Is the Theory of Shakespeare As Pot Aficionado Mostly Stems and Seeds?

The Internet has a long memory, but a short attention span.

Over the last few days, news sites across the globe have published stories about the seemingly new revelations that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot. These stories have flowed out of a piece published in The Independent over the weekend by Dr. Francis Thackeray, chair of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand.

In his essay, Thackeray talks about a study he conducted of clay pipe fragments found in the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Under gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer, several of the samples showed traces of cannabis. Combined with what Thackeray interprets as veiled references to cannabis in Sonnet 76 (“invention in a noted weed”), indicates to him possible proof that Shakespeare “preferred cannabis as a weed with mind-stimulating properties.”

It’s understandable why the story has gone viral: between our growing comfort with marijuana use and the sense that all great artists are badass rebels who use drugs and alcohol as fuel for their mental fire, it’s the perfect story.

In fact, it was the perfect story when Thackeray first published these findings in 2001. And again in 2011, when he was trying to win approval to exhume Shakespeare and his family to test their hair and nails for cannabis use. Shakespeare, Stoner is always news.


But once the subversive thrill and munchies jokes run their course, how much is there to Thackeray’s theory?

He and his colleagues formulated their hypothesis about Shakespeare’s cannabis use in the late 1990s based primarily on Sonnet 76. By 2000, they had won permission to test pipe fragments collected from sites around Stratford-upon-Avon, including the “New Place,” the home Shakespeare and family shared with son-in-law Dr. John Hall. All fragments shared the appearance of clay pipes popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, although they were not specifically dated.

Chemical analysis turned up a dazzling array of compounds: nicotine, myristic acid, cocaine, quinoline, camphor, pyrene, phenol, toluene, borneol, cinnamaldehyde, vanillin. “Unequivocal evidence for *Cannabis* have not been obtained,” the report continued, but traces of chemicals were “suggestive” of it. They were convinced it was there, even if they couldn’t clearly see it.

Their analysis expanded the picture of Elizabethan smoking habits. Nicotiana, tobacco flowing in from the New World, was prevalent. Camphor and other compounds were added to mask the acrid smell. That was expected.

But there were some genuine surprises: the presence of cocaine showed that they were smoking coca leaves. Myristic acid, from the nutmeg family, has known hallucinogenic properties. Quinoline comes from the South American Cinchona plant and was used by the Spanish to treat malaria, but this was the first proof it was also used by the English. The presence of cannabis, by comparison, was relatively unsurprising. Hemp was a major crop in England, and cannabis satvia abounded. It had been in England since Anglo-Saxon times; people surely knew what it did.

Thackeray admits that none of this puts the bong in Shakespeare’s mouth. Other people lived in that household during the period these pipe would have been in use.

His textual evidence is equally slim. Scholars generally agree Sonnet 76 is a lament that his writing has become repetitive and lacks innovation, making him feel incapable of speaking his love. They interpret the line “And keep invention in a noted weed” as meaning “keeping creativity in familiar clothing,” staying within his literary comfort zone. His use of “weed” or “weeds’ almost always referred to clothing, and while Shakespeare was ahead of his time, “weed” as an analog for marijuana didn’t enter the English lexicon until over 300 years after his death.

“Shakespeare never mentions pipes, tobacco, or smoking anywhere in his poems or plays, in contrast with Edmund Spenser and other writers of the period,” scholar Stephen Greenblatt told Harvard Magazine the first time this story broke back in 2001. “Alcohol is a much more likely stimulant for Shakespeare’s imagination, and even that is probably unimportant.”

Many historians would shy away from hanging so much on so little evidence. But Thackeray is a paleoanthropologist by trade, used to extrapolating the origins of humanity from fragmentary data. It’s not surprising he would request access to Shakespeare’s remains in the belief that the truth is there in hair and bone, and it has to be a source of frustration to be denied access. The Church of England is unlikely to allow the Bard’s bones to be disrupted in the name of science.

Which is how Shakespeare would want it. The inscription carved on his tombstone seems eerily like a shout-out to the Thackerays of the world:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.



Hit the Road, Jack: Jack the Ripper Museum Hits Some Bumps On the Way To Opening Day

The planned opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum in London’s East End was delayed this week as more than 200 protestors showed up on what was to be its inaugural day. Meanwhile, the story around the development of the project, originally proposed as a women’s history museum, grows curiouser and curiouser.

Architects at Waugh Thisleton now say they were “duped” by museum owner Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe.

“They came to us and said they had no money but that this is a real heart-felt project,” director Andrew Waugh tells Building Design. “It is incredibly important to celebrate women in politics in the East End. We really ran with it….It’s a complicated scheme as we had to design a museum with full disabled access in what essentially is a terraced house in east London.”

