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10 Intriguing Letters To A 17th-Century Advice Column

by Chloe Findlater
fact checked by Jamie Frater

In London in 1690, John Dunton founded the Athenian Mercury, a magazine to answer “all the most nice and curious questions.” It was the world’s first advice column.

Any literate person could write in with questions on subjects ranging from the philosophical to the scientific to the personal. One man asked where the wind came from. Another asked for advice concerning the drunkenness of his wife. In one memorable submission, a man asked why a horse’s “fundament” was round yet it emitted an “oblong excrement.”

Below is an edited collection of 10 intriguing submissions to this advice column as well as the answers received by the writers. The questions help to illuminate the everyday concerns of those living some 300 years ago.

Please note that the questions and answers are quoted from the Athenian Oracle, which is the full collection of Athenian Mercuries. To make the list easier to read, we’ve removed the quotations marks and italics that we normally use in these instances.

10 Young Men Back Then Had Similar Concerns To Those Of Today

Q. It is my misfortune to be red-haired. I love a lady who has the greatest aversion imaginable to that colored hair. I love her to distraction and have sufficient hope of obtaining her were this obstacle removed.

I don’t expect a perfect alteration of the hair. I only beg you would direct me in such a method as may make it brown for 15 or 16 days so that neither sweat nor rain will efface it, and then to repeat it again, for if she discovers it at any time after marriage, her aversion will be equally fatal to me.

A. We fancy it can’t be impossible to have your hair stained or dyed by a skillful painter with ingredients so strong as it would never out till that crop were off the ground. For the rest of the hair, since it will be every day peeping out and in a little while your head will be like a bullfinch’s, of two colors, in which case we know no remedy but to repeat the operation.[1]

9 Cure For Hearing Voices

Q. There is a gentleman who has for a long time been possessed with a fancy that people are continually talking to him with an audible voice, sometimes one, sometimes another, who threaten to destroy him one way or another.

Now, gentlemen, your opinion is desired, whether it be possible for persons to discourse with him at a great distance and in such manner as not to be heard by some friends near him who have the sense of hearing quick enough? Whence this fancy proceeds, and what means are proper to cure and remove it?

A. We have heard a great many plausible stories of men conversing with spirits, but we neither see how it can be performed nor can positively prove the contrary.

Yet are most apt to believe the notion proceeds from some distempers in the brain and is nothing else but the effect of a melancholy fancy which is often caused by the indisposition of the body and sometimes by want for agreeable conversation. But however it comes, the best way to remove it is by taking physic (medicine), walking abroad, and frequenting agreeable company.[2]

8 A Clairvoyant Dog

Q. I desire your opinion of the following relation: My father had a dog which he kept a great many years, in which time I had two brothers and one sister that died, and it was observed that this dog always the day before they died, went about [90 meters (300 ft)] from the house and laid his nose toward the church where they are all buried and howled in a strange, hideous manner for an hour or more at a time, and when my father died, he did the same.

Now it seems as if this dog had some prophetic knowledge in these matters. Gentlemen, your opinion would much oblige.[3]

A. We can’t tell what to make of hundreds of such instances as these, some of which we ourselves are assured are true. All we can say is, there must be something in it not natural since what power in nature has a dog more than any other creature to foresee (or rather foresmell) such accidents.

7 Not The Best Husband

Q. I’m a married man, but having a very ill wife, have been parted from her for some years, and design never to live with her more. Now I desire your advice whether I may pray to God to take her to himself, that I may endeavor to make myself happy in another.

A. Sure if she’s fit for heaven, she’s fit for you; and if she were as good while you lived with her as she is now, how came you to part? It would yet be handsomer to submit to God’s will and wait with patience, or rather pray that he’d convert her, than take her away in such a condition.[4]

6 Or The Best Wife

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Q. I have been married (God help me) to a pretended widow who keeps a public house for five years. She drinks herself very plentifully and extremely abuses me when she’s drunk, nor can I excuse her when she’s sober, which does not often happen.

She gives me very scurrilous language—rascal, cuckold—and this before all the company that comes to her house. I can’t call it mine for I must confess it is she that wears the breeches.

She takes all the money that’s spent in the house and won’t allow me one penny. She has already conveyed several hundred pounds out of the house, which she’ll give me no account of, but declares she’ll run me in debt as much as possible, on purpose, that I may rot and starve in a Gaol (O loving spouse). For charity, I beg your advice how, if possible, I may reduce her to a better mind.

A. Alas! If one-half of this be true, thou art in a very woeful pickle and require the charitable assistance of all well-disposed husbands. We’ll be short in our advice—for mending your good spouse, we think it is impossible unless as we mend an old coat with a new one.

Your way, therefore, is to get three or four lusty, honest fellows into the house with ye, take your dearly beloved and mew her up in some garret till you have sold off house and household stuff, and retire somewhere or other into the country that she may not find ye (as you value your nose, ears, and all the rest of your movables) and there make much of yourself at a safer distance from her, since she has, it seems, feathered her nest so well already that there’s no fear of so good a creatures wanting.[5]

5 Google Didn’t Exist Back Then

Q. I have maintained an argument with a certain gentleman against the vulgar opinion that the Thames first freezes at the bottom. I could not by all the arguments I brought from philosophy or right reason convince him to the contrary. Pray, gentlemen, let us hear your opinion in this case as soon as possible.

A. All experience shows that water never freezes in the bottom ’till all above it be froze, for the causes of freezing is the nitrosity [sic] of the air. Fishes retire to the deepest places in wintertime to avoid the cold, and every swimmer will tell you that water exposed to the air is always different in its temperature from that which is deeper.[6]

4 The Simplest Things Weren’t Well Understood

Q. What’s the reason that some men have no beards?

A. A want of heat and a due disposition of nature. So where there is not heat enough to open the pores for the [growth] of hair, that humidity and moisture which is the natural cause of hair retires to other parts of the body more adapt [sic] and better prepared for expulsion.[7]

3 A Frightening Time To Live

Q. I have a certain knowledge of a thing that happened not long ago—a gentleman having been robbed, suspected a servant of his, who being innocent suspected another, and to clear himself, he went to a sorceress.

As he was going, he was met by a female who addressed him thus: I know whether you are going, come along with me, and I will show you who has robbed your master of his money.

The servant went with her, and she showed him the shape of the thief, with which he was so surprised that he died of the fright in three or four days. What is your opinion of this?

A. We answer that it was either the Devil himself, who is never idle in such cases unless restrained by an overruling power, or at least some witch of the Devil who received both intelligence and power for the young man’s unhappy information. As to his death by a fright, it is ordinary.[8]

2 Simple Pleasures Were Questioned

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Q. I’m about 19 years old and have often been desired by my friends to learn to dance. But I somewhat question the lawfulness of it and would fain know your opinion.

For I take it to be an institution of the pagans, who upon the days of their sacrifices did dance before the altars of their gods. Besides, it weakens piety, occasions ill thoughts, and seems a breach of the Seventh Commandment. I desire a speedy answer.

A. Dancing seems in some sort natural. It is difficult not to leap for joy, and the whole body seems to follow the motion of the spirits and blood. We might as well say feeling, too, were a sin.

For the weakening piety, it must be by occasioning ill thoughts or wasting time, neither of which are necessary effects of it, any more than of courtship to one you intend to make your wife.

But if you find they are, you must forbear public dancing, and yet may still be privately instructed by a master at your own chamber, there being a time for recreation as well as study and business.[9]

1 A Timeless Question

Q. What’s love?

A. Love, and you’ll know. We’ll give you the best description we can of that passion, which we have some reason to know. ‘Tis a mixture of friendship and desire, bounded by the rules of honor and virtue.

There must be friendship in it, which may be called the spirit or soul of love, as desire the material part, and honor, if you please, that which binds both together and makes the vital union. Love being a medium between pure friendship and perfect desire; ’tis warm enough to keep friendship from an ague, but not so furiously hot as to set all on fire.[10]

Chloe Findlater lives in England and loves all things mysterious and unexplained (except when it has to do with where she left her keys). She will endeavor to provide you with tales of weirdness whenever she can.

fact checked by Jamie Frater