Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/August 1882/Sudden Whitening of the Hair

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WITH so many professors of the art of rejuvenation proclaiming their readiness to turn old faces into new ones, smooth out wrinkles, obliterate crow's-feet, and restore the hair to its original abundance and color, the putting of young heads upon old shoulders should be easy enough; but the proverbial impossibility of putting old heads upon young shoulders still seems to hold, although the feat has sometimes been accomplished by Nature herself. Sorrow, not Time, frosted the bright tresses of Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette; and theirs were not the only queenly heads that have been prematurely whitened by care and anxiety. "While Hanover was waging an unequal contest with Prussia, a lady in attendance upon the consort of the brave, blind king, wrote thus of her royal mistress: "In the last two months her hair has grown quite gray, I may say white. Four months since one could scarcely discern a gray hair; now I can hardly see a dark one."

A similar change has often taken place in the course of a single night. One of the witnesses in the Tichborne case deposed that, the night after hearing of his father's death, he dreamed he saw him killed before his eyes, and found, on awaking, that his hair had turned quite white. An old man with snow-white hair said to Dr. Moreau: "My hair was as white as you see it now, long before I had grown old. Grief and despair at the loss of a tenderly loved wife whitened my locks in a single night when I was not thirty years of age. Judge, then, of the force of my sufferings." His white hairs brought no such recompense with them as happened in the instance of the gay gallant who had the hardihood to hold a love-tryst in the palace grounds of the King of Spain. Betrayed by the barking of an unsympathetic hound, the telling of the old, old story was interrupted by the appearance of the king's guard. The scared damsel was allowed to depart unchallenged; but her lover was held captive, to answer his offense. Love-making under the shadow of the royal palace was a capital crime; and so overwhelmed with horror at the idea of losing his head for following the promptings of his heart was the rash wooer, that, before the sun rose, his hair had turned quite gray. This being told King Ferdinand, he pardoned the offender, thinking he was sufficiently punished.

When the Emperor Leopold was about to make his grand entry into Vienna, the old sexton of St. Joseph's Cathedral was much troubled in his mind. Upon such occasions it had been his custom to take his stand on the pinnacle of the tower and wave a flag as the imperial pageant passed by; but he felt that age had so weakened his nerve that he dared not again attempt the perilous performance. After thinking the matter over, he came to the conclusion that he must find a substitute; and knowing his pretty daughter had plenty of stalwart suitors, the old fellow publicly announced that the man who could take his place successfully should be his son-in-law. To his intense disgust, the offer was at once accepted by Gabriel Petersheim, his special aversion, and the special favorite of the girl, who saw not with her father's eyes. On the appointed day Vienna opened its gates to the new-made emperor; but it was evening, or near upon evening, when the young flag-bearer welcomed the procession from St. Joseph's Tower. His task performed, Gabriel would have descended from the airy height, but found his way barred. Two wretches had done the treacherous sexton's bidding, and closed the trap-door of the upper stairway, leaving the brave youth to choose between precipitating himself on the pavement below, or clinging the cold night through to the slender spire, with but ten inches of foothold. He chose possible life to certain death; but, when rescue came with the morning, his eyes were sunken and dim, his cheeks yellow and wrinkled, his curly locks as white as snow. Gabriel Petersheim had won his bride at a fearful cost.

Believing a fortune might be easily won in the oil-country, a young Bostonian went there to enrich himself. One stormy night a glare in the sky told him that an oil-tank was on fire a few miles off; and knowing that, after a time, the oil would boil up and flow over the side of the tank, he made for a hill to witness the spectacle. "She's coming!" a man shouted. There was a rumbling sound, and then the burning oil shot up from the tank, boiled over its sides, and floated down the creek, destroying everything in its way, and setting fire to a second tank. Curiosity getting the better of discretion, he ran to the ground in the rear of the tanks, to get a better view, and, in trying to avoid a pool of burning oil, fell into a mud-hole, and stuck fast therein. Struggling till he could struggle no longer, he lay back exhausted, watching the billows of smoke surging upward and floating away into space. Suddenly his ears were startled by the sound of cannon-firing; a column of flame and smoke shot up from one of the tanks, and he was stricken almost senseless with the knowledge that the "pipe-line men" were cannonading the first tank, to draw off the oil, and so prevent another overflow. He tried to shout, but the words would not come. A little stream of burning oil ran slowly but surely toward him. He watched it creeping on until it was almost upon him; then in a moment all was dark. When he came back to consciousness he found himself in his own room, surrounded by "the boys," who had seen him just in time to save him. It was a weary while before he was himself again, and then he was inclined to doubt if he was himself, for his once dark hair was perfectly white.

