How Tootsie Rolls Saved US Marines In The Korean War

First Written for Headstuff

Tootsie Rolls are bite-size chocolate covered toffee treats. Those not from America may be familiar with the name from the 90s dance craze. These unassuming sweets have an interesting history, specifically the role they played in the Korean War, when they were credited with saving the lives of American Marines.

So how did this strange happening occur?

By November 1950 the Korean war was well underway when the People’s Volunteer Army of China entered the conflict. Coming via the north-eastern Chinese-Korean border on 27th of November, this development took US forces by surprise.

US Marines, under the command of General Edward Almond, were based in the Chosin Resevoir Area. Accompanied by UN troops, the total number of allied troops was approximately 30,000. They were soon surrounded and outnumbered by 120,000 Chinese soldiers, under the command of Song Shilu. The UN troops broke free and withdrew to Hungnam, inflicting heavy casualties on the more numerous but less well equipped and trained Chinese. This left the US Marines who were facing freezing temperatures and rough terrain as they sought to make their escape.

As the temperature hit -38°C the ground froze, roads became iced over, and crucially technology and weapons began to malfunction in these extreme temperatures. One side effect of this was that the tank fuel pipes froze over, cracking open in some places; making the US’s position more perilous. At the same time, they ran low on mortar rounds. With the situation looking dire they made a request for more mortar shells. A wait ensued as anti-aircraft equipment had been entrenched on the enemy side.

It was common at the time to use code words when making requests. Mortar rounds were code named ‘Tootsie Rolls’. After the request went through the troops waited until the US were able to make air drops. It was then that they found… Tootsie Rolls.

Actual Tootsie Roll sweets. And not the much sought-after mortar rounds.

This should have been a disaster, but some quick thinking and ingenuity saved the day. The tootsie rolls were solid lumps of chocolate toffee when they landed. The Marines soon discovered that they would melt in the mouth. If they were careful, they could soften up the sweets and put them to good use. Turning them into a sort of putty the softened tootsie rolls were then applied to the fuel pipes; acting as a seal. Surprisingly, this worked. It was so cold that the sweets then solidified around the pipes, resealing them.

With the tanks up and running again the Marines were able to attempt their escape. They took heavy causalities but made it out of the Chosin River Area. Those that survived, in part thanks to Tootsie Rolls, nicknamed themselves ‘The Chosin Few’.

This was not the first time that tootsie rolls had proved useful. They played a small part in the Second World War too. They were included in ration packs as a durable treat that would withstand all weather traditions. A fitting use for an all-American sweet.

Tootsie Rolls |
Lt. Gen. Richard E. Carey USMC with Tootsie Roll CEO Ellen Gordon


Victorian Freshers Guide

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Arthur John Story’s Do’s and Don’t’s for the Victorian Fresher


In 1893 a new guide for freshers began to circulate at St. John’s College, Cambridge. It was authored by ‘A Sympathiser’, later identified as Undergraduate Arthur John Story. Story was an Undergraduate at St John’s from 1893 to 1896 according to Cambridge University alumni records. If so it is unusual that he would write this guide as a new student himself.

Freshers guides are nothing new and in September each year students will be inundated by advice, listicles and articles telling them what their time at University will hold for them. As we saw in a previous article they are known to date back to 1660. This 1893 guide however differs in many ways from James Duports’s guide; primarily in the way in which it deals with women and class.

It is taken for granted now that in Ireland and the UK women enter higher education. In fact statistically more women than men both enrol and ultimately graduate from University. According to the Higher Education Statistics Authority in the 2015 intake there were a total of 1,288,680 women and 991,670 men enrolled in UK Universities[1].

For Strong however, things were very different. He references women in terms or romantic liaisons or landladies. At one point he states: “Don’t, if you are in lodgings, get too familiar with your landlady’s daughter, as she is probably more clever than you. With other men’s landlady’s daughters you may be less particular, but even then – Take care!”. Not exactly the most gallant behaviour! As much as it is tempting now to laugh at such a “don’t” it does show us that for Story and his intended readers there seems to be a clear divide between women he viewed as being ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. It also shows a desire to make life as easy as possible for oneself; to avoid trouble where possible.

Throughout the guide Story shows no thoughts of seeing women as fellow students even though women were allowed to study from 1869 onwards. However they were not considered to be full members of Cambridge University until 1947. At this time women had to enter female only colleges. It wasn’t until 1972 that traditionally male colleges began to allow women to enter. There are still women only colleges affiliated to Cambridge, such as Newnham College, Murray Edwards College (previously known as New Hall) and Lucy Cavendish College. There are no longer any male only Cambridge Colleges.

As well as being male, to be considered a full student, another entrance prerequisite was that students be a member of the Church of England. This applied to all Oxford and Cambridge colleges in the nineteenth century. According to the British Library a handful of non – sectarian colleges opened in England during this time. These included London University in 1836, Durham University in 1832, Owens College in Manchester in 1851 and Birmingham University in 1900. This rule was taken seriously. In 1811 poet Percy Bysshe Shelley anonymously published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. Soon however he was identified with the writing and called upon to deny his authorship. When he refused to do this he was expelled from Oxford University.

As the guide goes on the different social status and treatment of women is further explored. “Don’t take the girl from the Tobacconist’s or Confectioner’s home. You gain nobody’s respect by so doing, and the girl’s only motivation is to encourage a good customer” Story warns. This is followed by “Don’t by any chance speak to girls without introduction. However innocent may be the motive, such practices are the worst distraction a student can foster. We know that it is only natural that a man should require ladies’ society, and that if he cannot meet ladies of his own station in life, he is driven into less desirable circles”. Here women and status are intimately linked. Story makes it clear throughout his guide that although it would be unsurprising for students to pursue women, it would not be desirable for them to court relationships with women of a lesser status. Cambridge still has a reputation as being a middle and upper class town, having produced fourteen Prime Ministers for example. This image would have been more acute before student loans, grants and state education to the age of eighteen. The Victorian era saw a revolution in education. For the first time it became law that all children, male and female, must receive elementary schooling but only until the age of thirteen.

In contrast to this Story also advised students to be mindful of their position: “Don’t let your residence in Cambridge cause you to assume superiority over other less fortunate.” He also goes on to tell Undergraduates that they should not crowd the streets and prevent Cambridge residents from going about their business. (“We have often been surprised to see Undergrads walking four-a-breast and jostling all comers, even ladies, into the gutter.”) From reading the guide one can argue that Story felt he and his fellow Undergraduates were socially, and usually economically, superior, or more advantaged than their fellow citizens. However, it was important that one should not let this attitude shine through. It is interesting to think that these “Don’ts” were considered useful for new students to know, suggesting that previous students had made these errors.

On a different note attitudes to alcohol appear to have changed over the centuries. Whereas clergyman Duport warned to students to stay away from alcohol and tobacco Story has very different offerings on the subject. In a piece of advice that could have been written for a freshers guide today Story opines: “Don’t attempt to keep every brand of wine under the sun. Most Undergrads cannot distinguish ‘Bordeaux’ from ‘Burgundy’ if served in a decanter.” Never a truer word uttered.


1816, The Year Without A Summer

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1816, The Year Without A Summer | The Eruption Of Mount Tambora

The summer of 1816 has an unusual claim to fame. It is known as The Year Without a Summer. How did it come by this unusual moniker? The answer lies in the events of the previous year. In 1815 Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia, erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption for 1,300 years. It had a significant effect on the global climate causing severe weather abnormalities. It resulted in a decrease in global temperatures by 0.4 – 0.7 OC. This may not sound like much but the impact of this was significant.

Earth had been in a period of global cooling from the fourteenth century. This “little ice age” was aggravated by the 1815 eruption. New England (US), Atlantic Canada and large swathes of Western Europe and China experienced agricultural disaster. The spring and summer of 1816 was marked by consistent dry fog across the east coast of America that reddened and dimmed in the sunlight. One result of this was that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Even wind and rain didn’t dispel the fog. For many this gave it an unusual, perhaps even supernatural quality. This fog has since been characterised by scientists as a “stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil”.

It is important to note that the understanding of the eruption has come in recent years with volcanologist and scientists being able to better understand the events of 1816. In line with this, historians have been able to take this new information and apply it to their understanding of the time. For example, riots occurred across France and Great Britain in 1816. The causes are now known to be linked to the eruption. Arson, looting of grain warehouses and political unrest was accompanied by a revival in religious demonstrations. The numbers recorded as attending church and chapel services increased during this period.
In May the frost was so intense that it killed off crops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York. Higher elevations suffered the most. Snow was recorded as falling on June 6th 1816 in Albany, New York and Maine. Following on from this in New York in May temperatures were recorded as dipping below freezing most days. On June 9th the ground froze solid and crops failed.In a previous article I looked at the ideas and climate that contributed to the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She began the novel at Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Switzerland was particularly badly hit by the climatic changes. One example is that an ice dam formed below the tongue of the Gietro Glacier (high in the Val de Bagnes) in 1816 and 1817. Eventually the dam collapsed under its own weight in the June of 1818, contributing to flooding in the Swiss capital. Further to this crop failures resulted in famine conditions with the government declaring a national emergency. This is considered to be continental Europe’s last ever famine which was accompanied by rising mortality rates. The flooding was worsened by the unseasonably large storms and rainfall that flooded many major European major rivers. After this came frost in August. The melt resulted in further flooding.

Closer to home the cost of bread in Britain almost doubled in the same space of time. Cool temperatures and heavy rains had resulted in failed harvests. Bread shortages led to riots breaking out in East Anglia in May 1816. In the town of Ely labourers armed themselves before marching on the town and taking the magistrate hostage. They were holding banners bearing the slogan “Bread or Blood” and fought a pitched battle with the militia. The bread shortages also fuelled mass demonstrations in many of the larger cities. The army were often used to combat the civil unrest as feelings of discontent and frustration grew. Prison numbers increased as rioters were jailed, as did the number of those executed or sentenced to transportation. However, Britain was better able to deal with the food shortages than much else of Europe due to established trading links with Western America.

