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The Straight Dope 

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In a discussion of product liability in Restatement of Torts I came upon this passage: "Many products cannot possibly be made entirely safe for all consumption.... Ordinary sugar is a deadly poison to diabetics, and castor oil found use under Mussolini as an instrument of torture." My question: what did Mussolini do with the castor oil? My boss doesn't know. My parents don't know. All the WWII-vintage people I've asked don't know. Please, Cecil, help the world remember and keep this heinous event from being repeated. --Gabrielle, Madison, Wisconsin

No danger, kid--for starters, where would a would-be torturer get the castor oil? Besides, castor oil wasn't really in the same league as the iron maiden and the rack. It was more an instrument of mob violence, sort of like tar and feathers. A gang of Fascisti would grab one of their opponents, beat him up, and pour castor oil down his throat. Why? To give him the world's worst case of diarrhea, that's why. Sometimes the hoods would squirt a quart (OK, liter) or more into the guy, sometimes they'd mix it with gasoline, and sometimes, as a consequence, the victim died. But I gather most people lived through the experience, which was meant mainly to put the fear of Il Duce in them and in the populace generally.

Castor oil treatment is said to have been invented by Gabriele D'Annunzio, a flamboyant poet/revolutionary who in 1919 seized the disputed port city of Fiume in what used to be Yugoslavia with 1,000 arditi (disgruntled Italian army veterans). D'Annunzio's moment of glory lasted little more than a year, but in that time he introduced many of the later trappings of Fascism, including the raised-arm salute and the tasseled black fez and black shirt that became the Fascist uniform. Where he got the idea for castor oil is unclear, but the stuff was in common use at the time as a cure for constipation, then thought to be the cause of half the world's ailments. It was often administered to kids, who hated it. Possibly after one such dose little Gabe vowed that someday he'd pay his oppressors back big time.

Apparently he wasn't the only one. Castor oil caught on in a big way with Fascist mobs in the early 1920s. In one town, a historian notes, "the Fascists stamped out alcoholism by forcing every wine-seller to display a pint bottle of castor oil in his window--a warning of the fate awaiting any man found drunk." Mussolini's opponents in the Italian parliament charged that his power was built on the manganello (bludgeon) and castor oil.

Sounds almost quaint, and well it might. The Fascists had few qualms about killing people when it suited their purpose, but did not do so often for fear of turning the masses against them. When Mussolini's thugs exceeded their orders (or so some historians think) and murdered an opposition leader in 1924, the Italian public was outraged. For a time the Duce thought the jig was up. In an era when mobs, bombers, and death squads randomly slaughter thousands, one almost longs for a time when the worst the bad guys dared do to somebody was to give him a case of the runs.

How did "bohemian" come to be applied to artsy, avant-garde, progressive life-style folks? In rural central Texas, where I grew up, "Bohemian" was a common, nonpejorative term applied to people of Czech origin--decent folk, but more of the hardworking-farmer and staid-burgher mold than artists and intellectuals. Please enlighten me. --Dave Fricke, Austin, Texas

This one's too easy, but sometimes a man needs a softball question. The term Bohemian was applied not just to the farmers and burghers you're talking about, but to the Gypsies, erroneously thought to have originated in Bohemia. Gypsies were unconventional folk, and while not all unconventional folk were Gypsies, William Thackeray felt people would figure it out if he used Bohemian to mean "a person of Gypsy-like habits" in his 1848 novel Vanity Fair. They did, and the term in that sense has been with us since. Today it generally signifies someone who is not just unconventional but slumming, that is, living below his natural station in life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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