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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
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7 Bizarre Ways Kids Entertained Themselves Before Video Games

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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