Historically Speaking: Pioneers of America’s Black Press

Since the early 19th century, African-American publications have built community and challenged injustice.

June 18, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

It isn’t enough to have a voice, it must also be used and heard. “Too long have others spoken for us,” announced the first issue of Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and operated newspaper in the U.S. Founded by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm in 1827, the weekly New York City paper published news and opinions; almost equally important, it provided an advertising platform for black businesses, charities and organizations. During its two-year run, Freedom’s Journal reached 50,000 households in 11 states, helping to foster a sense of community and pride among the free but disenfranchised African-Americans of the North.

Journalist Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893.
PHOTO: ALAMY

Black-owned newspapers multiplied in the decades before the Civil War. Some were abolitionist, such as Frederick Douglass’s The North Star, founded in Rochester, N.Y., in 1847. Others were religious: The Christian Recorder, the official periodical of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded in 1848 and is still published today, making it the longest-running African-American periodical.

Black journalists were often targeted for violence by whites. In 1892, the lynching of three black men in Memphis, Tenn., prompted the young Ida B. Wells to begin an anti-lynching crusade in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the newspaper she co-owned and edited. Her courageous reporting brought international attention to the atrocities taking place with impunity in the South. But it also made her a marked woman: The newspaper’s staff was attacked and its office burned down. Wells left Memphis and urged her readers to do the same: “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave.”

In the early 20th century, the Chicago Defender was one of the most influential papers in the U.S., black or white. Its aggressive championing of what would become known as “The Great Migration” helped persuade many African-Americans to move to Chicago and other Northern cities. Literature and the arts were nourished by The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP. Founded in 1910 by W.E.B. DuBois, it featured up-and-coming black writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

The influence of black-owned newspapers sometimes incurred the wrath of the U.S. government. During World War II, the Pittsburgh Courier campaigned for equal rights for black soldiers, leading FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to try to charge its publishers with treason. The effort was thwarted by other members of the Roosevelt administration, and black newspapers continued to play a vital role in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

But barriers remained. In 1968, Coretta Scott King had to demand that the press pool covering her husband’s funeral include a black photographer. Moneta Sleet of Ebony magazine was selected and his photograph of Mrs. King and her daughter went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, making him the first African-American man to receive the award.

The Pulitzer confirmed Ebony’s status as the leading black publication in the U.S. Founded by John H. Johnson in 1945, by the early 2000s it was read by almost 40% of all African-American adults, giving it a clout that corporate America couldn’t afford to ignore.

The black press is continually evolving and expanding, from the women’s magazine Essence, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, to Blavity, a web magazine for millennials launched in 2014. The current Black Lives Matter protests show just how vital these voices continue to be.

Historically Speaking: Golfing With Emperors and Presidents

From medieval Scotland to the White House, the game has appealed to the powerful as well as the common man.

June 3, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

The history of golf is a tale of two sports: one played by the common man, the other by kings and presidents. The plebeian variety came first. Paganica, a game played with a bent stick and a hard ball stuffed with feathers, was invented by Roman soldiers as a way to relieve the monotony of camp life. It is believed that a version of Paganica was introduced to Scotland when the Roman emperor Septimius Severus invaded the country in 208 A.D.

Golf buddies Arnold Palmer (left) and Dwight Eisenhower.
PHOTO: AUGUSTA NATIONAL/GETTY IMAGES

Golf might also have been influenced by stick-and-ball games from other cultures, such as the medieval Chinese chuiwan (“hit-ball”) and Dutch colf, an indoor game using rubber balls and heavy clubs. But the game we know today originated in the 15th century on the Links—the long, grassy sand dunes that are such a distinctive feature of Scotland’s coastline. The terrain was perfect for all-weather play, as well as for keeping out of sight of the authorities: Scottish kings prohibited the game until 1502, anxious that it would interfere with archery practice.

Two years after lifting the ban, King James IV of Scotland played the first recorded golf match while staying at Falkland Palace near St. Andrews. In theory, anyone could play on the Links since it was common land. Starting in 1754, however, access was controlled by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, known today as the “Home of Golf.” The R & A did much to standardize the rules of the game, while cementing golf’s reputation as an aristocratic activity.

In the 19th century, innovations in lawn care and ball manufacturing lowered the cost of golf, but the perception of elitism persisted. When William Howard Taft ran for president in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt urged him to beware of projecting an upper-crust image: “photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.” Taft ignored Roosevelt’s advice, as did Woodrow Wilson, who played more rounds of golf—nearly 1,200 in all—than any other president. He even played in the snow, using a black-painted ball.

Wilson’s record was nearly matched by Dwight Eisenhower, who so loved the game that he had a putting green installed outside the Oval Office in 1954. At first the media criticized his fondness for a rich man’s game. But that changed after Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest and most charismatic golfers in history, became Eisenhower’s friend and regular golf partner. The frequent sight of the president and the sports hero playing together made golf appear attractive, aspirational and above all accessible, inspiring millions of ordinary Americans to try the game for the first time.

But that popularity has been dented in recent years. The number of golfers in the U.S. dropped from a high of 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million in 2015. In addition to being pricey, golf is still criticized for being snobby. Earlier this year, Brooks Koepka, a professional golfer once ranked number one in the world, told GQ that he loved the game but not “the stuffy atmosphere that comes along with it.” “Golf has always had this persona of the triple-pleated khaki pants, the button-up shirt, very country club atmosphere,” he complained. Now that almost all of the country’s golf courses have reopened from pandemic-related shutdowns, golf has a new opportunity to make every player feel included.

Historically Speaking: Sleuthing Through the Ages

Illustration by Dominic Bugatto

From Oedipus to Sherlock Holmes, readers have flocked to stories about determined detectives.

May 21, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

I have to confess that I’ve spent the lockdown reading thrillers and whodunits. But judging by the domination of mystery titles on the bestseller lists, so has nearly everyone else. In uncertain times, crime fiction offers certainty, resolution and comfort.

The roots of the genre go back to the ancient Greeks. Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King,” written around 429 B.C., is in essence a murder mystery. The play begins with Oedipus swearing that he will not rest until he discovers who killed Laius, the previous king of Thebes. Like a modern detective, Oedipus questions witnesses and follows clues until the terrible truth is revealed: He is both the investigator and the criminal, having unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother.

The Chinese were the first to give crime fiction a name. Gong’an or “magistrate’s desk” literature developed during the Song dynasty (960-1279), featuring judges who recount the details of a difficult or dangerous case. Modern Western crime fiction adopted a more individualistic approach, making heroes out of amateurs. The 1819 novella “Mademoiselle de Scuderi,” by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, is an early prototype: The heroine, an elderly writer, helps to solve a serial murder case involving stolen jewelry.

But it is Edgar Allan Poe who is generally regarded as the godfather of detective fiction. His short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, features an amateur sleuth, Auguste Dupin, who solves the mysterious, gruesome deaths of two women. (Spoiler: The culprit was an escaped orangutan.) Poe invented some of the genre’s most important devices, including the “locked room” puzzle, in which a murder takes place under seemingly impossible conditions.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series added three innovations that quickly became conventions: the loyal sidekick, the arch-villain and the use of forensic science. In the violin-playing, drug-abusing Holmes, Doyle also created a psychologically complex character who enthralled readers—too much for Doyle’s liking. Desperate to be considered a literary writer, he killed off Holmes in 1893, only to be forced by public demand to resurrect him 12 years later.

When Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927, the “Golden Age” of British crime fiction was in full swing. Writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers created genteel detectives who solved “cozy crimes” in upper-middle-class settings, winning a huge readership and inspiring American imitators like S.S. Van Dine, the creator of detective Philo Vance, who published a list of “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”

As violence and corruption increased under Prohibition, American mystery writing turned toward more “hard-boiled” social realism. In Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s noir fiction, dead bodies in libraries are replaced by bloody corpses in cars.

