Ever since inoculation was developed, there has never been a shortage of a vocal – and often irrational – minority to vehemently protest and rile up the community against efforts to combat the spread of infectious diseases. With the spread of education and public knowledge of vaccination, such anti-vaxxers usually lose – but not before they have caused significant damage. Though sometimes, they outright won, and the results tend to be catastrophic. One such anti-vaxxer win occurred in Montreal, in 1885. It began that March, when a train conductor infected with smallpox took to bed in a local hotel.
He recovered, but a laundry maid caught the disease from his linens. She died on April 2nd, but not before she had passed it on to her sister, who also died. By late summer, the smallpox had spread all over Montreal and surrounding areas. When the contagion came to an end, the region had experienced an epidemic with shockingly high fatality rates of around 40%. More than 6,000 died, and 13,000 were disfigured, most of them children. The overwhelming majority of them would not have gotten sick in the first place, if not for the success of a dumb and irrational anti-vaccination campaign.
22. An Unscrupulous Anti-Vaccination Campaign That Targeted the Poor and Poorly Educated
By the time smallpox arrived in Montreal in the spring of 1885, Edward Jenner’s vaccine was nearly a century old, and its effectiveness was well known. Nonetheless, Montreal suffered an epidemic that killed off 40% of those who came down with an easily preventable disease. The reason was a successful anti-vaccination campaign, that raised dumb objections to and stoked unfounded fears about the inoculation. The fear mongering was most effective in Montreal’s east side, inhabited mostly by poorer and less educated French Canadians.
Those unfortunates, misguided by unscrupulous and irrational anti-vaxxers, ended up making nine-tenths of those killed by the contagion. Vaccine opponents made it their mission to whip up worries about the smallpox vaccine. One of the more prominent of their numbers was a Dr. Alexander M. Ross, who edited a publication called The Anti-Vaccinator. He falsely claimed that “vaccination is useless and dangerous”, and that the vaccine was “a fearful engine of destruction and death to children”. His efforts eventually whipped up dumb riots against the smallpox vaccine.
Most of us are small fish in a very large pond, but the egos of some refuse to accept that. Then as now, many nineteenth-century anti-vaxxers were driven not by reason and logic, but by an emotional need to become big fish. As such, no facts or reasoning could get them to alter a position that they had not reached based on facts or reason. They figured that they had discovered a nearly effortless shortcut – reading a few pamphlets then, watching some YouTube videos now – that gave them superior insider knowledge. The possession of such knowledge made them feel smarter than genuinely smart people – the experts who had put in years of hard work and study to understand complex things.
In the weird world of dumb conspiracies – be they anti-vaxxer, flat earth, 9/11 trutherism, Q-Anon, etc., – the believers are suddenly smart according to those who believe as they do. Although without any significant accomplishments or merit, belief in the conspiracy makes them “enlightened” and allows them to lord it over everybody else. Without significant effort or serious study, they can still act like and be accepted as experts within their niche group, and validate each other’s need to be acknowledged as smart. That instantly transforms them into big fish in a small pond, and nothing will get them to leave that pond. The 1885 Montreal anti-vaxxers, like their ilk today, were not so much proselytizing their anti-vaccine conspiracy as they were defending their own egos.
20. An Unscrupulous Nineteenth-Century Anti-Vaxxer
As the smallpox raced through Montreal in 1885, anti-vaxxers such as the quack Dr. Alexander M. Ross led a campaign that urged refusal of the vaccine. His publication, The Anti-Vaccinator, derided the vaccinated as being “driven like dumb animals”, and falsely stated that “vaccination does not prevent Small-pox in any case”. That was bad, but what was even worse was that Ross had quietly vaccinated himself at the start of the epidemic. He nonetheless urged others not to get vaccinated and led an anti-vaxxer campaign because it gave him an opportunity to pose as a hero. Although over a hundred years separate us from Dr. Ross, his methods in the nineteenth century were remarkably similar to those used by anti-vaxxers in the twenty-first.
Like his modern equivalents, Ross pooh poohed the alarm of public health officials as “senseless panic”, and decried a perceived violation of personal liberty. He also peddled conspiracies about the greed of the medical establishment, exaggerated the risk of vaccines, and cherry-picked “evidence” from a minority of like-minded quack doctors who opposed vaccines. He and other anti-vaxxers also made up sensationalist lies, such as vaccine administrators invading women’s bedrooms (with the women always dramatically in states of undress) to tie them and their children down and forcibly vaccinate them. As seen below, his efforts triggered a violent anti-vaxxer riot.
