Cholera, left untreated, can kill you in hours. It’s highly contagious, fast-acting, and incredibly resilient. Anywhere a human population has reached significant size, without also reaching certain standards of cleanliness, cholera is in danger of spreading…
And yet today, for the majority of the developed world, contracting cholera is as much of a threat as spontaneous combustion.
Before the 1800s, it was the scourge of every city. Its causes were a mystery to the most respected scientists of the day—a reliable cure was essentially science fiction. Today, it’s largely a disease of only the poorest and most disadvantaged places on Earth.
This is the story of how one man radically shifted our understanding of how diseases spread, and how we can protect ourselves in the future. It’s also a roadmap for solving massive problems with out-of-the-box thinking.
It’s the story of a man named John Snow.
London in the Time of Cholera
If a time-traveling peasant from the 1800s came whirling through the ages to a modern city, circa 2018, the thing that would shock them most might easily be the sheer lack of poop in the streets.
Picture for a moment the astounding amount of waste produced in any human settlement, every single day. The cleaning and bathing. The disposal of food waste. People pooping…
Imagine the sewage that is produced in a single New York minute.
Now subtract from that mental image any semblance of a modern sewer system. No running water. No washing your hands. And no toilets. The equivalent of “flushing the toilet” for your 19th-century Londoner might mean hucking a bucket of raw waste into a massive open-air pit known as a “cesspool”… conveniently located just steps from your house. A really health-conscious person might cover it with dirt afterward. As for getting water, the solution was similarly primitive: citizens would often collect it by the barrel from town wells or communal pumps.
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that in 1854, London was suffering through the latest in a series of massive, deadly cholera epidemics. And yet at the time, the causes of such pandemics were utterly unknown. The disease was sweeping through the city with alarming speed… and the greatest scientific and medical minds of the time had no clue how to stop it.
John Snow, Our Hero
John Snow, like all great heroes, was not the man you’d expect to save the day.
When London was hit by one of the first of its great Cholera epidemics, Snow was in no position of power at all. He was an unmarried, non-drinking, vegetarian scientist with a gift for math. As noted by his profile on UCLA’s website, “his social life consisted mainly of discussing ideas at the regular meetings of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society.”
Cool. He was also (you might have noticed) not particularly blessed in the looks department.
But Snow had a secret weapon: he was a skeptic. His primary point of skepticism? The miasma theory of disease.
The miasma theory held that the world’s deadliest pathogens were caused simply by “bad air”— the result of pollution and rotting food. This theory was state of the art in the medical establishment for literally thousands of years.
Because odor was considered the only reliable sign of that bad air, the logical solution to an outbreak of disease (according to someone operating with this belief) was to fix the smell. Dumping a barrel of excrement in the town square was only an issue if the smell got too bad afterward. Never mind germs or bacteria…those ideas didn’t even exist yet.
John Snow, though, had another theory: what if cholera wasn’t spreading through the air at all?
During an earlier outbreak, Snow worked as a graduate student in the vanishingly-small village of Killingworth. While there, he noticed that miners were blighted with cholera despite working deep underground. There were no sewers or cesspools or swamps. How could they be suffering from bad air? Snow figured it was more likely that cholera had spread by invisible particles on the hands of the miners. And, he speculated, those same particles might also be transmitted through a city’s water supply.
And so, guided only by his gut, Snow began mapping cases of cholera in London.
Well, Well, Wells…
Soon after beginning his research, Snow began to suspect that the main culprit for the 1854 outbreak was the Broad Street Pump. As he noted:
“Within 250 yards of the spot where Cambridge Street joins Broad Street there were upwards of 500 fatal attacks of cholera in 10 days… As soon as I became acquainted with the situation and extent of this eruption of cholera, I suspected some contamination of the water of the much-frequented street-pump in Broad Street.”
Remember: getting water in 19th-century London didn’t mean turning the tap on. Private residents fetched their water from the local well. Businesses got theirs from teams of water distributors, not unlike milkmen. As you can imagine, that meant that if one well were to be infected with, say, cholera… every person in the nearby area was likely going to be drinking it soon enough.