Instances have not been wanting of the hair being deprived of its color in a few minutes. The home-coming of the King of Naples after the Congress of Laybach was celebrated with much public rejoicing. To do the occasion honor, the manager of the San Carlo Theatre produced a grand mythological pageant, in which an afterward well-known opera-singer made his début in the character of Jupiter. The stage-thunder rolled, the stage-lightning flashed, as the Olympian monarch descended on his cloud-supported throne. Suddenly screams of horror rang through the house; the queen fainted, and all was uproar and consternation, until the voice of the king was heard above the din, crying, "If any one shouts or screams again, I'll have that person shot!" Something had gone wrong with the machinery before the clouds had descended ten feet, and Jupiter had fallen through. Fortunately, a strong iron wire or rope caught his cloak, and, uncoiling with his weight, let him down by degrees. But a workman falling with him was impaled upon a strong iron spike supporting the scenery. In ten minutes or so they reached the ground, the workman dead, the singer dazed, but able to thank Heaven on his knees for his escape; and then the awe-stricken people saw that the black-haired deity had become transformed into a white-haired mortal, whose youthful features formed a strange contrast to their venerable-looking crown.

Staff-surgeon Parry, while serving in India during the Mutiny, saw a strange sight. Among the prisoners taken in a skirmish at Chamda was a sepoy of the Bengal army. He was brought before the authorities, and put to the question. Fully alive to his position, the Bengalee stood almost stupefied with fear, trembling greatly, with horror and despair plainly depicted on his countenance. While the examination was proceeding, the by-standers were startled by the sergeant in charge of the prisoner exclaiming, "He is turning gray!" All eyes were turned on the unfortunate man, watching with wondering interest the change coming upon his splendid, glossy, jet-black locks. In half an hour they were of a uniform grayish hue.

Some years ago a young lady who was anxiously awaiting the coming of her husband-elect, received a letter conveying the sad tidings of his shipwreck and death. She instantly fell to the ground insensible, and so remained for five hours. On the following morning, her sister saw that her hair, which had been previously of a rich brown color, had become as white as a cambric handkerchief, her eyebrows and eyelashes retaining their natural color. After a while the whitened hair fell off, and was succeeded by a new growth of gray. This case coming under the observation of Dr. Erasmus Wilson, shattered his unbelief in the possibility of the sudden conversion of the hair from a dark color to snow-white. No man knows more about the hair than Dr. Wilson; but he is at a loss to explain the phenomenon quite to his own satisfaction. "If," says he, "it be established that the hair is susceptible of permeation by fluids derived from the blood—a transmission of fluids from the blood-vessels of the skin into the substance of the hair really occurs, the quantity and nature being modified by the peculiarity of constitution or state of health of the individual—it follows that such fluids, being altered in their chemical qualities, may possess the power of impressing new conditions on the structure into which they enter. Thus, if they contain an excess of salts of lime, they may deposit salts of lime in the tissue of the hair, and so produce a change in its appearance from dark to gray." Then he tells us: 'The phenomenon may be the result of electrical action; it may be the consequence of a chemical alteration wrought in the very blood itself, or it may be a conversion for which the tissue of the hair is chiefly responsible." So many "may-bes" from such an authority prove that the mystery of the sudden whitening of the hair is yet unsolved. It is likely to remain unsolved, since the doctor—more modest than many of his brethren—owns that "the mysteries of vital chemistry are unknown to man."

The whitening of the hair wrought by mental disturbance is sometimes only of a partial nature. Vexation of spirit gave Henry of Navarre a party-colored mustache. An old writer tells of an Irish captain going to deliver himself up to Lord Broghill, the commander of the English forces, who, being met on his way by a party of English soldiers, was made prisoner, and was so apprehensive of being put to death before Lord Broghill could interfere in his behalf, that the anxiety of his mind turned some of his locks quite white, while the others remained of their original reddish hue. Perhaps the curious change was less annoying to its victim than that which befell an American girl, whose first intimation of her lover's falsity was the reading an account of his marriage in a newspaper. After a night's brooding over the traitor's perfidy, her looking-glass showed her that one side of her head was still adorned with tresses of golden brown; but the other, alas! was decked with locks more befitting a grandam than a maiden still in her teens; though even this was not so bad as was the case of a French girl, who, frightened by the floor of her room giving way beneath her, shed her hair so quickly that in three days' time she was—to use the expressive comparison of a chronicler of the event—"as bald as a bell-handle."—Chambers's Journal.