Historical Mystery as a Peek at Past Life

Today’s guest blog was written by Kathleen Corcoran

History was one of my favorite subjects in school, mostly because I’m a very nosy person. I always wanted to know details of other people’s lives. What did samurai have for breakfast? How do Inuit living above the Arctic Circle stay warm? Where did Irish Druids camp? These questions, not battles and trade agreements, are the types of historical mystery that I want to know!

Fortunately, many historians share my nosiness (though they’d probably word it more professionally) and have written fascinating works of historical fiction to explore these tiny details. One of the best methods to explore the daily lives of a variety of people in the past is through mystery series. Over the course of solving a crime, an investigator typically must interact with a variety of people. And I get to read about all these interactions and be as nosy as I like!

These mystery series are some of my favorites for the amount of detail the authors have included and the way they’ve represented the tensions and different viewpoints of the time periods in their books.

Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne

While performing her legal duties in 7th Century Ireland, Sister Fidelma comes across an awful lot of crimes. In the course of her investigations, she travels widely through Ireland, England, and Rome, interacting with people in every profession and social class along the way. She also has a front-row seat for the seismic changes happening at the time in the Catholic Church, which I found easier to follow in fiction than in my history textbooks.

Perveen Mistry by Sujata Massey

One of the reasons I enjoy historical mystery series is that the person investigating typically has a reason to look into people and places the reader might not otherwise know about. In the case of Perveen Mistry, social convention dictates that she is the only one who can talk to the people involved in the cases she solves. Along the way, the reader can learn about daily life, religious strictures, and legal tensions in 1920s India.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

In addition to recreating the atmosphere of New York City in 1896, Caleb Carr walks the reader through the early days of forensic psychology. This historical mystery series focuses on the evolution of psychology as a science and the use of forensic science as a tool for the police. The beginnings of the modern police force, cameos by real figures from history, and juxtaposition of New York’s gilded mansions and slums evoke the atmosphere of the time.

Charlotte & Thomas Pitt by Anne Perry

Murder mysteries set in Victorian London are nothing new, but I particularly like the way these books explore middle-class attitudes toward police and respectability. In solving his cases, Inspector Pitt frequently comes up against butlers and ladies of the house who simply refuse to cooperate. After all, detectives ask so many rude questions and behave quite above their station! It’s a good thing Inspector Pitt can rely on his wife Charlotte to help him navigate the minefield of social sensibilities.

The Tay-Bodal Mysteries by Mardi Oakley Medawar

The first book in this historical mystery series takes place in 1866, among a gathering of the bands of the Kiowa nation. While Tay-Bodal goes about the business of solving a murder, the author includes descriptions of people around him preparing food, discussing treaty negotiations, repairing clothing and equipment, and going about their daily routines. These books have so much detail about the time period, but they also make it much easier to follow historical events occurring and their impacts on the people involved.

Sano Ichiro by Laura Joh Rowland

In feudal Japan, Sano Ichiro must dance cautiously around court politics, rigid social hierarchies, and a million unwritten rules of behavior to find justice. His investigations are set against a backdrop of major events in Japanese history, including the 1703 earthquake in Edo and the tale of the 47 Ronin.

Lt Billy Boyle by James R Benn

Even in the middle of a global war, someone still needs to bring murderers to justice. When the Army higher-ups find out about newly-enlisted Billy Boyle’s background as a detective in Boston, they put him to work tracking down people who commit murder in times of war. He visits just about every European conflict in World War II, giving the reader a look into the world of French partisans, the Irish Republican Army, and the Sicilian Mafia in the 1940s.

Li Du by Elsa Hart

China has an astonishing variety of climates, cultures, languages, and history. Li Du, an Imperial librarian in the early 18th Century, experiences many of them while investigating mysteries. Sometimes, he works on behalf of the Emperor, and sometimes he works despite Imperial wishes. His questions take him into a Tibetan guesthouse, the underbelly of civil service exams, and behind the scenes of negotiations with Jesuit missionaries.

Benjamin January by Barbara Hambly

Set in the 1830s in New Orleans, this historical mystery series highlights all the ways that city have changed and how it’s stayed the same. Benjamin January, a Creole physician, deals with the complexities of a pre-Emancipation city, moving through many layers of society while tracking down miscreants and murderers. The reader meets voudon practitioners, fancy hotel patrons, and riverboat smugglers among details of music and food that bring New Orleans to life.

The Hangman’s Daughter (Die Henkerstochter) by Oliver Pötzsch

This series starts out on a very small scale, set entirely within a small Bavarian village in 1659, just after the Thirty Years’ War. As the sequels progress, the author takes the reader through all of Bavaria, weaving discussions of folklore and politics with the history of the region.

Three Imperial Roman Detectives

Marcus Didius Falco (by Lindsey Davis) works as a private investigator of sorts, looking into crimes without the official backing of the state. One of the most interesting things I found in this series is the discussions of the various forms of Roman law enforcement and jurisdiction. There is also a spin-off series of mysteries starring Marcus Didius Falco’s daughter, allowing the reader to see some of the other side of the gender divide in Roman society.

Gaius Petreus Ruso (by Ruth Downie) is a Roman army doctor (a medicus) posted to the far northern reaches of the Empire, in Britannia. While he solves crimes, the reader sees a wide swath of Imperial Roman society, with plenty of details about the local tribes in what is Chester, England today and their uneasy truce with the Romans.

Libertus (by Rosemary Rowe) has earned his freedom from slavery by the time the first novel in this series opens. However, this backstory allows the author to explore the intricacies of Roman practices of slavery and social hierarchies through Libertus’s detective work.

Edie Kiglatuk by MJ McGarth

This isn’t actually a historical mystery series, but the setting and details are so fascinating that I’m including it here. Edie Kiglatuk is an Inuit guide, schoolteacher, and sometimes hunter on a tiny island far north of the Arctic Circle. She investigates crimes in her community while dealing with settlement politics, historical trauma, and some of the most inhospitable terrain humans manage to survive. In later books in the series, she visits other communities in the far north of Russia and Greenland, and the reader gets a glimpse of the cultural similarities of communities separated by so much distance.


I enjoy watching athletes in a variety of sports, and basketball is one of my favorites. In honor of March Madness, I started looking into what goes on off the court. Some of the elements that make basketball so entertaining are relatively recent developments, but many have been around since the very beginning.

B-Ball History

James Naismith with the peach basket and soccer ball from his early game

Basketball began in 1891, invented by James Naismith, a 31-year-old graduate student and instructor at Springfield College. Luther Gulick (then the College’s physical education superintendent, today renowned as the father of physical education and recreation in the United States) charged Naismith to come up with a new game. The goal was to create an indoor activity that college students could play during the long New England winters. The bonus was that it’s a less injury-prone sport than football. Students quickly adopted the new pastime, and it’s grown in popularity since.

Naismith’s creation was an amalgamation of many games of the time, including American rugby (passing), English rugby (the jump ball), lacrosse (use of a goal), soccer (the shape and size of the ball), and something called duck on a rock, a game Naismith had played with his childhood friends in Bennie’s Corners, Ontario. Duck on a rock used a ball and a goal that players could not rush. The goal also could not be slammed through, thus necessitating “a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would have to be tossed into it, rather than being thrown.”

The First Game

Naismith nailed two peach baskets to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one at each end. An assistant stood at each end of the balcony to collect the ball from the basket and put it back into play. It wasn’t until a few years later that someone thought to cut the bottoms out of those peach baskets so the ball could fall loose. (I’ve abbreviated this history of basketball from the Springfield College website.)

James Naismith with the 1899 University of Kansas basketball team

The first game ended in a brawl. “One boy was knocked out. Several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder,” Naismith said. “After that first match, I was afraid they’d kill each other, but they kept nagging me to let them play again so I made up some more rules.” (Quoted from a National Geographic article on the history of basketball.

Early Rules

On January 15, 1892, the Springfield College school newspaper, The Triangle, published the original basketball rules.

1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.

2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).

3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop.

4. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.

5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.

6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3,4, and such as described in Rule 5.

7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the mean time making a foul).

8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.

9. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds; if he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side.

10. The umpire shall be judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.

11. The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.

12. The time shall be two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between.

13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.

First draft of James Naismith’s rules for “Basket Ball”


The website HoopTactics chronicled the major changes in basketball since those earliest years. Here are the areas of change, in chronological order. You can look them up. Virtually everything has changed!

The gender, nationality, race, location, and equipment of these college basketball players have all changed from that first Springfield game.
(from the 2015 World University Games, held in South Korea, USA playing Canada)
  • Team size
  • Substitutions
  • Baskets
  • Backboards
  • Balls
  • Scoring
  • Timing
  • Shot clock
  • Fouls
  • Free throws
  • Passing, not changed from original Rules 1 & 2
  • Dribbling
  • Out of bounds
  • Midcourt line
  • Three-second area
  • Free throw lanes
  • Center jump
  • Goal tending
  • Offensive basket interference
  • Dunking—“Alcindor Rule
  • Game coaching

Note: These changes apply to men’s basketball, and vary somewhat by level: high school, college, professional, international.

Women’s Basketball

Women have been playing basketball almost from the very beginning. However, the road to the WNBA’s creation has not been an easy one.

Senda Berenson

Senda Berenson, a gymnastic instructor, at Smith College, Northampton, MA, introduced women’s basketball in 1893. She proposed changes to Naismith’s rules for several reasons. The original rules encouraged what many saw as unsportsman-like conduct, including violent fouls and “star playing.” (from Senda Berenson, “The Significance of Basketball for Women.” Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for Women: 1901-1901 (1901)) Berenson’s changes attempted to curb this behavior and to encourage a uniform set of rules to allow for intercollegiate tournaments.

Women originally played with three zones sections with two players stationary in each section. In 1938, the three court sections where reduced to two, with two stationary guards, two stationary forwards, and two “rovers” who could move around the entire court. For decades, people commonly referred to this system as women’s half-court basketball, six-on-six basketball, or basquette.

1903 official rules for women’s basketball
(from Vintage Basketball)

Early organizers of collegiate women’s sports also had to confront society’s expectations of women. They had to adjust their play style to be allowed to play at all. Social mores of the time also forbade male spectators at practice and games.

Early discussions among female athletes and coaches illustrate the extremely difficult position they faced when trying to promote women’s basketball. As historian Mercedes Townsend writes, “[T]hese women largely focused on navigating through the social ideals and expectations that defined womanhood and, in turn, affected popular opinion on women’s participation in sports.” In a time when women were increasingly organizing and protesting for more economic, political, and social participation, many saw basketball as a useful tool for gender equity. “Proponents of women’s basketball considered the sport an important opportunity to showcase both the physical and intellectual ability of women, and to further validate the growing opportunities for women in the country.”

The University of California at Berkley and Stanford University played the first intercollegiate women’s game in 1896. Two teams in Illinois played the first known interscholastic women’s high school basketball game that same year.

University of California at Berkeley Women’s Basketball Team of 1899

The Amateur Athletic Union conducted the first ever women’s national championship in 1936. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) held the first women’s world championship in 1969. In 1971 women were (finally) allowed to play full court. Louisiana Tech won the first NCAA championship in 1982. In 1995, Oklahoma was the last state to switch from court sections to full court play in high school games.

Perhaps the most important event to occur in women’s basketball, as well as all women’s sports, was the enactment of Title IX in 1972, equalizing men’s and women’s sports. Today, women’s teams play basketball with the same enthusiasm and intensity as men’s teams.

Just the Facts

The following ten basketball facts come from the Basketball Museum of Illinois:

Michael Jordan reportedly wore his college basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform for every game as a good luck talisman.
  • Michael Jordan wasn’t always great. In his sophomore year, Jordan tried out for his school’s team. He has often spoken about not seeing his name on the team list and bursting into tears. Instead of dwelling on it, though, he used the fact his name was not there to push himself harder.
  • In 1949, the NBL and BAA leagues merged, changing their name to the National Basketball Association. While the NBA describes it as an “expansion,” the two groups combined to create a 17-team league across several cities.
  • Organized basketball first recorded a dunk in 1936, performed by a Texan named Joe Fortenberry. In the ’60s, the NBA banned dunking in games altogether, though they rescinded this rule in 1976.
  • It wasn’t until 1966 that any NBA team hired a black coach. The Boston Celtics hired Bill Russell, a well-known professional player, to lead their team.
  • In 1976, women’s basketball became an Olympic sport. In 1978, America started the Women’s Basketball League. That league collapsed in 1981. Starting in 1996, women play in the WNBA.
Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues (5’3″) with Manute Bol (7’7″)
  • Over approximately 16,000 games against the Harlem Globetrotters, the Washington Generals have only ever won 4 games.
  • The three-point line didn’t exist before 1979. For decades, it moved back and forth in test games before ending at its current location of 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket.
  • As of now, the tallest NBA player ever is Gheorghe Mureșan at 7-foot-7. He played from 1993 to 2000 and scored 3,020 points for two teams, starting with the Washington Bullets/Wizards and New Jersey Nets.
    • [My addition: Yasutaka Okayama, 7’8” is the tallest player ever drafter for the NBA, but he never played in the NBA,]
  • At 5’3” Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues is the shortest NBA player. He played for four different teams during his 14- season NBA career.
  • Jameson Curry signed a ten-day contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. The coach finally subbed him in as a game was about to end. He played 3.9 seconds, the record for shortest time played. The team released him from the contract shortly thereafter.
None of the rules really apply for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Basketball Fun

And then there are these fun facts from across the web:

Lisa Leslie at the 2008 Summer Olympics
  • Players in the first basketball game played with a soccer ball rather than a basketball.
  • During the inaugural game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the New York Liberty on June 21, 1997, basketball legend Lisa Leslie made history by scoring the first basket in the WNBA.
  • The WNBA started with 8 teams and expanded to 12. The NBA has 30 teams.
  • The Harlem Globetrotters, famous for their entertaining tricks and stunts, have been around since 1926.
  • In basketball, players can make shots worth different numbers of points – one point for a free throw, two points for a regular field goal, and three points for a shot made beyond the three-point line.
  • The highest-scoring NBA game ever took place on December 13, 1983. The Detroit Pistons defeated the Denver Nuggets by a score of 186-184! Was anyone playing defense?
With specially designed chairs and a few adaptations to the rules, wheelchair basketball has been popular since its creation in 1944.
  • The average NBA player runs 2-3 miles per game!
  • In recent years, the WNBA has become a leading advocate for social justice, with players and teams using their platforms to champion important causes and promote meaningful change. It is a beacon of diversity, equality, and athleticism, showcasing the immense potential of women in sports.
  • The 2020 Tokyo Olympics marked the 30th anniversary of basketball’s debut as an official Olympic sport.
  • Wilt Chamberlain currently holds the single game point record. He scored 100 points in a single game for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks in 1962.
  • In 2015, Stephen Curry became the first of the NBA players to make 400 three-pointers in one season.
  • Stephen Curry has been an NBA All-Star ten times, 2014-2024.
  • Male athletes in basketball (as well as golf, soccer, baseball, and tennis) were still earning anywhere from15% to nearly 100% more than females in 2023. Well, this one isn’t such a fun fact!

Bottom Line: Basketball is more complex and interesting than most viewers realize.

Women’s sports often serve as a pathway to social change and equality
(2020 Iranian women’s basketball team at the Pan-Asian games)


“Contact comfort” refers to the physical and emotional comfort a person receives from physical contact with another. And it isn’t just for infants!

Pretty much everyone knows about the need for contact comfort in infancy; whether the infant receives it or not has life-long consequences. Why?

Early Contact Comfort Research

Harry Harlow

Contact comfort
Harlow monkey experiment
Baby monkey snuggling a soft mannequin in Harry Harlow’s research

Psychologists believe that contact comfort forms the foundation for attachments. As far back as the 1950s, Harry Harlow’s studies demonstrated the importance of physical comfort. In his lab, young monkeys preferred snuggling with a soft, cloth-covered mannequin over a wire mannequin. Even when the wire mannequin provided food, the baby monkeys chose to cuddle with the mannequin that provided contact comfort.

Similarly, human babies need to feel safe and comforted. From this secure base, they develop the confidence interact with and explore their worlds.

John Bowlby

According to John Bowlby, who saw first-hand the effects of World War II on civilian populations, children need two things to develop a healthy attachment:

  • The caregiver must be responsive to the child’s physical, social, and emotional needs
  • The caregiver and child must engage in mutually enjoyable interactions

As Bowlby observed, even infants try to prevent separation from their parents. When such separation is imminent, babies cry, refuse a stranger’s comfort, and wait for the parent to return.

Erik Erikson

Eric Erikson, a contemporary of Harlow and Bowlby, theorized that human psychosocial development occurs in eight stages. Erikson was in agreement on the importance of a secure base, arguing that the most important goal of infancy was the development of a basic sense of trust in one’s caregivers. Infants are dependent and must rely on others to meet their basic physical needs as well as their needs for stimulation and comfort. A caregiver who consistently meets these needs instills a sense of trust in the world is a trustworthy place.

In 1982, Erikson concluded that a lack of this basic trust could contaminate all aspects of a person’s life and deprive the person of love and fellowship. For example, a premature infant who has to spend their first weeks in an incubator might not develop a strong bond with parents. A child born unwanted or with physical problems that make them less desirable to a parent is more likely to develop a mistrust of the world. Under these circumstances, the parent isn’t likely to provide what the child needs to develop trust. Not being able to trust others, even family and close friends, has profound effects in teens and adults.

Children who have not had ample physical and emotional attention are likely to develop emotional, social, and behavioral problems when they are older.

Lack of Contact Comfort

The human brain changes extensively during infancy. Children from deprived surroundings such as orphanages, show vastly different hormone levels than parent-raised children even beyond the baby years.

Human babies can actually die from lack of touch.

In the nineteenth century, most infants in orphanages and institutions in the United States died of marasmus (“wasting away”). In the 1930s, doctors called a child’s physical decline when separated from caregivers anaclitic depression or hospitalism. A survey of institutions in 1915 reported that the majority of children under age two who had died exhibited “failure to thrive” symptoms. The lack of touch and affection drastically decreased their ability to grow, maintain a healthy weight, and develop.

James Prescott (1971) found that deprivation of touch and movement contributed to later emotional problems. In cultures in which people were very physically affectionate towards infants, levels of adult aggression were relatively low. On the other hand, in cultures that did not encourage as much physical touch, level of adult aggression were higher.

Everyone Benefits!

Mental Benefits

Skin to skin contact benefits both the child and the parent. It reduces parental stress and depression.

According to an article at itspsychology.com, the benefits of contact comfort for adults are numerous. It can help to reduce stress and anxiety, regulate emotions, and increase the production of feel-good hormones. It can also help strengthen relationships and build trust between people. As mentioned earlier, infants who don’t have a foundation for trust have a much tougher time trusting as adults.

For those with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, physical contact can be an invaluable source of comfort and security, safety and connection. Research has shown that the physical touch of another person can help reduce feelings of fear, anger, and sadness.

When people are mourning a death or other loss, a typical response is to hug the person, or at least touch the person’s arm, hold hands, or offer a pat on the back.

In stressful situations (like a court or doctor’s office), you are likely to see people holding hands or leaning on the shoulder of a loved one while waiting. In times of heightened stress or fear, people unconsciously reach for comfort from those around them. Children who usually consider themselves too old for cuddles will climb on a parent’s lap. Siblings who otherwise don’t get along might hug or simply lean together. Even complete strangers often feel compelled to seek or offer a pat on the shoulder or hand on the back, as the situation dictates.

