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I finally learned how to chop an onion.

The usual suspect

This last Christmas, hubby told me not to plan anything for Valentine’s Day weekend (which meant that Con DFW was out). Completely unbeknownst to me, he booked us into a cooking class at the Winthrop Rockefeller institute.

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The Rockefeller in that name is the same as in Rockefeller center in New York City. Winthrop Rockefeller was a younger son of John D. Rockefeller JR.  He moved to Arkansas and became a rancher on the advice of an army buddy post WWII. After he passed on, his ranch became an educational facility.

So I got to take a cooking class in an old barn, and had dinner next to an old silo.

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The class is called table for two. In it a master chef demonstrates how to prepare a meal. Then the students go into the lab and prepare the same meal. Then we get to eat the fruits (and vegetables, and meats) of our labors in an elegant candlelit setting (under a silo).

Our meal included bruschetta, creamy Italian chicken soup, bacon wrapped stuffed chicken with Asiago cheese sauce, Italian vegetables, polenta and tiramisu for desert.

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Now, I cook every day. And I think of myself as an advanced amateur. Even so, I learned a thing or two that made the class worth the price, and enduring the waiting list to get in. I sharpened my knife skills, and learned easier ways to chop vegetables and butterfly chicken. And we’ve since made the soup at home.

The tuition includes an overnight stay in the facilities, which are on par with a lot of nice lodge hotels that I’ve stayed in. The next day, after we checked out, we borrowed bycicle a and explored the grounds.

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The institute is on top of Petit Jean Mountain, so the scenery was terrific. There is a working, self-sustaining demonstration farm on the grounds, a lake and a botanical garden.

If this interests you, here is the link to the cooking class information. http://www.rockefellerinstitute.org/educational-programs/culinary

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

The usual suspect

Last week when I was writing about the London Beer Flood, I learned of the most bizarre disaster to occur in US history.

On January 15, 1919, a storage tank along Boston’s waterfront burst, sending a 15 foot high, 160 foot wide wave of molasses rolling through the streets of Boston at a speedy (for molasses) 35 miles per hour. The wave flattened buildings, knocked rails off of a nearby elevated railway, nearly knocked a train car off it’s track, and crushed or drown people, horses and other animals under it’s horrifying, sticky mass.

Background
Molasses (or Treacle, if you happen to be British) is a byproduct from making sugar from sugarcane and sugar beets. It is what makes brown sugar brown. It’s a syrup, as thick as honey and darker than motor oil. In addition to cooking, molasses may be fermented to make ethanol for alcohol or munitions.

These two products were in high demand in the previous years. Munitions for World War I, and alcohol in the lead up to prohibition.

A Rush Job

Just three years prior, Purity Distilling Company had the tank constructed to deal with the massive amounts of molasses moving through their distillery.

At five stories (50 ft. High) and 90 feet in diameter, constructed of seven riveted vertical rows of steel plates that overlapped horizontally, the tank dominated the neighborhood.

The tank was completed just three days ahead of an expected shipment of molasses, leaving no time for the construction company to fill it with water to test for structural weaknesses.

Warning Signs

Neighborhood residents noticed problems with the tank as soon as distillery employees filled it with Molasses. The tank’s overlapping steel plates leaked profusely.

Children playing nearby would scrape the leaks with sticks to make molasses suckers. Adults would collect the leaking molasses in jars to take home.

More ominously, some employees noticed rumbling sounds from within the tank. The distillery had the tank painted brown to hide the leaking.

The Dam (actually the tank) Breaks
At 12:30 pm on January 15th the tank ruptured, spilling 2.3 million gallons of Molasses (26 million pounds) into the streets.

The wave flattened the entire Boston Waterfront area, including the offices of the distillery and a three story fire house nearby.

Aftermath

116 sailors of the USS Nantucket, which was docked nearby, rushed to the rescue.

By the time doctors arrived, they described treating finding victims who looked like they had been covered in a heavy oil slick. Some victims couldn’t even be seen through the thick, syrupy glaze. The final victim wasn’t even discovered for four months.

In the city stables, police had to shoot trapped , injured and struggling horses.

Volunteers set up a makeshift hospital to remove syrup from noses and mouths, so that survivors could breathe, as well as eyes, and ears.

