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World War I Centennial: Wilson Takes The White House

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 42nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 5, 1912: Wilson Takes the White House

There aren’t many times in U.S. history when a candidate for president could take 41.8 percent of the popular vote and have it called a landslide victory, but that’s exactly what happened in the bizarre four-way election of 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson swept to power with considerably less than half the vote.

The election of 1912 occurred in a time of economic, social, and political upheaval. Thanks to high birth rates, an improving standard of living, and massive immigration from Europe, the U.S. population soared from 63 million in 1890 to 76.2 million in 1900 and 95.3 million in 1912, a 51 percent jump in just over two decades (for comparison, from 1990 to 2012, the U.S. population increased 26.5 percent from 248.7 million to 314.7 million).

While the population was growing fast, voting rights were still confined to a relatively small number of Americans. On November 5, 1912, just over 14.8 million American men turned out to vote across the 48 continental United States. Because women and most immigrant non-citizens couldn’t vote in federal elections, and African-Americans were widely prevented from voting by Jim Crow laws or simple intimidation, the participating electorate represented just 15.5 percent of the total U.S. population of 95.3 million in 1912; that compares to a popular vote tally of 43.2 percent of the total population in 2008.

Although activists for women’s suffrage and black civil rights were already demanding reform, gender and race were still mostly background issues in 1912: the most prominent social divisions of the era pitted the city against the countryside, and labor against business. These tensions resulted from rapid, sweeping change and were the source of mounting popular anxiety.

From 1880 to 1910, the United States completed its transition from a mostly agrarian economy, based on farm production, to a mostly industrial economy based on manufacturing. While industry’s share of gross domestic product had been increasing throughout the 19th century, its contribution to GDP passed agriculture’s for the first time in the 1880s. Subsequently farming’s contribution to GDP slipped from around a third in 1890 to a quarter in 1909, while the proportion of the American work force engaged in agricultural work fell from 50 percent in 1870 to 32 percent in 1910, and the share of the population living in rural areas fell from 64.9 percent in 1890 to 54.4 percent in 1910.

Accompanying all these changes was the sense that America’s traditional self-image as a rustic Arcadia was fading, and the countryside was in retreat (as indeed it was in the Northeast, where the number of acres under cultivation fell from 23.5 million in 1900 to 22 million in 1910 and 21.3 million in 1920). This transition also gave rise to growing political tension between urban and rural America. In 1896, for example, William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech calling for free coinage of silver to inflate the money supply and reduce the burden on indebted farmers, even if it hurt big business: “The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day… is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain.”

At the same time there was also growing tension within the cities themselves, as factory workers confronted wealthy industrialists and the government with demands for better pay and working conditions. As the industrial economy expanded, wages often failed to keep pace with the cost of living—although the average yearly income of a factory worker increased from $426 in 1899 to $579 in 1914, this actually represented a 10 percent decline in terms of real purchasing power. Unsurprisingly, labor disputes were commonplace, and around this time they reached a boiling point: According to the New York State Department of Labor, the number of employees involved in strikes and lockouts in New York (the most populous and industrialized state) soared from 23,236 in 1908 to 206,922 in 1910 and 304,301 in 1913.

The presidential election of 1912 reflected all the conflicts at work in a society undergoing rapid transformation. Aggrieved workers were represented by Eugene Debs, a radical socialist who had helped found the “Wobblies” (the Industrial Workers of the World) and already run for president on three previous occasions, in 1900, 1904, and 1908; a fiery speaker, Debs would succeed in attracting 6 percent of the popular vote—the most ever garnered by a Socialist candidate in U.S. history. During the Great War, which few if any foresaw, Debs’ opposition to U.S. involvement would land him in prison. At his sentencing in November 1918, Debs famously declared that “while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Among the mainstream parties, the Republicans were split by former President Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to run again. Roosevelt had fallen out with fellow Republican William Howard Taft, his friend and successor, over a variety of social and economic issues. As the leader of the “progressive” Republicans, Roosevelt wanted to pursue social reforms and improve conditions for industrial workers, which put him on the side of unions; indeed, in October 1912, he declared, “It is essential that there should be organizations of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.” Meanwhile, Taft and the “conservative” Republicans sided with the captains of industry against the unions, which Taft criticized for “lawlessness in labor disputes,” and opposed any further legislation protecting organized labor. There was some common ground, however, as both conservatives and progressives tended to support tariffs to protect American industry.

The split in the Republican Party ended up handing the White House to the Democratic contender, Woodrow Wilson—a professor of political science who previously served as president of Princeton and then governor of New Jersey. In a rancorous national convention, Wilson clinched the Democratic nomination only after receiving the endorsement of William Jennings Bryan, who continued to speak for the interests of American farmers. Wilson’s platform reflected the desires of this rural base, including cotton growers in the Deep South: Like Bryan, he opposed protective tariffs which favored industry at the expense of agriculture, and in 1916 he signed the Federal Farm Loan Act. But he also co-opted the Republicans by adopting key progressive policies, including trust-busting and social reforms.

In the end, the divided Republicans together took 50.6 percent of the popular vote, with 27.4 percent going to the Progressive Teddy Roosevelt and 23.2 percent going to Taft, the actual Republican nominee. Roosevelt won considerably more states, however, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington, and most of California (which could divide its Electoral College votes, as Maine and Nebraska do today), giving him a total 88 votes in the Electoral College; Taft only managed to win Vermont and Utah, giving him a grand total of eight votes in the Electoral College (he even lost his home state of Ohio).

Thus Wilson managed to win a huge victory in the Electoral College despite getting less than half the popular vote. His 41.8 percent of the popular vote translated into victories in 40 out of 48 states, for a whopping 435 votes in the Electoral College.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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