Physical Benefits

In addition, contact comfort can help speed up the healing process for physical wounds. For example, patients who are touched on the shoulder by nurses and other medical personnel heal faster. Other studies have shown that physical touch can help reduce pain and inflammation. This is because the body releases oxytocin and endorphins, which can help reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Touching can help strengthen relationships and build trust between people. Studies have shown that physical touch increase feelings of closeness and connection, and levels of trust and understanding.

As with infants, when adults are physically touched by another person, it can help us feel safe and connected. This can be especially helpful for those struggling with insecurity or feeling disconnected from their partner.

Give Yourself More Contact Comfort

If you’d like to incorporate contact comfort into your daily life, here are a few tips from “Contact Comfort: How Touch Can Help Us Feel Connected

  • Make sure to give and receive physical affection regularly. This can be as simple as a hug or holding hands.
  • Take time to be intentional about physical contact with those you love. Make sure to focus on the connection and the feeling of being held or touched.
  • Try to be mindful of the effect that physical touch can have. Pay attention to how it makes you feel and how it can help create a deeper connection with those around you.
  • Make sure to establish boundaries around physical contact. Respect the wishes of those you touch and be aware of their comfort level.

Under a huge range of circumstances—you can imagine what those might be—an adult’s needs for physical closeness and touch just aren’t satisfied. Those people might decide to find a professional cuddler (or cuddlist). You can hire a professional cuddle-buddy for $60-$100 per hour for non-sexual hugs and cuddles. Both people remain fully clothed. The permissible touching is clearly delineated—much like when getting a massage in the U.S.

Bottom Line: Non-violent physical touch is comforting, and beneficial in many ways. Contact comfort is a good thing!


Turkey breeders domesticated farmyard turkeys from a species actually called the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), native to the eastern and southwestern states and parts of Mexico. Last week’s blog explores turkey origins, early domestication, and return to the U.S. from Europe with colonists.

The Modern Turkey

Domestic stock returned from Europe was eventually crossbred with the wild turkeys of North America. Today, there are six common standard domestic varieties in the United States:

  • Bronze
  • Black
  • Narraganset
  • Bourbon Red
  • Slate
  • White Holland

Although wild and domestic turkeys are genetically the same species, that’s about where the similarity ends.

The domestic turkey lost its ability to fly well through selective breeding that created heavier, broad-breasted birds. The shorter legs of the domestic turkey also mean it can’t run as well as its wild cousin.

Generations of farmers have bred domesticated turkeys to have more breast meat, meatier thighs, and white feathers. (White feathers don’t leave the dark pigmentation after plucking.) Most of the turkey we eat is from the Broad Breasted White breed.

Americans consume about 736 million pounds of turkey each Thanksgiving. In 2022, Americans collectively spent approximately $1.1 billion on Thanksgiving turkeys.

One fifth of America’s annual turkey consumption is on the Thanksgiving dinner table.

What About Turkeys Off the Thanksgiving Platter?

Some reports say Americans consume an average of 18 pounds of turkey meat per capita each year. Other estimates suggest it’s 13.6 pounds per person. In any case, it’s more than anyone consumes at a single meal, even Thanksgiving.

While Americans prefer the white meat of turkeys, most of the rest of the world prefers the dark meat.

Avian myologists (bird muscle scientists) refer to dark meat as “red muscle.” Animals use red muscle for sustained activity—chiefly walking, in the case of a turkey. The dark color comes from a chemical compound in the muscle called myoglobin, which plays a key role in oxygen transport. White muscle, in contrast, is suitable only for short bursts of activity such as, for turkeys, flying. That’s why the turkey’s leg meat and thigh meat are dark, and its breast meat (which makes up the primary flight muscles) is white. Other more “flighty” birds, such as ducks and geese, have red muscle (and dark meat) throughout.

Creative chefs have written whole cookbooks about turkey.

As with other cookbooks, you can find recipes for appetizers, beverages, soups, breads, salads, side dishes, sandwiches, burgers, and many uses for leftovers.

Facts About Turkeys Off the Table

A rafter of turkeys

Male turkeys are sometimes called “gobblers,” after the “gobble” call they make. Alternatively, they are called “toms.” Females are called “hens.”

Many factors impact a tom turkey’s impulse to gobble. The presence of other male turkeys or of female turkeys, the weather, the time of year, and a turkey’s age all influence when and how loudly a tom turkey gobbles.

Hens make a clucking sound. Other turkey sounds include “purrs,” “yelps,” “cutts,” “cackles,” “hoots,” and “kee-kees.”

Adult gobblers weigh between 16 and 22 pounds. They have a beard of modified feathers on their chests that reaches seven inches or more long and sharp spurs on their legs for fighting.

Hens are smaller, weighing around 8 to 12 pounds. They have no beard or spurs.

Both genders have a snood (a dangly appendage on the face) and a wattle (the red, fleshy thing that hangs from a turkey’s neck). However, they only have a few feathers on the head.

Snood length is an indicator of a male turkey’s health. When males challenge each other, scientists can use snood length to predict the winner. In addition, a 1997 study in the Journal of Avian Biology found that female turkeys prefer males with long snoods.

Tom turkeys also have caruncles, visible bumps on their heads. The larger the caruncles, the more testosterone a tom has.

Turkey hens live together in flocks (called rafters) with their female young. These rafters can have 50 or more birds!

Male turkeys form their own flocks, sometimes further separated by age. At mating time, a group of related male turkeys will band together to court females. However, only one member of the group gets to mate.

Commercial poultry farms today artificially inseminate turkey eggs. Generations of selectively breeding for larger breasts has created birds too large and heavy to mate naturally.

When a hen is ready to make little turkeys, she’ll lay one egg per day, over a period of about two weeks until she has a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs. Then, the eggs incubate for about one month before hatching.

Turkey hen with poults

Baby turkeys (poults) eat primarily berries, seeds, and insects. An adult’s more varied diet can include acorns and even small reptiles.

A clever observer can determine a turkey’s gender from its droppings. Males produce long, thin, spiral-shaped poop. Females’ poop clumps more and looks like the letter J.

Early farmers kept turkeys on small farms not just for their meat but also because they ate large numbers of insects and so were a great source of pest control.

One of the difficulties of raising turkeys stems from their curiosity. Without sturdy and cleverly built pens, turkeys will get out of their enclosures and wander off to explore the neighborhood. Also, they tend to get into places they can’t get out of, such as nearby buildings and the pens of other animals. In particular, turkeys commonly get their heads caught in fences!

A flock of wild turkeys has caused problems at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The curious and territorial birds are big enough to deter pedestrians, stop traffic, and even halt aircraft.

Adults must teach their young to eat from special feeders and waterers, just like other baby animals.

Turkeys like to roost high up in trees where they are safe from predators and can see any danger coming. They are not always graceful when descending, often crashing from branch to branch on their way to the ground.

Turkeys have approximately 3,500 feathers at maturity. If you’re particularly industrious, you can use these feathers, along with chicken feathers, to make feather-tick bedding. It’s not nearly so light and comfy as down!

Wild turkeys swim very well. They can flatten their feathers for a stream-lined effect, steer with their tails, and kick with their powerful legs.

Turkey skins are tanned and used to make items like cowboy boots, belts, and other accessories.

The dance called the Turkey Trot was named for the short, jerky steps a turkey makes. It became very popular following its introduction in a San Francisco nightclub in 1910. The movements were so “outlandish” that authorities used to arrest people for Turkey Trotting in public, and Pope Pius X begged his flock not to follow the new dance craze.

Before modern transportation, farmers in the British Isles put leather shoes on turkeys and walked them to market.

The 57th Annual Tremont Turkey Festival was held June 9-11, 2023. The festival features footraces, bed races, horseshoes, music, a parade, food, food, food, and more.

Bottom line: (Some people think) turkeys are kind of cool.


Once Halloween is over, it’s all about Thanksgiving. The shift of focus from goblins to gobblers is instantaneous. Although officially called Thanksgiving, for many it’s really Turkey Day. But beyond dinner, what do people really know of Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey that gave rise to the one likely to be on the platter?

Turkeys in North America

flying turkey

Turkeys are native to North America, as are all the subspecies. M. gallopavo silvestris, sometimes called forest turkeys or eastern wild turkeys, are the most numerous of the subspecies, more than five million.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Native Americans domesticated turkeys more than 1500 years ago, before Europeans set foot on the continent. Archaeologists have found turkey bones in burial mounds in Tennessee, Kentucky and some other parts of the South. Turkey relics have surfaced in Arizona dating as far back as 25 C.E., and turkey-raising may well be one of the oldest forms of organized meat production in the Northern Hemisphere.

Indigenous farmers raised turkeys in Mexico and Central America more than 500 years before the Spanish arrived. Evidence of turkey bones at religious sites and burial mounds suggests that turkeys served a ceremonial role as well as providing meat. Although native to North America, the turkey’s range extended into Mexico.

Turkey Trade in Central America

Chalchiuhtotolin, Aztec turkey god
Chalchiuhtotolin, the god of plagues, depicted as a turkey in the Aztec Codex

Central Mexico once acted as a center of turkey domestication. Archaeologists have found bones of Meleagris gallopavo from as early as 8000 B.C.E. in what was once Maya territory. Remains of turkey pens and fossilized poop containing traces of corn suggest ancient Mayans kept and fed turkeys, trading them throughout Central America.

A 1980s archaeological dig at the El Mirador assemblage in Guatemala unearthed seven turkey skeletons. The bones were from more than 2000 years ago and more than 400 miles from their native range in Central Mexico.

