A long time ago, I started a planned series of posts that didn’t go very far, drawing some parallels between the England of the Gin Craze era (the early 1700s) and Korea in the first decade of the 21st century. I’m still not feeling like continuing it, but I am reading up on the Gin Craze (right now, working my way through Patrick Dillon’s wonderful Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva–The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze) as I continue working on a short story set during that period, and a number of things have struck me as fascinating.
So fascinating, indeed, that for me it’s a struggle to resist the urge to find a way to make my own narrative stretch over a couple of decades or more, just so I can work in all the neat details, an urge I’ve managed to resist so far but only barely.
- Even in the early 1700s, the theory of humours dominated the medical establishment: yeah, as in the four humours. Seriously. Modern medicine? It’s modern.
- Not all bombs are created to hurt people. For example, there was a time when people actually conceived of parcel bombs–loud boom, and a flurry of papers (pamphlets) raining down from the air afterward–as a way of spreading propaganda. Seriously. This happened in 1736, in Westminster Hall, specifically in the Court of Chancery. This was just too weird not to include in my story.
- Spontaneous human combustion? That urban legend arose spontaneously in several European societies at around the time of the Gin Craze, so it seems, and it was at the time suggested that it was the saturation of the body with “spiritous distilled liquors” (ie. gin, or other hard liquor) that led to the mysterious fiery consumption of the dead, for reasons that seem logical for anyone who actually buys into the theory of the four humours. ONe of the most famous cases of the time was that of a woman called Grace Pitt.
- Londoners were wild at the time. They were pelting people in court dress with mud (and worse), they were prone to acting as violent mobs when they felt “oppressed” by the law, and the also prone to pretty insane violence against people they agreed had done something wrong. (Informants on gin-sellers after Prohibition, for example, often had unpleasant, and even deadly, encounters with the urine of mob members.)
- How being an English Jacobite in that time period didn’t so much mean anything about who you wanted to be King, as much as it was just an expression of resentment and resistance to the (Hanoverian) King that many English folk wanted on the throne. It had moved from being something like the anti-Qing Dynasty White Lotus Society, to a kind of contrarian, anti-authoritarian populist stance… of a kind reminiscent in Korea today, which makes sense: in neither society was there a sense among the common people of what participation in a democratic society might mean, regardless of the fact that while the English in this time didn’t have a vote, Koreans today do–I’d argue that the philosophy of democracy hasn’t penetrated popular Korean modes of politicsl engagement so deeply yet, only a few decades after the beginning of their still-young democracy, which is one reason that bloody, flamboyant, and over-the-top protest still features so largely there (as it did in Gin raze-era London, and plenty of other non-democratic societies).
- The kinds of things people put in gin when they started mass producing it underground after prohibition? Poisonous as hell, ranging from turpentine and bitter almonds (ie. the very toxic source of arsenic) to lime, (yeah, quicklime, I mean–toxic stuff) and sulphuric acid and the extremely toxic cocculus indicus, or fishberry. All of which leaves me even more leery of the stands in our local market here in Ho Chin Minh City that sell hard liquors for as little as the equivalent of USD $3-4/bottle. (And just in case you’re tempted to imagine brewers were any better? Nah, they were putting all kinds of toxic crap in their beer, too. FDAs and food safety regulations are also modern.)
- Distilling was discovered by whom? Yes… you guessed it. Alchemists… and so “distilled spirituous liquors” were held to have pseudomagical properties, not just for health but in other, more mysterious ways. When gin production began, workable hydrometers did not exist, so people had no real idea how much alcohol was in their liquor; they just knew it was concentrated and that in that process, it took on extreme properties, like it’s burning bite and intoxicating power; it seemed only logical to imagine it might acquire other properties, too, in the process.
