Seward's Folly: The Conspiracy Theory That Has Plagued New York City's William Seward Statue for More Than a Century

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

Wilson Macdonald waited anxiously for Randolph Rogers’s latest statue to be revealed.

The prominent artist—whose pieces included marble works like Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii and Ruth Gleaning, as well as the Columbus doors at the Capitol and a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park—had created a bronze statue of former Secretary of State William Seward on behalf of a committee, which had raised funds for the work via subscription. Others who had seen the Seward statue in Rogers’s Rome studio had called the work “splendid” and “grand.” Macdonald, a sculptor himself, would be the first to see it in America, before it was placed, with great ceremony, on Broadway and 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.

Finally, the seated figure was removed from its crate. In his right hand, Seward held a pen; in the left, a scroll. The legs were crossed, and beneath the chair were books and scrolls.

Macdonald considered the work for a few moments. Yes, the face was Seward’s, but the body’s proportions were all wrong. Seward had only been around 5-foot-6, but the statue had the legs, arms, and torso of a much taller man.

He was aware that Rogers was watching him. Finally, he told his friend, “That isn’t Seward. The head is all right, but the body would be better for Lincoln.”

It was then, Macdonald would later recall to a newspaper journalist, that Rogers dropped a bombshell. “The body was made for Lincoln’s, and it had Lincoln’s head on, too,” Rogers told Macdonald, smiling. “But when I got the order for this statue, off came his head and Seward’s went on in its place. … I had made a study for a statue of Lincoln, and as they were in a hurry for the Seward … I took the head off the Lincoln study and modeled one of Seward from photos, and from this study I made the figure.”

It was a sensational story that Rogers couldn't refute—he had died four years before Macdonald spoke to the newspaper. To the bemusement of Seward and Rogers’s descendants, and, later, the New York City Parks Department, it’s a historical conspiracy theory that has persisted ever since.

A Monument to William H. Seward

A black and white image of William H. Seward sitting with his hands clasped and his legs crossed.
Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before Seward’s monument, there weren’t many statues in the city—and, according to a pamphlet released at the time of work’s dedication, titled The Seward memorial, there were few New York State residents better suited to be immortalized in that way. Seward’s career, character, and accomplishments made him one of the few “who, being dead, yet speak, and leave a place no living man can fill ... his a name that sheds unfading lustre on his native State,” the pamphlet noted.

Seward was born on May 16, 1801, in Florida, New York, to Mary and Samuel Seward. The fourth of six children, Seward was a bright and eager student; he attended Union College when he was 15 and taught in Georgia for a brief time before graduating in 1820. (His time in the South had a great impact on him. There, he was exposed to the terrible treatment of slaves, which stoked his abolitionist sentiments.) He studied law and was admitted to the bar before going into politics, serving as a state Senator before being elected governor of New York in 1838. In 1849, he became a U.S. Senator.

Seward was an avowed abolitionist whose home in Auburn, New York, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He donated money to Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star and, in 1859, sold a home to Harriet Tubman, "for which she had lenient terms of repayment," according to the National Park Service.

It was his views on slavery that cost him the Republican presidential nomination in 1860; it went to Lincoln instead. Though the two men were not initially friends (they would eventually grow close), Seward accepted his one-time opponent’s offer of the position of secretary of state.

His position placed him in the crosshairs of John Wilkes Booth’s plot to destroy Lincoln’s government, which involved killing not just the president but also Seward and Vice President Johnson. Seward, who was recuperating from a carriage accident, was nearly murdered by Lewis Powell (and likely would have been, were it not for the brave actions of his family members and the man assigned to guard and nurse Seward back to health, George Robinson). The assassination attempt left Seward permanently scarred, but he did recover; later, he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 (an event known at that time as “Seward’s Folly”). He served as secretary of state until 1869, and died three years later.

The movement to create a monument to Seward began not long after his death, when former New York State Senator and future Congressman Richard Schell proposed it to “a few prominent New-Yorkers,” according to the pamphlet. A committee was created to shepherd the statue’s development; it included Schell as well as former New York governor Edwin D. Morgan, Central Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, and future president Chester A. Arthur, among others.

