Count Cholera 2: Revenge of the Half-Baked Hypothesis

These two get it.
(from https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/20/21227874/what-we-do-in-the-shadows-season-2-hulu-preview)

As I noted in my first post on Marion McGarry’s Dracula=Cholera hypothesis, I’m always wary of criticising ideas that have been filtered through the media (rather than presented first-hand by the author or proponent), because something is almost always missing, lost in translation or even outright misrepresented. So when a kind commenter directed me to this recording of McGarry’s talk on her theory that Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was inspired by Stoker’s mother’s experience of the early 19th century Sligo cholera outbreak, I felt that I had to listen to it (I never did receive a reply to my request for her article). Now that I have listened, I can confirm that McGarry is reaching bigtime. The talk adds very little to the news reports that I referenced last time and covers much the same ground, including spurious stuff like the novel having the working title of ‘The Undead’ (‘undead’ already being a word as I noted previously). There is some new material however.

Early on McGarry references recent scholarship regarding the historical figure of Wallachian ruler Vlad III being the inspiration for the Count and the novel that features him. She is right about this; Stoker did indeed only overlay Vlad’s name and (incorrect) snippets of his biography onto his existing Styrian ‘Count Wampyr’. However, needless to say, just because ‘Dracula’ was not inspired by the historical Vlad III, it does not follow that it/he was inspired by cholera. As I noted before, Stoker did not invent the fictional vampire, and had no need of inspiration to create his own vampire villain. The only argument that might hold weight is that he was inspired to tackle vampirism by his family history. McGarry’s main argument for this hinges on the fact that Stoker did research for his novels in libraries. As noted last time, this actually works against her theory, since we have Stoker’s notes and there is no mention of his having read around cholera in preparation for writing ‘Dracula’. Whereas we do have his notes on his actual sources, which were about eastern European folklore; vampires and werewolves. The aspects that Stoker did use, he transplanted almost wholesale; it’s easy to see, for example, which bits he lifted from Emily Gerard. Stoker did not in fact do ‘a great deal’ of reading; he found a couple of suitable books and stopped there. Which is why the only other new bit of information from this talk is also of limited use. McGarry cites this 1897 interview with Stoker, claiming that ‘…the kernel of Dracula was formed by live burials…’ This is not, in fact, what Stoker was asked. He was asked what the origin of the *the vampire myth* was, not the inspiration for his taking on that source material:

“Is there any historical basis for the legend?”

Stoker, who was no better informed on the true origins of the Slavic vampire than any other novelist, answered:

“It rested, I imagine, on some such case as this. A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. 

Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about.”

Yes, this has parallels with cholera victims being buried prematurely, but it is by no means clear that Stoker was thinking of this when he made this response. Certainly, he does not mention it. There is every chance that this is purely coincidence; plenty of others at this time lazily supposed, like Stoker, that vampire belief stemmed from encounters with still-living victims of premature burial, or (apocryphal) stories of scratches on the inside of coffin lids. Stoker’s family connection with premature burial is likely a coincidence. Had he included a scene involving premature burial, or even a mention of it in the novel, McGarry might be onto something.

McGarry tries to compare Stoker’s victims of vampirism with descriptions of cholera patients; lethargy, sunken eyes, a blue tinge to the eyes and skin. Unfortunately the first two fit lots of other diseases, notably tuberculosis, and the third symptom doesn’t actually feature in ‘Dracula’ at all. I have literally no idea why she references it. She also tries to link the blue flames of the novel with German folklore in which ’blue flames emerge from the mouths of plague victims’. I have never heard of this, nor can I find any reference to it. I do know, however, that Stoker took his blue flames from Transylvanian folklore about hidden treasure; taken again from Emily Gerard (Transylvanian Superstitions), confirmed once again by Stoker’s notes. If there is folklore about blue flames and cholera, no reference appears in his notes, and it is most likely coincidence.

In an extension of her commentary that storms preceded both outbreaks (cholera and vampirism) McGarry asserts that the first victim of cholera presented on 11 August – the same date as Dracula’s first British victim in the novel, the evidence being William Gregory Wood-Martin’s 1882 book ‘The History of Sligo County and Town’. This is not correct. Lucy, Dracula’s first victim, does indeed receive her vampire bite on 11 August. MEanwhile however, back in the real world, the first case of cholera in Sligo was identified on 29 July 1832. Wood-Martin mentions 11 August only because a special board was created on that day, precisely because the first case had happened some time previously. McGarry does admit that 11 August ‘..may have been randomly chosen by Stoker’, yet still lists this piece of ‘evidence’ in her summing up, which is as follows;

‘It cannot be a coincidence that Bram Stoker had Dracula tread a path very similar to cholera; a devastating contagion travelling from the East by ship that people initially do not know how to fight, a great storm preceding its arrival, the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits, avenging doctors and Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead, all culminating in the date of august 11th of the first victim.’

Just to take these in order;

  1. ‘It cannot be a coincidence’ It can absolutely be a coincidence. All of this is literally coincidence without any evidence to support it. This is not how history works. 
  2. ‘…a path very similar…’ Dracula comes from Western Europe. Cholera came from the Far East. Both are east of the British Isles, but the origins of the two contagions are hardly identical. The ship aspect I dealt with last time; this is how people and goods travelled across continents at that time. Not to mention that all of these similarities with cholera are similarities with any disease – and most agree that the idea of the vampire as contagion is a legitimate theme of ‘Dracula’ (indeed, historical belief in vampires has strong ties to disease). There’s nothing special about cholera in this respect. The same goes for idea of people not knowing how to fight these afflictions; all disease outbreaks require learning or relearning of ways to combat them. One could just as easily claim similarity in that cholera had been fought off previously, and that Van Helsing already knows how to defeat vampires; just not necessarily this one… 
  3. ‘…the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits…’ earlier in the talk McGarry claims that Stoker invokes miasma theory in ‘Dracula’. In fact he doesn’t. Bad smells abound, sure, but the only mention of miasma in the novel is metaphorical (‘as of some dry miasma’) and relates to the earthy smell of Dracula’s Transylvanian soil, not to the Count himself. Nowhere is smell cited as a means of transmission, only biting. ‘Dracula’, famously, takes a very modern, pseudoscientific approach to vampirism, even if its counter is good old-fashioned Catholic Christianity. Speaking of which…
  4. ‘…avenging doctors and Catholic imagery…’ as noted, ‘Dracula’ does treat vampirism as a disease, so the doctors follow from that; not bearing any specific relation to cholera in Ireland. As for Catholic imagery, well, Stoker was from that background, and Dracula is very overtly Satanic in the novel. You need religion to defeat evil just as you need medicine to defeat disease. Once again, this is coincidence.
  5. ‘…the undead rising from the dead…’ how else does one get the undead? Seriously though, I’ve dealt with this above and previously. Stoker chose to write about vampires, therefore the undead feature. 
  6. ‘…all culminating in the date of August 11th of the first victim.’ Except it doesn’t, as I’ve shown.

I make that a 0/6. The themes identified by McGarry in Stoker’s book stem from his choice of vampires as the subject matter, and his take is shaped by his knowledge, upbringing, etc etc. Was he in part inspired to choose vampires because of family history with cholera? Maybe; it’s plausible as one of many influences (not, as McGarry implies, the main or sole influence) but there is literally zero evidence for it. 

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Rifle musket or rifled musket?

A Rifled musket. Also a rifle musket. And a rifle.

Tl;dr – 

‘Rifle’ = short for ‘rifled gun’

‘Rifled gun’ = any firearm with rifling

‘Rifled musket’ OR ‘rifle musket’ = any musket with rifling

‘Musket’ = any shoulder-fired enlisted infantry firearm

*i.e. not an artillery or cavalry carbine, or an NCO or officer’s fusil or pistol.

Having seen the Smithsonian TV channel’s YouTube channel describe an India Pattern ‘Brown Bess’ musket as a ‘musket rifle’ – which is a nonsense term – I thought it was time to roll out my research on the term ‘rifle musket’ – which is an actual historical thing. Firstly, I should point out that their ‘test’ of the musket vs the Dreyse needle gun is typically flawed and superficial modern TV stuff, as Brandon F. details. Brandon corrects ‘musket rifle’ to ‘rifled musket’, with a ‘d’ but in fact both forms – ‘rifled musket’ and ‘rifle musket’ were used interchangeably in the period in question. Said period is from c.1850, when the technology of spiral grooves in the barrel or rifling, known for more than 300 years by this point, was first applied to standard issue infantry firearms. 

The most important thing to say is that the use of ‘rifle’ or ‘rifled’ is just a matter of preference around verb inflection, like ‘race car’ in American English (a car for use in a race) and ‘racing car’ in British English (a car for racing in). This linguistic difference was less pronounced in the 19th century (although did exist as we’ll see), and so ‘rifle musket’ and ‘rifled musket’ were genuinely interchangeable. More on this later, but the main thing I want to address – and the ‘BS history’ here – is that they don’t mean different things. Some (including the former Pattern Room Custodian Herbert J. Woodend in his British Rifles book) have suggested that the term ‘rifled’ denoted a conversion – a ‘musket’ that had been ‘rifled’ – whereas a ‘rifle musket’ is a musket-like rifle that was designed and made that way. Although logical enough, there is literally no evidence for this, no consistency in the actual use of the two variant terms, and plenty of evidence to suggest that they are just linguistic differences. 

