an interview with richard zacks   introduction  

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Bold Type: What is the most disturbing fact you've ever discovered?

Richard Zacks: The abysmal state of medicine prior to this century. For example, doctors didn't wash their hands until the late 1800s; enemas were the prescribed cure for colds and headaches in Europe after the Renaissance (using a kind of fat plunger with a metal tip). And in the Middle Ages, barber-surgeons sawed the skull open to let the devil out. Some medical books even suggested sprinkling salt on the exposed brain.

BT: Tell us about any one of the funniest facts you've discovered.

RZ: That more than a dozen churches during the Middle Ages claimed to have Jesus' foreskin. But when I found out that Brigham Young had more than 50 wives, I might have been more jealous than amused. (In An Underground Education, you can see a group photo of seven of his wives.) In addition, I learned that the flush toilet was invented about 3800 years ago in Crete, but the knack of building them was lost for the next 3500 years.

BT: What piece of information that you've come across would you say is least known and most surprising?

RZ: The fact that it was perfectly acceptable by society and religious standards in Western civilization for a husband to beat his wife. The expression "the rule of thumb" comes from the fact that the Catholic Church allowed husbands to correct their wives with a stick no thicker than a man's thumb. I was also very surprised to learn that child labor flourished in the United States for about 150 years. We hear many Americans getting sanctimonious now, haranguing against child labor in the Third World, and yet they never acknowledged America's own skeleton in the closet. For instance, Connecticut passed a law in 1842 limiting the working day to twelve hours for children under fourteen; this was considered very humane compared to most states' laws. Some American businessmen worried that such laws would destroy the economy.

BT: Is there a general lesson we can glean from your book?

RZ: Conventional wisdom is often wrong and too conventional to bother with. Buy low, sell high, especially when buying tulips in Holland in 1634.

BT: Why did you write this book?

RZ: Because I knew that the past could not be as dull as textbooks made it out to be. History is more than treaties and kings and queens! It is more than obscure theories about socio-economic trends. I knew there were very ironic, startling stories floating around from reliable sources that deserved to be resurrected. Everyone knows about Edison and the first lightbulb. It's time they knew about Edison and the first electric chair!

BT: Where do you find all this information?

RZ: I scan lots of musty old non-fiction books--mostly in English but sometimes in French and Italian. I look for surprises which may be just one sentence, such as "Napoleon's hemorrhoids flared up at Waterloo." Then I track down original sources looking for witnesses close to the event. The New York Public Library main branch is one of the best research tools and makes the Internet look like a small file drawer. I also used Columbia University, the British Library in London and the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, where I requested the erotic novels on Marie-Antoinette.

BT: How does your resource of knowledge come in handy? Why do we need an underground education?

RZ: To start off, you can shine at cocktail parties, on dates, in lectures. It's both a blessing and a curse because there are time when the other guests at your table make you do all the talking. This knowledge also allows you to irritate know-it-alls and all-powerful religious and media groups. When Pocahontas came out from Disney, for example, readers would have known that her husband John Rolfe tried to turn her into a cigar-store Indian, parading her in London before King James, that she died in England and that the whole John Smith romance was a hoax.

BT: What are your favorite topics to research?

RZ: Sex and everyday life. Can you believe that women's underwear did not cover BETWEEN women's legs until the very late 1800s? When a Parisian woman stumbled in front of Peter the Great's horse during his visit in 1717 and scissored her legs to try to avoid the horses' hooves, the czar was overheard remarking, "The gates of Paradise are open."

BT: From all that you've learned about human nature and history, would you say that this knowledge has heightened your sense of humor about the world or deepened your pessimism?

RZ: I must answer "Both." The darker it gets, the more spurred I am to seek ironies. I suppose it's my small revenge on the oppressors.
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