In May the frost was so intense that it killed off crops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York. Higher elevations suffered the most. Snow was recorded as falling on June 6th 1816 in Albany, New York and Maine.

North and South West Ireland also saw the failure of wheat, oat and potato harvests. Ireland seems to have been particularly vulnerable. There was a major typhus epidemic from 1816 – 1819 in which an estimated 100,000 people died. In Ireland a recorded 80,000 people were infected. 44,000 died [1]. Figures vary however it is clear that Ireland was hard hit by the epidemic. High levels of unemployment had followed the demobilisation of the British army following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Many were living in abject poverty with little food available.

So how could one volcanic eruption have such a big impact? The eruption of Mount Tambora occurred between 5th and 15th April 1816. It ranked VEI 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. To put this into perspective this eruption was over 1,000 times greater than the 2010 Iceland eruption that caused mass travel chaos. The sound of the eruption was reportedly heard up to 2,000 miles away. Millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide, ash and pumice were ejected into the atmosphere. An ‘umbrella’ of ash spread over a million square kilometres. Billions of tonnes of dust, gas, rock and ash scoured the surrounding area before hitting the sea at such velocity that it triggered a tsunami. A 2 metre high wave hit the East Cost of Java. This was 500km away. The wave had enough power to travel for over two hours before it reached land. Further to this, hurricanes of debris incinerated the area 20 km radius of the volcano. The eruption was incredibly devastating. Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist with Cambridge University has placed the number of deaths between 60,000 and 120,000. These figures vary however what is sure is that this caused the largest death toll as a direct result of a volcanic eruption in recorded history. The loss of life continued in the months after the eruption as disease, famine and pestilence ravaged the area.

The effects were recorded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. A British Statesmen he was best known for his involvement in the conquest of Java over the Dutch and French military forces during the Napoleonic Wars and his role in the founding of Singapore. Usefully he also wrote a memoir which included details of the eruption and its aftermath. [2] According to the British Library, Raffles collected first-hand accounts of the eruption from people living about 400 km from the volcano. He noted that the eruption lasted for over a week with the major explosions occurring on the 5th and the 10th of April. He is also a vital source of information for the effect the eruption had on the local area.

The eruption of Mount Tambora was intensified as the 1816 eruption came on the heels of several other volcanic explosions. Examples of this include eruptions in 1809, in the Pacific Ocean, and an 1812 eruption on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. Added to this was the impact of an 1813 eruption in Japan and another 1814 eruption in the Philippines. These eruptions contributed to a substantial build-up of atmospheric dust. This resulted in less sunlight passing through the stratosphere leading to a drop in temperature. The decade of 1810 to 1820 was the coldest in 200 years.

In the United States crop failures had a different impact. Migration increased as individuals and families moved away from the food shortages in New England on the east coast and began to settle in the more hospitable areas of West and Central New York and the American Midwest. This contributed to the settling of the “American Heartland”. Grain prices had collapsed which contributed to the first major American economic depression. One side effect of this was that the cost of oats rose from 12c a bushel in 1815 to 92c a bushel in 1816. The climatic changes continued into 1817 with temperatures in Central and Northern New York recorded as being as low as -30OF in the winter and snow falling in the August. This came after months of hard frosts that froze the ground, destroying further crops.

In a letter dated 8th September 1816 Thomas Jefferson had this to say. [3]

“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America. In June, instead of 3 ¾ inches, our average of rain for that month, we only had ? of an inch; in August, instead of 9 1/6 inches, our average, we had only 8/10 of an inch; and still it continues.  The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter. In every State north of this there has been frost in every month of the year; in this State we had none in June and July, but those of August killed much corn over the mountains. The crop of corn through the Atlantic States will probably be less than one-third of an ordinary one, that of tobacco still less, and of mean quality.  The crop of wheat was middling in quantity, but excellent in quality.  But every species of bread grain taken together will not be sufficient for the subsistence of the inhabitants, and the exportation of flour, already begun by the indebted and the improvident, to whatsoever degree it may be carried, will be exactly so much taken from the mouths of our own citizens.  My anxieties on this subject are the greater, because I remember the deaths which the drought of 1755 in Virginia produced from the want of food.”

Joseph Smith’s family was one of the many to migrate. They lived in Norwich, Vermont, from 1814 to 1816. Due to the bad harvests they were one of the families that moved west, in their case to Palmyra in New York. The population of Vermont decreased from 15,000 to 10,000 at this time. In 1816 Joseph Smith Jr was 10 years old. He would later become known as “The Prophet”. The family moved to an area known for its intense religious revivalism. “The Burned Over District” [4], in west and central New York became known for the frequent religious revivals that took place there. They were so frequent and potent that this era became known as hosting the “Second Great Awakening”. This Protestant religious revivalism resulted in membership of Baptist and Methodist congregations rising rapidly. Rejecting rationalism, it placed emphasise on emotion and the supernatural.

