Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
February 12, 2019 People & Politics

Love, Hate, and Sex from the History of Science

This is not just another sappy love story from science’s past.

Science history photo collage

This is not just another sappy love story from science’s past. Instead, we offer you three tales of lust, loneliness, betrayal, pettiness, and not one but two beheadings.


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Reporters: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Audio Engineer: James Morrison
Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin
Additional audio production by Dan Drago
Music courtesy of the Audio Network

Research Notes

Martha Drinnan

Is Laurel Hill Haunted?Laurel Hill Cemetery Blog, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, April 30, 2018.
Sherman, Conger. Guide to Laurel Hill Cemetery, Near Philadelphia, 1847. Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1847.
Strauss, Robert. “Grave Sights.” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 29, 2010.

It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Duveen, Denis. “Madame Lavoisier 1758–1836.” Chymia 5 (1953): 13–29.
Everts, Sarah. “Acknowledging Madame Lavoisier.” Artful Science (blog), C&EN, June 1, 2011.
Hoffmann, Roald. “Mme. Lavoisier.” Scientific American 90 (2002): 22–24.
The Human Side of Science: Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and Other Personal Stories behind Science’s Big Ideas (2016).” Schoolbag.info.
Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier.” Wikipedia, accessed February 11, 2019.

Touched by the Angels

Clucas, Stephen, ed. John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006.
Dee, John. The Compendious Rehearsal. London: Thomas Hearne, 1726.
British Library (website), Collection Items.
Harkness, Deborah. John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
In, Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture, edited by Stanton J. Linden, 35–79. New York: AMS, 2007.
Sherman, William Howard. John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.


Stories of Love, Hate, and Sex from the History of Science

Alexis: Welcome to Distillations, a podcast powered by the Science History Institute. I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. Each episode of Distillations takes a deep dive into a moment of science history in order to shed some light on the present.

Alexis: In honor of Valentine’s Day we’re diving into a few different moments to share some stories about love, hate, and sex throughout the history of science. Now just in case you’re worried that things are gonna get too sappy, let me comfort you with this list of topics we’ll hit in this episode: sex, pettiness, swinging, cemeteries, espionage, murder, and not one but TWO beheadings…and, also, love.

Our first story takes place in a spot that is actually near and dear to my heart. A cemetery. Laurel Hill Cemetery is in northwest Philadelphia and it’s the final resting place of the famous: people like congressmen, business tycoons, civil war generals and titanic passengers. But of the ordinary too.

People like Martha Drinnan, whose story of love and loss we bring to you this Valentine’s Day.

Alexis: Have y’all been here before? Laurel Hill Cemetery?

Rigo: No.

Alexis: Well, welcome to Laurel Hill Cemetery. Laurel Hill was long before Fairmount Park and so in the Victorian era if you wanted to come to a park, and stroll around, and picnic and see people, you came to the cemetery. That’s what people did here. They Promenaded. By the way before I started running programs at the Science History Institute and being a podcast celebrity I was here at Laurel Hill Cemetery running programs and hanging out with the Dead!

Watching my step so I don’t fall and break my neck and then join this place permanently.

Lisa: Chapter One. A cure for spinsters.

Alexis: Every cemetery needs a superintendent. Someone who takes care of the place, makes sure the burials happen, the lawn is mowed, the stones get re-set. In 1836 Laurel Hill’s very first superintendent wan Irish man named Thomas Drinnan. Almost two centuries later, the current superintendent is also from Ireland. The man who taught me everything I know about granite and marble, Bill Doran.

Billy: The first superintendent did everything soup-to-nuts. His name was Thomas Drinnan. He had a son called Joseph Drinnan. And then when he passed away his son—Michael Drinnan, he took over as the superintendent and he had he had four kids and one of them was his daughter Martha and she, she never married. She was a spinster.

Alexis: And Martha Drinnan was, according to all the accounts of her, was very quiet and shy and reserved.

Alexis: They called her Mattie.

Alexis: They said she would come to the cemetery a lot and just like read and be alone when her father died. She’d just come and sit at the grave and spend time there.

Billy: And she was 39 years old and she suffered from nervous palpitations and all. And some days she never left the house—

Alexis: The one thing she was, was pretty religious.

Billy: But the only one that she ever confided in was father Walsh from St. Bridget’s Parish in East Falls.

Alexis: She spent a lot of time talking with him. Like, you know, she was she basically went to church came to the cemetery sat quietly by herself. Went home, was quiet and reserved, that’s that’s what people will say about her. If you were a woman without means and you were unmarried and older you are a spinster. If you were a wealthy woman and you were unmarried and you were older you were eccentric because people are hoping you would give them your money. So they didn’t call you a spinster. They called you eccentric. So the story of Mattie is that one day in December cold day. Actually probably not unlike this she gets up in the house, everyone in the house hears her get up. She puts on this big heavy black coat. She’s got a big heavy black dress, these big boots. And she goes out walking.

Billy: And she went down and over the railroad and the last person to see her was one of the guards, you know going over Calumet Street.

Billy: And that was the last time she was seen alive.

Billy: Four months later the paper said that there was a body found on the Delaware River on an ice barge and the son and the mother read paper and decided that It might be the daughter so they went down to New Jersey and they identified the body as Martha by the dress that you wore.

Billy: She had no head. Her head was missing.

Alexis: And it’s a pretty gruesome, I think what we would think of now as a pretty gruesome crime, you know a headless woman floating on an ice cake. Everything about it indicates Foul Play.

Alexis: But a crazy thing happens, they hold like a jury inquiry, which is not really like a full case. And what happens is the jury decides that Mattie committed suicide and that her head was decapitated by like a block of like falling ice. So we can get into like, how difficult it is to

decapitate yourself, it’s not easy at all. The idea that like some ice and snow fell on her head and then it popped off is a little crazy. But that’s what they that’s what they decided. And so Mattie is buried here at Laurel Hill in the same grave she used to go and visit and sit and read out with her father.

Alexis: But there’s still this outstanding thing. Like how did she get ruled a suicide? How did no one think to investigate? And that’s when we get into this idea of Mattie being a spinster. And not only was she a spinster, she was a poor spinster and she was a poor Irish spinster.

Billy: There were signs everywhere dogs and Irish need not apply.

Alexis: So nobody really cared.

Alexis: It contributed to this whole narrative of like she’s a sad lonely woman who just came to the cemetery and sat by herself. And of course, she committed suicide right, but it’s also like. She was a spinster and so like the amount of energy people want to expend into you know, hunting down what happened. It’s not as high. She’s not as tragic of a figure right? So that’s I think that’s it’s kind of a mix of both.

Alexis: So that is the story of Martha Drinnan.

Billy: So I think that the only person Martha confided in was Father Walsh. I think there might be something going on there. He was the only one she confided in. So I won’t go any further than that but it is an unsolved murder.

Alexis: Being a spinster in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was considered a terrible thing. And let’s be real: it still kind of is. Then and now, we think of the state of a single woman as unnatural. Something she needs to fix. Just like there’s an entire industry built around self-improvement and self-help today well that existed in Martha’s time too. And one of the ways it manifested was through patent medicines.

Alexis: These were over-the-counter products marketed as medicines, without regard to their actual effectiveness or safety. They had a veneer of science, without necessarily relying on any actual science to make them. This is all before Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 which finally said you had to do things like list ingredients and tone down false claims.

Alexis: A good example of one of these products was “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.” Now according to its advertisements, it was, quote, “The best medicine for girls who are nervous, melancholy, and irregular of appetite. It cures nervousness, dizziness and melancholy, promotes the appetite, and gives the body robust health. There is no alcohol in “Favorite Prescription” and it is entirely free from opium, cocaine, and all other narcotics.”

Alexis: But what was actually in it was, among other things, alcohol, cocaine, and opium.

Alexis: You think a lot about all the ways nowadays, you know as we’re sitting here for Valentine’s Day thinking about love, all the ways we try to fix ourselves and improve ourselves. All the demands we have, particularly on women about sort of where they should be in their lives, you know, every person who’s gone home for the holidays and had a family member say are you married yet? You know, this is the life Martha was in and, you know, it was serious enough that they didn’t investigate her death.

Lisa: Chapter Two: It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Alexis: Back in 1971, the R&B group, The Persuaders, released a song called “Thin Line between Love and Hate.” Maybe you know it. The man in the song keeps cheating on his partner, he hurts her, even though they are in love. And his partner, well, she eventually gets fed up and puts him in the hospital. At

the end of the song he is shocked that someone who loved him so much could hate him so much now. He knew he did her wrong, but he didn’t think she had it in her to retaliate like that.

Lisa: It’s not just the song, we’ve all heard that saying before and everyone agrees: these two extreme emotions can often occupy the same space.

