J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Bad Hair Week at Boston 1775

Longtime Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell has sent a request: remarks about wigs and hair styles in Revolutionary America.

That's a topic I've been trying to figure out, too, but still don't understand. Wearing wigs was so much part of ordinary life for gentlemen of the late eighteenth century that they don't seem to have written much about it in their letters and diaries, and it's so far from our daily life that it's hard for us (or at least for me) to get my head around. So for the next few days I'll post some snips about the hair of Revolutionary Boston, and perhaps by the end of the week they'll add up to something.

But first, lest anyone think that hair is a topic of little significance, I'll take a day to discuss what people have written about the late Saddam Hussein's hair color, and how it relates to public image and historical evidence. After masked men hanged the former Iraqi dictator last month, the New York Times's obituary included this remark:

Mr. Hussein tried to maintain strict control of his own image. He dyed his hair black and refused to wear his reading glasses in public, according to interviews with exiles published in The Atlantic Monthly in March 2002.
I'd hoped that in the last five years the Times had learned not to reprint everything that Iraqi exiles have said about Saddam Hussein without verifying it. Oppressive dictators always attract belittling rumors, and Saddam was a most oppressive dictator.

It's true that the government-controlled Iraqi media rarely showed Saddam wearing glasses before a TV appearance in early 2003. Of course, every American president has worn reading glasses as well, and few of them, including the current office-holder, have worn their glasses at most public ceremonies. George Washington made a big deal of hauling out his eyeglasses during a talk to discontented army officers in March 1783, saying, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." Few of those officers had ever seen Washington wear glasses before; they were startled and touched by the sight, and it won their sympathy.

Given that evidence, we might also say, “Washington tried to maintain strict control of his own image. He powdered his hair white and refused to wear his reading glasses in public.” But all politicians try to control their public image. The problem with Saddam wasn’t that he tried as well; it was the murderous way that he took and kept power. Nevertheless, by whispering that Saddam secretly dyed his hair, his enemies in exile implied that he was deceptive and weak.

By 2001, Iraqi government photographs showed that the dictator's moustache had turned gray, yet his hair and eyebrows remained dark. Some people apparently saw that as a sign that he was using hair dye—though it was never clear why he'd be so selective about applying it. Once the Atlantic story ran, the idea that Saddam dyed his hair became accepted wisdom. Even George Galloway, the British MP who opposed the 1990s sanctions and remains caught up in the oil-for-food diversions scandal, wrote, "Saddam Hussein raised a dyed black eyebrow" in the Guardian in 2002.

The U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq sent Saddam into hiding for several months. In August 2003, the U.S. military in Iraq issued digitally altered photos intended to show what it expected him to look like now that he had stopped dyeing his hair and moustache. Those images have been removed from dot-mil websites now, of course, but remain visible at archive.org. The next month the Sunday Mirror reflected the U.S. military's expectation by stating that Saddam "has apparently run out of black hair-dye and will almost certainly have white hair."

Well, he didn't.

The photograph above is of course one of the famous series issued by the U.S. military just after it captured Saddam in Dec 2003 (nine months after Donald Rumsfeld complained that the Iraqi government had violated the Geneva Convention by releasing images of American POWs). It shows the fugitive's hair as nearly black, and his moustache and beard as a mix of black, gray, and white.

Where, some folks wondered, had Saddam gotten hair dye while hiding in a "spider hole"? If he'd tried to disguise himself by growing long hair and a beard, why would he have continued to dye his hair? The more conspiracy-minded took that man's dark hair as a sign that he wasn't actually Saddam, or that he'd been captured a significant time before and that the U.S. military had dyed his hair so he'd be more recognizable.

I don't think the explanation needs to be that complex. I wonder if Saddam Hussein actually needed much hair dye to begin with. He wouldn't have been the only man whose moustache and hair have different amounts of gray. What evidence do we really have that Saddam dyed his hair? There are those anonymous Iraqi exiles of 2002, of course—an uncertain source we can clearly no longer rely on. More recently, while running illicit snapshots of Saddam changing clothes in 2005, the U.K.'s Sun newspaper reported that Saddam's "endless vanity ensures he's still allowed to dye his hair black." [My own vanity ensures me no privileges at all; clearly it's not endless enough.]

What was the tabloid's source for such inside information? It didn't say. Did Saddam's American jailers ever confirm the statement? Not to my knowledge. Is this the same Sun that also reported, "He no longer has his beloved hair dye" as Saddam appeared for his first trial with dark hair? The same Sun whose Deputy Health Editor saw Saddam's "thick and glossy" hair at that trial as a sign of his true health rather than chemical enhancement? Yes, indeed.

In fact, from 2001 to 2006 Saddam Hussein's follicle image remained consistent: dark hair and eyebrows, mottled gray moustache and (later) beard. In power, in hiding, in court—the basic coloring of his hair didn't change. Maybe Saddam managed that with dye, but it seems more likely that this is a case of people wishfully seeking a sign of his weakness. Which shows how much symbolic meaning we humans can weave into hair.

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