Browsing well-stocked libraries is a booklover’s delight and one many of us are missing while our public library’s shelves remain inaccessible due to COVID-19. Fortunately for me, my own library is large and varied enough to always reward a bit of scouting around, and that’s how thumbing through Thomas Craughwell’s “Do Blue Bedsheets Bring Babies: The Truth Behind Old Wives Tales” led to ritual child sacrificing, political hack jobs, and one particular hacking wherein Jean-Paul Marat, a leading figure in the Terror spawned by the French Revolution, was assassinated by a nice lady.
Craughwell designates his wives’ tales veracity from False to True using a gas gauge-like meter. For example, “A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s” is absolutely false, since “a dog’s mouth is not only his washcloth but his toilet paper.” As for those blue bedsheets, some old Mexican wives claim that blue bedsheets enhance bridegrooms’ virility, and they’re not entirely wrong. Apparently, people make up their minds on products and settings within 90 seconds, “and consumers base anywhere between 62 percent and 90 percent of their judgment on color.” He said famed color company Pantone “has known for decades that the most effective posters, flyers, advertisements, etc. are printed in black on a yellow background” since tests show that combination is the most legible, attractive, and memorable. Patients have a higher tolerance for pain and stress in rooms painted green, and fast food restaurants often employ red, orange, and yellow decors because “such ‘hot’ colors somehow prompt people to eat more quickly.” Moreover, “color researchers have found that blue can decrease the heart rate and have a calming effect. And a bridegroom who is calm and confident rather than tense and over-eager is likely to perform better.”
The tale that severed heads stay alive for several minutes after decapitation is also false, despite the experience of Charlotte Corday, Marat’s assassin. She blamed Marat for the Reign of Terror, much of it incited by violent Jacobites at Marat’s urgings. Corday became politically aware when she was a young girl and her mother died. Her dad couldn’t handle his grief and so packed her off to the Abbaye aux Dames convent where she was allowed to browse the library where she encountered Plutarch, Rousseau, and Voltaire. Corday joined the less extreme Girondins Revolutionists, who were for revolution but not to Marat’s and the Jacobin’s extent.
Corday believed Marat was perverting the Revolution and his death would end the national violence, and bought a six-inch kitchen knife, intending to assassinate Marat in front of the National Convention, of which he was a member. However, he was suffering from dermatitis herpetiformis, a blistering skin condition similar to herpes, so she encountered him soaking in his bath, where he sought comfort from the painful itching. She completely alleviated that concern with one swift stab and was immediately arrested and interrogated by outraged Jacobite officials. She wrote to her attorney to defend her, but the letter was purposely delayed by politicians, just like in our country, and she died four days after killing Marat, via a guillotine.
An ardent revolutionary carpenter who’d been repairing her guillotine “lifted her head from the basket and slapped it. Witnesses reported an expression of ‘unequivocal indignation’ on her face when she was slapped.” The executioner was also indignant and had the carpenter imprisoned for three months. She might have been more outraged to know her corpse would be dissected to see if she was a virgin (she was). However, Craughwell assures us that death by guillotine is instant, with the enormous blood loss causing a massive blood pressure drop, unconsciousness, and death, so survival’s sometimes possible for a few seconds, but not even one minute. Beginning in 1793, the year of Marat’s and Corday’s death, the Revolutionary Tribunal issued 16,594 death warrants, 10,000 of which slowly died in prison. Dr. Antoine Louis Guillotine invented his contraption for humanitarian reasons, because “He and the leaders of the Revolution were determined to have a mode of capital punishment in keeping with the principals of the Age of Enlightenment.”
Nonetheless, his name was forever linked with horror, like Humphrey Bogart’s name is linked to greed, Herbert Hoover’s to parsimony (“ to Hooverize”), and the Carthaginian god Moloch’s to ritual child sacrifice. Poor Moloch was accused of requiring child sacrifices when a 1962 archeologist found the bones of children and animals in a Moloch shrine in Carthage. Later tests determined that the children died of natural causes and the animals were sacrificed in their honor.
Gerrymandering, “a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries,” is something we know about in Alaska, where my voting district was recently stretched from Fairbanks to the Pacific until that was ruled unconstitutional. Gerrymandering’s named after Elbridge Gerry, the 1812 Massachusetts governor, who devised twisted, convoluted voting districts that rival those of the Alaska Redistricting Board. It’s an evil practice, and an informed citizenry’s needed to thwart it. The most reliable source of current, well-rounded information is still our public library, with its vast wealth of online magazines, newspapers, and books. As English poet Walter Savage Landor, noted, “Nothing is pleasanter than exploring a library.”