Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Crusader Epidemic at Antioch

Today’s epidemic is unique in that we don’t know what disease it actually was.

It could have been typhoid, a disease we haven’t covered yet. Fun facts about typhoid: some people aren’t affected (a la “Typhoid Mary), it is a bacterial infection called Salmonella serotype Typhi (a cousin of yer basic salmonella), and humans are the only animals who transmit it. We can’t blame typhoid on rats, bats, cats, or corpses. Typhoid is on us.

What we know about today’s plague is that it was part of the Crusades, one of the more bewilderingly stupid things people have gotten involved in (IMHO).

A whole lot of misguided, French-speaking people attacking the city of Antioch in 1097. Note the guys who get smaller as they go up a ladder, looking more like Little Cats A, B, and C in The Cat In The Hat Comes Back (below).
Little Cats A, B, and C, and if you haven’t read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, please do! It’s superior to the original!

The First Crusade was from 1095 to 1099. At Antioch, Seljuk Turks ran the city, and Crusaders (French ones) appeared wanting to take it from them. Mind you, there were people who were Muslim and people who were Christian living in the city, but no one really gave a shit about that.

The Crusaders were disappointed because the Antioch was bigger and better defended than they had imagined. They spent the winter of 1097-98 hungry, cold, and wet, while waiting to attack. Some soldiers sneaked off, which to me seems wise.

Then surprise! The Crusaders finally attacked, in June. They won!

Getting in! Hooray! We have Antioch now! Let’s kill everyone! Oh, damn, some of them were Christians.

A couple of days later, this guy Kerbogha, a Turk, showed up and laid siege to Antioch. The Crusaders had been locked out and suffering. Now they were locked in and suffering.

In, and being attacked from without! Crusaders have swapped places with the Turks. Great. That solves everything.

It all looked pretty bad for the old Crusaders, until someone found… THE LANCE USED IN THE CRUCIFIXION.

I wish there were anything, anything, I could find and be inspired by the way people were inspired by THE LANCE USED IN THE CRUCIFIXION.

Accept no imitations: The Amazing Lance TM

I’m not even being snarky here. I have some dirt from the banks of the Mississippi, from Hannibal, dirt endorsed by Mark Twain, and some dirt from Kurt Vonnegut’s yard in Iowa City. I believe in that dirt. I might believe in a cocktail shaker used by FDR.

Anyway they were psyched. They busted out of Antioch and beat Kerbogha’s army.

This seemed like good news.

Just kidding, now they get sick. It was hot, they were hungry, and more and more people got sick.

Around 30 or 40 people died each day. Women were especially vulnerable, women including the wives and sex workers and servants of Crusaders.

As with many diseases back in the day, they didn’t know what to do, so they just had to wait. They sat and watched survival of the fittest do its horrifying work on people with names and faces and laughs and private jokes.

They spent the summer and fall and half of winter being picked off by (probably) typhoid.

Some of the troops were bored, and thus went to attack other nearby cities. They brought their disease with them. Ugh.

About six months after they had won Antioch, the Crusaders convinced Raymond of Toulouse to to head on to Jerusalem, where surely everything would improve and only glory and happiness awaited them. Right?

There are other sieges and diseases related to the Crusades, so maybe we’ll revisit this time in history later on. As stupid as the Crusades seem, they do leave us with a lot of illustrations and paintings that I aesthetically enjoy.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Haaninin Smallpox Epidemic of 1869

A Haaninin curator, Joe Horse Capture, at a show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. the exhibit included the pictured piece, which was made by his grandfather.

Let’s go to America.

This is our first entry about people indigenous to the Americas suffering a disease outbreak. Honestly, I’m afraid that people cared so little that most of this suffering went unrecorded.

So let’s remember the “Gros Ventre” Indian Smallpox Epidemic of 1869. I’m going to refer to them as the “Haaninin” people, as that is one of the ways we spell what they called themselves. (There are many spellings, I just picked one.)

The Haaninin people had lived near the Great Lakes for maybe 3,000 years.

They moved to Montana in the early 1700s, apparently after another tribe hassled them. East coast native people were already getting pushed west, and they pushed others.

In 1793, they attacked a Hudson Bay trading post because their enemies were trading for guns there.

Squaw Dance number 2 by New Bear, a Gros Ventre artist.

The Haaninin had been called “Gros Ventre” by French dummies. The native people were miming a waterfall, the way it goes over, and because their hands were near their bellies, the French guys thought they were miming a fat belly and Fat Belly they became (in French).

They called themselves “White Clay People,” which is, dare I say, a much better name for a group, unless your group is a new wave French dad band.

Their flag.

For who knows how long, the people of the Haaninin group had put their dead in trees. Why? I don’t know, why do we inject ours full of horrific toxins? It’s what they did. When you do this with your smallpox dead, it causes a problem.