From his maps, it seemed clear that cholera was spreading from the Broad Street Pump…but was it enough? To further prove his theory, Snow went door-to-door in the area, interviewing the residents. He soon found that those who preferred water from Broad Street almost invariably came down with illness. All in all, it seemed that every clue pointed to the one pump.
Eventually, Snow felt he’d gathered enough evidence to present to local authorities. He made an impassioned plea to officials that simply removing the handle on the Broad Street Pump (thereby rendering it useless) would end the cholera outbreak. They agreed to try Snow’s bold measure…
And it worked. Within days, the outbreak slowed and, eventually, stopped. (And sure, the outbreak may have already been in decline, but let’s give the guy some credit here.)
Father of Epidemiology
An epidemiologist is a scientist who studies the spread of disease. John Snow might as well be their patron saint.
But shockingly, soon after the immediate threat had seemingly passed in London, officials replaced the handle on the Broad Street Pump without doing a thing to change the cleanliness of the water. Though they’d listened when things were dire, they were still unwilling to totally accept Snow’s theory that cholera was spread by particles of fecal matter in the water. It was deemed “too unpleasant” for the general public to embrace. It would be years before Snow’s theory was fully accepted.
But Snow is remembered for more than just this. He revolutionized our understanding of how disease spreads by popularizing the idea that tiny, invisible specks (germs) could transmit illness through water or physical contact. That’s a massive achievement by itself. But he also popularized another, possibly more important aspect of modern science: the double-blind experiment.
In a double-blind experiment, neither the participants nor the researcher knows which group is being exposed to the substance being tested (in this case, dirty water) and which group is receiving a placebo (clean water). Snow’s work during the outbreaks with multiple water companies that were drawing from different sources, one pure and the other impure, allowed essentially the same double-blind conditions. As Snow wrote:
Each [water] company supplies both rich and poor, both large houses and small; there is no difference in the condition or occupation of the persons receiving the water of the different companies… no experiment could have been devised which would more thoroughly test the effect of water supply on the progress of Cholera than this…No fewer than three hundred thousand people of both sexes, of every age and occupation, and of every rank and station, from gentlefolks down to the very poor, were [unintentionally] divided into two groups… one being supplied water containing the sewage of London, the other group having water quite free from such impurity.”
– John Snow, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera
It was a perfect experiment. One company drew water straight from an impure source, and the people who drank it inevitably became sick. Meanwhile, those drinking relatively clean water from a clean source were unscathed. And best of all? Snow could only find out where a household got its water supply by testing it, ensuring a double blind.
Once again, Snow had proven himself correct.
Lessons for Today
Dogma is defined as: “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”
That’s what Snow was fighting. A deeply ingrained belief (in his case, the miasma theory) that wasn’t supported by any real evidence.
It’s hard work. As Snow’s story shows, just because you present a logical, well-built case to people, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to change any minds right away.
Indeed, Snow’s discovery seems pretty obvious today. How could we ever have not known about germs? Even still, it took years of his life, as well as the work of later scientists, to prove he was right. In that way, he deserves a place in the long line of geniuses ahead of their time: Galileo, Darwin, etc.
But Snow’s story also shows the value in that type of thinking. Questioning the most basic, seemingly obvious principles of their time is something almost all great innovators do.
It’s also risky, unpopular, and downright difficult. It takes an amazing amount of courage to doubt when everyone around you believes, as well as an equally impressive degree of self-awareness. After all, how many of us really ask howwe know the things we know?
It’s a skill we could all stand to improve.
Teen Movies And Female Friendship
Teen movies have come a long way from early examples like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. There were the slasher films of the late 70s and early 80s, movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Around the same time, a young filmmaker by the name of John Hughes began making movies about teens that blended drama, comedy, and romance. As nuanced as his portraits of teen life were in films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, their source of conflict, and thus the major focus, was always the main character’s romantic relationships.
