How To: Destroy History

Hide It
Although widely beloved as a sort of satirical Santa Claus today, any rational look at the biography of Mark Twain would reveal a very different man. The real Mark Twain was more often depressed than jolly, more bitter curmudgeon than wacky old coot. Then there was the atheism, the temper, and, oh yeah, the fact that he spent his later years surrounded by a flock of adoring underage girls. That last bit wasn't as bad as it sounds. The girls were always chaperoned and, apparently, the whole thing was on the up and up. But the pictures still look sufficiently suspicious that Twain's daughter, Clara Clemens Samossoud, kept them out of the public eye as long as she was alive. And that wasn't all she censored. Clemens Samossoud also forbade the publication of two of Twain's later books—Letters from the Earth and The Autobiography of Mark Twain. The former, a novel written as a series of letters from Satan to various Archangels, wasn't published until 1962. Around the same time, Clemens Samossoud approved the publication of five never-before-seen chapters she'd had cut from the Autobiography when it was originally published in the 1930s. What brought on the sudden change of heart? A New York Times story from that fateful year reported that Twain's daughter was probably attempting to silence Soviet literary critics, who'd attacked her (in particular) and American society (in general) for censoring the books.

Burn It
Really, few historical figures were above leaving behind written material their modern fans might term objectionable. Case in point, George Washington. In George Washington Slept Here, author Karal Ann Marling describes how, in 1925, one of J.P. Morgan's sons used some of his vast inherited wealth to buy up and then destroy several "smutty" letters attributed to our nation's founding father.

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

A Tour of the New York Academy of Medicine's Rare Book Room

The Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine documents the evolution of our medical knowledge. Its books and artifacts are as bizarre as they are fascinating. Read more here.


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