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12 Feats of Strength from an 18th-Century Strongman

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In the early 18th century, traveling performers used trickery and manipulations of leverage to perform impressive-looking "feats of strength." These weren't real strongmen, per se, but rather normal dudes who had a slightly above-average understanding of physics. This all changed with Thomas Topham, a British man who managed to perform the feats without any shenanigans.

Topham lacked the craft or knowledge of the aforementioned "strongmen," but he was able to meet or exceed their feats due to his abnormal and actual super-strength. One notable exception was when he tried to pull against two horses. "Ignorant of the method, he seated himself on the ground with his feet against two stirrups, and by the weight of his body he succeeded in pulling against a single horse; but in attempting to pull against two horses, he was lifted out of his place and, one of his knees was shattered against the stirrups."

Because of this accident, Topham walked with a limp. He also stood an unassuming 5'10", so he hardly fit the profile of the world's strongest man. When he applied to perform his act in Devon, a local politician "requested him to strip, that he might examine whether he was made like them...[Topham] was found to be extremely muscular. What were hollows under the arms and hams of others, were filled up with ligaments in him."

Topham was said to have done the following during his performances:

1. "Roll[ed] up a pewter dish of seven pounds as a man rolls up a sheet of paper."

2. "[Held] a pewter quart at an arm’s length, and squeez[ed] the sides together like an egg-shell."

3. "Lift[ed] two hundred weight with his little finger, and mov[ed] it gently over his head."

4. "Broke a rope fastened to the floor, that would sustain twenty hundred weight."

5. "His head being laid on one chair, and his feet on another, four people (fourteen stone each) sat upon his body, which he heaved at pleasure."

6. "He struck a round bar of iron, one inch diameter, against his naked arm, and at one stroke bent it like a bow."

7. "Having laid seven or eight short and strong pieces of tobacco-pipe on the first and third fingers, he broke them my the force of his middle finger."

8. "He broke the bowl of strong tobacco-pipe placed between his first and third fingers, by pressing his fingers together sideways."

9. "Having thrust a bowl under his garter, his legs being bent, he broke it to pieces by the tendons of his hams, without altering the bending of his leg."

10. "Dr. Desaguliers saw him lift a rolling stone of about 800 pounds’ weight with his hands only, standing in a frame above it and taking told of a frame fastened to it."

11. "Taking a [fire] poker, and holding the ends of it in his hands, and the middle against the back of his neck, he brought both ends of it together before him, and then pulled it almost straight again."

12. "He took Mr. Chambers, Vicar of All Saints, who weighed twenty-seven stone, and raised him with one hand."

(It should be noted that twenty-seven stone is 378 lbs. It seems that Mr. Chambers was the Vicar of All-You-Can-Eat, as well.)

All those feats were part of his act, but, while living his normal life in Islington, observers had seen Topham display his power by "breaking a broomstick of the first magnitude by striking it against his bare arm, lifting two hogs-heads of water, heaving his horse over the turnpike gate," and "carrying the beam of a house as a soldier carries his firelock."

Oh, and he also loved to sing. "I heard him sing a solo to the organ in St. Werburgh’s church," said one party, "though he might perform with judgment, yet the voice, more terrible than sweet, scarcely seemed human."

[Sources: The Spirit of the English Magazines; American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, Volume 3]

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Hamilton Broadway
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.


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