4 Historical Royal Birthing Traditions

MirasWonderland/iStock via Getty Images
MirasWonderland/iStock via Getty Images

We can’t really tell you what it was like in the delivery room of the private Lindo wing of St. Mary’s Hospital in London. But we can tell you what it would have been like for other historical royal women. And let’s just say, it wasn’t always pleasant—although in some cases, it changed the way babies were born for everyone.

1. Giving birth with an audience

For hundreds of years, royal women gave birth in front of spectators. It was a big custom among the French royalty—poor Marie Antoinette was almost killed by the great crush of people who poured into her bedchamber at Versailles when the doctor shouted that the baby was coming. Contemporary reports claim that it was stiflingly hot, that it was impossible to move for spectators, and that some people were climbing atop the furniture for a better view. No wonder she fainted. (And no wonder the custom was abandoned soon after. Well, sort of: The royal mother still gave birth before a crowd of people—ministers, advisors, trustworthy types—just a smaller one.)

A public viewing, no matter how uncomfortable for the one being viewed, was designed to prove to the entire court that the child was indeed the fruit of the royal woman’s womb, that there hadn’t been a switch up at some point.

Even if it wasn’t an official public—as in any punters off the street—policy, other royal women were expected to deliver their babies to an audience. Still, it didn’t work for Mary of Modena, queen consort of the Catholic King James II. No less than 70 people reportedly witnessed the birth of their longed-for son and heir, James Francis Edward Stuart, on June 10, 1688. But gossips still claimed that he was a changeling child smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan, and that the real prince had been stillborn. The whole conspiracy was cooked up by Protestants wary that the Catholic King James II would raise his son, the heir to the throne, a Catholic; that would constitute a further imposition of what they now considered a foreign religion on a Protestant people. The supposed illegitimacy of young James, however, furnished William of Orange, the next Protestant in line for the British throne, with a good reason to invade.

But measures to make sure that the royal baby was indeed the right one were still in place until 1936. Until then, and including the births of Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, the British Home Secretary was required to stand outside the door of the birthing room, just to be sure.

2. Palace or hospital?

Maybe it’s comforting to know that royal women tend to give birth generally the same as other women, and the mechanisms of those births tend to follow the customs of the day. That meant that for the vast majority of royal family history, babies were born at home, or at whatever palatial estate the royal mother happened to be in at the time. Prince Charles, heir to the British crown, was born November 14, 1948, at Buckingham Palace. (Or rather, as the BBC put it, “Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh, was safely delivered of a prince at 9:14 p.m.”)

At the time, roughly one in three women in the UK gave birth at home. It wasn’t until more than 20 years later that a member of the royal family would be born in a hospital. In 1970, Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, was the first royal baby to be born in a hospital (University College London—that’s where I gave birth! I feel famous!). That was, incidentally, the same year that the Peel Report in the UK recommended that every British woman should give birth in a hospital, not at home, for the safety of the infant. Now, less than 3 percent of British mothers give birth at home—and the royals are among the majority who go the hospital route.

3. A bit of chloroform? Queen Victoria starts a fad

Queen Victoria was all about setting standards and starting fads, some of them better than others. For the vast majority of human existence, pain relief for women in labour was rare—and for at least some of history, said to be against the wishes of God. One woman in 1591 was burned at the stake after she asked for pain relief during the birth of her twins. Though not quite so extreme, that was the general attitude even after the discovery of relatively safe anesthetics in the 19th century. Ether and chloroform were all right for things like surgery and limb removal, but delivering babies the painful way was woman’s lot in life.

And then, in 1853, at the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria asked her attending physician for a bit of the good stuff. Dr. John Snow (the visionary doctor who figured out that the deadly cholera outbreaks cutting swathes through the city were being transmitted by water-born microbes) administered chloroform to the Queen via a saturated cloth: “Her majesty expressed great relief from the application, the pains being very trifling during the uterine contractions, and whilst between the periods of contraction there was complete ease.” I’ll bet.

Victoria’s decision, however, and the decision of people around her to tell everyone about it, ushered in a new era of drugs for childbirth. For good or for ill: After the floodgates opened, doctors were throwing anything and everything at delivering mothers, from nitrous oxide (whip-its!) and quinine (anti-malarial!) to cocaine and opium. By the end of the century, modern science determined that modern ladies—well, modern ladies of the upper and middle classes, and definitely not poor women—were too delicate to give birth without significant aid. During the early part of the 20th century, some doctors advocated “twilight sleep” for those women who could afford it. “Twilight sleep” was basically super-strong drugs that didn’t knock you out during the birth— women under the influence of this cheery cocktail routinely hallucinated and had to be restrained and blindfolded during childbirth—but they did make sure you didn’t remember a damn thing except waking up in the morning with an adorable new baby. Um, thanks, Victoria?

4. Get a grip: Forceps

Nowadays, instrumental births are more common; in the UK, around one in eight women delivers her child with help from a Ventouse (the vacuum) or forceps. Before the invention of the forceps, however, there were few options to unstick a stuck baby that didn’t result in the death of the mother or the child. The less said about that the better.

But beginning in the late 1500s, one family had a secret gadget that seemed to miraculously free the baby without (too much) harm and save the mother as well: The Chamberlen family had invented the first obstetric forceps. And they didn’t tell anyone for the next 200 years. French Huguenots Dr. William Chamberlen and his pregnant wife and three children sailed to England in 1569. No one knows whether it was this Chamberlen or one of his sons called Peter (he had two) who developed the first forceps design, but by the 1600s, the Chamberlens were the "men midwives" of choice to the British social elite. Men midwives, as they were actually called, were the newest, hottest thing in obstetrics, putting female midwives out of business left and right. Of course, it was still quite inappropriate for a man who was not her husband to see a lady’s bits, so male midwives were forced to work almost blindfolded: The female patient would be covered in a sheet from her neck down, the other end of the sheet tied around the male midwife’s neck, forming a kind of tent. 

This actually worked out well for the Chamberlens, as it meant they could keep their lifesaving—and incredibly lucrative—instrument a secret. The Chamberlens by now were favorites of pregnant British royals and aristocracy, though the rest of the medical community pretty much hated them. In the early 1700s, Hugh Chamberlen finally made the design for the forceps public, although they were almost immediately the subject of fierce debate—some doctors and midwives thought they killed more infants than they saved.

It took the death of a royal princess to make people think otherwise. In 1817, Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of Princess Caroline and George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), died after delivering a stillborn baby boy. The national outpouring of grief was intense—the British people had loved Charlotte in direct proportion to how much they hated her father, which was a lot. But while the nation clad itself in black, Charlotte’s death had another, more long-term effect: The attending doctor was excoriated in public for not using forceps to deliver the child. The demand for forceps soared, ushering a new era of birthing protocol; the doctor, however, killed himself three months after Charlotte’s death.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER