This month is just about spent but did you know that the first newspaper in North Carolina, The North Carolina Gazette was printed in August 1751? The press was started by James Davis in New Bern and there is an interesting article about the paper over at the UNC Chapel Hill Archives webpage
2008 in Bali, an island full of dogs yet never known to have had a case of rabies, has the worst outbreak of rabies ever experienced in modern times. Over 150 people die and over 26,000 dogs are exterminated. After protests cease the indiscriminate, reactionary culling, the disease is only pushed back with an aggressive vaccination program. But the damage has been done physically and mentally to the majority Hindu and dog loving population of this small island.
It’s August or the dog days of summer, so when better to read a book on the history of rabies. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s most Diabolical Virus is a new book about probably the worst disease known to man. Rabies is a disease that has historically had a 100 percent rate of fatality and has left its mark in the culture by giving rise to the fear of transformation into monsters in the legends of werewolves, zombies and vampires. And although man and canine has coevolved in a mutually beneficial relationship, the specter of rabies has given the dog a dual nature of madness and evil as the most common vector of rabies to humans. This duality of the dog is an overlying theme of the book that sewn throughout.
The two authors of the book Bill Wasik, an editor of Wired magazine, and wife, Monica Murphy, a veterinarian and public health professional, have given us a great book that melds two of my loves together, history and science. It starts out with accounts of rabid dogs and the spurious cures for rabies form the ancient texts of China, Egypt and Greece. In Greece Pliny the Elder gives us the saying “hair of the dog” as part of his cure for rabies. There are also cures listed from the Middle Ages to modern times, including my favorite cure, rubbing a plucked chicken anus on the rabid bite in the hopes of it sucking out the disease. This spurious cure is from the 14th century hunting book, Master of the Game .
The most disturbing sections of the book involve the descriptions of the manifestation of the disease in humans. It starts with flu-like symptoms that become insomnia and fatigue. This is only the beginning as you start to have an irrational fear of water. Although you may be thirsty you cannot bring a cup of water to your mouth nor can you swallow your constantly streaming saliva (this seems to be a virus controlled behavior that wants to keep the virus laden spittle near your teeth for spreading it to others). Tears stream from the eyes, hallucinations, goose bumps, cries of agony that sound like barking and males suffer from priapism and hypersexuality. Eventually you die of a heart attack or just stop breathing. It is a horrible and completely disturbing monster of a disease.
There are two heroes of the story and the first is the Frenchman, Louis Pasteur. It was through his dogged adherence to the scientific method that led to the discovery of a vaccine for rabies even though he could never see the virus in his microscope. Pasteur and his assistants would take saliva samples from living, and raging, rabid dogs. These mad dogs would be secured with straps, but in case anyone was bit by the dog there was a pistol ready to shoot the victim in the head. Pasteur carefully created a series of inoculations, each one stronger than the first that could halt the slow moving virus from entering the brain and allow time for the body’s immune system to kill it. In July, 1885, the first human recipient of the vaccine, an Alsatian farm boy who was bit by a rabid dog, was cured, and Pasteur was celebrated worldwide.
The rabies virus moves extraordinarily slowly up the nervous system to the brain and sometimes symptoms don’t appear for months. Although the vaccine works before symptoms appear, after they appear nothing had been known to help and there was about a 100 percent fatality rate. That was until the second hero of the story, Dr. Rodney Willoughby, was confronted with a girl named Jeanna Giese that had developed the symptoms of rabies after being bitten by a bat in church. He combed through pages of literature and found a paper from the nineteen eighties that he thought held some promise. From the paper he realized that victims who died of rabies showed no brain trauma. The rabies virus was not destroying the brain it was causing an electrotoxicity that was making the brain kill the body. Willoughby decided to place the girl into a coma for seven days while giving give her antivirals, sedatives and ketamine, a medication that would suppress her brain activity but also had shown signs of anti-rabies properties when used in rats. After week they slowly began waking Jeanna. At first they were alarmed and thought that she was locked-in to her body (see the Diving Bell and the Butterfly) because there was only movement in her irises. Eventually she regained movement of her body but has needed years of therapy and is now ironically studying bats. This treatment has now been named the Milwaukee Protocol and has shown some success throughout the world.
The author concludes his book with actually witnessing a dog in the throes rabies-induced madness while on the Island of Bali. He finds it especially disconcerting in its blank-eyed expression and its seemingly absence of awareness. He also discusses new research in utilizing the rabies virus’ ability to easily penetrate the blood- brain barrier in drugs to combat encephalitis.
