Friday, January 29

Making the Blue Pill

by Tony Gerard

The actual origin of the "Blue Pill" is obscure, but it was within the Royal Navy that it first rose to massive popularity. Also known as the "Blue Mass" when in non-pill form, it was used to treat any and everything. Consumption (tuberculosis), toothache, parasitic infection, syphilis, the pains of childbirth and depression all required the use of the blue pill. It was equally effective for each, which is to say not at all. For sailors of the Royal Navy, on a steady diet of salted meat and ships biscuit, constipation was often a problem.  Against constipation the blue pill was effective, but its prolonged use brought on a host of other complications due to its toxicity.  During the 19th century these toxic side effects were usually attributed to the original ailment.

Recipes varied between different doctors and pharmacists, but the major ingredient in all recipes was mercury, also known as quicksilver. Other ingredients might include licorice, dried rose petals, althaea,  glycerol, sugar and honey. The name probably derives from the use of blue dye or blue chalk used as a buffer in some recipes. 

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin. Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include irritability, anxiety, hostility, depression, insomnia, memory loss, nerve damage, tremors, tooth loss and problems with dexterity. One group of modern researchers recreated blue pills using 19th century ingredients and equipment. They found that for each pill ingested the patient would absorb  about 750 micrograms of mercury. The typical 19th century dosage was one pill two or three times daily.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently says that adults should consume no more than 21 micrograms of mercury in one day. The symptoms may go away over time if no more mercury is ingested.

Famous users of the blue pill include Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Many modern researchers believe that Lincoln's reported erratic behavior prior to taking office was due to blue mass he took for depression. He eventually stopped taking the concoction because he believed it made him  "irritable".


Wednesday, January 27

What To Read?

In the event you haven't noticed, we research and write a LOT, there's always something new to discover on the Acasta website. You can find specific content by following the labels at the bottoms of each day's posts, or by clicking on the links below. Let us know what your favorite stuff is:

200th - Posts with this label are posts that have to do with the 200th anniversary of some event that took place during the War of 1812. Either with the Acasta herself, or the war in general. Want to know what was happening on a particular date? Here you go.

Apple - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta ship's carpenter Mr. Jas. Apple.

Baptiste - Posts with this label are either written BY or about the Acasta Surgeon's Mate.

Book Review - These posts take a look at books written about Naval subjects of interest.

Capt Freymann - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta ship's Captain Robert Freymann

Capt Hurlbut -  Posts with this label are either written BY or about Captain Tom Hurlbut, friend to the Acasta.

Capture - Information regarding historical captures made by the Acasta during her service.

CFNA- Posts related to the organization known as Crown Forces North America (CFNA).

Event Invite - These posts are invitations to the general public to attend specific historic events. A great way to figure out where the Acasta crew will be during the year!

History - Posts involving the REAL history of HMS Acasta or her crew

HMS Bounty - Articles or images concerning this particular vessel.

HMS Victory - Articles or images concerning this particular vessel.

Hollybrass - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta crew member Samuel Hollybrass, a generally unpleasant sort of fellow.

Images - This label is given to any post that is picture heavy. Looking for lots of awesome War of 1812 or Royal Navy recreation pictures? Look no further! The Acasta has been gifted with some amazing photography over the years from a variety of sources.

In The News - Historical news articles that make mention of the Acasta or her crew.

Jane Austen Festival - Given to any post that has to do with the annual Jane Austen Festival that is held every July in Louisville, KY.

Letter Writing - Posts relating to writing letters that look to be from the period portrayed by HMS Acasta. Great help if you wish to participate in the Mail Packet project.

LIST This label is given to the series of reenactor list, Ways to improve, the best and worst things about the hobby, stupid questions asked by the public and so forth.

Lt Ramsey - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta ship's Second Lieutenant Michael Ramsey.

Lt. Hamilton - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta ship's First Lieutenant Jim Hamilton.

Lt. Tumbusch - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta ship's Third Lieutenant Tom Tumbusch.

Master & Commander - Posts that have to do with the Aubrey-Maturin series of books by author Patrick O'Brian or the 2003 movie.

