EP 019: We’re All Mad Here

EP 039: 221B BAKER STREET Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What was, unbelievably, even more exciting than the first Glenfiddich single malt Scotch, or a man circumnavigating the world on a Penny Farthing? In this episode, we're talking about deerstalkers, magnifying glasses, and the one thing that really got the Victorians to talk about their feelings.

In 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland introduced a generation of children to the wonder of imagination, the magic of word play, and the dangers of taking too many drugs. Choosing the maddest character in his iconic cast of weirdos is a big ask, but you haven’t got the Mad Hatter in your top three, you’re reading the wrong version.

Fun fact – Lewis Carrol doesn’t actually call the Mad Hatter the Mad Hatter, he’s just the Hatter. But he is pretty thoroughly off his rocker. He’s been singled out for cruel and unusual punishment by Time (with a capital T) for committing the completely inexcusable crimes of singing badly, and refusing to be decapitated. Time retaliates by grounding to a complete halt (for him) and leaving him in a permanent state of tea-time, 6 o’clock limbo. I’m not going to lie, I personally feel that this round goes to the Hatter. The passing of time and achieving of things that are not related to tea-drinking and cake-eating are, in my humble view, thoroughly overrated. But he’s also bonkers, so its really six of one and half a dozen of the other. He spends his time buttering up his pocket watches (literally), trying to lubricate Time into passing, and telling riddles with no answers. The most famous one – Why is a Raven like a Writing desk – bends Alice’s brain into such an uncomfortable pretzel that she storms off in a huff, telling anyone that will listen that this is the stupidest tea party she’s ever been to. Alice, I should point out, is a slightly snotty, adolescent girl, and has never considered the possibility that far more horrific tea parties exist: see, Kitchen, Green, and Boston, for a start.

Whether you think he’s mad for not embracing an existence that revolves around hot beverages at knock-off time, or because he’s literally incapable of thinking coherent thoughts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mad as a Hatter is a phrase coined just for this guy. Also, let’s not forget that time he cunningly disguised himself by changing the speeling of his name. Genius.

But you’d be wrong. ‘Mad as a hatter’ is actually a phrase that predates Lewis Carrol, and it’s the saying that maketh the man, not the other way round.

The Hatter – spoiler alert – is a Hatter. Or at least he was a Hatter, before Time very helpfully removed the necessity for him to hold down a day job. Extra spoiler – he doesn’t know why a raven is like a writing desk. A hatter is a cunning piece of scientific jargon for a person who makes hats. In the 18th and 19th Century, people in Europe and America wouldn’t be seen dead without one. A hat, that is. They were quite keen to avoid mingling with hatters. Before the days of fast fashion and PETA, hats were quite often made by turning the skins of small animals into felt. This was unfortunate for the small animals, but also for the hatters, because they used mercury nitrate to do it.

In case you haven’t recently swallowed the contents of your old thermometer and need a refresher, let’s lay out the side effects of mercury poisoning: tremors, numbness, muscle weakness, poor co-ordination, anxiety, confusion, difficulty speaking, poor memory, hallucinations, loss of sight, loss of hearing, and loss of life. Hatters, during this time, spent a lot of time in asylums, and were generally considered to be a bit loopy. Nobody actually knew that mercury was poisonous though. They just accepted that hatters were, as a whole, barmy. I have to admit that I do spend a lot more time than I should wondering whether the laymen thought it was just slightly unbalanced people who were drawn to the profession, or whether they thought it was talking to disembodied heads all day that set them of.

Lewis Carroll grew up in Stockport, where hat making was one of the biggest trades. As a result, it was not uncommon to see befuddled hatters shuffling down the streets in their bedroom slippers, banging off of lampposts, and conversing with invisible jabberwockies. The idea of mad hatters was so thoroughly socially entrenched that choosing a career path for his tea-drinking riddle master was a no brainer. Pun 100% intended.

Now its all fun and games in the fiction-verse, where nobody actually gets hurt. But mercury poisoning was a very real problem for very real people, for a very long time. There are probably a hundred tragic stories we’ll never know for every one we do, but here’s one about an actual hatter that fits in so neatly, it’s almost like I made it up.

Which I didn’t.

We’ll start with Abraham Lincoln. If I’ve already lost you, circle back to episode 1. Abe is President. The Civil War is over. Slavery has been abolished. And, because hobbies are important, he’s gone out for a night on the town. He’s taking in a play with his wife, when he is shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. This is all well-known stuff. What many people don’t know is that there’s some evidence to suggest that Boston Corbett – the man who subsequently shot and killed John Wilkes Booth – may have been – quite literally – a mad hatter. He became a milliner before joining the army, and it’s around this time that he started behaving, shall we say, strangely. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he grew out his hair, started singing at people for swearing, and eventually gave himself an amateur castration with a pair of scissors. After the president’s assassination, Corbett’s  regiment was sent to track Booth down. It’s a little unclear what happened in the chaos that ensued, but Corbett claimed both that he had shot the man as an act of self-defence, and that Providence had directed him. A couple of eye witnesses disagreed with this version, but nobody was particularly inclined to treat the person who had murdered the person who had murdered the president too harshly. He was court marshalled for disobeying orders, and then speedily released and hailed as a national hero.

He went back to being a hatter and part-time celebrity, but couldn’t stick a job for very long, and was never asked back to anywhere he spoke, because of erratic behaviour and increasingly incoherent speech. When he became so paranoid that he started chasing politicians with a waving revolver, a judge declared him legally insane and had him shipped off to an asylum. He escaped on horseback, disappeared, and was never seen again.

It’s hard to diagnose people retrospectively, but given what we know now about milliners, mercury, and madness, some historians think it likely that his mental health had taken a pretty steep, hat related decline.

So if you think Lewis Carroll is wild, stick around. History gets crazy.      

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