A quick word on the word ‘rifled’ or ‘to rifle’ – as this period dictionary shows, this originally meant to raid, loot, ransack or, and this is where the grooves cut into a barrel come in – ‘to disturb’. Gunmakers running a sharp tool on a rod in and out of a gun’s bore were indeed disturbing the otherwise smooth surface of the metal. Incidentally, the term ‘screwed gun’ is a synonym for ‘rifle(d) gun’ as this 1678 source shows. The etymology is pretty clear, but had apparently been forgotten by the end of the 18th century, when ‘to rifle’ either meant just ransacking or looting, or to cut spiral grooves in a gun. At any rate, this was in use from at least 1700, and was short for ‘rifled gun’ or ‘rifle gun’. Inventor of the Baker rifle, Ezekiel Baker, refers to the generic rifle as ‘the rifled gun’ in his own 1806 book, so this long form term was still in current use at that time, but was already commonly abbreviated. Almost from the off therefore, ‘rifled gun’, ‘rifle gun’ and ‘rifle’ were all used to refer to any shoulder-fired firearm with rifling, whereas ‘rifled musket’, ‘rifle musket’ or ‘rifle-musket’ referred specifically to a military weapon with rifling. Military rifles in the age of linear tactics had to serve as both gun and half-pike, so that infantry could fight without shooting, and especially engage with cavalry. There was little need for the precision offered by the rifle, a lack of training to allow soldiers to exploit it, and in any case they were much more labour-intensive and therefore costly to make. Rifles were also slower to load, and it was more effective for the majority of troops to be drilled in musketry using quick-loading and cost-effective smoothbore muskets than to provide them with rifles. The typical rifle was designed for hunting or target shooting. Of course, during the 18th century they were adapted for limited use in war by specialist troops, and light infantry tactics developed for them, but the standard soldier’s weapon remained the musket, and until the 1840s was invariably a smoothbore musket and not a ‘rifled musket’.

Although we are used to thinking of a musket as a clunky, inaccurate, short-ranged and smoothbore weapon therefore, the actual distinguishing characteristics of the musket were really only twofold. First, it had to have a long barrel to allow for more complete powder burn and therefore sufficient velocity (especially important with the lack of gas seal at the breech) as well as enough reach to engage in bayonet fighting (especially against cavalry) and secondly, a bayonet. This is why the Baker rifle could be called a ‘rifle musket’ – and its users fought as line infantry as well as light infantry – and also why the famous Winchester company marketed a long-barrelled, bayonet-capable version of its lever-action rifle as a musket. By the end of the 19th century the smoothbore musket had fallen out of use, and so there was no longer a need to differentiate between ‘(smoothbore) musket’ and ‘rifled musket’. Of course, we could have just called rifles ‘muskets’, but ‘rifle’ was already in common usage, and the word ‘musket’ had become associated with the smoothbore musket amidst the hype of the superiority of the rifle musket. ‘Rifle’ or ‘Rifled’ was the key part of the name, so once again the standard infantry weapon was abbreviated to just ‘rifle’ – which was in any case used throughout this whole period. The P’53 Enfield was always a ‘rifle’, a ‘rifled musket’, and technically, a ‘rifled gun’ as well.

All of this would tend to suggest that ‘rifled musket’ only came in with general issue percussion rifles like the Enfield and the Springfield, but in fact early military rifles like the famous British Baker were also ‘muskets’. Rifled muskets. The 1816 ‘Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature’, Volume 18 (p. 383);

‘A telescope with cross-hairs, fitted to a common rifled musket, and adjusted to the direction of the shot, will make any person, with very little practice, hit an object with more precision than the most experienced marksman.’

De Witt Bailey’s ‘British Military Flintlock Longarms’ shows that the Baker itself was in fact sometimes called a ‘Rifled musquet’, and not just in its rare ‘musket bore’ variant either. It was a musket because it was a military long gun with a bayonet. It was a rifle gun, rifle musket, or just plain ‘rifle’, because it was rifled! By this stage however the shorthand ‘rifle’ was not only in common use, but was part of the formal designation of the weapon (the ‘Infantry Rifle’). It also helped to further differentiate the specialist weapon from the common musket. However, the term ‘musket’ did survive for a long time afterward in the context of ‘musketry’ – military marksmanship. The British ‘School of Musketry’ was only formed in 1854, when rifles were already standard issue – in fact that’s primarily why it was formed; soldiers now had to learn how to hit their mark at distance. My mention of ‘musket bore’ raises a third differentiating aspect that I ignored earlier; because it becomes irrelevant in the 19th century, which is a larger, heavier bullet than the typical rifle, carbine, or ‘fusil’. This held broadly true from the inception of the musket in the 1530s to the 19th century when (rifle!) musket bores reduced as velocities went up. However, even in this earlier period, a carbine could be of ‘musket bore’, just as it could also mount a bayonet. Terminology is a thorny problem that is just as often driven by the armed force that’s doing the naming as it is by logic; but here I’m just concerned with sorting out the ‘rifle(d) musket’ issue. 

The official British term for an infantry rifle intended for use by ‘line infantry’ (i.e. not light infantry or specialist riflemen) during the period of the Pattern 1853 rifle was ‘rifled musket’, in keeping with the modern British English grammatical preference. As noted though, this was less set in stone in the mid-19th century and ‘rifle musket’ was also used, notably by Henry Jervis-White-Jervis in his 1854 ‘The Rifle-musket: A Practical Treatise on the Enfield-Pritchett Rifle’. ‘The Rifle: And how to Use It’ by Hans Busk (1861) uses both terms, leading with ‘rifled musket’, and is referring to the Pattern 1853 rifle, so again, there’s no question of ‘rifled’ meaning a conversion of a smoothbore musket. In the U.S. also, both terms were used. Peter Smithurst in his Osprey book on the P’53 refers to the records of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers of Springfield (July 1861);

‘….Friday morning the regiment marched to the U.S. Armory and returned the muskets loaned them for the purpose of drill, and in the afternoon we received our full supply of the Enfield rifled musket.’

Yet the ‘Catalogue of the Surgical Section of the United States Army Medical Museum’ by Alfred A. Woodhull (1866, p. 583) lists various weapons, using ‘rifle musket’ for the U.S. Springfield, but ‘rifled musket’ for foreign types including the P’53. Once again, interchangeable terms for the same thing. 

There you go – call them ‘rifle muskets’, ‘rifled muskets’, ‘rifle guns’ or just plain ‘rifles’ – all are correct and all refer to the same thing – a military rifle. The only reason we don’t call an M16 a ‘musket’ is fashion, basically.

Mask of the Plague Doctor

Promo image from the recent Ghost tour. Not entirely fanciful as it turns out.

tl;dr – although not in use until the Enlightenment era (sorry, the plague doctor is not a medieval or renaissance figure) the beak doctor outfit really was an historical reality of the early 17th – early 19th centuries, but was likely rare; especially in its iconic form with corvid-like mask and separate hood.

Update: my original intent was to write something up for the lovely people at Fortean Times, who very kindly allowed me to do so, but after I’d posted this initial debunking of the claim that they didn’t exist. As I’d already written it, and the angle is somewhat different, I’ve left this up. But if you get the chance, do grab a copy of Issue 393, because they did a cracking job with the much revised and enhanced text that I gave them and the illustrations look great; including a never-before published original of the Zwinger painting. Anyway, read on…

Given the current rash of people dressing as plague doctors in weird defiance of the novel Coronavirus that we find ourselves beset by, as well as their recent use by the ‘12 Monkeys’ TV show and one of my favourite bands, Ghost, I felt I had to tackle the iconic plague doctor mask; the one with the long, curved snout with impressed (or stitched) line down the side mimicking a bird’s beak (sometimes a full-on replica beak with nostril openings). I’ve been sceptical about this for a while now, mostly due to Kathleen Crowther’s blog article ‘Did Plague Doctors Wear Those Masks?’ (2013), available here. Crowther states that the bird’s beak was parody, not reality – that these physicians in their early versions of HAZMAT suits were derided and compared to scavenging ravens (post-medieval Europe hated corvids, unfortunately), and this is where our modern misconception of the plague doctor’s costume comes from. This conclusion does make a lot of sense, but as it turns out, I don’t agree. The plague doctor’s outfit and mask are genuine. Yes, the costume was probably the exception, and the really birdlike masks that fascinate us today even more rare than that, but there’s plenty of evidence that both did in fact exist from about 1619 for perhaps two centuries in one form or another.

