July 23, 2012
Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk, a monster feared for centuries throughout Europe and North Africa. Like many ancient marvels, it was a bizarre hybrid: a crested snake that hatched from an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad.
The basilisk of legend was rare but decidedly deadly; it was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example above comes from a German bestiary dating to the medieval period, but the earliest description was given hundreds of years earlier by Pliny the Elder, who described the monster in his pioneering Natural History (79 A.D.). The 37 volumes of this masterpiece were completed shortly before their author was suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny added, “but advances loftily and upright.” It was a description that accorded with the then-popular notion of the basilisk as the king of serpents; according to the same mythology, it also “kills the shrubs, not only by contact but by breathing on them,” and splits rocks, “such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was thought to be native to Libya, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.
January 17, 2012
President James A. Garfield lay in a rodent-infested sickroom in the White House, a bullet lodged in his body. Weeks had passed since the assassin had struck, but more than a dozen doctors were struggling to save him. Day after day, summer temperatures approached 100 degrees, and mosquitoes thrived in the swamps around Washington. Four White House staff members had contracted malaria recently, as had the first lady, Lucretia Garfield. The president’s internal infections raged and spread, fevers came and went, and his heart began to weaken. He felt it most in his lower extremities—the acute neurological sensations he called “tiger’s claws,” which seized him regularly. Aides at his bedside would squeeze his feet and calves with all their might to relieve the 49-year-old president’s pain.
“Yes, I suffer some,” he told one attendant. “I suppose the tigers are coming back, but they don’t usually stay long. Don’t be alarmed, old boy!”
His three oldest children, Harry, James and Mollie, all teenagers, were taken into his room for visits, advised to do most of the talking and not to bring up anything unpleasant out of fear of aggravating their father’s condition. Doctors desperately probed Garfield’s abdomen with unsterilized tools and unwashed hands in search of the bullet, which had lodged harmlessly in soft tissue near his vertebrae. Such a gunshot wound today would require no more than a few days in the hospital. But the 20th president of the United States was spiraling rapidly and inevitably to his death—bravely and for the most part in good cheer as his physicians made one mistake after another, from nutrition to medication.
Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unstable 41-year-old lawyer, had stalked Garfield for months before shooting him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington on July 2, 1881. Though Guiteau had passed the bar exam and used money from an inheritance to start a law firm in Chicago, he could never bring in much business beyond bill collecting, and he’d gotten in trouble more than once for pocketing what he collected. Turning to politics, Guiteau wrote a speech supporting former president Ulysses S. Grant as the Republican Party’s nominee for the 1880 campaign; when Garfield surprisingly captured the nomination instead, Guiteau revised his speech (mostly by changing references from Grant to Garfield) and delivered it on a few occasions to small audiences. He fell under the delusion that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock and immediately began pressing the president-elect for an appointment as ambassador to Austria.