The committee reached out to Randolph Rogers to inquire about how much a monument might cost; he quoted them $25,000. “It was determined to raise this sum by procuring two hundred and fifty subscriptions of one hundred dollars each,” the pamphlet notes. The funds were raised without difficulty; subscribers included Ulysses S. Grant and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Rogers received the commission, and not just because he was a great artist: According to the pamphlet, he had been a friend of Seward’s, who had paid for Rogers to go to Italy to study sculpture.

The bronze statue arrived in New York in early September 1876. Around 20 feet tall (including the pedestal), it depicted Seward, head slightly turned to the right, seated in a chair, his right leg crossed over his left; a pen is in his right hand, and a manuscript is in his left. Beneath the chair are “two piles of heavy folios, with a roll of paper lying on them.”

Though the pamphlet largely sung the praises of its subject, its author also levied some criticism at Randolph and the statue: “The faults of the statue are such as might easily have been avoided. … Future generations, judging only from this monument, may suppose that Mr. Seward was a tall, imposing-looking gentleman; the legs and arms are certainly too long for the body ... [T]he two piles of heavy folios and the parchment scroll under the seat — what do they mean?”

The statue was unveiled in Madison Square Park at 3 p.m. on September 27. The weather, according to the pamphlet, was “lowering and unpleasant during the whole afternoon,” but it had no effect on the turnout. Remarks, broken up by musical interludes, were given by prominent New Yorkers.

And then the fanfare was over. For the next 20 years, Seward’s statue quietly looked out over 23rd Street and Broadway without controversy—until Wilson Macdonald's tale was published in the New York Herald on March 8, 1896.

A Rumor That Won’t Die

It didn’t take long for Rogers’s family to fire back. His son Edgerton—who said he was “in a position to know what went on in his studio, in Rome”—wrote to the Herald three weeks later that “Perhaps my father did tell Mr. Macdonald of the decapitation, and if he did Mr. Macdonald can rest assured he was the subject of a joke.” (There seemed to be no hard feelings, though: “I am … forever indebted to Mr. Wilson MacDonald for furnishing me with this new story to add to the already large collection of my father’s jokes and stories, and am only sorry that he waited twenty years before publishing it.”)

In the same issue, Macdonald acknowledged Edgerton’s letter and that the story may have been told for a laugh, “but it was so funny that I could not help remembering it. Rogers was a capital story teller, full of humor ... and I am sure I never knew a man for whom I had more friendship than Randolph Rogers.”

But by then, the damage had been done, and no letters to the editor would undo it. Within the month, Macdonald’s story was reprinted everywhere from the New Haven Evening Register in Connecticut to the The Hawarden (Iowa) Independent.

It persisted into the new century: In 1905, The Strand repeated the rumor, alleging that after the funds for the statue had been raised, the committee had asked Rogers to take a pay cut so that it could get a “secret commission for their trouble.” The sculptor allegedly replied that he would not do that, but that he would take a statue of Lincoln, “left on my hands by a defaulting Western city,” lop off its head, add Seward's, “and fix it that way.” A year later, the rumor appeared in a letter to the editor in The New York Times, whose angry author stated “that the city authorities should have the monstrosity removed and a proper fitting statue of our honored Secretary of State erected in its place.” That piece prompted a frustrated rebuttal from historian Hopper Striker Mott, which appeared a couple of days later and laid out the facts of the statue’s creation. Still, Mott concluded, “It is ... doubtful if even these facts will put a quietus on the story.”

He was correct. In 1907, Putnam’s Monthly wrote about the controversy surrounding the supposedly patchwork statue: “Years ago a young sculptor assured me that he recognized the body as that of a statue of Lincoln in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.” The Philadelphia statue of Lincoln, unveiled in 1871, features the president rendered in bronze; he’s seated—legs not crossed—with a quill in his right hand and the Emancipation Proclamation in the other.

To get to the bottom of it, the author turned to Seward’s son, Frederick, who said that Rogers had some up to Auburn to get data about Seward's height and weight, as well as his "customary attitudes." He took measurements of clothes, his chair, and his cane, and “Doubtless ... computed the proportions mathematically when he modeled the statue in his studio in Rome, and had it cast at Munich.” He protested that the statues were “entirely different”: “Both figures are seated, but one—the Lincoln—leans a little forward, with feet firmly planted and separated; while the other sits with legs carelessly crossed. No replica could do that.”

Unfortunately for Frederick, his letter did little good, and the rumor continued to pop up.

