Bizarre Historical Story of the Day

Fellophantians, I thought it would be fun to try and post an interesting and strange history story every day. Loki said he would be willing to help out with this. If you have a story you want to add, please catch us in chat or PM us. Of course, comments on the stories are highly desired!

Today we will talk about Mary Toft!

Mary Toft was an English housewife who in 1726 began to give birth to rabbits. Or rather, parts of rabbits, and even during one expulsion "three legs of a Cat of a Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet: the guts were as a Cat's and in them were three pieces of the Back-Bone of an Eel ..." Her story was that dreaming of animals led to her birthing said animals.

The best part of the story is the credulous response of the medical community of the time. She was first examined by her local doctor, John Howard, and under his observation egested a number animal parts over the course of several days. She was then examined by National St. Andre, a physician to the royal house of George I, and George's personal secretary Samuel Molyneux. St. Andre concluded that the rabbits were formed in her fallopian tubes. Her story became a sensation, and according to Wiki:

"Every creature in town, both men and women, have been to see and feel her: the perpetual emotions, noises and rumblings in her Belly are something prodigious; all the eminent physicians, surgeons and man-midwives in London are there Day and Night to watch her next production."

However, after Mary was brought to London and placed under supervison the births stopped. Then an investigation showed that her husband had been buying up quantities of young rabbits. Finally Mary confessed that after a miscarriage she had placed the creatures in her uterus :wth: in an attempt to gain fame and fortune. Howard and St. Andre were discredited, and Mary was briefly incarcerated before being released, and later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.


Egad, how bad must her cooze have smelled?

And they call Paris an Attention Whore. Geez.

Quote Originally posted by What Exit? View post
And they call Paris an Attention Whore. Geez.
They're two of a kind; Paris's vagina is simply a high-traffic door marked "IN" rather than "OUT."

I'm trying to understand how she avoided taking any infection or ills from this. Somehow I doubt the rabbit or cat parts had their claws carefully trimmed...

Remember - no antibiotics.

Quote Originally posted by OtakuLoki View post
I'm trying to understand how she avoided taking any infection or ills from this. Somehow I doubt the rabbit or cat parts had their claws carefully trimmed...

Remember - no antibiotics.
Yeah, even if the worst stories I've heard about him are true, Richard Gere is a piker by comparison.

Every creature in town, both men and women, have been to see and feel her: the perpetual emotions, noises and rumblings in her Belly are something prodigious; all the eminent physicians, surgeons and man-midwives in London are there Day and Night to watch her next production.
They were crying out for the television back in those days.

This should be on the front page.

Part One

The President’s Desk

If we’re going to find a place for this story to start, it really should be with a discussion of just how miserable it is to try to get past Cape Horn. The two major shipping routes past the southern tip of South American are the Magellanic Straits, and Cape Horn, itself. Both bodies of water are notorious as ship’s graveyards. The Magellanic Straits are bedeviled by harsh and unpredictable currents and winds, and many shoals in a narrow, confined passage. The Drake Passage, south of Cape Horn, trades the hazards of shoals in the narrow passage for the waters of the so-called Furious Fifties, where the waters of the Antarctic Ocean can be whipped into a frenzy by the powerful winds found there, plus icebergs calved from the glaciers in Antarctica.

Cape Horn

Faro Evangelistas at the Western end of the Strait of Magellan.

Either passage was a miserable, dangerous stretch for the ships that had to navigate them to bring goods from the Pacific to Europe. Because of those hazards, and the difficulties that various nations had in trying to set up communities that would be able to provide havens to shipping, there was a desire to find some – any -- other passage.

One temptation was the idea of cutting a channel through the Panamanian Isthmus. However the engineering of cutting such a canal, through some of the most awful terrain anyone could imagine for the work, was frankly beyond the capabilities of even early industrial societies. The French would make a serious attempt beginning in 1881, and continuing for nearly a decade before they gave up after paying a horrible cost in lives and specie.

1898 Photo of the abandoned French cut for the Panama Canal.

For most people, prior to the US effort beginning in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the only reasonable possible alternative to the southern passages was to find a passage north of North America – which became called The Northwest Passage. For hundreds of years, people would search for this semi-mythical passage, at great cost.

As early as 1497, people began searching for a northern route to the riches of the Orient. John Cabot seems to have the distinction of being the first European to be sent specifically to find that route past North America. He is, by no means, the last.

Slow progress was made mapping out the eastern end of the passage, and for a long time explorers and cartographers tried to find where the Sea of Cortez would meet with the Gulf of St. Lawrence to form this fabled passage. Similarly mistaken cartographic answers would be proposed for hundreds of years.

While I don’t want to say that any one nation dominated the age of exploration, the reality is that when talking about the Northwest Passage many of the discoveries made in pursuit of it were the achievements of the Royal Navy. Of course, not all those discoveries were the discoveries that they set out to find.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy found itself possessed of an unparalleled fleet, with a skilled and motivated officer corps, and some of the best seamen in the world. The obvious question was: what to do with this asset, now that it wasn’t needed to contest Napoleon?

