History from
the Bottom Up

Margin Notes from a Master

Paget_holmesAs a kid, I loved detective stories. My favorites were Agatha Christie (I can’t wait to read this new bookabout poisons in Agatha Christie stories). I also devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Both Christie and Conan Doyle were not just excellent writers—they were both excellent chemists. It was their stories that sparked my lifelong fascination with poison.

So I was thrilled to discover this award-winning articleat the Baker Street Journal website written by Harold Billings. While a librarian at the University of Texas, Austin, Billings acquired a medical textbook called The Essentials of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, written by Sir Alfred Baring Garrod. The copy is signed Arthur Conan Doyle/Edinburgh University/1878–79.

Conan Doyle was a doctor. He got his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1881. Virtually every page of the book is heavily underlined and annotated in Doyle’s hand.

In one of his margin notes, Conan Doyle describes the effects of arsenic poisoning. Billings points out that it’s written with strange line breaks and punctuated as though in verse. (Conan Doyle does this with other poisons throughout the book.) He conjectures that the verse form may simply have been Conan Doyle amusing himself, or perhaps that he was writing it as a mnemonic device so that he could remember the symptoms. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the most evocative descriptions of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning I’ve seen.

Slow Arsenic Poisoning Vomiting—plenty of stools
Pain in the stomach & bowels
Pulse Wiry. Forehead feels stuffy
Eyes are red and are puffy,
The Last of the symptoms may seem a, Slight one, and that is eczema.

Wellcome Images

Wellcome Images

Keeping the Wolf at Bay

Back in medieval times, most of the northern parts of Europe, and big swaths of the British Isles, were covered with dense forest. So close encounters with wolves were quite common. Packs of wolves could—and did—attack grazing livestock, and sometimes people. As a result, they were greatly feared.

A medieval bestiary has this advice if a wolf should surprise a person unexpectedly, and it has some real modern-day applications. Stay with me, here.

First off, should you see a wolf, you will most probably be rendered mute—that is, you’ll lose … Read more

Scarred for Life

I find the coolest stuff doing image research. Often it has nothing to do with the book I’m researching at the moment, but it’s what makes my job so awesome. Case in point: I stumbled across this portrait of the composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck, (1714 -1787) by the painter Joseph Duplessis, painted around 1775. And I was amazed—are those smallpox scars on his face?Smallpox was the scourge of the eighteenth century, and vast numbers of people who managed to survive the disease were scarred with pitted … Read more

That’s Classic

This is poison hemlock, or Conium maculatum.  Its leaves look a lot like flat-leaf parsley, don’t they? That similarity was unfortunate for one man, a Scottish tailor named Duncan Gow. In 1845 his children made him a sandwich for his lunch using what they thought was wild parsley. (My warped mind turns straight to–when was the last time all three of my children got together to make ME a sandwich? And would they ever in a million years think to add parsley to it?? But I digress.)

The “wild parsley” turned out to be poison hemlock, and Gow … Read more

Motor Trends

I just stumbled across a fascinating book called The Woman and The Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor by Dorothy Levitt, written in 1909 (and available on Google Books here).

It’s worth a click through, but here are some highlights. In the chapter called “The All-Important Question of Dress,” the author shares the following tips:
I would advise shoes rather than boots as they give greater freedom to the ankles and do not tend to impede … Read more

Happy Holidays!


Happy Holidays! As today is the official first day of Chanukah, I have decided today is the perfect day to begin my holiday blogging break. I’ll be away for the next couple of weeks, because I have a book to finish (and a new one to start), but will resume my regularly-scheduled blogging on January 4th. Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to all.

Bark Like an Egyptian

Thinking of acquiring a new dog? In a past blog, I helpfully provided you with suggestions for what to name it, based on a medieval hunting manual. Today, I provide you with further suggestions, this time based on what ancient Egyptians named their dogs.

Here is a list*:
Good Herdsman
One Who is Fashioned as an Arrow
First, Second, Third, Fourth, (etcetera)
She of the Town
I’m wondering if some of these lost a bit of pizzazz … Read more

Back in the Saddle

This is my son Sam.This is Napoleon:What do they have in common, besides a predilection for tight pants? (To be fair, Sam’s are made of Lycra and he wears them under his uniform.) On Wednesday, Sam woke up with foot pain, after having played in a game the previous night. Conveniently, his Uncle Jamie arrived just a few hours later for Thanksgiving. Uncle Jamie is a top-ranked orthopedic surgeon from Portland, Maine. Jamie set up his examination room in … Read more


Hello, friends, I’m off tomorrow to Minneapolis and the annual NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) convention. Here’s where I’ll be Friday afternoon at 4 pm:And here’s where to find me on Saturday, at 9:30 am:

Hope to see some of you there!

More Author-izing

In the past week I’ve visited four cities, attended two book festivals, given three talks, and conducted eight writing workshops. I love my job.

Last Friday I attended the American Association of School Librarians in Columbus, Ohio. My fellow nonfiction author, Loree Griffin Burns, and I co-presented a talk about research called To the Library .  . . And Beyond!

Me and Loree

I then hopped into a car and drove from Columbus to Rochester, New York, where I attended the amazing Rochester Children’s Book … Read more

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