The Dastardly Past: the Anatomy Act of 1832.
A mortsafe, installed by loved ones for the protection of graves
On July 19, 1832, the House of Lords passed the Anatomy Act in Great Britain. Enlightenment thinking in the eighteenth century had resulted in an increase in the number of students enrolling in medical schools and, at the same time, higher expectations among the public for quality medical care. This included surgery, which required close familiarity with human anatomy. As a result, the demand for bodies in this era far outstripped what executioners and body-snatchers (called resurrectionists) could supply. The provisions of the Anatomy Act outlined a procedure where licensed practitioners could claim bodies from among the dead of the workhouses. Parliament hoped to fulfill scientific demand while also putting an end to the distressing practice of robbing graves. The Act, however, only enjoyed partial success.
The Dastardly Past: Mein Kampf.
July 18, 1925 marks the publication of the first volume of Mein Kampf, a semi-autobiographical book by Adolph Hitler that addresses his political ideology, at great length. He wrote it in 1924 in Landsberg Prison (Bavaria) while serving time for treason after his failed Beer Hall Putsch. During his rise to power, copies of the book sold so successfully that he had accumulated a tax debt equivalent in 2015 dollars to $1.5 million. Conveniently, this obligation was waived as soon as he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Throughout the duration of the Third Reich, Hitler decreed that the German government give complimentary copies of Mein Kampf to all newlyweds and all serving soldiers—with the royalties from government expenditures on these books going straight into his own pockets. The magnitude of evil he unleashed on the world tends to obscure the fact that, in addition to achieving almost total European domination, Adolph Hitler also became a very wealthy man.
The Dastardly Past: James Cagney.
How do you write a short piece on one of classic Hollywood’s most notable personalities? On June 17, 1899, James Cagney was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His career spanned thirty years—fifty if you count the years between his penultimate move, One, Two, Three, and his last production, Ragtime. During his career he demonstrated an uncanny ability to succeed in most genres, from gangsters to song-and-dance men to westerns. His comedic timing was brilliant, and he brought a frightening intensity to his non-gangster dramatic roles.
Perhaps the best way to acknowledge his life and talent is to ask for peoples’ top three favorite Cagney films. Mine are One, Two, Three, 13 Rue Madeleine, and The Public Enemy. Or perhaps their favorite Cagney moments, like tap-dancing down the stairs of the White House in Yankee Doodle Dandy, snickering over a comic book in Mr. Roberts, or shoving a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy.
So for the record, what are your Cagney favorites?
The Dastardly Past: Italy’s Carabinieri.
On July 14, 1814, a national force charge with policing both the military and civilians was formed in Italy. Still performing the same duties today, they are called the Carabinieri, and they have the Best. Hats. Ever.
The Dastardly Past: the Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.
On July 13, 1793, the French scientist-turned-radical-revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat took a bath. This was a common occurrence due to an uncomfortable skin condition from which he suffered—modern doctors suspect dermatitis herpitiformis. Soaking with various salts and minerals allowed Marat to alleviate his symptoms temporarily. Nevertheless, on this day while in his bath, he granted an audience to a woman named Charlotte Corday who claimed to have urgent business. They spoke for several minutes before she produced a knife and stabbed him in the chest. He bled out within seconds. Corday, a royalist, was arrested and quickly executed. Over the last two centuries, various artists and writers have immortalized this episode, and Marat’s bathtub is currently exhibited in a Parisian wax museum, the Musée Grévin.
The Dastardly Past: Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour
On July 12, 1931, the movie Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour was released (it was entitled The Sleeping Cardinal in Great Britain). It starred Arthur Wontner in his first Holmesian role, with Ian Fleming (no, not that Ian Fleming) as Watson. Wontner starred in four more Sherlock Holmes stories during the 1930s. His second Holmes movie, The Missing Rembrandt (1932), is officially considered a lost film. Luckily, however, the Internet Archive has made the others available for viewing online https://archive.org/
The Dastardly Past: E. C. Bentley.
On July 10, in 1875, E. C. Bentley was born. Bentley was the author of Trent’s Last Case, frequently listed as one of the all-time greats of mystery fiction and praised by G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, alike. Chesterton even dedicated his own mystery novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, to Bentley. Bentley was also the inventor of the clerihew—his middle name—humorous verse in irregular meters highlighting historical and popular figures—rather like the poems of Ogden Nash but with a biographical twist.