The molasses clung to anything it touched, including the clothes, hands and hair of rescue workers.

Gawkers tracked the molasses back through the rest of the city, where it stuck in the streets, on handrails, doorknobs, public phones and the seats of public transportation.

The Cleanup

Removing the funk took an estimated 87,000 man hours.

Firemen pumped water from the harbor through fire hoses to spray away the gunk. Others used chisels, saws and brooms. Although the accident happened in January, the water in Boston Harbor ran brown into Summer.

Investigations into the accident pointed to the tank. Investigators said it was too thin and had too few rivets to contain so much molasses.

Additionally, the temperature on the morning of the accident rose from 2 degrees Farenheit to 41 degrees, which could have caused the Molasses to ferment and put further stress on the tank.

By August of the following year, 119 lawsuits had been filed against Purity’s parent Company, United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA). The suits were all consolidated into one lawsuit which took three years to settle. It remains one of the longest, most expensive suits in Massachusetts’s history.

The USIA settled out of court, and as a result, most of America today requires that building projects must be signed off on by an architect and an engineer. Plans must also be filed with most city building departments.

Today the site of the tank is now a playground. The events have passed into folklore. Some Boston residents swear that they can still smell molasses on hot days.

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Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

The usual suspect

gilbert-stuart-george-2Whenever I see portraits of George Washington (and I see them a lot. I live near an American Art musuem.) I’m struck by how his jawline reminds me of my grandmother’s. Like Washington, my grandmother wore false teeth.

Despite the name, Washington’s false teeth weren’t actually false. Nor were they wooden (contrary to popular myth). Most of his dentures actually had real human teeth in them. During his lifetime, he steadily lost his teeth. Often he saved them and had them wired to his real teeth. By the time Washington became president, he had several sets of dentures made using hippopotamus ivory or metal for the foundation, and “donated” human teeth.

George-Washington-teeth-hippo-ivoryAccording to Mount Vernon, Washington disliked the teeth, because they were uncomfortable and made his lower jaw stick out. The ivory ones tended to stain and needed lots of cleaning.

“Donated” teeth weren’t always donated. After wartime battles, looting of soldier’s bodies wasn’t only confined to their valuables. A looter could pull a soldier’s teeth and then sell them to a dentist. Some career soldiers even carried tools for extracting teeth from fallen enemies in case they had just such an opportunity. After the battle of Waterloo, so many solder’s teeth flooded the market that even up through Victorian times dentures were known as “Waterloo Teeth.”

But Washington’s teeth weren’t “Waterloo teeth.” By the battle of Waterloo, he’d already had his dentures made. The-antique-dentures.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

You’re Welcome

The usual suspect

I’ve noticed that the more I’m plugged I to the headlines, the more depressed I feel. The local news station, my Facebook, content aggregators like Flipboard. Reading it all makes one inclined to believe the world is a messed up place.

Yet statistically, we live in the most peaceful time ever.

So In order to prevent that negativity here and now, I present to you baby platypuses wearing fedoras.

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Now go pay it forward. Spam the world with awesomeness and cuteness. Kittens and dragons and Darth Vader. Or maybe a kitten riding a dragon battling Darth Vader.

You’re welcome.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

So This is a Thing

The usual suspect

imageThis came in the mail this weekend.

My story is the second title in the anthology, right behind the editor’s. He must have liked it.

If you want your own Kindle copy, you can get one on Amazon. The title has been out since Halloween.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

The usual suspect

imageWhen I was in high school, my sister participated in history day (which was like a science fair, only with history). Her project was based on the Donner Party.

The movie Alive, about the soccer team that crashed in the Andies and had to resort to Cannibalism had just come out, so cannibalism was on everyone’s minds. (Much like recently, with the discovery in Jamestown of Jane, the cannibalized skull from the starving time).

But this isn’t a post about cannibalism, even though I think the way we sensationalize taboo subjects is an interesting, yet morbid part of human nature. Instead it’s about how archaeology can give us new insights into historical events. Especially ones we think we already know everything about.

Take the Donner Party. In 2003, a group of Archaeologists went back to Donner Pass to explore the site. One of the things they thought to do (that hadn’t been tried before) was to ask local Native American tribes if their oral histories held any accounts of the Donner Party.