One of the answers they chose was to use the Royal Navy to foster exploration, looking for more profitable trade routes, and general knowledge. The voyage of Charles Dickens on the Beagle was just one of the voyages that were fostered by this policy. Other expeditions were sent to explore the shores of the newly found southern continent: Antarctica; others to try to find the Northwest Passage from either the Pacific or Atlantic sides of North America.

In 1845 one of the most extravagantly equipped expeditions set forth under the command of Sir John Franklin. With two ships heavily refitted for Polar conditions, food and stores for three years, and approximately 150 men, they set forth full of high hopes and expectations.

Sir John Franklin

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

To spare the reader uncertainty, I’ll tell you now: This expedition was a complete and utter failure. The reasons for that are many, but can be summed up with several key points. While Sir John Franklin had been involved with various harsh climate expeditions he had a somewhat spotty record with the one’s he’d had leadership positions in, and worse, when he came to choose his officers for the expedition he seems to have been looking more for officers from the right social strata, than he was looking for skilled and experienced men. The one highly experienced officer he did bring along was instead placed simply as captain of one of Franklin’s ships, and third in the chain of command for the expedition as a whole.

The ships Erebus and Terror may have been strengthened for the ice conditions they expected, and outfitted with steam engines to provide heat and locomotion, but they were of experimental designs – not even naval engines proper, but steam locomotives drafted for a new role as ship’s engines. For a number of reasons, they were phenomenally wasteful of coal – and the ships themselves were so packed with supplies they had only limited bunkerage for fuel. By at least one set of calculations I’ve seen, neither ship carried enough coal to keep the boilers lit for the heating they were counting on for the planned three year mission. And Franklin’s surviving letters made it clear he planned to use the engines for locomotion as well as heating. Similarly, both ships were built to the same philosophy as the later Endurance, which was lost on Shackleton’s last expedition: They were strengthened to be able, in theory, to withstand the crushing pressure of the arctic ice. In practice, it is impossible to strengthen any structure to be utterly impervious to the crush of enough ice. That is what sank the Endurance, and that is likely one of the factors for what happened to Erebus and Terror. A more survivable design philosophy would be what was used by Amundsen's Fram: a hull shaped and strengthened to allow the ice to push the ship out of itself, where it would rest upon the ice sheets until the summer thaw.


The final reason for the failure of the Franklin Expedition lies with their provisions. For reasons that are still debated today, the majority of their provisions, provided by a first time victualer, ended up contaminated with lead. What seems to have happened is that the solder used to seal the canned rations had an unacceptable level of lead. I have seen arguments claiming that this was a deliberate choice on the provisioner, and other claims that he was simply the victim of a supplier who filled his orders with a cheaper grade of solder.

In short, the men in the expedition found themselves with inadequate leadership, toxic provisions, aboard ships that lacked sufficient critical supplies to perform their designed tasks, and which were poorly designed for the conditions they actually encountered.

For the details of the expedition, the historical record is sparse. From the service that produced Robert Falcon Scott, who left message cairns nearly every time one of his men farted, the paucity of the messages left behind by the Franklin Expedition is astonishing. All of the searchers have found one message capsule, with a single sheet of paper in it, and with two messages printed upon it, one remarkable only for its banality; and the second to be fraught with unanswered questions, and simply the bare notification of the death of Sir John Franklin. Three graves have also been found at what is presumed to have been the site of Franklin’s first winter anchorage.

Eventually, other remains have been found: Skeletons in ship’s boats having been hauled hundreds of miles south; eclectic collections of books and other luxuries from the officer’s quarters; abandoned piles of canned rations. And most controversial, bones that show signs of having been cut or scraped, consistent with having the meat removed for consumption. Sir Franklin’s widow never accepted the evidence of cannibalism among the remnants of the Expedition, and used her social contacts to try to ruin anyone who did bring that evidence to light, or to argue from that evidence. The consensus among the historians I have read is that the evidence is damned near conclusive.

In the end, not one of Franklin’s men were ever seen again alive. And the few details that are known suggest an utter horror for the dwindling survivors.

A painting inspired by the fate of the Franklin Expedition, titled simply, Man Proposes, God Disposes.

I can hear you, now, asking: "But, wait! What does this have to do with the President’s desk?"

Patience. All will be revealed. (Part 2 to be posted in about 12 – 18 hours)

The President’s Desk, Part 2

When we last left our heroes, they were in dire straits in the far north…

Well, that’s not quite true. When we last left the members of the Franklin Expedition, they were all dead.

However, from the perspective of the Admiralty in London, they were simply out of communication. Since they expected the expedition to be gone for several years, they weren’t particularly surprised to have heard nothing by the end of 1846, for all that Lady Jane Franklin was getting restive. By the end of 1847, with still no word and Lady Franklin pressing that the Admiralty check on the expedition, the Admiralty started to admit some nervousness.

