A list of insurance claims taken out on pets drowned with the Titanic. A legend detailing the various forms of Chinese castrati. A detailed description—by the oh-so-fittingly named Sir Hamon L’Estrange—of a dodo a mere quarter century before the bird’s extinction. These moments are the winking epigraphs of grinning Death, gleaned from Giles Milton’s history of the bizarre, the obfuscated and the macabre.
And what a history it is! In dipping into that bottomless black well of history’s most obscure moments—and in particular, the gruesome and often comedic panoply of people, miseries and triumphs—Milton dredges up the missing brain of Lenin, highlights the miraculous survivors of volcanic eruptions and outlines the lives of the most fortunate (and unfortunate) souls to have ever traced their way through human history.
Milton’s flippant take on history in When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
does not fear the unsolved. Indeed, it thrives upon it; many of the vignettes still contain elements of mystery, and one, about escaped Alcatraz convicts, can even be participated in today (if you have any information about the most infamous prison break in American history, the Marshall service is eager to hear from you). The open-ended nature of some segments could potentially rankle readers, but historical moments where everything is explained would not make for much of a book, would they? Milton is purposefully ushering us into the fog, after all.
To that end, some of Milton’s least interesting cases involve titanic monsters like Hitler, whose leviathan bones—soaked to the marrow with drugs and myth—have been picked over so many times they surely must resemble the nyla bone of a particularly masticatory mutt. Getting the Führer in front and out of the way makes the reliance on Hitler much more tolerable, while tales from the periphery of the Nazi horror and Imperial Japan provide rounded, if not excessive, coverage of World War II.
The true soul of the book comes not when Milton is dealing with either of the titular subjects, but when he explores the lives of altogether ordinary people—and animals—thrust into extraordinary situations. In learning the histories of Ada Blackjack, the Inuit “female Robinson Crusoe” who survived 23 months on an island north of Siberia, Ann Saunders, cannibal in extremis and shipwreck survivor, and Cher Ami, the heroic homing pigeon of World War I, we discover embers from the past that still merit illumination.
Still, such lofty sentiments gild over the real appeal to When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain, namely those lurid elements encapsulated in those deathly coquettish epigraphs. Take, for example, the tragicomic tale of Sun Yaoting, a young boy who feverishly desired the life of an imperial eunuch, trading his genitalia for the power and prestige of serving the emperor…in 1911. For those unfamiliar with Chinese history, Emperor Puyi would abdicate his throne in 1912, leaving the loyal boy with no emperor to serve. It is figures like this, painted equally by blood, fickle fate and savage humor, who represent the soul of Milton’s histories.
The book reads like a champagne cyclone, extra brut and deliriously fast, brimming with strangeness and just enough pedagogy to be educational yet still entertaining. The whirlwind-nature of the proceedings is also the book’s main flaw, its deficit being one of form: some of these people are so interesting, one wishes for Milton to stop the ride to further elucidate their lives.
The conversational celerity can tip dangerously close to Spartan at times, although it never feels fly-by-night. It is an issue, perhaps, of greed and pretension—the latter fearful that something so fun can be educational and the former a feeling of subjective betrayal more than a fatal flaw.
Florenz Szasz, for instance, was orphaned in the Hungarian Revolution, purchased from an Ottoman harem in 1859 and transformed into an explorer in Africa. Sure, the occurrence of her purchase by the desperate-to-save-her Englishman was the focus of Milton’s chapter, but to jump from the orphanage to slavery! What happened to her? Still, to indulge in these moments would be to lose the book’s quick nature; the complaint, while valid, is something akin to bitching that an asp has no arms.
Entertaining to a fault and well researched, if a bit bare, Milton’s survey of history’s shadowed corners is just that: a light beam dancing in the gloam, illuminating, in both senses of the word, but fleeting.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, VICE, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth, The Classical and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.