This was fertile ground for a new religious occurrence to take place. Shortly after their arrival Joseph Smith Jr began to experience a series of visions. These were intense spiritual events that had a profound effect on him. In one of his visions an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo – Christian history of an ancient American civilisation. Over time he wrote down all he learned and in 1830 published an English translation of the plates. This book was called The Book of Mormon and led to the founding of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It is fascinating the think how a volcanic eruption in Indonesia could influence religious beliefs in America.


[1] In Our Time podcast. 1816 The Year Without a Summer

[2] Raffles, S. 1830: Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, F.R.S. &c., particularly in the government of Java 1811–1816, and of Bencoolen and its dependencies 1817–1824: with details of the commerce and resources of the eastern archipelago, and selections from his correspondence. London. John Murray, cited by Oppenheimer (2003).


[4] So called because it had been burned over by so many different religions.

The Birth of Frankenstein

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (originally titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus) is often considered to be the first science fiction novel and is a landmark of gothic fiction. First published anonymously in 1818 when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old the story of the novels conception is as fascinating as the hold the Doctor Frankenstein and his monster have held on popular culture ever since its publication. One evening in Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva, in 1816 saw the accumulation of an unusual set of circumstances that triggered a creative spark that has captured popular imagination ever since.

The themes and ideas that went on to form the novel were present before that fateful night in 1816. In 1814 Mary¹, her half-sister Claire Clairmont (born Jane) and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Europe. Mary and Shelley, having fallen desperately in love, fled to Europe when her father William Godwin objected to their affair. Travelling through France, which had been ravaged by the Napoleonic wars, onto Germany at one point they stopped in Gernsheim, 17km from Frankenstein Castle. Unlike most places named after the now legendary Doctor, Frankenstein Castle significantly predates the novel. It is questionable whether Mary would have been aware of or visited the castle but the legend behind it is worth investigating. The thirteenth century castle is best known because of the actions of alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel.

Born in 1673 Dippel became an alchemist; creating an elixir called Dippel’s Oil. Made from pulverised animal bones the elixir demonstrates his use of animal bodies in scientific creation. It had long been rumoured that this interest morphed into anatomy studies. He was said to conduct medical experiments on exhumed corpses, trying to reanimate the dead bodies. One myth that circulated was that Dippel was successful and created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. In all likelihood this myth was applied to the castle after the release of Frankenstein, however it is interesting to note that the name previously existed, and has long been associated with the relationship between life and death.

The trio returned to Europe in 1816. This time they were heading to Geneva, to stay with Claire’s former lover Lord Byron. Mary and Shelley published their joint journal which covered this period in 1817. The travelogue was titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.  Here is an excerpt that discusses the landscape they observed:

“Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.”

1816 was also remarkable for being the Year Without a Summer. 1815 had seen a large volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. It left almost 100,000 dead. Clouds of volcanic ash were propelled into the upper atmosphere, obscuring the sun. The Northern hemisphere saw crop failures, food shortages and sudden climatic change. This included a decline in temperature and an increase in rainfall. At the time many were unaware of the causes of this strange phenomenon. It was common to have to light candles in the middle of the day due to the darkness. There are accounts of snow falling in the middle of June. Holidaying at Lord Byron’s villa Mary and her companions found themselves unable to enjoy the outdoors and instead spent their time inside discussing science, politics and literature. At this time Byron composed the poem Darkness, which reflects the uneasy feeling of the time.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation”.

Themes of the supernatural and mystery run throughout the work created at Villa Diodati.

Interestingly the atmospheric changes resulted in unusual sunsets. It is thought that the yellow tinge that marks William Turner’s paintings during this period is a result of this. One work which demonstrates this is Chichester Canal (1828). Byron and Mary were not the only writers to find success in that strange atmosphere. The same few days saw the origin of the book The Vampyre. Written by Byron’s physician John Polidori it became the progenitor of Romantic vampire literature and was used as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula.

Added to this was the stifling interpersonal atmosphere between the group. When Mary and Percy Shelly first fell in love she was only sixteen years old and he already had a wife a child. His young wife Harriet was pregnant again at this time. This, plus her father’s disapproval, didn’t stop them. Shelley declared his love for Mary, often meeting at night at her mother’s grave. Claire went with them on their travels partly because she could speak French and they could not. Also, she was able to introduce them to Lord Byron. The two had been lovers. Although still besotted with Byron, who had largely lost interest in her, after Mary lost her first child in early 1815 Claire and Shelley embarked on an affair. It has also been reported that Polidori had designs on the young Mary, but she did not reciprocate his feelings. Notably, although Byron was interested in the young poet Shelley he was supposed to have had little respect for Mary. Shelley believed in free love and practised it, having affairs and illegitimate children throughout his life. At one point the Shelley’s were labelled a part of the League of Incest that Byron was at the heart of². Added to this Shelley was reported to have fallen into a morbid mood as a result of the oppressive environment.