At the time, critics quarreled about which type of mystery was superior, though both can seem old-fashioned compared with today’s spy novels and psychological thrillers. The number of mystery subgenres seems to be infinite. Yet one thing will never change: our yearning for a hero who is, in Raymond Chandler’s words, “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

 

Historically Speaking: Pets and the Humans Who Loved Them

From prehistoric times to the age of Covid-19, people have looked to animals for companionship.

May 7, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

Americans have been adopting pets at a record pace since the pandemic began. It’s as if the crisis has intensified our need for animal companionship, which goes back a long way. Scientists agree that dogs were the first species to form a relationship with humans: Inside Chauvet Cave, a Paleolithic site in southern France, archaeologists recently found 26,000-year-old canine paw prints alongside those of a human child.

John Steinbeck with his dog Charley.
PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Humans kept animals as companions long before we domesticated livestock like sheep, goats and cattle, some 10,000 years ago. By contrast, horses were only tamed in Eurasia around 6,000 years ago. Though they weren’t household pets, they inspired passionate feelings in their owners, as the equine imagery of ancient art and poetry so beautifully attests.

One of the first pet dogs whose name is known to us is Abutiu, who belonged to an Egyptian pharaoh in the early third millennium B.C. After Abutiu’s death, his heartbroken owner gave him a royal burial. The inscription on the tomb explained, ‘His Majesty did this for him in order that he might be honored before the great god, Anubis.’

By around 1000 B.C., the Egyptians’ love affair with dogs had given way to an obsession with cats, which they revered as semi-divine creatures. It was illegal to kill a cat or take one out of Egypt. The ancient Greeks were baffled by Egyptian felinophilia; they were more taken by the loyalty of canines. In Homer’s Odyssey, the old dog Argos waits 20 years for Odysseus to return, then dies content once he has seen his master.

The Romans made pets of cats, dogs, snakes, insects and birds—indeed, almost anything that breathed, except for goldfish. Those didn’t become household companions until 1369, when China’s Hongwu Emperor ordered the creation of the first fishbowl.

Pet ownership was a status symbol in early modern Europe, like having a carriage. Cardinal Richelieu, an adviser to the French King Louis XIII, shared his rooms with 12 cats, while Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, kept an orangutan and a parrot. Almost no one bothered to house-train their pets, much to the chagrin of unwary visitors to Versailles.

During the French Revolution, pedigree pets suffered by association with their aristocratic owners. The future Empress Josephine was incarcerated in Paris along with her pet pug Fortuné. Always protective of its mistress, the dog reacted badly on her wedding night to Napoleon in 1796, sinking its teeth into his leg.

As the cult of Romanticism swept through Europe in the 19th century, a pet became more than just a companion. It was an alter ego and “loving friend,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her poem “To Flush, My Dog.” Many authors felt the same way about their pets: Charles Dickens had his pet raven Grip, Ernest Hemingway had his six-toed cat Uncle Willie, and of course John Steinbeck had his poodle Charley, whom he immortalized in his 1962 book “Travels with Charley.”

They aren’t alone; a 2018 meta-review of mental health studies by researchers at Liverpool University confirmed the emotional benefits of pet ownership. Steinbeck once admitted to his publisher: “I need a dog pretty badly. I dreamed of dogs last night. They sat in a circle and looked at me and I wanted all of them.”

Historically Speaking: Hobbies for Kings and the People

From collecting ancient coins to Victorian taxidermy, we’ve found ingenious ways to fill our free time.

Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2020

It’s no surprise that many Americans are turning or returning to hobbies during the current crisis. By definition, a hobby requires time outside of work.

Sofonisba Anguissola, ‘The Chess Game’ (1555)

We don’t hear much about hobbies in ancient history because most people never had any leisure time. They were too busy obeying their masters or just scraping by. The earliest known hobbyists may have been Nabonidus, the last king of Babylonia in the 6th century B.C., and his daughter Ennigaldi-Nanna. Both were passionate antiquarians: Nabonidus liked to restore ruined temples while Ennigaldi-Nanna collected ancient artifacts. She displayed them in a special room in her palace, effectively creating the world’s first museum.

Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, was another avid collector of ancient objects, especially Greek gold coins. The Romans recognized the benefits of having a hobby, but for them the concept excluded any kind of manual work. When the poet Ovid, exiled by Augustus on unknown charges, wrote home that he yearned to tend his garden again, he didn’t mean with a shovel. That’s what slaves were for.

Hobbies long continued to be a luxury for potentates. But in the Renaissance, the printing press combined with higher standards of living to create new possibilities for hobbyists. The change can be seen in the paintings of Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the first Italian painters to depict her subjects enjoying ordinary activities like reading or playing an instrument. Her most famous painting, “The Chess Game” (1555), shows members of her family engaged in a match.

Upper-class snobbery toward any hobby that might be deemed physical still lingered, however. The English diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Elyot warned readers in “The Boke Named the Governour” (1531) that playing a musical instrument was fine ”‘for recreation after tedious or laborious affaires.” But it had to be kept private, lest the practitioner be mistaken for “a common servant or minstrel.”

Hobbies received a massive boost from the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t simply that people had more free time; there were also many more things to do and acquire. Stamp collecting took off soon after the introduction of the world’s first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black, in Britain in 1840. As technology became cheaper, hobbies emerged that bridged the old division between intellectual and manual labor, such as photography and microscopy. Taxidermy allowed the Victorians to mash the macrabre and the whimsical together: Ice-skating hedgehogs, card-playing mice and dancing cats were popular with taxidermists.

In the U.S., the adoption of hobbies increased dramatically during the Great Depression. For the unemployed, they were an inexpensive way to give purpose and achievement to their days. Throughout the 1930s, nonprofit organizations such as the Leisure League of America and the National Home Workshop Guild encouraged Americans to develop their talents. “You Can Write” was the hopeful title of a 1934 Leisure League publication.

Even Winston Churchill took up painting in his 40s, saying later that the hobby rescued him “in a most trying time.” We are in our own trying time, so why not go for it? I think I’ll teach myself to bake bread next week.

Historically Speaking: Castaways and Other Lonely Survivors

From prisoners to exiles to marooned sailors, human beings have faced the ordeal of enforced solitude.

April 2, 2020

Being one’s own company can be blissful, but not when it’s involuntary. According to John Donne, the 17th-century English poet and priest, “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.” Now that nearly two in three Americans are currently subject to shelter-in-place orders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, how will we cope with prolonged isolation?

Tom Hanks in the 2000 movie ‘Cast Away.’
PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

The Germans have a special word for feeling utterly alone and isolated: mutterseelenallein, a compound that literally means “mother’s souls alone.” According to one theory, the word entered the German language as a misinterpretation of the French phrase moi teut seul (“me all alone”), which was used by the Huguenots—French Protestants who fled to Berlin in the 18th century to escape persecution at home.

Although the ancients didn’t have an equivalent word, they certainly knew the feeling. In 44 B.C., the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was declared an enemy of the state and forced into hiding. Despite his loneliness, or perhaps because of it, Cicero used the time to write his final work, “On Duties,” in only four weeks.

We can’t all be like Cicero, of course, and write a masterpiece while on lockdown. But we can certainly rise to the occasion and surprise ourselves. One of the least likely castaways in history was the wealthy French aristocrat Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, who in 1542 agreed to accompany her spendthrift cousin Jean-Francois de Roberval on a voyage to New France, modern Canada. The jolly adventure became a nightmare after Roberval accused Marguerite of sexual immorality while on board his ship. This was his flimsy excuse for marooning her along with her maid and lover on the deserted Isle of Demons off Newfoundland.

Marguerite’s lover and their baby soon succumbed, as did her maid, leaving the hitherto pampered heiress to survive in the wilderness as best she could. During her two years as a castaway she killed a bear, ate its carcass and turned its skin into clothing. After her rescue and return to France in 1544, Marguerite created a new life for herself as an educator. The treacherous Roberval escaped punishment, but was subsequently murdered by a mob in 1560.

Such stories provided ample material to Daniel Defoe, who wrote the ultimate social isolation story, “Robinson Crusoe,” in 1719. The novel has been adapted many times since, including for the 2000 film “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks as the Crusoe figure. Defoe based his tale in part on the real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, a Royal Navy officer who in 1704 was abandoned by his shipmates on a deserted island in the south Pacific, where he managed to survive until he was rescued five years later.

Defoe himself knew something about prolonged isolation: In 1703, he was imprisoned for several months after he published a pamphlet satirizing the Church of England. Defoe’s stint in prison made him a better advocate for the social outcasts he described in his novels, just as Crusoe’s 28-year sojourn on the island made him into a better person—a man of faith and purpose rather than the malcontent of his former life. “No man is an island entire of itself,” wrote Donne; being human makes us all connected, no matter where we are.

 

Historically Speaking: The Long Fight Against Unjust Taxes

From ancient Jerusalem to the American Revolution and beyond, rebels have risen up against the burden of taxation.

March 19, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

With the world in the grip of a major health crisis, historical milestones are passing by with little notice. But the Boston Massacre, whose 250th anniversary was this month, deserves to be remembered as a cautionary tale.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The bloody encounter on March 5, 1770, began with the harassment of a British soldier by a crowd of Bostonians. Panicked soldiers responded by firing on the crowd, leaving five dead and six wounded. The colonists were irate about new taxes imposed by the British Parliament to pay for the expenses of the Seven Years War, which in North America pitted the British and Americans against the French and their Indian allies. Whether or not the tax increase was justified, the failure of British leaders to include the American colonies in the deliberative process was catastrophic. The slogan “No taxation without representation” became a rallying cry for the fledgling nation.

The attitude of tax collecting authorities had hardly changed since ancient times, when empires treated their subject populations with greed, brutality and arrogance. In 1st century Judea, anger over the taxes imposed by Rome combined with religious grievances to provoke a full-scale Jewish revolt in 66-73 A.D. It was an unequal battle, as most tax rebellions are, and the resistors were made to pay dearly: Jerusalem was sacked and the Second Temple destroyed, and all Jews in the Roman Empire were forced to pay a punitive tax.

Even when tax revolts met with initial success, there was no guarantee that the authorities would carry out their promises. In 1381, a humble English roof tiler named Wat Tyler led an uprising, dubbed the Peasants’ Revolt, against a new poll tax. King Richard II met with Tyler and agreed to his demands, but only as a delaying tactic. The ringleaders were then rounded up and executed, and Richard revoked his concessions, claiming they had been made under duress.

Nevertheless, as the historian David F. Burg notes in his book “A World History of Tax Rebellions,” tax revolts have been more frequent than we realize, mainly because governments tend not to advertise them. In Germany, 210 separate protests and uprisings were recorded from 1300 to 1550, and at least 1,000 in Japan from 1600 to 1868.

The 19th century saw the rise of a new kind of tax rebel, the conscientious objector. In 1846, the writer and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau spent a night in the Concord, Mass., jail after he refused to pay a poll tax as a protest against slavery. He was released the next morning when his aunt paid it for him, against his will. But Thoreau would go on to withhold his taxes in protest against the Mexican-American War, arguing in his 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” that it was better to go to jail than to “enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”

Irwin Schiff, a colorful antitax advocate and failed libertarian presidential candidate, wouldn’t get off so easily. Arguing that the income tax violated the U.S. Constitution, he refused to pay it, despite being convicted of tax evasion three times. In 2015, he died at age 87 in a federal prison—an ironic confirmation of Benjamin Franklin’s adage that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Fortunately for Americans at this time of national duress, tax day this year has been mercifully postponed.

Historically Speaking: Cities Built by Royal Command

From ancient Egypt to modern Russia, rulers have tried to build new capitals from the ground up.

March 5, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

In 1420, the Yongle Emperor moved China’s capital from Nanjing to the city then known as Beiping. To house his government he built the Forbidden City, the largest wooden complex in the world, with more than 70 palace compounds spread across 178 acres. Incredibly, an army of 100,000 artisans and one million laborers finished the project in only three years. Shortly after moving in, the emperor renamed the city Beijing, “northern capital.”

