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5 Ways to Guarantee a Baby Boy (100 Years Ago)

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If you were serious about producing a male heir around the turn of the 20th century, there was plenty of questionable advice to follow.

1. Science is for the Unimaginative

First, it’s important that we understand how human bodies select gender in reproduction. This is best accomplished through peer-reviewed scientific studies in a clinical environment. Or not. Sometimes you just know in your gut how reproductive microbiology works. Laura Davis, who wrote The Law of Sex Determination and Its Practical Application in 1916, didn’t need egghead science. She learned about ovaries and spermatozoa in the school of life:

The writer is not in a position to furnish absolute verification, through methods of anatomy or physiology, of her theory. She has no laboratories nor methods of precision by which her theory can be directly tested. But she is convinced of its truth from her own extensive experience in its practical application for a period of thirty years.

Argue with that, if you dare. It is through this extensive experience that Davis feels confident to share with you her secret. If you want a boy, it all depends on which ovary you decide to use.

2. Pick an Ovary

According to Davis, "Sex of the embryo in man and the higher animals is determined in the ovary from which the ovum in question is developed." She continued:

In the normal female the ovary of the right side yields ova which on fertilization develop as males, and the ovary of the left side yields ova which are potentially female. To this end the influence of gravitation can be utilized. In order that fertilizing spermatozoa shall reach the right or left ovary, it is necessary that gravity should carry them in the direction desired.

Therefore Davis would counsel women who wanted a boy to lie on their right sides. Percy John McElrath, who wrote The Key to Sex Control in 1911, also believed gravity was important to conception: 

After insemination she should lie for three or four hours on the side of the ovary which matured the ovum; if it is not known which ovary matured the ovum, she should choose the most comfortable side to lie on and remain on that side for five or six hours to assist by gravity the ovum to the fimbriae extremity of the Fallopian tube.

If society—or, say, his own personal sense of professionalism—had permitted Mr. McElrath to actually talk to a female in this era, he might have learned most women are hard-pressed to know “which ovary” they excreted an egg out of. Similarly, Mr. McElrath would be unlikely to know which of his testicles produced the most virile sperm. (Although he had a solution for that, as we shall soon see.)

3. Enfeeble Yourself

Henri Médile Gourrier, writing in 1886, didn’t think gravity or even ovaries mattered when it came to having a son. Gender was determined by whichever parent was the most feeble:

If marked symptoms of debility exist on the side of the sex that is desired, this sex will be produced naturally, without any effort being made.

Therefore, if a man wanted a boy, he must set about handicapping himself with what Gourrier called “The Debilitating Regimen”:

This is the most essential. The food should consist of thin soups, white meats, such as veal, chicken and lamb; mucilaginous articles of diet, such as corn starch and pastries; also vegetables and, in summer, fruits. For drink, in addition to water, weak tea may be taken with the meals. If a person desires to attain a still greater degree of debility, it is necessary to restrict the diet, to perform manual labor, and to bathe frequently in warm water.

So … in the 19th century one “debilitated” oneself by eating lean meats and vegetables, performing physical exercise, and taking warm baths. Somebody needs to tell all those people down at the gym the havoc they are wreaking on their bodies. If they continue that way, extensive bloodletting with an unwashed nail might be the only way for them to regain their health.

If the basic Debilitating Regimen did not result in a son, Gourrier permitted his readers to exercise even harder and then have some wine:

Then, finally, if this course does not suffice, aperient drinks should be taken, and the exercise of the body should be carried to fatigue.

Even better than the above methods was the Disease Method. The absolute best time to conceive a child of your own sex is on the immediate heels of any horrendous illness:

The period of convalescence from acute diseases. It is at such times that the senses and the generative organs, recovering from their somnolence, commence to shake off their inertia, and to come out of their inaptitude; that the fatigued body, that the depressed and enfeebled economy, finds itself in the most favorable condition for generation and for producing its own sex, both at the same time.

So, if you want a son, see if you can catch yourself a stout case of measles or any of the finer poxes. If you survive that, you and your wife are just one half-conscious encounter of life-sapping love away from a son.

4. Don't Blame Dad

Simon Newcomb, writing in 1904, made an earnest effort to reveal the mysteries of sex selection by using the most crafty of all deceits—statistics. His analysis of the birth records from 1900 yielded these conclusions:

Your Body Doesn’t Know What’s Going On, Either
The sex is not absolutely determined at any one moment or by any one act, but is the product of a series of accidental causes, some acting in one direction and some in another, until preponderance in one direction finally determines it. The statistics of twins and triplets seem to show very strongly that these accidents occur after conception, but throw no light upon the question of the time which they occupy.

Dad’s Got Almost Nothing to Do with It
The most natural inference from all the statistical data is that the functions of the father in generation are entirely asexual, the sex being determined wholly by the mother. If so, it cannot be said that one father is more likely than another to have children of either sex.

5. Orgasmic Ruptures!

Percy John McElrath may not have known much about women, but he was sure he knew how to get them produce a son. He believed sons resulted specifically from the intervention of the Graafian follicle in the ovary. You had to rupture it early to get a son, and the best way to do that was a well-timed orgasm.

Male-Production.—The spermatozoon must reach the ovum before it becomes old and female-producing. To do this it is necessary to inseminate at a time when orgasm of the female will rupture the Graafian follicle. Orgasm in the female will probably rupture a follicle from three to five days sooner than it would if allowed to burst of its own accord. It is better not to cohabit after the election date of insemination, inasmuch as orgasm of the female is liable to expel the fertilized ovum before it has become attached to the wall of the uterus.

McElrath’s theory was the opposite of Gourrier's. It was the robustness of a father, not his feebleness, which produced a son, so he gave special instructions to men on how to strengthen themselves. Key factors: potatoes, stay away from women, and flush those testicles daily!

To prepare the male for the production of a fine male child, he should go on a starch diet for two or three months prior to the anticipated insemination, work hard and constantly, remain secluded from the female, see that the clothing is loose about the testicles and that they are not subjected to any pressure just five or six days before the anticipated date of insemination. The semen should be ejected once each day for four or five days before insemination. This will insure the presence of the very best specimens of spermatozoa and at the same time require more activity on the part of the male to reach orgasm and will assist the female to orgasm.

To sum up Mr. McElrath’s approach to gender determination: Avoid women, both before and after conception. They are mythical creatures constantly trembling on the edge of orgasm, able to control their ovulatory system at will. Also, don't forget to masturbate. That way, if you’re lucky, you’ll only have to have sex once to ensure the propagation of the glory of manhood.

It’s important to remember that, for the most part, these people weren’t idiots. They were ambitious and tried to figure out something they didn’t understand with the little information they could collect. In 100 years, our great-great-grandchildren will no doubt be raising eyebrows at us, and how we had no clue most diseases are caused by a chemical secreted by house cats when they get their feelings hurt.

See Also:

7 Tips for Keeping Your Man (from the 1950s)
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Mostly Terrible Advice for Daughters from Dads of Yore
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100-Year-Old Wedding Night Advice for Newlyweds
*
7 Bizarre Ways Kids Entertained Themselves Before Video Games

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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