is to be absolutely nothing like a real Ninja. After all that is exactly what a real Ninja would do.


We do hope you enjoyed the article! You can read another of Max’s articles on the three most bizarre tanks ever here. You can also read Max’s new book Escapades in Bizarrchaeology: The Journals of Captain Max Virtus - available in both print and electronically.


Blurb on Escapades in Bizarrchaeology

The History Book For People Who Don't Like History - Yet!

Captain Max Virtus has spent his life Excavating the Extraordinary and Unearthing the Unusual. Gathering the history of the Bizarre to exhibit in his Warehouse of Bizarrchaeology.

Now you have the opportunity to take a guided tour of his life's work, in this, his personal journal.

Discover why bats were used as bombs, how an emu can defeat a tank, the reason why guns were installed in cemeteries ... and how you can get shot with an arrow ... and survive.

All this ... and then things get really weird!

Take History To The Max.

Book available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post