One thing is certain, says Erin Kennedy Thornton, an environmental archaeologist at Trent University Archaeological Research Centre in Peterborough, Canada. The turkeys “didn’t walk there [to the Jaguar Paw Temple] themselves.” Like many Native American cultures, she says, the Maya used turkey feathers in ornaments and carved turkey bones into picks, pins, and elaborate tubes.

Ocellated Turkey
Ocellated Turkey – no wonder Hernán Cortés confused them with peacocks in 1519!

Thornton studied the bones, and concluded they did not belong to the indigenous ocellated turkeys that roamed Mayan territory. Those birds are small, with blue heads and iridescent blue, green, and copper feathers, she says,”almost like a cross between a turkey and a peacock.” The bones found in the temple appeared to belong to the larger, duller Mexican turkey.

After reexamining the bones, Thornton collaborated with archaeologist Camilla Speller, an expert in ancient DNA analysis at the University of Calgary in Canada, to confirm that the bones belonged to M. gallopavo. Only one of the bones yielded enough replicable DNA for analysis. That DNA was an exact match with M. gallopavo, and not the ocellated turkey.

Mayan traders maintained long-distance exchange networks between northern Mesoamerica and Mayan territory. They moved many objects such as jade, obsidian, and pottery throughout these networks between 300 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., when the bones likely originated, says Thornton. However, she says, this is the first sign that Mayan traders may have transported living animals as well.

As early as 300 B.C.E, people transported Mexican turkeys between 650 and 950 kilometers outside of the their natural range. In a study Thornton and others published, they argued that this distribution suggests turkey domestication in Mexico may have begun centuries earlier than scientists previously thought.

“I think they did a good job of making the case that the Meleagris gallopavo birds at El Mirador were derived from Central Mexico and were probably being confined,” says William Lipe, an archaeologist at Washington State University, Pullman. However, the small sample of DNA concerns him, and he agrees with Thornton that scientists need to do more research. “My guess is that the history of turkey domestication in the New World is fairly complex and that we are just beginning to see some of the outlines of it.”

Turkeys in Europe

Turks call this bird a “Hindi.” Hindi speakers call it a “Peru.” Arabic speakers call it a “Greek chicken.” Greeks call it a “French chicken.” The French call it an “Indian chicken.”

So, it’s likely that the Mayans of southern Mexico domesticated turkeys, maybe 2000 years ago. Spanish explorers took Mexican wild turkeys domesticated by the Aztecs back to Europe about 1519. These turkeys spread rapidly throughout Europe, and traders introduced them to England between 1524 and 1541. There, they became a highly sought-after element of gourmet dinners.

After those early domestic turkeys spread across Europe in the 1500s, European colonists brought them back. When colonists set off for the New World, they brought turkeys back across the Atlantic, to the land of their origin. At the time, the turkey was already one of the most plentiful foods of Native Americans. The wild cousin is slim, tall and long-legged. It possesses keen eyesight, hearing, and native cunning, making it a difficult target for human and animal hunters alike.

“The wild turkey in a sprint can outrun a galloping horse for a short distance,” said Charles Ruth, Big Game Program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). “Although it is one of the largest game birds, weighing up to 25 pounds, it can fly distances of more than a mile, sometimes at speeds of 55 miles per hour.”

The Modern Turkey

Despite these survival traits, by the early 20th century, wild turkey numbers had plummeted because of overhunting and loss of habitat. In the early 1900s, the population reached a low of around 30,000 birds.

Fortunately, game managers stepped in, re-introducing wild-caught birds to areas where turkeys had disappeared. Thanks to these efforts, since the 1940s, wild turkeys have been prospering. There are now wild turkeys in all of the lower 48 states and even Hawaii, far beyond their original range. They number more than seven million.

Restoration of the wild turkey in South Carolina is one of the Palmetto State’s most noteworthy conservation success stories. In the early 1900s, only small pockets of wild turkeys survived in South Carolina. They lived primarily in the Lowcountry’s Francis Marion National Forest and along the Savannah River swamps. Today, the wild turkey is widespread throughout South Carolina. All 46 counties hold a spring hunting season (there is no fall season). Wild turkey restoration was made possible through the efforts of the SCDNR, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the forest products industry, private landowners, and South Carolina sportsmen and sportswomen.

Myths Busted

The name of the Republic of Turkey (now spelled Türkiye) and the funny-looking bird we eat in November are actually related (maybe). In the 1550s, merchants brought the birds to England by way of Spain and North Africa. People associated the new delicacy with the Ottoman Empire, particularly with the Turkish people.
  • Myth: Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey as a national symbol or part of the Great Seal for America.
    • Fact: In 1784, Benjamin Franklin did praise the turkey. He wrote that compared to the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.” But he never actually proposed the turkey as a symbol for America.
  • Myth: Turkeys are just big chickens.
    • Fact: More than 45 million years of evolution separates the two species. However, both are more closely related to dinosaurs than most modern birds!
  • Myth: Turkeys are so dumb, they’ll stare at the sky during a storm and drown in the rain.
    • Fact: Some turkeys have a unique genetic condition called tetanic torticollar spasms. This condition can result in some strange behaviors, like staring at the sky. No turkeys with this condition have been reported dying from looking up in the rain.
  • Myth: Turkey is high in tryptophan. Eating turkey makes you sleepy.
    • Fact: Turkey is just one of many foods that contain tryptophan. In order to feel the effects, you’d need to eat nearly 8 pounds of turkey in one sitting.

Bottom Line: When you think turkey, think beyond the supermarket.


Bananas: feeding toddlers and entertaining onlookers!

Commercially available bananas are far from my favorite fruit: too soft, too sweet. I may well be in the minority here. In the U.S., they outsell oranges and apples combined.

Just look at the numbers!

Bananas are one of the most consumed and cheapest fruits worldwide: they are the most traded fruit and the fifth most traded agricultural product. In 2022, the global export value of the banana trade totaled US$12.5 billion. Banana growers exported 19.6 billion metric tonnes of bananas (with the exception of plantains) in 2022. Cavendish bananas alone had a retail value of approximately US$ 25.74 in 2022. They are the fourth most important crop in the world, behind wheat, rice, and corn.

Red bananas in Thailand

The U.S. imports bananas primarily from Guatemala, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Columbia, and Honduras. Chiquita-Fyffes, Del Monte, Dole, Grupo Noboa S.A. own or subcontract the majority of banana plantations around the world. According to World Top Exports, “The biggest 5 exporters of bananas (Ecuador, Philippines, Guatemala, Costa Rica then the Netherlands) accounted for three-fifths (60%) of all banana sales on international markets.”

Many banana growing countries don’t export them; banana growers sell them for domestic consumption.

A Brief History of Bananas

Wild bananas have lots of hard seeds.

But what are we talking about, really? Botanically, a banana is a berry that grows on several kinds of large herbaceous flowering plants in the genus Musa. These plants look like trees but are actually giant herbs. The Latin name for banana, musa sapientum, translates to “fruit of the wise men.”

Food historians believe the first wild bananas grew in jungles in regions of Asia such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Researchers have found domestication projects of the fruit in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Based on archaeological evidence, the cultivation of bananas in the highlands of New Guinea dates back as far as 8000 BCE.

Alexander the Great first discovered the taste of bananas while campaigning in India in 327 BCE. Islamic conquerors brought the banana back to Palestine in 650, and Arab merchants eventually spread them around Africa.

Portuguese sailors brought bananas from West Africa, introducing them to the Americas in the 16th century. Its Guinean (Wolof) name was banema, which later became banana in English. From Guinea, we also get the word guineo for an unripe banana.

Merchants introduced bananas to North America in the 1880s. Fashionable people ate them with a knife and fork.

Gros Michel banana plants affected by banana wilt (1919)

What we eat in the U.S. today is almost exclusively the dessert banana Cavendish. Prior to the 1950s, the Gros Michel variety dominated the US market. However, a combination of fungal plagues, particularly Panama disease, wiped out nearly all of the Gros Michel plantations.

Artificial banana flavoring actually tastes like a Gros Michel banana (or an English pear, depending on who you ask). When you eat banana flavored candy, you’re getting a taste of the past!

The Cavendish banana variety is now under threat from the same disease that struck its predecessor. Panama disease has evolved into a new strain (Tropical Race 4), which can resist many of the quarantine and anti-fungal measures of farmers. Since researchers first identified Tropical Race 4 in Australia in 1997, they have traced its spread across Oceania, South-East Asia, and the Middle East. In 2021, the Peruvian government declared a phytosanitary emergency for the whole country after detecting the new strain of Panama disease. (Researchers think Panama disease actually originates in South-East Asia, not Panama or anywhere in South America.)

And then there’s banana ketchup. During World War II, ketchup producers in the Philippines faced a shortage of tomatoes but had plenty of bananas on hand. Maria Orosa, a Filipino chemist and food scientist, created banana ketchup to solve both problems. She made a paste of bananas, vinegar, sugar, and spices, and added red food coloring. People who have tried it claim it tastes just like the ketchup you’d find in any fast food restaurant in America.

But How Much Do You Really Know About This Fruit?

One might think that a banana is a banana, but there are between 500 to 1000 different varieties of bananas growing around the world, subdivided into 50 groups. Some are sweet, like the Cavendish banana, which is the most common and most widely exported. In many countries, people differentiate between bananas (sweet and eaten as a snack or dessert) and plantains (starchy and used in cooking).

Banana Varieties

Cultivated bananas reproduce asexually. Each plant basically grows as a clone of its elder, starting from suckers or pups growing out of its base. The lack of variety and adaptation leads to extreme vulnerability, such as from Panama disease.

Banana Tree in Vietnam

Due to their need for a warm, tropical climate, bananas can not grow easily in most of the United States. Many farmers in Hawaii grow some of the lesser well-known varieties of banana, such as Blue Java bananas, which purportedly taste like vanilla ice cream. Small groves of banana trees grow throughout the American south, in Florida yards and along Louisiana highways.