As it turned out, there were Washoe tribesmen living in the mountains at the time. These natives tried to help the starving settlers out of pity. Unfortunately the settlers shot at the natives who were trying to help them. Later the Washoe say they saw the settlers eating their own dead, and stayed away out of fear.

This same 2003 archaeological study collected artifacts from the Donner site, including hundreds of bone fragments from around one of the campsites. Microscopic studies failed to find human bone among those fragments. But an earlier survey that used archaeological cadaver sniffing dogs (and before today I didn’t even know that was a thing) indicated the presence of human remains around one of the old hearths, so it may just be that any cannibalized human remains have decomposed.

On a less gruesome aspect of the story, IO9 reports that the storm that stranded the Donner Party may have been a cyclical Pineapple Express storm. I like to end on that (slightly less morbid) note. It’s always nice to have a little context to tie an event into the wider tapestry of history.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

Yes Virginia, Santa Was a Real Dude

The usual suspect

st-nicholasEveryone knows who Santa is, right? Fat dude in a red suit that lives at the North Pole and goes Ho, Ho, Ho! Right? Er . . . maybe not.

The Santa that everyone thinks they know is based on a real person. And that person might just have gone on his own naughty list.

I’m talking about Nicholas of Myra, a third and fourth century bishop who lived in present-day Turkey. In recent years scientists examined the skull of this saint and discovered that in life he had a broken nose. Perhaps he was a brawler? One (probably not true) story is that he punched a heretic in the face at the council of Nicaea in 325.

So who was the real Santa? And did he belong on the naughty or nice list?

To answer that question, we have to go back to 170, when Nicholas was born in a port city of Patara. At the time, that part of Turkey was culturally Greek and politically Roman. Nicholas’s wealthy parents died while he was still young, and the boy was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas). Since Old Nicholas was the bishop of Patara, it seems logical that when young Nicholas went into the church that he was engaging in family business. Eventually Nicholas became Bishop of Myra.

According to legend, Nicholas performed so many miracles throughout his life that people called him “Nicholas the wondermaker” and even “Saint Nicholas.” That was to his face, Ya’ll. Notable actions include raising the dead, helping sailors, solving murders and giving to the poor in secret.

I kind of want to read a book about St. Nicholas, gumshoe P.I. now. He could find the bodies and then bring them back to life.

So the stories go, on one occasion a man had three daughters but was too poor to afford a dowry. He worried that his girls would go into prostitution to support themselves if he didn’t find them proper husbands. Hearing of his plight, Nicholas hid bags of coins in the girls stockings that they had set out to dry overnight.

Many of these legends are probably just made up, but the one about the daughters is probably true.

After his death, Nicholas was a very popular saint in the early church and the later middle ages. Unlike many of the saints, Nicholas seemed approachable. This was a man who punched heretics, but also gave to the poor. He could be any of us, just . . . you know, with a job that involved wearing a funny hat. So many people loved Nicholas that there are churches dedicated to him all over Europe. Eventually, immigrants from the Netherlands brought their tradition of honoring “sinterklauus” to North America along with Christmas trees and other holiday trappings.

As for the actual St. Nicholas, when the Turks took over his homeland, sailors from Bari stole his remains. Trafficking in relics was a common practice in those days. A good relic would bring in tourists pilgrims to a city. Venetian sailors stole the bones of St. Mark for their own city in just this way.

So what did the real Santa look like? In the 1950’s scientists made a cast of the saint’s remains. A few years ago, a facial reconstruction was made based on that cast. Based off of that, this is probably what he looked like:
St-Nicholas-forensic-reconstitution

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

The usual suspect

A while back, I promised to post pictures of my Charlie Brown Halloween Ghost. So here it is.

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The legs are my daughter’s. She was a pink dragon. I wish I’d taken photos of the process, but here is what I did:

1 I bought a twin sheet from Wal Mart. And I don’t think I’m the only one with the sheet=ghost idea. Because that was the last plain white sheet in the store. People coming into the store after me to get their ‘Ye Olde Tymey Ghost Costume’ we’re having to settle for Ironic Hipster Care Bear Sheets instead (and hey, there’s a band name for you).

2. I bought very thin black knit stretchy fabric. The kind they use for those no-face Halloween masks.

3. I bought black felt and fabric glue. Because I can’t cut or sew in a straight line.

image4. Using a big drinking glass as a guide, I cut circles from all my black fabrics, and eye holes from the sheet. Then I glued the knit fabric over the holes in the sheet. (I tried on the sheet first to figure out where the eye holes should be).

5. I lay the sheet out flat and glued the felt disks on for eyes.

6. Lastly, I sewed the top of the ghost to a ball cap. This helped keep the sheet from shifting and the eyes in place.

And to show that I didn’t forget it’s Christmas time, I also thought I would post what our family decided to do instead of Elf on the Shelf.

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It’s an advent calender made of stockings. I can fill each stocking with candy, gifts or slips of paper with fun Christmas activities. I’ll be thinking up things to do all this next year.

Take that, creepy Christmas-themed doll.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

The usual suspect

This one is a twofer, because I stumbled over two crazy stories about mummies.

Firstly: did you know that you don’t have to make arrangements in your will to become a mummy? You can diy yourself right into mummification right now.

imageAt least, you could if you wanted to practice an extreme diet for 10 years. The end result isn’t guaranteed. And even if it succeeds, you wouldn’t have the amazing powers of Imhotep from The Mummy.

Buddhist monks in northern Japan from the 11th century to the 19th century undertook the process, known as Sokushinbutsu as a means of achieving greater enlightenment.

Monks who wanted to become Mummies started with 1,000 days of living only on nuts and seeds while exercising to eliminate all body fat.

Next came another 1,000 days of eating only bark and roots.

In the final stage of mummification, practitioners would drink poisonous tree sap. This would cause vomiting that removed fluids from the body, while making the tissues poisonous to maggots.

When the self-made mummy was ready, he would seal himself into a stone tomb barely larger than his own body while sitting in a lotus position. A breathing tube would bring in air. Each day he would ring a bell to let his fellow Monks know that he was still alive.

When the bell stopped ringing, the monks would remove the breathing tube, then wait another 1,000 days to see if the mummification worked.

If the priests found a mummy in the tomb, they venerated the remains. If not, they still honored the monk for his efforts.

Before Japan outlawed the practice, officials believe that hundreds of monks attempted to mummify themselves. Only somewhere between 16 and 24 were successful.

imageOn to something more cheerful: a story about a princess. The kind of princess story that would curdle Micky Mouse’s blood.

Once Upon a time, there was a princess of Amun-Re. (The story specifically calls her a princess, not a priestess.)

When the princess died, her priests mummified her, placed the body in an elaborate coffin and put it to rest in Luxor, where it stayed until the 1890’s.

When it was discovered, an Englishman purchased it for his manor house, as one does when one is stupid rich and English and in the grip of Egypt mania.

So the story goes, the Englishman never made it home, but the princess mummy did. While it resided in the manor, three members of the house were injured in an auto accident, and the house caught on fire.

To get rid of the mummy, the members of the house donated it to the British Museum.

The Princess Mummy must not have liked her new home any more than the last one, because night watchmen swore that they could hear banging and crying from the mummy’s case.

imageThe museum eventually tried to get rid of the Princess, but no one would take her. Finally an American Archaeologist took the mummy and had it shipped aboard the Titanic, where the legend says she caused the ship to strike an iceberg.

Is the legend true? There is no record of a mummy on the Titanic’s very detailed shipping manifests. As for the Princess of Amun-Ra, the British Museum does display the coffin lid belonging to a priestess (not a princess) of Amun. But all they have is a lid.

The story was probably made up by a journalist named William Stead and a friend named Douglas Murray. At the time, tall tales about Mummy curses were as popular as Mummy unwrapping parties. It’s likely that Stead and Murray made up the story after seeing the Priestess’s coffin lid on display in the museum.

The story became linked to the Titanic when Stead joined the maiden voyage. During the trip, the Journalist repeated his favorite tall tale to some of the other passengers. Although Stead didn’t survive the crossing, his story made it’s way into the papers when some survivors recalled it.

These days, you can see artifacts from the Titanic at Titanic museums all across the country. But the Princess of Amun-Ra isn’t among them. If you want to see the coffin lid of the Priestess of Amun, that is still on display in the British Museum.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

The usual suspect

ferris-the-first-thanksgiving-1600x1025

The kid next to the dog might have been dumped on some pilgrims so she couldn’t inherit a fortune.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s a little odd to revisit the pilgrims. But I ran across this story that seemed like something out of a Gothic novel.

We all have this idea of the first Thanksgiving. It was the Pilgrims and Indians Native Americans and turkey. But that’s about the extent that most people think of things.

But the founding of Plymouth Colony is a little more complex than that. More than half of the first settlers on the Mayflower weren’t part of the religious group fleeing persecution in England. This group (which were known as “The Strangers”) included orphans picked up off the street to serve as indentured servants in the new world. And four children who might have been dumped on them by their legal guardian–who didn’t want them around anymore, but didn’t want their mother to have them.

It all starts in 1610, with Jasper Moore. Jasper was the owner of a 1,000 acre estate. He was also the father of several sons and a daughter. In a twist worthy of Charles Dickens, Jasper’s sons died leaving just Katherine — who couldn’t inherit the estate because it was entailed.

An entail is something the British used to do to keep land in the family. Basically only the men could inherit. This was a thing up until the early-mid 20th century. Just watch Downton Abbey to see the kinds of problems it could cause for a family. It was also something that fiction writers liked to play with. Because: Drama.

Jasper’s solution (rather like Mrs. Bennett’s solution in Pride and Prejudice) was to marry Katherine off to Samuel Moore, the son of the next living male relative (the Mr. Collins of this story). Problem: Katherine was already in love with someone else (possibly). A childhood friend named Jacob Blakeway.

Over the next four years, Katherine had four children: Elinor, Jasper, Mary and Richard. Along the way, Samuel noticed that his kids looked an awful lot like that tenant that Katherine was so friendly with.

To say that he didn’t take it well would be an understatement. Samuel dragged the dirty laundry into court. He refused to claim the four children and cut them out of his will. Then he took the kids away from Katherine (which he could legally do, despite claiming that the kids weren’t his, because he was still their guardian.)

Katherine and Jacob tried to make an end run around Samuel by applying for an annulment. They claimed that they had been betrothed before Katherine was forced to marry Samuel. But since they couldn’t find any living witnesses to verify this, the local priests wouldn’t give them the annulment.

Now Samuel had a problem: Katherine wanted her kids back. He didn’t want them, but he didn’t want her to have them. And, despite the entail, the kids might be able to sue for some kind of inheritance. Samuel’s father Richard (the one who inherited Katherine’s family property, not Katherine’s child) put the kids up with one of his tenants, but Katherine showed up on their door demanding that they give the kids back.

At the same time, Samuel’s boss was a member of the Virginia Company, sending settlers to the New World. He suggested that Samuel send the kids to a place far out of Katherine’s reach. The idea appealed to Samuel, and before you knew it, the kids were taken in by four families headed for America. Then he got rid of Jacob by suing him for trespassing (On land that Jacob’s family had been renting for generations. Because Samuel technically owned it now.) Faced with the possibility of hanging, Jacob ran off, abandoning Katherine and the whole idea of getting the kids back.

Sadly, after The Mayflower had already departed for America, Katherine sued Samuel to find out where her kids were and to get them back. At which point, Samuel said “I sent them away with these nice Christian families so that they could grow up without all this scandal over their heads.”

Suuuurrrrreeee you did, Sam. Out of the goodness of your heart, even.

Things don’t end well for the four Moore children. Like many of the pilgrims that first year, Three out of four of them didn’t survive the first harsh winter. Only the youngest survived. After Katherine’s court case, she disappears from history. There is no record of whether she ever saw her surviving son again.

File this under reasons that I’m glad i’m not a 17th century woman.

Originally published at Tracy S. Morris. You can comment here or there.

About Me

I'm the author of the Tranquility series, which is a series of urban, rural, urban fantasy mysteries that aren't really urban.

Think Green Acres meet The Hardy Boys, Jeff Foxworthy meets The X-Files or Eureka meets The Beverly Hillbillies.

The latest in the series, Bride of Tranquility is a murder mystery set in a haunted hotel during a Renaissance wedding.

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