When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

When Grandpa Was a Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

A Popular History of the 20th Century

Poisoners Fictional And Non-Fictional

Solicitor and poisoner Herbert Armstrong

Solicitor and poisoner Herbert Armstrong

1921: Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, went on sale in Britain at the beginning of February. While readers puzzled over the identity of the poisoner in rural Essex, a second poisoner was active on the other side of the country, only this one wasn’t fictional.

Herbert Armstrong, a solicitor, thought he could resolve his personal and business problems by getting rid of his overbearing wife and an overly successful professional rival.

Katherine Armstrong died in agony at the end of February from what was initially thought to be gastritis. A few months later, the solicitor Oswald Martin became violently ill after taking tea with Armstrong, but survived (“Excuse fingers,” said Armstrong, as he passed Martin a poisoned scone).

Hercule Poirot was not on hand to solve these cases, but with the help of the forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, arsenical poisoning was shown to have taken place, the arsenic was linked to Armstrong, and Armstrong was convicted of murder and executed.

Source: Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics: How Sir Bernard Spilsbury Invented Modern CSI (2009), pp. 98–118

Miss Hoity-Toity

1920: Looking back on the 1920s, Loelia, Lady Lindsay, the former Duchess of Westminster, recalled the tremendous snobbery. “If you had danced with a man the night before and had found out that he was socially inferior . . . the following day you would just look through him.”

Source: Roy Strong, The Roy Strong Diaries 1967–1987 (1997), pp. 55–6

Village Revelry Comes To Unhappy End

1919: That summer, Patrick Leigh Fermor was staying in the Northamptonshire countryside. On 18 June, he joined celebrations to mark the end of hostilities. He was only four, but the day stuck in his memory.

In late afternoon, the villagers lay on the grass in a meadow and sang “Keep the home-fires burning” and “The only girl in the world”. After dark, they lit an enormous bonfire, surmounted by a straw dummy of the kaiser. Everyone joined hands and danced by the light of the fire and cheered when the flames reached the dummy; boys scampered in and out of the crowd, waving sparklers and lobbing bangers.

The celebrations came to an unhappy end, however. One of the boys capered about with his head thrown back and a Roman candle in his mouth. The firework slipped between his teeth and down his throat. The grown-ups rushed him to a nearby brook, but it was too late, and he died in agony, “spitting stars”.

Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), pp. 35–7

Jeanie’s In Trouble

Marie Stopes commemorated on a British postage stamp in 2008

Marie Stopes commemorated on a British postage stamp in 2008

1918: Married Love was a runaway success. The book sold 2,000 copies within a fortnight and by the end of 1918 had been reprinted five times. Together with later works, it made the name of Marie Stopes synonymous with birth control, so much so that in backstreets and school playgrounds, children skipped to the chant of:
Jeanie, Jeanie, full of hopes,
Read a book by Marie Stopes.
Now, to judge by her condition,
She must have read the wrong edition.

Source: Ruth Hall, Marie Stopes: A Biography (1977), p. 5

Longer Lashes

Poster for D.W. Griffith's film Intolerance

Poster for D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance

1916: False eyelashes were created for the role of Princess Beloved in the film Intolerance. Seena Owen played the princess, and the film’s director, D.W. Griffith, wanted her lashes to be long enough to brush her cheeks.

Source: www.gildasattic.com/intol.html

“Such Were The Joys”

1915: The future golfing journalist and broadcaster Henry Longhurst was six years old in 1915, and in the autumn he was sent to prep school in Sussex. In his memoirs, he gave St. Cyprian’s high marks, though he winced at “the cold pewter bowls of porridge with the thick slimy lumps, into which I was actually sick one day and made to stand at a side table and eat it up”.

Source: Henry Longhurst, My Life and Soft Times (1971), p. 27

Dastardly Dachshund

1914: Some Britons marked the outbreak of war with loutish displays of anti-German feeling. Graham Greene reported that a dachshund was stoned in the high street of his hometown. (Would the attackers have been quite so brave if, instead, the dog had been a Dobermann pinscher?)

Source: Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (1971), p. 64

Labouring In London

1913: Before he adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, and several decades before he became the leader of North Vietnam, Nguyen Tat Thanh spent time in London. His first job was in a school, sweeping snow. “I sweated all over and yet my hands and my feet were freezing.”

Source: William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life (2000), p. 51

“Getting Weaker . . . And The End Cannot Be Far”

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, photographed by Herbert Ponting in 1911

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, photographed by Herbert Ponting in 1911

1912: Trapped in their tent by an Antarctic blizzard, Captain Robert Scott and his two surviving companions, Edward “Uncle Bill” Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers, huddled in their sleeping bags. Although they were only 18 kilometres from a depot of food and fuel, they couldn’t set out until the snow eased, but the snow was unrelenting.