Mail Packet - This label will involve letters (real or digital) sent or received by Acasta crew. It also occasionally has to do with a call to readers for letters, a fun project for authors and historians alike!

Medical Journal - These posts have to do with entries in the Surgeon's log book. Some are transcriptions from log books of the period, some are fictional.

Miscellany - A grab bag of odds and ends posts that couldn't really be labeled anything else.

Mission 1 - All posts pertain to the Acasta's first play test of the "Spy Game", a first person activity played between teams at Mississinewa 1812.

Mission 2 - A writing exercise by members of the crew involving the 1813 chase of the US vessel, 'Young Teazer'

Mission 3 - These posts involve the Doctor's special assignment to take part in a mock Naval assault at Niagara on the Lake.

Mission 4 - The Acastas go ashore at the Fair at New Boston in an attempt to catch a spy, and the Doctor gets engaged!

Mission X - All posts related to the Doctor's covert mission to France.

Mississinewa 1812 - Given to any post that has to do with the annual Mississinewa 1812 event that is held every October in Marion, IN.

Music - Music or lyrics (or both) to old period songs.

New Boston - Given to any post that has to do with the annual Fair at New Boston event that is held every Labor Day Weekend near Springfield, Ohio.

Press Gang - Content and images from the Acasta's Press Ganging activities at events.

Real Crew - Posts with this label are either written by or about REAL historical members of the crew of the Acasta between 1797-1815.

Red Box - Content and images having to do with the "Red Box' game.

Signal Flags - These posts involve images and information having to do with this means of communication during the War of 1812. Sometimes they even involve fun messages to be decoded!

Tall Ship - Posts with this label contain information about or images of tall ships.

The Doctor - Posts with this label are either written BY or about Acasta ship's surgeon Albert Roberts

Toasts - information pertaining to the Daily Royal Naval Toasts given at dinner.

Vassermann - Posts with this label are either written BY or about the Surgeon's personal servant James Vassermann.

Video - Any post with a video or a link to a video in it can be found here.

Wedding - These image heavy posts are all about the Doctor's 1813 style wedding.

Monday, January 25

Ten Tea Parties

Ten Tea Parties
By Joseph Cummins

A review by Tony Gerard

Just like every other kids who went to elementary school in America I knew that the Boston Tea party happened. I knew that colonists dressed up like Indians and threw British tea into Boston Harbor. I had kind of pictured it as the colonial version of TP-ing the mean neighbor's house. What I didn't know was exactly why it happened, or especially that it involved 92, 000 pounds of tea- an enormous job that took most of the night. I was totally unaware that similar "Tea Parties" occurred all across the colonial seaboard, that ships containing tea were sent unloaded back to England and that several British Sea Captains came close to being tarred and feathered or worse.

Although not really a nautical book "Ten Tea Parties" does feature stories that center mostly around ships and shipping. It's an easy and very interesting read. If you're old enough to have been involved in these affairs it could make a really interesting addition to an Acasta'a back story personal history.

Friday, January 22

A Book Review

Shipboard Life and Organization 1731-1815
Publications of the Navy Records Society Vol. 138
Ed. by Brian Lavery

A Book Review by Chris Bertani

This volume is a collection of primary source material about life on Royal Navy vessels.  Included are Admiralty Regulations, captain's standing orders, extracts from diaries, medical journals, systems for berthing and watch bills, including the quarter bill for H.M.S. Indefatigable in 1812 (if you just want a cross section of names of Royal Navy sailors, it's here), and extracts from courts martial.  The book is a treasure trove of details and minutiae, and I believe any reenactor or student of the era will find something useful.  

The Navy Records Society ( has been publishing primary source volumes since 1893, including many letter books from the Napoleonic Wars, which are fascinating reading for anyone who wants to get the feel of how officers and gentlemen wrote to one another.

These books can be hard to find, but I have had good luck with inter-library loans through my local public library.

Tuesday, January 19


A fictional posting written by Tony Gerard:

"Lookie  'ere. Ya think the Doctor'd want it?"

Fritz, who had been dozing in the beached launch, sat up. He was part of the  boat crew on a treasured duty- ferrying the Doctor on this naturalist pursuits. It involved, mostly, waiting for the doctor to return. A full day of lazy napping, yarning, walking the beach looking for curiosities and occasionally rowing the Doctor to a new location.  