Overall the book is well written and interesting in its illumination of a virus that has haunted humanity and our canine companions for millennia.
I recently learned that you could search for photos on My Heritage.com. These photos are uploaded to the thousands of family trees that user have on the site. You can see the photos without being a member, but to do much else you need to have a paying membership. But it could be useful. I haven’t had any luck yet.
The Learning Channel, not what it used to be. I think I used to watch great shows like Connections, Ancient Civilization Tuesdays and Desmond Morris documentaries on TLC. Now it is Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Obese and Pregnant, which is fine if you want to enjoy something ironically. But there is one show that’s good if you are into genealogy and that is Who do you Think You are? I really haven’t watched this show before I watched the Chelsea Handler episode, but I had seen the Henry Louise Gates similar show on PBS called Finding your Roots. The Gates show is a bit better but both are sensationalistic. However that is what makes great television!
The Handler episode is interesting because she was raised Jewish but her maternal grandfather served in the German Army during the war but also awkward because she makes some bad jokes. Being in the German Army during the war certainly doesn’t make someone a Nazi but it doesn’t make them an objector either, so as is most things in life the answers she finds are neither good nor bad. He was just a man who lived in Germany during WWII and did what millions of other German men had to do to survive.
I was interested in watching the show because I visited the Dachau concentration camp and my mother’s maiden name of Baer was on the list of SS prison guards. Seeing that made me uneasy, even though there would be no recent connection to my family. Also there was a patron here last week looking for more information on Dachau because his mother was held in the camp during the war. He said that she was a prisoner due to her mother being French.
Watch the episode here.
I was expecting a good read in the The Black Count by Tom Reiss, considering it won the Pulitzer Prize, but I didn’t expect it to be as exceptional as it was. The book follows the extraordinary life and military career of General Alex Dumas. You may be saying “that guy wrote the Count of Montecristo.” No, that was his son, Alexandre Dumas. But his father was the inspiration for Alexandre’s novels, a wronged warrior in search of some sort of justice in a France that had transformed from a republic to a dicatatorship. Like any good drama the book starts with the author hiring a safe cracker to open a safe in the Alexandre Dumas Museum in Villers-Cotterets, France because the museum curator has died. In the safe, the author finds a rich trove of correspondence between Alex Dumas and his wife. The author soon shifts from the present to the French sugar colony of Saint Dominique (Haiti) in 1762 where Alex Dumas was born to a fugitive French nobleman named Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la Pailleterie and an African slave named Cessette Dumas. The first ten years of his life was spent in a land where people of mixed race were upwardly mobile and large numbers of biracial women were shopkeepers and plantation owners. This was all made possible by the Black Code issued by Louis XIV in 1685 that made the children of unions between African and French eligible for protections of the French state and possibility of full freedom. Although some people of mixed raced parentage got on rather well the African slaves lived in a world of toil under some of the harshest conditions in the Western hemisphere.
Alex’ father was able to come out of hiding after his brother died and decided to return to Normandy to claim his title, but incredibly he sold his son and his daughters into slavery in order to pay for the journey. When he arrived in France he purchased Alex back from the Captain he sold him to but not his sisters. As soon as Antoine gained his inheritance he lavished Alex with money and clothes and sent him to Paris to school to live the life of gentleman. In Paris Alex thrived in a life of extravagance and rakishness that was expected of the young gentry of the time. This lasted until his father got remarried to his house servant and cut Alex off.
Something in Alex changes at this point in his life and he creates his own identity away from his self-serving father by joining the military as a common soldier and not as an officer as his father would have wished. He also drops his father’s name and from there on goes by his mother’s name of Dumas. This is the dawn of the revolution in France and this is also where the author shines as he seamlessly entwines the fortunes of Alex Dumas with rise and fall of the French Revolution from a republic of liberty to a paranoid dictatorship.
In the military Alex finds his calling. His superior physical strength and sharp mind make him an exceptional soldier. His prowess in swordsmanship and horseplay are second to none. He becomes one of those legendary battlefield figures such as Sir James Douglas (also known as Black Douglas or Douglas the Good), Sigfried Sassoon, Audie Murphy, or Carlos Hathcock where a combination fearlessness, uncanny luck and superior skills create an individual of mythic proportions.
While Alex was still a private he falls in love with Marie Louise Laboret, his landlord’s daughter, and asks her to marry him. Her father says that they can marry only after he becomes a sergeant. They don’t have long to wait as Dumas quickly rises from a private in the Queen’s Dragoons to a Lieutenant Colonel of the Black Legion to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps. They were soon married and from their letters it is very evident that they were deeply in love their whole life.
