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Poincaré Elected President of France

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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 52nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 17, 1913: Poincaré Elected President of France

On January 17, 1913, Raymond Poincaré, a leading conservative politician and the premier and foreign minister of France since January 1912, was elected President of France after a complicated, contentious five-way race, which at times pitted him against his own party and almost saw him involved in not one but two duels.

With the term of President Armand Fallière coming to an end, many French political observers expected Léon Bourgeois, a center-left former prime minister now serving as minister of labor, to win the presidency easily. However Bourgeois, who had struggled with illness since 1904, refused to stand for election, citing his age and declining health. This unexpected withdrawal opened the race wide open, resulting in a political free-for-all.

Poincaré, never slow to seize an opportunity, declared his candidacy just days later, but was immediately challenged from both ends of the political spectrum. From the right came Alexandre Ribot, another former foreign minister and prime minister who had helped forge the all-important alliance with Russia in 1892. From the left came Jules Pams, a progressive Republican serving as agriculture minister, with support from George Clemenceau, a newspaper publisher and leader of the Radical Party. From even further left came the Socialist candidate, Édouard Vaillant, a former member of the Paris Commune with little hope of actually winning.

To make things even more complicated, two other contenders from the center-right also threw their hats in the ring. Paul Deschanel, a member of the Progressivist Republican Party who had famously advocated separation of church and state during the controversy over Catholic control of education around the turn of the century, now served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies. Antonin Dubost, a former journalist and educator respected for his early advocacy of Republican government during the dictatorship of Napoleon III, now served as president of the French Senate.

This complicated presidential race would be decided by an equally complicated, multi-stage balloting procedure in the National Assembly. On January 16, 1913, three preliminary ballots were held, which at one point gave the leftist Pams a slight lead over the conservative Poincaré, with the three other center-right candidates trailing behind. Faced with a possible leftist victory and no hope of clinching the election themselves, Ribot, Deschanel, and Dubost decided to withdraw from the race, leaving Poincaré the de facto choice for center-right Assemblymen.

On January 17, 1913, the Assembly again convened to vote, this time for keeps. Before they could do so, a “Bonapartist” deputy protested that the President of France should be elected by universal suffrage, rather than the votes of Assembly members; meanwhile a lunatic brandishing a revolver was arrested outside the building. Rumors also circulated that Poincaré would be required to fight a duel—or rather, duels—with Clemenceau and Pams over minor points of honor. Nonetheless, voting proceeded with two rounds of balloting, and on the second ballot, Poincaré secured 483 votes against 296 votes for Pams and 69 for Vaillant, giving him the Presidency.

Poincaré’s election was a crucial factor in the lead-up to the First World War for a number of reasons. Poincaré, a native of the lost province of Lorraine, considered Germany the main threat to French national security; indeed, his first statement to the public after winning the presidency was a promise to strengthen the national defenses. And while the French presidency had mostly been viewed as a ceremonial post up to that time, the energetic Poincaré realized that it actually had the potential to confer enormous power through a number of channels, including control of parliamentary procedure, the publicity of the “bully pulpit,” and the appointment of key ministers and officials.

Poincaré didn’t take long to exercise his new power. One of his first moves was to replace the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Georges Louis, with Théophile Delcassé, who shared Poincaré’s view that Germany’s current trajectory posed an existential threat to France. Indeed, during the Second Moroccan Crisis Delcassé had written: “No durable arrangement can be concluded with Germany. Her mentality is such that one can no longer dream of living in lasting peace with her. Paris, London, and St. Petersburg should be convinced that war is, alas! inescapable and that it is necessary to prepare for it without losing a minute.”

Everyone recognized the significance of Delcassé’s appointment to the important position as French envoy to Russia. On February 21, 1913, the Belgian ambassador to France, Baron Guillaume, reported to the Belgian foreign office that “The news that M. Delcassé is shortly to be appointed Ambassador at Petersburg burst like a bomb here yesterday afternoon. … He was one of the architects of the Franco-Russian alliance, and still more so of the Anglo-French entente.” The implications were grasped as far away as Serbia, where the government was rumored to be encouraged by Delcassé’s appointment, because it meant the Russians would feel more confident in confronting Germany, which in turn meant Serbia would have more support from Russia in its own confrontation with Austria-Hungary.

The Serbs weren’t mistaken: On January 29, 1913, the Russian ambassador to France, Izvolsky, sent a secret telegram to the Russian foreign minister, Sazonov, assuring him that Poincaré was strongly sympathetic to Russia, and would support an expanded interpretation of the Franco-Russian alliance, including French support for a more assertive Russian policy in the Balkans. The tangled web of European diplomacy was drawing tighter.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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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).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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