By September 2nd, 1885, Montreal’s Board of Health believed that there were 2,000 smallpox cases in the city, and within a few weeks, the numbers had doubled to more than 4,000. That was when the authorities began to take sterner measures to combat the illness. They included the forcible removal of people from housing conditions – mostly in poor neighborhoods, such as predominately French Canadian ones in the city’s east side – that made isolation impossible. On September 28th, vaccination was made mandatory. The response was “a howling mob”, primed for weeks and whipped into a frenzy by publications such as Dr. Ross’ The Anti-Vaccinator. They surrounded the Board of Health’s East End Branch Office and destroyed it.
Police were called in, but they were routed and chased away by the mob. The anti-vaxxers then rampaged through the city, smashed the windows of pharmacies that sold the smallpox vaccine, and vandalized the homes of health officials. The Central Police Station’s windows were all broken, and the chief of police was stabbed and pelted with stones. Rioters fired at police, who armed themselves with rifles and bayonets, and fired above the anti-vaxxers’ heads. The cops finally clubbed the mob until it dispersed into small groups, that continued the violent assaults and destruction of property around Montreal. The following day, 1,400 soldiers were called in to patrol the city and prevent a recurrence, and health workers were issued revolvers.
18. The US Supreme Upheld the Power of the Government to Mandate Vaccination for Infectious Diseases
To Canada’s south, smallpox outbreaks in late nineteenth-century America led to more widespread vaccination campaigns. Those, in turn, brought all the dumb anti-vaxxer objections out of the woodworks. The 1879 founding of the Anti Vaccination Society of America was followed by organizations such as the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League, founded in 1882, and the Anti Vaccination League of New York City in 1885. American anti-vaxxers sued to repeal vaccination laws in several states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, and California but lost. The most prominent of those cases began in 1902 after a smallpox outbreak in Cambridge, Massachusetts when the board of health mandated the vaccination of all residents against smallpox.
A Henning Jacobson refused to get vaccinated on grounds that he should be able to do as he pleased with his own body. He was criminally charged, convicted, and appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 US 11 (1905), the Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws to protect the public from infectious diseases. It also ruled that individual liberty is not absolute, but must give way to the state’s police power. Subsequent decisions reaffirmed Jacobson and the primacy of the state’s power over individual rights when it comes to public health, such as Zucht v. King in 1922, which held that schools could deny admission to students who failed to receive required vaccinations.
17. The Dumb Roots of the Modern Anti Vaccination Movement
British anti-vaxxers played a key role in the spread of opposition to vaccination in America. In the nineteenth century, British anti-vaxxer William Tebb played a key role in founding the Anti Vaccination Society of America. In the late twentieth century, another British anti-vaxxer fueled yet another vaccination opposition movement across the Pond. He was Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who published a relatively obscure study in The Lancet – a prestigious medical journal. In it, he alleged that he had discovered a link between the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and autism. Wakefield’s claims were widely reported and led to a drop in vaccination rates in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and eventually, the US.
As a result, many children died or suffered serious permanent injuries. That was bad. What was even worse is that the study published in The Lancet was fraudulent. Not as in “controversial”, or “poorly researched” or “mistaken”, but as in straightforward deliberately fraudulent. As in the serious and deliberate type of criminal fraud for which fraudsters lose the license to practice their profession. Nonetheless, that fraud gave birth to a dumb movement that has killed or seriously injured many, and threatens to kill or seriously harm many millions more.
The publication of Dr. Wakefield’s study generated significant interest and controversy, so other large-scale studies were conducted to follow through and shed more light on his claims. However, researchers were unable to find any evidence to support his findings or replicate his work. So attention then shifted to the examination of Dr. Wakefield’s methodology: just how did the British physician arrive at his conclusions that linked the MMR vaccine to autism? It turned out that he had simply fabricated the evidence.
Dr. Wakefield did not make “mistakes” in his research. He simply made up much of the research and invented it out of thin air. To ice the cake – and transform the British physician from a dumb and incompetent researcher or crank into a cartoonish villain – it was discovered that Wakefield had been paid 55,000 British Pounds to claim that MMR vaccines caused autism. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. It was later discovered that Wakefield stood to make tens of millions of US dollars per year from his fraudulent study.
15. Andrew Wakefield’s Fraud Cost Him His Medical License
Among the many things that Dr. Wakefield had not mentioned when he submitted his study to The Lancet, was not just how much he was paid to make those claims, but how much he stood to make down the road from his fraud. The British physician stood to make up to $43 million per year from selling test kits linked to his bogus study and the supposed connection between vaccines and autism. On top of that, several of the parents used in his “study” were litigants engaged in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.
Naturally, Wakefield had failed to disclose any of those conflicts. With egg on The Lancet’s face, its editor-in-chief wrote: “It seems obvious now that had we appreciated the full context in which the work reported in the 1998 Lancet paper by Wakefield and colleagues was done, publication would not have taken place”. After the vaccine study was revealed as a fraud, it was retracted by The Lancet. As to Dr. Wakefield, he was found guilty by British medical authorities of serious professional misconduct and fraud and had his medical license revoked.
14. The Dire Consequences of a Dumb Movement Based on a Fraudulent Study
Unfortunately, because a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still tying its bootlaces, by the time Dr. Wakefield’s fraud was uncovered his bogus findings had found resonance within certain population segments. They went on to seed a dumb movement and became fervent anti-vaccination activists. Despite the fact that the study upon which their activism is based has been debunked as a fraud, those activists convinced many of the poorly informed, poorly educated, or gullible, that vaccines are bad for children.
Thus, one of the greatest medical advances in human history, which helped end widespread epidemics that killed a majority of children before they reached adulthood, is threatened. Childhood diseases that had been all but eliminated are making a comeback, and a steadily growing number of unvaccinated children are dying or suffering grave illnesses that leave them crippled for life. As such, this fraud has been described as the most damaging hoax of the past century – a fraud that has already killed or maimed many children and has the potential to kill or maim millions more.
13. The Dumb Belief in the Healing Properties of Tobacco
The irrational resistance to vaccines is in good – or bad, depending on how you look at it – company when it comes to dumb beliefs about medicine. Another one revolves around the beliefs about the supposed benefits of tobacco smoke. In the twenty-first century, the harmful effects of tobacco are well known and understood in most of the world. However, there was a time in history when not only were tobacco’s ills unknown but tobacco was actually considered healthy and good for you.
First introduced to Europe by the Spanish, circa 1528, tobacco was lauded as a cure for many ailments. Not only by quacks and charlatans but also by respected members of the mainstream medical establishment. From early on, it was described as a “sacred herb” because of its supposed medicinal properties, as claimed by various Native Americans. Before long, European medical practitioners had taken to prescribing the newly introduced plant as a miracle cure for sundry ailments, from headaches and colds to cancer.
12. When Blowing Smoke Up the Rear Was a Literal Thing
Today, when somebody scoffs at another that “you’re just blowing smoke up my a*s”, it is meant as a figure of speech to mean that the addressee is guilty of insincerely complementing the scoffer, and is telling him what he thinks he wants to hear. However, centuries ago, blowing smoke up the ass was meant literally, to describe a medical procedure in which a tube or rubber hose was inserted up a person’s rectum, through which tobacco smoke was then blown.
In the 1700s, doctors routinely used tobacco smoke enemas in the mistaken belief that they had healing properties. Especially since tobacco was seen as a beneficial plant, and a near miraculous cure for all kinds of ailments. Blowing smoke up the ass was thought to be particularly useful in reviving drowning victims. The nicotine in the tobacco was thought to make the heart beat faster, and thus stimulated respiration, while the smoke from the burning tobacco leaves was thought to warm the drowned individual from the inside.
11. The Intuitive Sense of Blowing Smoke Up Drowned People’s Asses
In the context of the time and in light of prevailing medical wisdom, tobacco smoke enemas did not sound as dumb to people in the 1700s as they seem to us today. The treatment made intuitive sense: the drowned person was full of water, so blowing air, in the form of tobacco smoke, would expel the water. And the “fact” that such air was from a plant with healing properties, as tobacco was believed to possess, was an added benefit. The hiccup, of course, was that the water was in the drowned person’s lungs, which are not connected to his or her rear end.
Because of that overlooked bit of human biology, the act of blowing air up the rear ends of drowning victims and into their bowels did little to expel water from their lungs. Although some doctors preferred to stick the tube directly into the lungs through the mouth or nose, most preferred to shove it up the patient’s butt, instead. Although medically useless, belief in the efficacy of tobacco smoke enemas in reviving drowning victims, or even those presumed dead, was widespread.
