The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

Remains of World War II Soldier From Texas Finally Identified Nearly 75 Years After His Death

Lexey Swall/Getty Images
Lexey Swall/Getty Images

More than 400,000 American service members died in World War II, and decades after the war's end in 1945, more than 72,000 of them remain unaccounted for. As the Associated Press reports, the remains of one World War II soldier who died in battle 74 years ago were recently identified in a Belgian American cemetery.

Private first class army member John W. Hayes, originally from Estelline, Texas, was fighting for the Allied Powers in Belgium in early 1945. According to witnesses, he was killed by an 88mm gun on a German tank on January 4. The military recorded no evidence of his remains being recovered.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a government organization responsible for recovering missing soldiers, suspected that an unidentified body found near the site of Hayes's death and buried in 1948 might be Hayes. In 2018, the agency exhumed the body from a Belgian American military cemetery and analyzed the DNA. Tests confirmed that the grave had indeed been that of John W. Hayes. Now that Hayes has been identified, his body will be transported to Memphis, Texas, and reinterred there on June 19.

Thanks to advances in genetic technology, the government has successfully identified the dozens of World War II military members decades after their deaths. Recently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used DNA analysis to identify 186 of the sailors and marines who perished at Pearl Harbor.

[h/t MyHighPlains.com]

5 Fast Facts about Madam C.J. Walker

 Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During a time when Jim Crow laws were actively being passed by state legislatures and segregation was total, one self-made businesswoman managed to stand out and serve as an inspiration for female entrepreneurs and people of color in America. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867—the sixth child in her family but the first not born into slavery—the future Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of hair products and cosmetics and became likely the first female millionaire in the country. Here are a few quick facts about her historic success story.

1. Madam C.J. Walker first worked as a laundress.

In 1888, the woman who would become Madam C.J. Walker was Sarah McWilliams, a 20-year-old widow with a toddler. After her husband's death, she moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where her elder brothers were working as barbers. To support herself and her daughter, Lelia, she took a job as a washerwoman. She earned roughly $1.50 a day, but managed to save up in order to provide for her daughter's education.

2. Madam C.J. Walker's hair products were made especially for black women.

At the turn of the century, many African Americans suffered from issues of hair loss and dandruff, possibly due to the harsh irritants in the lye soap used by launderers and some combination of poor hygiene conditions, low-protein diets, and damaging hair treatments. Walker herself had a chronic hair-loss problem. According to the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, "if Sarah used the widely distributed patent medicines that were heavily laced with alcohol and other harsh chemicals, [she would only make] the malady worse by stripping her hair of its natural oils."

In 1904, Sarah joined African-American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone's team of agents after using Malone's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" product to treat her own ailments. She began investing in creating her own product, and in 1906 she married her third husband, a Mr. Charles Joseph Walker. Walker launched her own "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" line of ointments and other products and began selling them door-to-door.

3. Madam C.J. Walker created a beauty culture empire.

Once Walker's business was nation-wide and incorporated, she expanded internationally to the Caribbean and Central America in 1913. Within the next few years, she acquired over 25,000 sales agents; she had a beauty school called the Lelia College of Beauty Culture in Pittsburg that trained her "hair culturists." By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at age 51, her business profits had skyrocketed to over $500,000 in sales annually. In fact, products inspired by Walker's can still be purchased today.

4. Madam C.J. Walker's Irvington, New York mansion will soon host more female entrepreneurs.

By the end of her life, Walker had amassed sizable wealth—she's widely considered to be the first self-made female millionaire, though specific numbers are vague. (Her New York Times obituary noted that "Estimates of Mrs. Walker's fortune had run up to $1,000,000 … She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year.") She also had ventures in real estate, and in 1918 her 20,000-square-foot mansion, called Villa Lewaro, was completed in Irvington, New York, about 20 miles north of her famed Walker townhouse in Harlem. In 2018, the estate was purchased by the New Voices Foundation, a group that has invested $100 million into a fund focused on providing support and leadership initiatives to women of color seeking their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Even 100 years after her death, Walker's legacy remains strong.

5. Octavia Spencer is set to play Madam C.J. Walker in an upcoming TV series.

As first reported by Deadline in 2018, Netflix has ordered an eight-episode series about Walker's life and legacy. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is set to star in and produce the series, and LeBron James will serve as an executive producer. While there isn't a firm release date set, the series is certain to be an eye-opening one for those unfamiliar with Walker's incredible story. The show will be based on the 2001 biography by Bundles.

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