OK, time for the deep dive…

The Evidence for An Historical ‘Dr Beak’

The earliest extant plague doctor depiction. Unknown artist (published by Sebastiano Zecchini), 1656. (British Museum archive document 1880,0710.522, AN186495001, from https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=186495001&objectId=1539871&partId=1

There is actually a reasonable amount of evidence for the iconic form of the plague doctor’s costume. What isn’t clear is how old this form actually is. Medical practitioners have probably been protecting themselves from infectious diseases (in this case forms of plague) for centuries, but the first version of the iconic outfit dates to the French plague of 1615-21 (which reached Paris in 1618). This clothing is attributed by Michel abbé de Saint-Martin to royal physician Charles Delorme. The full description of Delorme’s costume that appears on Wikipedia (taken from here and in turn from this 1896 article) is in fact a weird mashup of sources, fancifully (irresponsibly?) rewritten as one long interview between Michel and Delorme by N.M. Bernardin, an historian of French literature (not social or medical history). Despite this, it’s close to being accurate. It is mainly based upon ‘Remarques critiques sur le dictionnaire de Bayle’ (1748). Although written a long time after the fact, this does credit its information to Michel and may have been taken from a different source (possibly the 1683 second edition of ‘Moyens’, which I can’t find a copy of online):

‘Il se fit faire, dit-il, un habit de maroquin, que le mauvais air pénètre très difficilement : il mit en sa bouche de l’ail et de la rue ; il se mit de l’encens dans le nez et dans les oreilles, couvrit ses yeux de bésicles, et en cet équipage assista les malades, et il en guérit presque autant qu’il donna de remèdes.’

‘He had himself made, he says, a leather suit, which bad air penetrates with great difficulty: he put garlic and rue [a type of plant] in his mouth; he put incense in his nose and ears, covered his eyes with spectacles, and in this equipment assisted the sick, and he healed almost as much as he gave remedies.’

This has been combined with the only actual information on Delorme’s outfit that does appear in Michel’s ‘Moyens faciles et éprouvés dont M. de l’Orme, médecin, s’est servi pour vivre près de cent ans’ of 1682, which is a mention of his coat and mask (pages 424-425):

‘Il n’oublioit jamais fon habit de marroquin dont il étoit l’autheur, il l’habilloit depuis les pieds jusques à la tefte en forme de pantalon , avec un masque du méme marroquiņ où il avoit fait attacher un nez long de demy pied afin de detourner la malignité de l’air…’

‘He was never without his own design of (goatskin) leather coat, and dressed from head to toe with pantaloons and a mask of the same leather to which he attached a long nose half a foot in length in order to keep out the bad air.’ 

This certainly sounds like the plague doctor we know and love, but at this point there is no mention of a birdlike beak, eyeglasses, gloves (although they are implied by ‘head to toe’), rod or hat (although no gentlemen would set foot outside without some sort of walking stick or hat). Michel goes on to say that Delorme gave another coat and mask to the daughter of Monsier Renaud, chief chirurgeon to King Louis XIII, so there were at least two of these outfits in existence at this time.

However birdlike or otherwise Delorme’s outfit may or may not have been, and whether or not others took the idea from him or came up with it independently, the first certain visual depiction of a plague doctor and also the first to feature a naturalistic bird-face mask is not French but Italian, dating to 1656. [edit – as an aside, after I published this article I spotted this intriguing claim by Francesca Falk that there are in fact two beak-masked plague doctors incorporated into the 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This seems impossible to prove, and there is no prior (or subsequent) English depiction or mention that would help to verify it, but I think Falk makes a good case.] One original copy of this 1656 Italian engraving resides in the British Museum’s collection (reproduced at the top of this article – see a later sketched copy here). It was produced in Rome and Perugia by an unknown artist, pubilshed by Sebastiano Zecchini;

‘L’habito con il quale vanno i Medici per Roma a Medicare per difesa del mal Contagioso è di tela incerata, il Volto ordinario, congli Occhiali di Christallo, & il Naso pieno di Profumi contro l’infettione. Portano una Verga in mano perdare a vedere, è dimostrare le loro operationi.’

In Roma, & in Perugia, Per Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.  

This (hopefully!) translates as;

‘The outfit in which the doctors in Rome go to medicate in defence of the infectious disease is of waxed canvas, the face with eyeglasses, & the nose full of perfumes against the infection. They hold a staff because of their reduced vision and to demonstrate their operations.’

In Rome, & in Perugia. For Sebastiano Zecchini, 1656.

Pretty similar; and the type of cloth or leather used to make the clothing isn’t specified. I have to wonder how much ‘later’ Delorme had the idea of the perfume-filled beaked mask. Did he or the doctors in Rome come up with it first? Or did the two hit upon the idea independently? We have no way of knowing unfortunately, but it’s clear that the basic outfit was in use in both French and Italian regions. 

The German Piss-Take Versions

One of two German derivatives of the Italian original, this one by Gerhart Altzenbach and titled ‘Kleidung widder den Todt’ or ‘Death’s Clothing’ (Wikimedia commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerhart_Altzenbach,_Kleidung_widder_den_Todt_Anno_1656.png)

Paul Fürst’s ‘Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom’ or ‘Dr Beak of Rome’ (Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_F%C3%BCrst,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holl%C3%A4nder_version).png)

The German states were clearly fascinated by the sensational appearance of the Italian plague doctor(s?) and copied the artwork to produce two later engravings (presumably made within a few years of the original), both with the extensive additional satirical commentary that Crowther points to in her article, poking fun at the odd-looking birdlike man and his ineffectiveness in actually helping the afflicted. One of these satirical ‘broadsides’ is by Gerhart Altzenbach (there is a very brief 1965 academic note on this here, JSTOR account required), the other by Paulus Fürst. Due to the identical date it’s hard to say which of the German ones came first (pun not originally intended) but Fürst’s added memento mori winged hourglass on the tip of the doctor’s staff and the closer resemblance to the Altzenbach version suggests that it followed the latter. Fürst also makes the gloved fingers even more pointed and sinister-looking. This version of the design also suggests that the original artist for the doctor figure was an ‘I. Columbina’, hinting at another Italian version pre-dating all of the known examples. However, the BM points out that Columbina was a character in the commedia dell’Arte, the implication (given that this attribution does *not* appear on the Italian version and that no other reference to an artist of that name has ever been found) being that this was a joke; i.e. this bizarre person was sketched by a fellow weirdo – Columbina… That in itself is pretty speculative though.

As Crowther notes, Altzenbach’s broadside is where we get the satirical comparison to the raven:

“Cadavera sucht er zu fristen

Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten”

Or…

“He seeks cadavers to eke out a living

Just like the raven on the dung heap”

I kind of want to see a Rammstein version of the full thing, but I digress. With all due respect to Kathleen Crowther (and in fairness she does not discount the idea but simply states that she has not seen the evidence), this does not in fact debunk the plague doctor’s beaked mask, or even the more overtly birdlike version of it. The birdface mask cannot be purely satirical; not only because of the other period evidence for similar costumes in France, but because the mocking German ‘Doctor Schnabel’ artwork is very clearly copied directly from an Italian original that is played entirely ‘straight’ with no smirking commentary, criticism or embellishment.

As it turns out, there’s even more evidence to support this. If the three depictions we’ve seen so far are all based on the same original, there is an absolute corker of an original artwork from almost half a century later. That is, the coat of arms of Swiss doctor Theodor Zwinger III (1658 – 1724). There are at least two versions of this; the below is an oil painting on a wooden panel, dated to c.1700 by the Wellcome Collection but likely a close copy (whether period or later it’s hard to say) of the more detailed original in the in Historisches Museum Basel, which is painted on copper plate (I have a copy of this but won’t post it online; it appears in my Fortean Times article (Issue 393, 2020). It shows a very gothic-looking black robed figure with very birdlike, curved beak, complete with dividing line between upper and lower:

This is my favourite. – Theodore Zwinger in and out of plague doctor costume (From https://wellcomecollection.org/works/mr4znzgp)

That’s definitely Zwinger III on the right, and although his dress seems decidedly old-fashioned for the late 17th century, portraits of him show a large ruff and voluminous shoulders on his doublet. Of course, this artwork is essentially fantasy, and does not necessarily mean that Zwinger ever wore this clothing or even that it was still in use at the end of the century. It could in fact mean the opposite – representing the unenlightened past on the left (based on what those silly Italians used to wear) and the modern physician on the right, acknowledging the debt owed to past beliefs whilst distancing the subject from them. It might even be a direct reference to ‘Doctor Schnabel’ as a figure of fun. Even so, it’s another piece of evidence that this outfit was at least a meme of sorts, and very likely a real costume at one time.

Later Forms

The next version appears in 1721 in a much cruder form (below) as the frontispiece to (Genovese) Jean-Jacques Manget’s ‘Traité de la peste‘. Produced by an unidentified artist, is in fact considerably later than the Zecchini original and presumably the German derivatives. This is apparent from this source (note also the much less birdlike depiction over the page in the same book) and indeed from the clear debt owed, down to the specific pose of the doctor, to the design used in the three earlier engravings. This doctor also has an updated style of hat and gloves.

Manget’s 1721 version of the plague doctor (Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Plague_Doctor_%E2%80%93_from_Jean-Jacques_Manget,_Trait%C3%A9_de_la_peste_(1721);_WHO_version.png)

The accompanying description (the annotation on the drawing covers the eyeglasses) offers more detail than the earlier ones in terms of clothing and is the first to comment on the resemblance of the ‘beak’ to, er, a beak;

‘Le nez en forme de bec est rempli de parfums et oint intérieurement de matières balsamiques … sous le manteau, on porte ordinairement des bottines, des culottes de peau attachées audites bottines et une chemise de peau unie dont on referme le bas dans les culottes, le chapeau et les gants sont aussi de même peau de maroquin du levant.’