Alexis: It’s universal. That’s why there are songs, movies, poems, you name it: they’re dedicated to it. And while chemists aren’t often the subject of romance stories, that’s who we’re talking about today. Specifically a French one, from 200 years ago.

Lisa: Her name was Madame Lavoisier. She was the collaborator and wife of Antoine Lavoisier, who is widely considered the father of modern chemistry.

Alexis: That song, “Thin Line between Love and Hate,” it resonates with us because while we love a love story, we kind of love a hate story too. And Madame Lavoisier’s story is a little of both.

Alexis: As Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman said “there is no biography of Madame Lavoisier. I think she deserves an opera.”

Alexis: We begin our story in France, in December of 1771. Madame Lavoisier isn’t Madame Lavoisier yet. She’s Marie-Anne, the 13 year-old daughter of Jacques and Claudine. But she is about to get married to Antoine Lavoisier, who at 28, is 15 years her senior.

Lisa: We know. This sounds appalling. But it wasn’t illegal at the time and for Marie it could have been the lesser of two evils. Her other option was to marry a 50 year old man. You see her father, Jacques, was a tax collector.

Alexis: And he worked at the whim of some powerful people. When Marie turned thirteen, she got a marriage proposal from a well-connected count. Marie’s father couldn’t outright object, so he got one of his colleagues to ask for Marie’s hand in marriage instead.

Lisa: That colleague was Antoine Lavoisier.

Alexis: And that changed the trajectory of her life and frankly, science as we know it.

Alexis: Antoine Lavoisier was already interested in chemistry when he married Marie. But that interest grew from a hobby to a career because of her. For one thing, the financial security provided by

combining their family’s finances allowed him to build a state-of-the-art laboratory.

Lisa: And when Marie took an interest in her husband’s scientific work and became his partner and collaborator, things really took off.

Alexis: So by the time Lavoisier does incredible things like discovering the role oxygen plays in combustion and naming hydrogen, his wife, Marie, is right by his side. She translated works for him and included her own notes on interpretation. She was also an accomplished artist who did detailed renderings of their equipment and lab which is how we know so much about the set-up. She received formal training in the field from Lavoisier’s colleagues and hosted gatherings where scientists came together and discussed ideas.

Lisa: Now all you hear is “Lavoisier! Lavoisier! Lavoisier! Always Lavoisier!” Like he was a lone genius in a lab, but he collaborated not only with his wife, but with other chemists. And we don’t really talk about them now.

Alexis: And women have always been doing science. But for a long time, women working outside the home in any capacity was frowned upon, so their contributions haven’t always been recognized.

Antoine and Marie-Anne get married in 1771. She becomes Madame Lavoisier and they spend the next two decades or so working side by side in what grew to be, by all accounts, a happy marriage and partnership. It was all going smoothly until the French Revolution.

Lisa: Antoine Lavoisier had been feuding with a man named Jean-Paul Marat, a wannabe scientist.

Alexis: Feuds figure heavily in the history of science and in this story, by the way. And the gist of their feud was this: Antoine Lavoisier: high science. Jean-Paul Marat: low science. When Jean-Peal Marat tried to join the Academy of Sciences, where of course Antoine was a high-ranking member, Antoine and his buddies were like, “No, this is the cool kids lunch table. You can’t sit here.” Grossly simplified, but you get the sense of it. Not all that different from high school.

Lisa: Marat was humiliated. Their stand-off became contentious and ugly and Lavoisier really lost his head.

Alexis: Literally. He lost his head. To the guillotine. This is 18th century France, you knew there’d be a guillotine!

Lisa: At first Marat was taken seriously as a scientist, but then he started promoting ideas like animal magnetism, or mesmerism. That’s the idea that that the universe contains an invisible fluid that could be redirected with magnets and used for healing. Which isn’t quite as strange as it sounds. Electricity was another invisible fluid of the 18th century. And it also produced strange effects and was certainly real, so why not Mesmer’s magnetic fluid??

Alexis: But Lavoisier didn’t buy it, and he said so publicly. And unfortunately for Lavoisier, he held a grudge. When the French Revolution came along Jean Paul got really involved. He turned the public and his party against Lavoisier. Remember how Antoine worked with Madame Lavoisier’s father as a tax collector? Well, it came back to haunt him. It turns out being a Tax Collector wasn’t a popular profession during the French Revolution. With help from Marat, for the crimes of tax fraud and selling adulterated tobacco Antoine Lavoisier was sent to the guillotine.

Lisa: After his death, Marie-Ann Lavoisier spent 65 days in prison herself. She was thrown into bankruptcy. And the government seized all of their laboratory equipment and their notebooks. Also, her father went to the guillotine too. None of this stopped her from doing everything she could to protect her husband’s reputation as a chemist, and protect the legacy of their work. She managed to get

Antoine’s final memoirs published. They were called Mémoires de Chimie. She had to print and distribute them herself because no publisher wanted to touch it.

Alexis: They contained his work on heat and the formation of liquids, ideas about combustion, air, the action of acids, and more. The original copy also included a preface, in which Madame Lavoisier named names. She attacked everyone she held responsible for her husband’s death including the

revolutionaries and some of her husband’s contemporaries. Quite the bold move. But cooler heads prevailed and that preface did not appear in the published version.

Lisa: Her efforts secured Antoine Lavoisier’s legacy in the field of chemistry. And about two years after his death, he was exonerated by the government and they sent his belongings back to her with a note saying “Oops! He was falsely convicted.”

Alexis: Which sadly, did not change the fact that Marie-Ann was a widow. But not for long. Enter Benjamin Thompson aka Count Rumford. He was an American who opposed the American Revolution, became a spy for the British, and eventually ended up having to leave America and live abroad. He was also a well-known scientist. And he had a crush on Madame Lavoisier. He wrote that she was “one of the cleverest women ever known and uncommonly well-informed.”

Lisa: And by the way, when we say Count Rumford “live abroad” what we mean is that he actively recruited loyalists to fight for the British. And when an angry mob attacked his house in America, he moved to England, abandoning his wife forever. That’s right. He already had a wife. Who he left. Stand- up guy.

Alexis: Don’t forget: it’s a thin line between love and hate, but also probably not that thin when your husband leaves you behind in the middle of a war. It’s probably mostly hate at that point.

Lisa: Anyway, Count Rumford’s first wife died while he was abroad—probably of rage!—Just kidding. But her death freed him up to woo and marry Madame Lavoisier. Which he did. But it turned out they did not end up being the best match.

Alexis: And that’s an understatement. Madame Lavoisier spent most of her life with Antoine working side by side, not quite equals but together, engaging friends and fellow scientists in lively conversations and debates. Count Rumford was no Lavoisier. He didn’t want Madame anywhere near his lab and he was much more reserved when it came to social activities.

Lisa: The Count was also interested in heat, like Antoine had been. And like him, he had a theory. We’re not going to go into too much detail here, but it led to what we now know as thermodynamics.

Alexis: And he didn’t let Madame have any part in it! Of course we don’t know for sure, but I can only imagine that it must’ve killed her to be shut out of work that she knew something about! And she’d spent all that time thinking about and working on with her first, more open-minded, husband.

Lisa: The weird, if maybe predictable part is that Count Rumford knew what Madame Lavoisier was like before he married her. It seems like that was part of the attraction! But apparently he thought once they got married she’d change, and become a quiet, house-bound, well-behaved woman.

Alexis: It seems like in the beginning of their relationship they really loved each other. They certainly had to jump through a lot of hoops to make the marriage happen. But they weren’t married long when their love edged closer to hate. And the cracks in their relationship began to show.

Lisa: Madame Lavoisier once wrote that the count “would make me very happy if he would but keep quiet.”

Alexis: And he wrote letters to his daughter complaining about how different they were.

Lisa: Things came to a head when she threw a party that he “neither liked nor approved of”

Alexis: And he retaliated by telling the guard not to let any guests in the gate. And he locked the door and took away the keys so she couldn’t even get out. She had stand behind the fence to talk awkwardly to her guests.

Lisa: Which all sounds so petty, bordering on abusive, right? But Madame Lavoisier got the last word. She retaliated that night by going into the garden and pouring boiling water on all his flowers. The marriage didn’t last long after that. They separated in 1809, only four years after their marriage. The whole time they were married, by the way, Madame Lavoisier refused to change her name from Lavoisier.

Alexis: Madame Lavoisier did not let herself get disrespected. She’s not famous for ruining some guy’s flowers. She’s famous for collaborating with Antoine. She had a big role in science. And you could call it pettiness, but frankly, if that’s what pettiness is, count me in. She stood her ground.

Lisa: Rumford like to refer to her as “the dragon” which I know he met as an insult, but I’m going to go ahead and accept it as a compliment on her behalf.

Alexis: Chapter Three: Touched by the Angels

Lisa: So imagine yourself back in Renaissance England. The year is 1587. Elizabeth the First is Queen of England. William Shakespeare is hanging around London, working on a few rough drafts. And you’re John Dee, an advisor to the queen, a respected mathematician and astronomer, one of the nation’s pre- eminent scientific minds. And you have a problem.

Alexis: Well, actually, your wife has a problem. And she’s not the kind of person you want angry at you. Jane Dee was a former lady-in-waiting to the queen, and her political connections helped her husband, John, find patrons for his work.

Lisa: What exactly is that work? Well, it’s a bit of everything. Dee was—pardon the cliché—a genuine Renaissance man. Sometimes his work was serving as a fellow at Trinity College in Cambridge.

Sometimes it was lecturing in mathematics, or dabbling in alchemy, or creating astrological charts for the royal household to find auspicious dates for important events—like the Queen’s coronation. And sometimes it was consulting crystals…. and communicating with angels.

Lisa: So one day John Dee returns from one of these angelic conferences with his crystal, and says something that shocks his wife Jane to the core. The angels have told him that he has to share all his worldly possessions with his business partner. Supposedly, living as total equals will bring them all into a higher state of grace. John says they’ve got to start sharing their house, their kitchen and servants, their money…

Alexis: …and their wives.

Lisa: That’s right. It’s time for Wife Swap: Touched By An Angel Edition.

Alexis: John Dee was a Renaissance man and a prodigy. But the story we’re going to tell you today is about the less distinguished part of his past. It turns out even the world’s greatest minds get caught up in sex scandals.

Lisa: So let’s back things up just a little bit, because it’s important to understand what we mean when we call John Dee an “alchemist.” If you look up alchemists, what you’ll probably get are images of bearded old men sitting in strange-looking workshops, surrounded by broken jars and tattered books, usually melting down their one last coin, trying to turn lead into gold. They look pretty similar to what we think wizards might look like—doing spells over the fire—summoning up powers, all of it a little spooky and a little weird. Right?

Alexis: I feel like you’re about to say “WRONG!”

Lisa: I am! Because, guys, by the way, besides hosting this podcast, I also happen to be a historian of alchemy. Have I mentioned that? I know there are a lot of misperceptions out there. To put it simply, alchemists are the precursor to modern chemists. They’re investigating the natural world. They want to know what makes things tick, where they come from, what they can be mixed with or reduced to. What makes tin and copper so different from iron, even though they’re all metals? And what exactly is mercury– another metal? A liquid? Something else? Alchemists were working on classifying and testing matter long before we had the periodic table. They were testing chemical medicines long before we had pharmaceutical trials.

Alexis: In John Dee’s world, Elizabethan England, alchemists were often called “natural philosophers.” Because they didn’t just test chemicals. They studied mathematics, astronomy and astrology. They read history and theology and poetry. And yes, at times, they even investigated the existence of spirits and angels. Now to them, there weren’t always clear distinctions between all those different fields and questions. Knowledge was knowledge. Understanding one part of the natural world could help you understand all of nature better.

Lisa: There might not be a better example of this idea than John Dee. To say the guy was “well-read” is a vast understatement. By the 1580s, when he was roughly fifty years old, Dee had the biggest and most comprehensive library in all of England at his home in Mortlake, near London. Dee’s library was nearly four thousand volumes in more than twenty-one languages, including Hebrew, Italian, Czech, and Portuguese. Their subjects ranged from science, history, and medicine to hunting and falconry, earthquakes, public speaking, geology, gymnastics, sex, cosmetics, and even raising dogs. And his library wasn’t just books—Dee also collected scientific instruments, and naturalia like shells, taxidermied animals, and rare stones. He kept a series of workrooms close to the reading rooms, for doing hands-on alchemical experiments.

Lisa: Dee still has a bit of a mystic reputation today. For being an occultist. It’s because he practiced crystal scrying. Crystal scrying was thought to be a way to tell the future, to learn secrets, or to speak to spirits and higher powers. Crystal scrying needs two elements– first, a crystal. Second, a scryer, which is actually a person– someone to write down the communications delivered through the crystal from the higher power you’d dialed up. I should note that the scryer is supposed to be in a meditative state during the process. Think of it like a Ouija board.

Alexis: Between 1582 and 1587, Dee tried again and again and again to communicate through the crystal, with the help of his scryer, Edward Kelley. He kept detailed diaries of the conversations that took place between him and Kelley– or should I say, between him…. and the angels.

Lisa: That’s right. Dee believed that the spirits “speaking” through Kelley were in fact Biblical angels, and that the knowledge they shared were secret revelations about the inner workings of the universe. Dee was not only a natural philosopher but a devout Christian, and according to his own diaries, his biggest desire was to find a source of “universal truths,” wisdom that could bring all of humanity into harmony with each other. For Dee, this wasn’t just a science experiment, nor was it only a spiritual ritual. It was something between the two.

Jim: John Dee is really early in the Scientific Revolution. He’s in college when Copernicus proposes that the earth goes around the Sun.

Alexis: This is James Voelkel, historian of science and curator of rare books here at the Science History Institute.

Jim: He’s about a century before a lot of figures that you used to thinking about. And so he’s much closer to the Renaissance than the Enlightenment and that makes him difficult to to get to wrap your mind around. A lot of the distinctions that we make now about Tthe distinction between science and religion for existence and that they’re basically should be separate Realms that that is a century away or it’s at least 50 years away. And so the idea that for instance is a religion has no input. To our understanding of creation would be ludicrous to anyone.

Lisa: A thing you have to understand about Dee is that he wasn’t casually seeking information. This was a guy who was looking for answers with a capital A. And frankly, he was anxious about it. As an advisor to the Queen of England he was responsible, in a way, for knowing the future. He had to choose auspicious dates for coronations and royal events, starts of voyages. And he wanted access to a better way of knowing things.

Jim: And so when you when you look at Dee and Dee is a brilliant mathematician and it’s clear that wherever he went people thought he was super smart the fact that that same guy could be talking with angels we write is not that. It’s crazy as it seems now. People have always been just as smart as they are now. And so when you look at people’s believes in the 16th century it’s not that they are stupid is just that they have a different intellectual context then we do now. And

that’s the hard—it’s hard to get modern students and look back at the past and appreciate that the framework that they are working in is different than the framework people were working in before.

Lisa: Still, nothing about this story gets especially wacky until we meet Dee’s scryer and associate, Edward Kelley.

Alexis: Or should we say, Edward Talbot. That’s how he introduced himself to Dee. Some biographers have claimed that this was because he was wanted for forgery under his real name. But nearly everyone agrees that Kelley was a slippery character: clever, convincing, and always looking for his next victim—I mean patron. I mean sucker. I mean business partner!

Lisa: Talbot, or rather Kelley, wasn’t Dee’s first scryer. But he made a powerful impression on Dee as someone with real connections to the spirit realm. Their partnership started in March of 1582, and from the beginning it was a rocky one. In May of that same year, Kelley abruptly departed, and didn’t return until November, when their scrying sessions resumed. The only reference in Dee’s diary to their falling- out was the brief note, “Mr. Talbot went,” on May 4th. However, an entry only a few days later on May 6th, sheds some light: apparently, Dee’s wife Jane had discovered a certain (unnamed) party was guilty of fraud, and she had flown into a “marvelous rage.”1 Jane Dee, the diaries make clear, had no love (or trust) for Edward Kelley.

Alexis: Still, Dee and Kelley spent the next several years as on-again, off-again scrying partners.

Lisa: By 1583, Kelley was living in Dee’s household, along with his new wife, Joanna. When Dee and Kelley decided to seek funding for their expensive and time-consuming alchemical investigations, all four of them—John and Jane Dee, and Edward and Joanna Kelley—travelled together to Central Europe, visiting royal prospects in towns across Poland and Bohemia. The long weeks of traveling and their unsuccessful search for a wealthy patron strained the relationship between Dee and his scryer.

Alexis: Jane and Joanna on the other hand grew close during these journeys. Dee’s diaries note that Jane felt moved by compassion for Joanna, who was several years younger than her, and whose marriage was struggling.

Lisa: Kelley appears to have disliked his wife and often complained about her. In August of 1583, Dee’s diaries record him as saying “I cannot abide my wife, I love her not, nay, I abhor her.”

Alexis: Charming.

Lisa: Dee and Kelley found a little success at last in 1586, when they found a patron in Bohemian nobleman William of Rosenberg. The two couples settled down in Bohemia, but their peace was only temporary. For Dee, settling down in Bohemia meant a chance to return to what he considered his most important work: communicating with the angels. Kelley seems to have had other plans. He was no

longer happy to be Dee’s scryer. Now that he was gaining fame in Europe as an alchemist, he saw an opportunity to break away from the angelic conversations and find his own path to fame and fortune.

Alexis: Some of Kelley’s biographers have suggested that it was this desire—his wish to cut ties with Dee—that inspired Kelley to make his shocking pronouncement of angelically-commanded wife- swapping.

Lisa: I guess it could have really been the angels.

Alexis: Sure.

Lisa: Either way, during a scrying session on April 18, 1587, one of the angels that Dee regularly communicated with had a new set of instructions: he was from that day forward to live communally and share everything with Kelley, and vice-versa. And the angels meant everything.

Alexis: It wasn’t the first time the angels had given highly specific instructions. They sometimes told Dee and Kelley exactly how to pray– seven times in each cardinal direction—and gave rules about fasting and grooming. They were also incredibly strict about secrecy: neither Dee nor Kelley were to reveal their scrying practices or to share the secret knowledge they gained.

Lisa: So when the angels said that Dee and Kelley should share their possessions in common, it probably wasn’t as surprising as it could have been. Dee was living in a post-Reformation world, where the split between Catholics and Protestants was viewed as a huge societal crisis. He and Kelley were almost certainly aware of the Familist movement in Europe, a sect of Christians who advocated for a universal faith that could heal religious divides, and who were rumored to live communally. The truly shocking portion of the angelic command was that Dee and Kelley must also share their wives.

Alexis: Jane Dee did not take the news well. Surprisingly. Dee’s diaries state that “she fell a weeping and a trembling.” Dee himself admits plenty of doubts about the arrangement, particularly whether the angels had meant sharing in the “carnal” sense.

Lisa: And it could have been the end of the Dee and Kelley partnership right then and there. But strangely enough, a contract was drawn up on April 21st, only a few days later, and signed by all four: John, Jane, Edward, and Joanna.

Alexis: It’s not clear exactly what went down in the days and weeks after the arrangement was made—

Lisa: But Dee’s diary does talk, albeit in veiled terms, about consummation and Jane Dee does give birth to a son a little over nine months later. The foursome breaks up for good in 1589, and Dee and Kelly never see each other again.

Lisa: So what happens to John Dee? Well, the wife swapping breaks up his partnership, he and his wife go back to England where unfortunately she and some of their children pass away from the plague.

While he’s been overseas his library at Mortlake is vandalized, his scientific instruments are stolen. And he spends the next couple of decades writing letters to anyone who will accept them about how he needs a bigger Royal allowance. He doesn’t exactly die a pauper and his youngest daughter does care for him until the end, but the post Angelic conversation world wasn’t so great for John Dee.

Lisa: It’s not that the wife swapping wrecks his life. It’s that the trajectory is not exactly upward from that point.

Alexis: Laughs…

Lisa: The thing that really distinguishes John Dee from other people who tried crystal scrying is that he tried it over and over and over and over….long past the point where his peers and his colleagues had kind of given up or moved past it or just treated it like a hobby. He was really invested in it for years of his life. His friends were like John, are you still on this? What is it 1582?

Lisa: Another part of this story is that, what opened him up to this? Part of it was that anxiety. He does seem to have been quite an anxious guy, and he really did want those answers and it leads him open to charlatans, people who are a little less scrupulous than he is and who have some interesting ideas about what he should spend his time, money, and um, wives on.

Alexis: Laughs. I like it.

Lisa: So I guess some of the takeaways are, don’t get too deep in crystal scrying. Never ever work with Edward Kelley. And never ever, ever, ever suggest wife-swapping when you know your wife is not into it.

Alexis: That feels like rules we can all live by.

Alexis: We could talk about wife-swapping, beheadings, and pettiness forever I think. Right?

Lisa: Definitely. But sadly we have to leave you! So tune in next time!

Alexis: And remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. We’re also a multimedia magazine.

Lisa: You can find our videos, blog, and print stories at Distillations DOT org.

Alexis: And you can also follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Alexis: This story was produced by Lisa Berry Drago, Mariel Carr, Rigo Hernandez, and myself!

Lisa: This show was mixed by James Morrison. Additional production by Dan Drago.

Lisa: For Distillations, I’m Lisa Berry Drago

Alexis: And I am Alexis Pedrick.

Both: Thanks for listening

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