It was in this atmosphere that the group; consisting of Mary, Shelley, Claire, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori, spent their evenings talking and reading each other ghost stories. Eventually Byron suggested a ghost story writing competition. In the preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein Mary wrote that, feeling anxious, she would wake up each morning no closer to a story. At only 18 years old Mary was one of the more junior writers of the group. However she was highly educated for a young woman at the time and had been exposed to liberal, intellectual ideas all her life. This came primarily through her parents: radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political theorist William Godwin, both successful writers.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream”

Several days after the competition was suggested Mary dreamed of a scientist who created life but was then horrified by its creation. She had found her story. The evening before her “waking dream” the group had been discussing the principle of life; what it means to be alive and whether a corpse could be reanimated. Mary commented on this in the novels preface:

“many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth”.

Although this sounds a little morbid corpse reanimation was a hot topic of the day. Galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that has been stimulated by electric current. Studies and investigations into the line between life and death occupied many of the great scientific minds of the early nineteenth century. Professor Sharon Ruston has investigated this area of scientific interest in depth. Her findings are detailed in the essayThe Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One point of particular interest is the work of the Royal Humane Society, originally named the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. Established in 1774 the Society’smain aim was to publicise information to help people resuscitate others. Mary’s mother once attempted suicide by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames River. She was one of those “brought back to life”: resuscitated. This was one of the ways in which the line between life and death were being blurred and questioned. Each year there was a procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society.

Further to this Shelley had a long history with scientific experiments. At Eton he used a frictional electric machine to charge the door handle of his room. He once blew up a tree on the schools South Meadow with gunpowder. His rooms at Oxford were fully equipped with science equipment and he continued to experiment with electricity, magnetism and chemicals. This interest continued into his adult life where he had trouble with multiple landlords and hosts. His frequent experiments would often burn cushions, leave marks on the walls and floors, and disturb other residents. In their leisure time the couple were also known to attend lectures and demonstrations that looked into the space between the known and unknown.

On that infamous night they had been reading German ghost stories from a French translation of the book Fantasmagoriana. These stories combined with the unusual dark and mysterious climate had an effect on the young writer. Shelley wrote,

“The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends…and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.”

In the preface Mary talked about a “waking dream” in which she conceived the idea of Frankenstein.

“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. …”.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream” concluding that it occurred between 2 am and 3am on the 16th June 1816. This was several days after the competition began and fits in with Shelley’s remembrances of her difficulty in coming up with a story. Olsen explains,

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”

In order to capture the gothic horror found in the novel’s pages Shelley taped into her own fears. “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story”. She began to create “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream”. In the cauldron of the strange mix of events came the creation of one of the corner stones of gothic horror and science fiction.

¹Although at this point her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin she referred to herself as Mrs Shelley prior to their December 1816 marriage

² Byron went into self-induced exile from Britain largely as a result of the constant rumours that he fathered a child with his sister. Like Shelley he had multiple children with multiple women; including a daughter called Allegra with Claire (1817).

The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats

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The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats: Ireland’s First Olympic Medalist

The first Olympic medal won by the Irish Free State was a silver medal in 1924, awarded Jack Butler Yeats for his 1923 painting The Liffey Swim. That may seem surprising today, however between 1912 and 1948 the arts took pride of place alongside sporting events in the Olympic Games. The arts section was broken down into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

The arts were introduced to the Olympic Games largely due to the work and enthusiasm of one man: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Frenchman spent his life studying sports and education, becoming convinced of the importance of physical exercise in day to day and cultural life. Known as the Father of the Modern Olympics after he founded the International Olympic Committee, he acted as the driving force behind the sporting events revival.

Inspired by a somewhat romanticised view of the Ancient Greek games, his prime ambition was to place sport at the centre of French social and cultural life. More importantly, Coubertin saw the arts as being equal to sports. One can then see why the silver medal went to a work such as The Liffey Swim, which is now held in the National Gallery of Ireland. A lyre is represented on one side of the medal next to oars, javelins and other sporting paraphernalia.

There was of course a catch; all eligible works of art had to be inspired by sport and this suited Yeats well. Many of his oil paintings depicted boxing and horse racing events. Alongside The Liffey Swim (credited by the Olympic Committee as just Swimming) Yeats also submitted his 1915 painting Before The Start; an oil painting of three jockeys before the race began. Fellow Irish artist Sean Keating entered his painting The Fowler, which did not take home a medal. The Gold medal winner was Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg. He submitted, and won for three paintings: Corner, Depart and Rugby. World renowned artists were a part of the judging panel including John Singer Sargent and Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (who also has works on display at The National Gallery). At 53 Yeats was already a star on the international arts scene.

Jack Butler Yeats was the younger brother of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats and son of the portrait artist John Butler Yeats. The family were very artistic, making their names through their writing or their paintings. A successful writer and playwright Jack started out as a cartoonist before he began to focus on oil painting. It was here that he found his calling and became one of Ireland’s most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Samuel Beckett once recorded that “Yeats is with the greats of our time”.