But in 1988, a sharp-witted movie titled Heathers came along and turned all that on its head. Rather than a soft-focus, soft-hearted take on the teen experience like The Breakfast Club, it wrapped up some of the grittier realities of teen life in a glossy (and hilarious) package—including toxic relationships, class awareness, familial indifference, cliques, extreme emotional highs and lows, and the unfortunate truth that sometimes your best friends are also your worst enemies. Heathers and its emphasis on cliques and friendship went on to have a major influence on two of the most popular teen films that followed it into the 90s and 2000s: Clueless and Mean Girls.
Heathers was a revisionist film, deconstructing and skewering the conventions of teen films that had come before—especially the aforementioned John Hughes-helmed entries into the genre. It’s an important movie for the way it looks at cliques and how popularity affects females specifically, and their friendships.
The focuses of the film are the four most popular girls at Westerburg High School: three Heathers and one Veronica, our protagonist, played by a young Winona Ryder. Veronica hates her friends, particularly Heather Chandler, who is the only one who seems to match her intellectually. Veronica’s boyfriend J.D. (portrayed by Christian Slater) steers Veronica into poisoning Heather Chandler and making it look like a suicide, which sets off a boost in popularity of teen suicide as an issue and practice, as well as more murders perpetrated largely by J.D.
After her involvement in Heather Chandler’s death, Veronica finds it increasingly difficult to interact with and relate to the two remaining Heathers, acknowledging that despite being her worst enemy, Heather Chandler was also her best friend. Her friends negotiate their friendship and popularity in different ways after the death as well, with Heather McNamara becoming more and more lost while Heather Duke adopts some of the more unsavory character traits of the deceased Heather Chandler.
In the 90s, the teen genre built from films like Heathers and grew into a more postmodern take on the form, with more movies telling stories centered on female friendship. This was best exemplified in Clueless, but was also apparent in films like Jawbreaker (the most obvious Heathers imitator), horror entries like The Craft, and teen-centric period films like Mona Lisa Smile and All I Wanna Do. The influence of both Heathers and Clueless reached into the 21st century with Mean Girls—coincidentally (or not) directed by Mark Waters, brother to the writer of Heathers, Daniel Waters.
At a time when teens are struggling to establish a sense of identity, social hierarchies become extremely important to them: find a place within the social hierarchy, and identity is guaranteed. This is where cliques come in. They’re important because they’re supposed to work together like puzzle pieces, fulfilling different roles within the social structure of the high school.
In Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, we are introduced to the trope of the “anthropology shot,” which is a quick way for the audience to understand the cliques or social groups that populate the film’s world. This type of shot typically occurs in the high school cafeteria, the only place where all the different groups would be together at once. In Heathers, we see it when Heather Chandler conducts the lunchtime poll in the cafeteria and Veronica encourages her not to just ask the same people she normally talks to.
In “anthropology shots” like this, plot devices like the lunchtime poll provide an opportunity for our characters to interact with people in different social groups without transgressing the boundaries between the groups. The lunchtime poll is briefly referenced in Mean Girls, and the main character, Cady Herron, is also given a “cheat sheet” by her friends Janis and Damian as a way for her to navigate the high school, complete with a map of where every clique sits in the cafeteria.
Aside from the clear divisions of space, what we notice in these films is the difference in dress between social groups, which further serves to reinforce the social structure. In Clueless, this plays out as Cher, Dionne, and Tai walk in the open air campus between classes, pointing out the students in glasses and plaid who produce the school’s TV station, the “Persian mafia,” in leather jackets and on cell phones, and the school’s popular boys, who either dress in sportswear or button-up shirts with cardigans.
These types of rules regarding dress within a social group are also an important part of Mean Girls. When she is inducted into “the Plastics” (the popular girls), Cady is given a list of the rules—everyone must wear pink on Wednesdays, no wearing a tank top two days in a row, jeans and track pants are only worn on Friday, and so on—all of which have to do with the way the group dresses. Regina George, as the leader of the group, is clearly the creator of these rules, which she acknowledges later in the film when she is forced to leave the Plastics table for wearing sweatpants. These rules are meant to uphold a social structure where Regina serves as leader. As such, her breaking the rules is damaging to that structure, the same as if anyone else in the clique had done it.
