Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People

Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine, was commissioned by the French king Francis to explore the new world in 1524. Verrazzano made landfall near Cape Fear in the Carolinas and eventually sailed north to the coast of Maine which he called The Land of Bad People. Seventy-eight years later another explorer, Bartholomew Gosnold, sailed south from Nova Scotia to the Land of Bad People looking for a cure for syphilis. He was under the misapprehension that sassafras was that cure.

According to the History and Epidemiology of Syphilis, the disease had been recently introduced to Europe and everyone was to blame. The English called it the French disease. The French called it the Spanish disease. Ironically, it appears to have been the American disease, first contracted by Columbus’ crew from Caribbean islanders.

Even though it had no effect on syphilis, the root of sassafras made a passable drink later called root beer—a passable soft drink but not much of a beer. It has an alcohol content of only 0.4% by volume. Understandably, it was most popular during prohibition. Sassafras is also street slang for marijuana but so is almost everything.

It may be an inconsequential bit of loosely related history but it what a great title for a short story: Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People. I should get Chris Furst to build a body of flesh around its bones.

The Wisdom of William Munny

I sometimes remember the small birds, agile as bats, flitting across the waves so very far from shore. They seemed small enough to nest in the palm of my hand with fingers curled, their wild hearts hammering against my finger tips. In the sudden darkness of the tropics, a darkness that descends without grace, their dark bodies were silhouetted for the briefest instant against the white of breaking waves. They were a flock, wheeling and darting among the waves. They seemed too fragile to survive such immensity. Where did they sleep in a storm?

My neighbor is dying. He asked me to witness his will. I’ve never been invited into his house before; now I’ve watched him put his signature on the disposition of everything he owns. It won’t be long—a year or two—before his will is executed. We’re all dying, of course, but the consensus of medical opinion is that my neighbor has a schedule to keep.

There is a scene from The Unforgiven when William Munny, a man expert at killing, describes to a dime novelist the meaning of death. “You take away everything a man’s got, and everything he’s ever going to have.”

I don’t mean to be maudlin. Years ago Monsanto used the tag line: “Life would be impossible without chemicals.” It would also be impossible without death. But sometimes I think we’re much like those small birds a thousand miles from shore, skirting the edge of a storm.