The young topman held a shell the size of a small woman's fist. It had a few blunt spikes around its spiraled end, the other end tapered to a long, narrow, blunt point, which the sailor used for a handle. The shell's inhabitant was obviously confused at being out of the water and touching nothing but air. It's glistening black body withered slowly from side to side, up and down. A thin, flat fingernail like structure, separate from the shell, moved along with the body. It all so tapered to a point.

"Da Frenchman wudt tell you you shudt be careful" he said.

"How's 'at?" said the Topman still intent on the mollusks movement.

"He haf a tale of a fellow dat was kildt by da sting of a snail"

"Whot?" Fritz had his full attention now.

"Various Cone Shells"
"He say he haf seen a fellow kildt by da sting of a snail" Fritz repeated. At that same time the narrow end of the flat structure hit the sailor between his finger and thumb. He yelped and threw the shell a good twelve feet down the beach. He looked frantically at the spot.

Brooks, who had also been dozing in the launch, chuckled "You ain't stung, he just poked you with that part he uses for a door."

Baptiste, the surgeon's mate, appeared on the ridge above the little beach. He held a gallon specimen jar crooked in each arm. He made his way to the launch where Fritz and Brooks carefully took the jars from him. Brooks held up a jar. All manner of sea creatures wiggled, crawled, swam and jostled against one another. "This spotted crab is making hash outta these wormy things" he said. Baptiste shrugged non committaly. 

"Becket!" Baptiste called to a young sailor setting up the beach with the rest of the boat crew " De Doctor wishes to hav more jars".

"Ain't my job" Becket called back.

"Come now- you are young an healthy, I am a feeble old man, I hav already turned too many stones today". Becket gave him a "drop dead" look, but then broke into a wide grin and loped over to take two empty specimen jars from Fritz.

"Dere. I knowed you was a good fellow, you will see de Doctor from de ridge"

"You owe me" Becket grinned as he loped off up the ridge.

"We should get some curbs" Baptiste said to no none in particular " I beg some onions an vinegar from Swendaw before we leave"

"Planned ahead, that's good" said Brooks, getting back up from napping position "curbs would go right nice".

"Whot's a curb?" asked the top man.

"Here I show him to you" Baptiste walking toward a clump of rock a short distance away. Fritz and Brooks walked off in the opposite direction.

" A curb is dis fellow" he pointed to a peculiar little shellfish clinging to a rock. It was composed of eight overlapping plates, with a rim of softer, almost fuzzy looking tissue around the outer edge. He took out a blunt pointed folding knife, sliding the end under the creature with a twist he popped it off the rock. It curved itself into an arch, but other than that could do little to protect itself.  Holding it upside down he indicated an oval, muscular looking suction cup. "Dis part is his meat".

They spent the next several minutes collecting the creatures until they had filled a knotted up neck cloth.  Returning to the launch Baptiste dug out a wooden bowl, two small onions and a small bottle. He minced the onions in the bowl and covered then liberally with vinegar. He then took one of the shellfish and sliced the meaty portion from underneath, throwing the rest into the gentle surf. The meat he minced up with the onions just as Fritz and Brooks returned, both holding their hats filled with curbs.

Baptiste scooped out a small piece of onion and meat on the knife's blunt end and held it out to the topman. "Try him". 

The topman eyed the piece suspiciously. The meat, so recently part of a living, intact creature, still quivered rhythmically. His speculation lasted too long and Brooks pinched the morsel off the knife and popped it in his mouth, "Curb's good." he admonished the youngster.

It was enough to overcome the younger sailor's suspicions and he dug a piece out on the bowl with his fingers.  Chewing speculatively he eventually smiled and nodded " 'Bout like squid".

The four then set to butchering the entire catch.

"Fritz says you seen a man killed by a snail whot stung him'" said the topman heartily chewing a curb he hadn't even bothered to dip in the sauce. He was now, apparently, a total convert.

"Yes, long ago in de Spanish Philippines. He was a Spaniard, but I still don't wish to see a fellow die like that."

"Ow so?"

"Knobbed Welk"
"We have been wrecked. I was a prisoner to de Spaniards. We was getting mussels at de low tide and dere was shells we did not know, but we tink to eat dem also. I have gathered up some of dem myself, but den dis Spaniard, he cries out an fall to his knees. He have a hole at de bottom of his thumb, an de shell, he have a little pike dat he is just drawing back in. De fellow say it hurt bad, an de mate- he is a cruel fellow- laugh at him to be hurt by a snail. But de fellow still say he is hurt bad, soon he cannot talk too good, den he cannot talk at all. By de morning he is dead."

The topman left off shucking curbs and walked down the beach to retrieve his shell from earlier. The mollusk, left high and dry up the beach, had retreated into it's shell, Brooks "door" part sealing him off from the outside world. "Ow 'bout this one?"

"Dat one is called a welk. He is harmless."

"Think the Doctor'ed want him?"

"Perhaps, we seed none like him today". The topman dropped the welk into the floor of the launch. The Doctor was a favorite of most of the crew. A chance to curry his favor was rarely neglected. 

"Later I learn dat dere are many of dees shells with de poisoned little pike. Most dey are shaped as a cone. But I  have only ever seed dem in de Pacific I think".

"Zat's gud" said Fritz, "day can stay zere."

Finished with the butchering and dicing they sat  the bowl between them. The four sat in the launch, leisurely eating with their fingers in the warm winter sunshine.  Life was good.

*Author's note
"Curb" is a Bahamian name for Chitons, a mollusk which lives attached to rocks in the intertidal zone. They are eaten throughout the West Indies.

Cone snails, cone shells or cones are common names for a large group predatory sea snails. All are capable of delivering a painful sting. Some of the larger species, which feed on fish, have reportedly been responsible for human fatalities.

Friday, January 15

A Sea of Words

A Sea of Words,
A lexicon and Companion to the Complete Sea Faring Tales of Patrick O'Brian 
by Dean King

A Book Review by Tony Gerard

Even if you're not a Patrick O'Brian fan (what? are you stupid?) this book has a lot to offer a naval re-enactor. The first chapter is about 30 pages with  a great overview of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic period. The second chapter deals with naval medicine of the same period. This is then followed by a series of maps and line drawings illustrating different of ships of the period.

The actual meat of the book is a listing of terms, things, names, people and places that an O'Brian reader might not know or find confusing.  Many of the terms are definitions of various plants, animals and medical conditions and procedures related to Stephen Maturin's pursuits in the novels. While this may not be of much use from a re-enactor point of view, the majority of the terms related to ships, sailor slang and things nautical. It's a handy book to have. 

The next time somebody says they're not a Patrick O'Brian fan instead of calling them stupid you can say something more appropriate like "Any cove what don't like O'Brain must be a coney what got choused out of a brain!"

Friday, January 8

At the Gaming Table

Submitted by N. Armitage, Purser.

'The Duchess of Richmond's Ball', Mr Nicholas Armitage, Purser, RN, of HMS 'Acasta' sharpened his card-playing skills… which might come in handy, with the looming peace, ending this long war with France… and the subsequent 'beaching' of many fine officers and men of the Royal Navy'…1815.

Thursday, January 7

To Remove a Musket Ball

A Trocar, Musket Ball Forceps with musket ball, Bullet Probe with ribbon and Catlin.

Wednesday, January 6

Make Your Own Naval Surgeon's Uniform

It is not quite complete, but I can tell you that my reproduction of a Royal Navy Surgeon's Coat has been the result of many hours of research and hard work. And not just work on MY part, but on the part of many people.

J. Horwood's uniform
Let's talk about where it came from. In the National Maritme Museum (NMM), there is an extant example of a Royal Navy Surgeon's coat from 1807 that belonged to a surgeon by the name of Joshua Horwood. They have almost every piece of his uniform... coat, waistcoat, breeches and hat. So I decided early on that I wanted to try to emulate Horwood's uniform as best I could so as to more accurately portray a surgeon from the period.

In my correspondence with the NMM's Amy Miller who is a Curator for Decorative Arts and Material Culture, she had this to say about the Horwood samples:

Horwood's Waistcoat
"I can tell you that the regulations issued in 1805 state that ‘Surgeons of Hospitals to wear two embroidered Button-holes on the Collar; Surgeons of Ships, one.’ The regulations for this period are not always clear as the admiralty would also have produced a  regulation pattern of clothing, called a sealed pattern,  for tailors to copy.  Further, our particular surgeon, Joshua Horwood,  appears to have settled for an extremely cheap coat – the tailoring and materials are not very nice at all.  Since the officer had to provide the uniform at his own expense, it would appear that Horwood did not really want to pay for high end tailoring."
My not yet finished waistcoat

For the sake of my own comfort, it was decided that the small clothes (waistcoat & breeches) would be constructed from russian drill instead of wool. Wool is great at sea and in cooler climates, but not in the American South in the heat of the summer, which is when I attend the bulk of my events.

Maggie (my seamstress/fiance) modified a Kannick's Korner waistcoat pattern to more closely resemble the Horwood waistcoat with its tabs at the bottom, and I hand drew a little pattern piece to emulate the faux pocket flaps.

The repro coat in production.
pad-stitching on the int. collar
The coat is another modified version of a Kannick's Korner pattern. We altered it so that the flaps in the front were one continuous piece instead of being separate bits that were attached. The wool is a tropical weight navy that is used in the creation of cold weather uniform coats for the NYPD. I cannot speak too highly of the quality of this wool, it's really spectacular.

Big thanks to Maggie Waterman... you made me CLOTHES! She is very talented and stuck with the project, even when it frustrated her half to death. Wanna see how talented she is? Of course you DO! Also, special thanks to Michael Ramsey who helped along the way and would give Maggie several much-needed pep talks when she'd get discouraged.

Horwood's collar.
I have had a great deal of difficulty in discovering whether the 'single embroidered button hole' design on the coat collar was stitched in silver or gold thread. Close examination of the image from the NMM's collection would seem to indicate that it is either faded gold or tarnished silver. After a great deal of consulting with friends and folks who are 'in the know' about such things, the final word (in MY mind anyway) came from my email from Amy Miller of the NMM.

"...I can tell you that after looking at the embroidery under magnification, it is gold (in this case a very cheap alloy, hence the tarnish)."

The 'test braid' pinned to my coat.
I am certain that in my quest to discover the proper color of thread, I aggravated my friends to death. Special thanks to Patrick Schifferdecker, Tom Tumbusch, Michael Ramsey and others for their input and for putting up with me.

My initial attempts at hand embroidering the collar braid looked like amateur hour at the quilting bee, it was pretty foul. After some hunting around, I found a woman in my neighborhood who could do the work, and at a price that won't break the bank.

Horwood's Chapeau Bras
Wearing the 'Chafaux' Mark I
The surgeon's hat was a different proposition. The photo from the NMM website is small and dark, making details difficult to discern. But comparing the photo to some of the drawings of hats and uniforms from the period made it possible to come up with something that resembles a proper surgeon's chapeau.

After having a look at a reproduction chapeau bras that belonged to Mr. Mike McCarty and an original hat that was part of my local museum's War of 1812 exhibit, I got my nerve up to create a series of mock-ups that would eventually lead to the construction of a finished product.

The Mark I "Chafaux Bras" as I nick-named it, was a simple hat made from two sheets of black poster board from my local drug store's school supply aisle and some clear tape like you use to wrap Christmas presents with. The Mark I was an attempt for me to get my head around the engineering involved in the hat and making it fit and fold shut when you tuck it under your arm.

The Mark II "Chafaux" was a slightly more complicated production. Slightly more rigid cardboard underneath some cheap black fabric. The Mark II hat made me more confident in some of the steps we would have to go through in order to make the finished product happen... like glue and trim.
A moment of silence for the Mark I which bravely sacrificed itself for the pattern pieces of the finished hat. The Mark II is visible at the upper left.
Thanks to Mr. McCarty for allowing me to examine the construction of his chapeau, and for making me feel like it was not the impossible task that I had originally thought it might be.

I've tried to leave out all the tedious bits like cutting out the small clothes from the Russian Drill around the weird bleachy spots, the never ending quest for proper buttons that don't cost a fortune, finally finding said buttons and having too manually adjust the shanks to all face the same direction, etc.

Thanks to everyone who helped design, construct, glue, stitch, research or encouraged me over the course of the project. You guys are awesome and have helped make something really special for me, and I won't forget that.
No collar embroidery, but otherwise finished. From the Fair at New Boston.
And also, I'd like to thank Joshua Horwood and his descendants for taking care of the uniform and eventually donating it to the NMM so us history nerds could pour over it with a fine tooth comb for details. Because, as Amy Miller from the NMM said in her email to me,  

"...this uniform is an extremely rare survival and is, to my knowledge, the only extant example."

The finished uniform with collar braid.

Tuesday, January 5

Marlinspike Sailor: A Review

The Marlinspike Sailor 
by Hervey Garrett Smith
(1986 reprint of 1971 reissue of 1960 third edition)
John deGraff, Inc. Clinton Corners, NY. 

A Book Review by Buzz Mooney

Back in the late 80s, I was introduced to a handy little paperback, Arts of the Sailor, by Hervey Garrett Smith. I wasn’t a Sailor, but I was a reenactor, and interested in tall ship, so the book was useful to me. In it, however, was an intriguing reference to a book which sounded like an even greater treasure; The Marlinspike Sailor, an earlier volume by the same author. It was several years before I ever saw this other book, and that belonged to a co-worker. It lived up to the promise suggested by its mention in Arts: in it I found a wonderful guide to fancy ropework and clever decorative items, as well as useful ones. 

Need to learn basic knots? Smith starts there, or, more accurately, he starts with a basic introductory chapter entitled “How Rope Works”. He goes on to splices, (not as hard as they seem, once you get to understand the art of ropework) stowage, rope grommets, Monkey’s-fist heaving-lines, and even how to create a rope ladder with a single, uncut length of rope. Want to know how to rig ratlines to the shrouds, so you can actually go aloft? It’s actually pretty easy. Need to make a rope-end starter to motivate sluggardly co-workers? Smith will help you to do it with style. Want to make a ditty bag that will prevent you ever being called a ‘Landlubber’, again? That’s in there, too. Sail palms, bench hooks, seam rubbers, serving mallets, even a water jug that’ll make Mister Hollybrass jealous are all to be found in this sea-bag of tricks.

At 131 pages, you’ll find plenty to fill your winter make-and-mend days, even when you ignore the last 15 or so pages, on modern rope. Whenever people post questions asking for books that will help their Sailor impressions, or even just enrich their next voyage through the Aubrey/Maturin series, I always recommend this one. It’s not currently in print, but it can usually be readily found via the various online book dealers, at a reasonable price. You’ve put a lot of time and effort into your best shore-going rig: this book will help you to take it all the way to the t’gallant, and beyond.

Monday, January 4

The Acasta Frigate

"The Acasta Frigate"

                                  "Captain Kerr places a due confidence in the largest, the best officered, and best manned frigate in the service, has been roaming about for his prey for several months, and we only wish him fairly alongside the President, Constitution, or the United States.  On receiving the accounts of the capture of the Guerriere, Captain Kerr assembled his crew, and addressed them as follows: 

'My lads, it is with a distress which I cannot sufficiently depict to you, that I inform you of the capture of the Guerriere, by the Constitution American frigate.  We are going to sea, and in the largest and best armed frigate in the service.  Hear my determination ‑ I am determined never to strike the colours of the Acasta ‑ My mind is made up ‑ What say you, my boys?'  The exclamation of ‑ 'To the bottom!' and three truly British cheers, followed his words, and the anchor was weighed. 

– From the excellent equipment of the Acasta, her great size, weight of metal, and number of men, we are confident that with her there will be no desecration of the seaman's religion ‑ the Flag!  The Acasta has taken on board 24‑pounders on her maindeck ‑ and we may cheerfully trust the national honour to her efforts."

from THE NAVAL CHRONICLE: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War.  Nicholas Tracy, editor.  London: Stackpole Books, 1999‑2000. Volume 5, Page 148