Banana bunches grow pointing up. Growers call these bunches “hands.” Each hand typically has about 20 “fingers”.

In 2001, a banana cluster took the title of the “largest bunch of bananas.” It held 473 individual bananas or “fingers” and weighed a whopping 287 lbs (130 kg). Kabana SA and Tecorone SL grew the bunch in the Canary Islands.

Consider health benefits in particular. Bananas are nutritious. They have approximately 89 calories per 100 grams (3.5 oz). Bananas are most known for their potassium content but also contain B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and fiber. These support heart health and digestive health. According to research, eating bananas can lower the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Foods that are high in potassium might stop fatal blockages from occurring and can also inhibit the hardening and narrowing of arteries.

Banana cart in Vietnam

Bananas contain serotonin, a natural substance that alleviates depression and balances other moods. This form of serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so bananas don’t act as a kind of natural antidepressant. However, a banana’s high concentration of vitamin B6 can help the body to produce its own serotonin naturally. This chemical also contributes to an overall well-balanced feeling amongst consumers.

If you have a bug bite, the inside of a banana peel can relieve itching. The natural oils found in the banana skin contains a chemical that helps alleviate irritation from mosquito bites and poison ivy.

Fun Facts

Banana leaves make versatile, biodegradable, and very handy packaging!

If bananas are too green to eat, put them in a paper bag with an apple or tomato. The banana’s ripening will speed up overnight. These helpers release more ethylene than others. This is the chemical that helps fruits ripen over time.

For the same reason, don’t keep fresh flowers on a counter or table next to bananas. The released ethylene will make the flowers wilt more quickly.

In 2016, police in Mumbai forced a thief to eat 48 bananas so that they could retrieve the gold chain he stole and swallowed.

Authorities in China have banned seductively eating a banana during a live stream, as of 2016. This is to keep under-aged women from attracting older male audiences. The Chinese government deems such acts harmful to social morality. Wearing suspenders on a live stream is also illegal.

Jordan Maddocks set a record for running the fastest marathon while dressed as a fruit in 2020. He ran the Rock n’ Roll Arizona Marathon in 2 hours and 41 minutes.

APOPO trains African giant pouched rats to identify landmines and tuberculosis, often by rewarding these HeroRATS with bananas, one of their favorite foods.

Banana fruits are naturally radioactive! This radioactivity is present in fruits containing potassium and potassium decays. You could die of banana radiation poisoning if you were able to eat 10 million bananas at once. You might experience chronic symptoms if you were to eat 274 bananas every day for 7 years. What are the chances?

The Guinness Book of World Records recognized Patrick Bertoletti as the man who could eat the most bananas in one minute. He peeled and ate eight bananas on the 14th of January in 2012 at Sierra Studios, Illinois, USA. In 2015, Pedro Aguilar from Mexico City, Mexico matched the record on July 26, 2015. You can do the math!

If a child hands you a banana, you are legally obligated to hold it to your ear and answer it like a phone.

Fifty percent of people who are allergic to latex are allergic to bananas as well. The term for this phenomenon is latex-food syndrome or latex-fruit allergy. While few people are born with allergy, it can be developed later on in life.

Bananas can float on water. They have relatively low density and multiple air pockets. Similar fruits such as watermelons, oranges, and apples are also naturally buoyant.

Bananas are approximately 75% water, which seems like a lot. By comparison, cucumbers or radishes have 96% and 95% water respectively.

A team at Kitasato University in Minato, Japan won the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for calculating precisely how slippery a banana peel is. As it turns out, it is all down to the polysaccharide molecules in the peel, a substance also found in our joints. When crushed, the cells in a banana peel release these polysaccharide molecules as a gel, coating whatever surface they touch.

The International Banana Museum in Mecca, California

Rubbing the inside of banana peels on leather products like handbags or shoes works like shoe polish. The potassium in bananas, just like the potassium in leather polish, conditions and shines leather. Just rub the banana peel on the surface needing a polish and wipe off any residue with a cloth.

The use of “bananas” or “going bananas” to mean insanity may stem from flapper slang in the 1920s. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English traces this use back to the late 1910s, when flappers used “banana oil” to mean “nonsense.” Alternatively, a glossary of criminal slang from 1935, The Underworld Speaks, noted that “bananas” meant “sexually perverted.”

The Coat of Arms of Fiji, featuring bananas on the lower right

A monkey peels a banana upside down compared to our method: they pinch the nub at the floral end and split the skin to peel it down toward the stem. The most nutrient-dense part of a banana is opposite the stem, the part that would be pointed up when a banana was growing on the tree. Peeling a banana from this end allows the monkey (or you) to reach the best part of the banana first. People who peel a banana from the floral top are also slightly less likely to contaminate the fruit with bacteria from the stem. Hungry monkeys will sometimes just eat the whole banana, peel and all!

Humans share about 41% of our DNA with bananas.

Banana leaves have nearly as many uses as the fruits. When cooked, they have many nutritious benefits. People use them as a building material or for rain protection. They can be formed into biodegradable cooking or eating utensils. Weavers can process fibers from banana leaves and stems into rope and fabric.

The Dark Side of Bananas

I don’t like to write downer blogs, but be aware. There is evidence of price fixing on bananas, keeping them at 79 cent a pound. This is possible because of the concentration of banana plantations and export under the control of just a few companies. The cost savings to consumers means that those actually growing and harvesting the fruit often live on subsistence earnings.

Bottom Line: Bananas are popular and convenient and more complicated than you probably knew.

Market in Huế, Vietnam


Athens, Ohio, as Dean Winchester mentions in the “Route 666” episode of Supernatural (Season 1, Episode 13), is one of the most haunted areas in the U.S. I lived in Athens for seven years during my undergraduate and graduate years, and if ghosts roamed the area, I never noticed them. Or maybe they didn’t notice me?

Or maybe I’m generally oblivious to such things? I’ve been enlightened recently by reading “The Most Haunted Places in the Athens Area” by Alicia Szczesniak, published just a year ago, October 24, 2022. She discussed the following five locations. The quoted material is from this article.

The Ridges

The former Athens Lunatic Asylum now houses the Kennedy Museum of Art and some Ohio University offices.

On a hillside near the Hocking River are the grounds currently known as The Ridges. At one time, this was site of the Athens Lunatic Asylum, later renamed The Athens Hospital for the Insane. The stately brick buildings served as a mental hospital from1874 to 1993. With over a hundred years of patients, and over 1,700 identified people buried in its cemeteries, it’s prime real estate for ghost stories.

“The most well-known ghost story of The Ridges centers around Margaret Schilling, a patient who was accidentally locked into a seldom used building during a game of hide and seek. After being missing for a month, a janitor found her remains on the floor. Due to the decomposition, a massive stain was left. As a result of this, stories surrounding both the stain and Margaret Schilling’s ghost circulate around the former asylum.”

In addition, stories abound of apparitions, disembodied voices, and objects moved by unseen hands.

Much of this and what follows is recent urban legend. As a doctoral student in psychology, I worked for a time at what was known colloquially as “the state hospital.” And although I could testify to the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and have no reason to doubt the performance of lobotomies, as far as I know, there were no ghosts or other spirits roaming the halls while the hospital was in operation. So much of this has arisen in the last thirty years.

Wilson Hall (Ohio University)

Wilson Hall is one of several buildings that make up West Green dormitory complex. In the 1970s, a male student died in room 428. I don’t know the circumstances, but a few years later, another the student committed suicide in that room. He was rumored to have chosen the room for its energy. Ohio University officials sealed the room.

“Students have reported demonic faces scratched into the wood, apparitions of the students who passed away, objects flying across the room and disembodied voices that ranged from whispering to shouting.

“The dorm room’s closing makes it the only dorm officially sealed off for paranormal activity in the nation.”

Here again, until relatively recently, West Green’s claim to fame on campus was that the women who lived there had exceptionally muscular legs from hiking uphill to the main campus!

West State Street Cemetery

There are graves there dating back to the 1800s. Many of these burial sites are for soldiers who fought in the Civil War—including Athens residents who joined the army—and those who died in a battle just north of the city.

A statue in the cemetery known as “The Angel of the Unknown Soldiers” memorializes these unidentified soldiers. “Many visitors have reported seeing the angel flutter its wings, blink or shed tears, adding an even creepier ambiance to an already creepy place.”

I lived on West State Street for a time, completely unaware of the cemetery—and never before heard of the statue or its manifestations.

Moonville Tunnel

A coal mining town in that area was abandoned in the 1940s. A few structures remained: the supports of a bridge, a cemetery and the tunnel. The basic story is that a ghost haunts the tunnel after being killed by a train.

“There are variations in the story, with some saying the victim was a pregnant woman, others saying it was an 8-foot-tall man and more. However, the most common variation centers around a railroad worker who was struck by the incoming train, then doomed to haunt the tunnel.”

Prior to the alleged train death, multiple deaths occurred in the area, from accidents in the tunnel, accidents from the bridge or unknown causes. The ghosts of these dead people are said to haunt the area, “taking the forms of apparitions or ghostly orbs of light floating in the tunnel and the surrounding woods.”

Suffice it to say, I never heard of the Moonville Tunnel before reading this article.

Mount Nebo

Located northeast of The Plains is Mount Nebo, a hilltop that once served as the grounds of a cabin owned by Johnathan Koons in the 1850s. For a time, many people knew of the area because of its importance in the early American Spiritualism movement. I never heard of Mount Nebo when I lived in Athens, let alone know that it had been a hotbed of spiritualism. That changed when a friend gave me a copy of Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons, by Sharon Hatfield (2018).

Note: For the short version of the Koons legends, see the Alicia Szczesniak article. For the long version, see the Hatfield book.