The Liffey Swim itself was a new event which Yeats captured in its infancy. The first race took place in 1920 with 27 entrants. Beginning at Victoria Quay, the swimmers would follow the river through the centre of Dublin, with spectators gathered on bridges to watch, before coming to an end one and a half miles later at Butt Bridge. After years of uncertainty, The Liffey Swim proved to be a transformative and vibrant communal event that bought people together from across the political divide. The painting captures the essence of that bond of excitement. According to the National Gallery, the 1923 swim was promoted as “the biggest free spectacle of the year in Dublin”. It was held after work hours on a Saturday so as many people as possible could watch. Even today the race still takes place on a Saturday in late August or early September. The 1923 winner was former Olympian water polo player Charles “Cecil” Fagan, who would go on to enter the race for many years to come. The runner up was the previous year’s winner Thomas Hayes Dockrell. The 1924 Olympics were the first Olympic Games after the years of conflict and war that had plagued Ireland. The fact that artists of such ability and stature wanted to take part arguably shows a great commitment to the new Irish Free State, and a desire to show the positive side of Ireland. The Liffey Swim is a positive and vibrant depiction of Dublin. For this one moment in time all are united in the joy and excitement of the competitive swim.

The bright blues of the painting reinforce the idea of this being a delightful day out. In reality it is likely that Yeats took a few artistic liberties with the colouring. On the actual day in 1923 the Irish Independent reported that “it rained now and then, but like a deluge during the concluding stages of the race” and that “a canopy of umbrellas ten deep lined the river”. Interestingly Yeats has also included himself in spectator scenes. The man wearing the brown fedora is thought to be Yeats, and the woman in the elaborate yellow hat his wife Cottie. In the painting the swimmers are approaching O’Connell Bridge. There is a feeling of activity and movement from the thick loose brush strokes and multiple layers of oil paint. The audience are placed in with the spectators, looking over shoulders to see the swimmers as they come into view. It captures the celebratory feeling that can be seen each year at the event.

Ultimately the fledgling Irish State only took home two medals from the 1924 Olympic Games. Both of these were from the arts categories: Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim and a bronze medal in literature for Irish poet Oliver Gogarty for his poem Ode to the Tailteann Games. Overall Ireland came joint fourth, with Denmark,in the arts section. Although Yeats was the first Irish artist of the twentieth century to sell for over £1,000,000 the silver medal did not initially lead to a sale. In 1925 The Liffey Swim was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, with a £300 price tag. It wasn’t until December 1930 that the painting finally sold, for £250 to the Haverty Bequest Fund, who presented the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1931.

Surviving Freshers Week in 1660

First Written for

James Duport’s Guide to Surviving Freshers Week 1660

In 1660, James Duport, a fellow at Trinity College Cambridge compiled a list of 149 handwritten rules aimed at new students. In doing so he established a tradition of advice-giving that has endured over the centuries. Each new academic year, students are inundated by a plethora of do’s and don’ts; covering a wide range of issues such as studies, sex and alcohol. So how similar are Duport’s rules to those given out today and what do the 149 items tells us about students through the ages?

The most unsurprising rule urged students to “forbear wine and tobacco”. Students have always been associated with heavy drinking and the endless rounds of parties and drunkenness that haunt parent’s dreams. Even in the sixteen hundreds, it seems that there was concern about the role of alcohol in student’s lives.

Following on from this there was a desire for students to focus more on their studies. This was developed on with the rule: “never go into the town, except, to ye Church or Schools or Book-seller or Book-binders shop”. By today’s standards this seems extreme however Duport was writing immediately after the end of Cromwell’s Puritan time of rule when taverns were widely frowned upon as dens of sin in which a good man could come to harm, financial ruin or succumb to the influence of ‘loose women’. Bear in mind that the carrying of arms, daggers and such, was relatively common and minor arguments could easily escalate. In 1593 Cambridge alumni Christopher Marlowe had his life and stellar career (he was a spy, playwright, atheist and early contemporary of Shakespeare) cut short when a tavern brawl got out of hand.

It seems that Marlowe was one of the many who did not follow the rule to “beware of riot, excess & intemperance, which hath drown’d & devoured ye most pregnant parts & choicest of witts.” When away from home for the first time parents often worry that their children will be drawn into a life of excess and idleness in which riotous behaviour can bloom. One only has to look at the antics of the infamous Bullingdon Club in Oxford to understand the fear. Perhaps it was with behaviour such as this that encouraged Dupont to write the rule “take heed how you spend your time”.

Students were also given advice about what to wear and how to behave. “Wear no boots, nor powder your hair, let yr Garb be grave & sober, yet cheerful & pleasant.” After the Reformation the study of canon law declined in Universities and courses were increasingly preparing students for careers in the priesthood of the national church, in which outward presentation would have been considered important. This point is particularly interesting when you remember that in 1610 few people actually went to University, and those that did tended to be young, well off men often from high ranking families. Yet there have always been set ideas of how students should behave and dress. In turn this implies that there were also common ideas about how students should not dress and behave. This is something current students will be aware of when they go on pub crawls, fresher’s parties and end of term balls.