As the men’s strength ebbed, their chances of survival dimmed, and then vanished. On 29 March, Scott managed a few lines in his journal: “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.”

Eight months later, a search party found their tent. Inside were the frozen bodies of the three men. Scott’s journals lay beneath his arm. When the searchers tried to raise the arm, it snapped with a noise “like a pistol shot”.

Source: Robert Falcon Scott, Scott’s Last Journey, ed. Peter King (1999), pp. 7, 176

Dodgy Arithmetic

Portrait of Archbishop Ussher by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen, 1641

Portrait of James Ussher by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen, 1641

1910: By totting up the ages at which the Old Testament patriarchs begat their children, the 17th-century biblical scholar James Ussher arrived at a date for the Creation: 4004 B.C. Archbishop Ussher’s precise calculation was widely accepted and for two centuries his date appeared in the margins of bibles alongside the opening verse of Genesis. Despite the scientific advances of the 19th century, it didn’t disappear from Oxford University Press bibles until 1910.

Source: J.F. Kirkaldy, Geological Time (1971), p. 5

Australian Rabbits Outfox Fences

1907: In 1859, Thomas Austin released two dozen rabbits on his farm near Geelong in eastern Australia. “A few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting,” he suggested. Austin’s “few rabbits” quickly multiplied to become millions, which destroyed crops and pasture and contributed to the extinction or major decline of several native animal and plant species.

Hunting, trapping and poisoning failed to contain the pests. Western Australia constructed 3,200 kilometres of wire mesh barriers – the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Rabbit Proof Fences – but by the time they were completed in 1907, rabbits had already got round, over, under or through them.

Source: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/43156/20040709-0000/agspsrv34.agric.wa.gov.au/programs/app/barrier/history.htm

Boundary rider’s team at the 100 mile No. 1 fence in Western Australia in 1926

Boundary rider’s team alongside the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence in Western Australia in 1926

Trotsky At Work And At Play

Leon Trotsky in exile in Siberia in 1900

Leon Trotsky during exile in Siberia in 1900

1906: “It was so quiet there, so eventless, so perfect for intellectual work.” The contented scholar was Leon Trotsky and the idyllic location was the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, where Trotsky had been incarcerated. He joked, “I sit and work and feel perfectly sure that I can’t be arrested” – an important consideration for a career revolutionary.

When he was transferred from solitary confinement, he admitted that it was “with a tinge of regret”. In contrast, the House of Preliminary Detention was crowded and bustling, but pleasant in a different way. “The cells were not locked during the day, and we could take our walks all together. For hours at a time we would go into raptures over playing leap-frog.”

Source: Leon Trotsky, My Life: The Rise and Fall of a Dictator (1930), pp. 164–5

Baby’s First Memory

1905: Graham Greene’s first memory was of “a dead dog at the bottom of my pram; it had been run over at a country crossroads . . . and the nurse put it at the bottom of the pram and pushed me home.”

Source: Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps (1981), p. 36

And In Third Place . . .

Poster for the St Louis Olympic Games

Poster for the St. Louis Summer Olympics

1904: The bronze medal in the lacrosse competition at the St. Louis Olympic Games was won by a team of Mohawk Indians, representing Canada. The team lineup included Almighty Voice, Snake Eater, Rain in Face and Man Afraid Soap.

Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 1159

Rough Justice

1903: Rather than condemn lynchings outright, The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper, contended that they should be judged on their individual merits. It was acceptable, for example, to lynch a black rapist, but wrong to lynch a black person who refused to be vaccinated.

Source: Thomas Harrison Baker, The Memphis Commercial Appeal: The History of a Southern Newspaper (1971), p. 206

Roosevelt’s Lithp

1902: “Dearest Mama . . . After lunch I went to the dentist, and am now minus my front tooth,” wrote Harvard undergraduate Franklin Roosevelt on 19 May. “He cut it off very neatly and painlessly, took impressions of the root and space, and is having the porcelain tip baked. I hope to have it put on next Friday, and in the meantime I shall avoid all society, as I talk with a lithp and look like a thight.”

One week later: “My tooth is no longer a dream, it is an accomplished fact. It was put in on Friday and is perfect in form, color, lustre, texture, etc. I feel like a new person and have already been proposed to by three girls.”

Source: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The Roosevelt Letters: Being the Personal Correspondence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Early Years (1887–1904), ed. Elliott Roosevelt (1949), pp. 408–9

Strutting Its Stuff

1900: Can worms strut? Apparently so. At his brother’s funeral, the author Jules Renard observed a fat worm at the graveside (“un gros ver au bord”) strutting about, looking very pleased with things (“on dirait qu’il se réjouit, qu’il se pavane”).

Source: Jules Renard, Journal 1887–1910 (1990), p. 447


Illustration by Benjamin Rabier in Jules Renard’s Histoires Naturelles (1909)