The monument of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

In the 600 years since, countless visitors have marveled at Yongle’s creation. As its name suggests, the Forbidden City could only be entered by permission of the emperor. But the capital city built around it was an impressive symbol of imperial power and social order, a kind of 3-D model of the harmony of the universe.

Beijing’s success and longevity marked an important leap forward in the history of purpose-built cities. The earliest attempts at building a capital from scratch were usually hubristic affairs that vanished along with their founders. Nothing remains of the fabled Akkad, commissioned by Sargon the Great in the 24th century B.C. following his victory over the Sumerians.

But the most vainglorious and ultimately futile capital ever constructed must surely be Akhetaten, later known as Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile River in Egypt. It was built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten around 1346 B.C. to serve as a living temple to Aten, the god of the sun. The pharaoh hoped to make Aten the center of a new monotheistic cult, replacing the ancient pantheon of Egyptian deities. In his eyes, Amarna was a glorious act of personal worship. But to the Egyptians, this hastily erected city of mud and brick was an indoctrination camp run by a crazed fanatic. Neither Akhenaten’s religion nor his city long survived his death.

In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great was responsible for one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in history when he allowed his army to burn down Persepolis, the magnificent Achaemenid capital founded by Darius I, in revenge for the Persian destruction of Athens 150 years earlier.

Ironically, the year before he destroyed a metropolis in Persia, the Macedonian emperor had created one in Egypt. Legend has it that Alexander chose the site of Alexandria after being visited by the poet Homer in a dream. He may also have been influenced by the advantages of the location, near the island of Pharos on the Mediterranean coast, which boasted two harbors as well as a limitless supply of fresh water. Working closely with the famed Greek architect Dinocrates, Alexander designed the walls, city quarters and street grid himself. Alexandria went on to become a center of Greek and Roman civilization, famous for its library, museum and lighthouse.

No European ruler would rival the urban ambitions of Alexander the Great, let alone Emperor Yongle, until Tsar Peter the Great. In 1703, he founded St. Petersburg on the marshy archipelago where the Neva River meets the Baltic Sea. His goal was to replace Moscow, the old Russian capital, with a new city built according to modern, Western ideas. Those ideas were unpopular with Russia’s nobility, and after Peter’s death his successor moved the capital back to Moscow. But in 1732 the Romanovs transferred their court permanently to St. Petersburg, where it remained until 1917. Sometimes, the biggest urban-planning dreams actually come true.

 

Historically Speaking: Women Who Popped the Question

Tradition holds that women only propose marriage on leap days, but queens have never been afraid to take the initiative.

February 20, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

An old tradition holds that every leap year, on Feb. 29, women may propose marriage to men without censure or stigma. Sources disagree about the origin of this privilege. One attributes it to St. Brigid, who became concerned for all the unmarried women in 5th-century Ireland and persuaded St. Patrick to grant them this relief. Another gives the credit to Queen Margaret of Scotland, who supposedly had the custom written into Scottish law in 1288.

Neither story is likely to be true: St. Brigid, if she even existed, would have been a child at the time of St. Patrick’s death, and Margaret died at the age of 7 in 1290. But around the world, there have always been a few women who exercised the usually male privilege of proposing.

In the Bible, the widowed Ruth, future great-grandmother of King David, asks her kinsman Boaz to marry her—not with words but by lying down at the foot of his bed. On the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, women propose by offering the man of their choice a ceremonial dish of fish marinated in palm oil.

Queen Ankhesenamun of Egypt, who lived in the 14th century B.C., is believed to have made the earliest recorded marriage proposal by a woman. Based on a surviving letter in the Hittite royal archives, scholars have theorized that Ankhesenamun, the widow of the boy king Tutankhamun, secretly asked the Hittite king Suppiluliuma to agree to a match with one of his sons, so that she could avoid a forced marriage to Ay, her late husband’s grand vizier. The surprised and suspicious king eventually sent her his son Zannanza. Unfortunately, the plan leaked out and the Hittite wedding party was massacred at the Egyptian border. Ankhesenamun disappears from the historical record shortly after.