In 1955, New York Times writer Meyer Berger said that army veteran and author A.C.M. Azoy of Ardsley-on-Hudson had researched the rumor and declared it true; he chalked up the substitution not to corruption on the part of the committee but rather to difficulty in raising funds (a claim seemingly refuted by the pamphlet released for the statue’s dedication). “The books under Seward’s (Lincoln’s) chair represent the Constitution,” Azoy wrote, “and the paper in Seward’s (the president’s) hand is the Emancipation Proclamation.” The rumor has also been reported in the pages of The New Yorker, Gourmet magazine, a number of New York City guidebooks, and all over the internet.

And, as I discovered, it leapt off the pages of books and magazines and into the real world, too.

The Making of a Bronze Statue

A worker pouring molten metal at a foundry.
A worker pouring molten metal at a foundry.
Tatomm/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Jonathan Kuhn and I are standing in front of the Seward statue in Madison Square Park on a gray, humid day in June when a tour guide and a group of tourists approach. “Who does this statue remind you of?” the guide asks.

A moment passes before a member of the group calls out, hesitantly, “Lincoln?”

“Lincoln! Yes!” she shouts. “If you thought Abe Lincoln, you’re kind of wrong and you’re kind of right—this is a hot mess for a statue! It’s supposed to be a statue for Governor William H. Seward.

“Typically, when we build a monument, the city puts in a chunk of money and then the family puts in the rest,” she continues. “The family doesn’t like it—they’re not putting in any money—and the city said, ‘Uhh, we’re not adding to the fund!’ So they end up going to a guy in Philadelphia who’s just completed a statue of Lincoln, and he had enough materials to build multiple statues. He has a couple Lincoln statues just hanging around.

“He says, ‘Here’s what to do, New York. Pay me to sculpt Seward’s head and then we’ll lop off Lincoln’s, plop it on his body, BADA BING BADA BOOM! You got yourself a statue!’” she yells. “This is Seward’s head on Lincoln’s body and we can prove this in multiple ways.”

Kuhn looks incredulous. “Oh really?” he mutters under his breath.

“Lincoln was a tall man, 6 foot 4, Seward, 5 foot 6. Haha, a little of a difference there! This,” she says, gesturing toward the paper in the statue’s hand, “is also the Emancipation Proclamation, which is 100 percent Lincoln, not Seward ... Alright, now keep moving forward …” Her voice fades away as the group proceeds into the park.

“And that,” Kuhn says, “is how this information—or slight misinformation—gets conveyed.”

This isn’t the first time Kuhn—who is wearing a purple tie adorned with line drawings of pigeons, “the enemy of outdoor sculpture,” when we meet—has heard a tour guide tell the tale of the hybrid statue. As director of art and antiquities of the New York City Parks Department, he’s heard the rumor many, many times in his 32 years with the department. “It’s just the kind of thing that people say—you know, urban myth or art history myth—and it comes up all the time,” he says. “It gets picked up about every 10 years by somebody—now it’s you, I guess.” Our conversation isn’t even the first time he’s tried to debunk it; he gave an interview to The New York Times on this very subject years ago, and if I hadn’t been with him, he says he probably would have corrected the tour guide.

According to Kuhn, Seward’s son, Frederick, had a point when he said the statues aren’t that alike. It doesn't even take a close look to see that. “While clearly they’re quite similar in the general composition—a seated government official in a chair—there are many differences,” he says. Beyond the positioning of the legs and the arms, the numbers of buttons on the figures' vests differ: Seward has four, while Lincoln has five. “The artist clearly cribs from his own oeuvre, his own work, but it’s not a direct copy. There’s certainly no evidence in the records of Randolph’s papers that would indicate that he did this.”

To understand why it would be so hard to pull off something like this, it’s helpful to understand how a bronze statue is made. Though the Parks Department doesn’t have any records indicating the exact method used for this statue, Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—which has a number of Rogers’s marble statues, including Nydia—believes that the statue would have been made using a method called sand casting.

First, Rogers would have made a clay model of the statue—and after this initial step, he would have handed that model off to experts to handle the rest. The model would be used to create a plaster cast. Next came the sand casting, which would have been handled by workers at the foundry in Munich where the statue was made. Simplified, the process involves pushing the plaster cast into sand until the sand is packed so tightly that it retains its shape, even when the plaster model is removed. “That is a one-to-one register of whatever the plaster was, and it gets filled with molten bronze,” Lemmey says. “Most bronzes are only a quarter of an inch thick, so there are all sorts of tricks to hold a space in the center of that cavity so you don’t pour a solid bronze.”

