Oranges, Grapefruits, Lemons, & Exploration

Anyone who has ever attended a book chat with me or read my blog knows I’m a giant nerd. I’ve always been a giant nerd. I was terribly bored in junior high and high school, so my graduating GPA doesn’t show that I’m a nerd, but that’s okay. In 10th grade, a counsellor figured it out and I was put in Honors and AP classes. I did very well in these classes.

I took a class in genetics (which was awesome) and in 11th grade, I had to retake world history and was placed in AP world history with Miss Jones. I also had Miss Jones for anthropology/archaeology. Of my high school teachers, Miss Jones was one of my absolute favorites.

In AP World History we covered topics a little faster and Miss Jones was prone to give us extra information. Information that in the grand scheme of things, we’d probably never use, but which was interesting. One of my Facebook friends posted a meme the other day about oranges: are they called oranges because they are orange or was the color named after them. And that extra information Miss Jones used to give us, suddenly had a use.

The sweet orange is a hybrid fruit; crossing the bitter orange with the pomelo creates sweet oranges. The majority of us eat sweet oranges – valencias, Cuties, Halos, etc. And the fruit was named after the color. The first orange entered Europe in the late 1500s. Citrus fruits were so incredibly expensive that they were often used as decorations by the nobility. Pineapples, grapefruits, oranges, kiwi, starfruits, all of these were “new world” fruits, they came to Europe only after the age of Exploration in the 1400s and 1500s. A British explorer brought the first orange tree back to England in the late 1500s and gave it to Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth would pass out oranges as a sign of favor. The oranges she handed out were inedible, because they were bitter oranges.

What explorers hadn’t realized was that the sweet oranges they were eating while in the New World, weren’t the same oranges they were taking back to Europe. Simultaneously, but separately native tribes in the Americas had been cross breeding oranges and pomeloes. These sweet orange trees were kept under lock and key. The first sweet orange tree would arrive in Europe in the 1700s.

Pineapples and oranges were the most expensive of the new world fruits. Pineapples at certain times were worth their weight in gold. Europeans never really developed a taste for kiwi and it was the least valuable of the lot. Even the poor and working classes in England could afford kiwi in the late 1700s and 1800s and it gained popularity among those classes. Until just before WWI, most working people in England had never tasted an orange or a pineapple. It’s something those of us born after 1918, take for granted. We don’t think about fruit as being a high priced commodity, because it is virtually everywhere. We have access to hundreds of different kinds of fruits.

Citrus fruits like oranges and pineapples literally changed the world.


The Myth of Teen Pregnancy

I listened to someone complain recently about the high rates of teen pregnancy. I wanted to beat my head against a wall. Teen pregnancy rates are very similar in 2018 to what they were in 1948. In 70 years, the rate of teen pregnancies hasn’t increased, the social understanding of it has changed.

From 6,000 BCE to 1965, marrying girls off at ages as young as 12 was common practice. The average time between marriage and the birth of the first child is 2 years. This means from 6,000 BCE to today, 14 year old girls have commonly been pregnant all over the world.

Among the poor, the acceptable age for a girl to marry is younger than among the wealthy, making brides of 8, 9, or 10 years old “normal.” This still happens even though we in the West like to shake our fists about it.

In 1948, a girl married and stopped going to school, it didn’t matter if she was 12, 14, or 18. And a pregnant married girl certainly didn’t go to school. Hell, it was considered problematic for a female teacher to become pregnant even if she was married, because the world was convinced it would entice her students to get pregnant (baby rabies).

The difference is in 1948, we didn’t have “teenagers.” People were children and then they were adults. There was no such thing as a teenager. A married, pregnant 14 year old was a woman, not a teen, not a child, a woman, an adult in charge of her household.

We lament pregnant 14 year olds today, not because “teen pregnancy” didn’t happen in the old days, but because teen marriage was the norm.

I’m always shocked when I read Pride & Prejudice because Lizzy and Jane are old!! Lizzy is 20 and unmarried! Jane is 21 and unmarried! Of course, their three younger sisters are out in society, they have got to start husband hunting, especially since Lizzy and Jane haven’t been very good at it. But oh ho, Lizzy and Jane are of the landed gentry, they are daughters of a nobleman. So perhaps they aren’t past their expiration dates, but only because they aren’t poor. If they were poor, they’d be married by 16… As a matter of fact, 4 of the 5 Bennett daughters would be married if they weren’t members of the nobility. And at 20 and 21, there would be some lamenting if children hadn’t come of either Jane nor Lizzy’s marriages by that age.

Where was I with this? Oh yes, teen pregnancy rates haven’t increased much in the last 100 years. Our perception of teen pregnancy has undergone a significant change as we understand teenagers better and no longer considering marrying off our kids at young ages.

Correlation and Causation

I used to work in public health and then I got a history degree. As a result correlation and causation are very important to me. And just like when I was 20 years old, working on cancer cluster research it boggles my mind when people don’t understand the difference between the two or confuse them.

Correlation is when two things happen simultaneously that may or may not be related. Causation is when something happens and causes something else to happen.

For example, everyone who gets cancer drinks water. Does this mean water causes cancer? No, it means people need water to live. The two correlate, water isn’t the cause. And before you argue that not every person on the planet drinks water, yes they do, it may not look like water or taste like water, but it is still water. It doesn’t matter if it’s tea, coffee, soda, beer, Kool-Aid, fruit juice, V8, Gatorade, sparkling water, tap water, or distilled water, it’s all water. Even milk and wine is primarily water.

Now, if you live somewhere like Herculaneum, Missouri, there is a very, very high chance that drinking the water will give you cancer. Because Herculaneum, Missouri is a superfund site: a location where the soil and groundwater has been contaminated with toxic chemicals due to improper disposal of hazardous materials.

But most of us don’t live near a place like Herculaneum, Missouri and the water isn’t going to cause us cancer. It’s a correlation. The two things happen simultaneously, because people need water to live and people get cancer.

Here’s another correlation, that does seem to be completely random. Nearly everyone I know with CRPS owns a dog. When I first started experiencing pain and problems with my hands and forearms, I owned a border collie named Frisky. Did Frisky cause my CRPS? No. I have two possible injuries that caused my CRPS and neither was dog related: injury one I stood up on a teeter totter and the person on the other end jumped off, I broke my wrist. Injury two I accidentally shoved a woodburner into my thumb and caused a 3rd degree burn right down to the bone. Either of these are possible causes. Burns and broken bones are the most common triggers for CRPS. Here’s the shitty part of that, they aren’t the only triggers. You can develop CRPS after spraining an ankle, breaking a nose (no bones in the nose), having a surgical procedure, or childbirth. There is a correlation between owning a dog and having CRPS, but not a causation. And plenty of people own dogs that never develop CRPS.

False and misunderstood correlation and causation is the reason there’s an outbreak of measles in the state of Washington. There is a correlation between vaccination and autism. Vaccinations became more common in the 1950s and 1960s. Autism was diagnosed for the first time in 1933. However, it did not become a “common” diagnosis until the 1980s. The diagnosis of autism, has nothing to do with vaccines and everything to do with our understanding of mental disabilities and the desire to differentiate and define them better.

I’ll give you an even clearer example of misunderstanding of the two. 1952 is the first year that heart disease was the number one killer of adult Americans. There is a definite reason for it, but not a cause. We didn’t suddenly have a massive increase in the number of people dying from heart disease. From 1870-1951 the number one killer of adult Americans was tuberculosis. In 1949, we found the first antibiotic that cured tuberculosis. In 1950 and 1951 the use of streptomycin to cure TB became widespread across the US, Canada, and UK. As a result, 1952 is the first year millions of Americans didn’t die of tuberculosis. There wasn’t an increase in cases of heart disease, there was just a decrease in the mortality rates of TB.

However, if you look at the data searching only for causation, it appears curing tuberculosis made heart disease more deadly. More confusingly, correlation can mask causation. When you start searching for a cause, a strong correlation can be misleading. For example in the 2000s violent crime in Detroit, Michigan dramatically decreased. Gun sales also decreased. The two did not cause each other. The two were caused by the same factor and correlated very strongly as a result. I remember reading a sociology paper about lower gun sales leading to less violent crime at the time. However, gun sales and violent crime decreased because the population of Detroit decreased. In 1990, Detroit had a population of 1.2 million people. In 2000, the population had dropped to 900,000. By 2010 it was down to 650,000 people. The drop in population means fewer criminals and fewer people available to legally buy guns.

I’ve used simple examples, but causation can be very complex. There might be six or seven factors at work in a causation, some of which may not be obvious. The black death was one of the worst plagues to ever hit the human population. But bubonic plague isn’t actually that contagious. There were multiple factors at work to make the Black Death as formidable as it was: drought caused crop failures, crop failures lead to even higher rates of malnutrition, malnutrition causes higher susceptibility to diseases and illnesses, Bubonic Plague mutated to become communicable person to person without the parasitic vector (no fleas needed in other words), also malnutrition leads to fewer antibodies to fight a disease once you have it, making bubonic plague nearly 100% fatal. And suddenly, Bubonic Plague a common illness in the 1300s kills tens of millions across Europe and Asia.

Catherine of Valois – Matriarch of Insanity

Catherine of Valois was the daughter of the French King Charles VI. History has mostly forgotten about her, but perhaps they shouldn’t have. The princess didn’t do much worthy of being remembered though. Charles VI and Henry V arranged for Catherine to marry the english King (Henry V). They were only married a few years, before Henry V died. During that time though, they had one son who would go on to be made king Henry VI.

I have blogged about the French King Charles VI in the past, because Charles VI was seriously mentally ill. Modern thoughts on it are he probably suffered from schizophrenia. This is rather important, because Catherine of Valois is the great grandmother of Henry VIII and the great, great, great, great, great grandmother of George I, who started the Hanoverian dynasty and gave us Mad King George III.

I know most people don’t think of madness when thinking about Henry VIII, but there’s some evidence to suggest that Henry VIII had some issues with mental instability and his eldest daughter Mary, was known for being a hysterical, nervous type who suffered persecution mania and claimed that God spoke to her on a few occasions.

Neither Henry VIII nor Mary were as mentally ill as Charles VI of France, but modern research on the subject does suggest that mental illness might be an underlying complication that lead to Henry VIII’s hot-tempered nature and paranoia about being incapable of producing an heir to the throne with either Catherine or Anne Boleyn.

How does that tie into the Hanoverians? Catherine of Valois had two children after Henry V died with a Welshman named Owen Tudor. Henry VI grew up to be a decent man, not just a good king, but a good man. After the untimely death of his mother, Henry VI took over caring for his very young brothers. He bestowed earldoms on both boys and managed to get both of them advantageous marriages (they were technically illegitimate and Owen Tudor had served in the house of the king, but not in a high ranking position as he was a Welshmen). It was the descendents of one of these illegitimate children that eventually married into the German Royal House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which is where George I came from.

There has been much speculation about what was wrong with Charles VI of France. We don’t have good records from his times of madness. We have some records written by his brother, who served as regent when Charles VI couldn’t rule. But, his brother was murdered and his many of his papers confiscated by the nobles involved in his murder. Porphyria, which is what we are nearly certain George III had, is hereditary and it has different stages and phases. Sometimes, symptoms are incredibly bad, sometimes they aren’t. And someone can have porphyria with only mild symptoms.

What little we do know about King Charles VI’s illness could support a diagnosis of porphyria, but it could also support a diagnosis of schizophrenia, another hereditary illness. Interestingly, both conditions rarely cause the same intensity of symptoms in women, that they cause in men. Catherine of Valois was prone to hysterical fits. Meaning she may have had mild symptoms of either, but being a woman, she wasn’t given the same interest as the kings from her lineage. There is a growing school of thought that Henry VIII’s obsession with having an heir was more about mental illness than wanting to ensure the Tudors kept the throne.

