The Many Trials and Adventures to Discover the Elusive Blue Poppy

It is often said, and repeated, that mountaineer George Leigh Mallory discovered the Himalayan blue poppy on his not-quite-completed scaling of Everest in 1922. George and his team were returning from their failed trip (and a very bad one with an avalanche and seven dead Sherpas) when the alpine mountain meadows on the descent left him "half the time in ecstasy" he wrote to his wife. I get quite excited to see them every year too, but maybe not so much as George ;)

There are few climates where the blue poppy can grow. They are, after all, naturally at home on the cold and sunny Himalaya mountains, 10,000 feet above ground. But every year here in March, Longwood Gardens has a small display of these blue and purple-streaked flowers to mark the start of spring. (And they are my very favorite!) The purple is a sign of the warmth: during late snows in February, and god knows we got those, the heat in the conservatory is cranked up to keep the heavy snowfall off the glass roof. It's a delicate dance for anything over 65F/18C will slowly kill them.

The Missionary and The Botanist

And so Mallory usually gets most of the credit outside of plant circles, he's so well known and he did see them and that is how the story usually goes. But Père Jean Marie Delavay actually did it before, in 1886. A French Jesuit missionary, but also an avid plant collector, he found them in the alpine woods of northwest China and sent them, pressed, to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. 

But wait, I need to back up just a little bit more. Because it really all started in 1860 when the French and British secured a treaty from the Chinese allowing them to explore China and send missionaries. Delavay was entering dangerous territory. The first missionary/botanist (that appears to strangely be a popular combo at the time!) sent, a Père David, had sent thousands of samples back but only about a third survived. He seemed to take all the adventure on the chin and he was quite excited about least later when he was recording it in his diaries and back to safety. The wolves were so hungry that he had to share his tent with his donkey, he often went hungry and said the local food must be "eaten with courage." At one point he became so ill he was given last rites. Though in comparison to Père Jean Andre who caught between the Tibetans and the Chinese was captured while packing up plant specimens, tortured for 15 days and then shot to death, I can see Père David's positive attitude about a few wolves and spicy food.

If was under these sometimes shaky circumstances that Delavay collected his extensive plant specimen collection, working entirely alone. Though Delavay sent beautiful specimens of the blue poppy back to Paris, only a few were documented because the process was such an enormous task they left the rest lay around in their original boxes, unopened for forty years after the Jesuit's death {insert joke about how serious the French are about leisure and taking their time here ;) }. For Delavay this was quite frustrating after the trouble he had taken while collecting the plants. I mean he caught bubonic plague while gathering and one of his arms became permanently paralyzed...and still he kept going!


There was another man before George Mallory too, Frank Kingdon-Ward. He brought the blue poppy's into people's gardens (you'll see most of them in Scotland where these fickle flowers have happily taken to the climate). Frank went to even more remote areas than Delavay, though he packed food and supplies with 4-6 months of rations. He brought so many things on his expeditions that he often had to hire around 50 workers to help shoulder everything. You need a lot of specimens to get them into people's gardens.

When he found his blue poppies, he brought the seeds back to Britain and debuted them in 1926 at the he Royal Horticultural Society. They say it bloomed right before the enraptured audience, who burst into applause. Soon the public were going wild for blue poppies. At next year's show they were selling the seedlings for a guinea a piece, that's around $50USD today! It's quite the tricky plant to grow and even pro gardeners can find it elusive so it's booming business fizzled out but you can still buy seeds to try your hand at it (though many of them are scams and dead seed, be careful!)

Frank completed about 25 expeditions and they were definitely worth writing home about. He was impaled on a bamboo spike, fell off a cliff, got lost countless times and sometimes without food, his tent was crushed by a tree and he was at the epicenter of a severe earthquake which he described in one of his books as seeing "the mountain forests peeled off like wet paper."

When he wasn't nearly killing himself his travels made him an excellent candidate for more secret activities. Mainly being a spy (while still plant collecting) for Britain in the 1930s. I couldn't find too much about his spying days other than one arrest. Attempting to cross the border into Tibet he stumbled upon a drunken lama (that's a high priest, not the furry animal) who told him not to enter because of the fighting between the Tibetans and the Chinese. So Frank traveled a little further downstream through rocky mountains with few paths. Not the best luck for a man with a fear of heights. Still he couldn't find an alternate way in. Eventually, suffering from malaria and rheumatism he turned back north. His traveling companion, a "porter" (a guide/servant/translator), turned out to be an army deserter and all around pretty bad guy. He took off with some of Frank's money, was caught, and then condemned to death by the local Chinese army. This was all at Christmas. Merry Christmas Frank :/

Things hadn't quite hit rock bottom yet. After losing his porter, and also being arrested and serving his detention, he now had two Chinese soldiers as escorts...not the best idea whilst trekking through an area at war with China. By the time he gave up and went back to his starting point he found the whole place closed down for Chinese New Year.

It's the most beautiful flower I've ever seen though so I think it was all worth it boys, I think they'd all agree ;)



Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Rattlesnake Cure and Other Scandals in a Funny Mansion

That's the water tower by the way, funnily enough it's so striking a lot of people get married in front of it!

That's the water tower by the way, funnily enough it's so striking a lot of people get married in front of it!

When I first spotted this house I was transfixed. It looks a little like many houses cobbled together. You don't see much architecture with this kind of whimsy. Not around here anyway where it is mostly old barns, stone houses and clapboard farm houses. I like those very much too but this place, which I nicknamed the "steampunk mansion" before I'd researched it, really captures your attention. It makes you smile to look at it...and maybe squint your eyes and turn your head while you study it ;)

Its origins were a summer home and then a hospital, after nearly one hundred years of use this house was in need of a bit of repair when in the the mid '70s it was left empty. The local township stepped in to make an offer. They thought the land would make a fine park (they were right) and the house would be worth fixing up to generate income, renting it out for weddings and events. Fast forward a bit: they're still restoring this home today. You see, it's taken so long because everything is still original. Even all the wood carving and iron work. Really beautiful (there's a video tour of the inside, linked at the end of this post).

If Walls Could Talk

Initially the mansion was more modest...if a mansion is ever considered modest...built by a John Hulme and his wife. In 1882, a lawyer named James Smith and his wife purchased the 18-room mansion and the 143 acres of land surrounding it. They are the couple who built on to the mansion and hired an architect to turn it into a display of everything the Queen Anne Revival style embodied. The transformation was so incredible that the estate became the talk of the town. I think looking at it now, it's not too difficult to imagine the whisperings a place like this could start.

Architect, T. Roney Williamson, brought in the best Italian stonecutters in the region and 150 skilled craftsmen to add stained glass, copper and ornate ironwork. On a high hill the mansion had views all the way to Philadelphia (well, with the help of James' fancy telescopes in the observation towers of course). To enjoy the views of the rolling hills and farms they added wraparound porches and high observatory towers. The Smiths made it their new summer home, calling it Oakbourne.

Mr Smith spent a lot of time at Oakbourne, especially caring for his prized cows and horses. When he died in 1893, and his wife three years after than, their Will gave the land to the Philadelphia Protestant Episcopal City Mission. The caveat: the land and buildings must be used as a retreat for sick and convalescent white women, 23 years or older. The fashion for the fresh air treatment for anything ailing you had travelled from Europe to become popular in America too.

The convalescent home served around 30 women at a time for many years until 1971 when they closed due to high operational costs. But I am getting ahead of myself. In 1896 the Mission sold a part of the estate, 96 acres to be exact, to the Pennsylvania Epileptic Hospital and Colony Farm. That is where our real story begins.

The Rattlesnake Cure

The hospital took its first patients in 1898 with the three buildings they had acquired: an administration building and two cottages: one for women and one for men. The need for housing of epileptic patients was so great that they soon added two more cottages: one for boys and one for girls, aged 6-16. Soon they were caring for more than 100 patients.

Everyone had a job at the hospital. The men farmed, gardened, built mattresses, even repaired furniture and the roads. The women completed the housework, sewing, laundry and did some of the gardening as well. Remember, fresh air was good for you no matter the ailment.

At the time epilepsy was little understood and it shows in the medical journal articles written at the time and in the treatments administered. In 1914, a new "treatment" was sweeping through the hospitals: injecting epileptic patients with rattlesnake venom. The doctor at Oakbourne wrote that he was besieged with letters from patients' families asking for the same treatment they had read about in the newspapers. And so he agreed to give it a try too. Reports of its use had been "glowing" apparently. 

He selected a group of his patients and they embarked on a three month course of rattlesnake venom. I think you are probably already seeing where this is going!

Case Study 1-6

There's a good amount of detailed information about this study, the treating doctor, Nathaniel S. Yawger, published his results in 1915 in a medical journal. Of course this information was for other doctors. "The purpose of the injections was kept as much as possible from the knowledge of the patient," he wrote. Gee.

He described his first case study as a 16-year old "Hebrew" girl who had lived at the colony for two years. She had always had an irritable disposition, he said. Before treatment she had an average of 18 attacks a month. During treatment she had 79 a month.

J.C., was the second test case. A four year resident and also 16. Suffering from epilepsy from birth he would often go into a "stupor" for up to a month after some seizures. Dr. Yawger describes him as "feeble minded" and after receiving the venom his attacks escalated followed by another stupor. "The status was somewhat confusing but so far as we could determine, this patient was uninfluenced by treatment," Dr. Yawger concluded. His definition of "uninfluenced" is what is perhaps is really confusing! But he continued his study on adults as well.

Two thirty-something female patients were the unlucky recipients of this medical experiment as well. I feel it's prudent to mention that Dr. Yawger wasn't exactly some mad scientist, even if he does come off that way. Everything seems so outdated but really he did get permission from the patients' (desperate) families. I guess that is all that was needed in 1914.

One of his adult female patients showed a slight increase in seizures and he concluded that she too was uninfluenced by treatment. The other female test patient had entered the colony at the age of 19, right before her mother had died. Understandably, she had experienced some depression too and they wanted to see if the venom could help with that too. This didn't go well.


"Unfortunately she, like so many others, relapsed," Dr. Yawger wrote. At first he thought she was receiving the treatments positively, her depression lightening. She seemed to be more sensitive to the venom though. He noted that unlike the others, after the first injection her arm was much more swollen and she had other symptoms too. A quick look at the effects of rattlesnake venom and you can see exactly what she was experiencing. I guess the doctors and nurses didn't look this up for they continued to inject her weekly. It won't shock you that her seizures worsened until she had her worst one in her nine-years at the colony. They abstained from injecting her for a week as she recovered from the poison but tried again the next week. Dr. Yawger was nothing if not persistent. She had a near fatal reaction and Dr. Yawger decided to put an end to her rattlesnake treatments for good.

His older male patient was, C.A. a 35-year old clerk who did a lot of handiwork and gardening when he wasn't ill. He'd moved to the colony seven years earlier; he'd started having seizures a few months after his marriage. Dr. Yawger at first suspected syphilis but C.A. showed no other symptoms of that and so he was chosen for the experiment. Although he'd had several "insane episodes" before the doctors thought of him as brighter than many of their other patients. And he actually knew about the treatment! In fact, he threatened the colony that he would leave and let a city doctor conduct and publish the experiment using him. It's clear that he was desperate to end his suffering and return to his life. Sadly it's no surprise to us now that the venom did nothing to improve his health. He continued to have attacks and became "exceedingly irritable and quarrelsome and his memory was somewhat impaired." Once he realized that the venom was making him sicker he asked to stop the "treatments" and Dr. Yawger agreed that would be for the best. The rattlesnake cure was not going well but it was about to get worse.

The last test case was J.C., a 23-year old man who'd only been at the colony for a year. His family had read about the treatment and bombarded the doctor with inquiries until he was chosen to receive the venom. While his seizure rate stayed the same the doctor noted that he had a three week "insane period" during treatment, though without any seizures he hopefully added. After the full course of the venom treatment had been concluded J.C. had three more "insane periods" with major epileptic attacks. During the last one which lasted two days and sixty convulsions he died.

And so Dr. Yawger concluded that the venom uninfluenced two patients, worsened two, couldn't be completed on one due to complications after injection...and the last patient, well, he had died two and half months after the experiment. And so the rattlesnake venom cure, which hadn't helped a single patient, was put to rest. At least at Oakbourne

The Pennsylvania Epileptic Hospital and Colony Farm eventually operated for "mentally disturbed children" from 1947 to 1965 before closing.

The Doctor Is In

I know that Dr. Yawger was only doing his job. Just about everything was conducted differently then. Today such an experiment seems especially cruel. But patients' families had begged him to try it. Still, when you do such things, well then I have to look just a little into your background. Who knows what else you were doing! 

Dr. Yawger was pretty prolific in the medical journal game and he was a psychiatrist at Eastern State Penitentiary (I've been there too, to see Al Capone's cell, here's the link). When he wasn't dispensing snake venom that is. He also experimented with another treatment: cocaine, but this post is getting long enough and I have more to tell you so to sum that one up: After splitting his time between the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane and the drunk/detention wards of Philadelphia General Hospital he noted that few cocaine users were ever transferred from the detention ward to the Hospital for the Insane. Though they didn't become insane he did note that they usually died of a psychical wasting condition or are "carried off" by some intervening illness. So cocaine didn't go so well either. Quel surprise.

I made sure to give Dr. Yawger the benefit of the doubt while researching his life. Times have changed, it's difficult to know every circumstance, etc etc. But he sure makes it hard when he co-authored a book that same year (where did this guy get the time?!?). It was a kind of guideline for nurses in insane asylums or epileptic colonies. "A good nurse will always be loyal to the doctor; and indeed, to be loyal to him is always the best service to the patient," is one line. Um, what are you doing doctor that you need complete loyalty? Red flag!

The whole book goes on with more of the same, paragraphs and paragraphs that would make modern women cringe. Nurses shouldn't be vain or too humble. They shouldn't come from too "good" of a family as that may mock the patient but they should still have respectable ancestors. She shouldn't be silent but she should never give her opinion about the patient to the doctor (that is really his biggest pet peeve, he goes on for awhile about that). He does write that it is acceptable for the nurse to quarrel with the servants as they [the lowly servants] are more likely to be the aggressors. Sheesh!

As far as his personal life: he was born in 1872 in New Jersey. He married a Swedish woman, Elizabeth (though I think her real name was Ulricka), and he was widowed by the 1930s, living as a boarder in another person's house. Still working as a doctor, I don't know if he just wasn't stable financially or he was never home and had no wife so chose to board. He did so until his death (a boarder is the informant on his death certificate).

Interestingly his office, in Philadelphia, was located right near the present day Mutter Museum, which is the creepiest anatomy and medical oddity museum there ever was. I'm sure he's got something in there but I've never been able to stomach a visit through that one.

Scandal at Burn-Brae

Before coming to Oakbourne, Dr. Yawger was the Superintendent at Burn-Brae. A private hospital for wealthy patients with "mental and nervous disorders," and with a few beds for opium addicts too. They stressed a homelike environment with lots of "open air amusements" like croquet and lawn tennis, soothing influences of music and comfortable rooms. The hospital operated until 1968, when with fewer patients and a changing medical atmosphere they were forced to close their doors. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way they demolished this magnificent building (here's a picture). It is now the site of a Pizza Hut...I do want to cry.

Before his departure to Oakbourne, the asylum was hit by a scandal big enough to make the New York Times. In 1909, two men drove up to Burn-Brae, knocked down the nurse on duty with a cane and took Mrs Zaida Lucas MacDonald from the grounds. Her husband (President of the Camden Shipbuilding Co.) had committed her following the death of their teen son. They had been arguing about where to bury him. I guess it got a little too heated.... She had been at the asylum for six weeks while her friends insisted that she was not insane and had been sent there illegally. As a stanch Catholic her husband didn't want a divorce, but obviously wanted to be rid of her. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. MacDonald was a Protestant and once freed immediately initiated divorce proceedings...and told all the papers about it.

This wasn't the first sort of scandal at Burn-Brae. Despite an advertisement with Dr. Yawger's name at top insisting that two doctors had to sign off before a patient could be committed, it still seemed a popular way to get rid of someone in your family. In 1906, Theodore Wright made headlines after winning his release from the asylum after 10 years. Hailing from a wealthy family, Theodore was President of a railroad company and a prominent man. At the age of 50 his family quietly had him committed and he told the papers later that it was so unexpected he hadn't realized what was exactly happening until he was at the asylum. Gee, the lengths people went to avoid a divorce back in the day!

A man judged insane was not permitted to appeal his own case and Theodore Wright eventually sent hundreds of letters to lawyers, friends and relatives begging them to take up his case. Having disappeared rather quickly without telling them, his relatives and friends believed his wife and son and ignored his letters. Eventually his son, Minturn (perhaps he was miffed about that name) agreed to petition a judge for a conditional release for Theodore. Upon his freedom, Theodore refused to see his wife, who had made off to California, and funnily enough didn't even want to see his son. Though he had relented and allowed his release, his son had still put him in there...and kept him there. Instead he headed to Colorado where his sister lived.