Their plans were submitted the Tower Hamlets Council in July 2014 and approved in October. Waugh Thisleton did not hear from Palmer-Edgecumbe again and they were as surprised as the Tower Hamlets Council to see what emerged when the wrapping came off the Cable Street facade. It is, Waugh says, “salacious, misogynist rubbish.”

Was there ever going to be a Museum of Women?


But Palmer-Edgecumbe incorporated Jack the Ripper Museum Limited in March 2012 and dissolved it March 2014, and a deleted (but cached) page from the new museum’s website says he had wanted to do this since 2008, when he served as Chairman of the Museum of the Docklands during their Ripper exhibition. It was clearly not an idea that just spontaneously came to him as the project developed.

In December 2014, a group of items belonging to London Police Constable Edward Watkins, the officer who discovered the body of victim Catherine Eddowes on the night of September 29, 1888, were set for auction. Watkins’ truncheon, handcuffs, notepad, and whistle were expected to bring in about £2,400. Instead, they went for an eye-popping £17,700. The buyer was anonymous, but auction officials at the time told the BBC that the individual planned to put the items in a private museum.

These four items seem to form the core of the new attraction: Watkins’ discovery of Catherine Eddowes is a waxwork tableau in one exhibit and the items themselves are displayed in the “Police Room.” A pretty good showing for a man whose sole contribution to the case was finding the body and testifying to the discovery at the coroner’s inquest.

The Ripperology community was as surprised by the museum as everyone else. Given the exhibit focus on Catherine Eddowes, many first thought that this had to be the work of Russell Edwards, who last year claimed to have solved the mystery through DNA testings of Eddowes’ shawl, worn on the night of her murder. (The DNA sequencing has since been proven faulty.) Palmer-Edgecumbe is unknown in Ripper circles.

Clips from news reports filmed inside the museum have raised some eyebrows among longtime Ripperologists. There’s little evidence, for example, to support the claim that they have “the actual whistle Police Constable Watkins blew to call for help,” or indeed that Watkins even blew his whistle that night.

More worryingly, a photo identified as victim Mary Jane Kelly is actually a portrait of a woman one historian (wrongly) accused of being the Ripper – a rather large curatorial error for a museum holding itself out as the first to tell the story of the Ripper victims.

The photo said to be Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly is actually a photo of Ripper suspect Lizzie Williams. WIlliams was named - without much evidence - as the Ripper in a 2012 book.

The photo said to be Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly is actually a photo of Ripper suspect Lizzie Williams. Williams was named – without much evidence – as the Ripper in a 2012 book.

Palmer-Edgecumbe remains implacable in the face of criticism. He didn’t mislead anyone. “The full name of the museum is ‘The Jack the Ripper and the History of Women in East London’,” he told website Londonist. “The frontage is not finished and still in the planning stage.”

The museum will open quietly as the fuss dies down. If it dies down.

Murdered Prostitutes Are Just More Interesting Than Live Activists

Last year, a developer submitted a plan for a new museum in London’s East End. The idea was to take a derelict storefront on Cable Street, just a couple blocks from the Tower of London, and turn it into the UK’s first women’s history museum.

The idea was to “recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day.”

But as the Tower Hamlets council learned this week when the coverings came off the renovated facade, the project had winnowed down from the full history of the women of the East End to just five women.

Behold the Jack The Ripper Museum.

“We did plan to do a museum about social history of women,” developer Mark Palmer-Edgcumbe told the Evening Standard, “but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.”

Logo of the Jack the Ripper Museum featuring man in shadows walking through pool of blood

Source: Jack The Ripper Museum

When an attraction features a logo of a silhouetted man walking through a large pool of blood, you can pretty much bet that it’s a “museum” in the same way a carnival freak show is an “anthropological exhibit.”

According to their mobile website, once you’ve plunked down your £12 adult admission fee, on the first floor, you’ll see “waxwork figures” of Catherine Eddowes being discovered by Police Constable Watkins under a street light, with a nearby workers’ cart like the type used “to move the bodies of the murdered women to the morgue,” and a “replica” of the original graffiti (presumably the phrase “The Juews are the men that will not be blamed for nothing”) found near the murder site.

Other exhibits include the “Ripper’s Sitting Room” – never mind that we have no idea who the killer was, and thus no clue if he had a sitting room or lived in a squalid rental like his victims. You’ll get to see that, too, in the “Victim’s Bedroom,” featuring a small bed with a straw mattress, a bottle of gin, “rare” photos of the victims, and collection of Victorian era bonnets, which, the site helpfully explains, “would have been worn by women to cover their hair, which would have rarely been washed.”

The really good stuff is in the basement “Mortuary,” and if you’re under 16, sorry, no admittance. The scene is a parish mortuary room, but the centerpiece of the exhibit are the “original autopsy photos of the horrific murders.”  The site asks that visitor “please view these with discretion and respect for the victims” whose naked, plundered bodies they themselves are exploiting for profit.

Mark Palmer-Edgcumbe, former Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Google’s European, Middle East, and African division, responded to criticism: “It is absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.”

Think about that statement for a moment.

Why and how the women got in that situation in the first place. As blogger Sian Norris writes “[B]ecause that’s how fatal male violence works, right? Women get themselves into these situations where men kill us. The men, well…let’s not give them any agency in this one instance, how about it?”  Of the 39 women murdered in London in 1888, just eight were prostitutes. The remaining 31 were, mostly, housewives. During the Victorian era, eight out of 10 female homicide victims were killed by their husbands or partners. Where’s the “museum” looking at that?

Absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper. No, of course they’re not saying yay! the violent serial murder of prostitutes is great! They’re just saying that it’s, you know, interesting. Fallen women. A mystery to be solved. A much easier story to tell than the seething mass of bomb-throwing suffragettes and Marxist agitators and striking factory girls that constitute the full picture of East End women. And more likely to bring in a profit from some of the two million tourists that flow through the nearby Tower of London.

The world is awash in tacky tourist attractions tarted up as vaguely “educational.” This monstrosity is probably not the tipping point.

But it’s still obscene. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, Mary Jane Kelly. No matter how many decades pass, they still can’t get free of their killer. He defines them. His bloody work is always on display for the world to see.

Love and Cake: The True(?) Story of the First Tiered Wedding Cake

Anyone who has ever glanced at Pinterest has seen them: wedding cakes, stacked three or four tiers high, layered in fondant and buttercream and marzipan, decked out with flowers and flourishes. Classic or “creative,” it’s the confectionary centerpiece of the modern bride’s special day.

Most wedding books give at least an abbreviated history of the wedding cake, from grim little oat cakes thrown at brides to bestow fertility, to the stacks of small cakes and biscuits heaped on tables to signify marital prosperity, to horrifying concoction of the “bride’s pie,” stuffed with oysters, cockscombs, lambs’ testicles, sweetbreads, and spices.

The story of the tiered wedding cake is usually told like this:

Is this the inspiration for the modern wedding cake? St. Bride's, London, built in 1703

Is this the inspiration for the modern wedding cake? St. Bride’s, London, built in 1703

Sometime in the 18th Century, a baker’s apprentice in London fell in love with his master’s daughter, and in an effort to treat her (and impress his master) he found inspiration for an elaborate tiered cake made in shape of the magnificent stacked spire of nearby St. Bride’s Church. The master approved, the daughter approved, the couple married, and the modern wedding cake was born.

As with most simple stories about love and cake, the real tale involved more steps and probably involved a lot more tears. And a few bottles of brandy.

William Rich – our putative Baker’s Apprentice – was born in Tetbury, Gloucestershire in March 1753, and came to London in 1767 at the age of 14. His father paid £20 to apprentice him to William Stiles “Citizen and Cook of London by Trade a Cook and Pastry Cook and Living on Ludgate Hill” for the normal period of seven years. Stiles was likely related to the Rich family through marriage, but no matter how the arrangement came about, he was an excellent choice. He’d been in the business for a decade and was a rising star in the Worshipful Company of Cooks, the livery company overseeing the trade.

Rich seems to have passed through his apprenticeship without a hitch, and by 1777, the 23-year old was himself a “Citizen and Cook of London by trade,” member of the Worshipful Company of Cooks, and had an apprentice of his own. His establishment was located on Ludgate Hill, close to Fleet Street.

In 1776, he married 21-year old Susannah Prichard. Here, one major detail of the story falls away: Susannah was not his master’s daughter. He had no master by then, and she was the daughter of Davis Prichard, a barber with a shop on nearby Gutter Lane. They married at the Church of Saint Matthew on Friday Street. Like nearby St Paul’s Cathedral and St. Bride’s on Fleet Street, Saint Matthews was designed by the great architect Christopher Wren – but it was the “smallest and cheapest” of his churches, devoid of flourishes.

Did the young groom make a fantasy cake for his bride? Maybe. Their wedding in modest Saint Matthews, however, points to a young couple that might not have had the money for an extravagant wedding feast.

It’s much more likely that Rich made a tiered cake as a special order for a customer at some point after 1776, after he had built a clientele that could afford the statement of a one-of-a-kind cake. His shop on Ludgate Hill was within sight of St. Bride’s, topped by Wren’s soaring 234-foot spire, and it would have made the obvious model. There’s no clear record of the cake, but chances are it was a fruitcake soaked in brandy and covered in frosting made from sugar and egg whites.

William and Susannah were married for 34 years and had 12 children, six of whom lived to adulthood. They spent most of their life there on Ludgate Hill. Susannah died in November of 1810 at age 52; he followed a few weeks later in January of 1811 at age 57. Appropriately, they were buried in the churchyard at St. Bride’s.

The tiered wedding cake didn’t catch on until the Victorian Era, decades after Rich’s death. As with most wedding trivia, the details are murky: some sources say they were popularized by a display at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851, others cite the wedding of Victoria’s son, Leopold, in 1882. Like St. Bride’s spire, they’ve been pushing skyward ever since.

St. Bride's from the Thames, 1815

St. Bride’s from the Thames, 1815

Mayor Versus Museum: Harrisburg Battles Over Fate of National Civil War Museum

The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA

As the nation-at-large debates the removal of Confederate flags and monuments across the Deep South, on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, a Civil War museum finds itself in a very different battle for survival.

This fight is not so much about history as cold, hard cash.

Eric Papenfuse, mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has set his political guns on the city’s National Civil War Museum, which, depending on your perspective, is a either multi-million dollar boondoggle strangling the economic life out of the financially ailing capital city, or a model educational facility that gives voice and form to the experience of the American Civil War.

Stephen Reed, Harrisburg’s mayor from 1984 to 2010, conceived of the museum as a way to to revitalize the city’s moribund tourism base in the mid-1990. The $32 million National Civil War Museum opened its doors in February 2001.

How Reed stocked and financed the museum is just part of the 499-count fraud indictment recently handed down by a grand jury. If convicted on all counts, he could receive a sentence of up to 2,439 years.

Calling the museum a “monument to corruption” that costs the City millions of tax dollars each year while paying just $1 a year in rent, Mayor Papenfuse has used the Reed indictment to demand the museum dissolve and turn the whole kit and caboodle back to the City.

Papenfuse’s insistence that the museum hand over both building and assets seems to be the option least likely to produce a profit for the City of Harrisburg.

This is no roadside shack featuring some mason jars filled with old minié balls and a few dusty dioramas. It’s a modern museum, with legitimate artifacts and up-to-date multimedia displays and a full roster of lectures and public events. It has the imprimatur of the Smithsonian and the more than two dozen Civil War scholars signed on the Advisory Board. It’s brought in 750,000 visitors since it opened in 2001, with an annual record of 42,000 in 2014.

Even if the museum board were willing to commit sacrificial suicide, the costs associated with untangling arcane bond and tax issues, the deaccessioning and appraisal of the collection, and the gutting and rebuilding of the interior for municipal use or sale would almost certainly cost more than the City could hope to recoup. If they fight, which seems inevitable, it could further run up the City’s bill in legal costs.

A more sensible approach would be to negotiate a steady increase in rent, pegged to benchmarks across several fiscal years. Or to build in penalties for failure to meet budget or attendance goals. If closure is indeed the only option, it should take place over a period of time that allows the collection to be deaccessioned and sold off in a responsible way.

A prime argument against the museum boils down to location, location, location. For Papenfuse and his supporters, Harrisburg wasn’t historically significant enough during the Civil War to make it a “destination” like Gettysburg, forty miles to the south. Putting aside fact that most tourism traffic from the Northeast passes through Harrisburg on the way to Gettysburg, making it an easy stop for people coming and going from the battlefield, it comes down to how you frame “significance.”

Gettysburg actually wouldn’t be historically significant were it not for Harrisburg. The capture of Harrisburg was one of Robert E. Lee’s major goals when his army crossed into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania soldiers trained there at Camp Curtin. As a major railroad hub just 80 miles north of the Virginia border, it was a key pipeline for men and materiel into the war zone. The Union’s ability to mobilize their resources was a critical – if less exciting – aspect of their ultimate victory.

The irony is that this could be the National Civil War Museum’s moment to shine. As we strive to move past a public history focused on and in the South rather than a truly national trauma, a museum in the North that focuses equally on the experiences of soldiers and civilians on both sides, on African-Americans both slave and free, is something we should be supporting, not taking apart.

Read More:

Board Chairman: National Civil War Museum Unlikely To Close

Stephen Reed Connection Aside, National Civil War Museum Doesn’t Deserve Blame, Readers Say