Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 9 That Time Edwin Booth Could Have Changed Everything

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 16•17
The Fabulous Booth Brothers

The one and only time all three acting Booth brothers appeared on stage together.

Let’s talk a little about Edwin Booth.  People don’t remember the other two Booth brothers.  John Wilkes Booth casts a long shadow.  And when they do, it’s because Edwin once rescued Robert Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, from being crushed by a train. There’s a certain neatness in the symmetry of that. One brother saves a son, while the other murders a father. 

But there was a time when Edwin’s name outshone his more infamous brother.  There was a time when, by the right word or the right action, Edwin might have put his brother on a different path.  


I Am Not Making This Up: Coins As Propaganda

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 09•17

All through history, I’ve read accounts of rulers and wannabe rulers who minted their own coins.  But I rarely stopped to think of the reasons why beyond assuming it was some kind of prestige thing. 

Coin bearing the likenesses of Ferdinand and Isabella

But when I wrote my article on Joanna La Loca (Joan the Mad, in English), it struck me that both Joan’s father King Ferdinand and her husband Philip the Handsome had coins minted that showed them co ruling alongside Joan.  It hit me that Ferdinand didn’t need prestige. As ruler of several nations already, he had all the prestige he needed.  This was a propaganda move. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines propaganda as the spread of ideas to either help your own cause or harm another’s cause. 

Money may be one of the oldest, most effective forms of propaganda.  It’s portable. Most people have at least some of it. And we look at it so often that we rarely think about it. What better way to disseminate your message, and get your target to internalize it?

No one is exactly sure when coins came into use, but scholars believe it was in Ancient Greece. Prior to that, ancient cultures relied on either a barter economy (where you exchange this for that.  I’ll trade you that cow for these magic beans), or a gifting economy (thanks for killing Grendel, Beowulf.  Here are some lovely parting gifts).

Coins probably came into use once merchants needed to keep track of IOU units (this is my token. The bearer may exchange it for three bags of grain). From the perspective of a trader, coins made more sense. They were portable and universal.  Not everyone wants three bags of grain. So if you want a new sword, but the craftsman doesn’t want your grain, it’s easier to give them coins than to find someone who wants your grain, and has something the craftsman wants.

A coin bearing the image of Marcus Aurelius.

And once local economies shifted from food rent economies, having a system of coinage made it easier to collect taxes. After all, a bag of coins lasts a lot longer than a storehouse of grain. 

Plus – and this is a big plus – when you mint your own coins, you get to keep part of the gold yourself.  So early kings and emperors literally made money while they made money. 

From there, it’s a short leap from paying in coins or tokens stamped with your name, to paying in coins or tokens stamped with your message. 

The oldest coin archaeologists have found is over 2,700 years old.  The coin, which dates from a Hellenic city in Asia Minor, is stamped with a lion, the symbol of the ruling king.  

Even the word “money” comes from ancient Roman sources. (the Romans adopted the notion of using coins because the Greeks did it.  That was the basis for a lot of Roman decisions.  What would the Greeks do?) The mint in Ancient Rome was located in the temple of Juno Moneta. 

Often the citizens of Rome learned they had a new emperor when his picture turned up on coins. One emperor who ruled for less than a year had two different coins struck with his picture on it.  Prior to the time of Julius Ceaser, only images of the gods had appeared on coins.  By putting his own image on coins, Ceaser attempted to equate his image with the gods. 

Later, when the culture shifted the official state religion from polytheism to Christianity under Emperor Constantine, the early Christian Chi Ro symbol was stamped on the backs of coins. 

Inevitably, when societies get around to making their own money again, they also try shaping public opinion through the money.  Look at any currency in circulation today. In most countries, the money is printed with images of past or present great leaders, as well as symbols that represent that country.

The Santa Clause Note

American money has undergone many changes through the years.  At one point some of it featured Santa Clause to convey the idea of generosity. The words “in God we trust” were added during the Cold War to counter Soviet Atheism. 

But it’s not all propaganda.  From 1999 to 2008, the US Mint released quarters with state symbols on the backs as a way of encouraging people to get into coin collecting (and to raise a little more money for the treasury by having collectors taking coins out of circulation).  The program is the most successful in history, and was followed up with a National Parks series for collectors. 

Who knows? Maybe before the coin-collecting bubble bursts, we’ll see a set of US president quarters. 


I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 8 Why Some People Hate History

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 02•17

Founding fathers.

I’m sure that’s exactly how it happened.

Until you saw the musical Hamilton, You probably got the impression that the founding fathers all got along and always knew exactly what they were doing.  That’s because people like to tell stories.  

Whenever a big event happens, usually before the dust even settles the media is casting events in terms of narrative. Narritaves help us understand what has happened, and in a way, it helps us relate to events. 

 Over time these stories take on legendary qualities. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Special Announcement

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 26•16

notmakingitupIf you don’t have a lot of patience to listen to the audio, it says that starting next week, I’ll be producing the I Am Not Making This Up podcast twice a month instead of only once.  From now on, look for it on the first and third Monday of every month.


I Am Not Making This Up: Joan the Mad of Castile’s Epic Farewell Tour

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 19•16

Say Jerry Springer came to you with a time machine (Tardis, DeLorean, whatever) and a mission: to travel back in time and bring him the most dysfunctional people you can find to guest star on his show.  

Who would you bring? The Tudors? The Kennedys? 

Sadly for Joan, this is not the point where the Goblin King took Phillip away to his kingdom where everything was sunshine and puppies.

Possibly.  But you really couldn’t go wrong if you made a stopover in Spain and grabbed Queen Juana the I of Castile. History remembers her as Joan the Mad. Though whether she deserves that title is up for debate.

Joan’s parents are Spain’s original power couple, Ferdinand and Isabella. The ones who gave Christopher Columbus financial backing.  To understand some parts of this story, you need a little information on them.  Especially Isabella.  

There are three Isabellas in this story.  Joan’s mother, Isabella of Castile, Joan’s grandmother Isabella of Portugal and Joan’s sister, Isabella of Aragon.  I know it’s confusing, but try to keep them straight. 

Isabella of Castile’s mother, Isabella of Portugal is credited with “bringing madness into the line of Spain.”  She suffered from what was probably postpartum depression after the birth of the future Isabella of Castile. 

Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon were an ideal power couple.  They were extremely devout and politically savvy. They would have had to have been, to maintain control of their fragmented kingdoms Spain didn’t become united Spain until the time of their grandson Charles I. Prior to that, they were “the Spanish kingdoms,” or “the Spains.” Similar to the way that Dallas and Fort Worth are two separate cities,yet we call them both the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Both Ferdinand and Isabella were extremely devout Catholics. Under their rule, they expelled all Muslim people from the Iberian peninsula (the Reconquista), and forced all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave their lands. They also started the Spanish Inquisition. (Which, despite what you see on Monty Python,  everyone pretty much expected.)

And they were rich. In addition to all the gold they got from the new world, they also got lots of money and power from converting or expelling all the Jews and Muslims from Spain. 

(As a side note, Joan’s younger sister was Catherine of Aragon, The first of King Henry VIII’s wives. Part of the reason Henry couldn’t just execute Catherine was that her family back in Spain was so powerful and wealthy.)

This is the environment that Joan grew up in: über religious and highly controlled.

Tiny Joan. Perhaps wondering why her skeleton is inside her.

From an early age, People thought Joan was a melancholy child – similar in temperament to Isabella’s crazy mother Isabella of Portugal. One story says that Little Joan once asked her governess if she could try on her skeleton.  When her nurse told her that it was already inside her, Little Joan broke into a truly epic sobbing tantrum. 

But no one could deny that Joan was brilliant. With the formidable Isabella overseeing their educations, the infantas of Castile and Aragon were possibly the most well-educated women in all of Europe.  Joan could speak seven languages, play three instruments as well as all traditional courtly feminine pursuits from dancing and needlepoint to horsemanship hawking and hunting.  She also excelled in her classical education, which included literature, cannon and civil law, heraldry, mathematics, history, genealogy, grammar and writing. 

Some stories say Joan was skeptical of certain aspects of her religious teachings, which was taken as an early sign of her encroaching insanity (because questioning the church got you tortured in those days). Not wanting word to get around that Joan might be inclined to insanity or worse, heretical thought, her mother ordered the rumors hushed up. 

Other stories say that Joan wanted to be a nun, but her parents insisted she marry to cement political alliances.

What is known is that Joan was a third child, so her parents never expected her to inherit their thrones.  Instead they put her in a very advantageous marriage with Phillip the Handsome, Hapsburg ruler of The Low Countries and the son of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. (In theory, the Holy Roman Emperor was chief monarch of all the European monarchs as dictated by the Catholic Church.  In practice, not really an empire, not really Roman, debatably holy.) 

On paper, this seemed like a good idea. Joan was a smart girl. She and her advisors might be able to exert some influence on Phillip and his court, maybe shift them away from French influence. 

Young Joan. Perhaps pouting over the unfairness of all the blondes in the world.

But Joan and Phillip got along like a house fire: they wanted to burn each other to the ground.  You know those couples who seem to thrive on chaos? That’s Phillip and Joan: The Sid and Nancy of the Renaissance. 

Phillip was in lust with Joan.  But then, he was in lust with every pretty woman who crossed his path (especially the blondes). And Joan was obsessed with Phillip.  So whenever his attention wandered (which It always did), Joan got it back by picking a fight with  his new favorite and him by extension. Then Phillip got even  by avoiding her.   Joan would cry all night, wander around her bedroom, bump into walls. She just couldn’t accept that Phillip just wasn’t as into her as he was into partying, drinking and blondes. 

Isabella’s advisors reported back to her that Joan’s temperament isolated her from everyone at court.  Which made it unlikely that she’d be able to exert much influence.  

In the period between 1497 and 1500, Joan gave birth to a girl and a boy (Eleanor and Charles). So yay! The Low Countries have an heir and a spare!

But then Joan’s two older siblings Juan and Isabella of Aragon died, along with their children (not with each other). Then Joan’s baby brother Miguel also died, making Joan the heir to Castile, Aragon and all of their holdings (that whole Columbus discovered a new world thing).  A bit worrying to Ferdinand and Isabella that their new heir was off in Flanders, instead of under their thumb here in good old Future-Spain. 

So Isabella asked Joan to come for a visit, and bring the husband!

Joan and Phillip didn’t exactly rush to pack a bag.  First Joan waited until the birth of her next daughter.  Then she and Phillip left their children behind and headed out.  They spent some time visiting Joan’s sister Catherine in England.  Then they stopped for a visit with the French king in Blois, paused in Burgos to take in a bull fight and finally (finally) arrived in Toledo. 

Phillip hated Spain. His in-laws were stuffy and too religious, the climate was too hot, the church ceremonies were never-ending and there never seemed to be a chance for skirt chasing.  The Spanish either kept their women locked up, or chaperoned them everywhere. 

Then he got measles.  

By the time he was better, Joan was pregnant again.  Phillip had enough and decided to leave without her. 

Ferdinand and Isabella. Looking nothing like Sigourney Weaver and Armand Assante.

Joan wanted to go after Philip.  Without her around, he’d surround himself with all kinds of other women.  (Blonde women!) But Isabella worried about pregnant Joan, trying to make her way across war-torn Europe overland.  She insisted that Joan stay on and learn how to be a queen for her future kingdom.

Plus, I can’t state how emphatically Isabella hated Phillip.  They would be comparable to oil and water, but only if you lit the oil on fire. 

She was devout and religious and he was a skirt chasing drunk who barely gave lip service to the Church.  And he had considerable influence over Joan, despite how awful he treated her.  So if Joan became queen, Phillip would be the real power behind the throne.  

Maybe there was a lot of personal dislike in there as well.  After all, Phillip treated Joan badly. And Joan’s infatuation with Phillip seemed to make her crazy (like Glen Close in Fatal attraction). 

So perhaps keeping Joan in Castile would lesson Phillip’s hold on her. Whatever happened, Joan’s parents had her confined to La Mota Castle, where she slipped into depression (doctors called it lovesickness).  They hoped she’d get better once the baby was born, but she actually got worse (with what was probably postpartum depression). 

One story says that Joan tried to escape, barefoot and in her night clothes, only to find the city gates shut before her.  She threw herself against the gates until exhausted, cursing anyone who tried to restrain her. When Queen Isabella showed up, Joan cursed her as well. This is where most historians mark the beginning of the end for Joan’s freedom. 

Eventually Ferdinand and Isabella let Joan return to Flanders, but gave Phillip permission to restrain Joan if she got too crazy. 

As the saying goes, give Phillip an inch, and he’ll take a mile. Within a month he had Joan locked up for abusing the other women in his life. (Reportedly, she forced one blonde rival to cut her hair so she’d be less attractive to Phillip.) In protest of her confinement, Joan went on a hunger strike and spent her time brewing love potions. 

Phillip and Joan might’ve continued on their crazy cycle of making up, Phillip neglecting Joan, the two of them fighting, lather, rinse repeat indefinitely if not for Isabella’s death. 

Isabella wanted to keep Phillip off the throne of her country so badly that on her death bed she made a tiny change to her will.  One that said that if Joan wasn’t fit to rule, Ferdinand would do so as regent.

At that point, Joan became a political football between her husband and father, each trying to rule as regent in her place.  Back in the days before mass media, minting coins was political propaganda. You may never see your ruler in person, but you know who it is because their face is on the coins you spend. So Ferdinand had coins minted with his and Joan’s pictures as co-rulers on them. Then Phillip did the same. 

Ferdinand had the courts declare him regent, so Phillip and Joan headed to Spain to sort the matter out.  When they got there, Phillip and Ferdinand sorted it out without her.  When Joan protested, the two of them tried to have her declared Incompetent. 

Coming to a town near you.

Then Phillip died.  Joanna, mad from grief, had Phillip’s body embalmed.  According to stories she did a Weekend At Bernie’s with the body all over Spain in a truly epic farewell tour. 

Rumors say that she was so afraid of other women trying to take her husband for themselves that she traveled only at night, staying in monasteries (never nunneries).  One story says that the royal entourage had to take shelter one night due to a storm. When Joan found out that the building they sheltered in was a nunnery, she insisted on leaving. 

But the story that raised the most eyebrows is that she would stop to have the casket opened so she could caress, kiss and look at her husband’s body. 

Whether any of this is true is all up for speculation.  It’s known that she did open the casket at least once to verify that Phillip’s body was still in it. 

This ended when Ferdinand returned to Castile.  He ordered Joan confined to the Palace of Tordesillas.  Joan protested in what was probably the only way she could: she refused to bathe or eat. 

Joan spent the rest of her life confined to the same castle.  She was kept away from exterior rooms so she couldn’t escape and her guards had permission to “give her the strap” if she misbehaved. She refused to eat in anyone’s presence, so her meals of only bread and cheese were left outside her door. 


From Ferdinand’s perspective, keeping Joan confined made sense.  The nobles of Castile barely tolerated him.  Joan’s freedom would undermine his authority in Castile. rival factions could make her a figurehead in an attempt to overthrow him. Not to mention that if someone else managed to marry her (and Henry VII expressed some interest in doing just that) they could try to claim the throne for themselves. 

“How about some Matchbox 20?”

Even after Ferdinand died, Joan’s confinement continued under her son Charles.  In fact, things got worse for Joan.  Her one comfort up to this point was that she got to raise her youngest daughter Catalina. (Catherine in English. Possibly named after Joan’s sister Catherine.)  But after Charles came to power Catalina married John III of Portugal and Joan was abandoned. 

Later, during a plague outbreak, Charles told her that she needed to be kept indoors for her own safety.  He then had fake funeral processions walk past the castle several times a day to make her think the plague was as bad as he said.  

At one point, Joan had a brief taste of freedom when some rebels took the castle.  But by this point Joan was so mistrustful that she refused to deal with them or sign anything. Charles retook the castle and it was back to confinement for Joan. 

Joan died in 1555 at age 75.  By that point she had been a prisoner for nearly 50 years, was paralyzed from the waist down and suffered painful ulcers on her legs. 

So was Joan actually insane?  By today’s standards, she probably suffered from mood swings and depression.  In letters Joan wrote defending her actions, she claimed just to have a hot temper. And after being locked away from the sun and gaslighted by trusted family members for almost 50 years, anyone might go insane.

It’s probable that Joan’s insanity was exaggerated, first by her husband who hoped Isabella of Castile would let him rule in Joan’s place. Then by her father and finally by her son.  After all, would they have let her raise her daughter if she was insane?

On the other hand, Joan’s grandmother Isabella of Portugal was known to be mentally unstable, as was Joan’s sister Isabella of Aragon and many of her descendants.

 (Her son Charles was said to have suffered a mild depression when he learned that she had died, but I would take that with a grain of salt considering that they were virtual strangers to one another and Charles also had severe gout. )

So the answer is probably a little bit of both. 



It’s a Wonderful Life

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 12•16

It’s Christmastime. One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. The protagonist, George Bailey is at the end of his rope. He’s decided that everyone is better off without him. 

George gets a glimpse of what life would be like if he’d never have been born. He sees all the lives that he’d touched. And through that vision, he learns what to hold on to and what to let go of. It’s a Christmas story, not because of the religious themes or the Christmas setting, but because the glimpse of what if is a gift.

2016 has been hard, and a lot of people I know are hurting for various reasons this year. So I wanted to take a break from writing about history to send a message out into the universe in the hopes it will find the person who needs it most. 

Right now something awful has happened. And you aren’t sure how to go on from here. 

I’m sorry. I’ve been there, it stinks.  

So take the time you need for you. Cry when you feel like it. Don’t listen to people who tell you to cheer up. That you should get over it. Cry until your grief washes away with your tears and you feel hollow inside.

Then get up. Get up every time you just want to lie there. Get up when you feel like there’s no point. Get up in spite of depression, and trite platitudes and people who mean well, but say things that hurt you anyway. It’s going to be hard. But there will be moments when it gets easier. Those moments will get closer together. Then they’ll be days. 

And whether those days happen tomorrow or next week or five years from now, it’s ok to let go of the past if you want to.

Maybe you’ll always have the pain, but it will be a smaller and smaller part of you. And sooner than you think, you’ll be able to breathe around it. 

Right now you’re walking in a forest. And it’s dark all around. But it’s sunny just over the canopy. And sooner or later you’ll leave the trees behind and stand in the sun.  

From here, you’re going to go forward and make decisions. Those choices will sooner or later lead to something good. And when you look back, you’ll see that you appreciate where you are even more because of what you’ve been through now. And that you wouldn’t be where you are if not for what you’re going through now.

But take all the time you need to get there. You don’t have to start until you’re ready. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 7 Herodotus. The Michael Bay of the Classical World

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 05•16

Like Michael Bay with a beard.

Imagine if that massive solar flare that scientists worry about actually hits Earth and wipes out all electronics.  What if in 2,000 years time, the only record we have of WWII (or that WWII even happened) is the massively lucrative yet historically inaccurate film Pearl Harbor, directed by Michael Bay?

Believe it or not, something like this already happened to humanity once.  That’s because one of the few records we have of some pretty major events that happened in classical antiquity come to us from a historian named Herodotus.

Some people call Herodotus the father of history, because he’s the first person who tried to investigate and record history the way it actually happened, rather than as a really good “no !@#$, there Achilles was” story.  But others call Herodotus “the father of slanders,” because he didn’t let a lack of facts stop him from writing his historical accounts.  Not when he could make stuff up.

I’m Not Making This Up – The Titanic’s Boozy Baker

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 28•16

So what do you do if you find yourself stuck on an “unsinkable” ship going down in icy waters? You drink. And if you’re lucky, it might save your life.

As strange as it sounds, that’s what happened to the Titanic’s baker, Charles Joughin.

Joughin was off duty on the April 15, 1912 when the titanic struck the ice, but when he heard that people were evacuating the ship, he and his staff brought loaves of bread to provision the life boats, help load women and children into the boats and search out more passengers to fill empty seats. (Sometimes carrying women by force to the boats and throwing them in. Because who would want to get out into a rickety lifeboat in an icy dark ocean in the middle of the night when you could stay on that warm, unsinkable ocean liner?)

And though he was supposed to leave the ship aboard lifeboat 10, Joughin gave up his seat. Afterward, he went back to his cabin to have a stiff drink or six before the ship went down (as you do).

As people began jumping into the water and struggling to swim, Joughin left off his drinking to throw deck chairs over the side in the hopes that some of the swimmers could use them as flotation devices.

By the time the ship slid under the water, Joughin was one of the last passengers who hadn’t jumped (along with Kate and Leo). By his own account, he rode the end of the ship’s stern down into the water like an elevator and stepped into the water without getting his hair wet.

If you squint, you might see him up there.

And while typically being drunk gives you hypothermia faster while only making you think you are warmer, Joughin found his way over to Collapsable lifeboat B two hours later and hung onto the side until another life boat took him on.

Joughin eventually testified before the British Inquiry Board about the sinking, and helped Walter Lord write A Night To Remember.

If you watch almost any Titanic movie you can see Joughin there. He’s in the scene of the ship’s sinking, usually in a baker’s outfit, always either drinking or drunk and clinging to the rail.

If you see him, raise a glass in his honor: the world’s luckiest drunk.

My very spoilery review of Fantastic Beasts

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 21•16

I’ve been a fan of the wizarding world since the release of Goblet of Fire (which is about how long it took the phenomenon to reach me, as a barely-adult with no kids living in Arkansas).  But I’ve been hooked only slightly shorter on J.K. Rowling’s work than I have on Pratchett.

I think it’s partially because the work is so immersive.  It feels like if you were to leave Hogwarts, there would be a fully-realized world out there.

Fantastic Beasts let me delve into a world that I always suspected existed.

Spoilers below the space.









The movie opens with Newt Scamander, a traveling magizoologist (the magical version of a zoologist) as he arrives in New York City.  Whatever the reason for his trip, he’s quickly distracted when his niffler (klepto-platypus) gets out of his magical suitcase (which has an entire menagerie hidden inside it). While Newt is trying to retrieve the animal, he is seen by a muggle (sure, the American wizards call them No-Majs, but I’m sticking with muggle), named Jacob Kowalski. Before Newt can obliviate Jacob’s memories, Jacob takes off.  In the confusion, Jacob grabs Newt’s suitcase by mistake.  When Jacob gets home and opens the case, some of Newt’s Beasts get out.

As Newt tries to retrieve the missing beasts, his efforts are hampered by American wizarding politics.  Newt is automatically breaking the law by bringing Beasts into New York, and not registering his wand.  To make things worse, something that local aurors swear is a beast is tearing up the streets and risking exposing the wizarding world.  And a local, quasi-religious organization called the New Salem Philanthropic Society is looking to expose wizards and wipe them out.

Looming like an uneasy shadow over all of this is Grindelwald’s rise to power in Europe. (Remember him from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?) The big mystery posed at the first of this is where is Grindelwald now?


My thoughts on Fantastic Beasts. There are many.

Firstly, if you go into the movie expecting more Harry Potter, or Harry Potter the early years. You’re going to be disappointed.  This is a different beast. (see what I did there?) and it deserves to be judged on it’s own merits.

That being said, one thing I loved about the original books and movies was that they captured a sense of wonder. This movie didn’t forget that.  Early in the movie, Newt goes down into his suitcase/menagerie.  There we get to see that he’s built a work shed for himself, and a magical habitat for each of his creatures.  It’s really wonderous to behold. Remember in Goblet of Fire when Harry walks into a pup-tent only to find that the inside is bigger (TARDIS-style).  His reaction is “I love magic.”  That’s how I felt watching the suitcase menagerie scenes.


The creatures themselves are amazing.  There is a bowtruckle (which looks like a stick bug), a thunderbird which reminds me a lot of Buckbeak from Prisoner of Azkaban, an anmial called a screaming evil (which looks like a cross between a parrot, a manta ray and a yo-yo), a myrtlap (which looks like a half-naked hedgehog pig), an erumphant (which looks like a rhino with a firefly in it’s horn), a demiguise (think monkey with chameleon powers), an occamy (snake bird),  and the niffler I mentioned earlier.

These are animals that were mentioned in the Potter books, but here they are brought to life and given an amazing amount of personality, given that they’re CGI. Each beast has enough personality that I would consider them separate characters, rather than props.

And considering how much plot this movie has, the Beasts are in it just enough that they don’t overwhelm or take over.  They’re a sub-plot, but not the most important one.

Running parallel to Newt’s story is a detective story.  Newt is being chased by (and eventually aided by) a disgraced auror, Tina Goldstein. The detective story has a lot of familiar tropes in it.  Tina was an auror until she used her magic on the head of the Second Salem group and the whole group had to be obliviated.  Now she’s been busted down to the wand registry office and is eager to get her old job back.  To this end, she’s chasing Newt over his escaped animals, while at the same time trying to keep tabs on the New Salem group.

There is also a plot twist. Tina’s old boss, Graves, seems to be a follower of Grindelwald and is looking for a magic child among the New Salem kids. If a child suppresses his or her magic, the magic turns against them and becomes a dangerous creature (called an obscurus). That is the “beast” that is tearing up New York.  Graves overlooks an older, abused child, who in a twist turns out to be the magical child. The kid goes on a rampage, and the New York wizards (maybe) kill him to keep from being revealed.

At which point Graves is revealed to be Grindelwald (and he would have gotten away with it, if not for those darn meddling kids).

There are some interesting parallels between this story and book one of the Potter series. For one, Graves is Grindelwald in disguise, much the same way that Voldemort possessed professor Quirrel (presumably the real Graves is dead. Too bad. I liked Colin Farrell’s performance here.)

For another, the reveal happened right at the end.  Though thankfully without a villain monologue.

Also, Grindelwald is Johnny Depp.  Some people aren’t too happy about that, given the recent charges of domestic violence against him.  But Depp generally does well at immersing himself in weird rolls so that you get wildly different performances each time riather than the same character in every movie (looking at you, Keanu).  And he’s in it just enough that he dosen’t overwhelm the story.

Plot wise-it seems that Grindelwald took a break from world domination to find and harness the powerful magic from the obscurus.

There’s already a fan theory that Dumbledore’s little sister might have been one of these, and that’s how Grindelwald knows to go look for one, and why he’d take a break from his world-domination agenda to look for one.

I noticed from the bit of obscurus that Newt had in his suitcase, that it had some dementor-like qualities.  I wonder if that will be explored in the future.

You wouldn’t see this in a Harry Potter film.

I liked supporting characters Jacob and Queenie.  These two are very much the heart of the movie.  Jacob, being a muggle, is a sort of stand-in for us as people who haven’t seen magic outside of Hogwarts.  His introduction to wizarding is different from Harry Potter’s, in that he sees the adult side of wizarding.  Through him, we see a speakeasy, not a school.

Queenie is a legimins.  She seems particularly empathic and a little lonely.  She and Jacob have an instant connection.  In part, I think she attaches herself to Jacob because she can see enough of his thoughts to like what he sees.  Jacob tells her that there are tons of guys like him.  Given that Queenie reads every thought of any guy who looks her way, it’s a very telling statement when she says that there really isn’t another guy like him.

I love how when we see house elves and goblins, they’re using wands and the elves are wearing clothes, and no one comments on this.  Also, the backstory that is only hinted at.  The American wizards use nonverbal spells (to avoid drawing attention to what they’re doing? Because tensions post-Salem were that bad?)

And can I mention set design? Lady Liberty. The Woolworth building. The train station under City Hall. The partially finished Empire State Building. This felt like old New York.

The one thing that stung was seeing the American wizards portrayed as ‘Murcia wizards.  US Wizards (or MACUSA, as the movie calls them) hit all the eagle-land stereotypes.  (Trigger happy, bible-thumping, handing out the death penalty like Oprah hands out cars).

Although, given the time period, It’s sadly probably pretty accurate for non-wizarding American society.  We tend to forget that interracial marriage laws were still on the books in the US until 1967, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised that there were laws barring muggles and wizards from marrying.

I would have liked to think that wizards were more enlightened (given the black female president and the house elves with wands and clothes). Mainly because I’m so enamored of the wizarding world. But Rowling hasn’t ever shied away from showing that her wizards had the same all-too-human failings as the muggles. Perhaps that’s why her world feels so real. Because it’s neither utopian, nor dystopian, but feels like a reflection of our own.

At any rate, there were beasts, it was fantastic. I do recommend. Also? Finally! Thanks to Newt, we’re hopefully going to get good Hufflepuff merch.  Bring on all the hufflestuff!

I Am Not Making This Up: Tycho Brahe – The Math Guy With The Nose (and The Drunken Moose)

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 14•16

Mind you, moose bites can be nasty.

Math is not my forte. I’m more of a writing gal. But my interest in the hard sciences might have been bigger (or there at all) if I had known about rock stars like astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Who was Tycho Brahe?

Brahe lived larger than life in his own time, along the way some of his antics would make the Kardishans’s antics seem tame.  

You could say that Brahe didn’t choose the thug life (and by thug life, we mean academic life. So pretty much the opposite of thug life) but you’d be wrong. Tycho had to buck societal expectations to become a scholar.  

In the time where he lived, nobles were supposed to stay out of the sciences to give academics a chance to shine (and stop using their stardom to suck up all that sweet patron money that would otherwise go to more deserving academics). 

And maybe only Fredrick II, the king of Denmark (Tycho’s cousin) was more noble. Tycho was one of 12 kids (eight of which survived to adulthood. Not bad odds for those days). He was one of a set of twins, but his twin brother died shortly after birth. 

They’ll Never Miss One

Tycho’ childless uncle must have seen something in Brahe (or possibly, like H. I. In Raising Arizona, he just saw that his brother’s family had a lot of kids and would never miss one), because he kidnapped little two-year-old Tycho and raised him as his own. (Tycho’s own parents were strangely ok with this.)

Tycho initially studied law, (his kidnapper/uncle wanted him to go into civil service). That changed in 1560 when he was 14 and he witnessed an eclipse that had been scientifically predicted. Tycho thought that predicting an event like this was audacious, but when the prediction came true it lit a spark in him to study astronomy. (Given his later life, Tycho would know from audacious.) 

Like Batman with a secret identity, little Tycho studied law by day and astronomy at night. In 1563 he made his first recorded observation: a conjunction (when heavenly bodies line up, like “the Great Conjunction” in “The Dark Crystal.”) of Jupiter and Saturn. When Tycho consulted his books, he found that they were all inaccurate (a nice way of saying wrong) about when the conjunction should occur.

At this point, Tycho said: forget paper pushing! Imma fix this! He then devoted his life to collecting astronomical instruments, making observations and correcting existing observations.  

The Thing With The Nose

One would think that devoting yourself to a life of scholarly pursuits means that you would live a quiet life. In the case of Tycho, you’d be wrong. In 1566 while at a wedding dance of one of his professors, Tycho got into an argument with fellow student, (Also a nobleman. Also, also his third cousin.) Manderup Parsberg over a mathematical point.  

The two of them decided to settle the argument with a duel.

At night.

It didn’t go well for Tycho. He lost part of his nose and got a scar on his forehead. For the rest of his life he wore a prosthetic nose. Stories say that it was made of silver or gold, but when Tycho’s body was exhumed in 2010, scientists determined that his everyday nose was made of brass (though he might have had a fancy dress nose made of precious metals and jewels). 

Tycho must not have held the loss of his nose against Parsberg, because the two men eventually became good friends. 

The Matter Of Family

The remainder of Tycho’s life would be a balance between seeking funding and providing for his family. The problem was that he fell in love with a member of the common classes (Kirsten Jørgensdatter, the daughter of a Lutheran minister). Under Danish law, if they married he would lose his status. 

The two had a morganatic marriage, which was similar to a common law marriage. This allowed Tycho to remain a member of the ruling class, but wouldn’t change his wife’s status or allow his children to inherit. (They had eight kids. Six of whom lived to adulthood. Again, good odds for the time.) Because most of Tycho’s family disapproved, they weren’t inclined to help the kids out if Tycho died.

Tycho inherited from his parents and his uncle (who died from pneumonia after saving King Frederick II of Denmark from drowning).  

The King of Denmark, Fredrick II, was also a patron of Tycho’s. At one point Tycho controlled about 1% of all the wealth in Denmark. This included his own island estate, complete with castle. Here he would build two observatories and a research institute.

He also used the island estate to build several industries, including a paper mill to print and distribute his scientific findings. 

But life wasn’t all sober scientific inquiry for Tycho and his family. He spent part of his fortune employing a little person psychic named Jepp. Because: why not?

Jepp functioned as a court jester. During meals, his job was to sit under the table, and talk “incessantly” while Tycho threw him table scraps.

The Drunk Moose

Tycho also kept a pet moose (in some accounts, an elk). In a letter to his mentor, Landgrave Willhelm of Hesse-Kassel, Tycho wrote about his pet moose.

His pet moose. 

The moose lived in the castle, trotted along beside Tycho’s carriage like a dog and liked to drink Danish beer. 

Willhelm responded by asking to trade Tycho the moose for a horse. To which Tycho replied that sadly, the moose died. The astronomer had loaned it out to a nobleman in Landskrona for a party. During the party, the moose got wasted, fell down some stairs and died. 

I don’t know whether to blame this on eccentric nobles or eccentric scientists.

Through his court contacts, Tycho got King Frederick II to agree to allow his heirs to inherit his property. Unfortunately Tycho outlived his king. The King’s son, Christian IV didn’t support the sciences the way his father had.  

Tycho gradually lost favor at court and entered exile. Two years later Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor offered patronage to Tycho, which prompted him to move his household to Prague. 

The move worked out well for Tycho’s family. For the first time they were treated like nobility, and after Tycho’s death they were allowed to inherit his property. 

In Prague Tycho collaborated with the not-yet-famous Johannes Kepler. Despite this, Tycho kept most of his research to himself. Over the years he’d had students and assistants try to steal his work and pass it off as their own.  

His fears weren’t unfounded. Part of why we know Kepler’s name is that after Tycho’s death, Kepler (by his own admission) stole Tycho’s notes and built on them for his own groundbreaking work. Kepler wouldn’t have had access to those notes if not for Tycho’s death.

His Weird Death

Tycho’s death was just as memorable as his nose and the drunk Moose. In 1601 he attended a banquet in Prague. During the banquet he refused to get up to go to the bathroom because he didn’t want to be rude. So instead he very politely contracted a bladder infection that prevented him from urinating, and died of a ruptured bladder. 

In 1901, scientists exhumed Tycho’s remains. They found high levels of mercury, which led to rumors that Tycho might have been poisoned. Suspects included cohorts of Christian IV (to cover up an alleged affair between Tycho and the Dowager Queen of Denmark) and Kepler (for access to Tycho’s notes).

In 2010 Tycho was re exhumed and scientists found that there wasn’t enough mercury (or any poison) to have killed him. The mercury, they concluded, could have come from alchemy experiments. This . . Er . . . Buried the murder theories.