The current rulers of England, Queen Elizabeth II is actually related to King Henry VIII and King George III (genetically speaking, much more closely related to George III than Henry VIII, but still related). And this may explain why many of the male heirs since the death of Queen Victoria in the 1800s have had short life spans. Even mild porphyria still causes enzyme deficiencies that can shorten a person’s life. During WWI, the King of England changed the family’s name from Sax-Coburg to Windsor because anti-German sentiment was incredibly high and the family was basically British at that point anyway.

And the interesting and somewhat bloody royal history for the last 600 years in England, is the result of Catherine of Valois.

A Executioners

In D&R Aislinn mentions a few times that executioners were a bit like rockstars in their day. I’ve never done a blog post on executioners and decided it was time. I’ll be discussing two of them. Charles-Henri Sanson Chief Executioner of Paris and the Swordsman of Calais. I picked these two because they were very good at their jobs, and they each have a very historically notable execution under their belt.

Chevalier Charles-Henri Sanson de Longval: Charles-Henri served as Chief Executioner of Paris, a position he served with distinction for more than 40 years. He is estimated to have executed more than 3,000 people during his time as executioner. He was handsomely paid for his position and the position brought him a touch of fame. As well as his family being of the nobility.

Near the end of his life, he wrote a memoir about his job as Chief Executioner of Paris and admitted the worst day of his job ever was the day he was forced to execute King Louis XVI during the French Revolution in 1792. He was a big supporter of the guillotine, noting that the machine made death easier for the person being sentenced, it was hard to botch an execution using it, unlike hangings or beheadings that involved swords or axes.

Sanson had not planned to be an executioner. He began his formal career training as a doctor. However, in 1757, Sanson assisted his uncle (the Chief Executioner of Reims) in the execution of a man convicted of attempting to assassinate the King. Needing to ensure a future career that paid well so he could take care of his family, he gave up medicine to take the position of Executioner of Paris.

The Swordsman of Calais was a bit different than the Executioner of Paris. He tried to keep his identity a secret, which is where pictures of executioners wearing black hoods comes from. Although, it is believed he did like his job, he wasn’t interested in the publicity that came with it.

What we do know for sure is that this Frenchman was an excellent swordsman. He became famous for being able to deftly behead those sent to the chopping block with a single stroke, using a continental sword (slightly larger and heavier than a broadsword, but smaller in length and weight than a longsword or Claymore). The Swordsman of Calais had made such an impression with his skills that in May of 1536, King Henry VIII brought him from Calais to London to perform the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn.

It was reported that Anne Boleyn was thankful for the arrival of this expert swordsman. A few days earlier, an execution in London had required 8 – 10 whacks with a sword before killing the person being executed. Henry VIII even delayed her execution a few days to ensure that the Swordsman of Calais would arrive for it.

Botched executions were not uncommon, regardless of the manner of execution. Hangings took a long time, as the person struggled and kicked against being suffocated by the short drop of the rope. It would be the 1750s or so, before the long drop type of hanging would start, which is much faster as it usually breaks the neck of the person being hung. Swords and axes normally crushed the spine, if they even hit it at all. Many beheadings required multiple whacks with a sword or axe and often the hits weren’t well placed, resulting in maiming wounds to the shoulders or back of the head before the execution was successfully completed.

We even have reports of people being beheaded where after the first or second shot from the axe or sword, people would have to come hold them because their bodies would go limp, most believe these blows would result in paralysis, but still be painful.

We do know the Swordsman of Calais was paid 50 sovereigns for the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn which was a huge amount of money at the time. Interestingly, if an execution was botched, the price of it could be reduced. One would think this would lead to better executioners, but it didn’t. In England, the going rate was about half a sovereign per execution.

It is because executions were public and because one that went well was so rare, that good executioners were sought after and treated with something akin to hero worship. Those dedicated to their profession, such as the Swordsman of Calais and Charles-Henri Sanson, took pains to make it more efficient. Sanson didn’t invent the guillotine, but he did refine one area that made it problematic, he eventually began to rub the guillotine down with oil before an execution to ensure the blade slid quickly and evenly when hoisted up or dropped. Even during the Revolution, when Charles-Henri would be responsible for as many as 15 beheadings in a day, he always took the time to oil the machine before the prisoner was placed in it.

Travel Without Immunity

A few blog posts ago, I commented that I didn’t have measles immunity despite having had measles and vaccinations. And it’s obvious that I love history. Some of the things I would love to do in life, is see some places in the world that correspond to my love of early civilizations. Egypt and Belize are two of the places I would love to see before I die… But it’s not going to happen.

In 2006, I went to Berlin, Germany. Beautiful place. I didn’t want to come back. But as I prepared for the trip I had to get a couple of immunizations against hepatitis or something. I don’t remember now. At the time, I was given another round of MMRs that didn’t change my immunity or lack thereof to measles.

Recently, I was watching one of those exploration shows and it dawned on me that no matter how much I want to see Belize, Mexico, or Egypt, I literally can’t. On the show, the host ran across a group of kids outside a church. They looked a little lost and sad. The host commented that he had been told there was a measles outbreak in the town and nearly half the population was sick as a result. The kids outside the church were asymptomatic, but were being taken care of by the church because they had family members that were sick at home.

Well, damn, I’d never thought of that. Countries like Belize, Egypt, and Mexico do not require vaccinations against most diseases and they are expensive enough that most people can’t afford them unless there is a free clinic that pops up offering them. The population is always at risk for outbreaks of diseases that have been mostly eradicated from countries like Germany, the US, Canada, the UK, France, etc.

This makes these countries no go zones for me. I’ve had lots of friends take Caribbean cruises, but I get sea sick, so I’ve never even given serious consideration to one. Which is probably good.

The measles virus can survive in the environment for a dozen or so hours. This means that even if I never left the ship, I could still be exposed to the measles virus. Anyone who goes off ship could potentially carry measles back on board via clothing or souvenirs they purchased.

It is something I have never thought of before, because nobody that lives in a country where these deadly diseases don’t happen very often, thinks about immunity. We’ve been vaccinated, we’re safe. Unless we’re not.

And so, at 1:42 in the morning, my dreams of seeing Mayan temples or The Great Pyramid of Giza up close and personal, die a painful death.

Sometimes, I Get Things Wrong

I try very hard to be a good researcher. I’ve been formally trained in historical research, genealogical research, and scientific research. However, I have no standing within any of these communities beyond saying “Hey, I have a degree in X.” This means if it isn’t public information, I probably can’t get it without jumping through a ton of hoops and even then, I probably couldn’t get anything sensitive or confidential.

However, since I know I am limited to public information, I attempt to fulfill the requirements of due diligence. This means finding multiple sources of information considered reliable by those that do have access to the sensitive information I don’t.

This is fairly easy with history stuff. It’s not always as easy with crime stuff. For instance, I once found a website referenced on a site that was purportedly run by the son of Zodiac. Yep, you read that correctly. Bizarrely, the original site was considered very reliable, so it surprised me to end up on a site that appeared to be run by a crackpot and linked from the reliable site.

Unfortunately, this means that occasionally, I don’t get all the details correct. That is never my intention, I assure you. I love facts. And when I do get things wrong, I don’t mind having it pointed out to me.

I bring this up because I got some things wrong with the Oakland County Child Killer and a read was nice enough to point it out to me. From what I can tell, the reader may have a personal connection to the case, so I understand their frustration with my getting any part of it wrong.

I said in that post that one of the victims was seen in an AMC Gremlin right before he disappeared. I used that bit of information because I found it in newspaper accounts from Oakland County, Michigan at the time, as well as a more recent article on a national website that also said a Blue AMC Gremlin. I have been informed it was a blue Pontiac. I did find one source that said it was a Pontiac, but not a reliable source, It was a conspiracy theory site that was discussing Bob’s involvement with the case… and it was brought up because apparently the Bob who involved himself demanding to read the letter and see other evidence drove a blue Pontiac.