‘The beak-shaped nose is filled with perfumes and anointed internally with balsamic materials… under the coat, one usually wears ankle boots, skin breeches attached to said ankle boots and a plain skin shirt whose bottom is closed in the breeches, the hat and the gloves are also of the same goatskin leather.’

Interestingly, Manget and other sources of this period (including this version of the Manget engraving, that specifically namechecks Chicoyneau) explain that the costume was brought back by physician François Chicoyneau, 100 years after the previous plague (no mention of Delorme as either inventor or plague doctor, interestingly), to help tackle a new outbreak of plague in Marseille. Interestingly (and eerily, because as I write this my country has just gone into COVID-19 lockdown), this was probably because Chicoyneau was utterly convinced by miasma theory and did not hold with the idea of a cordon sanitaire to prevent the spread of disease. Of course, the medical treatments of the day were unlikely to help anyone near as much as a cordon, although the plague doctor costume might protect the physicians to some extent. By implication at least, there were now multiple classical ‘plague doctors’ mooching about in this get-up. So far, so birdy. This early 18th century revival provides some important continuity with respect to my next section…

What Plague Doctor Masks Exist?

As far as I can determine, there are between five and seven (two may be recreations) documented ‘beaked’ plague masks (see below). Two to four of them (including both of the possible recreations) seem to have been lost or destroyed. One of these was originally collected for the Museum of Hygiene in Rome from the lazaretto or plague hospital in Venice. It now exists only in a photograph held by the Wellcome Collection in the UK. Even then it was in a sorry condition, missing its lenses. A very similar style of mask was photographed on the island of Poveglia (also in the province of Venice). Both appear below. The interesting thing about this is that Poveglia wasn’t made a lazaretto until the end of the 18th century, so any plague mask collected there is likely not contemporary with the 17th century depictions. It stands to reason that the basic design of mask/hood would remain in use, as the miasma theory of disease was not abandoned for another hundred years.

The Wellcome’s photograph of the Italian mask (from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plague_apparatus_from_a_lazaretto_in_Venice;_an_oil_cloth_ma_Wellcome_V0029672.jpg)

The Poveglia mask.

The two questionable ones were apparently once part of the Wellcome Collection itself. The Collection has photos of one of them including one in situ in the Wellcome Library (mid-C20th). They were clearly both on open display and by the time of this photograph were in a state of disrepair (one being held together with tape!). I am as sure as I can be that both are actually Victorian recreations, produced mid-late 19th century as teaching aids, handled to death, then binned. The one on the left is made of either plaster or papier mache. The right hand one is made of the same worn fabric (wax cotton, oilskin?) as the robes, and there’s no way that set of robes has survived the 150+ years to the mid-20th century. The biggest point against is probably that the Wellcome called one of them a ‘model’ and didn’t keep either of them. If they were genuine, they likely would have saved at least one. 

The three still-extant were also collected by German museums; the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim, and the Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum in Ingolstadt. All appear (as we might expect from items collected by bona fide museums) to be genuine, although they are only loosely dated to some time during the 17th century and in reality could be recreations closer in date to Manget’s 1721 depiction. The Reiss-Engelhorn example has a distinct flat goggle section but is otherwise substantially the same as the others. The DHM hood (AK 2006/51) is the only one that I could find provenance information on – it’s a recent acquisition, purchased at auction in April 2006 from a private art dealer based in Vienna. It’s not clear whether this or the other German examples reflect any actual period German/Austrian/non-Italian use of the masks or (more likely) collection as medical/scientific curiosities by German visitors to one or more of the Italian states. 

The DMM (left) and DHM (right) masks (from the useful thread on the Taleworlds forum; https://forums.taleworlds.com/index.php?threads/plague-doctors-beaked-physicians.357671/)

The Reiss-Engelhorn version (from https://www.paimages.co.uk/search-results/fluid/?q=Conservator%20Bernd%20Hoffmann-Schimpf%20holds%20a%20plague%20mask&category=A,S,E&fields_0=all&fields_1=all&imagesonly=1&orientation=both&words_0=all&words_1=all)

Typologically, these masks seem to represent a further evolution from the Manget type, being bulkier, bulbous full hood designs with integrated eye lenses instead of separate spectacles and without the beak line or nostrils. Almost like early C19th diving helmets with beaks. I believe that all are late 18th or early 19th century in date. Frankly it would be remarkable if any of the early type masks had survived for 350-odd years. There is one very classical-looking but also highly dubious example currently included in the Wikipedia articles on plague doctors and their costume. Judging by its condition alone, this must be a modern recreation, and I cannot find any museum in Jena (to which the image is attributed) that would be likely to have anything like this. There is a museum of optics there, which would explain a diorama recreation of a plague doctor, which is what I believe this image to represent. 

These examples are more similar to the artistic depictions than they may appear. As well as a general form resembling the Manget version, and the obvious beak-like snout, if we look closely at the artistic depictions, these too were likely all full, over-the-head affairs, more like hoods than facemasks (the German museums call the later forms ‘pesthaube’ in fact). This which would make them more effective protection against actual diseases as well as imaginary miasma/bad air. All have more conical than realistic-looking ‘beaks’ (two leather, one bronze or more likely copper), not as birdlike as those shown in the period artwork, although in fairness, they are all very old and in a bit of a state; they may have looked more classically plague doctory in their day. Interestingly, the only real change in the 1721 Manget depiction from earlier versions was to depict the doctor’s mask as a full-head hooded affair, albeit still with a more birdlike snout. In fact though, the main difference is that the Manget version doesn’t have the robe wrapped up and over the mask itself. What look like separate facemasks akin to the modern Venetian carnival/commedia dell’arte il Medico della Peste‘ mask are also actually depicting a hood – just one sitting underneath an enveloping robe. In this respect a lot of the modern depictions are actually off-base, showing a balaclava-style hood with a facemask slipped over the top, or sometimes just the mask. Incidentally, ‘il Medico’ himself seems to be a recent phenomenon; a variation/play on the vague similarity of the plague mask to the long-nosed masks worn by the Zanni characters and the modern-day popularity of the plague doctor. There is actually no historical commedia character based on the plague doctor (although there is historically a very different doctor character). 

Conclusions

Whether styled closely after a bird’s face or just resembling one by coincidence (most likely both at different times, in different places and depending upon the individual doctor’s preference), the look of these masks was secondary to their intended function. The main goal here, then as now, was to protect themselves as best they knew how against unseen agents of infection. The masks (especially the simpler forms) are not too different to the early gas masks or ‘gas hoods’ of the First World War. The ‘beak’ is a direct analogue to the later mask filter, albeit full of items thought to combat ‘miasma’ rather than anything medically effective. 

To wrap this up; yes, the full-face bird-like ‘beaked’ mask/hood with glasses, the robes, the gloves, the funky hat, the point-ed stick, thin leather or waxed cloth; all of it was a real thing. Many masks/hoods probably had a conical ‘beak’ that only vaguely resembled a bird’s bill; others probably leaned into the look more like the earliest depictions and our modern conception. Of course, as we’ve seen, the ‘look’ sort of backfired; almost immediately critics were comparing them to that infamous bird of death, the raven – complete in the Fürst version (bottom left of frame) with several terrified prospective patients running away from the doctor, who is waving his winged hourglass of death at them and presumably wondering why no-one wants to be ‘treated’. Even Zwinger’s coat of arms seems to paint (literally) his plague doctor self as an ominous harbinger of disease and death. This, of course, is how we see the plague doctor to this day; a relic of scientific ignorance and a symbol of an elitist, distant, uncaring medical profession. We should probably recognise though that these people were trying to help the infected, not terrify them – just as our (thankfully much more capable) healthcare professionals are trying to do as I type this. Their methods may have been questionable (even by the 1720s) but in terms of protective equipment, they were thinking along the right lines in terms of overlapping fully enveloping clothing that might prevent the ingress of…whatever was causing the infection. They thought it was ‘bad’ air, we know that it’s microscopic organisms (in the case of bubonic plague, passed on by flea bites).

Thankfully, in the current pandemic, we don’t need to experiment with protective clothing for medical practitioners; we know what works and we just have to do our bit and help prevent the spread. If people find the iconic plague doctor interesting, amusing or even comforting rather than scary, that’s a great use for this fascinating piece of (not BS!) history.

Don’t Lose Your Head

“When your head is chopped off, your brain can think for about 2 to 3 minutes.” -‘Severance’ (2006)

 

I’ve been meaning to write this one up for years. Do severed heads retain any conscious awareness prior to brain-death? After more research, on and off over years, than I’ve done for any other article, I still can’t be truly definitive. The balance of the evidence suggests some level of consciousness for a few seconds, which inevitably raises for many the horrifying possibility that for a couple of seconds at least, you would be fully aware of the traumatic amputation of your entire body, and perhaps even be able to see it. Nice.