- London was in the grip of a collapsed financial investment bubble… yeah, in the 1720s, baby.It was the South Sea Company’s stock, and the crisis itself trigged so much gin-drinking by the miserable folks who lost all their money in it that Gin got called South Sea Mountain, presumably for how the pallor and the gloom loomed over London society like a mountain, but also for the scale of the problem posed by cheap, readily-available gin. Many of the investors were women, because, like with gin, there were no rules or tradition barring them from making money this way: it was too new for that sort of thing to exist already. Panic and a general affliction were the result.
- On 8 February 1749, an earthquake shook London. Then another hit on 8 March. London panicked, and people, expecting the Day of Judgment (as retribution for their urban wildness and debauchery) packed the churches and the streetsand the open fields all around London, waiting for the end, until the morning of the 9th of April, at which point they realized the end was not so nigh after all. Smollett wrote that, “In after ages… it will hardly be believed…” Well, I believe it, but it seems pretty nuts all the same.
- The nicknames for gin in prisons in the 1740s are shockingly similar to the nicknames for gin’s contemporary equivalents in the illicit drug scene in America. Gin was variously called “Vinegar, Gossip, Crank, Mexico, Sky-blue[,] etc.” I can’t be the only one who thought of Breaking Bad when reading that phrase. Also, gin was a hot seller in prisons. Some people spent their full living allowance on the stuff.
- “The Prohibition” in America is a misnomer: religious idiots had convinced an uptight, foolish government to try alcohol prohibition several times before. The first time was during the Gin Craze, and guess what? The results were pretty much the same as in the more-familiar American case: they failed to eradicate Gin from society (production grew under the ban, and only dissipated under social changes and projects for dealing with poverty), but they also managed to criminalize plenty of law-abiding citizens while creating a major criminal industry. Which means the current American “War on Drugs” launched by Nixon isn’t the second such foolish enterprise: it’s more like the third or fourth. (Bans on liquor can work when the ban is a reaction to a bad harvest, and it means people won’t be eating if booze production continues unabated; but moralistic bans just don’t work well.)
- When women became not only major consumers of gin, but also major producers and sellers of it–the “public face of gin” as Dillon puts it, they freaked out reformers who wanted to get rid of the stuff for reasons that seem more deep-seated than just the moral objections to hard liquor:
Reformers hated women who drank because they threatened social order. But maybe older memories and fears lingered in the background. Crouched over her market barrow, the old basket-woman with a bottle in her had evoked the memory of other old women who had dispensed magic potions. She, too, transgressed social norms; she held the power of transformation and her end was death by fire. In the same year it passed the Gin Act, Parliament finally outlawed the burning of witches. But it was easier to eras witches from the statute book than to pluck them from the popular imagination. Grace Pitt, charred to ash on her own hearth-stone, had met the fate of all her kind. Spontaneous combustion became the threatened end for women who turned to spirits. They carried their own stake and flames within them.
And that paragraph–which ends off Chapter Thirteen, on the subject of women as emblematic of gin in the Londoner’s mind, as well as in the minds of prohibitionist “reformers” at the time–is an example of Dillon’s wonderful ability to tie together factual history and dogpiles of research together with thoughtful cultural insight and imagination. Gin is a great book, well worth the read… and this time, as I read it, the parallels with other places and times–most prominently, the inefficacy of the current “War on Drugs” in America–also are impossible to miss though Dillon doesn’t push that line much at all (mentioning it only at the end, in the context of this being a recurrent pattern where conservatives react to social change by banning whatever intoxicants are popular with the people who seem to represent that change in their minds: the gin-swilling migrants from the countryside into London in the early 1700s, or the blacks and Mexicans and “their marijuana,” or the long-haired youth who took up not just marijuana but also LSD and other intoxicants a few decades later, when Nixon starts the “war on drugs” in I think it was 1970).
Bonus: it’s really, really fun to marvel at the strange, antique language of a world where Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are just slipping from current culture into being old news.No idea how I’ll manage to work some of that into my story, though it’s absolutely necessary!