Similar rules, unspoken and otherwise, exist in Heathers, mostly in its unique use of color, which begins in the very first scene. Each of the four members of the core clique has their own signature color—the leader, Heather Chandler, wears fiery red; Heather Duke, her underling, wears green, the color of envy; and Heather McNamara, the weakest of the four, wears yellow, as in “yellow-bellied.” Their fourth, the miserable Veronica Sawyer, wears blue. When Heather Chandler dies, Heather Duke takes her place, inheriting Chandler’s signature red scrunchie and shedding her green clothing. These rules tie the clique together, but at the end of the film, Veronica, finally sick enough of the group to blow it up (not literally, as her boyfriend intended), snatches the scrunchie and pursues friendship with other girls, specifically ones not named Heather.
These films exist in “Girl World,” a phrase borrowed from Mean Girls. It’s a time between childhood and adulthood, where teen girls grip tightly onto what power they have in a world that affords them relatively little. They form connections with each other and, in those connections, work through the stereotypical trappings of femininity—fashion, shopping, gossip, and makeovers among them.
While this period allows females to experiment with power and leadership, this is not to say it confronts or offers a solution to the problems that they face. A problematic aspect of many of these films is the representation of female power through a depiction of female friendship that is inherently competitive and cruel. While this is touched upon very lightly in Clueless through Tai’s turn against Cher and the character of Amber, it is much more present in Heathersand Mean Girls.
However, this dark element also challenges a potentially harmful idealization of female friendship. Idealization can lead to an overly sentimental portrayal of friendship that discounts the autonomy of the female characters. The films included here manage to portray feminine relatedness and connection unsentimentally, allowing the characters to feel and express real emotions like anger, jealousy, distress, and aggressiveness.
The cycle of films examined here all attempted to parody the conventions of the teen film genre, but through their similarities and the creation of their own set of tropes (the anthropology shot, the makeover montage, etc.) they became examples of a new type within the genre to be parodied themselves. In each film, the difficulty of being a teenager is complicated by close female friendships, social structures, and issues of class and status.
While films like Heathers and Mean Girls are more interested in heavily satirizing the dark side of female friendship and power as it occurs in a high school setting, their depiction of the characters’ performances of identity is as nuanced as the subtler parody found in Clueless. While they have much in common, each film retains a unique take on what it means to be a teenage girl and the crucial role that friendship plays in the lives of young women.
The Dangers Of Werther Fever
I Got Chills, They’re Multiplying
In 1774, strange occurrences began popping up throughout Germany. First, young men began dressing, en masse, in a very peculiar manner. Like a uniform, thousands of youths started to sport yellow trousers, a matching waistcoat, and a blue jacket, complete with dark boots. But then the eerie but relatively harmless phenomena took a disturbing turn: a rash of suicides followed, with each of the victims sporting this very same uniform—and all holding the same pistol. Germany, it turned out, was dealing with some of the very first instances of copycat suicide. But what was driving these young, finely dressed men to despair?
A book, that’s what. In the ages before boybands, self-made Youtube stars, and Youtube shows about making boybands, people in the 18th century mostly had to occupy themselves with, ugh, books. So when you just had to get your angst on? Books. When you needed to pour all your horny teenage desires into a fictional version of yourself? Still books. And in 1774, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (say that three times fast) became an overnight sensation when he published history’s horniest, angstiest book featuring people who still wore waistcoats: The Sorrows of Young Werther. You see, before there was Bieber Fever, there was Werther Fever.
In the book, the titular Werther is a sensitive artiste who wears yellow trousers and falls hopelessly in love with the virtuous, beautiful Charlotte. Alas, Lotte is engaged to another man named Albert, so instead, young Werther decides to strike up a platonic relationship with her as a consolation prize. That’s right, your boy just friend-zoned the heck out of himself. It doesn’t end well: Charlotte eventually marries Albert, and Werther, convinced someone has to be eliminated from his totally unnecessary love triangle, kills himself with a pistol. Thus, the copycat suicide was born.
Young men of the period resonated with Werther’s alienation from society, his outpouring emotions, and his individualism; Goethe once said, “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” Goethe became the toast of the town, Napoleon Bonaparte himself was a Werther fan, and a deluge of Werther-related prints, porcelain, and perfume were manufactured to cash in on the fever. But as the copycat suicides hint at, there was a dark underbelly to the mania: young men also resonated with Werther’s final, dramatic act of violence. The Sorrows of Young Werther is an elegy for the bittersweet follies of youth, but the cultural response to the novel belies an 18th-century masculine disenfranchisement that has echoes in today’s cultural climate.
But the novel and its tragic fallout also bring up another contemporary, related debate: how much does life imitate art? To put it in 21st-century terms: do video games incite violence? Do slasher flicks make serial killers? Did Werther wreck these men? Art is influential; when we read or watch it, we feel deeply, and maybe we get ideas. Famed wit Oscar Wilde made the case that, “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form.” In this view, Werther made these young men and then unleashed their tragic deaths onto the world, like a doomed assembly line of little real-life Werthers. Thanks a lot, bud.
But however darkly romantic this image is, it seems more likely that these men were looking for an outlet for existing grievances, something to give their woes shape. Art can’t be created out of nothing—and, more importantly, fiction can’t fully encompass us: we are living, breathing, growing, and changing. When I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time, I wanted to be Holden Caulfield. Now? You couldn’t pay me to date him. We change, we grow beyond the books we read and the films we watch; they shape us but they do not make us. In following Werther’s plot right up until his end, the youths robbed themselves of the privilege to go past him. No matter how many times you re-read The Sorrows of Young Werther, he always ends up dead. These boys shared the same fate as Werther, but they once had other options.
Let The Flame Wars Begin
In fact, in a truly impressive case of 18th-century fanfiction, Friedrich Nicolai decided to exercise these options. Not super into Goethe’s original climax, Nicolai totally rewrote The Sorrows of Young Werther as a satirical text with a happy ending. He called it The Joys of Young Werther, naturally, and in it Werther is tricked into avoiding his suicide, eventually gets the girl, and overcomes his youthful disenfranchisement to reintegrate into society. Does Nicolai’s work completely override the subversive elements of Goethe’s novel? Oh, for sure. But it also imagines a world outside the text, and proves that literature need not be taken as gospel, especially for our lives.
If you need any more proof that The Sorrows of Young Werther is more than just a revered handbook for 18th-century nice guys, get a load of this: Goethe was pissed off at Nicolai for the liberties he took with Werther, and clapped back with the poem “Nicolai on Werther’s Grave.” In it, a simple passerby (a thinly veiled Nicolai) ends up defecating on Werther’s grave. Wait, what? That’s right, Goethe rails against Nicolai for disrespecting his novel… by gifting everyone with the image of someone plopping a nice, thick number two on Werther’s final resting place. The jury’s still out on how much dignity that actually gave back to the novel. But what I’m really trying to illustrate for you here—besides the image of a MAN POOPING ON A GRAVE—is that we have lives beyond texts, and even these texts can have lives beyond themselves.
In short, fiction is powerful and moving, but its endings need not be our ends. The Sorrows of Young Werther itself went on to influence the burgeoning Romantic movement of the 19th century; Goethe went on to write more novels (though he continued his feud with Nicolai until his death); and many years later, kindred characters like Holden Caulfield and Madame Bovary were created. Tragically, the victims of Germany’s 18th-century copycat suicides never found out an essential truth: we can read other books, and we can become other people.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Father Of Food Writing
“Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.”—Brillat-Savarin.
After eating food, the next greatest pleasure is certainly talking about it. People love talking about the last fantastic meal they ate or what makes their favorite recipe special, and with anything people love talking about, writing and reading about it comes next.
Before Anthony Bourdain quit the kitchen and put pen to paper, writing a number of celebrated books; before Lucky Peach magazine; before Ruth Reichl, Sam Sifton, Samin Nosrat, and the like, there was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Without this legendary 18th century gastronome, we might not have Proust’s madeleine moment, the beautiful writing that is characteristic of modern cookbooks, or even the Food Network—after all, as much fun as it can be to watch on mute, each show has a team of writers behind it. Not to mention that without Brillat-Savarin, we also wouldn’t have the unbelievably creamy and deliciously rich cheese named for him. Through his writing, Brillat-Savarin transformed the way food was thought about, talked about, and the role it played in people’s lives. Like it or hate it, he’s undeniably one of the original gourmands, and thus the forefather of similar 20th century stereotypes like the gourmet or the “foodie”—and that’s not even mentioning his role in the French Revolution, his interest in low-carb diets, or the bizarre declaration of love for his cousin that appeared in one of his book dedications.