The complete set of 149 rules only came to light in 2013 when they were published in a Cambridge Bibliographical Society. This is the first time that the rules have been printed in their entirety after being prepared for publication by Dr Preston and Dr Oswald. The first known version of the rules have been held in the Wren Library, until recently when the missing page was located. In a post publication interview Dr Preston summed up that: “The rules are fascinating – they build up a picture of what was going on in the university at the time, and show how parents were anxious that their children be properly looked after”.

Although the rules are over three hundred years old tips such as rising early, making use of local book shops and avoiding the perils of binge drinking are still given out today by worried parents as their children are branching out on their own for the first time. These rules help to show that going away to University has always been a rite of passage, eliciting excitement and nerves in equal measure. It is interesting that the list focuses more on the social and practical side, rather than the academic, of being a student, expressing the fears of parents and guardians throughout the centuries. Who would have thought that the beliefs of a seventeenth century scholar could have so much resonance with twenty-first century parents who given the chance would often love for their children to “forbear wine and tobacco” and focus on their studies rather than socialising.

Welcoming the Mayor to Hell. The Story of Jane Byrne and Cabrini Green

First Written for Headstuff



‘What It’s like to be in Hell’


Three weeks in 1981 saw an almost complete halt in criminal activities in the notorious Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. Often regarded as one of the most violent of the projects in America it had long been swamped by crime, gang warfare and neglect and the housing conditions were often deplorable.

In 1981, Mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne took the unusual step of moving into one of the housing units in Cabrini Green. In these days of politicians having second homes and travel allowances this seems like a strange thing for a politician to do but in the context of 1981 it was an even more provocative action for a Mayor to take. So why did she do it?

The first reason was to demonstrate that this area was not as bad as its detractors would have you think. For a Mayor it would be very difficult to claim to be a reformer making great strides against inequality when the city’s housing projects were deemed so unsafe as to be uninhabitable. Cabrini Green, infamous for crime and urban blight had also become a byword for racial and class divides. The Mayor attracted, and courted the media who followed her as she moved in and out of the project. With this publicity Byrne aimed to publicise the inequality that plagued the city. By moving into one of the most deprived areas she hoped to shine a light on the neglected side of the city and in turn hopefully prove that Chicago was a city worth investing in.

Byrne had been in office since 1979, however 1981 would prove to be the most significant year of her tenure. In 1981 there were 11 reported gang killings in the first few months of the year and a violent assault on a teenage girl. As each of these were reported on the news, Byrne faced increasing criticism for her policies and ability to protect the most vulnerable citizens. A Democrat she found the headlines depicting the decay and fear around the projects acutely embarrassing. In her election campaign she had positioned herself as a reformer. Now was the time to put that into action.

Byrne wished to demonstrate her commitment to increasing safety in public housing projects by moving in herself. In doing so she would also be able to see the problems Cabrini Green was facing first hand. Cutting through layers of bureaucracy to go straight to the source of the troubles, Byrne stated that she would stay “as long as it takes to clean it up”.

The Cabrini Green area had long had a fearsome reputation. In the 1850’s nearby gas refineries produced shooting pillars of flames and noxious fumes, leading to the name “Little Hell” being coined. This became the main destination of Irish emigrants entering the city. The same problems of poverty, inequality and danger would linger in the area. An example of this can be seen from a 1931 “map of Chicago’s gangland by Bruce-Roberts which included “death corner” with the chilling additional note “50 murders: count em”.


“Sing a Song of Gangsters”: The Bruce-Roberts Gangland Map, 1931

It was into this environment that building began on the first public housing units in 1942, part of the mid-twentieth century urban renewal that took place across America. However, the end of World War II resulted in the closure of many nearby factories and thousands of new unemployed. It didn’t take long until the struggling city began to withdraw services from the projects. This included police patrols and building maintenance. The later stages of building works were conducted on a very tight budget. These new homes were of low quality and suffered from maintenance problems very quickly. 1942 regulations stipulated that the population had to be 75% white. This was later found to be racially discriminatory and the controls were removed in 1966. This contributed to a shifting demographic in the area.

As occurred in many other housing projects and inner cities across America, Cabrini Green experienced ‘white flight’. It didn’t take long until the population of Cabrini Green was ‘overwhelmingly’ African-American and very poor. This contributed to the image of racial and class inequality in Chicago. Furthermore, in 1992 the LA Times reported that of Cabrini Green’s 7,000 residents half are younger than 20. Only 9% of residents were employed and single parent families were the norm.


Over the years fencing was added to balconies. The reinforced metal and mesh exteriors gave the projects a cage like quality. This was intended to prevent garbage from being emptied into the yard below and also to prevent deaths of people being thrown/ falling off the building. In practice however it just obscured activities from police and allowed gangs to take over the open gangways. Residents had begun to throw their garbage outside when the trash chutes were full. One account states that garbage stacked up in these chutes, reaching up to the fifteenth floor at one point. Lawns and green areas, originally intended for sport and recreation, were paved over. When lights in the hallways and outside blew they were not replaced and fire damaged housing units were boarded up and abandoned.

