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Hard Cider, Chamber Pots And Leeches: Living Like A Founding Father


River Donaghey loves America, and love can make a person do strange things. In this case, it produced the headline "Living Like A Founding Father Left Me Drunk And Covered In Leeches." Donaghey is an associate editor at Vice where he has written about what it feels like to live on Trump products, how it feels to snort powdered alcohol, what happens when you eat in New York's dirtiest restaurants. And compared all of that, dressing up in 18th-century clothes and eating like an American colonist might sound kind of fun.

In truth, it is sweatier, bloodier and dirtier than he ever imagined. The Founding Fathers did not have toothbrushes. River Donaghey, happy Fourth of July. Thanks for joining us.

RIVER DONAGHEY: Hey, thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: What did you think you were in for when you began this? What was your preconceived notion of what the Founding Fathers' lives were like?

DONAGHEY: Well, I grew up with a very gilded understanding of what the Founding Fathers were. And all the images and, you know, pictures on the dollar bills I've seen makes them look very well-put-together and stately. And so I assumed that I'd be, you know, eating some funny foods and looking like I was a cast member of "Hamilton." But that was the extent of it. In fact, it was a little bit more than that.

SHAPIRO: You spent four days living as one of the Founding Fathers would have. Walk us through what day one was like.

DONAGHEY: All right, so I didn't have an alarm clock, and so I was worried that I may be late for work. But with no AC and the sun coming in my windows, I actually woke up very sweaty much earlier than I would normally. So I had a lot of time to get ready, which meant a couple of tankards of ale. John Adams famously started every day with a couple of tankards of hard cider. You know, they didn't have access to purified water, and so to drink things that didn't make you sick, they would drink things that were like beer or ale or hard cider. I had a slice of apple pie.

After those, I wanted to kind of climb back in bed and go to sleep, but I had to soldier on and walk down to my work. At the Vice office I blog all day, and so I actually had a quill and ink pot that I scribbled down stories onto parchment. And I had my co-worker type up the fiendish quill writings and turn them into something coherent and post it to the site. By about 2 p.m., you know, I'd only really been drinking hard cider and ale. I was feeling not particularly very good. And so I had to head back home and take a little bit of a nap.

SHAPIRO: You were also wearing a costume. And you wore this every day for four days without bathing. What was it like at the end of the experiment?

DONAGHEY: Well, without bathing or air-conditioning, so I was sweating pretty profusely constantly. And you know, back in the 18th century, people didn't have a closet full of clothes. You might have a couple undershirts that maybe you'd trade out here and there, but you know, it got pretty ripe.

SHAPIRO: I would rather not have to talk about this, but the conversation really wouldn't be complete without a mention of the leeches.

DONAGHEY: You know, bloodletting was a pretty standard medical practice in the 18th century.

SHAPIRO: You in 2016 actually found somebody in Brooklyn who keeps leeches for pseudo-medical purposes and applied them to you.

DONAGHEY: (Laughter) In fact, yeah. It isn't exactly bloodletting with the leeches. They do suck out some bad stuff. This was all, you know, how the leech therapist explained it. I don't know. Don't quote me on all this. But the leeches suck out the bad toxins and spit in some sort of miracle saliva that goes into your system and cures what ails you. And so...

SHAPIRO: Yeah - a big, fat scientific medical asterisk here.

DONAGHEY: (Laughter) Yeah, that's - yeah.

SHAPIRO: How did it feel?

DONAGHEY: You know, it didn't feel particularly very good, Ari. It felt a little bit like getting a tattoo. It was a stinging, burning. You know, the guy wanted to help me understand what was happening in my body, and so he really explained everything minute by minute. Like, OK, I'm going to put the leeches on, and now their tiny, microscopic teeth are chewing through your skin to get to your blood. At some point, I just had to avert my eyes and try and kill the half hour that they were on me by thinking of something else.

SHAPIRO: At the end of this four-day experience, how does your view of the Founding Fathers differ from where it was before you tried this?

DONAGHEY: You know, really, they lived in a different time, a more primitive time. And actually in getting into it and realizing just really how stinky and sometimes drunk and, you know, smelly these guys were, it makes me actually appreciate what they've done in a greater way. To be able to foresee a system of government that actually placed a lot of trust in, you know, mankind's ability to self-govern, you know, I think that's an amazing thing for them to have even envisioned, let alone put into place.

SHAPIRO: River Donaghey of VICE News, thanks for joining us.

DONAGHEY: Hey, thank you. I hope when you brush your teeth tonight you think how far we as American people have come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.