Brillat-Savarin was born to a family of lawyers in France in 1755, and staying with the family tradition, he studied law and practiced as a lawyer in the years before the French Revolution. It was certainly an interesting time to be a well-off lawyer in France, what with all the guillotine use going around. But when the Revolution broke out, he managed to stay in France at least for a while, and was sent to be a deputy in the new National Constituent Assembly. Later, while serving as the mayor of Belley, his hometown, he came under fire and escaped to Switzerland. After years in Holland and the US, he was finally able to return to France in 1797. It was then he was appointed magistrate in the Court of Cassation, a position he’d keep for the rest of his life.
That position didn’t stop him from writing or pursuing his true passion: food—or more to the point, eating. While he had previously had several pieces published on law and political economy (and one erotic short story), he published the work he became best known for just two months before his death. Titled Physiologie du gout, or The Physiology of Taste, it has never gone out of print since its initial publication in 1825. The book is a landmark text in the field of gastronomy, which is essentially the analysis of the connection between food and culture. According to Brillat-Savarin himself, “Gastronomy is the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to man as he eats. Its purpose is to ensure the conservation of men, using the best food possible.” Well, when you put it that way, it’s essential to the survival of the species!
Hyperbole aside, The Physiology of Taste is one of the urtexts of French cuisine, that (in)famous term that evokes rich sauces, butter, foie gras, wine from Bordeaux, escargots, cheeses, duck, truffles, and any other ingredient that could cause instantaneous heart attack or gout. The book illustrates the role that not only food, but the act of cooking, serving, and eating—the ritual of it all—plays in French culture. Its chapter names range from “Analyses of the Sensation of Taste” to “Financial Influence of the Turkey” to “Are Women Gourmands?” (survey says yes). The exhaustive and holistic nature of the work—it includes meditations on the relationship of food and digestion, rest, sleep, dreams, health, different types of sickness, and death—only serves to illustrate just how important Brillat-Savarin thought the role of eating in everyday life was. It is at once a glossary of gastronomic terms, a collection of recipes and techniques, a diet book (Brillat-Savarin thought that sugar and white flour caused obesity), a memoir, and philosophical reflection.
From the outside, dedicating so many words and so much effort to what could be seen as a frivolous pursuit might seem insensitive, especially considering its proximity to the poverty that both precipitated and followed the French Revolution. But food has always been such an important part of French culture, and it had its role on both sides of the Revolution—the infamous “Let them eat cake” of Marie Antoinette to the part that poor harvests and deregulation of the grain industry (read: hunger) played in fomenting animosity toward the aristocracy. Whereas its close counterparts in other languages may have negative connotations (think of the word gluttony in English), the French word gourmand signifies no guilt. The Physiology of Taste is snobby, yes, and where it attempts class consciousness, it fails. But, to his credit, Brillat-Savarin was unapologetic about his passions and did not begrudge any human anywhere the same satisfaction: “The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas.”
While he certainly wasn’t the only person during that era to put words to paper when it came to the subject of food, with just one major work, Brillat-Savarin opened the doors for scores of food writers before food writing was even a thing. His eclectic mix of recipes, explanation of techniques, reflections on just why some things aren’t delicious and some things are, and personal narrative, are reflected in many types of modern food writing. From the Food section in your local newspaper (the fancy and casual restaurant reviews balanced with recipes and essays); to best-selling cookbooks that you can also sit down and read like Sami Tamimi and Yottam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites, and even to ultra-popular blogs like The Pioneer Woman. While some of those examples are more gourmand than others, they all emphasize how highly personal the subject of food can be—and just how much fun it can be to talk about it—just as Brillat-Savarin once did.
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