Friday, 28 August 2015

Introducing ... a new way to search for journal articles

If you've looked at the Library catalogue home page ( recently, you may have noticed something new. We have a new search service that will enable you to search for journal articles and other material via the Library catalogue, without having to search separate subject databases.

We're currently working on it to make sure it is set up how we want it, but if you'd like to try it out, we'd love to know what you think. If you spot anything not working, please let us know that as well. Send us your feedback via the link on this page

We're also trying to think of a good name for this new service, so if you have any bright ideas, please share them with us!

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Bank Holiday Monday closure

Just a reminder that the Library will be closed on Monday 31st August 2015.

We are open for self-service on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th – 10am to 6pm.

Friday, 21 August 2015

A Shaggy Dog

… as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but, even so, there may still be one or two erroneous deductions …

When Charles Doyle took his wife Mary up the wooden hill one night in August 1858, little could they have suspected that they were about to produce one of the great names of English Literature. And what a name it turned out to be too, seeing that it’s actually Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle – he kept the Ignatius bit quiet, didn’t he? – the dad being no stranger to originality in the christening department, having Altamont for his own middle name, but it was probably the mum, an Irish Catholic, who came up with the actual Ignatius, after the Spanish saint who founded the Jesuits but who also wasn’t too honest about his name, being as that was actually Inigo. It might have been that he just wanted to make himself sound a bit posher by upgrading to Ignatius, which may also be the case with our man too when, soon after graduating from high school, he decided to start using his Conan as part of a compound surname, to give the impression that he was a double-barrelled somebody and not just an unknown Scottish medical student called plain old Doyle, which is the name he was knighted under in 1902 – for a non-fiction work on the Boer War. The cataloguers of the British Library, and of Birkbeck Library too, treat Doyle alone as his surname, so don’t waste your time looking in the Cs for his works. Conan, incidentally, is also a saint, from the seventh century. Ironically, however, and at an early age, Arthur turned agnostic, though in later life though he would become a spiritualist mystic, which is what his anecdote is all about.

From 1876 to 1881, Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before setting up in medical practice where, legend has it, patients were so few and far between that he took up the pen in order to pass the time. Between 1888 and 1906, he wrote seven historical novels, which he and others considered to be his very finest works, including no less a figure than Winston Churchill. Doyle also authored nine other novels, numerous short stories, plays, romances, poetry and non-fiction plus, along the way, he came up with the characters of the irascible scientist, Professor Challenger, featured in his best-known “other” work, The Lost World, and Brigadier Gerard. Not content with that, he went on to popularise the mystery of the Mary Celeste and couldn’t resist adding one or two myths to the history, such as that the ship was in perfect condition when it was discovered (it was taking on water), that all the lifeboats were still there (one was missing), and even changing the name to Marie Celeste. When he wasn’t busy wordsmithing, he liked nothing better than a spot of sport, being a lifelong fan of boxing (writing some of the most tedious pages ever to fall from the pen of man in stories on that subject), playing in goal for amateur side Portsmouth Association Football Club – there is some dispute as to whether this club, disbanded in 1896, has any connection with today’s Portsmouth F.C., founded in 1898, though Doyle was never a professional goalie – as well as being an avid cricketer, turning out ten times for the MCC, where his highest score was forty three and his figures for bowling record him having taken just the one wicket, though that did belong to a certain W.G. Grace. He also played for an amateur side whose teamsheet included the names of J. M. Barrie (the Peter Pan man) and A. A. Milne (he of Winnie-the-Pooh). Which may explain why Doyle spent so much of his later life away with the fairies.

But it was in 1886 that he came up with his greatest literary invention: that of the world’s first consulting detective. In true Doylean tradition, he felt honour-bound to saddle his creation with some unlikely and impressive-sounding name, so he came up with Sherringford Hope. The wife hated it (she would later become the first wife, can’t think why) and gave it an emphatic No Dear thumbs down, telling him to think again. Digging back into his cricketing days, so the story goes, he remembered a pair of Nottinghamshire players, T. F. Shacklock and Mordecai Sherwin, so he bunged the two together and ended up with Sherlock, the Holmes part coming from Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician and author of the period. This time, the wife approved and Sherlock Holmes was born. A similarly ticklish situation evolved when it came to Holmes’ constant companion and biographer, originally to be known (frightfully) as Ormand Sacker until, we assume, Mrs Doyle got to hear of it and made him settle for the much more ordinary John H. Watson. As we know, Holmes was largely based on Doyle’s university lecturer, Joseph Bell (who could, in fact, deduce a compositor from his thumbnail), so much so that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Doyle asking, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?” Equally well-known are the facts that the Holmes stories were (mostly) narrated in the first person by his rather less-gifted sidekick, thrown in to present the opportunity for Holmes to explain his brilliant deductions, and that, by 1893, Doyle had become so fed up with the fictional detective taking all the limelight away from his “serious” work that he decided to hurl him into the Reichenbach Falls to get shot of him. The public, however, weren’t having any of that and demanded a comeback so, in order to put the publishers off, Doyle upped his prices to a ridiculous level, which failed to keep him free of Holmes and merely resulted in his becoming fabulously wealthy.

Doyle had a sister and, when it came to the naming game, the parents hadn’t stinted there either, plumping for Constance Aimée Monica Doyle, the Aimée part, complete with convincing accent, being a sort of French version of What’s Not To Like, seeing she was described as “being attractive, with pre-Raphaelite looks” and also “the most sought-after of the Doyle daughters.” Great things were expected of her in the marriage stakes, so Arthur was somewhat miffed when who should come sniffing around but a fellow writer in the shape of Ernest William Hornung, who would prove to be something of an all-round rival for Doyle, being a cricketer in his own right and mates with the likes of Jerome K. Jerome and Oscar Wilde. Not to mention being a successful author of highly popular stories, though of a completely different nature altogether to those of Doyle’s, Hornung telling tales of the adventures of a brilliant man, related in the first person from the viewpoint of a less-impressive sidekick, there mainly to have things explained to him, but his hero being a gentleman thief, so therefore not at all copied from the idea of Holmes and Watson. Or Hope and Sacker, as we might well have ended up with, had it not been for the insight of the first Mrs Doyle – the only Mrs Doyle, as it turned out, the second wife being known as Mrs Conan Doyle. Hornung’s creation was, of course, A.J. Raffles, along with his companion, Harry “Bunny” Manvers, and he dedicated the first volume of stories, The Amateur Cracksman, to Doyle as “a form of flattery”, even giving Raffles the name Arthur, though such obvious toadying did him little good because Doyle never turned up to the wedding when Hornung married Connie in September 1893. The couple even called their first child Arthur Oscar, the first after Doyle and the latter after Wilde, upon whom Raffles is supposedly based.

Despite the fact that the relationship between the two writers was often strained, they were not at all averse to heading out together of an evening for a few jars and, on such occasions, as we can well imagine, the situation could have developed into one not unlike that of Holmes to Watson or even Raffles to Bunny, with the rather pompous and self-opinionated Doyle as the brilliant protagonist and Hornung left with the role of understudy, which can’t have pleased poor Willie in the least. As it goes, on the very night in question, when the events leading up to the Arthur Conan Doyle After-Dinner Anecdote were about to unfold, it was precisely this that Hornung was complaining about, most vociferously, as they wended their way homeward from the Rat and Raven.

‘Now, look here, Doyle,’ Hornung was protesting. ‘Why is it that I always end up as the underling whilst you invariably assume the mantle of intellectual colossus?’

‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ came Doyle’s response. ‘And it’s Conan Doyle, by the bye, if you please. The reason for it is a most natural and obvious one. That being, that I am seldom wrong.’
‘So you always say,’ complained Hornung. ‘But what about the Case of the Cottingley Fairies, then? You went round telling everybody how that photograph proved the existence of fairies and in the end it turned out to be an elaborate hoax. You were wrong about that one, weren’t you, Doyle?’

‘Mere froth and bubble, old chap,’ retorted the undaunted knight. ‘And it’s Conan Doyle, if you don’t mind.’

‘In that case, what about that Houdini fellow? The one who said that Spiritualist mediums were all a bunch of tricksters and charlatans, and who then exposed them all as frauds? You were convinced he had supernatural powers and then refused to believe him when he told you his feats of so-called magic were nothing but illusions. You were most certainly wrong about that, weren’t you, Doyle? Then there was the spirit photographer chap, William Hope, who you defended so vehemently when the psychical researcher fellow, Harry Price, showed him up as yet another fraudster. You not only threatened to have him evicted from the National Laboratory of Psychical Research but claimed that, if he persisted in writing “sewage” about spiritualists, he’d end up meeting the same fate as Houdini, didn’t you? And, when Price did prove that Hope was nothing but a con-man – weren’t you originally going to call your consulting detective chappie Hope? – you led a mass walk-out of eighty four members, if I’m not mistaken. Which you clearly were. Pity you weren’t more skilled in the old mindreading department, eh, Doyle? Which, coincidentally enough, could also be said about Julius and Agnes Zancig, if you recall, who you lauded to the heavens for their astonishing – and genuine, you claimed, let’s not forget – psychic powers and telepathic communication. That turned out to be nothing but them using a secret code and another big fat raspberry for Sir Arthur, did it not? And, just while we’re on the subject, how’s that book of yours doing? You know the one: The History of Spiritualism, in which you state repeatedly that Eusapia Palladino and Mina Crandon were capable of producing the most stupendous psychic phenomena and spirit materializations. Right up until the moment they were exposed as swindling scammers of the first water, into whose murky depths they dragged your reputation with them. And, just while we’re on the subject, you’re not above a bit of huckstering yourself, are you, my dear fellow? Not content with the whole Marie Celeste business, you then follow that up by perpetrating your Piltdown Man hoax, complete with counterfeit hominid fossil to fool the whole scientific world, just to get your own back on them for debunking your psychic spiritualist mumbo-jumbo that you never seem to tire of championing. Well, Doyle, old man, what have you got to say about all that then?’
‘It’s Conan Doyle, actually,’ said Conan Doyle. ‘Now, I believe we were discussing Beethoven’s fascination with fruit and the references he made to it throughout his musical oeuvre. Take his Fifth Symphony, for example.’

‘Beethoven’s Fifth?’ seethed the exasperated Hornung. ‘What on earth can Beethoven’s Fifth possibly have to do with fruit?’

‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ replied Doyle. ‘Ba-na-na-NA!’

Fortunately, Hornung’s expletive-ridden response has been lost to posterity as, at that precise moment, they happened to be passing a pizza place and, finding themselves in need of something to soak up all the alcohol sloshing around inside them, they decided to turn in, where Willie promptly ordered a Hawaiian with extra mozzarella, while the rather smug-looking Doyle requested that they prepare him a Buddhist Pizza. Naturally enough, the spotty-faced youth behind the counter had not the faintest idea of what such a thing could be or what toppings might be involved and so, rather ironically, requested enlightenment.

‘It’s perfectly simple,’ explained Doyle. ‘A Buddhist Pizza – it’s One with Everything.’

As they munched their way homeward, they eventually came to the graveyard where, by cutting through, they could take fully ten minutes off their journey time. Doyle, with his Spiritualism and unshakeable belief in fairies and the like, immediately blenched and refused point blank to take that route, at which Hornung leapt at the chance to get one up on the great man at long last, announcing that he wasn’t afraid and how, in that case, he’d see Doyle in the sitting room when he finally got back from going the long way round. And, with that, they parted.

It was some two hours later, with Doyle parked comfortably in an armchair with a copy of the Strand magazine on his knee, that Hornung finally staggered in, white-faced, quivering and visibly shaken. Doyle sprang to his feet and assisted his companion to the sofa.

‘My dear fellow!’ he cried, with genuine concern (they weren’t always at each other’s throats). ‘Whatever can have happened?’
Hornung took a moment to compose himself and then, in a small tremulous voice, described how he had been making his way through the pitch dark, weaving in and out between the scattered headstones, when all at once he became aware of sounds coming in his direction from away in the distance.

‘I could scarce believe my own ears,’ he gasped. ‘Eerie, horrible sounds they were, almost like music but not. Ghastly, it was, and yet, afraid as I was, I found myself being drawn towards them, irresistibly, as if summoned by Sirens. They were getting louder all the time, ringing out haunting and uncanny, like nothing you’ve ever heard before in your life. And then I saw it! Great heavens, Doyle, it was a glow! Right there in all that blackness, luminous and inchoate, hanging like a mist over one small patch of ground, vaguely lighting up the stone that stood to the back of it. I don’t mind admitting, old man, the hairs on my neck fairly stood up like the hackles on a terrified dog and I very nearly turned on my heels and ran for it. But, even then, I couldn’t. All I could do was go on, step by step, getting ever nearer to this hideous apparition, all the while knowing its horror and evil, yet wholly unable to prevent myself from approaching it. There were some words written on that stone and, a moment later, I was able to read them, as plain as I see you now. You won’t believe it, Doyle, but what those words said was simply, ‘Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827’. By now, those dreadful sounds seemed to playing right inside my head until I felt my skull would burst, crashing and ringing like piano chords, yet diabolically distorted somehow, almost as if it was music being played backwards. That’s what they were, Doyle: music being played backwards. In a churchyard. In the dead of night. Coming out of what seemed to be Beethoven’s grave. What on earth can it all signify? I mean, all this music playing backwards. And, hang it all, what was Beethoven doing there in the first place?’

‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ said Doyle calmly. ‘Music playing backwards from a grave and you ask what Beethoven was doing? It’s perfectly obvious, old man – he was decomposing!’

Arthur Conan Doyle: By Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
W.G. Grace: By Credit: "From photo by E. Hawkins & Co., Brighton" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes: By Employee(s) of Universal Studios (Photograph in possession of SchroCat) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
E.W. Hornung: By Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fairy: Luis Ricardo Falero [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Beethoven: Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gravestones in Haworth Churchyard: Author

Friday, 14 August 2015

Day Pass Kiosk

Available throughout Library Opening Hours

We now have a Day Pass Kiosk on the ground floor of the Library for Birkbeck users who have forgotten their Birkbeck Library card.

The Day Pass Kiosk can be used by:

Birkbeck students and staff to print a Day Pass.

Some other groups of users who have a Birkbeck username and a library account to print a Day Pass.

Please note the following points if you create a Day Pass:

Day Passes are for REFERENCE ONLY – you will be unable to borrow items or access your account without your Birbeck card. You can do everything else as normal, such as logging on, printing and copying, just not borrow.

You will need to know your Birkbeck username and password (the ones that you use to log onto the PCs).

When a Day Pass is created your real card is deactivated so cannot be used that day to enter the library. You will still be able to borrow using your real card if you later find it.

If your real card has been used during the day the system will not allow a Day Pass to be created as it assumes the user is still in the library. Day Passes expire at 23:50 each night.

Always keep your pass with you at all times, especially if you are leaving the Library (even for a short while). This applies to your Library card also, when you are using that. It will save you possibly having to wait to be let in at busy times.

Please note: Affiliates will still need to get a printed day pass from the admissions desk while that is open

Friday, 7 August 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

August 7

This day, down the ages, seems to have had more than its share of soaking in blood, with a few witches thrown in for good measure but, like many another, it also involves a new Pope taking up the hot seat. Probably, because there have been so blessèd many of ‘em – two hundred and sixty six, if anyone’s counting, and that’s without all the antipopes – you could pick any old day and there would be one pontiff or another getting started or heading upstairs to meet the boss but, in this case, it’s Stephen III back in 768. He started off as a Benedictine monk but then Pope Zachary took a shine to him and he soon found himself in the rarefied air of high office, helping out a string of Popes until he finally came to be at the bedside of the dying Paul I. Which is when all the jockeying for position really got started and, if there’s anyone who knew how to play dirty, it’s your eighth century pontifical candidates.

Just around now, which’d be 28 June 767 and poor old Paul not yet cold, a couple of antipopes appeared on the scene, wanting to know how the Pope’s shoes would feel on their feet, both supported by their own highly bloodthirsty factions. Archest of this pair of jokers was Constantine II, who came complete with thuggish brother, Toto, and they hotfooted it round to the Basilica of the Apostles where the papal court and nobility were gathering to choose a successor. Rather inconveniently, however, Christophorus, the top bod in these matters, made them all swear an oath that this election would be done properly, with the smoke and all that caper, and even Toto had to submit to this, though the minute Christophorus turned his back, Toto elected his brother Pope anyway. There was still one tiny snag to overcome before they could rest on their papal laurels, and that was the fact that Constantine was still a layman and only bishops qualified for the job, so something had to be done pretty sharpish. Not being one to observe all the niceties, Toto (and armed gang) persuaded a bishop that ordaining Constantine a monk would save the hapless clergyman a good deal of agony, so he reluctantly agreed. Next day, 29 June, they were back, this time to have the new monk upgraded, first to subdeacon and then, immediately, to actual deacon, totally against canonical law. Sure enough, back they came once again, on 5 July, this time to finish the job and claim the papal hat and that, as far as they were concerned, was the whole Pope business sorted. Christophorus, on the other hand, had other ideas. He’d been pretty browned off by the entire palaver, especially as he’d quite fancied having Stephen as the main man, so he’d gone off and got himself a load of butchering sorts of his own, and now, on 10 April 768, he was back. Toto at once got a short, and very sharp, dose of his own medicine, at which yet another brother, Passivus, decided that perhaps a swift run for it was in order and promptly ankled it over to Constantine to warn him, the pair of them deciding that, rather than fleeing, they’d hide. Only it turned out that Constantine was even worse at hiding than he had been at poping and they were quickly discovered and thrown into clink.

At that point, another antipope, Philip, came crawling out of the woodwork, though it wasn’t long before he sloped quietly off too, especially once he’d seen that the election of Stephen had a certain “inevitability” about it. And, if Stephen was going to get the papacy back on an even keel and restore a bit of order down Rome way, he would have to ensure that the troublemakers were quietened down a bit. So he had Passivus blinded and then Bishop Theodore, Constantine’s second-in-command, got the same, plus his tongue cut out while they were at it. Undaunted by this, the good folk of Alatri revolted in support of Constantine, got defeated, and then the ringleaders were blinded and had their tongues ripped out. Perhaps, judging by recent form, they should’ve seen that one coming? On 6 August 768, Constantine was then summoned to appear, bricking it most likely, though all that happened was that they officially dethroned him. Well, canonically degraded him, actually. And what beasts they were to the poor wretch. First, his pallium was thrown at his feet, by a subdeacon, and then his papal shoes were cut clean off his feet – it doesn’t get much worse than that. Actually, it did. Stephen was consecrated as Pope next day and, by way of celebration, he had Constantine blinded. Then beaten up for a bit, then put on a horse, on a woman’s saddle (the brutes), with heavy weights attached to his feet, then drove him through the streets for people to mock him, finally leaving him lying in the gutter and forbidding anyone to aid him. Mind you, having a blinded, beaten antipope with stretched legs strewn about the place does nothing for a neighbourhood and folk soon started complaining, so they eventually had to cart him away. Even then, they weren’t quite through with the hapless Constantine. Having not much on hand in April 769, Stephen thought they might as well have him back again to explain what he thought he was playing at being made Pope when he was only a layman, to which the response was that he’d been forced to do it – the old “some big boys did it and ran away” argument, never much cop in a ticklish situation – but the next day he recanted and said that he’d only done what all Popes do at times like that. Naturally, Stephen would’ve had him blinded for impertinence, only they’d already done that, so he had to settle for having his tongue ripped out instead. And not a peep was heard of Constantine ever again.

Some people reckon that Stephen III should be made a saint, though the Holy See won’t wear it for some reason. After all, as far as Popes go, he really was a blinding one …

It has been suggested that this day in 1606 was the one which saw the first ever performance of The Tragedy of Macbeth (to give it its full billing) but, seeing they can’t decide when it was actually written, any nearer than “between 1599 and 1606,” there may be a touch of dubiety about this. Still, let’s not be sticklers, especially when it presents such an excellent opportunity to lever in some witches at this point, so we’ll just say that 7 August 1606 is as likely a candidate as any other day and quickly move on. The play is set in Scotland, where a general (that’d be Macbeth) suddenly finds himself being hallooed by a trio of cackling witches who, after a bit of banter about some sailor’s wife who apparently might’ve had chestnuts in her lap for some unknown reason, and then Banquo being ungallant enough to point out that (choppy fingers and skinny lips aside) they, “should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so,” the witches then inform Macbeth that he looks like the stuff kings are made of. Instead of asking himself what a bunch of beardy crones is doing hanging around the blasted heath at night, or even telling them to, “get hence, vile hags, afore ye feel the sharp edge of a trusty claymore up the gizzard,” as any normal Scottish general might do, he decides that, actually, they may have a point there, especially seeing all he’d have to do was to murder (aye, mudder!) King Duncan and the crown would be on his own scalp before teatime. Which is precisely what he does. And, as we all know, it’s pretty much downhill all the way in from there.

The witches, not content with leading Macbeth into a life of crime and debauchery, also get the blame when it comes to the old theatrical superstition that the play is cursed, this being why actors never mention the title out loud, referring to it instead as “the Scottish play.” They won’t even quote from it backstage in case that should bring bad luck – so how come it’s OK to recite it word for word on stage, then, in that case? – and this is all because the Bard is said to have used the spells of real witches in his text, thus antagonising the witches he’s supposed to have purloined them from, enough to make them curse the play for evermore. (And, if you believe that, we might as well tell you that it was an infinite number of monkeys armed with a typewriter, the ones who came up with the script in the first place, who started spreading all these rumours). There are stories of accidents and misfortunes besetting production runs but, in actual fact, there have been more deaths during performances of Hamlet than in Macbeth. Has anyone, we wonder, informed Health & Safety about this Shakespeare sort and his hazardous plays?

Not long later – 7 August 1620, to be exact – and it’s yet more witchcraft. Well, there was an awful lot of it about in those days, so you probably won’t be too surprised to hear that someone got themselves arrested and banged up this day, on charges of sorcery, no less, which could be fatal back then. You may be surprised to hear that it was actually Katharina Kepler getting her collar felt, she being the mother of Johannes Kepler, of course, the mathematician and father of modern astronomy, though, given that he dabbled (albeit halfheartedly) in astrology too, the authorities may have thought that this rather iffy Kepler household could stand a bit of rummaging through to see what turned up. As luck would have it, Lutherus Einhorn was swaggering about the place at the time, in his role as Vogt of Leonberg (it just means beak or beadle, the sort of self-important civic official we all despise) and he happened to fancy himself as something of a Witchfinder, so he gets an investigation going and before you can say “does anybody still believe in all this fatuous mumbo-jumbo about cats and broomsticks in this day and age,” he’s got fifteen women on trial, eventually executing eight of them, just to be on the safe side. Then Katharina finds herself being dragged in when one Ursula Reingold, a victim of Katharina’s, comes forward to state that the accused had made her sick with an evil brew. (No doubt tempting her with the words, “here you go, Ursula, have a swig of this evil brew, see what you think”). The fact that this Reingold woman happened to be in a bitter financial dispute with Kepler’s brother, Christoph, at the time does nothing to undermine her impartiality as a witness, especially as the good townsfolk were still champing at the bit for the chance to see another witch get her deserved comeuppance. Johannes wisely whipped her off to Linz in December 1616, just until the dust settled and it all blew over but, when she returned on 7 August 1620, she was promptly nicked and her feet didn’t touch the ground until the cell door had banged shut behind her. And there she stayed. For fourteen months. During which time she was subjected to territio verbalis, a graphic description of the torture awaiting her as a witch, as a means of frightening her into confessing but, even so, she never uttered a dicky bird. Eventually, thanks partly to the shift Johannes put in to get her defence sorted out – to be honest, the complete lack of even a scrap of evidence didn’t help the prosecution case – she was finally released in October 1621 but died the following year. During the trial, Johannes had been so entangled in all the legal stuff that he got distracted from his normal line of work and had to focus all his scientific attentions on one particular theory. Oddly enough, the published work that emerged from it was Harmonices Mundi, as he called it. That’s Harmony of the World. What a sarky old boffin he was, to be sure …

Taking a leap away from witchcraft, we now find that we’ve landed right up to the armpits in gore once again as we come to Anna Mansdotter, who this day became the last women to be executed in Sweden. In 1890. Which does seem a very long time ago, in terms of capital punishment. Mind you, the last man to get the chop (the Swedes favoured the axe) met his fate as late as 23 January 1910, though in his case it was at the guillotine, the only time they ever used it. Before we run away with the idea that the Swedes were radically-minded trendsetters in the matter of being civilised, up until 1866 they had been keener than Judge Jeffreys when it came to dishing out the death penalty, being bested only by Spain in numbers despatched. So they had something of a rethink and cut back a bit, but what really turned things round was when the executioner died in 1920, meaning they’d completely run out of them and then they found they couldn’t get anyone else to take the job on. Nothing for it but to pack it in and so they abolished it completely the following year. A tad too late for Anna Mansdotter, however, seeing she’d carried out the Yngsjö Murder in March 1889, with her own son as accomplice, the victim being the son’s wife and her daughter-in-law. It seems that when Anna’s husband died, she began to indulge in unseemly sexual practices with said son and, in order to put a stop to the gossip, she married him off to Hanna Johansdotter, only this Hanna sort found out what’d been going on, didn’t she? Ticklish situation. Though nothing that couldn’t be resolved by a swift clout with a heavy stick and a bit of strangulation to follow, especially if they left her lying so it looked like she’d fallen down stairs. Only the authorities weren’t buying it and they both were given appointments with the headsman. In the end, the son got off with life imprisonment for some reason (they let him out in 1913) but she, being the scarlet woman, finished up with her head in the basket on 7 August 1890.

 Don’t quite know what it is about 7 August but it certainly fires you girls up enough to get stuff done: we now come to a couple of feats that really do deserve our admiration and respect, and which put us blokes in the shade rather (come on, lads, do buck up and try and compete). The first of which is from 1909, when Alice Huyler Ramsey became the first woman to drive across the USA coast to coast, completing a three thousand eight hundred mile journey from New York to San Francisco. On her fifty nine day trek she was accompanied by two older sisters-in-law, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood (both “conservative” and in their forties) and an “enthusiastic” sixteen year old friend, Hermine Jahns. They were all non-drivers. So they did the map-reading. (Please, gentlemen, no uncalled-for comments here). Alice hadn’t intentionally set out to become a feminist pioneer or anything like that and, in actual fact, it was us blokes that got the wheels moving, as it were, firstly when her husband heard about how a speeding car had scared her horse and he thought it’d be safer all round if he bunged the “little woman” in a car of her own. Only she took to it like … well … like a young lady to driving (she was twenty one), clocking up a boneshaking six thousand miles in just that summer before ending up doing a two hundred mile endurance trip. Which is when bloke number two turns up with his bright idea, not to mention the obligatory ulterior motive we men always like to keep handy. Which was all the cheap advertising he’d get if one of his company’s cars could be driven all the way across America, and a cherry on top if it happened to be a woman behind the wheel. So, on 9 June 1909, off set the intrepid party.

Now, all you chaps who simply couldn’t resist a bit of a snicker when map-reading was mentioned should be reminded at this point that this was 1909. Only a hundred and fifty two miles of the journey were on “paved roads” and, much of the time, there weren’t even roads, so they ended up navigating by telephone poles, following the ones with most wires on the basis that they were more likely to lead to a town. Which they did. Over the course of the drive, Alice changed eleven tyres, cleaned the spark plugs, repaired a broken brake pedal and slept in the car when it was stuck in mud. They ran into a manhunt for a killer, got bedbugs in a hotel, and then surrounded by Native Americans wielding bows and arrows. But finally, amid a great fanfare and huge crowds, they arrived safely in ‘Frisco on 7 August 1909. Alice would later drive across the country more than thirty times and was named Woman Motorist of the Century in 1960.

Not sitting back on any laurels, you women were at it again in 1987, when another American, Lynne Cox, swam from the USA to the Soviet Union. Which left Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev a bit redfaced, seeing they’d been attempting to bring the two nations together for some time now, and she’d managed it in just two hours and five minutes. Lynne was no stranger to this swimming lark, or to diplomatic relations either, while she was about it. In 1971, aged fourteen, she swam across the Catalina Channel from Seal Beach in California in twelve hours and thirty six minutes – that’s some twenty seven shark-filled miles. 1972 saw her doing the English Channel and shattering the women’s world record for it. And the men’s, as it goes, repeating the feat in 1973, shaving another twenty one minutes off her previous best. Then it was back to the Catalina sharks in 1974, breaking the women’s record for that too. And the men’s. Crikey, she could shift. Then it was the Cook Strait between North and South Islands of New Zealand by way of a change before embarking on her peace work, following her Cold War swim with one across the Beagle Channel between Argentine and Chile as a way to promote cooperation between the two countries, plus taking in the Spree River between the newly reunited German Republics to highlight that event. 1994, it was Egypt to Israel, then Israel to Jordan in an effort to try and bring those three together round the table. But it was this day in 1987 that she did the Bering Strait number, setting off from Little Diomede (USA) to Big Diomede (USSR), getting into the extremely nippy water on 7 August, swimming for a tad over two hours, then clambering out onto Russian soil, by which time it was somehow 8 August. She’d crossed the International Date Line, of course. And made history. Again. So did Reagan and Gorbachev in the end but, being blokes, they settled for sitting down to a good dinner and working towards world peace that way.


Stephen III: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A Papal Death Proclaimed: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Blinding of Samson: Rembrandt [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Macbeth Meeting the Witches: Henry Fuseli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Witch (“Magic Circle”): John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Johannes Kepler: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Mansdotter: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alice Huyler Ramsey: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lynne Cox in 2012: By TEDxMonterey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons