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December 7, 2023 10 mins

A pair of very curious individuals are on today's tour. We hope you enjoy their company!

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

(00:36):
I don't know about you, but my memory these days
is pretty bad. I can barely remember to pick up
the milk when I'm at the grocery store anymore. And
yet there exists people in this world whose minds contain multitudes.
Actress Mary Lou Henner famously had a condition called hyperthymesia,
which allows her to remember almost every detail of her
entire life. She can recall names, dates, and times of

(00:58):
various events from her past asked, no matter how small.
Only sixty two people in the world have been diagnosed
with hyperthymesia, and we are still learning what causes it
and how it affects those who possess it. But Stephen
Wiltshier doesn't have hyperthymesia, which you might think he does
considering his special talent. His mind is also a steel trap,

(01:19):
but he isn't able to recall every moment of his
life like the others. Instead, he has cities on the brain.
Wiltshier was born in London in April of nineteen seventy four.
His parents had come from the Caribbean, raised their son
in the Little Venice district of West London, and Stephen
was nonverbal early on, and three years into his life
he was officially diagnosed with autism. Sadly, that same year,

(01:42):
his father was killed in a motorcycle accident. Around five
years old, Stephen developed a number of interests. Like a
lot of kids, he had a passion for vehicles, especially
American cars and London buses, as well as animals, and
to express his love for these topics he began drawing them.
But a few years later he shifted his focus from
cars and creatures to buildings. His skills were evidence even

(02:06):
from a young age. He understood perspective and proper technique
in a way that most children his age just didn't.
And he couldn't keep the pencil out of his hand either.
But his teachers saw his obsession withdrawing as a means
to an end in an effort to get him to speak,
they confiscated his art supplies. Their thought was that if
he wanted them badly enough, he would ask for them.

(02:27):
After struggling with the sounds, Stephen eventually managed to say
the word paper, and from there his vocabulary quickly grew.
He was speaking in full sentences by the age of nine.
But his language skills weren't the only thing progressing. His
drawings were also getting better, and one of his teachers
took notice. They didn't just see raw talent, they saw
true art, and started entering his work in a number

(02:50):
of local competitions and exhibitions. Stephen sold his first piece
when he was only eight years old. As he took
home more and more awards, I started asking questions, how
could this child create such stunning drawings? And the answer
is simple, That's because Stephen is a savant. When he
stopped drawing animals and automobiles, he pivoted to crafting elaborate

(03:12):
and detailed architectural sketches of made up cities. He would
create them in his head, then transfer them to paper.
He drew soaring skyscrapers and road systems, all of which
were proportional and well thought out. He then turned his
attention to actual skylines and cities. His first ever commission
came from the former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who asked

(03:33):
Stephen to draw Salisbury Cathedral for him. Now you have
to understand what set Stephen's sketches apart. Isn't necessarily his
artistic talent, which, don't get me wrong, is significant. It's
that he only needs to see a place once in
order to recreate it from memory. For example, after a
brief helicopter ride over London, he drew a detailed four

(03:54):
mile expanse of the area without the need for a
single reference photo. Another chopper trip, this time twenty minute
flyover of New York City, yielded a nineteen foot long
panorama incorporating over three hundred square miles of the city,
all from memory. But he still manages to add some
flare of his own to his scenes every now and then.

(04:14):
One of his sketches is titled City of London ten
Years in the Future and features a number of yet
to be built skyscrapers overlooking the Thames. Another is called
the Great brand New and depicts a pair of hands
holding a globe teeming with buildings that jut out from
its surface like porcupines, quills, Stephen's work spans the globe,
with drawings of places in America, Singapore, Canada and Europe

(04:37):
that would be hard enough for any artists to draw,
even with the use of reference photos, but knowing that
they were all done from memory and in such great
detail puts them on a whole other level. Stephen Wiltshire
is someone with incredible talent, one that he has honed
over the past forty some odd years, and it's clear
that his only limits now are his imagination and having

(05:00):
enough paper. Long before Martha Stewart taught television viewers how
to bake bread and fluff their pillows, another lifestyle guru

(05:22):
imparted her wisdom on the masses. Her name was Hannah Woolley.
You've probably never heard of her before, but if you
had been around during the sixteen hundreds, you definitely would
have known her name. She was the Martha Stewart of
the seventeenth century, the Gwyneth Paltrow of the pre industrial era.
She was, to use the terminology of her day, a
domestic goddess, although her road to fame was quite bumpy.

(05:46):
Hannah was born in England in sixteen twenty two. While
little is known about her early life, she must have
had access to a handful of educational opportunities. She was
said to have so called musical abilities and a working
knowledge of Italian. The details of her parents' lives have
been lost to history, but we do know that Hannah
became an orphan in sixteen thirty six at the age

(06:07):
of fourteen. Needing a way to support herself, Hannah applied
for jobs as a governess, which was sort of like
being a live in tutor. Her aptitude for music and
languages landed her a job in the home of an
English noble woman, teaching the family's children. Ten years later,
when Hannah was twenty four, she quit her job to
marry a teacher named Benjamin Woolley, and together they had

(06:28):
four kids of their own. Throughout the sixteen forties and
sixteen fifties, Hannah devoted her time to caring for her
home and her children. She was unique in that she
kept meticulous records of her household chores during a time
when less than a quarter of British women were literate.
Hannah could read and write, which gave her the ability
to catalog the recipes that she made at home. By

(06:49):
the early sixteen sixties, Hannah had journals full of domestic advice.
There were exact measurements for preparing a violet flower syrup,
detailed instructions on how to make eel high, and her
opinions on the best way to decorate a mantle with
wild moss and mushrooms. Of course, she planned to pass
these writings down to her children when they grew up,

(07:09):
but Hannah thought other people might benefit from her knowledge too,
and so in sixteen sixty one she published a cookbook
entitled The Ladies Directory. While cookbooks weren't brand new, Hannah's
was the first ever published by a woman, and it
was a big hit, big enough that she decided to
keep writing more. In sixteen sixty four she published another
cookbook called The Cook's Guide, and then very suddenly, her

(07:33):
husband passed away. Now an orphan and a widow, Hannah
had to figure out how to care for herself and
her four children. In sixteen seventy she wrote a book
called The Queen Like Closet, which, despite the name, did
not chronicle the clothing of monarchs. Instead, it was in
all around how to manual for housekeepers. It was also
Hannah's biggest success yet, being reprinted four times and translated

(07:56):
into German. Hannah became one of the first British women
ever to make a living as a writer. She continued
publishing cookbooks and housekeeping manuals all throughout the seventeenth century,
eventually becoming a household name in England. And here's the
most interesting part. Hannah was writing during a time when
medicine was considered part of the domestic sphere. In addition

(08:18):
to eel pie and mushroom decor, she also created recipes
for medications and wrote instructions on how to perform minor surgery.
And yes, most of these home remedies were what we
would now call old wives tales. This was, of course,
the era when medicine centered around balancing the bodies for humors,
which were believed to be blood, yellow bile, black bile,

(08:39):
and phlegm. Gross, I know, but this idea of four
humors dates all the way back to ancient Greece and
it was the way that people understood their bodies for
over two thousand years. And so a lot of Hannah's
medicinal recipes are focused on how to raise or lower
the amount of certain humors. Lentils and cabbage were thought
to increase levels of black bile. Blood letting, literally making

(09:01):
yourself bleed on purpose was thought to decrease fever. Vinegar
syrup could flush out excess phlem and it also was
a cure for the plague. But if that's not a
bold enough claim for you, Hannah also thought that she
had a cure for breast cancer. Just mix a little
goose dung with the juice of a celidyne flower, apply
it like an ointment, and you'll be better in no time.

(09:22):
But while a lot of Hannah's medicinal experiments should never
be recreated, there is value in her work and in
folk medicine in general. Modern studies often find nuggets of
truth in weird ancient medicinal beliefs. In fact, a two
thousand and six study found that the extract from the
celandine flower actually does slow the growth of cancer cells,
which means that Hannah Woolly's curious seventeenth century cancer treatment

(09:46):
might not be as crazy as it sounds. But still,
I think all of us can agree we can probably
skip out on that goose dung. I hope you've enjoyed
today's guide it tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities, subscribe
for free on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the
show by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was

(10:10):
created by me Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works.
I make another award winning show called Lore, which is
a podcast, book series, and television show, and you can
learn all about it over at the Worldoflore dot com.
And until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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