And honestly, the way this particular story goes, I can’t slam white people as I’d like to. It is believed that this smallpox round was caused by one of the Haaninin digging up a white person’s body to get his clothes. That was a bad idea, but who could blame them? I would advise them to rob dead white people at every opportunity.

Mary, a Gros Ventre woman, almost a decade before the smallpox outbreak we’re discussing. She looks like she doesn’t suffer fools, but this could be due to the annoyingness of getting your photo taken in 1880.

The ship Utah, on the Milk River in Montana, had white people and smallpox aboard. They lost a few crew members, buried them by the river, and sailed on. Some Haaninin came upon the mound and were like, hmm. They got the guy uncovered and took his clothes and went on their way. Their way was back to their camp near Fort Bellknap.

Here’s where the tables turn: the Haaninin weren’t the only grave robbers around. White people would take the Haaninin’s clothes off of their bodies, and get those smallpox virus.

It was not a circle of life, but a circle of grave robbing.

Grave robbing is a bad idea in general, even though 99% of the corpses you might meet are perfectly safe, it’s that 1% that get you.

Warrior, early 1900s. He reminds me of Snoop Dogg.

Our encyclopedia notes that about 1,500 Haaninins (about half their number) were killed by smallpox. As with all smallpox cases, people who survived might be blind or disfigured.

In 1888, the U.S. government stole 17,500,000 acres from the Haaninin, and they’ve been making due in a smaller area, still in Montana, ever since.

A little more about the group we’re looking at today: though they’ve been abused by white people for many years, the Haaninin have maintained two of their sacred items, the Feathered Pipe and the Flat Pipe. And in 2012, 63 bison were released in their area. They were happy to have bison back.

Ms Lamebull.

Last fun fact about this group: their most famous member might be Theresa Elizabeth Chandler White Weasel Lamebull, a member of the Haaninin and the oldest native American to have their age noted in white people’s official history books. She helped teach her native language and preserve it, up until she was 109.

Her Indian name was “Kills At Night.”

She was thought to have been 111 years old when she died, in 2007. A building in their area was named in her honor. Do you want to go to classes at the Kills At Night Center? I really do.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

“The Triumph of Death,” Italian artwork from 1485 demonstrating that with the right attitude, mortality can be fun.

Florence Plague of 1417

Now that’s what I call a plague!

When I thought pandemic, I thought Europe, olden times, and complete ignorance of how diseases spread.

If you’ve been waiting for a CLASSIC plague, this one’s for you.

Florence has five entries in my Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. If it’s warm and you’ve got trade, diseases are going to find you.

This particular “plague” was of two persuasions: pneumonic and bubonic.

I want to put an “L” in bubonic. But apparently there isn’t one.

15th century image of a “doctor” “helping” a plague sufferer, though why he thought a penknife to the neck would help, I’ll leave it to you to speculate. Man at left showing off his impressive BO. At right, devil wearing his pteradactyl costume.

Pneumonic plague made you cough up blood and die within hours. Bubonic plague, though it sounds worse, gave you a whole 1-5 days to sort out your business. Your odds of dying of bubonic plague were 65%. While you waited to see if your body could repair itself and limp onward, you would grow buboes on your groin, armpit, or neck. According to the Encyclopedia, the buboes “varied in size from a walnut to a grapefruit.”

The Black Death in 1347 was The Plague to Beat. Europeans were already acquainted with plague, and while the 1417 round wasn’t as bad as 1347, it wasn’t any fun.

Florence lost about 4,000 people, or 10% of its population.

Italians and pasta are as one, though not literally.

They had problems dealing with the dead, much as we did during the height of covid-19. A woman of the time reported that bodies were often not buried properly, but rather the gravediggers were merely “sprinkling dirt over them, like cheese between layers of lasagna.”

We know more about disease in Florence because Florence’s Grain Office maintained a record of the dead. The Grain Office ended up keeping these records because they needed to know how many Florentines there were to distribute grain, and they also were given the duty of enforcing sumptuary laws. That is, times when someone or something was sumptuous.

That’s kind of what sumptuary laws were. Someone had to ask gravediggers if funerals were too fancy. The Grain Office was in the business of keeping track of such things.

Giovanni de Medici, when you start talking about crypto currency at happy hour.

When do we get to hear about a Medici? I hear you asking. Here’s our Medici: Giovanni di Bicci, a.k.a. de Medici.

Giovanni got richer than Warren Buffett in the banking industry, and basically founded the Medicis are you learned of them in school. Giovanni insisted his kids dress and act like regular people. He didn’t want too much attention, and he wanted the people of Florence to not hate them, even though they were rich. He also acted like he didn’t care about praise or popularity. Maybe he didn’t.