As the leader of the Army of the Alps, he wins a major victory over Austrian forces dug into the precarious Saint Bernard Pass. The victory opens up the Piedmont of Italy to invasion by the Republican army. During Dumas’ ascension in the ranks, the French Revolution unfolds creating significant opportunities for advancement in the military as France seeks to spread the revolution to other countries, but conversely contains deadly traps for public figures that were constantly in danger of being brought before the Committee of Safety to face charges of treason. Revolutionary opportunities came with revolutionary risks as the author, Tom Reiss states. And Dumas is accused of treason just after his victory at Saint Bernard Pass but manages to delay his visit to Paris long enough to avoid the Great Terror as Robespierre is executed. Here Dumas’ duel identity created a bit of confusion for the Safety Committee, he was noble by blood and therefore suspect but he was also a slave by blood which would make him irreproachable. He embodies a contradiction, but in the end his denunciation of his title and his Revolutionary zeal causes his African persona to win over his politically dangerous noble one.
In a year, Dumas had gone from a corporal in the dragoons to being made a general of a division, which is a command of ten thousand troops. And while sieging the city of Mantua, Dumas intercepts a secret message stating that a superior Austrian force was en route to break the siege. Dumas successfully deploys his French troops against the twice as large Austrian force. Leading from the front, Dumas has two horses shot out from under him as he slashes away at the enemy and successfully repels the Austrian reinforcements, therefore halting the breakout. However, Dumas’ siege saving maneuver is left out of an after action report sent to Paris by Napoleon, which infuriates General Dumas. But this would not be the last time that Dumas is at odds with the rising Corsican. In Dumas’ next engagement he single-handedly beats back an entire squadron of Austrians on a bridge in the Tyrol. This instance he is not overlooked by Napoleon who names Dumas “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol”. Napoleon also shows his gratitude by sending him a set of pistols and makes General Dumas the head of the cavalry in the Tyrol. This will be about the last time that Napoleon praises Dumas for Dumas’ steeped belief in the Revolution of 1790 would put him at increasing odds with Napoleon’s policies and consolidation of power.
In 1798 General Dumas is made the commander of all cavalry of the Army of the Orient in Napoleon’s disastrous campaign to conquer Egypt. Again Dumas serves with distinction in the Battle of the Pyramids and is at the vanguard of repressing a revolt in Cairo, where he even charges into the Al-Azhar Mosque. Napoleon has a painting created of the episode years later but he replaces Dumas with a white man. Dumas’ relationship with Napoleon becomes completely ruptured when he gets wind of seditious musings by Dumas and other generals. General Dumas was not one to mince words and he thought the whole expedition was a catastrophic farce that left France vulnerable. But he was proven right after the self-serving Napoleon abandoned the army the following summer after the French fleet was defeated at the the Battle of the Nile. When General Kleber learned that Napoleon had flown the coop and left him in charge he said, That bugger has left us here, his breeches full of shit. We’re going back to Europe to rub it in his face.
Dumas didn’t get a ship to leave Egypt until almost a year after Napoleon and unfortunately it was hardly seaworthy. They had to put in for repairs at Taranto, Italy, a place where they thought was still controlled by the French. But to their misfortune the Neapolitan monarchists had regained control and Dumas was imprisoned by the zealous Holy Faith Army. During this time his wife impassionedly wrote letters to Napoleon and the French government to get him released, but it took two long years for him to be freed and by that time Dumas’ health had spiraled downward, possibly due to poisoning.
When Dumas finally returns to France he finds most of the societal changes wrought by the Revolution to be wiped away, especially in terms of race. Dumas now found his marriage to his French wife to be illegal and slavery was reinstituted. Napoleon had met with former Caribbean slave owners and realized how much money he was losing now that there were no more slaves to harvest sugar cane and rolled back all the social progress that made France a beacon of hope for many around the world. The General was also unable to receive his pension and his protestations went unheard. Alex Dumas died a broken and bitter man but his son Alexandre would become obsessed with his legacy which drove his art. His father was the inspiration for the character Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo with Napoleon being the main reason behind the character’s abuse and imprisonment. Also the swashbuckling adventures of The Three Musketeers is based on his father’s strong moral character and dueling prowess. Tom Reiss has done the world a great service in bringing to life an important and forgotten Black hero who led 10,000 Frenchmen to battle in an age when Africans in the Western world were enslaved and who epitomized the promise and failure of the French Revolution. Unfortunately there is no monument to General Alex Dumas in France. The one that did exist was blown up by the Nazis during the occupation.