10. Blowing Smoke Up Behinds Was Not Just Hilariously Ineffective, But Also Tragically Dangerous
So widespread was the belief in the effectiveness of tobacco enemas to revive the drowned, that medical kits for blowing smoke up the ass were found at routine intervals along major waterways, such as the River Thames. There they waited, like modern defibrillators, ready for use to revive the drowned and bring the (presumed) dead back to life. Blowing smoke up the ass was eventually used to not only revive the drowned, but to also treat colds, headaches, hernias, abdominal cramps, and even heart attack victims.
Tobacco smoke enemas were also used on typhoid fever victims, and those dying of cholera. While the treatment was useless for the patient, it could be quite dangerous for the medical practitioner, particularly if he was blowing the smoke with his mouth instead of using a bellows. Should the doctor inhale instead of exhale, or if gases in the patient’s bowels escaped (e.g.; if the patient farted) fecal particles could get blown back into the doctor’s mouth or inhaled into his lungs. Such a mishap, particularly when treating a cholera patient, could prove fatal for the physician.
9. The Dumb Belief That the High Speed of Newfangled Trains Made People Crazy
For many people, anything new or different is suspect and a cause for alarm. As a result, the introduction of new technologies throughout history has often triggered fears, many of them irrational, and dumb beliefs to justify those fears. For example, take the concerns that cropped up when passenger trains first entered service back in the nineteenth century. New steam locomotives, such as the pioneering Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, were capable of maximum speeds of 28 miles per hour.
28 mph is quite slow by modern standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any human beings had ever experienced such velocities unless they were falling off a cliff or the like. As a result, there were grave concerns that such literally unprecedented speeds would prove lethal to passengers. The perceived risk of such unheard-of velocities was not limited to the consequences of a crash or derailment. Naysayers theorized that human physiology was simply not adapted to and capable of withstanding travel at speeds faster than those of a galloping horse.
8. The Fear That Nineteenth-Century Train Speeds Would Generate G Forces Strong Enough to Crush Passengers and Rip Women’s Uteri From Their Bodies
Nineteenth-century train alarmists anticipated the concerns about G forces in the era of powered flight and reasoned that the high speed of trains would compress passengers’ internal organs against their backs, with potentially lethal results. Women were thought to be particularly vulnerable: some doctors that a train’s speed could rip out a woman’s uterus. Such fears eventually receded, as railways and trains proliferated, with no reported fatalities from people getting their hearts or lungs flattened against their backs, or uteri ripped out of their bodies. However, because alarmists always need something to be alarmed about, they were replaced by another bizarre fear, this one of a danger to the mind instead of the body.
By the 1850s, the good people of the Victorian Era had ceased to worry that train speeds would crush them with irresistible G forces. Instead, they began to worry that the steadily increasing train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, were causing injuries to passengers’ brains, and driving people insane. Sensationalist media did their part to whip up the frenzy. An illustrative example occurred in 1865, during a train journey from Carnforth to Liverpool in England.
An armed train passenger on a train to Liverpool went crazy and began to attack windows in order to get at passengers in other compartments. When the train slowed down and stopped at its next station, the lunatic calmed down. When the train got underway again, he went nuts once more, only to calm down once more when the train stopped at the next station. The pattern of going wild while the train was in motion, then calming down when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.
Newspapers and mental health professionals of the day linked his bouts of madness to train travel. However, instead of reasoning that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel was the cause of his mental illness. The belief persisted, well into the twentieth century, that something about the speed or motion of trains drove people mad. That pattern of flawed analysis, which confused correlation with causation, kept repeating itself. Somebody would act crazy or in a socially unacceptable way in a moving train, and the train’s speed or motion would be blamed as the cause of the craziness.
Today, pineapples are often just a Dole can and can opener away and can be had for a dollar or less. As such, it might be hard to grasp just how exotic and rare they once used to be. When Christopher Columbus returned from his second voyage in 1496, he brought back a consignment of pineapples. Only one of them survived the sea passage without rotting, but that one was enough to send the Spanish court into raptures. One courtier wrote that “its flavor excels all other fruits”. It was understandable, considering that sweet things were not as common in Europe back then as they are today.
