No. 428
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
June 19, 2019
| On the Rights of Women.
On the Russians.

Mrs. Pennyroyal's

Prudent Advice for Proper Young Ladies.


Boston, Mass.
June 15, 1884

On the Russians.

I read where the army of the Tsar is once again on the march, and it only serves to remind that when one has lived as long as I, she is destined to see a repetition of events which are as predictable as they are monotonous. Even as a young girl I saw wise adults around me still celebrating the Russian victory that saved the world from Bonapartism, though the event took place several years (and a lady does not say how many) before my birth. While America was, of course, never in danger from Napoleon’s armies, it was a time when the nation took any opportunity to celebrate, and victories were not as soon forgotten as today.

But the Russians, by nature, are a people who will not prematurely beat their swords into plowshares; not with conquest so much more profitable than cultivation. In the intervening years, they have gone in an out of Poland on their whim, annexed Georgia from the Persians (not our Georgia, which they are welcome to annex today for all I care) and snatched land away from anyone wearing a turban. Consider the poor Tartars of Crimea, who went to bed one night worrying about their Ottoman problem only to find the following day that they had a Russian problem.

It all brings to mind an event some years back involving Mrs. B———— (For the sake of her reputation, I shan’t give her full name. The old girl still lives in the West End, I must remember to pay a call.) Mrs. B———— was the proprietress of a house of assignation near the waterfront which had suddenly and quite disturbingly become infested with insects. These were not just the bedbugs and lice one typically finds in such houses, oh no, this house was teeming with multi-legged creatures of every sort—spiders of various sizes, centipedes, millipedes, silverfish, and some forms of heteroptera so ugly that science has hitherto lacked the temerity to name. And of course, they had cockroaches, hordes, and hordes of cockroaches. They suspected that the unwanted bugs had accompanied a crew of French sailors, to which the house had played host some weeks prior, but of course, we shall never know for sure.

Mrs. B———— tried all known methods to rid the house of these pests –burning sulfur, pyrethrum powder, whale oil soap, and patent mixtures such as Lyon’s Magnetic Powder and Mexican Roach Compound— to no avail. She even tried having the girls practice Spanish dancing in the parlor wearing their heaviest boots. While this provided quite a spectacle, it had only the smallest impact on the insect population who, unlike dogs and children, cannot be trained by harsh example.

There seemed to be no solution to this problem and Mrs. B———— was at wit’s end until one day at Haymarket, while doing her weekly shopping, she came across a vendor offering a novel cure to insect infestation. He was hawking lizards, claiming that among God’s creatures, none were more adept at catching bugs or did so with such appetite, as his little green reptiles. To demonstrate, he fed one of his flock a cricket, which the beast gobbled with mad abandon, legs and antennae protruding from his mouth until with a sweep of his enormous tongue, all was devoured. Mrs. B———— was quick to point out that, although her house was plagued by a myriad of foul creatures, crickets were not among them. In response, the man explained that, in the animal kingdom, no insect is tougher or more distasteful than the cricket—anything that would eat a cricket with such relish would regard cockroaches or anything else one had to offer, as so much French pastry.   

While skeptical, Mrs. B———— was, as I said, desperate, so she parted with a dollar and bought two lizards. She brought them home, and much to the consternation of the girls in the house, let them loose. Well, all opinions rapidly changed as those two reptiles began feasting on the insects like bummers at a banquet. Before long they grew to the size of small house cats, and the girls treated them as pets, naming them Samuel and Rutherford, after the two men who were, at the time, running for president (apt, as America has never seen two bigger reptiles than these men.)

If both of the lizards purchased by Mrs. B———— had been of the same gender this story would have ended happily here, but Mrs. B———— ‘s lizards were of opposite sexes, and they decided, living in this land of plenty, it was high time to marry and raise a family. They were the most prodigious of breeders. Their offspring reached adulthood quite quickly and, having no qualms concerning incest, were prodigious breeders as well. The house was soon teeming with lizards; in a very short time, Mrs. B———— had gone from an insect problem to a reptile problem.

Realizing their dilemma, Mrs. B———— and the girls pondered their options. Their first thought was to bring in another animal to eat the lizards, but they soon learned that cats and dogs, even the fiercest ratters, turned up their noses at lizards. Someone suggested crocodiles, but it only took the slightest foresight to envision the problems with this plan. So, with heavy hearts, the girls packed their bags that night and left the lizard situation for the landlord.

Among those forced to leave the house was a Russian girl name Iliana Skavinsky Skavar, or some such Cyrillic mouthful—they all called her Lilly and so shall I. Lilly, as Russians are wont to do, complained about everything. She hated the lizards as much as the insects and hated leaving the house even more. Lilly had among her regular clientele, some very wealthy men who came to her precisely because of her bad attitude; they loved her because she would humiliate them and treat them poorly (and I shall write of this phenomenon in detail at some future date.) Rather than join the rest of the girls at their new abode, Lillie bullied one of these men into leaving his wife and marrying her. Within a year he was dead of some malady that quite closely resembled arsenic poisoning. To this day she is living high on his money, never confronted by the police, though we all know what happened. Let that be a lesson, boys, stay away from Russian girls.

As I sit now, quietly at my writing desk, I can almost hear cries of protest from proper ladies throughout America saying, “But, Mrs. Pennyroyal, you promised prudent advice for us. This lesson is for young men.” To this, I reply: girls, you should not be reading my words waiting for a moral as if they were some Aesop fable.  This story is, as are all my stories, fraught with advice for proper ladies if you will only read closely and view the narrative in parallel with your own. But for those without the time or imagination, my advice to you as the same as my advice to young men: stay away from Russians. A Russian man dreams of conquest and nothing more, and if he should come at you with his sabre drawn, guard your gate, young lady, guard your gate.

This has always worked for me.

 

Your humble servant,

 

Mrs. T. Pennyroyal