Gun fire had long been the norm in the area. In the days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 snipers positioned on the upper floors caused almost constant gun fire leading to casualties and property damage. Sniper fire continued sporadically throughout the 1970s. It is strange to think that in a housing center in the middle of an American city snipers can and have taken control of the area. In 1970, July 17th, two police officers were fatally shot.

Although there were only 3,607 units at its height, there were around 15,000 known inhabitants. It is often thought that the real figure was much higher, with family members and friends living together, and gangs taking over empty units. Cabrini Green is located on the near north side of Chicago, a stone’s throw from the Gold Coast, which is otherwise a largely affluent area of the city. This reinforced the idea of relative poverty in the heart of the city. By 1981 Cabrini Green was considered a ‘no go’ area, largely avoided by all who could.

Byrne’s arrival coincided with Easter. A parade and children’s events had been arranged. Hymns were sung. Local news outlets had been reported and were on hand when a group of locals began to protest at the perceived publicity stunt, chanting “we need jobs not eggs” and “Jayne Byrne is full of tricks”. They also captured the arrest of one of the protesters. It was not an auspicious start. Byrne’s attempt to gain greater knowledge of Cabrini’s problems first hand did gain international coverage, however it was mostly negative with headlines calling it a ‘stunt’, and a ‘disaster’. Byrne remained in Cabrini Green for only three weeks.

The 1980s also saw a crack epidemic ravage inner city America. The projects quickly became a hub of addiction and drug selling. For many this was a quick way to make money when they felt that there was nothing else for them. It also became an added element to the ongoing gang operations. Gangs in the area included The Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Cobra Stones, Blackstones and El Rukins.

A New York Times article had this to say on the drug problem in Cabrini Green:

“drug dealers form thickets in the lobbies so deep that it resembles a crowded market. The elevators are often out of service, forcing residents into stairwells that addicts have claimed for their own purposes”.

It was “the Poverty District”, the place where peopled queued for drugs from the 4th floor down to the building lobby.

Byrne and her husband took over a fourth floor apartment, but a police and substantial personal body guard presence remained at all times. Additional security measures were put in place for her stay, the rear entryway of the unit was welded shut so that there was only one main access point to her apartment. This had the unwelcome side effect of creating a fortified area for gangs to use after her departure. In the future gangs would copy this so her attempt to raise awareness of conditions in the project inadvertently actually contributed to the problem.

Gun crime continued after Byrne’s tenure as Mayor until the projects were demolished in 2011. Gang members would ring in the New Year with gun fire. It became a yearly ‘celebration’. Bullets put civilians at risk but it seemed as though there was nothing that the police could do about it. In the end each New Year the police ended up simply cutting the area off. As the area was cordoned off it also meant that emergency services could not enter the area. Over time gangs took control of individual buildings, marking them with distinctive symbols and imagery.

The 1990’s then saw several very high case crimes reported nationally. In 1992 a young boy, Dantrell Davis was shot dead by a stray bullet when he was holding his mother’s hand on the walk to school. He was the third pupil from Jenner School to be murdered in seven months.

In 1997 a crime occurred that was so vicious that it shocked the nation anew, and this time even caused outrage among resident gangs. A nine year old girl, “Girl X”, was found in a 7th floor stairwell. She had been raped, beaten, choked, poisoned with a can of insecticide and her body covered in gang symbols. She survived and the attacker, who had no gang affiliations, was found in a rare show of unity with the help of local community leaders and gang leaders who were all sickened by the crime and the attempts the culprit had made to blame them. It was this incident more than any other that triggered rehabilitation attempts and ultimately helped lead to the decision to knock down the project, and attempt to erase its history for good.

So did Byrne achieve anything by this move?

After her stay in Cabrini, she approached private donors to fund a sports complex that would boost morale, give people the chance to be a part of something, and show how some investment and interest can help improve an area. Her husband Jay McMullen coached the local baseball, basketball and soft ball teams long after they left and the centre was reported to help the residents feel as if they were again part of the mainstream.

Unfortunately the funds dried up after the 1983 election and over time the centre also fell into disrepair. Newspapers were dismissive of her actions and any good intentions that Byrne may have had were obscured. It was an effort to demonstrate a commitment to making the complex safer, but actually contributed to the public perception of Cabrini Green as being dangerous and undesirable. After all, if it were otherwise, why would Byrne have needed to be constantly accompanied by police officers?

However not everyone was so negative. In a New York Times report, Janice Todd, an assistant principal at the Richard Byrd Elementary School had this to say,

“A poll taken soon after the Mayor moved out showed that her popularity had risen as a result of her stay there. But residents say that when she left, so did many of the city services that had been increased for her stay.

”My feeling is that things were never different when Mayor Byrne was here. The gangs and troublemakers simply went underground when the Mayor was here. Now there has been a resurgence of gang activity.”

Byrne was not re-elected in 1983.