The Roman princess Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian III, had marginally better luck. In 450 she appealed to Attila, King of the Huns, to marry her, in order to escape an arranged marriage with a minor politician. When Valentinian learned of the plan, he refused to allow it and forced Honoria to wed the senator. In retaliation, Attila launched an attack against Rome on the pretext of claiming his bride, capturing Gaul and advancing as far as the Po River in northern Italy.

The idea that marriage was a sentimental union between two individuals, rather than an economic or strategic pact between families, gained ground in Europe in the late 18th century. Jane Austen highlighted the clash of values between generations in her 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice”: Lady Catherine de Bourgh insists that her daughter and Mr. Darcy have been engaged since birth, while the heroine Elizabeth Bennet declares she will have Darcy if she wants.

Two decades later, a 20-year-old Queen Victoria came down on the side of love when she chose her cousin Albert to be her husband. As a ruling monarch, it was Victoria’s right and duty to make the proposal. As she recorded in her diary on October 15, 1839, “I said to him … that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished.” The 21-year marriage was one of the most successful in royal history.

Although it’s still the custom in most countries for men to propose marriage, leap year or not, there’s more to courtship than getting down on one knee. As the Irving Berlin song goes, “A man chases a girl (until she catches him).”

Historically Speaking: Plagues From the Animal Kingdom

The coronavirus is just the latest of many deadly diseases to cross over to human beings from other species.

February 6, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

Earlier this week, the still-rising death toll in mainland China from the coronavirus surpassed the 349 fatalities recorded during the 2003 SARS epidemic. Although both viruses are believed to have originated in bats, they don’t behave in the same way. SARS spread slowly, but its mortality rate was 9.6%, compared with about 2% for the swift-moving coronavirus.

A scientist examines Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991.
PHOTO: EURAC/MARION LAFOGLER

Statistics tell only one part of the story, however. Advances in the genetic sequencing of diseases have revealed that a vast hinterland of growth and adaptation precedes the appearance of a new disease. Cancer, for example, predates human beings themselves: Last year scientists announced that they had discovered traces of bone cancer in the fossil of a 240-million-year-old shell-less turtle from the Triassic period. This easily surpasses the oldest example of human cancer, which was found in a 1.7 million-year-old toe bone in South Africa. The findings confirm that even though cancer has all kinds of modern triggers such as radiation poisoning, asbestos and smoking, the disease is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.

Unlike cancer, the majority of human diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they are passed between animals and people by viruses, fungi, parasites or bacteria. The rise of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, which forced humans into close contact with animals, was probably the single greatest factor behind the spread of infectious disease.

Rabies was one of the earliest diseases to be recognized as having an animal origin. The law code of Eshnunna, a Mesopotamian city that flourished around 2000 B.C., mandated harsh punishments against owners of mad dogs that bit people. Lyme disease was only identified by scientists in 1975, but it too was an ancient scourge. Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old mummy who was discovered in the Tyrolean Alps with cracked ribs and an arrow wound in his shoulder, was an unlucky fellow even before he was killed. DNA sequencing in 2010 revealed that while he was alive, Ötzi was lactose intolerant, had clogged arteries and suffered from Lyme disease.

Smallpox, which was eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, had been one of the most feared diseases for most of human history, with a mortality rate of 30%. Those who survived were often left with severe scarring; the telltale lesions of smallpox have been identified on the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses V, who died in 1145 B.C. The disease is caused by the variola virus, which is thought to have crossed over to human beings from an animal, likely a rodent, in prehistoric times.

Although it can’t be proved for certain, it is likely that smallpox was behind the terrible plague that killed 20% of the Athenian population in 430 B.C. The historian Thucydides, who lived through it, described the agony of those infected with red pustules, the dead bodies piled high in the temples and the scars left on the survivors. He also noticed that those who did survive acquired immunity to the disease.

Thucydides’s observation turned out to be the key to one of humanity’s greatest weapons against infectious disease, vaccination. But apart from smallpox, the only eradication programs to have made some progress have been against viruses transmitted from human to human, such as polio and measles. Meanwhile, since the 1970s more than 40 new infectious diseases have emerged from the animal realm, including HIV, swine flu and Zika. And those are just the ones we know about.