Big statues aren’t poured as one giant piece, but as many smaller parts that are then assembled "usually through brazing or mechanical joints.” Again, this would have been done by experts—not by Rogers himself. Once the statue was assembled, artisans would do things like apply chemicals to patina the bronze and add details to the metal by hand with tools like mallets or small hammers.

(As an aside, Rogers was mostly known for his marble sculptures like Nydia and those, too, would have had surprisingly little input from Rogers. He would have created a clay or wax sculpture, followed by a plaster cast; using that cast, artisans who had spent their whole lives working with marble would have taken measurements and used them to sculpt the marble statue. There may have been different artists working on every part of the statue from the hair to the hands to the fabric. According to Lemmey, replication of those marble sculptures was part of the business plan; Rogers himself said he made 167 Nydias. “Today, we’re like, ‘Wow, what a large edition, and that sort of diminishes the ‘wow’ factor of the artwork. Is it still an original?’" Lemmey says, but the replicas wouldn’t have "troubled the 19th century crowd.")

In theory, Rogers could have reused the plaster cast for the Lincoln statue and replaced it with Seward’s head, but again, just looking at the two statues is enough to show you that that did not happen. “I think they’re similar enough that we are seeing the same hand of the artist,” Lemmey says. “The work that he saved wasn’t necessarily in recasting the torso, and ‘Oh now I don’t have to sculpt that’—it was perhaps in the thinking that he took the shortcut. He used the convention of the chair, he already knew how he was going to compose [the statue].”

While she acknowledges that “he could’ve returned to that section of the Lincoln and reworked the plaster,” she doesn’t think it’s likely. “It’s almost like if you think of it as plagiarizing yourself. Isn’t it easier sometimes to start with a blank page and write what needs to be written, rather than trying to edit and edit and edit? It may not have been the most efficient way for him to make a monument anyway—it wouldn’t have saved time.”

According to Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D.—Grosland Director of the Master in Gallery Management & Exhibits Specialization at Western Colorado University and a partner in New York Art Forensics, which identifies faked and forged art, among other things—if a head swap had happened, it would be relatively easy to find the evidence. “That idea of welding a head on is not at all strange, even when there’s no rumor like this,” he says, noting that it would be possible to tell if the head was added on “if you could climb up there, and truly examine the neckline.” Among the many tools Taylor uses to find forgeries is a Hitachi XRF gun, which can identify the elements used in materials. If the head was once separate from the body, “The metal that’s actually forming the bond between the two parts of the base metal, the larger sculpture, often would be composed of different metals” than the other welds on the statue.

The Parks Department hasn’t gone as far as whipping out an XRF to analyze welds, but they have looked at archives and Rogers’s records, and they do often get up close and personal with Seward during annual cleanings (during which the statue is covered with wax to protect it from the elements)—and, according to Kuhn, they haven’t found or noticed out of the ordinary. Plus, as Lemmey says, “there should be more evidence for a shared match, which we’re not seeing. So even though it could be technically possible, there’s so much work that would have had to been done, to cross the legs or to change the positioning of the arms, the gesture of the hands—it just doesn’t make any logical sense.”

Statue Myth, Busted

The legend of the Seward statue is likely to endure, no matter how much debunking we do, just like the tale that the life events of the people in equestrian statues can be decoded by the number of hooves the horse has on the ground (this is also not true, by the way). Lemmey does see a silver lining to it, though: “I think it’s great that it gets us to look more closely at the monument, and gets us to ask how is a monument made,” she says. “But I don’t think that there is too much physical evidence in the relationship between the two sculptures.”

As to why the rumor has endured, Kuhn has some thoughts.

“It’s funny, it’s comic, and it’s an easy sound bite,” he says. “Obviously there is a disproportion between the head and the body. Somebody just looking at the statue might wonder, and so this gives an explanation—a wrong explanation, but an explanation—to that question that might arise in the viewers’ mind. You know, it’s like the alligators in the sewers rumor.” And then, jokingly: “Although there’s debate on that to this day.”

