Living Like a Founding Father Left Me Drunk and Covered in Leeches
The Founding Fathers may have dreamed up the greatest democracy since Ancient Greece, but they also drank constantly and smelled like trash.
Our nation's 240th birthday bonanza, the Fourth of July, is right around the corner. Because I am blessed with a boundless love for America and the noble dudes who founded it, I decided the best way to honor them was to spend four days living like they would have in 1776.
As delightfully patriotic as that sounded on paper, I didn't consider the fact that John Adams chugged a few mugs of hard cider each morning, that Ben Franklin spent an hour a night waggling his dirty dick out of his window, or that George Washington was so convinced that bloodletting was the key to health that he let his doctor slice him open until his veins ran dry.
By day four of my experiment, my liver was calling for surrender like Cornwallis at Yorktown, my unwashed body emitted a stench so revolting that my roommate refused to sleep in our apartment, and I was covered in piss because chamberpots have a surprisingly steep learning curve. I also had oozing sores on my stomach that refused to heal. My patriotism, though, was at an all-time high. Here's what happened.
First off, I had to find some experts to guide me on my quest to live like a Colonial American, since my knowledge of Revolutionary War history begins and ends with the children's book Ben and Me.
The expert I found was a guy named Jim Riley—the owner and operator of a "living history" community in California called Riley's Farm which is dedicated to recreating life as it was back in the 18th century. Basically, Jim has done for the last 20 years what I planned to do for a few days, and he's actually really good at it.
One of the first things Jim told me when I called him up for help (luckily Riley's Farm exists in a parallel universe where the Founding Fathers had access to cell phones and WiFi) was that "living like it's the 18th century is pretty much illegal in 2016."
"Even in 1820, about 90 percent of the world lived in what would be considered extreme poverty today," Jim said. "If you actually tried to build a home that was heated entirely by fireplaces and had no insulation or method of keeping food preserved, people would regard that as living off the grid. Raising children in that environment would also be pretty suspect."
"I don't think any of us really understand how profoundly indoor plumbing changed our lives, either," he continued. "Life [in the American colonies] was like what we would consider camping to be."
It's a good thing I love camping.
Photos by Julian Master
With Jim's help, I hashed out the rules for my 1776 life. They mostly involved things I couldn't do: no electricity, no phones, no purified water, and not even a single bite of a burrito. No showers or toilet paper, since the closest thing to regular bathing back then was a quick wet towel under your pits and around your junk. Nobody brushed their teeth either.
I also had to avoid all modern plumbing, which meant I had to go on eBay to buy a surprisingly small—and previously used—porcelain chamberpot.
Jim shipped me clothes to wear, because no 18th century life would be complete without a three-corner hat and some buckle shoes. Unfortunately, the only costume he had that would fit my childlike physique was a frilly green thing based on a portrait of John Wentworth, a British colonial governor of New Hampshire who married his cousin.
When I put the outfit on, I felt more like I was cosplaying Prince at a Ren Faire than an American forefather. But within my first 10 minutes of stepping outside in the get-up, an entire bachelorette party day-drinking in Brooklyn's McCarren Park started screaming "Hamilton!" and waving me over.
They tossed their arms over my shoulder and posed for photos like I was a Times Square Elmo, sucking down margaritas in styrofoam cups and rapping verses from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical to me. I figured that if they picked up the Founding Father vibe right away, the costume must be pretty good. I had a plan, an outfit, and a pot in which to piss. I was ready to live like it was 1776.
Jim Riley may have hooked me up with the basics, but I needed a food guru to keep my diet in line with the times. I tracked down historical food scholar Michael Twitty, and he helped me lay out an eating plan.
Breakfast was a slice of apple pie and a few glasses of ale or hard cider, since water back then most likely gave you the shits. Colonial America was basically one long, ale-fueled bender—it's no wonder everyone was all fired up about kicking some Redcoat ass.
Ben Franklin was known to start off his day with a "small beer"—a low-alcohol beer like something you might buy in a Utah grocery store—and John Adams slammed two tankards of hard cider for breakfast, according to Jim Riley. Even the kids drank a watered-down alcoholic cider called "ciderkin."
Lunch was what they call a ploughman's meal: bread, cheese, and more booze. Maybe a hunk or two of cured pork belly, called "salt pork." For dinner, Twitty suggested I munch down a big plate of lobster, since back in the day, lobster was a poor man's meal. Everyone knew what we have somehow forgotten: that lobsters are disgusting sea-roaches people should only eat if they have to.
The diet of pie and booze and bread sounded fun in theory, but by mid-afternoon on my first day, I had pork grease stains on my stupid sleeves and I was sloshed.
My usual day-to-day at VICE involves writing up breaking news stories. With no computer or internet, I had to rely on the town crier for information, a.k.a. my assistant reading the news wire and then explaining stories as they happened.
Once she'd laid some knowledge on me, I dipped my quill into an ink pot Jim had supplied and tried to scribble a few meaningful paragraphs down on a scroll of parchment, which my dutiful assistant then typed and posted to the VICE site.
This would have been a slow and arduous process even without all the booze in my stomach, but the toxic mixture of ale, pie, and pork fat brewing in my gut made everything basically impossible. Ben Franklin may have been able to slam a few small beers and then crank out witticisms in Poor Richard's Almanac, but I was completely and utterly cashed by 2PM.
I staggered home mid-afternoon, three-corner hat askew and chamberpot in hand, and then passed out in my humid and un-air conditioned room until seven.
It's generally a pretty terrible thing to wake up from a nap with a hangover already in full swing, but it's even worse at dusk when you know you'll have to rely on candlelight and some old-ass books for entertainment once the sun's set.
I desperately wanted to pass back out, but since it was still early evening and I'd already slept most of my workday away, that wasn't an option. All I could do was pour another tankard of hard cider, grab a slice of salt pork, and settle down to peruse Thomas Paine's Common Sense by the light of ten candles.
Ten candles, by the way, are not enough to read by. I became painfully aware of how reliant I am on technology around 10 PM, when I was sitting in a muggy, pitch-black room, sweating in my britches and struggling to hold a bodega prayer candle as close as humanly possible to a book without lighting the whole thing on fire.
When Thomas Paine said that "these are the times that try men's souls," he probably wasn't talking about the lack of internet, but good Christ, I was bored. I scribbled some notes with my quill, but the flickering candlelight kept throwing strange shadows on my paper. I gave up and sat in the darkness, longing for the endlessly entertaining void of my iPhone screen. Or at least some AC.
Ben Franklin slept in two stages, which he called first sleep and second sleep. He'd pass out early in the evening, then wake up for a few hours in the middle of the night to write or work or take an "air bath," which is what he called standing naked in his window, waggling his stinky dick around in a cool breeze to air off.
I caught a few winks from 10 until 2 AM, and when I woke up again, I decided to give the air bath a try. I was already pretty ripe after a day's worth of drinking and sweating in my costume, so I hoped the night air might blow some stank off me.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a breeze, and the streetlight outside my house lit up my naked form like a perverted specter in the window. After a few minutes of waiting for wind and trying to avoid eye contact with some people across the street, I climbed back in bed and passed out until I could kick off another day with cider and pie.
Days passed like this. It's hard to say how many; they oozed together like the insides of a mince pie. I drank ale and gnawed on pork fat and trailed a noxious cloud of sweat and foul breath as I pranced through New York City in my Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. I was detached from the world, untethered without a phone or a computer to connect me—but none of my friends wanted to hang out anyway, since every crevice of my unwashed body stank like chorizo.
I filled my chamberpot with pools of piss and then solemnly emptied the foul brew into gutters or between parked cars before filling it up again. Eventually, the congealed pork fat and pie gumming up my insides had to come out, and I found myself squatting above the pot, stomach churning with an angry, oily stew.
Seconds before I loosed my bowels on the all-too-small porcelain bowl, it dawned on me that even the Founding Fathers had outhouses to pinch a loaf into. So I buttoned my pants, headed outside, and tipped my hat to the guys remodeling the apartment complex across the street before ducking into their porta-potty and performing a thorough exorcism on my lower intestine.
My teeth may have grown a carpet of plaque, my bowels may have turned against me, my hands may have been caked with ink and grease and piss slop-over from the chamberpot, but I was a true patriot on a quest to live like my heroes, so I soldiered on.
Four days into the experiment, my body had transformed into something that one might call "Christ-like," as in, "fetid like a reanimated corpse." The diet didn't help my energy levels or general smell, either. I needed a little pick-me-up, so I turned to a tried and true method of rejuvenation and overall wellness: leeches.
Bloodletting, either with leeches or just an old-fashioned knife in the arm, has been a mainstay of medicine since at least ancient Egypt. When the Colonialists came to America, they brought the British health beliefs of the time with them, which meant they were convinced that all that red ooze inside your body was making you sick and desperately needed draining.
I live in New York City, so naturally, there was some guy with a jar full of leeches right down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. He was eager to slap the little devils on me.
I apologized to the leech therapist for my smell, which grew progressively more pungent as I stripped off my costume, but he didn't seem to mind.
"That's better for the leeches," he told me. "They don't like unnatural smells, like soap." Then he stuck four of the wriggling worms near my liver, theoretically to counteract the damage all the booze had done. It burned a bit as they chewed into my skin.
There's actually a big difference between leeches and standard bloodletting, at least in the minds of the pseudo-scientific leech therapy community. The point of having leeches nurse your flesh isn't just about losing some blood—it's about the leech drooling healing enzymes into your body, while it feeds. Normal bloodletting just drains you out. No helpful worm spit involved.
George Washington died in 1799 after physicians put him through a day of severe bloodletting to try to cure a throat infection. Some reports says they bled around five pints from his body over the course of 24 hours, basically wringing the guy out like a sponge until he croaked.
That's when it hit me, my stench filling the room and leeches nursing on my flesh. I've grown up with a gilded vision of the Founding Fathers—the brilliance of Ben Franklin, the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson, the integrity of George Washington... But no one told me how they were wasted all day and smelled like God's taint.
These guys weren't demigods who could do no wrong. They were just disgusting, dirty-assed mortals like me.