 

Consciousness is one thing, but whether you would be fully cognizant of what was happening to you is harder to prove. Anyone that’s experienced a faint or other sudden loss of blood pressure knows that things get pretty unreal (especially when almost inevitably coupled with your head tumbling to the floor and hitting things on the way down). You’ll be instantly dizzy, your vision will quickly narrow and get fuzzy as you black out, likely much quicker than the typical faint. I am as certain as I can be that despite technically retaining the capacity for conscious thought, actual decapitation is VERY likely to take the shape of a few seconds of dim, dizzy awareness that something is wrong (especially if you knew the killing blow was coming), but almost certainly not long enough to actually process what’s happened to you. One major issue is that the historical ‘evidence’ is mostly anecdotal and almost entirely unreliable. What we read about in old experiments with criminals, or even watch in modern ‘gore’ video clips is just brain death – nerves activating and the brain stem continuing autonomous function, trying to get oxygen where none is available. As one Reddit commenter below points out, you’d need to have someone on an EEG and cut their head off to be sure of what’s really going on. I have decided not to reprise the various historical (hysterical?) accounts of ‘living’ heads – not very scientific ‘experiments’ by Galvani, Aldini, Wendt, Seguret, Laborde, Lignieres, Lelut and Beaurieux (the celebrated 1905 case of the criminal Languille). For these, see chapter 8 of Frances Larson’s great book ‘Severed’. As Larson says, these efforts (many of which were inspired by arguments that the French guillotine was not as humane as it appeared) proved nothing either way and today can be readily explained as involuntary action. The same applies to the present-day ‘gore’ videos that can be found online. For those so inclined, and with an appropriately huge GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING, here are three showing clear movement of eyes, mouth, and/or other facial muscles. We need to separate the technical persistence of consciousness from the observable effects. A head may be experiencing terrible pain and existential horror (although I doubt this, see below), but its face may or may not be moving at the time – there may well be no connection and chances are that the movement is involuntary as Davey suggested.

Interestingly, scepticism about the phenomenon of ‘lucid decapitation’ is as old as the claims themselves. As this article by James Elwick relates, Edward Rigby’s 1836 paper on the subject was;

 

‘“…immediately mocked in a rival medical journal’s editorial entitled “The Philosophy of Decapitation.”’

 

It proved so persistent however that in 1858, James George Davey actively sought to debunk these purely observational efforts with experiments of his own, published in his book ‘The Ganglionic Nervous System’. Depressingly, Davey carried out these tests on kittens, reaching the conclusion that;

 

‘…when the head is cut off, its irritability remains, as appears by the motion of the ears when pricked or touched with a hot wire ; and, as the extremities are also irritable, it will not be said that consciousness and sensation exist in two separated portions of the same body. Nor can it be admitted that sensibility and consciousness may remain in the head after separation ; for, if mere compression of the carotid arteries abolishes sensation and thought by interrupting the circulation in the brain, how much more must the superior violence of decapitation have this effect?’

 

This should have been an end of it, but the gothic horror of the living severed head was just too titillating. Despite other criticisms (notable French doctor and philosopher Cabanis, who was convinced that loss of consciousness was instant), for nearly 200 years now the popular media has recycled these claims as a way to send a shiver up the consumer’s collective spine (while they still have one). As ever, the internet has both promulgated these tales and offered the best means to debunk them. The main problem is separating the basic facts from the context. Davey understood the importance of this, but modern popular science outlets seem not to, reporting the facts on how long the brain is technically ‘conscious’ without qualification of just how aware one might be during the experience. Damninteresting.com has a good writeup that concludes that we don’t really know, but emphasises the horrific possibilities;

 

‘…there is much evidence to indicate that for some, death is not instantaneous, which probably offers a truly surreal experience for those few, brief moments.’

 

In fairness they only say ‘surreal’, which is certainly likely. But could one really be meaningfully aware of what’s happening? How Stuff Works (quoting a figure from New Scientist) also admits the paucity of the evidence but is slightly contradictory;

 

‘…most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.”’

 

The figures on loss of consciousness are supported by (indeed, may even derive from) data from testing on rodents. Anna Gosline’s “Death special: How does it feel to die?” (New Scientist again, 13 October 2007) and Livescience reported respectively:

 

‘Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds.’ (New Scientist)

 

‘In 2011, Dutch scientists hooked an EEG (electroencephalography) machine to the brains of mice fated to decapitation. The results showed continued electrical activity in the severed brains, remaining at frequencies indicating conscious activity for nearly four seconds. Studies in other small mammals suggest even longer periods.’ (Livescience)

Digging down to the actual research level, this study by Rijn & Coenen showed that consciousness fades within 3/4s and may last up to 17s. Brain death comes around 1m. On the face of it, these figures are pretty terrifying. Even two seconds of full awareness would be truly horrifying – 17 doesn’t bear thinking about it. However, the human brain’s oxygen requirements for anything like full function are far greater than any rodent. Again, I suspect it’s very unlikely that you’d be genuinely ‘with it’ during those seconds. To summarise, we have lots of anecdotal evidence for facial movement after decapitation that doesn’t really help answer the question, and a lot of scientific evidence for ‘consciousness’ (tending toward 2-4 seconds) that doesn’t usefully convey what the real-life experience would be like. Short of an EEG and a willing victim, the provisional conclusion has to be that, if you were unfortunate enough to lose your head, yes you might technically still be conscious, but you’re really not going to know anything about it before (to paraphrase Ghostbusters II) your ‘head dies’.

The Winchester House

Windows on the INSIDE?! I’m not saying it’s ghosts, but it’s ghosts. (By Kai Schreiber from Jersey City, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036971)

 

I first read of the Winchester ‘Mystery’ House when planning a trip to California a few years ago; unfortunately I didn’t make it on that trip but I hope to see it one day. Recently I heard of a new graphic novel called ‘House of Penance’, based upon the traditional story attached to the house. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to his father Oliver’s famous rifle company, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by her husband’s product. This supposedly led her to build and constantly remodel a house in an effort to placate them, leading to doorways on the outside, stairs that lead to nowhere, that sort of thing. The problem in digging into this one, as you’ll see, is that we have no idea what Sarah Winchester actually thought or believed. We don’t know if she actually suffered with mental ill-health, if she believed in ghosts or spiritualism, nor indeed what she may have thought about the violence committed with her family’s weapon. According to the ‘War Is Boring’ piece, the new narrative here is of gun control. The article admits: ‘There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth’ (and clearly the book itself is fiction). However, the author clearly buys the fundamental claim that the house makes no sense and must be the product of some kind of paranormal belief and/or deep psychological problems. We can’t rule that out, but I did wonder if there might be any rational explanations, and it turns out that there are (along with some equally irrational ones that don’t involve ghosts).

 

Fortunately for me, the legendary Joe Nickell comprehensively nailed this one 15 years ago for ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ magazine. I can’t find the text of this on the CSI website, so I hope they don’t mind me linking to this existing Google Groups post containing the full text. The title is ‘Winchester Mystery House: fact vs. fancy’, from the Sept-Oct 2002 issue (vol.26, issue 5, p.20). He covers a lot of ground, but I will just paste in here Nickell’s answer to the main claim; that the weird appearance of the house was an attempt to contain or confuse the dead victims of the Winchester rifle:

 

Fancy: Sarah Winchester’s “curious building techniques” resulted from her desire “to control the evil entities and keep them from harming her.” For example, “One stairway, constructed like a maze, has seven flights and requires forty-four steps to go ten feet” (Smith 1967, 38). Some interior rooms have barred windows, a floor is comprised of trap doors, and there are doors and stairs that lead nowhere (Rambo 1967; Murray 1998, 59).

 

Fact: The winding stair with two-inch steps had nothing to do with ghosts and everything to do with Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and neuritis. The low steps were built to accommodate her diminished abilities (just as elevators were later installed when she was forced to use a wheelchair). The curiously barred interior windows have a simple explanation: they were once exterior windows, but the constant additions to the house relegated them to the inside. The doors and stairs that lead to dead ends are similarly explained. As to the floor with trap doors, those are in a special greenhouse room; they were designed to open onto a zinc subfloor so that runoff from watered plants could be drained by pipes to the garden beneath (Rambo 1967; Winchester 1997; Palomo 2001).

So, the Winchester House was the product of a super-rich, reclusive woman with changing needs and desires, and the near-unlimited funds to meet them. Eccentric? Perhaps. But there’s really no evidence here that Winchester was in any way (literally or figuratively) ‘haunted’ by the victims of the Winchester rifle. Indeed, if she were, why fritter her millions away on housebuilding? Why not donate to charity or to a pacifist organisation? Or become an anti-war/anti-violence/anti-gun advocate herself? As usual in scepticism, we see that credulity abhors a vacuum; in the absence of facts, people will make up stories to explain things that don’t readily make sense.

The gun that goes ‘PING’ didn’t get soldiers killed. But they thought it might…

 

The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph.
The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph (my title is a Monty Python reference…)

 

One of the most persistent firearm myths out there is that American soldiers fighting in the Second World War (or in Korea for that matter) were at risk of getting shot by the enemy because of the distinctive ‘ping’ sound made by their rifles. The M-1 ‘Garand’ was ahead of its time as a military self-loading rifle, but unlike modern rifles it did not feature detachable box magazines. Instead it was loaded with eight round metal ‘en bloc’ clips. These were inserted into the open action from the top and retained inside until the last round was fired, at which point the clip would eject (along with the empty case of the last shot) with a distinctive ‘ping’ sound (you can clearly hear this in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, for example, and see it in slow motion in this Forgotten Weapons video). Now, this idea of the ‘ping’ being a fatal flaw really is a myth, in that there’s no evidence that it ever happened. However, there’s a bit more to it than that…

A lot of ink and pixels have been expended arguing the ‘M-1 ping’ myth back and forth, and some have even tried to practically demonstrate why it’s a silly idea. Tactical trainer Larry Vickers recreated a scenario for his ‘TAC TV’ series, and more recently YouTuber ‘Bloke on the Range’ has tackled the myth. The Bloke shows just how difficult it would be to even hear the ‘ping’, without the various other loud noises associated with battle. Soldiers have only recently begun to wear any kind of hearing protection after all. Not to mention the very obvious fact that soldiers rarely fight alone. If a German or Japanese soldier did manage to take advantage of the ‘ping’ window of opportunity, he’s likely to get shot by another GI. More importantly, the Bloke shows how easy and quickly one could reload following the ‘ping’. At all but the closest ranges, this really is a myth and a total non-issue. As Bloke points out, there is no actual historical evidence for this ever having happened, and for every claim that a veteran experienced it, there is an ‘equal and opposite veteran’ saying the opposite. This is typified by an exchange in ‘American Rifleman’ magazine in 2011/12 (reproduced here). I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually read a first-hand account either; it’s always a relative, a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, and therefore being told and retold decades after the fact. Hardly ideal. At this point, I would normally call ‘case closed’ as Garand expert Bruce N. Canfield has done online, in no uncertain terms.

 

 

However, it’s more complicated than just the bare facts. Sometimes, myths intrude into reality by being thoroughly embedded in thought and practice. There is no doubt whatever that whether this ever happened or not, quite a lot of soldiers in the ‘40s and ‘50s clearly DID believe that this was a real threat. This is proven by a fascinating document scanned and uploaded by the Garand Collector’s Association. This 1952 ‘Technical Memorandum’ (ORO-T-18 (FEC)) is entitled ‘Use of Infantry Weapons and Equipment in Korea’, and was written by G.N. Donovan of ‘Project Doughboy’. This was an effort by the Operations Research Office of the John Hopkins University to gather feedback on the practical usage of US military weapons in the then-current Korean War.

 

On page five we read the conclusion that:

 

‘The noise caused by ejection of the empty clip from the M-1, despite the fact that at close range it could be heard by the enemy, was considered valuable by the rifleman as a signal to reload.’

 

And on page eighteen;

‘One other complaint about the M-1 was the noise made by the safety. Half the men had a nagging fear that some day the noise made in releasing the safety would reveal their positions to the enemy, yet only one-fourth objected to the distinctive noise the empty clip made when ejected. They were quite willing to retain the noise of the clip even though the enemy might be able to use it to advantage, because they found it a very useful signal to reload.’

 

Now, the question that prompted this response was rather a leading one (page 51):

 

‘Interviews Conducted on Noise of the Rifle

  1. Is the sound of the clip being ejected of possible help to the enemy or is it helpful to you as an indication of when to reload, or is it of no importance?

[Question Men Reporting, No.]

Helpful to the enemy 85

Helpful to know when to reload, therefore retain 187

Of no importance 43

—-

315

 

But, the answers speak for themselves. Twice as many soldiers surveyed thought that the noise was helpful to the enemy, as thought it unimportant. Many more again thought it was actually a useful audible indication of an empty weapon, bearing out the Bloke’s results that yes, you can hear the ping if you’re close enough, but no, you probably can’t successfully rush a chap before he can get another clip into his rifle.

 

In defence of their findings, the researchers commented thusly;

 

‘Results of these interviews show that there is great uniformity in responses to questions asked, and all numerical estimates of such items as range of firing, load carried, etcetera, have been found to cluster around a central point with comparatively little scattering. Thus it is felt that the results are reliable and can be fairly said to represent what the infantryman believed he did. The fact that these were group interviews further increased the reliability of the results, since any apparent exaggeration by one man was quickly picked up and questioned by others. In this way the men themselves provided a check on the accuracy of their answers.’
In other words, if other soldiers thought it impossible for the enemy to take advantage of the ‘ping’, they would have said so. This is probably true, although interviewees are likely to behave differently under observation and questioning, so one can’t rely on this 100%. There was also no recommendation made with respect to this perceived ‘flaw’ with the weapon, and no comment from officers on the issue (interestingly they did point out that the noisy safety could be carefully operated not to make noise). However, again, the numbers here speak for themselves, along with the later anecdotal evidence. Once again, some soldiers really did believe that it was possible for the enemy to hear your ‘ping’, rush your position, and kill you. And there’s no reason to believe that such a thing is impossible. For example, in an incident that occurred in Afghanistan in 2008, a skirmish between a British patrol and a small number of Taliban came down to just such a one-on-one situation, with a British officer and Taliban fighter positioned just feet from each other with only a river bank in the way. Realising his weapon was empty, the attacking officer opted to use his bayonet (and the element of surprise) rather than take time to reload, and killed the (admittedly already wounded) enemy. If we imagine a similar engagement where one party is armed with a Garand, it would be eminently possible to hear the final shot and the clip go ‘ping’, close the distance, and kill the unfortunate soldier. There are many other scenarios in which this could happen, but all would involve a lull in firing, being isolated from one’s squadmates (or at least in their firing line, preventing them from shooting past you), running out of ammunition at just the wrong moment, and a certain amount of bravery and/or luck on the part of the defender. It may have happened, it may never have happened; on that question the balance of the evidence suggests that it did not. However, and this is an important caveat, I think it’s important not to insist that this claim is a total myth as Canfield has done, stating that it is ‘…so silly as to not be worthy of serious discussion’ (this is not intended as a slight, I have done the same many times). The implication is that no-one with any knowledge of the subject would make them claim, but we now know that many of the actual guys who fought with this rifle DID believe it. They just thought that the noise was more likely to ensure that they had ammunition in their weapon than it was to result in them being caught without. Of course, there is also the fact that soldiers are people, and people believe all sorts of weird things…

Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

[edit – 15.10.20 – many thanks to Giselle Jakobs for the information on blank rounds in Josef Jakobs’ execution; see her excellent site at http://www.josefjakobs.info/]

I’ve been following Indy Neidell’s brilliant video series ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, and a recent post on that channel prompted me to write this. In the video, one of Indy’s viewers asks about firing squads and how the shooters were selected, how they coped with taking part in such a traumatic event etc. In his answer, Indy quotes from Victor Silvester’s autobiography, ‘Dancing Is My Life’ (1958):

‘The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.’

Grim stuff. My own interest was piqued by the oblique reference to the practice of having one rifle loaded with blank (a cartridge with a powder charge but no bullet, or a bullet that will break up on firing – used for military training). This has understandably been condemned as a myth, on the basis that it just doesn’t seem plausible. Guns recoil, and (then) modern military rifles recoil very stoutly. A blank cartridge, having no bullet and therefore building up no pressure on firing, gives no recoil at all. As such, any firing squad member who was issued a blank would know immediately upon firing that he had been the ‘lucky’ one and need face no moral qualms about taking aim at a fellow soldier and human being. Additionally, every other firer would immediately know that they had fired a live round, and so unless they had deliberately ‘aimed off’ so as not to strike the victim, would know that they had caused or at least contributed directly to his death.

However, this is not reason enough to dismiss the practice as a myth. Why? Quite simply because regardless of the practicalities, we know that blanks were used in firing squads. There are many examples, but I have a note of a very relevant one from a First World War veteran whose testimony appeared on the BBC’s own ‘The Great War’ documentary. This man, tasked with shooting deserters with his SMLE rifle, reported that:

‘…some were loaded with ball, others with blank…one knew by the recoil if it had been loaded with ball or not.’

Rifleman Henry Williamson, London Rifle Brigade, published in “Voices of the Great War” (p.89, another reference reported on Arrse) tell us that:

“We didn’t know what the rifles were loaded with, some were loaded with ball others with blank. Then we had the order to fire and pulled the triggers, we knew by the recoil if it was loaded with ball or not.”

Not all sources report blanks, and as we’ve seen some state otherwise. However, later in the 20th century it had become formal doctrine for both UK and US forces. Both of the references below were found by posters at the arrse.co.uk forum:

US:
13. The officer charged with execution will…(g) Cause eight rifles to be loaded in his presence. Not more than three and nor less than one will be loaded with blank ammunition. He will place the rifles at random in the rack provided for that purpose.
US Army procedure for executions, 1947.

UK:

(c iii) Mean-while the DAPM will change the places of the rifles, unload two of them and reload them with live rounds which have had the bullets removed from them or with blank ammunition. The DAPM will carry the rounds in question.

-Military Provost Manual 1963, Chapter XXVIII, Section 4, 704

This source also makes clear that the firers were not to handle or inspect the rifles allocated to them. Clearly the intent was that they should not discover, nor should other shooters be able to determine (without confabulation) which of them had been given the blank.

So we have plenty of evidence that blank rounds were used by different militaries and in different periods, despite the obvious fact that any soldier would realise he’d fired a blank. What gives? The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the psychology of killing. Consider why up to twelve men were used to execute a prisoner. Only one shooter is needed to kill a man, in fact an officer was always on hand to deliver the coup de grace, as Silvester himself reports. So why so many firers? Plausible deniability for the men. Even without a blank, each man could tell himself that his shot had not been the fatal one, or that even if he had not been there, the prisoner would still have died. In fact, it’s an incentive to fire precisely on the order given, so as not to shoot early or late, and consequently become aware of the effect of your individual shot on the unfortunate target.

I’m not saying that this worked exactly; clearly Silvester suffered greatly from his involvement in these squads. But it allowed something of a coping mechanism for the horrible task at hand. If we then at least claim that one rifle was loaded with blank, that gives each shooter an additional way to rationalise their participation, and may even function as an incentive to willingly take part. If there is a 1 in 12 chance that your shot definitely won’t kill anyone, you’re more likely not to desert yourself, foment further mutiny, or to fire in a disorderly and therefore unseemly fashion.

This is not mere supposition on my part. In a 1943 (22 Nov, p.6) issue of LIFE magazine, Captain William Hastings of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote on the ‘myth’ of the firing squad blank. However, he makes clear that the only myth here is that the shooter might not know whether he had fired a live round or not. He confirms the issue of blank cartridges:

‘The story on the German spy execution (LIFE, Nov.1) by a French firing squad gave credence to a popular myth that members of a firing squad do not know whether they fire a blank or live cartridge. A man firing a blank knows full well that it is a blank since there is no recoil. He can, however, later claim that he fired a blank regardless of whether his rifle was loaded with ball or blank ammunition, as long as it is generally known that some of the rifles contained blank cartridges’.

As Wikipedia puts it;

‘This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members, making the execution process more reliable. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot–for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “conscience round”.’

A version of this practice dates back to the American Civil War, when the single weapon might be charged with powder only, or up to half might be so loaded:

‘Only half of the guns were loaded, but no man among the executioners knew whether or not his was a blank charge’.

-‘The life of Johnny Reb, the common soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley, 1943, p.228.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was last used as recently as 2010, in the U.S. state of Utah, whose standing practice is as follows:

‘On the command to fire, the squad fires simultaneously. One squad member has a blank charge in his weapon but no member knows which member is designated to receive this blank charge.’

Again we see the reasoning behind the issue of a blank cartridge, as well as emphasis on the importance of firing simultaneously. This is meant to be a group effort in which no one individual is wholly responsible.

In the UK, capital punishment was finally fully abolished in 1998 (for the remaining capital crimes of treason and piracy at sea), and the last execution by firing squad was that of German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941. If you visit the Tower of London, you can see the chair in which Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower, and the last to be executed in this way by British authorities (two U.S. servicemen were executed at a British site under U.S. jurisdiction the following year). It is thought that blanks were used in this case. The details are unclear, but thanks to Giselle Jakobs, we know that by 1950, the official Royal Military Police manual specified two cartridge should have their bullets removed. One of the shooters, Roy Harrison, claimed in a 1984 newspaper article that all but one rifle was loaded with blank. This is unlikely, but does suggest that the 1941 procedure followed by the shooters (men of the Scots Guards) probably did include ‘conscience’ rounds. In any case, the Jakobs chair remains a stark reminder of former systems of justice in which prisoners might be shot dead for their crimes. In the case of First World War soldiers who decided that they could not face the horrors of war, that death would come at the hands of their comrades, perhaps even their friends. Blank cartridges were no myth, but their effectiveness remains difficult to assess. How can we possibly measure psychological trauma of this kind? The First World War was a conflict so horrific as to challenge even the most deeply rooted justifications for war, and levels of desertion or mutiny were high. From the perspective of those in authority therefore, firing squads were a brutal but effective way to keep soldiers in line and see the war through to its bloody conclusion in 1918.

Whoa-oh – Who Was Black Betty?

Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right...
Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right…
(Image from Liberula Barriguda)

I’ve done a fair bit of film, TV, and radio work by this point, not a lot of which is particularly relevant to my blog (with the exception of my post last year on Brandon Lee conspiracy nonsense and one other about the inventor of the machine gun that I might blog in future). However, a few weeks back I was asked by Jed Hunt of Siren FM if there was truth to the claim (on Wikipedia, where else?) that the song ‘Black Betty’ was actually about a gun. The song is best known today in its rock version by Ram Jam, but was originally an African-American folk song (in particular, a prison song). I had not heard of this suggestion, but was intrigued. Could ‘Black Betty’ be an earlier form of or equivalent to the famous ‘Brown Bess’ musket? And could the ‘bam-a-lam/bam-ba-lamb’’ line in the song be a reference to gunfire, or perhaps a soldier’s marching cadence?

Well, no. Not in its original, historical context at any rate; obviously any performer or even listener can imbue a song lyric with any meaning they wish. But I can state with a fair degree of certainty that ‘Black Betty’ was not written with guns in mind. Before I go into the detail, please do listen to Jed’s superb documentary programme; his research coincided nicely with my own (I was only asked about the potential firearms connection, but the whole origin story piqued my interest, hence what follows).

First, let’s put the gun suggestion to proverbial bed. Firearms, like other tools or machines (not to mention domestic and farm animals!) did receive this kind of ironic female nickname; ‘Brown Bess’ for the British soldier’s musket being the most famous. This was derived from a nickname for a common woman or prostitute, and I have a dead tree article on that subject pending – I will no doubt blog about that in the future). On the face of it, ‘Black Betty’ looks promising; it too was one of several nicknames for a prostitute or fallen woman,

… but as he must range, Black Betty, or Oyster Moll serve for a Change : As he varies his Sports his whole Life is a Feast, …

-From ’Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’, by Thom d’Urfey, 1719

There is very likely a connection too with generic nicknames for black women in America, especially slaves and servants. So it’s plausible enough. However, unlike ‘Brown Bess’, there is absolutely no evidence that I can find for a gun being called ‘Black Betty’. Someone may have used the name, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have caught on, whereas various other nicknames have survived in print, notably Davey Crockett’s faithful gun ‘Betsey’. I did assess the claim itself, and even the reference cited by Wikipedia doesn’t actually provide any evidence for ‘Black Betty’ being a gun nickname. It just says that ‘Prior to the “Brown Bess”, stocks were painted black.’ This is false; stocks were never painted. Wiki mentions ‘some sources’, but doesn’t say what these are. I certainly can’t find them. So ‘Black Betty’ has nothing to do with guns as far as I can tell.

As ‘Field and Stream’ put it (Volume 36, 1931, page 96); ‘In early frontier parlance, was the musket called “Black Betty” as well as “Brown Bess”? Ans. The term “Black Betty” had allusion to whisky or a bottle of whiskey, and never to a firearm.’

So what did the writer of ‘Black Betty’ intend? On the face of it, simply reading and listening to the original lyrics, they certainly refers to a woman. There’s no real indicator of any double meaning, and the lyrics themselves are both straightforward and sparse, with a lot of repetition. Also, it turns out that one of the original recorded performers was actually asked what ‘Black Betty’ meant. You can download the original WAV file from the U.S. Library of Congress website here and try for yourself to discern the full answer (I’ve placed question marks where I’m uncertain), but the initial reply is clear (I won’t censor the ‘N’ word in this context). What’s interesting to me is that Clear Rock responds immediately, without pausing for thought. It’s clear that he either genuinely believes in his response to the exclusion of other meanings, or has been asked many times and is giving a stock response, sanitised for his (white, free) audience. Regardless, here’s my transcript:

Interviewer (interrupting): ‘Clear Rock! Clear Rock, who was Black Betty?’

Clear Rock: ‘”Black Betty was a old nigger woman on that Goree Farm right out from Huntsville, but(?) she threw(?) her hip(?) cutting a tree down and I(?) never knew(?) her(?)’

Interviewer: ‘Black Betty was(?) a(?) tree(?) cutter(?)?’

Clear Rock: ‘Yes sir-a.’

In case there were any doubt, the Library of Congress also have transcribed notes from the same field trip. It doesn’t give us the full quote, but confirms that ‘Black Betty’ was a ‘tree cutting song’, and with this quote confirms that Betty was, in the mind of this performer at least, a real woman:

‘Black Betty was a old nigger woman right outa Goree’.

As these notes then state, Goree was a state prison farm for women. If Betty was ‘old’ in the 1910s or 20s, and if the song’s lyrics reflect her real history, she must have had her mixed race baby somewhere else, because Goree only opened in 1911. Of course, there is the chance that there never was a real, individual ‘Black Betty’. That does not mean that the song isn’t about ‘her’; we’re talking here about meaning, not historical reality (but once again, Clear Rock certainly claimed she was real).

The above isn’t the earliest known recording, so there is room for a more original interpretation. However, it’s damn close. Clear Rock did perform with his contemporary James ‘Iron Head’ Baker on one of two versions recorded by the latter during a December 1933 research trip by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax to Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas. Clear Rock’s words carry as much weight as any of his contemporaries, and he appears to have been the only singer to have been drawn on the meaning behind the song. He would surely have been aware of any subtext or double meaning, yet chose to identify ‘Black Betty’ as a specific woman. Of course, he may have deliberately withheld a deeper meaning.

Certainly the Lomaxes thought so, despite the answer they’d recorded (twice) from Clear Rock. They wrote in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs that:

“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.” (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)

Note that the convict that they refer to is probably not Iron Head, as he was an inmate at Central State, not Darrington. The version written down is also different. Still, as Wikipedia relates;

‘John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as “Iron Head”) in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song. In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled “‘Sinful Songs’ of the Southern Negro”, Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is “Black Betty”. Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war’s end that “prisoners sang of ‘Black Betty’, the driver’s whip.”

Lomax was quite correct. ‘Black Betty’ was a name for a whip or whipping post, and it’s plausible that the ‘bam-ba-lam’ line might be a reference to the flogging that was common in prisons until the early twentieth century. However, note that ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs’ was published in 1934, five years before Clear Rock was asked this very question and stated that ‘she’ was ‘an old nigger woman’. So one of the original performers of the song basically contradicted Lomax’s assumption that the song was about the whip. At the very least, it’s about both. Also, it’s not clear that any of the interviewees were necessarily asked about the Black Betty of the song. Nonetheless, I do have to give Lomax’s opinion a lot of weight, and they had decades to change their mind on this point, yet every edition of that book asserts the whip. For example:

‘She was the whip used in Southern prisons.’ (Lomax 1940, 60-61).

We must also recognise that the way oral and musical tradition works means that even if the writer of ‘Black Betty’ only had a woman in mind, the whip was definitely a current meaning at that time. Thus, as soon as someone performs the song, it’s going to become about a whip as a dual meaning with the woman directly referred to in the lyrics.

So there you have it; Black Betty was a woman, and may also have been a prison whip. However, the 2012 liner notes for the 1933 recording featured on the ‘Jail House Bound’ record confuse things still further:

‘7. “Black Betty” (AFS 200 Side B) by James “Iron Head” Baker with R.D. Allen and Will Crosby singing back up; recorded in December 1933 at Central State Prison Farm in Texas. Lomax claimed that this song was about the whip used to punish prisoners rather than a tale of a woman, but both Alan Lomax and Bruce Jackson found prisoners who argued that “Black Betty” was actually the prison transfer truck.’

Wikipedia reports that:

‘In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka “Big Head”), Reese stated that the term “Black Betty” was used by prisoners to refer to the “Black Maria” — the penitentiary transfer wagon.

Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:

‘As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as “Black Betty,” though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners’ backs, “bam-ba-lam.”’

I would call this ‘unconfirmed’. I can’t tell when Bruce Jackson interviewed prisoners, but his book was published in 1972, and the earliest references I can find are 1960s. Jackson’s interviewees may not have heard of ‘Black Betty’ being a whip simply because whipping had long been discontinued. Perhaps the name jumped from whip to truck? After all, the use of the whip had been officially discontinued by the time Iron Head, Clear Rock and Lead Belly were performing the original version of the song. It’s logical enough that it might survive as another inanimate (well, sort of animate!) prison object of misery.

Strangely, when I did my usual Google Books trawl, by far the most common usage of ‘Black Betty’ in the nineteenth century was in reference to a bottle, usually a bottle of alcohol. However, this doesn’t seem to be current in early-mid twentieth century U.S. prisons, so can I think be discounted along with the gun explanation.

tl;dr – the Black Betty of the song was a woman, possibly also a prison whip, and may later have become the prison wagon. ‘She’ has never been a gun, a bottle of alcohol, or any other object that those of us not imprisoned and engaged in cutting trees might imagine.

English Muffins Are English, Damn Your Eyes!

Oi, America! The Muffin Man would like a word…

As an Englishman and avid consumer of bread related products, I was shocked to my very core recently to read that ‘English’ muffins were actually invented in the US only 100 years ago! The author of the article (published last year) claims that they were derived from the equally delectable British crumpet goes so far as to say that ‘Until the 1980s, our English muffins were virtually unknown in Great Britain’. As a child of the 1980s myself, I couldn’t personally contradict this, though without sending panicked messages to friends and relatives, I felt sure that they would remember them going further back.

The thing is, having tried the utterly delicious Thomas’ English Muffins on trips to the US, I could almost believe this. They are far, far nicer than even the best of our own, crispy yet chewy, with a strong taste and full of lovely holes. Could it be true, I thought? Could the ‘English’ muffin, like the ‘Scotch’ egg, actually be a foreign interloper? After I’d re-evaluated my very existence, I had a thought. Hang on, I said to myself, why would anyone market a product as ‘English’ to (among others) other British immigrants if it didn’t previously exist? What about ‘The Muffin Man’, a folk song dating to at least 1820? Was it really about American-style muffins? I set to work on my usual first recourse, Google Books, and discovered that there were plenty of references that pre-date Thomas’s efforts to both ‘crumpets’ and ‘muffins’ (notably, one of Dickens’ books). Despite the article’s claims, they were clearly different things, quite far back into the 19th century. Ironically, I couldn’t find mention of the crumpet before about 1800, so if anything, the crumpet and pikelet might actually be derivatives of the muffin (which might explain why we no longer have holes in our muffins – see below).

Digging a bit deeper, I found actual period muffin recipes dating back to the 18th century, the earliest being ‘The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse (or, “A Lady” as she appears on the frontispiece!), first published in 1747. This makes very clear that the same basic bread product was being made well over a century before Thomas set foot in the US, and quite possibly before that. The oldest recipe even mentions that they should be ‘like honey-comb’ inside, just like Thomas’. There were a couple of references that described muffins as being a form of oatcake, but it’s obvious that many muffins were made with wheatflour, and the title of the 1750s recipe shows that the type of flour was interchangeable.

Having effectively debunked the offending article, this was a bittersweet moment, because without exception, present-day British English muffins DO NOT have ‘nooks and crannies’. Our crumpets have stolen them all. Which is, frankly, a national disaster. Our English muffins are good America, but yours are even better. It was at this point that I discovered that someone had already written up the history of the English muffin. I couldn’t find a transcript of John Thorne’s self-published pamphlet, but I did find this article, which outlines the contents (and provides a recipe, happily).

Why would the article claim that you couldn’t buy muffins prior to the 1980s in the UK? Either they’re plain wrong, or *supermarkets* weren’t selling them until then. If so, it’s meaningless, because until the 1980s supermarkets were nowhere near as dominant as they are today, and local bakers as well as home cooks would have been making their own muffins. They were a staple snack food that transcended class, being a high-calorie working class convenience food sold in the street that became a dainty teatime treat for the well-to-do.

So the English muffin really was an ENGLISH muffin by 1880 when Thomas started his bakery. By this time the muffin in the Americas had evolved into an oven-baked cake (just as ‘biscuits’ had). So the ‘English’ prefix was added to differentiate the parallel product of the same name.

 

None of which changes the uncomfortable fact that American English muffins are by far the best!

[Edited to add – a photo of Thomas’ own bakery cart on their website – http://www.thomasbreads.com/about-us – and backed up by period trade directories, shows that Thomas advertised both ‘English Muffins’ and ‘London Crumpets’ as separate products. Clearly New Yorkers were not swayed by a bit of crumpet…]

Not Quite the Whole Nine Yards

An interesting mini update on the old ‘Whole Nine Yards’ chestnut, from this post on firearms site ‘Forgotten Weapons’. The question of the possible machine gun origin for the phrase is raised in the embedded video, and then, in the comments, we find this:

 

“The 350-round belt of 0.50in used in the inboard guns on each side of the M2 .50 gun system of the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt (four guns on the six-gun P-51, six guns on the 8-gun P-47), was exactly 27 feet, or 9 yards, in length when fully assembled.

The 240-round belt used on the outboard guns on each side was 18 feet 6 inches long altogether. But “the whole six and a half yards” doesn’t sound nearly as emphatic.

😉

To figure it for yourself, treat each round of ammunition in its link as being .915 inch in width. A calculator helps.”

 

I had previously said that no such machine gun belt existed, and therefore this origin, despite being the most commonly accepted one, was nonsense. I’m still sort of right on the first point, and entirely right on the second (unfortunately – I’d love this one to be true!).

 

The first problem is that by this chap’s own calculations, this particular ammunition belt is just shy of nine yards – 8.89583 yards to be precise. This might sound like nitpicking, and frankly, it is. If this really were the origin of the phrase, I doubt anyone would care if it was slightly shorter or longer than the exact nine yards, and linked ammunition being flexible, there would be a fair amount of ‘slack’ that could vary the precise length quite considerably (which is I suspect why this myth refuses to die – you can’t actually disprove it by measurement alone, and most people don’t have a spare full belt of .50 BMG lying around…). But hey, I ran the numbers as he suggested, and it isn’t quite ‘the whole nine yards’ to start with.

 

There’s a bigger logical problem with the claim, one that has always dogged it in fact. That is, all of the aircraft claimed were fitted with more than one belt of ammunition, and it wasn’t possible to fire only one gun at a time. So you could never ‘give him the whole nine yards’ unless you experienced a malfunction of all of your other guns. Sure, the phrase could have stuck despite this, but it just doesn’t ring true.

 

Much more importantly than either of these minor gripes is that we already know that the phrase pre-dates the existence of aircraft machine guns by several years. The first machine gun was fired from an aircraft in 1912, whereas the first known incarnation of our phrase (in the form ‘full nine yards’) dates back to 1907.

 

So I’m afraid that, as much as I like the idea, this nine yard long machine gun belt is just a coincidence. It’s possible that Second World War air and ground-crew might have used it to refer to these belts, but there’s no actual written evidence for this, and above all, it cannot be the actual origin of the phrase.
As far as I’m concerned, we have a provisional origin for this phrase, and it’s baseball. If we’re to confirm or refine this conclusion further, we need to look back in time from 1907, not forward.