Dr. Yawger died of a stoke in 1957 at the age of 84, working until the end.


ps. There is a youtube video with an inside tour here.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11


Honey Island Swamp


In Southern Louisiana, the bayous are home to people, wildlife (most famously gators), and my favorite part, cooler weather than the city. Since the Cajuns settled in the bayous they've been dealing with the loss of their home little by little. By the 1930s the Louisiana coast had lost a significant portion of its marshes and wetlands. Hurricane Katrina's devastation was a clear sign that the area is still fighting against the erosion of the bayou.

As the bayous shrink the storms grow bigger. They unleash themselves over the cities like New Orleans, faster, harder and further inland. When you see the bayou, you can hardly believe anyone would destroy it. It's the big corporation of course, particularly the petroleum industry. The one in these photos is one of the most pristine and untouched bayous and so it is now heavily protected, as it should be.

(A little secret: that house in my photos is a fake by the way. It was built to depict what life was like years ago on the bayou, although the structure is still similar today the houses are a tiny bit more modern (well some of them). They were using this one to film a movie or documentary, I never got all the details. When gators surface you tend to get a little distracted.)


As with most murky waters, there is a legend that you'll hear around here. I'll tell you about it in a minute (it's a little silly, truth be told). But the kernel of truth I took from that story was the train wreck where the legend begins. In 1922, a New Orleans-San Francisco Sunset Express passenger train was involved in an accident with the Wortham Carnival Show's circus train. The Express train engineer claimed he hadn't seen the rear end lights of the 25-car circus train until he was nearly on top of the circus train. The circus performers were leaving New Orleans for a show in New Iberia, Louisiana (which as an interesting side note was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War; the soldiers foraged for supplies in the swamps).

As the circus performers slept in their Pullman cars, the Express trains had ploughed through the sleeper cars at the end. The force was so great that they train cars virtually exploded. The New York Times reporting on the crash wrote: "One of the passenger coaches used on the rear of the show train as a caboose and four others as sleeping quarters, were reduced to kindling wood." No one on the passenger train was injured but three died and five were injured on the circus train. With fear of a fire and screaming victims some Express passengers hopped out and began to free the circus performers who had been trapped in the crash.

As a side note Wortham Carnival is an interesting story in its own right. Run by Clarence Wortham, a man barely five feet tall but nicknamed "The Little Giant," he went into the carnival business in his early 20's and very successfully. Soon his circus couldn't even play all the shows they were asked to do. He took great pride in his troupe and outbid everyone for the most interesting performers he could find. The train cars for the circus were painted in a rich red and emblazoned with gold lettering "Wortham's World's Greatest Shows." Clarence even worked with the famous conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton (there's a new documentary out about them right now), when they were young girls. They said he was one of the few people who treated them as normal, sensitive individuals during their show business career and made sure they were tutored alongside his sons.

To steer back to the point, that's the only circus train wreck I can find connected to New Orleans around that time period and so the retelling of the accident was twisted and later used in the creation of the legend.

Bears, Gators...and Monsters

Honey Island Swamp is part of the Pearl River. While it's one of the most extensively protected marshes there are still some eco-friendly tours if you'd like to climb into a tin boat and float amongst the gators, which as you can see I did but now that I think rationally back on it I'm going more hmmmmm.... Years ago we used to be able to toss marshmallows in, a real gator decadence, but there are many new reforms now to help protect the gators (and the owls, raccoons, wild boars, snakes, turtles, bald eagles, nutria and black bears there). I mean, no surprise, mountains of marshmallows aren't good for you ;)

The area isn't named for its main attraction these days, the gators take a back seat to the bees. Originally this area was named Honey Island Swamp because of all the honeybees (and I can assure you they are still there and they are oh so big!). But according to legend bees and gators aren't even the scariest creatures out here. Legend has it that a train carrying circus animals crashed into the river in the early twentieth century. Most of the animals perished except the chimpanzees who were able to survive and crossbreed with the gators, creating the Honey Island Swamp monster.

Here's a visual of what it's supposed to look like, though one done in a Saturday morning cartoon animation because that's how much credence I can give this story. Basically a big hairy ape-gator with glowing yellow reptilian eyes. In reality, the tracks found...or used to produce evidence of a monster's tracks...were most likely gator prints if anything at all. There were only two documented sightings. One from a man who eventually disappeared while on his boat in the swamp which I'm certainly fed the legend even more. It's more than 10 degrees cooler down on the bayou though so if you're in New Orleans in the summer, well, you should probably risk running into the creature because it feels real nice on the water {also they'll let you hold a tiny, baby gator on the boat ;)}.




Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5