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Mostly Terrible Advice for Daughters From Dads of Yore

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"Experts" of yesteryear weren't shy about advising women on how to be good mothers. But the same can't be said about advice for fathers. It appears there was little market for instructing men how to nurture, provide for, or discipline their children. Who would dare instruct a king on how to rule his own subjects?

But there are plenty of books where fathers advise their children. The advice directed from fathers to sons was rather dull and straightforward. (Stay clean. Don’t spend money. Read Horace in Latin.) But not so for their daughters. For the most part, when fathers of generations past wrote advice to their daughters, that advice was horrifying. Fathers filled pages with doom and shame, threats against their daughter’s very lives and sanity should the girls stray. 

Sick, Simpering and Stupid = Sexy!

John Gregory wrote A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters in 1821. Gregory found human women … gross. He really preferred the ones in paintings and poems. He advised his daughters to banish almost every natural human instinct and behavior they possessed, in an effort to reach true femininity. After telling them never to join in men’s conversation, but listen with placid detachment, he warned against intelligence.

“Be even cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume superiority over the rest of the company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts and a cultivated understanding.”

Understand, darling? Boys don’t make passes at girls in Trigonometry classes.

Gregory approved of physical health and outdoor exercise for his daughters. But for God’s sake don’t tell anyone about it.

“Enjoy [your health] in grateful silence. We so naturally associate the idea of female softness and delicacy with a correspondent delicacy of constitution, that when a woman speaks of her great strength, her extraordinary appetite, her ability to bear excessive fatigue, we recoil at the description in a way she is little aware of.” 

We recoil! Healthy women disgust any decent man! 

Sex Turns Ladies into Crazies

Isaac Gomez, writing 100 years later in 1920, took a more gentle approach. He copied bits of great literature that he thought would help his daughter comport herself properly. He devoted five pages of poetry to the preservation of his daughter’s virginity, and the despair that would befall her if she misplaced it. One of his quoted poems, entitled “Maniac,” describes a woman gone insane from having sex before marriage. And does it with surprisingly few vowels.

See ! yon poor Maniac: shiv'ring in her cell,
With hair dishevell'd, and with bosom bare;
Once bless'd with innocence,
the hours roll'd on In glad succession.
Her cultur'd mind Was calm'and mild as summer ev'nings are,
Till in her soul convulsing passions strove,
And rais'd a dark and wild tornado there…           

And so on until she falls down the void of madness and death. Which we all agree, is pretty much what the tart deserved.

I will say, that in Gomez’s five pages of hymen-praise, I’ve never seen a woman referred to as a fruit so many times, or so colorfully. It was great when they were budding or blooming; but then they got “despoiled” or “pluckt,” becoming a “wreck of maidenhood.” Nobody wants a girl after someone else has pluckt her.

Gregory weighs in on this subject too, but his rules are stricter:

When a girl ceases to blush, she has lost the most powerful charm of her beauty. Why a woman should blush, when she is conscious of no crime? It is sufficient to answer, Nature has made you to blush when you are guilty of no fault, and has forced us to love you because you do so.

Hmm. I just made an oblique reference to flowers having stamens. This 44-year-old mother of six isn’t blushing. What a worthless, debauched hag. God, how I hate her. 

More and Better Stuff

Not all old-school dads were so conservative. As early as 1913, there were signs of fathers starting to believe their daughters were people. Charles Thwing wrote a whole volume to his daughter, just about her entrance to college. College! I mean, she still wasn’t a boy or anything, as he seems to be reminding her in this passage:

Your father may wish you had more and better stuff in you, but you are what you are, and education must educate that individual and that individuality which Nature out of all her material made you.

More and better stuff. Like a penis.

That’s why he had to send her to an all-girls college. He explains it with a great mincing of words, “There are, for some girls, so many [problems] so hard, that they are not able to see through them or think through them or even feel their way into or through them.”

But the bottom line being, boys will twitter-pate the downy softness of your woman-brain, and it’s already delicate enough, darling.   

"You Are Now Old Enough To Know Your Own Mind."

What a relief it was to stumble on to Henry Kett, writing to his daughter Emily in 1809. It was the oldest volume I read, but the most frank and progressive. Marriage was what a girl did with her future in 1809; that’s just the way it was. But Kett did not regard his daughter a helpless, perpetual child. He wanted her to take a hand in her own happiness. You can almost hear a modern father’s bark of “Use your damn brain!” through the spaces in his (very long run-on) sentences.

If you were to be betrayed into a matrimonial engagement by a gay admirer, who is indebted to his dancing-master, his tailor, and his coach-maker for his attractions, and were to be induced by a few flattering speeches, and his stylish appearance, to listen to his proposals, you could not have extreme youth, nor perfect ignorance of the world, to plead your excuse—you are now old enough to know your own mind ….You have had the advantage of being introduced into genteel company, and have daily opportunities of exercising your judgment upon the behaviour and characters of gentlemen.

That means, I raised you to know a dumbass when you see one. No excuses. 

"If You Marry A..."

Kett gets even more explicit in his marital advice to Emily, using terms that probably weren’t politically correct even in his day (a time when the slave trade thrived and people threw their poop into the streets).

1. "If you marry a fool, under the delusion that you will be able to manage him, you may be the victim of your own schemes; for fools are obstinate, and your supposed idiot may put those fetters upon you, which you intended for him." (Idiots bring you down to their level.)

2. "If you marry a rake, from the flattering supposition that you shall be able to effect his reformation, you may bitterly repent of having miscalculated the power of your attractions, and may die of jealousy and despair." (You think your love will change him? Good luck with that, sunshine.)

3. "If you marry a merely rich man, you may indeed gain splendid furniture and gaudy equipages, but you may find too late that a house at the west end of the town, and a box at the opera are no cures for disappointment." (Diamonds don’t ask you how your mammogram went).

4. "If you throw yourself away upon a pauper, he may add ingratitude to ambition; he may disgrace both you and your family; his vulgarity may shock, and his insolence may terrify you." (A lazy bum at rest tends to stay at rest. Except when getting drunk and embarrassing you at barbeques).

5. "If you marry a rich old man, the world will say that you act from mercenary motives, and are only thinking of a large jointure, and the handsome figure you will soon make in widow's weeds." (You're pulling an Anna Nicole Smith.)

6. "If you marry an invalid you must make up your mind to pass many hours in a sick room, and to perform the offices of a nurse." (Love can’t heal all wounds; don’t be a martyr.)

Harsh. But so familiar to what our fathers have said to us in the privacy of our homes in the most unguarded moments. Don’t let that temporary flush of infatuation blind you and bind you. Make smart choices.

To Be the Best Stupid Virgin

It’s very important to remember, when reading these outdated offerings of wisdom, that these fathers weren’t lunatics or tyrants. They just wanted a good life for their daughters. The best life. They lived in a society where silent, stupid, sickly virgins were the most highly valued, and well, they wanted their daughters to be valuable.

These pages of advice, however disturbing to our minds, were meant to impart the tools necessary to navigate their world smoothly and successfully. Back then, that entailed behaving in such a way as to have the finest pick of husbands and friends. Today it may mean teaching her to question authority, making sure she can do basic self-defense, and change her own tires. But whatever the century, whatever the method, good dads have always done the same thing. Encourage, protect, and try to teach their children to choose happiness.

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
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Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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