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

8 Historical Things That Prove Privacy Issues Aren't a Modern Problem

iStock/Veleri
iStock/Veleri

DEAR A.J.,
Help! I feel I have no privacy anymore. Facebook, Google, and Target know more about my life than my own husband does. Where has all the privacy gone?
Kathleen

Dear Kathleen,

Thanks for writing. I’ve recorded your name, address, marital status, and income level for my email list. You’ll be hearing from me soon!

In the meantime, maybe this will make you feel better: Privacy may be endangered in the digital age, but at least we’re still better off than many of our ancestors. In the past, everyone was all up in your business.

1. Peeping Tithingmen

Consider the Puritans: They were stunningly good at privacy invasion. In colonial America, Puritan villages had professional snoopers called “tithingmen.” Part of a tithingman’s job was to peek into their neighbors’ windows and spy on their every move to ensure they weren’t doing anything naughty, such as (gasp!) going for a stroll on the Sabbath—a crime that could be punishable by a day in the stocks.

2. Snail Mail Breaches

If you’re worried about hackers (or husbands) monitoring your emails, you should know that pen-and-ink mail was even more vulnerable back in the day. In early America, before an official postal service existed, letters were frequently left at taverns and coffeehouses to be picked up by the recipient—often after they’d been perused by other inquisitive customers. Things didn’t get much better when the government got involved. Postal workers were notorious for peeping at mail. Even letters from the Founding Fathers weren’t immune. Thomas Jefferson complained about the “curiosity of the post-offices” who enjoyed opening and reading his correspondence.

3. Public Voting—Out Loud

Speaking of the government: Voting was not always a private affair conducted behind the safety of a curtain. In early America, everyone knew your vote. They heard it loud and clear. You voted by stepping up to an election officer and announcing your vote in front of spectators. The practice was called viva voce—by voice. This, naturally, led to intimidation and harassment. As Paula Wasley writes in Humanities magazine, voting was “spectacularly public ... accompanied by boisterous crowds, partisan hecklers, torchlight parades, free-flowing whiskey, and brawling.” Casting your vote was less like participating in a dignified civic ritual and more like attending a Gathering of the Juggalos.

4. Nosy Questions on the (Publicly Posted) Census

You won’t find much respect for privacy in the old days of the U.S. census. The questions in the 1800s were astoundingly nosy. Uncle Sam asked about your mental health, whether you were “crippled, maimed, or deformed,” and questions about the financial status of homes and farms. The results of the early census were also posted in public, ostensibly so you could check them for accuracy, but in reality so that all your neighbors could titter.

5. Newspapers Printed Ailments

And if you didn’t know your neighbor’s frailties from the census, busybody local newspapers were there to fill you in. With no pesky HIPAA laws to get in the way, hospital admissions were popular fodder for newspapers for decades. For instance, an issue of the 1885 Philadelphia Inquirer told us that 53-year-old Hugh Dady had to go to the hospital after he received a head cut from a falling barrel.

6. Newspapers Printed Addresses

And if that’s not enough, the paper gives us what certainly appears to be the ailing folks’ addresses, such as “Francis Reynolds, aged twenty-seven, of No. 2335 Owen Street, with sprained wrist, from heavy lifting.” It was like TMZ, but if every celebrity was very boring.

7. Pooping in Public

But I’ve saved the worst for last. Because in the days of yore, even your most intimate acts—including going to the bathroom—occurred with very little privacy. In ancient Rome, you did your business in a public latrine with dozens of seats side by side. Archaeologists have found board games in between the toilets, indicating that voiding was a social occasion, much like a trip to the pub. Even the Father of our Country might not have pooped alone: Mount Vernon has a cozy three-seat outhouse. Over on the other side of the pond, Henry VIII had a formal assistant called “The Groom of the Stool,” a bathroom attendant whose job supposedly consisted of, in part, wiping the glorious monarchical butt.

8. Sex on Trial

What’s more, marital problems were shockingly out in the open. Consider the bizarreness that were the impotence trials of pre-Revolutionary France. A woman could ask to end a marriage on the grounds that her husband failed to consummate a marriage … but she had to prove it in front of witnesses. The most notorious such trial was in 1659, when a Marquis had to attempt sex with his wife in front of a 15-person jury, including doctors. The trial was so public, Frenchmen placed bets on the outcome. I’d tell you what happened, but I don’t want to invade the nobleman’s privacy yet again. (OK, fine. He failed. Happy?)

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