Giovanni de Medici: even though he’s filthy rich, his lower back hurts, man.

For his time, he was definitely a lefty. In 1426 he voted for a property tax which was going to fall very heavily on his assets.

He used some of his vast resources to help during the plague of 1417. I really tried to find more detail about this, but I failed. So let’s imagine he sent every household a frozen casserole and a bottle of wine. That’s what I’d like from a Medici if I had the plague.

He lived to be 69 years old, which was, in that era, was great luck. His children ruled Tuscany and Florence for a long time, to mixed results. There were going to be two more major outbreaks of plague for them to deal with.

But that’s for another day.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Manila in 1901. Note the people with the scale-like two bucket carriers. That seems smart. But I’ve never tried it.

Philippine Beriberi Epidemic of 1901-1902 and 1909

We’ve got a new disease today!

Beriberi. To me it sounds like someone talking to a kid in a wubba wubba voice, “Is that your bearie-wearie?”

But no. Beriberi is one of those nasties that led our government to start spraying our cereals and pastas and breads and rice with a vitamin. In this case, B1, or thiamin. When I see all those complicated words on my cereal box, I tend to be annoyed, but perhaps I should shut up, because I have never had (and likely never will have) beriberi.

Let’s generalize about rice: brown rice good, white rice bad. Unless you have lots of various other medical issues that make white rice preferable for you

One issue is that brown rice has thiamin, but white rice has had the thiamin removed. Before Europeans showed up, people in Asia generally ate brown rice. As usual, Europeans arrived and said, “We have a great idea,” and it wasn’t a great idea. Well, it wasn’t a terrible idea, but it wasn’t a great idea. Rice without the husk (white rice) lasts longer without spoiling, but it also lacks fiber and thiamin that people need.

There are two kinds of beriberi: wet, which affects the heart and needs immediate treatment, and dry, which is not great, but not an emergency. Dry beriberi affects your nervous system.

The Philippines was also, during the early 1900s, having to fight off American soldiers. Soldiers who were burning down their homes and torturing prisoners. Yes, in a particularly ironic dick move, the U.S. was going from “fighting for liberty from our colonial overlords” to being colonial overlords. It usually doesn’t take long.

Bilibad Prison, which became the Manila City Jail. Today it is crushingly overcrowded, like many prisons in the Phillippines.

People particularly at risk for beriberi are prisoners. In Manila in 1901, at Bilibad Prison, beriberi reared its ugly head. They reported 5,448 cases, and 229 of those cases were fatal.

The other outbreaks were not as bad. Lingayen Prison and the Culion leper colony lost members of their community to beriberi. At Lingayen prison, the prison surgeon ordered the prisoners be fed local rice, rather than rice from China, and suddenly the outbreak was over.

Aside: I found some reviews of what I think is the successor to Lingayen Prison, and I’d like to report it had 80 “Likes” on Facebook. (?)

Culion Leper Colony was, at a time, the biggest leper colony in the world. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a historic site. They had their own stores, post office, baseball, theater– basically their own small town.

When they decided to take photos at Culion, they seem to have often taken photos of musicians. This bitch who visited said their music was “popular American songs badly sung.” But she can go to hell.

When they switched to feeding patients at Culion brown, “unpolished” rice, beriberi was eradicated there, too.

Today, Culion is a town without leprosy, where the few remaining survivors from the old days play guitar and serve as mayor, alongside locals who have never experienced the disease.

One other fun (well, interesting) fact about Culion Leper Colony is that they created their own money for use on the island. At first, the community was less than enchanted by this idea, throwing the coins into the sea. But they got into it later, when war led to the Culion coins being more valuable than regular Phillipine currency.

Culion coins. If people don’t like you at first, hang in there, they may change their minds.

The Philippines currently holds the title for most overcrowded prisons in the world. On average, their prisons are at 600% capacity. Some inmates have to sleep sitting up because all the floor space is taken, even in stairwells and bathrooms.

On a happier note, the Second Chance program works with people who have been incarcerated in the Philippines. They also have an awesome video featuring nuns tackling a mugger and turning him into a football star (?).

Today, there are some ways you may get beriberi: if you suffer from alcoholism, if you have a rare genetic condition that causes you to not be able to absorb thiamin, if you get dialysis, or if you take lots of diuretics and pee all your thiamin out. If you have bariatric surgery or have HIV, you are also at risk for beriberi. Don’t eat too many betel nuts.

Recently, in Cambodia, fish sauce has thiamin added to it, to help prevent beriberi.

Possibly Laverne or Shirley, but definitely ladies at a fish sauce factory.

But you don’t have it. You’re fine.

If you’re still worried, go have a bowl of cereal.