July 3, 1844 – The Cruel Death of the Last Great Auks


Via smithsonianmag.com

I read once that scientists estimate that 99% of species that have ever lived on Earth are currently extinct. We’re talking billions and billions of animal species that once lived here and no longer do.  It’s actually a staggering number to try and comprehend, and my mind runs wild thinking of all the animals that used to gallop and fly and slither through my own backyard.

As a planet, we’ve gone through five major extinctions, each caused by  some sort of natural phenomenon like volcanic eruptions or the normal cyclical shift of climate, and each responsible for completely wiping out between 75-80% of life on Earth.

Most of us have at least a working understanding of the Cretaceous-Tertiary or K-T extinction (also known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction) – or, in layman’s terms: The Thing That Killed All the Dinosaurs.   Not to be a Debbie Downer, but our planet is currently in the midst of the sixth great extinction, and this time species are disappearing at up to 1,000 the rate as we’ve seen over the past half billion years.  This time, it’s not a rogue asteroid or some sort of polar shift that’s causing it – it’s us. Mankind has spent the last few centuries rapidly depleting natural habitats and hunting animals to the brink of non-existence.

A hundred and fifty years ago, there were woodland bison roaming West Virginia, passenger pigeons were one of the most abundant birds in the world, and monk seals thrived in the Caribbean Sea. Humans changed all of that, just like they changed the natural course of the Great Auk, a flightless bird that had coexisted with humans for 100,000 years.

Auks look similar to penguins and share several characteristics with them, although they aren’t closely related in terms of biology. There is evidence that they were an important part of the Neanderthal-era diet of North American people; their likeness has been found in Paleolithic-era caves.

Once numbering in the millions, the Great Auk was prized first for its down, which were used to make pillows, and then for its meat, fat, and eggs. Despite its name the Auk wasn’t exceptionally large – at under three feet, it was easily susceptible to larger enemies in the cold waters where it made its habitat.  Graceful in the water, the birds struggled to protect themselves on land, where it came to breed. As its numbers dwindled, its value went up.

The last known Great Auk in British waters was killed in 1840. The solitary bird was found on the island of St. Kilda off the Scottish coast and captured by sailors, who called it a “garefowl,” and brought it with them on their ship, bound at the arms and legs. Four days into their voyage, a storm spring up. The men attributed their bad luck to the presence of the bird,  so they stoned and beat it until it was dead.  Not only was this an act of cruelty, but also seemingly against traditional maritime superstition about the killing of birds.

The very last of a dying species, two adult Auks lived on a small rock island off the coast of Iceland called Eldey. Once part of a colony of at least fifty, these sole survivors – one male, one female, had managed to reproduce a single egg, which they were incubating against all odds.  Under the auspice of collecting skins for museum display, a merchant ordered their deaths. The adult birds were strangled to death, and, perhaps most heartbreaking: the egg was stepped on and smashed.

While the Great Auk lives on in the form of specimens, cave paintings, and the namesake of the American Ornithological Society’s newsletter, it’s also possible that we’ll see an actual Auks reintroduced to the planet. An American research institute is looking to Jurassic Park them right back into existence using DNA from preserved organs.

As of now, the process is still in the discussion stage, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see the birds make a comeback in our lifetime.


July 1, 1862 – Princess Alice’s Funeral Wedding

What do you get when you cross a newly widowed and deeply mourning Queen Victoria with what should be the incredibly joyous occasion of Princess Alice’s wedding to a man that, by all accounts, she really liked?


Well,  if you’re Alice, you get the short end of the stick, especially by royal standards. You get a wedding described by your own mother as “more of a funeral,” a wedding so entrenched in grief that the Queen was shrouded by a human wall of her sons and the bride was forced to change into black mourning clothing following the ceremony.

This was a wedding so overwhelmingly sorrowful for a family missing it’s patriarch that it was held in a modest sized dining room in her family’s summer home on the Isle of Wight with the intention of  avoiding a large guest list. So somber was the occasion that one of the bride’s brothers openly wept throughout the ceremony – and they weren’t tears of happiness.

A little background, to put things into perspective. Princess Alice Maud Mary was born on April 25th, 1843, the second daughter and third child of Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert. A sensitive and compassionate child, she reveled in comforting those who were suffering both physically and emotionally, including her mother after the death of her grandmother. As she approached her late teen years, the task for finding her a suitable match fell upon her oldest sister, the newly wed German empress, Victoria, Princess Royal. Or, as I like to call her, Vicky II.

Vicky II had a bit of a reputation as a cut throat matchmaker (she once dismissed a possible suitor for her brother Bertie because she had a “disturbing twitch”) and was able to use her connections in the German court to find a suitable partner for her sister that would provide useful to the family and hopefully also result in love and happiness for Alice.

Her first choice, the Dutch prince William of Orange, turned out to be a complete dud that was as uninterested in Alice as she was in him. William went on to live a life of wanton debauchery and died before reaching 40 years old, never having inherited the throne. Next, the Princess Royal selected Prince Albert of Prussia, who was also her husband’s cousin, which would have made the sisters also cousins-in-law, which by European royal standards is ridiculously common. Turned out that old Albie was a dud as well, with his own cousin basically put a kibosh on the whole thing.

Eventually, Queen Victoria’s eyes turned towards Louis and Henry, Hessian princes who, while not of a very wealthy or powerful kingdom, were still the European Protestants that the family was hopeful for. After inviting both to visit England, Alice and Louis were clearly enraptured with each other and a match was made. Their engagement became official in April of 1861, and tensions rose almost immediately. With a promised dowry that would now value almost $3.5 million USD today, it was expected that Alice would be greeted with the kind of pomp and circumstance she’d come to expect as the daughter of the most powerful monarch in the world. Instead, the Hessians refused to change their lifestyles to meet the lavish demands of the Hanovers, and the entire affair made Alice an unpopular figure in her future kingdom.

Eight months into the betrothal, Prince Albert died from typhoid fever. It was an incredible blow to the family, who had miraculously brought nine children into the world, all surviving into adulthood. He had approved of Alice’s future husband, and had even designed the Strawberry Leaf Tiara to give her as a wedding present.

The death of Albert sent Victoria into an absolute tailspin of grief from which she never fully recovered. The Queen’s mourning impacted her relationship with each of her nine children differently. Alice, not only found her bliss and excitement dimmed by the desolate mourning of her family, but also found her happiness the target of Victoria’s jealousy.

The wedding – described by Victoria as “wretched,”  marked the first major royal event since Albert’s death. A giant painting of the the royal family in happier times hung behind the altar, a glaring reminder of loss. There would be no exalted guests or lavish ball to celebrate the nuptials – it was over by mid-afternoon and Queen Victoria returned to mourning in private. Compared to the wedding of her older sister, conducted at the Chapel Royal of St. James palace and attended by hundreds, poor Alice’s wedding really did feel more like a prolonged wake.

Princess Alice, now the Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine, lived a life befallen by tragedy. Her relationship with her mother never recovered from the strain of her father’s death, and she found her kingdom at war with Prussia – the very nation her dear sister Victoria ruled with her husband. She became very interested in women’s issues and social reform, dedicating herself to nursing pursuits. She gave birth to seven children, losing her two year old son Prince Friedrich due to complications from hemophilia after he survived a fall from a window.

Diphtheria sickened five of her six remaining children in 1878, killing her four year old daughter, Marie. After comforting her ten year old son, Ernest, Alice kissed him and sealed her fate. She was struck by the highly contagious illness and died quickly, two weeks before Christmas.  Sh e was thirty-five years old,

Ernest survived and went on to become the last Grand Duke of Hesse, losing his throne during the Revolution of 1918. Two of her daughters, Elisabeth and Alix, married into the Russian royal family and were murdered by Bolsheviks the same year. Her remaining two daughters, Irene and Victoria, led long and prosperous lives. Victoria became the grandmother of Philip, the current Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

Alice’s wedding started like a funeral, and her mother’s insistence on marrying her children outside of England was, indirectly, one of the causes of the great collapses of Europe leading in World War I.  But that’s a story for another day.


August 29th, 1911 – The Last of the Old World


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One-hundred and seven years ago today, a member of the Yahi band of the Yana people of Northern California walked out of the wilderness and into his place in history. The man, who was estimated to be about fifty years old, was foraging for food in a slaughterhouse in the small town of Oroville. We call him Ishi, and he is unique not just for being the last of the Yahi people but for being the last native person left in the country to have lived a life without Euro-American contact – until this day in history.

Still, it would be wrong to say that Ishi was untouched by white settlement.  The California of Ishi’s youth was a relatively new part of the country, rushed into statehood after the population exploded with the discovery of gold by John Marshall on his farm in Coloma. Only a week before that discovery, modern California had been under Mexican control. The discovery of gold altered California’s trajectory forever; virtually no aspect of life was untouched. Land was plentiful and gold was a financial equalizer for many poor Americans, but increased immigration and domestic migration taxed the land and made food supplies scarce. For the rapidly industrializing west, the remaining native population stood in the way of personal prosperity and Europeanized progress.

When Ishi was just a few years old, he was one of only a few dozen survivors of a settler led massacre along the Mill Creek, which forced his family to flee into the forests and spend their lives in hiding to avoid cattlemen and prospectors who were paid by the scalp to eradicate the native population. He lived this way for most of the remainder of his life in the Western Sierra Nevadas, sometimes narrowly avoiding contact with settlers and curiosity seekers.

It’s also technically wrong to say his name was Ishi. Yahi custom dictates that a man may not utter his own name unless introduced by another member of his tribe. Having no one to beseech him that honor, he was instead reduced to adopting the moniker of Ishi, meaning “man.” He died the only person to know the name he was given at birth, which only seems appropriate.

Ishi’s interactions with the Euro-American settlers are well documented; two anthropologists from the University of California brought him to live on campus, studying him and cataloguing his transition from the “last wild Indian” to a man living in the modern world – or at least the modern world of the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology.  He was frequently ill – having no resistance to the scourge of disease brought west by settlers, yet was put on display as a living artifact, demonstrating things like hunting techniques and toolmaking.

This kind of exploitation of the exotic and different for the viewing pleasure of others wasn’t unique to the United States – France had its own infamous version of this exercise in abuse, the Jardin d’Argonomie Tropicale, and even the World’s Fair boasted a menagerie of human “curiosities” during the Victorian Era. But, regardless of the locale or the particular details, all share a common thread – the people on display tend to be part of a minority group of race, religion, or ability level and the patrons tend to be anything but. Ishi seemed to have little choice in the matter – with no community to call his own, and no means to support himself, he was forced to accept the charity of his benefactors and the gawking of the audience they brought forth to his feet.

Even in death, Ishi couldn’t escape the post-modern slavery that bound him – so close to his ancestral lands, and yet so far away. His body was autopsied and cremated, against his wishes and the custom of the Yana. His brain was held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, along with thousands of other physical and cultural artifacts of our nation’s first people until national law established a protocol to return remains to native tribes for proper and ceremonial burial.  He was finally returned to the ancestral lands of the larger Yana tribe,  but hundreds (if not more) native remains are still scattered in museums around the country with estimates that full repatriation may take decades more to come.

Touted in newspaper headlines as the “least civilized man,” perhaps the true lesson here is what it really means to be so. Did Ishi leave the savage world behind when he walked out of the wilderness, or was he actually walking into one?

Ishi became, in death, so much of what he was in life: a man without a home, his true name, or many choices. His unique tale also guarantees him a special place in our nation’s troubled history of interactions with its indigenous people, and perhaps a reminder of a time we never want to return to.





February 28th, 1939: A Dord by Any Other Name is Still Not a Word


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The Paris Review, February 24, 2016

One of the areas of history that I’ve always found fascinating is etymology – the study of where words come from and, sometimes more importantly, why they become part of our culture. There’s a reason, for example, why in addition to saying we have bad dreams, we also say we have nightmares: a “mare” in German folklore is an evil demon that sits on the chest of a sleeping person, choking out the good thoughts and leaving them with only bad things to dream about.


New words are born all of the time. Sometimes they’re invented to describe a new object that’s never had a title before. The internet. Ambivert. Tetraseasonal.  Sometimes we add meaning to a word in a way it’s never been looked at before. In 2018, not only birds Tweet, and you should Google the name of that snack you’re texting to make sure you’re not being catfished by her selfie.

Once a word enters our lexicon, there’s no test to whether or not it’s “officially” part of our language.  Language is dynamic; if we use it, it’s now part of the annals of our history. No committee sits around marking a list of vocab words with a big red REJECT stamp when they don’t seem like they’re worthy of a place in our etymological history, and on the inverse, there’s no single body that can make a word accepted. No, not even the folks over at Merriam-Webster.

The company traces its roots back to two of the earliest collectors of words – Noah Webster and the George and Charles Merriam Co., having merged when the latter bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary after his death in 1843. The company’s dictionaries are kind of the de facto record of English language usage. If you play me in Scrabble, and I can’t find your word in the old M-W, you’re not getting any points from me. The company employs lexicographers to find, cite, record, research, and ultimately decide to publish (or not) new words.

Still, they’re only human. Humans make mistakes. And today in 1939, someone noticed one of those mistakes. Dord.

Here’s what seems to have happened. Way back in 1931, one of those human lexicographers, Austin Patterson, submitted an abbreviation for the word density: “D or d.”  Patterson specialized in scientific terms, specifically chemistry, and it wasn’t unusual for abbreviations to be included in the publication. Unfortunately for Patterson, his submission was misinterpreted as a word in and of itself. Dord was published in Webster’s Second New International three years later as an alternative word for density and went unnoticed for an additional five years.

Dord. Six Scrabble points. Zero etymological context.  It was removed from the dictionary upon the next printing, and few were any the wiser. Still, it makes you wonder how many people, searching for a clever word to use for a school assignment or to use in conversation, referred to the quantity of mass per unit volume using this pseudo-word.