I also left out the piece of information that Bob drove a Pontiac at the time of the killings, because I’m not sure it’s trustworthy. Bob himself seems to have spread some of the misinformation available regarding the OCCK murders. For all I know, Bob himself started that rumor to make himself more important or raise suspicion about himself being involved. And yes, there are people out there who get a kick out of being suspected of murder, especially multiple murders in the form of serial killings.

And so, if you read something that you know to be false or incorrect for whatever reason, don’t think twice about pointing it out to me. We learn and discover through facts.

Porphyria; the Disease Helped by Cannibalism?

Porphyria is a rare genetic disorder that is recessive. You must carry two porphyria genes to get it and even then, expression of it isn’t guaranteed. There are several types of porphyria (acute, cutaneous, Swedish or Acute Intermittent Porphyria – AIP, , erythropoietic porphyria (EEP), one affects the central nervous system and one affects the skin. However, it should be noted that symptoms affecting both the skin and the central nervous system isn’t uncommon. Meaning while the two are differentiated, they still crossover in symptoms.

Porphyria is a blood disorder. As red bloods cells break down, they are metabolized by the body and excreted. However, people with porphyria have a dysfunction of the metabolism of red blood cells and the often the separation of iron and oxygen carried by red blood cells despite beginning to decay, becomes problematic.

Porphyria has a variety of physical and mental symptoms, including skin sensitivity to sun, deformation of skin including the creation of lesions or build up of dead skin in crusty scab like patches. Red or brown urine is also very common. Rather uncommonly, people with porphyria can have purple, blue, or black urine as well. The reason we believe George III of England most likely suffered porphyria (most likely AIP), is because aside from having bouts of madness, the royal physician recorded that George’s urine was often purple.

For reasons, I don’t quite understand, people with porphyria are encouraged to eat diets high in protein, specifically protein in the form of meat. Protein from eggs, nuts, and other sources aren’t metabolized and used as well in the body when one has porphyria as protein gleaned from meat consumption. In other words, vegan and vegetarian lifestyles are highly discouraged when one has porphyria.

Interestingly, porphyria which is treated in modern medicine with medications and blood transfusions may also benefit from cannibalism. There was a missionary in Papua New Guinea in the late 1800s who made notes on a villager who suffered severely from an unknown disease that had left his face disfigured and made him suffer bouts of extreme madness (during one of these bouts, he cut off part of his own foot), common symptoms of porphyria, who would get better after feasts that included cannibalism.

This story provided plot inspiration for an early episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in which a woman with porphyria was killing people to cannibalize them, because eating of people and drinking their blood worked better than the medications and transfusions.

As a side note, historical inbreeding of royals and among small populations like villages in Papua New Guinea made the disease more common than it probably would have been otherwise. Today, only 5 out of every 100,000 people suffer from porphyria. There is no cure and it is a painful disorder as well as causing disfigurement and mental illnesses.

Keeping Up With Technology

Recently, I was listening to Third Girl one of the later Hercule Poirot novels by Agatha Christie and Poirot had a thought that made me pause. The book was published in 1966 (probably written in 1964 or 1965). Poirot is thinking about a writer friend of his, a woman named Mrs. Oliver who writes detective stories. His thought is “this woman make me feel like a human computer.”

The line jarred me at first, forcing me to take a momentary break from the book as I considered it. Then I did a mental head slap. Of course, Agatha Christie knows about computers in 1964 or 1965. They existed back then, in early forms. Not home computers or anything (for my blog readers born after about 1984 – which is the imaginary date I seem to have embedded in my brain as the dividing line for those who once lived without technology such as cell phones, home computers, etc).

As a writer of serial killer thrillers, I try to keep up in advancements of technology that may be applicable to my books. I also try to keep up on psychological theories regarding crime. Just because Christie didn’t have the internet at her fingertips doesn’t mean she would have ignored these advancements and leave them out of her books.

I dare say, it’s probably quite the opposite. Because she was a writer of crime fiction, every advancement on both the side of the criminal and law enforcement would have needed to be within Christie’s grasp. No doubt the prolific novelist had several police officers within her sphere of friends to keep her appraised of technology they were using and I suspect she probably consulted with a handful of psychiatrists and psychologists as well.

Christie did attempt to make her mysteries and detective novels as true to life as possible. Granted, she took some fictional liberties, but that’s just part of being a writer. (Which reminds me that I need to get a lecture on how the dark web works from my best friend for Innocent Dreams – Which is going to involve snuff films just FYI – I’ve been working on the plotting of it since finishing Ritual Dreams and writing has been significantly easier without the Lyrica in my brain).

But this is the stuff I love about older novels. Christie’s novels from the early 1940s suddenly start to feature automatic lifts (elevators… until this time all elevators in a Christie’s novels were run by a porter). Before the outbreak of war in 1938, elevators were manned by a porter who used a lever to take you to your floor. The automatic elevator was a thing, but a rare thing. People preferred the kind run by porters, it added a bit of personality to something as dull and dreary as an elevator ride. With war came shortages of men to work as porters and run elevators for every Jane, Joan, and Jenni that needed to go up to the fifth floor and so the automatic elevator suddenly became fashionable as there was no need for a porter to run it.

My two favorite things; history and literature.

Syphilis, Pompeii, & The New World

Syphilis is a very nasty disease. If left untreated the bacteria damages organs as well as attacking bones. It can also eat holes in your brain. In the 20th century, archaeologists and historians came to the conclusion that syphilis was a New World disease that hadn’t existed in Europe prior to Columbus’ famous voyage. The body casts of Pompeii have proved this idea to be incorrect. About a third of the bodies cast at Pompeii show congenital syphilis disease on the bones.

There’s a lot going on in that statement. First, casts of bodies at Pompeii. When Mt. Vesuvius ruptured in 79 CE, the Roman city of Pompeii which was nestled at the base of the volcano was devastated. A huge pyroclastic cloud enveloped the city, before lava bombs (yep those are real), lava, and and ash buried the city. A ton of people died where they stood.

That ash and hardened lava encapsulated the dead of Pompeii. The soft tissues rotted away, but the shape of the body remained as a sort of negative image. When Pompeii was rediscovered, scientists filled those negative images of the bodies with plaster creating casts of the bodies. The plaster hardened with the bones of the dead in them. For about 40 years, we’ve been running imaging tests on those casts.

Specialized MRIs and CT scans allow us to see details on the bones. Congenital syphilis is passed from a mother to her infant. The baby is born with the damaging Sexually Transmitted Disease (I believe STI[infection] is the revised term for it). Because prolonged exposure to the bacteria that causes syphilis causes weakening of the bones, we can examine even prehistoric bones and see if the person had syphilis.

We believed Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the New World (the Caribbean Islands) because no evidence of syphilis had been found in mass graves in Europe predating the 1500s. And there should be. Plague pits sprang up all over Europe at different times, during different epidemics; The Black Death, the Justinian Plague, not to mention the hundreds of cholera outbreaks that killed huge numbers in urban areas during the Middle Ages. Since a healthy person is more likely to survive an epidemic or outbreak of illness than someone who’s sick, plague pits should contain bodies that show definite evidence of syphilis.

And yet, aside from Pompeii, we don’t find that. So what exactly happened to syphilis between 79 CE where it was absolutely present among the citizens of Pompeii and the 1300s when the Black Death reduced Europe’s population by about 50% or so? Why don’t we find evidence of syphilis in plague pits.

I read an interesting theory recently about this. The Romans had better hygiene than nearly everybody from 600 CE to the 1870s CE. We know some diseases that cause high fever (like malaria and Scarlet Fever) will kill bacterial infections already present in the body. The theory states that because Rome practiced good hygiene, the rate of infection by diseases that cause extremely high fevers was lower during the days of Pompeii than in the Middle Ages. But because it was common for children as well as adults to come down with diseases that create high fevers in the Middle Ages, the rate of syphilis infection as well as the length of time it lasted in the body, may have kept syphilis from surviving long enough to cause organ or bone damage. (PS: both Cholera and Bubonic Plague cause fevers high enough to kill other bacteria in the body and these were fairly common diseases in the Middle Ages.)

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