In March of 1848, the Admiralty made plans to send three expeditions to succor Franklin’s men: One coming from the east, following the path that Franklin was presumed to have taken; one coming from the west, around the north of Alaska; and a third, overland expedition to try to find Franklin’s men if they were stuck in the middle of the great unknown spaces of Canada’s uncharted north. Not satisfied with this effort the Admiralty also published a twenty thousand pound reward for anyone who would succor Franklin’s expedition or it’s survivors, and ten thousand pounds for anyone who simply found evidence of their fate.

In my earlier post, I characterized the Franklin expedition as a complete, and unmitigated, disaster. There is one very, very cold-blooded consolation for the men lost: Because of the veritable flood of men and materials heading north, first in an effort to find and succor Franklin’s men, and then later, when all hope for their survival had passed, and the mysteries remained, and people kept trying to gain more clue of what had happened, or what went wrong with the expedition, the Franklin Expedition indirectly caused more of the Canadian north to be visited, explored and mapped that any successful transit of the Northwest Passage would have gained.

As I say, it is a very cold consolation.

The search for Franklin’s expedition would go on for decades. The expeditions by sea would begin in 1850, and continue for years, as ships went north, and came back, either empty-handed, or with stark, and disturbing discoveries, such as the 1850 discovery of three graves from the expedition dated back to its first year, an stunning casualty rate.

In 1852 a new naval expedition was sent forth to continue the search for Franklin’s men. Included in this effort were several exploration ships: HMS Pioneer, Investigator, Intrepid, Assistance, Enterprise, and Resolute. Four of these ships, with the depot ship HMS North Star, went north to Baffin Island, again, to continue the search under the command of Sir Edward Belcher. Two others, Investigator and Enterprise, came east through the Northwest Passage from the Pacific side.

These expeditions were hard on the ships – the crew of Investigator had to abandon ship in 1853, and joined the crew of Resolute, where she was locked in the ice for all of 1853. By 1854, when the spring showed no sign of releasing Resolute from the ice, the crew took down the sails, battened the hatches and abandoned her to the ice, then went overland to join the North Star, and the other expedition ships.

By late 1854 Sir Belcher had given up on even extracting the majority of his ships, let alone making any further discoveries. He ordered the other three exploration ships abandoned, and packed his surviving crew aboard North Star for the trip home. Fortunately, before he could leave, another pair of relief ships showed up at North Star’s anchorage, and so the survivors were transferred among all three ships, and returned to England.

As an afterthought, the Admiralty published that the five ships abandoned in the north were still considered to be part of the Royal Navy and thus unsuited for salvage under admiralty law. Which is where things stood until 1855, when Resolute was found again: this time by the crew of an American Whaler out of New Bedford. The ship was approximately 1200 miles from it’s last reported position, and sound in hull, if tattered in its rigging. Using stores aboard his whaler, and the Resolute, the captain restored the Resolute to seaworthiness, and brought her back to New Bedford harbor with him.

HMS Resolute in an 1856 woodcut

At the time this caused a small diplomatic crisis: The RN still had that official claim for possession of the Resolute, but admiralty law is also clear about the right to salvage for derelict ships. I believe that there were even a few calls to have the captain of the whaler tried for piracy! Even then disputes in international law could get pretty hairy, and the decisions of the courts sitting such cases often were influenced most by the recognition of which country the court was being held in. Fortunately, for all involved, the British government chose to relinquish all claim to Resolute shortly after her arrival in New Bedford, defusing what could have proven to be a messy situation.

Shortly after that, an American, Henry Grinnell, maneuvered through Congress the idea of purchasing Resolute, refitting her as she had been when she originally set forth from London, and returning her to the British, as a gesture of national courtesy. Grinnell, like many others of the time, was fascinated with the fate of the Franklin expedition, and had already funded several search and rescue expeditions of his own to the north.

So, for the sum of $40,000 Resolute was purchased and refitted. No detail was spared in her refitting – when she returned to England she is said to have had copies of all her original fittings, and supplies aboard, to replace any that had been lost, damaged, or used during her adventure in the arctic waters. The ship was presented to Victoria, as a gift from the United States. The gesture is said to have greatly moved Victoria, as did the loving care used in refitting the ship.

In the end, Grinnell’s hopes that Resolute would go north again to continue the search for Franklin and his men were overcome by the news that one of the overland expeditions had found conclusive evidence to indicate that the men of the expedition were all dead.

Resolute was put into service in Canadian waters for the next twenty years, until age, and the changing face of nautical trade caught up with her. She was retired from service in 1878, and sent to the breakers the next year. But, even as the ship was being consigned to the breakers, Queen Victoria remembered the gesture from the American government that had so moved her. She ordered that some of the lumber from the ship be salvaged for a specific purpose: to make a pair of desks.

The first desk, a small woman’s desk, was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell. The other desk was presented to Rutherford Hayes, in his position of President. Since then, only three Presidents, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford, have eschewed the desk for their working desk in the Oval Office.

And so, that’s how the desire to avoid the treacherous waters of Cape Horn lead to the desk that you can see the President sitting behind, here.

That's actually a really cool story! I had no idea that the desk had that kind of history.