Koons was a fairly prosperous farmer in the hills outside Athens. The story goes that upon arriving at Mount Nebo, the Koons family began to experience strange phenomena, such as paranormal activity and otherworldly sensations. He became interested in Spiritualism in 1852 and was told at a séance that he was “the most powerful medium on Earth” and that all of his eight children had psychic gifts. Acting on spirit instructions, he built a “spirit room” for the use of visiting spirits. Koons built a log house, 16 X 12 feet, and equipped it with all kinds of musical instruments.

The family quickly gained acclaim as spiritualists in the area, with people visiting to experience the Koons’ séances and commune with the dead in their “spirit room.” Soon the place became famous, and people traveled great distances—at least as far away as New Orleans— to see the curious phenomena.

The eldest boy, Nahum, age18, sat at the “spirit table,” the audience on benches beyond, twenty to thirty people at a time. The lights would go out, and visitors experienced a variety of otherworldly sensations. Spectral faces appeared. Objects flew through the air. Floating pistols shot targets across the room. Disembodied hands, lit by phosphorescence, touched participants. A trumpet floated around the ceiling and called out the names of guests, passing on messages from deceased loved ones.

J. Everett of Athens County, Ohio, who investigated the Koons’ phenomena, published the messages of the spirits under the title A Book for Skeptics: Being a Communication from Angels (1853). He also printed a number of documents describing occurrences in the spirit house, including a chart of the spheres Nahum Koons drew while in a trance. Charles Partridge wrote of his visit in the American Spiritual Telegraph of 1855.

Mount Nebo and the The Plains area of Ohio has several earthen mounds presumably built by the Adena people (1000-1750 AD). Many early Spiritualists claimed the sacred influences of these mounds contributed to the supernatural occurrences in the area.

Neighbors of the Koons family were more disapproving. Mobs attacked the Koons house, set fire to their crops and barns, and beat their children. Finally, the Koons left the area and began missionary wanderings, which lasted for many years. They provided free medium services to the public, and they greatly advanced the cause of early American Spiritualism.

While the actual spirit room has long since weathered away, this story is still more truth than fiction. Archaelogists have found graves of deceased Koons children in the area. Historians have records and documents detailing the trek to the spirit room. Some descendants of Johnathan Koons still possess the artifacts the dead told him to find.

Much less famously, two or three miles from the Koons’ farm was another lonely farmhouse, belonging to John Tippie, where another “spirit room” was laid out on the same plan. The manifestations in the Tippie family were identical to those in the Koons’ log house. Each had a “spirit machine” that consisted of a complex arrangement of zinc and copper for the alleged purpose of collecting and focusing the magnetic aura used in the demonstrations. The Tippies had ten children, all mediums.

So there you have it! Hatfield’s written a well-documented non-fiction book as entertaining as a novel, and I highly recommend it.

Supernatural in America

Mary Todd Lincoln (photographed here with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln) was a strong believer in spiritualism, holding séances in the White House and communicating regularly with her husband after his death.

Apparently, I lived in near proximity to all sorts of supernatural phenomena for years, completely unaware. Perhaps I was focused on classes and jobs to the point of oblivion. Or perhaps I’m just not psychically receptive.

Forty-one percent of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a YouGov study in 2021. (Twenty percent polled were unsure if they believe in ghosts.) Simultaneously, 43% of Americans polled believe demons exist.

Eighteen percent of adult Americans claim they’ve seen or been near a ghost, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey. Twenty-nine percent claim they have been touched by someone who died.

Older Gallup polls found that about three-fourths of Americans profess at least one paranormal belief. The most popular was extrasensory perception (ESP), mentioned by 41%, followed closely by belief in haunted houses (37%). A special analysis of the data shows that 73% of Americans believe in at least one of the 10 items listed, while 27% believe in none of them.

Bottom Line: Are you in the majority?


Last week, I wrote about the difference between cleanliness and personal grooming habits. Hygiene refers to cleaning habits performed to remove pathogens and keep yourself healthy (such as flossing). Doctors and researchers provide guidelines for how and how often to clean yourself for hygiene’s sake. On the other hand, people determine how and how often to groom themselves based on cultural norms and personal identity (think shaving facial hair).

Involving an elephant in your daily hygiene ritual makes everything better.

But there is more to the human body than the head, no matter what science fiction might dream up. How to determine grooming and hygiene standards below the neck?

Clean Hands

The effectiveness of any handwashing technique is directly related to the amount of splashing.

Correct hand washing plays a major role promoting health and hygiene. Even Louis XIV of France, who took only two baths in his adult life, washed his hands daily. In the past few years, we’ve all (hopefully) become more conscientious about keeping our hands clean to prevent the spread of disease.

So how many times a day should you be washing your hands? According to experts, aiming for six to 10 washes a day can make a big difference when it comes to keeping viruses and bacteria at bay. Up to 80% of communicable diseases are transferred by touch.

Failing to wash hands correctly contributes to nearly 50% of all food-borne illness outbreaks. Only 20% of people wash their hands before preparing food, and 39% before eating food.

One USDA study found that up to 97% of people don’t wash their hands correctly when cooking at home. While 58% of people wash with soap and water, very few people wash their hands for long enough. Most people only wash their hands for 6 seconds. Around 33% of people don’t even use soap when washing their hands.

The CDC recommends always washing your hands after you use the toilet, whether it is in your home or somewhere else. Germs in feces (poop) can make you sick. These germs can get on your hands after you use the toilet or change a diaper.

A pre-Covid study by the CDC showed that only 31% of men and 65% of women washed their hands after using a public restroom. That number has risen since the pandemic, but still not enough.

Extremely sterile locations, like hospitals, might require infra-red sanitization in addition to regular hand washing.

According to one bit of research in 2009, 69% of men don’t wash their hands every time they use a toilet or urinal. Another study from 2019 suggests that 6% of men only wash their hands after having a bowel movement.

Less than 1 out of 5 people wash hands after handling money. Less than half of Americans wash their hands after cleaning up after their pets.

Nearly twice as many bacteria are transferred during a handshake compared with a high five, whereas the fist bump consistently gave the lowest transmission.

The average human hand houses 150 different kinds of bacteria. There are typically between 10,000 and 10 million bacteria on each of your hands. Most germs can survive on your hands for three hours. Besides coughing and sneezing, door handles are the most likely way that cold viruses spread.

Showering and Bathing

As I’ve discussed before, washing the entire body tends to be more a question of social norm than actual hygiene. In Australia, 80% of people say they shower every day. In China, half the population regularly bathes only twice a week. A majority of Brazilians shower twice a day!

In many areas, particularly those with naturally occurring hot springs, bathing is a communal activity.

Approximately two-thirds of Americans shower daily, according to a 2021 survey. In the US, the habit of daily showering tends to start around puberty and becomes lifelong.

Women are more likely to shower or bathe less than once a day (38% compared with 29% of men); they are more likely to shower every other day (23% of women doing this compared with 14% of men). More men also admit that they never shower or bathe – 3% saying so (compared with 0% of women).

A recent survey showed only 60% of American men showered daily, but 12% of those men showered more than once a day. (Maybe these guys all lived in a tropical rainforest?) 15% of guys showered every other day, 9% every few days, and a particularly stinky 2% showered once a week or less.

While the majority of Americans shower every day, some experts say it is probably not necessary. Although many doctors say a daily shower is fine for most people, more than that could start to cause skin problems. But for many people, two to three times a week is enough and may be even better to maintain good health. It depends in part on your lifestyle.

Keep in mind that showering twice a day or frequently taking hot or long showers can strip your skin of important oils. This can lead to dry, itchy skin. Additionally, dry, cracking skin can provide gaps for infectious bacteria.

Wear a full hazmat suit to protect skin while showering.

Dr. C. Brandon Mitchell, a professor of dermatology, suggested showering or bathing once or twice a week. In general, experts say a few times a week rather than daily is plenty. Also, keep showers short and lukewarm, as too much water, particularly hot water, dries out the skin. Showering less often in winter makes sense, dermatologist Dr. Jennifer Herrmann noted.

Americans have voted with their tweets, overwhelmingly in favor of the bath. People in 44 states preferring a bath over a shower. Only people in Idaho, North Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Alabama prefer showers over baths. I find this hard to believe, and tweeting hardly constitutes a scientific study.

Industry experts noted that most people who renovated their bathrooms in 2022 added or adapted a shower.

How do you know when you need to shower or bathe? Perhaps the most immediate (and obvious) clue is odor. It’s not just sweat that makes you stink. The bacteria multiplying on your body produce gasses as they consume proteins and fatty acids.

Baths are more fun than showers!

Deodorant and Antiperspirant

Deodorants and antiperspirants don’t serve any medical purpose. People use them strictly for grooming purposes rather than hygiene.

Sometimes, your coworkers might insist you wear deodorant.

Young Americans make up the largest group of deodorant users worldwide. 90% of Americans age 18-29 use deodorant daily, as opposed to only 78% aged 60 and over. The United States of America is the largest market for deodorant use, with nearly $5 billion in sales.

Like brushing your teeth or washing your face, putting on deodorant or antiperspirant every day might seem like one of those rituals crucial for basic hygiene. But your decision is most likely based more on personal and cultural preferences than any potential medical necessity, dermatology experts say.

Dr. Joshua Zeichner is a dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in in New York City. “We live in a society where body odor is not universally accepted, making deodorant a part of your daily hygiene routine. There’s also a stigma surrounding wetness of the clothes because of sweat, which has pushed antiperspirants into daily skincare routines.”

Antiperspirants are deodorants, but not all deodorants are antiperspirants.

Dr. Jeannette Graf, is a dermatologist, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, and author of Stop Aging, Start Living. “If you’re trying to stay dry and control sweat, you’ll need an antiperspirant with aluminum salts to target your sweat glands. If odor is your only concern, deodorant will offer odor protection.”

Every job has its perks!

Not everyone wants their glands to be plugged by anything at all, much less by aluminum and/or other related ingredients.

There’s no reason to limit your use of deodorant to armpits. Lume describes itself as “whole body deodorant.” Their website suggests, “Think pits, underboobs, belly buttons, tummy folds, butt cracks, thigh creases, vulvas, balls, and feet!”

And Last but not Least: Body Hair

Competitive swimmers and divers often remove all body hair to improve performance.

By and large, removing body hair is more a matter of culture and personal preference than of health and hygiene.

Any place that grows hair is shaved by somebody. Skipping lightly over arm pits, legs, chests, backs, etc., and going straight to the most private body hair, here’s what’s happening.

A recent study by JAMA Dermatology surveyed 3372 American women and found that more than 80 percent groom their pubic hair regularly. About 5 percent groom daily, but a monthly regimen is more common. About 75 percent stick to removing hair from the front and the bikini line. More than 60 percent have gone completely bare.

Some work uniforms draw more attention to your grooming habits.

About 50 percent of men reported regular manscaping, according to a 2017 study. Of those who groom, nearly 90 percent take away hair that’s front and center, and more than half remove hair from the scrotum and shaft as well. And, FYI, it’s totally normal to have hair on your penis.

Those who groom are more likely to engage in or receive oral sex. How you choose to groom your pubic hair — or if you choose to trim at all — is a matter of personal preference. And your choice won’t have a direct impact on your orgasm or fun.

The majority of women who groom (59%) cite hygiene as a reason. And about 60 percent of men (age 25 to 34) report the same motivation. According to Dr. Tami Rowen, professor of gynecology at UCSF, “It’s a misconception that pubic hair is unhygienic.”

The presence of pubic hair doesn’t make you smell bad. Yes, more of your natural scent might cling to your hair, but that might be a good thing. Those pheromones produced by our apocrine glands are part of the science behind attraction.

Bottom Line: Clean and well-groomed are two very different things.


When we talk about cleanliness, we often combine grooming habits with hygiene. Society dictates certain standards of personal grooming, such as combing hair or masking body odor, that we unconsciously absorb. These habits might contribute to health, but they might simply be the result of doing it the way you’ve always done it.

Hygiene, on the other hand, refers to grooming practices that contribute to health or prevent the spread of disease. Habits like regularly flossing and washing your face can help you to stay healthy.

Personal grooming is largely a matter of personal preference, but researchers have determined the ideal levels of cleanliness for best hygiene.

So, how clean should you be keeping everything above your neck?

Note: Grooming patterns, hygiene standards, and social expectations of cleanliness vary wildly around the world, but this blog will focus on America.

Wash Your Face

Experts do not recommend using a squirt gun to wash your face. Or your sister’s face.

When it comes to cleanliness—to hygiene—one of the first activities that comes to mind is washing hands and faces.

In general, wash your face twice a day. According to Nazanin Saedi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Philadelphia, “I tell patients that it’s important to wash your face in the morning and at the end of the day.”

Washing your face is an important tool to keep yourself healthy, especially during cold and flu season. In addition to removing dirt and sweat from your skin, proper face-washing removes germs that could spread illness. In particular, you can help stop the spread of airborne, respiratory infections (like Covid-19 and the common cold) by regularly washing off droplets from coughing and sneezing. Washing your face is particularly effective in removing allergens, bacteria, and viruses that spread through contact with mucous membranes (like pink eye).

Face washing

If you’re not doing it frequently enough you might notice a buildup of skin cells and clogged pores, which could result in acne. How often you wash your face often depends on your skin type, your goals, and (to some extent), your environment. On average, you should be washing your face one to two times per day. But do we?

According to a recent study, 55 percent of people say they don’t cleanse their faces each day, a statistic that most dermatologists would shake their heads at. The study found that 48 percent of Americans don’t use cleanser when they do wash their faces—and almost half admit to using shampoo or conditioner or hand soap instead. Not only are people choosing the wrong products (a.k.a., ones that aren’t meant for facial skin), but many are also using the same washcloth up to four times before washing it. (For reference, experts say you should use a clean cloth every single time.)

Note: Splashing one’s face with water in the morning isn’t washing at all.

A 2017 survey showed that 60% of men don’t wash their faces at all. Most men, along with 48% of women, admitted to often skipping facial cleansing before bed.

Which Brings Us to Oral Hygiene

oral hygiene
Veterinarians recommend brushing your dog’s teeth as often as you brush your own. Instead of mint, dog toothpaste often tastes like meat or peanut butter!

Good oral hygiene plays a surprisingly large role in maintaining overall health. It can help prevent endocarditis, periodontitis, and pneumonia. People with good oral hygiene habits have lower incidences of cardiovascular disease and fewer pregnancy complications.

The American Dental Association recommends brushing your teeth at least twice a day. However, fewer than 70% of Americans report meeting that standard. This means that more than 30% of Americans don’t brush enough.

Additionally, only 1 in 10 Americans brush their teeth correctly. Most people spend only about fifteen seconds per round of brushing. Studies have shown that you need a full two minutes of brushing to properly clean all tooth surfaces.

Frayed bristles can’t clean correctly, and even worse — they harbor all kinds of nasty germs. The American Dental Association suggests changing your toothbrush every three or four months.

Our modern standard of having perfectly white, even, straight teeth stems from black and white films. Because naturally-colored teeth showed up as gray on screen, many stars whitened their teeth or wore veneers. Ordinary people soon began to follow the fashion of bleaching and straightening their teeth for cosmetic reasons. Today, the American smile has become a $29.6 billion industry.

Electric toothbrushes may clean teeth and gums much better than a manual toothbrush. Either sort of toothbrush can be effective, though electric toothbrushes are easier to use effectively. People who use an electric toothbrush generally have healthier gums and less tooth decay. They also keep their teeth for longer, compared with those who use a manual toothbrush. But electric toothbrushes can be messy!

Listerine created the word “halitosis” as part of a marketing campaign to sell mouthwash. Humans have had bad breath for as long as we’ve had teeth, but a Listerine campaign in the 1920s turned it into a social problem. By gargling with Listerine, people could remove an invisible barrier to popularity, sex appeal, marriage, and career advancement. (Listerine also worked as a dandruff shampoo, cold remedy, and floor cleaner!)

oral hygiene

Daily flossing prevents cavities and helps to keep our gums in good shape.

Surveys conducted by the American Dental Association have shown that less than 50 percent of adults in the U.S. floss on a daily basis. In fact, studies show that only 30% of Americans floss at least once a day.

The majority of adults, about 68%, reported flossing at least once weekly. A 2023 Delta Dental national public opinion poll of 1,003 adults found that 20% of Americans never floss. A report published in the Journal of Periodontology found that 32% of adults reported no flossing in the past week.

What About Hair Care?

shampoo hygiene
“Shampoo” comes from the Hindi word chapo (चाँपो), meaning “to press, knead the muscles.” It was first used in English as a cleanser for hair in 1860.

With the exception of treating certain conditions like head lice or ringworm, regular hair washing is not medically necessary. The scalp naturally produces sebum, an oil that protects against infection as well as moisturizing the skin. In fact, washing hair too frequently can strip the sebum from the scalp and cause itchiness and flaking.

Today, most people’s hair hygiene routine stems from social or cosmetic reasons rather than health concerns. A recent survey conducted by LookFantastic found that 49% of women polled reported washing their hair every day.

Carolyn Goh, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA says, “There is no blanket recommendation. If hair is visibly oily, scalp is itching, or there’s flaking due to dirt,” those are signs it’s time to shampoo.

Hair texture plays a huge role in determining hygiene routines. People with thin or fine hair may need to wash more often. Those with thick, curly, or coiled hair might be more comfortable waiting longer between washes.

Experts recommend using the flat side of a hairbrush rather than the bristles to avoid breakage and split ends.

For the average person with straight hair, shampooing every other day, or every 2 to 3 days, is generally fine. Hair with a very straight texture is likely to start looking oily and limp faster, calling for more frequent washing.

People with curlier or wavier hair may be able to go longer between washing before their hair starts to look dirty. Some dermatologists recommend washing hair no more than once a week or even every other week. This will help prevent build-up of hair care products, which can be drying to the hair.

The scalp can produce varying levels of sebum, which also affects how often hair needs to be washed. Washing too often can cause the scalp to overproduce oil as well as upsetting the pH balance of the microbiome on the skin. According to dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, “Too frequent washing of the scalp with harsh cleansers can upset that microbiome, and an imbalance in the microbiome can lead to scalp problems.”

And Last But Not Least: Facial Hair

The World Beard and Moustache Association hosts a facial hair competition every year.

Like washing the hair on your head, shaving the hair on your face generally serves no medical purpose. However, the presence or lack of facial hair is highly important to a sense of self-identity and social acceptance. Grooming or removing facial hair is an integral part to many people’s hygiene routines.

Having hair and not wanting it leads many people to bleach, shave, or wax to remove or disguise hair temporarily. Laser hair removal or electrolysis treatments kill hair cells below the skin surface for permanent hair removal.

Facial shaving in women is more common than you might think. It’s done to remove vellus and terminal hairs from the cheeks, chin, upper lip, and side burn areas. Facial shaving also provides mechanical exfoliation, which can help skin look brighter and cleaner.

Many women wax their chins or upper lips to remove unwanted facial hair. Using warm or cool wax to pull hairs out by the roots gives a longer-lasting smoothness, but the risk of side effects is higher. People have reported pain, rashes, sun sensitivity, or even scarring after facial waxing.

Some facial hair can be cleaned in the dishwasher!

Rather than removing unwanted facial hair, some people choose simply to bleach it. Lightening hair follicles reduces the appearance of facial hair but leaves it in place. Though generally easier and cheaper than waxing, bleaching hair still runs the risk of irritating skin.

Three out of four American women ages 18 to 34 have had facial hair removed or done it themselves in the last year. Most common removal locations are eyebrows (58 percent), upper lip (41 percent) and chin (21 percent), according to a 2014 survey by Mintel, which did not track removal methods.

How often a woman shaves her face is usually down to genetics and personal preferences. In general, the recommendation is that women shave their faces every 2-3 days if they like a clean shave and every 3-5 days if they’re just looking to style or trim.

A 2019 survey showed that more men [35%] than women [6%] shaved once or more daily (though razors marketed to women cost more).

Not every facial hair transplant looks natural.

The presence or absence of facial hair serves as strong indicator of gender in our society. For many transgender people, transitioning begins with the daily application or removal of facial hair. Hormone therapy can eventually help people to grow or stop growing facial hair on their own. Transgender women report laser hair removal as the most common form of facial procedure. Transgender men may turn to hair transplants to fill in hairlines and eyebrows as well as beards and moustaches.

Some cisgender men also use hair transplants to achieve their desired facial hair. Doctors move strips of hair or individual hair follicles from the back of a patient’s head to the jaw, cheek, or upper lip. Because this is such an expensive procedure, many medical tourists travel to Turkey for hair transplants.

During a June 2017 survey, 29 percent of men reported trimming or shaving their beard every day.

Bottom Line: Too clean or not clean enough? YES!

Sometimes you might need a little hygiene help from a friend for those hard-to-reach places.


Fluffy bandits a.k.a. trash pandas a.k.a Pyroton lotor a.k.a raccoons are infamous for raiding garbage cans, even those with weighted lids. They are reputed to eat almost anything.

They look like cute, cuddly bandits, but they can be quite fearsome when approached. (More about that later.)

What Do Raccoons Eat

They also ate every single seed and the entire suet cake out of the bird feeders in my backyard.

Raccoons are truly omnivorous, and in the wild they eat about 40% invertebrates, 33% plants, and 27% vertebrates.

More specifically, when it comes to meat, raccoons eat more invertebrates than vertebrates. Some of the raccoon’s favorites are frogs, fish, crayfish, insects, rodents and bird eggs. Their voracious appetites allows raccoons to help control the populations of some pests, like yellow jackets and mice. When food is scarce (or they’re feeling lazy), raccoons will scavenge human trash or eat roadkill.

For plants, they like cherries, apples, acorns, persimmons, berries, peaches, citrus fruits, plums, wild grapes, figs, watermelons, beech nuts, corn, and walnuts. And they raid bird feeders whether food is scarce or not!

In more urban environments, raccoons will eat pretty much anything.

In fact, urban raccoons suffer some of the same consequences as humans when they share the unhealthy parts of human diets. Their access to drive-thru dumpsters and grocery store bins provide raccoons with plenty of fried, sweetened, and highly processed foods. A research team in Canada has found that raccoons in urban areas have higher blood glucose levels and higher weight than those living in wildlife preserves.

Raccoons in Cultural History

Long before Europeans came to North America, raccoons played a vital role in the lives of Indigenous people who already lived here. Our names for these animals today reflects this history. The English name “raccoon” comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, meaning “hand-scratcher.” Further south, the Nahuatl/Aztec word mapachtli led to the modern Spanish word “mapache” or “one that takes everything in its hands.”

Several tribes, including Muskogee Cree (Wahlakalgi or Wotkalgi), the Shawnee (Sha-pä-ta’), Chippewa (Esiban), the Monominee (Aehsepan), and the Chickasaw (Shawi’ Iksa’) have Raccoon clans.

In many mythologies, Raccoon played the part of a trickster spirit, spreading mischief or using cleverness to escape danger. The Abenaki told stories of how the raccoon Azeban tricked other animals into giving him food or lost a shouting match with a waterfall. A Menominee story of a raccoon tricking blind men served as a morality tale for children. A Seneca legend of raccoons disguised as humans illustrated their intelligence escaping from an evil magician.

Raccoons in the Cooking Pot

from the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer

In addition to starring in many American stories, raccoons have also starred in the American diet! Until the middle of the 20th century, people commonly trapped and ate raccoon along with many other small game animals that adapted to survive near humans.

Raccoons require very clever traps to outwit their nimble paws. According to historian Michael Twitty, enslaved people from West Africa adapted traps they had used for grasscutters, a West African bush rodent, to catch raccoons. Those traps were nearly identical to the traps Native Americans had been using to catch raccoons for centuries. The cooking methods both groups used for raccoon meat also greatly resembled West African culinary traditions.

In addition to providing people with a ready source of protein, hunting and trapping raccoons also helped to control the population of animals that would otherwise eat crops. Selling pelts also brought in some extra income. In some places, particularly in the North where raccoon fur is thicker, raccoon meat for the table was more of a byproduct of the practice of selling pelts. Mark Twain listed raccoon as one of the foods he missed most while traveling in Europe in the 1870s.

At one point, discerning consumers could find raccoon meat on the menu from cookbooks in Colorado to fancy restaurants in Maine. The spread of factory farming in the 20th century made beef, chicken, and pork more affordable and more popular in the American diet. There are some places where you can still find raccoon in the kitchen. I hear the best meat is in the hind-quarters.

Habitat (Natural and Otherwise)

Raccoons are very adaptable, living in a wide range of climates and habitats. They live quite happily in forests, marshes, prairies, and cities. Historically, raccoons ranged from Central America all the way up to what is now southern Canada. They typically make their dens in trees or caves, though they will also make homes in barns, abandoned vehicles, and other human-made locations.

A waschbaer in Albertshausen Germany

Raccoons have made themselves right at home in Germany, much to the dismay of German homeowners and wildlife control. Back in the early 20th century, a few people in German started raising raccoons for their fur. Bombs struck one of these farms during World War II, releasing dozens of raccoons into the surrounding countryside. In 1934, forestry officials released several pairs of raccoons into the wild in an attempt to increase wildlife diversity. Today, there are as many as a million of these waschbären (“washing bears”) in Germany, devastating local bird and turtle populations, destroying vineyards, and causing traffic accidents. German raccoons seem to be especially attracted to stealing beer, wine, and hard cider, getting noticeably drunk at festivals or breaking into kitchens and targeting beer.

Germany isn’t the only place in Europe where raccoons are making a nuisance of themselves. A similar story of fur farms and war has caused an invasion of raton laveur (“little washing rats”) in France. Authorities in Madrid called for a raccoon culling in 2013 “to control and eradicate this unwelcome invasive species” that has made itself unwelcome in Spain. Scotland lists raccoons as one of the top 50 invasive, non-native species. The European Union has classified Pyroton lotor, the North American raccoon as an invasive species and banned their sale and import.

Though they look similar and share many of the same habits and dietary preferences, North American raccoons and Japanese raccoon dogs (tanuki) are not related.

In 1977, the anime Araiguma Rasukaru, telling the story of a man who adopted a pet raccoon, became a massive hit in Japan. Fans of Rascal the Raccoon began importing at least 1,500 raccoons a month to Japan. After realizing that raccoons don’t make good pets, many people then released them into the wild. The descendents of those raccoons today have spread to 42 of the 47 prefectures in Japan. They destroy crops, damage historic shrines, spread disease, and steal from fish and produce vendors. North American raccoons have begun to displace native Japanese “raccoon” dogs, tanuki.

Cohabitation with Humans

Though raccoons are more than happy to live in human areas, they can be vicious when defending themselves or their kits. But generally, even if people try to scare them off with noise or lights, raccoons are bold and simply back off to return later.

Humans should be particularly cautious of approaching raccoons in North America because they are common carriers of rabies, roundworms, and leptospirosis, according to The Humane Society. Having a raccoon as a pet is not recommended, even if you’re the President.

Grace Coolidge with Rebecca the raccoon at the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll

In 1926, Vinnie Joyce in Mississippi sent a raccoon to the White House, promising the Coolidges that it had “a toothsome flavor” and would make a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. Rather than eating the furry gift, Calvin and Grace Coolidge named the raccoon Rebecca, gave her an embroidered collar, and invited her to participate in the White House Easter Egg Roll. At the end of Coolidge’s presidency, Rebecca went to live in Rock Creek Park in Maryland.


Raccoons are round, fuzzy creatures with bushy tails and a black fur mask around their eye area. They are about as big as small dogs, about 23 to 37 inches and 4 to 23 lbs., according to National Geographic.

They are adaptable and use their dexterous front paws and long fingers much like human hands to climb and manipulate things. These front paws are hyper-sensitive, particularly when wet. Raccoons in the wild use this extreme sensitivity to search for food underwater from the banks of streams.

Even in captivity, raccoons will often rub their food underwater before eating it. Scientists believe that, rather than washing their food, raccoons are softening the vibrissae on their paws, allowing them to feel their food more carefully to ensure it is safe.

With their clever paws and intelligent brains, raccoons can open locks, figure out traps, solve puzzles, and get into almost anything containing food. In studies, raccoons successfully opened complex locks 11 out of 13 times and then remembered the solutions when presented with the same locks later.

Raccoons live around 2 to 3 years in the wild, though raccoons in captivity can sometimes live as long as 20 years. But they are always with us.

Rocket is not actually a raccoon. He is a cybernetically-enhanced alien species from a planet in the Keystone Quadrant. Unlike Earth raccoons, he has opposable thumbs!

Baby raccoons are called kits or cubs and are usually born in the early summer. Females have one to seven offspring and are only pregnant for 2-2.5 months. A mother and her baby raccoons are called a nursery.

At birth, raccoon kits are blind and deaf. For the first two months of their lives, babies live in their den and nurse from their mothers. At 12 weeks, they will start to roam away from their mothers for whole nights at a time. They become completely independent at 8 to 12 months of age.

Coonpath Road is near the town where I grew up. The implication that coons follow a circuit or path is accurate. They are active from dusk to dawn, and when they raid my bird feeder, it is near the same time every night.

Bottom Line: Raccoons are fascinating creatures, but best observed from a distance.