Refined sugar back in those days was rare and extremely expensive, while fruits were only available in season. As such, a ripe sweet pineapple could have been the tastiest thing that a European of that era had ever tasted. An even greater factor was the exotic appearance: pineapples looked like nothing Europeans had seen before. On top of that, in an era when sugar was believed to possess medicinal qualities, it was not a far leap for sweet pineapples to come to be seen as miracle fruits with healing properties similar to those of sugar.
An envoy of Spain’s King Ferdinand had this to say about the exotic pineapple: “[it is] the most beautiful of fruits I have seen. I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other of so exquisite and lovely appearance“. Pineapples became prized status symbols, and were esteemed to an extent that might seem ridiculous and dumb today, but was anything but at the time. In an era when royalists advocated the divine right of kings, anything with a crown came to be associated with heavenly approval.
The pineapple fruit, whose spiny top resembled a crown, became a symbolic manifestation of monarchy. As a result, it soon became known as “The King of Fruit”. Between that, the vast distances that pineapples had to travel in order to reach Europe, their sheer exoticism, and the fact that most people had never set eye on one before, the possession of a pineapple became a status symbol. So much so that, as seen below, pineapples were used in international politics and diplomacy.
In 1668, an ambassador from the court of King Louis XIV of France arrived in England to mediate a dispute between the two kingdoms over some Caribbean islands. England’s King Charles II ordered a pineapple from the English colony of Barbados perched atop a fruit pyramid at a dinner feast in honor of the French envoy. Contemporaries saw it as a public relations triumph, which asserted English dominance in the region. The move was seen by contemporaries as a visual illustration of England’s naval supremacy.
The presence of a pineapple signified that the English could get the rare fruits from the Caribbean at will, while the French could not. From then on, the pineapple, which Charles II christened “King-Pine“, became his favorite status symbol. He even commissioned a painting of the royal gardener presenting him with one. By the eighteenth century, pineapples could be grown in European greenhouses- but only at great expense, in the ballpark of $15,000. To eat them was considered wasteful, however. So they were used as fancy dinner ornaments and passed from party to party until they rotted.
In one of the more ridiculous developments that seem dumb today, people who weren’t rich enough to own pineapples – but wanted to look like they were – rented them from shops that sprang up to cater to their social-climbing needs. Pineapples were expensive enough to warrant the presence of security guards and for good reason. For example, 1807 Old Bailey transcripts show several pineapple theft cases, including one against a Mr. Gooding who got transported to Australia for seven years because he stole seven pineapples.
As the nineteenth progressed, steamships’ increased reliability and ever greater cargo space enabled the importation of pineapples in bulk. Their resultant availability at ever lower costs lowered their prestige. That did not sit well with the upper classes, for whom the tropical fruit had once been a marker of status. Indeed, the notion that pineapples were available – and affordable – to everybody annoyed the snobby set. Cartoons of working-class people eating pineapples were used in satirical prints, visual metaphors of the downside of progress in what seemed to the elites as a world turned upside down.
2. The Medicinal Properties of Gladiator Bodily Fluids
Ancient Romans had mixed feelings about gladiators. On the one hand, they were despised as slaves, trained under brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from society. On the other hand, gladiators, were admired and celebrated as if they were a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes. Because of their constant training, gladiators were often impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles glistening in the arena before spectators. Understandably, that made them the objects of sexual fantasies for many Romans, both women and men. If the gladiator sexual fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers stood in the way, especially for women – it might still be gratified at a remove.
Dumb as it sounds, gladiator bodily fluids, such as their sweat, were highly sought-after commodities. Rich Roman women, in particular, paid a lot for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators. A curved metal blade called a strigil, used by Romans to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing was used to scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. It was then collected in vials, that were offered for sale outside the gladiatorial games. The buyers would often apply the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their faces, as a type of facial cream. Others might mix it with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of women of status.
1. Ancient Romans Used Gladiator Blood as an Aphrodisiac and to Treat Epilepsy
Gladiator blood was also sought after by Roman women. Many applied the blood of their favorite arena combatant to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accouterments or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as particularly virile, which led to the somewhat ghoulish and macabre practice of using their blood (and sometimes sweat) as an aphrodisiac. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often was mixed with wine and ingested that way.
The use of gladiator blood was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. Although it sounds dumb today, gladiator blood was believed to possess medicinal properties, particularly in the treatment of epilepsy. As Pliny the Elder described it: “Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink he warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading