Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 33 That Time Bunnies Attacked Napoleon

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 16•18

Napoleon is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time, up there with Alexander the Great. But one of his most humiliating defeats actually came from a pack of domesticated rabbits.

I am Not Making This Up: Who Was That (Iron) Masked Man?

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 08•18

Man in the Iron MaskIn May 1687, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars took over as prison governor (a sort of warden) for the island prison of Sante-Marguerite, a mile of the coast of Cannes.

Saint-Mars was a special kind of prison warden. King Louis XIV Of France (the Sun King, I’ve written a lot about him, here and even a podcast here) trusted Saint-Mars with VIPs (Very Important Prisoners). The type who couldn’t be executed, but also couldn’t run around free.

So when Saint-Mars moved prisons, his VIPs went with him.

One of these prisoners garnered special notice, due to the velvet mask that he wore, concealing his face (and therefore his identity) from the curious public.

Ten years later, when Saint-Mars became Governor (warden) of the Bastille, the masked man moved with him.

Prison guards and prisoners who had been released later told stories that fueled public imagination (or at the very least, court gossip around Versailles).

They said that the mystery man served other prisoners as a valet. That he had to wear a mask of iron and that he was guarded by two musketeers. If he ever uttered a single word, his guards had orders to shoot him.

And, like fans of the Lone Ranger centuries later, all of France wondered: who was that masked man?

Theories ranged from King Louis XIV’s (theoretical) older twin brother, to his (theoretical) peasant father, to Henry Cromwell, son of Oliver Cromwell.

While the complete truth may never be known, historians think that the man’s name was Eustache Dauger.

During his imprisonment, he stayed in a cell with an “airlock”- style door to prevent anyone from listening at his cell and hearing secrets. He was allowed to serve as a valet to prisoners who would never be released. But never when they were in contact with prisoners who would someday go free. And Saint-Mars was ordered to kill the masked man if he ever talked of anything except his own basic needs.

Based on the evidence, experts theorize that Dauger was valet to a high-ranking French government official. That he simply saw too much and refused to stay silent about it.

Historians believe this because Sant-Mars and the nobles he held as prisoners (hidebound to tradition under King Louis XIV) would never have put another noble to work as a common valet.

A competing theory is that Dauger was a high ranking supplier in the Affair of the Poisons (which I’ve podcasted about). However, many of the prime suppliers were executed. If Dauger was lowly enough to serve as a valet, he would also be lowly enough to be executed, rather than imprisoned to silence.

The popular stories about the man in the mask only grew once influential writers got ahold of it. Voltaire learned of the masked prisoner from others imprisoned in the Bastille. In his writings, he changed the mask from Velvet to iron. Alexandre Dumas hypothesized that the masked man was King Louis’s older twin brother.

Although these stories grew in the telling, historians are adept at separating fact from fiction. But one thing may never be clear: what did the masked man, Dauger, know?

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 32 One Way To Spend An Afternoon When Visiting The City in 1848

Written By: admin - Jan• 01•18

Imagine you’re an American farmer 170 years ago. Depending on where you live, you may go to a big city once a year, when it’s time to sell off your surplus livestock. 

A daguerreotype of a daguerreotypist showing off his daguerreotypes. Didn’t this happen in Inception?

And, after you’ve done that, you might go have one of those fancy daguerreotype light paintings made. 

Having a Daguerreotype image made was the 1850’s fad equivalent to taking a selfie at Disneyland while performing in a flash mob in front of Cinderella’s castle.  And if you adjust for inflation, the price was about the same. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Peace On Earth, Even In War

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 25•17

Peace is an interesting concept. Writers and poets and philosophers wax rhapsodic about the fragility of peace. Like it’s a soap bubble that could be popped any second.

Yet when you strip away the poetry and the fluff, peace is a thousand – or a million individual decisions not to participate in War.

In wartime, officers punish common soldiers for insubordination for choosing peace – against their orders.

Yet during postwar, the winning side will punish soldiers of the losing side for particularly egregious acts. Just following orders is not a defense. Choosing War over peace is punishable when it a soldier is choosing to disregard their basic humanity.

During the 1914 Christmas of World War I, spontaneous peace broke out. And to the officers in charge, spontaneous peace was received just as badly as spontaneous warfare would be.

World War I was a massive paradigm shift. Conflicts prior to this were basically games of RISK between kings and chancellors: trading “acceptable losses” of men in exchange for a few more miles of territory to add to the map

But technology changed the nature of warefare. Soldiers went into the WWI meat grinder wearing cloth hats and riding horses. The ones who survived emerged out the other side wearing metal helmets and riding tanks. After this, war would be so expensive that England, France and their allies would let Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia before they would consider going to war.

But all that was in the future. Soldiers entering this first war thought they’d be home by Christmas. And as the war devolved into trench warfare, they felt more kinship for the soldiers in the other trench than for the leaders telling them to go cross no man’s land and kill those other guys.

Just one generation back, The German Prince Albert brought many Christmas Traditions into England when he married Queen Victoria. King Edward even resembled his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm.

After weeks of rain that turned the whole battlefield into a quagmire, there came a hard freeze on Christmas Eve that turned everything an ethereal frosty white.

So when the Germans started singing Silent Night, The British soldiers naturally answered with the first Noel.

There was never an official truce. In some places, there was no cease fire at all. Russians celebrated Christmas on a different day, and the French were more sensitive to the fact that the Germans were invading their homeland.

But in some places, pockets of men simply laid down their arms and crawled out into no man’s land to meet their German counterparts. They exchanged items from their Christmas care packages from home, sang carols, drank and some that had them kicked around soccer balls. By some estimates, two thirds of the front line in Belgium lay down their arms.

In some places, the unofficial truce ended at midnight. In some, it lasted into the new year, when officers of both sides stepped in to order troops back to war. After all, it wouldn’t do to fraternize with the enemy. That might lead to peace.

There would be no repeat of the Christmas truce the next year. Peace would have to wait until the armistice of November 1918. By then, many of the soldiers who experienced the Christmas truce would be dead. But the story would live on.

After all, it’s nice to think that spontaneous peace can break out as easily as spontaneous war.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 31 When Special Snowflake Wasn’t An Insult

Written By: admin - Dec• 18•17
You probably already know that no two snowflakes are alike.  Every school child knows that.  But before 1931, no one knew that. The man who changed our perspective on snowflakes was Wilson “snowflake” Bentley.

Photography revealed that the crystaline structure is unique to each snowflake.

Bently pioneered the scientific study of snowflakes.  He invented techniques for photographing them that are still in use today. 

I Am Not Making This Up: That Time The Guy Who Wrote Sleepy Hollow Saved Christmas

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 11•17

Some ideas are simply timely ideas. Which might explain all the competing patents for things like airplanes and radio. Saving Christmas was another timely idea.

I wrote two weeks ago about how Dickens’s A Christmas Carol created a popular movement that brought back Christmas as a family holiday. It was a little like Harry Potter had everyone dressing in old graduation gowns and calling themselves Gryffindors, only with more Christmas Turkey.

Another writer contemporary to Dickens who also helped to revive Christmas traditions- or in some cases invent them whole cloth – was Washington Irving. That’s right, the guy who wrote the Headless Horseman story helped to save Christmas.

Prior to the 19th century, Christmas was either forgotten, or treated as a holiday for adults (A drinking holiday). In Protestant areas, the holiday had been abandoned because it was Catholic, or something the early Catholic Church had co-opted from the Roman Pagans.

This is the landscape into which Irving started writing about Christmas. In 1809, Irving wrote the satyrical “Knickerbocker’s History Of New York,” in which he included several tall tales about the founding of the city. In one, “Good St. Nicholas” helps out a shipwrecked Dutch scouting party and points them to the Island of Manhattan as a good place to settle.

In 1819, he collected some of his essays and short stories into “The Sketch Book Of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” The book contained both “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow,” which are the two stories that Irving is known for today. But the book also contained a number of stories and essays about or set during Christmastime.

while this was going on, Irving was living in England. He took note of some of the disappearing English Christmas traditions. Irving wrote about mistletoe, carols, holiday parties, the Christmas feast and the generosity of the host toward his guests.

Irving believed that these traditions should be preserved as a way to get us through the long, dark winter season.

In his essay “Christmas,” he wrote: “At other times we derive . . . Our pleasures from the mere beauties of nature. But in the depths of winter . . . We turn for our gratifications to moral sources.”

When people read Irving’s stories about Christmas, they warmed up to the idea of gathering as a family to mark the day. Manhattan had just experienced a Christmas riot, so rebranding Christmas as a quiet, family holiday seemed like a great idea.

Coming out of the era when children were treated like miniature adults and “seen and not heard,” parents liked the idea of having a day to give gifts and candy without looking like they were spoiling their children.

While Irving can’t be credited alone with saving Christmas, his work laid the foundation for later writers like Dickens and Clement Moore (who wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” A.k.a. “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.”)

If you want to read The Sketchbook Of Geoffrey Crayon, it’s available on Project Gutenberg.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 30 Catch Me If You Can, Gingerbread Man

Written By: admin - Dec• 04•17

Queenly cookies? Maybe!

Gingerbread men are practically synonymous with Christmas.  But, at the risk of sounding click-bait-y, you won’t believe the surprising origins of this cookie.

Spoiler it’s Queen Elizabeth. Maybe.
Martha Stewart has the gingerbread house recipe that I use each year.
Emily Dickenson was a fan of Gingerbread loaves.
My husband’s favorite ginger snap cookie recipe comes from Silver Dollar City’s culinary school.

I Am Not Making This Up: Having The Dickens Scared Out Of Christmas

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 27•17

Unless you are a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas, you probably leave the ghosts and other creepy stuff firmly behind in Halloween.

But this hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas was a darker holiday, one in which ghosts and ghost stories were a big part.

In Europe prior to Dickens, Christmas was a holiday with pagan roots. The days were short, and many believed that the darkest day of the year was a day when the dead could return.

At least in part, celebrations around the winter solstice meet a human need. The days are short and dreary. In seasonal agrarian societies, there is a season of forced inactivity. Humans need something to break up the monotony. The Norse had Yule. Pagan Rome observed the death and rebirth of Sol Invictus.

In England, Oliver Cromwell suppressed Christmas celebrations in the mid-seventeenth century. Cromwell was a Puritan. (The same guys who came to America on the Mayflower and had the debatably first Thanksgiving.) Cromwell and the other puritans objected to celebrating a Catholic holiday that had pagan origins.

In the American colonies, the puritans banned Christmas (though it was celebrated in New York and Virginia). Post Revolutionary War, the newly-minted Americans threw the holiday out, along with other English traditions (though the Dutch and Germans held onto their traditions).

By Dickens’s time, the holiday was just another day to many. Dickens often gets credit with single-handedly saving Christmas. (Although Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert reintroduced some traditions from Germany, like the Christmas tree, and popular writer Washington Irving had written quite a bit about Christmas.)

Dickens’s smash book emphasized charity, family and goodwill (as opposed to carousing). It started a resurgence of Christmas traditions the way Harry Potter started collegiate Quidditch leagues.

Dickens drew on old traditions, such as telling ghost stories. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by his late business partner Jacob Marley and is able to see more formerly-human spirits out his window.

During Christmas gatherings, people would gather around a fire, tongues would loosen under the influence of a different kind of spirit and then the ghost stories would also flow.

Party games might have included some form of divination. For example, some girls would peel an apple and throw the peels on the ground. The peel was supposed to curl into the shape of their future husband’s initial.

But sometime between Dickens and now, ghost stories at Christmas have fallen by the wayside. Unless your name is Tim Burton, (or you work at the Haunted Mansion) chances are good that your skeletons don’t wear Santa hats, and your ghosts don’t hang out under the mistletoe.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 29 What Was On The Table That First Thanksgiving?

Written By: admin - Nov• 20•17

When we gather around the table this Thanksgiving, we’ll probably have turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and mashed potatoes.  

Turkey wrapped in bacon. Because? ‘Murica, I guess.

Turkey is such an iconic part of Thanksgiving that there is even a giant turkey float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade.  

But the first Thanksgiving may not have even had turkey. 

I Am Not Making This Up: The Multiple “First” Thanksgivings

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 13•17

We all know the story of the first American Thanksgiving, when in 1598, the Spanish under Juan de Oñate reached the Rio Grande and held a party because: Yay! We survived crossing a desert with no water!


Or maybe on December 4, 1619, when settlers arrived along the James River in Virginia and hit their knees to thank God they were finally off that boat.

That’s not what you learned in school, either?

The fact is, the calendar is littered with “First Thanksgivings.” In the early days of settlement, there were a lot of private companies forming colonial settlements in North America.

So why is our cultural memory one of Puritan pilgrims and a turkey? Probably because that particular Thanksgiving narrative fit the needs of the people who created it.

Throughout the world, there has been a longstanding practice of setting aside a day to give thanks. “It’s been a good harvest. Let’s take tomorrow off to give thanks.”

This is the tradition the Puritans were following when they held their day of thanksgiving.

Even during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress set aside a day of thanksgiving. And in 1777, George Washington observed a day of thanksgiving to celebrate his victory at the battle of Saratoga. These days were probably more about prayer than pudding.

In 1863, prompted by a campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale (who also wrote Mary Had A Little Lamb), Abraham Lincolon made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

So how did Puritans and turkeys come to dominate the Thanksgiving narrative?

My research was inconclusive, but my theory is that we can thank the same people who gave us the “Washington could not tell a lie about chopping down his father’s cherry tree,” story.

These are simple, moralistic stories that are easy to teach to kids. The story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving has people coming to America for a better life, seeking freedom to worship as they please. They are taught to survive by welcoming, friendly locals and they all come together as family to celebrate.

Compare this to the story of the Jamestown Settlement, which has people seeking gold, starvation and cannibalism. Even sanitized, it has fewer “American” morals.

And while the Pilgrim Thanksgiving narrative is more fairy tale than facts, that hardly matters when your kid is six. This is the same age when we still tell kids that Santa and the Easter Bunny are real.

We can probably wait until they are too old for Santa to teach them that the Europeans were douchy land-grabbers. They’re ready to believe it by then, anyway.