Thursday, February 05, 2015

Mad Dukes and Englishmen

People keep doing research and spoiling some of the best stories in the process.

I was always kinda charmed by the story that the Duke of Richmond, briefly Governor General of British North America, died of rabies near the future site of Ottawa, after being bitten by a fox. It has lots of authority behind it. Here's the DCB, for instance:
During the summer of 1819 Richmond undertook an extensive tour of Upper and Lower Canada. At William Henry (Sorel, Que.) he was bitten on the hand by a fox. The injury apparently healed, and he continued to York (Toronto) and Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.), even examining military sites as far distant as Drummond Island. Returning to Kingston, he planned a leisurely visit to the settlements on the Rideau. During this part of the journey the first symptoms of hydrophobia appeared. The disease developed rapidly and on 28 August he died in extreme agony in a barn a few miles from a settlement that had been named in his honour. Some accounts suggest that the duke had been bitten by a dog; stronger contemporary evidence, however, supports the view that he had received the rabies infection from a fox.
Sadly, however, a recent issue of Ontario History carries an article on the subject by Hugh Whitney, a senior veterinarian and no slouch at historical research either. He's skeptical of the rabies diagnosis and suggests the Duke died of the usual aristocratic complaints: dissipation and alcoholism, with maybe a series of strokes at the end, brought on by long days in the hot Canadian sun. And he makes a pretty good case that explanations other than rabies need to be considered.

He does need to explain away the first hand testimony about rabies as something of a cover-up by military officers who found the "drunk in the hot sun" explanation a bit undignified. Another piece of evidence: the fox also bit the Duke's dog, Blucher. Blucher survived.  Hmmm.

Update, February 6:  Chris Raible takes me to task a little:
A story that can, by "doing research," be spoiled is hardly a "best" story.
The problem is that such tales perpetuate.
We are all so "kinda charmed," we continue to pass them on.
So I have to give up that theory that some stories are too good to be fact-checked?  Oh, well....

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