An Underground Education (Leon Botstein)

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  Aiming at Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin, the American ambassador to France, became a huge celebrity in Europe for his scientific inventions, his clever phrases, his irreverent attitude. He stood as a kind of symbol of the American common man (tenth child of a candlemaker) triumphing over British tyranny.

The French started making all kinds of Franklin souvenirs from commemorative medallions to clocks.

One day, King Louis XVI attended an exhibition at Versailles of beautiful porcelain pieces made by the royal craftsmen at Sèvres. As he wandered down the aisles, he noticed a commemorative plate, which bore the portrait of cult hero Franklin over the Latin inscription "Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis." ("He ripped lightning from the sky, and the sceptre from tyrants.")

The king, seething, said nothing at the time, but, according to Marie-Antoinette's lady-in-waiting, Madam Campan, he commissioned the porcelain makers at Sèvres to make him a chamber pot with Ben Franklin's picture inside the bottom, along with the antiroyal slogan.

Years later in 1793, after splashing unknown gallons of urine across Franklin's face, King Louis stopped being a tyrant, as his head dropped into the basket beside the guillotine.
Byron's Tangled Keepsakes

The flamboyant British poet Byron reverently kept a collection by which to remember his lovers. "Today in the offices of Byron's publisher in London are a number of envelopes in which the poet placed quantities of differently coloured very curly hair besides the names of his girlfriends," states James Bentley in Restless Bones. Very curly.

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  Wives for Sale

In England for more than three centuries, it was legal for a man to sell his wife, much as he might sell a prize cow. The woman was often marched into the marketplace with a rope halter around her neck and auctioned to the highest bidder. The first such sale was recorded in 1533 and scholars have unearthed at least 387 documented wife sales in England.
Sperm Wail

Professor Eugene Steinach of Vienna in the 1920's performed vasectomies on older men as a kind of fountain-of-youth procedure to revitalize them. The logic was that ejaculation of sperm reduced male energy; therefore, preventing sperm loss should increase male energy. (Ancient Chinese doctors recommended lovemaking without ejaculation on the same grounds.)

More than one hundred teachers and university professors underwent vasectomies to revitalize themselves, including Sigmund Freud, and poet William Butler Yeats. The procedure turned out to have no proven value--except to prevent pregnancy.

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Excerpted from An Underground Education by Richard Zacks. Copyright © 1997 by Richard Zacks. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.