On the wall of my study is an 1829 map that I bought in a book store in Boulder, Colorado a few years back showing north America. Mexico, newly independent from Spain, still ruled Texas and California. But what a modern viewer might find shocking is that Alaska is part of Russia. And not just the Alaska you know today. But a territory ruled by the Russian tsar that extended right down to Oregon.
You may be familiar with the Louisiana Purchase that saw the United States buy a huge chunk of territory from Montana to Louisiana from the French government in 1803 that doubled the size of the U.S. But less well known is the Alaska Purchase of 1867. That saw what we now call Alaska bought from the Russian Empire.
In the previous decade, Russia had lost the Crimean War against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire (ruled from what is now Istanbul). That had been a war provoked by Russian imperial aggression. But having been defeated, Tsar Alexander II decided he couldn’t commit resources to defending this far off province. At the same time, he didn’t want Britain to grab it – as they already ruled Canada. So – he sold Alaska to the United States. Hence that strange part of the U.S. detached from the rest of the nation.
The price was crazily cheap at way less than a dollar a mile. Thirty years later the Russians would kick themselves as the Klondike Gold Rush overwhelmed the state in the 1890s. Over a hundred thousand prospectors would descend to get rich quick. Russia had to watch helplessly wondering why it had let that mineral-rich land go at a rock bottom price.
They’re still sore today. And there have been concerns voiced in recent years about growing Russian encroachment. As the ice cap melts and new waterways are created, Arctic and Native American communities have noted an increasing Russian naval presence. If you spin the globe northwards and look down at the balance of power in the Arctic as a region, it is massively tilted towards Putin and Russia. That’s in terms of deep water ports, airfields and ice breakers.
Maybe Putin has the same 1829 map on his study wall and every so often glances at it with a malevolent leer. Worryingly, it doesn’t seem improbable!
It’s hard to believe that a rat was once executed for murder. The judge in this bizarre trial was Tsar Peter III. He was an adult male, already in his 20s, who retained a childlike fascination for his set of toy soldiers. And when he found a rat chewing the head off one of his model infantry – he saw red.
The rat was put on trial, found guilty of murder and ordered to be executed by hanging. Peter then constructed a mini set of gallows and carried out the grim verdict.
His queen, Catherine, chanced upon the grisly spectacle and decided to bring forward plans to overthrow a husband she totally detested. With him out of the way, she would become sole ruler of Russia. Which is exactly what happened. Peter was discreetly bundled away and most likely murdered.
However, we do have to question this story. On the one hand, it could be entirely true that Peter was a sadistic simpleton as portrayed in later propaganda from Catherine’s supporters. Conversely, Peter was the subject of a campaign to portray him as entirely unsuited for high office. Therefore everybody should thank his wife – sorry, widow – for getting rid of the idiot.
Catherine herself turned out to be a more than capable ruler. But some revisionist historians have pointed to Peter’s impressive legislative record or reform – achieved despite the fact he was only tsar for six months. The suggestion is that far from being mentally impaired, Peter was just as capable as his very driven wife.
But what’s come down to us is an image of a petulant and grossly immature young man who put a rat on trial for murder in a fit of pique. And in truth, it’s a far better story than the alternative. Getting people to believe that he’d carried out such a morbid exercise wasn’t difficult as Peter had made plenty of enemies among the church, nobility and peasantry with his progressive views. And Catherine kept these stories about him going for the rest of her life.
This is an episode in my new YouTube series Weird Historical Facts – so view and enjoy!
Women have had a tough time breaking through in history. Up against societies where men were told they ruled the roots – women had had to exercise power against all odds. Sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front.
But when women have managed to get to the top in history – they’ve been demonised or subjected to myth making and invented scandals. In short, women in history have been the subject of fake news. And the image we have of many famous female historical figures is entirely from the poison pens of male historians of the time.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Catherine the Great
Oh, you must have heard how Catherine the Great of Russia died. The horse. The harness that broke. How it fell on top of her. What she was trying to do at the time with the horse.
I’ve heard that tale for decades going back to university. The myth that one of Russia’s most powerful historical rulers was killed when she attempted to have equine intercourse. The story, folks, is total bunkum – nonsense – 100% tripe.
But myths like this about great women persist. If anything, with social media they are reviving and spreading more than ever. This maliciously amusing lie about Catherine the Great is believed to have originated in France among catty royal courtiers who wanted to mock Russia’s ambition to be a world power. How better to do that than denigrate the late female tsar.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: The Empress Livia – wife of Augustus
Women in history have always been the subject of the most resilient myths. Ambitious, clever females have been systematically rubbished by male chroniclers. The Roman Empire is a good example. Take the wife of the first emperor Augustus. Livia was the mother of the people and brainy consort of her husband the emperor. But she was also cast as a serial poisoner.
The historian Tacitus accused her of framing and being complicit in the murder of some of her rivals. The very bitchy Roman writer Suetonius echoed these claims.
And then Cassius Dio, a very respected Roman source, went as far as to claim that she ended up murdering Augustus by smearing poison on figs she knew he would eat. These accusations were all repeated in the 20th century novel I, Claudiusby Robert Graves, later made into an excellent BBC TV drama in the 1970s.
Why would Livia have poisoned as many people as these historians claimed? Because it’s alleged she was clearing a path for her son Tiberius to become the second emperor. There is no evidence whatsoever to support an association between Livia and about twenty deaths attributed to her. Yet, the crimes have stuck like glue damaging her reputation down the centuries.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Roman female politicians
Roman women clearly exercised very real power and got trashed for doing so. The mother of Nero, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of poisoning her husband the emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle).
And then there’s the wife of Mark Antony – not Cleopatra, but a lesser known woman called Fulvia. She was hated by the great Roman orator Cicero who spoke out against her on several occasions. One unsubstantiated account has her receiving his head after he was executed for treason and piercing his tongue with her gold hairpins.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Lucrezia Borgia
Fast forward to Italy during the Renaissance and we have the scandalous history of Lucrezia Borgia. The first shocking fact – true as it happens – is that she was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Yes, you read that correctly. The pope had a daughter. And other children. Pope Alexander indeed freely admitted to having fathered several kids from his mistresses.
His reputation has been undermined as a result with his family, the Borgias, painted as corrupt and libertine. But at the time, Pope Alexander was deemed to have been one of the most cultured and successful popes in history.
One of his children, Cesare Borgia, was an ambitious statesman who was the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince. While Lucrezia was also a very talented political operator but she was cast as …. yet another serial poisoner.
Women who murdered were normally expected to use poison. The idea being that they were too physically weak to resort to something more physical. And drugging also revealed underhand feminine guile and cunning. So, the gossip went, Lucrezia concealed poison in her ring that she slipped into her victims’ drinks.
The stories about the Borgias holding orgies and having incest spread from two very hostile sources. One was the growing Protestant faith, which viewed the early 16th century Vatican as a corrupt Babylon of vice and depravity. The other source was the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola who accused Pope Alexander of being in league with the devil. His repeated denunciations of the papacy led to him being burned to death in 1498.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Anne Boleyn
I’ll finish with Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – beheaded when she was unable to bear her king a son. Anne was ambitious but no more so than any other woman of her rank.
She was just better and brighter when it came to getting what she wanted. In the end, she paid with her head with charges trumped up against her that were clearly over the top. Incest with her brother being one calumny thrown at her.
And in addition, Catholic propagandists – who disliked the Protestant Anne – spread the entirely false rumour that she had a sixth finger on her right hand. Obviously a sign of being a witch! Anne’s remains were exhumed in the 19th century and there was no sign of an extra digit!
As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!
In 2019, I appeared in every episode of Private Lives broadcast on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world such as the Smithsonian. Historical subjects included Napoleon and Hitler.
Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I covered the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:
Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.
Happy viewing – and hope you learn more about Napoleon and Hitler!!
Transgender rights are a hot issue today. But proving there’s nothing new under the sun – let’s look back at a trans celebrity of the 18th century who caused a sensation across Europe. Because Georgian London was obsessed with the true identity of a French diplomat called, the Chevalier d’Eon.
Transgender celebrity in 18th century London
The Chevalier was a diplomat attached to the French embassy and worked for King Louis XVI (soon to lose his head in the French revolution). He seems to have delighted in confusing people about his true sexuality. This very colourful character lived one part of his life dressed in public as a man (1762-1777) and then another as a woman (1786-1810). During both periods he cross-dressed at parties as the mood took him.
While he was in London, there was a gambling mania. People were betting on anything. And there was feverish speculation about the Chevalier’s true sexuality. Nobody wanted to lose their money betting the wrong way on the true biological sex of this curious diplomat.
The fashionable salons of the city buzzed with gossip and hearsay about the French diplomat – exactly what one suspects he wanted. It must have amused the Chevalier to tease the people whose tongues never seemed to stop wagging.
I was at an antique book fair today and spotted a 1771 pamphlet about an examination of this trans diplomat by a group of well-born ladies who were overwhelmed by curiosity. On the 24 May, 1771, a “jury of matrons” took a good look at the naked form of the Chevalier with his consent at Medmenham Abbey.
If the name of this abbey seems familiar, it was where the so-called Hellfire Clubused to meet. That was a group of wealthy men who dressed in gowns and turbans then paid prostitutes to dress as nuns before despoiling them. Yes, eighteenth century England was a very debauched affair!
Examination of the transgender diplomat
The aristocratic grand dame in charge of the Chevalier’s examination declared that they had to know what was between his legs in case their daughters married him. She couldn’t abide the thought of one of the girls being accidentally wed to another woman or a “hermaphrodite”. The main cause of concern was that as aristocrats they needed to have children to pass their wealth and estates on to. The Chevalier might not be able to deliver the goods!
One of the other ladies in the room was sure he wasn’t really a man:
For though I threw out every possible lure to induce him to make overtures to me and almost solicited him to my bed, I could never get a tender thing from him. Besides, I observed he had little or no beard and that he always avoided entering upon amorous subjects.
Infuriatingly, the pamphlet says that the meeting couldn’t make up its mind and adjourned. One person who did make up his mind was King Louis XVI. In 1775, his majesty insisted that the Chevalier dress as a woman. He eventually complied but took to fencing with men in public to show he was no ordinary woman!
As an additional point, some feminists today have quibbled about whether trans people can be really regarded as women. Again, the eighteenth century can teach us so much. Mary Wollstonecraft was the leading feminist of her time and mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. She described the Chevalier as a model of female fortitude.
Even though after his death – doctors confirmed that although the Chevalier was very androgynous – he did have male genitalia.
NBC/Universal in the US and Sky One in the UK are broadcasting a new dramatisation of the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It presents what we call a dystopian view of the future – one that is thoroughly pessimistic. As opposed to a brighter utopia.
Huxley wrote his story at a time when capitalism was reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and the Soviet Union was embarking on a series of bloody purges under its dictator, Stalin.
A few decades earlier, Victorians at the end of the 19th century had imagined that the world could improve and advance with every forward step. Science, technology and reason would lead us to a genuinely brave new world. But the First World War literally shot that optimism to pieces.
Even the hope for a revolution that would liberate humanity from want and deprivation was questioned. The year 1917 saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But after the Bolshevik leader Lenin died, his successor Stalin oversaw the creation of a bureaucratic, nightmarish, totalitarian dystopia.
Writers responded to this new gloom and uncertainty. George Orwell wrote 1984 while Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World. They in turn were inspired by centuries of authors and political thinkers who penned their own visions of the future to make a point.
Brave New World – not a new concept
Great thinkers like the Greek philosopher Plato or the sixteenth century statesman Thomas More imagined perfect societies of the future. They wanted to show their readers what a properly ordered world could look like. It was a description of something More called Utopia.
But – Utopia has a grim opposite: Dystopia.
Dystopian visions of the future depict a very different world. It’s an unpleasant place where human beings are alienated or terrified. The authorities may be dictatorial or even totalitarian. Thoughts might be controlled. Terrible, unspeakable things have been normalised, becoming a part of everyday life.
The 20th century saw dystopian views of the future portrayed more and more. Two world wars, fascism, dictatorship, murder on an industrial scale and the erosion of democracy by faceless forces made the future seem a lot bleaker. The cheery optimism of the Victorian age where every day would be better than the next gave way to growing uncertainty.
Many early 20th century dystopians were deeply disillusioned by the direction Russia took after the 1917 communist revolution. Hopes for the creation of a society under working class control gave way to the reality of Stalin’s bureaucratic hell. George Orwell summed up his gloomy prognosis in 1984. A world where Big Brother is watching you at all times and people indulge in “doublespeak”, never saying what they really mean.
The dystopia of Aldous Huxley
In 1931, the author Aldous Huxley depicted another dystopia where there is no sexual intercourse and people are created through artificial wombs. Humans are bred differently with healthier, taller and intelligent people being graded alpha or beta while those cloned in mass production and consequently dimmer and smaller do menial tasks as gammas, deltas and epsilons. All citizens are kept happy by ingesting a drug called “soma”.
Huxley denied he was influenced by a Russian author called Yevgeny Zamyatin who described a very similar totalitarian state where science had been misused to control humanity in his novel, We.
The Soviet Union provoked visions of dystopia in the 1920s and 1930s but in the 1970s, it was fears of a post-nuclear world where the two superpowers – the United States and USSR – had fried the planet.
Planet of the Apesends with the realisation that ape rule has only been possible because human beings have rained nuclear bombs down on their civilisation. Damnation Alleysees the protagonists driving across a post-nuclear America.
Logan’s Runhas people living under sealed domes and subjected to enforced euthanasia at the age of 30 – but believing they are being renewed. All horrific takes on dystopia.
The 1970s embraced dystopia as it grappled with the threat of nuclear war; the end of the Vietnam War; the near impeachment of President Nixon and severe economic crisis. It’s not surprising that in equally turbulent times, we are reaching back to dystopia and forming again a very gloomy and nihilistic view of the future.