Sorry, this post is only available in Italian.
What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?
Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.
A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.
It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.
On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:
These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.
Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.
First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.
As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .
The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.
Why all this effort? One might ask.
The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.
But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BRAIN
In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.
By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)
Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.
The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.
At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.
This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.
But what had really happened?
The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.” (3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.
But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.”
Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.
The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.
Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:
13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”
14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”
16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”
13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”
15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”
18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”
30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”
So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.
By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:
“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
June 9, 1924.
Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.
At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident. “
His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.
Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Note [ + ]
|1.||↑||James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)|
|2.||↑||Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020)|
|3.||↑||Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)|
|4.||↑||Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.|
|5.||↑||Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)|
1954. That morning in late November the air was particularly clear and cold in the little Alabama town of Oak Grove, actually just a handful of houses scattered among the trees on the outskirts of Sylacauga.
It looked like any other morning. Yet an extraterrestrial object, not of this world, was about to violently break into that small country reality.
Ann E. Hodges, 34, was not feeling well that day. She was home alone because her husband Eugene, a utility worker, had left early. So, around lunchtime, Mrs. Hodges decided to take a little siesta on her sofa. As she slipped under the quilt, she certainly did not imagine that nap would change her life forever.
Shortly afterwards a frightful noise shook the house and a sharp, stabbing pain at her side suddenly woke her.
Around the same time, Dr. Moody Jacobs left his office to grab a bite. As he walked out, he glanced at the clear sky and realized that it was cut in two by a streak of black smoke. Was that an aircraft in trouble? As he narrowed his eyes to get a better look, the silence was pierced by a huge blast and the dark trail opened in a corolla of white smoke. If it really was an airplane, it had just exploded in flight.
Returning to his office around one o’clock, Dr. Jacobs received a distress call: apparently, Mrs. Hodges had been “hit by a comet”.
As he was getting into his car, the doctor must have thought this was some kind of joke: he knew well that the Hodges’ white house stood right in front of the Comet Drive-In Theater, whose neon sign showed a shooting star.
When the doctor arrived on the spot, Mrs. Hodges was in shock. As she was sleeping on the living room sofa, a rock the size of a coconut had broken through the ceiling and, after hitting the radio and smashing it, had bounced off hitting her in the side and on her left hand.
The news spread immediately, so much so that when Mr. Eugene Hodges returned from work he had to make his way through the crowd of gawkers assembled in front of his house.
Geologist George Swindel, who was conducting field work nearby, put forward the hypothesis that the rock was a meteorite; but as this was the Cold War era, it was better to be sure, so the police brought the stone to the Air Force Intelligence authorities. As soon as they confirmed that this was a chondrite, an unprecedented media frenzy hit the small community of Oak Grove: Ann was the first known victim of such an extraordinary event in the modern era. And consequently, Dr. Jacobs became the only physician to have treated a meteorite trauma.
Ann was sure that the stone which fell down from outer space was a divine sign: “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!”
Her husband Eugene was also convinced that they could make a fortune out of that heavenly gift. Furious because the police had taken the rock for analysis, he hired a lawyer to get it back. In the meantime, he even refused a generous offer from the Smithsonian Institute, determined to make the most of their unexpected luck: he could feel it deep down, their lives were about to change.
And indeed they changed — unfortunately not for the better.
Newspapers and televisions stormed the couple, and Ann even appeared on Gary Moore’s TV quiz show I’ve Got A Secret, in which celebrities had to guess the guest’s “secret”.
Soon after, however, the couple found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit: in fact Ann and Eugene were renters and their landlady, Birdie Guy, claimed possession of the space stone that had fallen on her property. Mrs. Guy won in numerous appeals, and in the end the Hodges paid her $500 for the possession of the meteorite.
But the litigation had been so long that by the time the rock finally returned to their hands, the interest of the media had long since vanished. The Hodges found themselves poorer and more sour than before.
They divorced in 1964.
The meteorite ended up being used as a door stop, until Ann Hodges decided to get rid of it once and for all by donating it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, in Tuscaloosa, where it is still on display.
According to her husband and those who knew her, the woman never recovered emotionally from this whole ordeal; that stone fallen from the sky left far deeper scars on her than the physical ones. She died of kidney failure when she was 52-years-old, in 1972.
Perhaps that piece of rock — which had formed together with the solar system, and traveled through space for millions and millions of years before ending its trajectory in Mrs. Hodges’ living room — was truly a sign of heaven after all. A metaphor of the Unexpected breaking through our well-known everyday routine, upsetting all balances, reminding us of our own uncertainty. A symbol of how much our tiny individual stories, and our destinies, are intimately connected to the vast, boundless cosmos out there.
Or, perhaps, the divine sign meant something else.
Yes, because this is not the end of the story.
While it was passing through the atmosphere, the meteoroid had split in two.
As we have seen, the first fragment had impacted on Mrs Hodges, ruining her life. But the second fragment was found a few miles away by an African American farmer named Julius Kempis McKinney as he was driving a mule-drawn wagon with a load of firewood. The mules stopped in front of a strange stone on the edge of the road, McKinney moved the rock and continued home; but that evening, after hearing what had happened to the Hodges, he went back and collected the stone.
Unlike the Hodges, McKinney immediately sold it to the Smithsonian Institute; and although he never revealed the amount he earned, it was enough to buy his family a car and a new house.
That stone from deep space had brought luck only to a humble and poor family of black laborers, in 1954 Alabama; the same year in which the Supreme Court had declared, with a historic ruling, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been
enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes,
like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car
that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful
than the Victory of Samothrace.
(Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909)
At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was rapidly changing.
In the cities, people began to go out at night thanks to the electricity that had started to illuminate the streets; film cameras had been recently invented; in 1901 thanks to his wireless telegraph Guglielmo Marconi launched the first transoceanic radio signal.
Above all, the transport sector was making great strides.
The number of cars increased every day, assembly lines speeded up production times more and more; Paris and Berlin were building underground metropolitan transportation systems, just like the one in London.
Not only that, railways began to be built, that were even suspended above the houses: in 1901, the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn was built in the German town of Wuppertal, a 13.3km-long double-track railway with 23 stops, still in operation today. A bold and innovative work, which as we will see had an immediate impact on the collective imagination.
Even the sky no longer seemed so impossible to conquer.
In 1900 Ferdinand Von Zeppelin had flown over Lake Constance with its new rigid airship which, unlike the hot air balloons, could be controlled and guided.
From overseas news were coming of some reckless engineers who were trying to launch themselves into the air on new types of aircraft equipped with wings and rudders.
All these innovations contributed to fueling utopian fantasies of a radiant and hyper-technological future that awaited humanity. What would the cities of tomorrow look like?
We can take a peek at this possible future, this dreamed future, thanks to the postcards that circulated at the beginning of the century. Stefano Emilio, reader of Bizzarro Bazar, has collected several examples: these are real photographs of various cities — from Genoa to San Francisco — reinvented in a futuristic key, with added balloons, airplanes, flying ships. As you can see, the railway suspended in the style of that of Wuppertal is a constant presence, since it evidently had left its mark on popular imagination as an emblem of urban transformation.
But were these visions really so naive and utopian? In reality, upon closer examination, many images also included several kinds of accidents: pedestrians getting run over, cars colliding.
These postcards therefore had a double purpose: on one hand they proposed the unprecedented awe of seeing a city crowded with sci-fi vehicles, on the other they had a satirical intent (note the ship below, which is covering a route from Genoa to Mars!). In short, most of these images seem to ask, ironically, “where will we end up with all these devilries?”
A final curiosity concerns a real accident, which happened on the suspended Wuppertal railway.
On 21 July 1950, the director of the Circus Althoff had a 4-year-old female elephant travel on the Wuppertailer Schewebebahn as a publicity stunt. While the suspended train was passing over the river, the animal began to trumpet and run inside the wagon, causing panic among the passengers. Terrified, she broke through a window and fell into the waters of the Wupper River, after falling for some 12 meters. Fortunately the baby elephant was saved, and after the accident she was named Tuffi (from the Italian word for “diving”). The circus director and the officer who had allowed the ride were fined, but on the other hand Tuffi became a small celebrity: the facade of a house near the railway still features a painting of the elephant, and the tourist office sells an assortment of Tuffi-related souvenirs.
The inevitable postcard was produced, with a photomontage that reconstructed the accident.
The future illustrated by early-20th century postcards may make us smile today, but it remains a fundamental element of the sci-fi imagery which then permeated the rest of the century, from Metropolis (1927) to steampunk subculture and to retrofuturism.
(Thanks, Stefano Emilio!)
A few years ago I organized the Accademia dell’Incanto, a series of meetings with anthropologists, artists, pathologists, filmmakers and scholars of oddities – which I hosted in the wunderkammer Mirabilia in Rome.
Now that we are enduring this period of isolation, the curator of Wunderkammer Zurich, Christian D. Link, has come up with something very similar: his project is called Wunderkammer Live!, and it consists in two days of live streaming in the company of eccentric and exceptional guests.
The first two dates are April 18th and 19th, for a total of twelve guests (six every day, live from 4pm to 10pm European time).
The lineup is truly remarkable: in addition to myself and my friend Luca Cableri, whom you should be familiar with if you’ve seen my web series, the program features forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, Dutch taxidermist Marjolein Kramer, collector Viktor Wynd (another old acquaintance for those who follow Bizzarro Bazar), the great Swiss artist Thomas Ott, mentalist Luke Jermay, and many others.
Live streaming will take place within the Wunderkammer Live! Facebook group, so make sure you sign up; during these two weeks preceding the event you will also have the opportunity to get to know the speakers better through dedicated posts.
In this peculiar time we’re living, it is more essential than ever to keep our sense of wonder alive; Chris’ initiative is intended to inspire, entertain, amaze and share the heterogeneous knowledge of some professionals of the enchantment. And ok, I’m also among the interviewees, but personally I can’t wait to hear what the other guests will tell us.
We look forward to seeing you for a couple of out-of-the-ordinary evenings: we all need it!
Article by guestblogger Giovanni Savelli
In a mountain landscape which is getting increasingly civilized, anthropized and crowded by tourists, it is difficult to find the bizarre. Monsters have left for some faraway, inaccessible places. A teratological migration that concerned the Alps, even before other liminal areas such as the Carpathians or the mountain of northern Norway, where maybe some small group of trolls still barely survives escaping the expansion of human settlements.
Yet for centuries, until the mid-1700s, the most impressive and grandiose mountain range in Europe was a natural object better observed from a distance. People looked at the peaks only through binoculars or by means of some other natural observations which did not imply any dangerous approach to the observed object. The modern passion for heights, and the even more recent determination to set foot on the highest peaks in the world, did not interest travelers or naturalists back then at all. In the midst of civilized Europe, the Alps and its highest mountains were regarded with a slight indifference by explorers and with total distrust on the part of those who were forced to live with the reality of those landscapes.
A troublesome and uncomfortable reality for those who dwelled in the Chamonix valleys or the nearby village of Courmayeur during the Little Ice Age, when ice tongues became more intrusive and insidious.
The very toponymy of those places confirms this perception of danger and fear, as it makes use of names that are anything but reassuring, Maudit or Dolant, to indicate places which instilled a sense of suspicion, if not sheer terror.
As Elisabetta Dall’Ò points out (in I draghi delle Alpi. Cambiamenti climatici, Antropocene e immaginari di ghiaccio), the reason is to be found in the progressive growth of ice tongues near Alpine villages, which began the 15th century with often fatal consequences for the inhabitants. The detachment of gigantic blocks of ice caused frequent obstructions of watercourses with in turn resulted in terrible floodings. The glaciers’ progressive extension subtracted fertile soil to agriculture and pastures to cattle farms. It is in this ecological and socio-economic context that the legends about dragons and monsters first began to emerge. A folklore that has its roots in the etymology of the word “dragon”, which is associated with water: both in its liquid and solid form. The dragons of the Alps haunted the local imagination, fierce beasts capable of destroying entire villages in one night. The glaciers descending into the valley turned into threatening and unpredictable dragon tongues. And unpredictable they were, both for the superstitious inhabitants of the villages and for scientists or naturalists who, until the end of the 17th century, had been careful not to set foot on the cold alpine moors. Exploring exotic, remote islands was thought to be more interesting — and meteorologically more welcoming.
We mentioned the relationship between dragons and water, and across the Alps we find the term dragonàre with the meaning (in the Napoleonic era) of flooding, or the word dracare as a synonym for a heavy snowfall. The history of dragons in the Alps, however, goes back even further in time, since the foothills regions often mention the presence of dragons in their founding myths. It was a dragon that threatened the town of Augusta Taurinorum (the ancient Turin), until a red bull defeated it. Another dragon infested the Loo area (in the Aosta Valley region) and was once again put to flight by a young bull.
But let’s go back to the properly alpine dragons, which is the topic we are interested in. Just like it interested many 18th-century naturalists and scholars who collected several accounts of dragon sightings. Edward Topsell, an English cleric who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries, provided a brief classification in his work The History of Serpents. In the section dedicated to dragons we find that:
There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet, some again have both feet and wings, and some neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from the common sort of Serpents by the combe growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks.
Topsell’s scientific “consultant” was one Conrad Gessner, a native of the Alpine region; born in Zurich in 1516, he was the author of some of the drawings that appeared in the book. It seems unlikely that Topsell actually believed in the existence of these creatures, but what matters is his bizarre and detailed description of (real) animals alongside monsters and naturalistic oddities.
The fact that Edward Topsell himself had never set foot in the Alps makes his account not particularly unreliable; other naturalists and explorers, such as Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, could boast a much greater familiarity with the Alpine landscape. Scheuchzer was born and raised in Switzerland, he was a member of the Royal Society and undertook his first scientific journeys in the Alps starting from 1693. Not immune from huge mistakes, such as interpreting fossils as remains of the Universal Flood, he was nonetheless a careful and curious explorer who during his research collected some terrible and picturesque tales about the dragons inhabiting the Alps at the time.
In his 1723 expedition account (Itinera for Helvetiae alpinas regiones) we find a series of curious and intriguing representations of mountain dragons, bearing striking similarities with the dracological classification present in Topsell’s work. Scheuchzer wrote about the two most common dragons of the Alpine arc, according to the collected evidence: the Tatzelwurm and the Lindworm.
Unless you are an expert in dragons, it might be useful to summarise the morphology of the different dragon species we encountered so far:
- Tatzelwurm: body of a snake, long tail, two or four legs;
- Lindworm: dragon-serpent with two legs and no wings;
- Iaculo: body of a snake and two wings;
- Viverna: body of a snake with two wings and two legs;
- Anfittero: winged dragon, no legs;
According to collected oral evidence, the first two species seem to be the most common in the Alps; the other three can be found in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, in the books of George R. R. Martin, and the dragon which infested the hills around Bologna is mentioned in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et Draconum historiae libri duo, published in 1604. If you have never heard of Aldrovandi, it is worth taking a look at Dario Carere’s article about him, here on Bizzarro Bazar. If you want to see the famous Bologna dragon as Aldrovandi described it, follow this link (the creature in question is on page 404).
And since Ulisse Aldrovandi was certainly fond of monstrous and bizarre figures, in his Serpentum and Draconum historiae he provided a series of four drawings of winged dragons, both bipedal and legless.
Ulisse Aldrovandi was a typical 17th-century scholar, combining scientific curiosity with a wider interest in all things bizarre, monstrous and amazing. A disposition which was not shared by Swiss naturalist and scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure who, in fact, in his numerous explorations of the Alpine mountains, found no evidence of drangons. In the second half of the 18th century the alpine folklore regarding dragons underwent a slow and inexorable impoverishment. Where monstruous and fearsome dragon tongues were once ready to swallow entire villages, de Saussure’s scientific curiosity only meets natural objects and phenomena that must be understood, studied and explained.
This was the same scientific curiosity which led to the first tourist incursions in one of the largest and most fearsome “dragons” in the Alps: the Chamonix glacier. We can trace the discovery of the Mer de Glace to the summer of 1741, as a party of reckless British mountaineers undertook an adventurous climb and came in view of a glacier which until a few years before was populated by dragons and demons.
This marked the beginning of glaciological tourism which, in the decades to come, would make the French resort of Chamonix famous among mountain enthusiasts. Chased away by crowds of tourists and mountaineers, the dragons of the Alps were forced into retreat, as they witnessed from a distance the rising of hotels, cable cars and accommodation facilities. Of course, their territory was still scary, arousing awe and wonder in those who came to see those mountains. Mary Shelley set a scene of Frankenstein on the Mer de Glace, which she visited in the company of her husband in 1816. But it was a fascination akin to the one which can still be felt by riding the Mont Blanc cable car, looking down on the breath-taking view of the glacier from a suspended cabin. Quite different, that is, from the fear of the unpredictable, the terror of what cannot be explained or controlled.
Within a century, the Alpine territory changed so radically that today it is difficult to believe those places were once populated by dragons and demons. It is natural to associate the withdrawal of dragons with the current conditions alpine glaciers are facing. Natural, of course, but also necessary: because envisaging a snowless Mont Blanc can help understand where the fearsome dragons of the Alps have gone. This is how folklore, legends and traditions are linked to ecology; when a landscape is transformed, the representation that its inhabitants make of it changes accordingly.
The dragons have disappeared from the Alps; and not just them.
Part I: Deadly trance
November 8, 1909, Somerville Opera House, New Jersey.
Professor Arthur Everton was a man of gentle manners, with a suave voice and a nice pair of black mustaches. Hypnotism was his early passion, and after a period spent moving pianos he had recently returned to the limelight. But he hadn’t lost his shine: he was dominating the scene with grace and security.
His evening show was coming to an end; until that moment the hypnotist had amused the audience by forcing his subjects to fish onstage with an invisible fishing line, and other such amenities. But now he announced the grand finale.
There was electricity in the room as his magnetic eyes scrutinized the audience intensely, one row at a time, searching for the subject of his next experiment. And the public, as always in these cases, was torn.
There were some, among the spectators and the spectators, who timidly lowered their eyes for fear of being called on stage, having no intention of becoming the laughing stock. Others, on the other hand, secretly hoped to be chosen: either they thought they were lucid enough to challenge the Professor, to resist the hypnotist’s intense willpower… or they were unconsciously enticed by the idea of losing control for a few minutes, just for fun, with no major consequences.
Finally, a man raised his hand.
“Ah, we have a volunteer!”, shouted Everton.
35-year-old Robert Simpson, a tall, bulky man, climbed on stage. Professor Everton let the audience give a round of applause to this brave stranger, and then proceeded to induce a cataleptic state. According to the New York Times
he made a few passes, told Simpson to be rigid, and he was. Everton then had attendants lay the body on two chairs, the head resting on one and the feet on the other, and stepped up on the subject’s stomach and then down again. Two attendants, acting under his orders, lifted Simpson to a standing posture, and Everton, clapping his hands, cried out ‘Relax!’
Simpson’s body softened so suddenly that it slipped out of the hands of the attendants to the floor, his head striking one of the chairs as he slid down.
Everyone immediately understood, just by looking at the assistants’ astonished faces, that this was no set-up. Professor Everton — who was actually not a real professor — began panicking at this point. He and his collaborators tried to awaken the unfortunate man from the trance, shaking him in every way, but the man did not respond to any stimulus.
Everton, ever more hysterical, managed to squeak out a cry for help asking if there were any doctors in the room. Three physicians, who had been invited to the show by the theater manager, came to the rescue; but even their attempts to revive Simpson were unsuccessful. Dr. W. H. Long, county physician, looked up from the body and stared seriously at the hypnotist.
“This one’s gone,” he hissed.
“No, he’s still in a trance,” Everton replied, and began clapping his hands near Simpson’s ears, and shaking the man’s corpse.
When the police showed up, Professor Everton was still intent on trying to awaken his volunteer. The cops arrested him immediately on charges of manslaughter.
As they carried him out of the Opera House, handcuffed, his eyes no longer seemed so magnetic, but only terrified.
Part II: Lazarus, Come Forth
The next day, Robert Simpson’s lifeless body lay under a black shroud in Somerville’s hospital morgue, awaiting the autopsy.
Suddenly the door opened and four men entered the mortuary. Three of them were doctors.
The fourth approached the corpse and uncoverd it. Breathing deeply, he first touched the dead man’s cheeks; then he brought his head close to Simpson’s chest as if to auscultate him. No heartbeat. Finally he gently placed three fingers on the cold skin over the breastbone, put his lips to the dead man’s ear and began to speak.
“Listen, Bob, your heart action is strong, Bob, your heart begins to beat.”
Then he suddenly started screaming, “BOB, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
The three doctors exchanged a puzzled look.
The man’s voice resumed whispering: “Bob, your heart is starting …”
Simpson, lying on the table, did not move.
This strange scene continued for quite a while, until the impatient doctors decided the farce had lasted too long.
“Mr. Davenport, I’d say that’s enough.”
“But we’re almost there…”
Part III: Death Is Not The End
The man trying to resurrect the dead was named William E. Davenport, and was a friend of Professor Everton (they were both from Newark). Davenport officially held the office of secretary for the mayor, but also dabbled in hypnotism and mesmerism.
The self-proclaimed ‘Professor’, “unnerved and shaken“, remained in prison awaiting the decision of the grand jury. Everton claimed — and perhaps he desperately wanted to convince himself — that he had thrown his subject into a trance so deep as to resemble a state of apparent death. He was so sure Simpson was still in catalepsy, that he had managed to convince authorities to grant him that bizarre attempt at hypnotic resuscitation. Being confined to his cell, he had sent his friend Davenport to the morgue instead.
Unfortunately the latter (maybe because he was just an amateur?) had failed to awaken the dead. For a brief moment there was talk of summoning a third hypnotist from New York to try and bring the victim back to life, but nothing was done.
Thus it remained unclear whether Simpson had died from the weight he suffered while in a cataleptic state, as the hypnotist was climbing on his stomach, or if the whole incident was just a tragic coincidence.
The autopsy put an end to the suspense: Simpson had died of an aortic rupture, and according to the doctors he had likely been suffering from that silent aneurysm for a long time. There was no conclusive evidence that the stress endured during the hypnotism was the actual cause of death, which was eventually ruled out as natural.
Everton, now in full nervous breakdown in his cell, even after the autopsy kept claiming that Simpson was still alive. He was released on bail, and three weeks later the grand jury decided not to indict him.
It was the end of a nightmare for Professor Everton, who retired from the scenes, and the closure of a case that had kept newspaper readers with bated breath — and especially other hypnotists. After all, this could have happened to any of them.
But hypnotists were not damaged by this clamor, on the contrary; they acquired an even more sinister and provocative charm. And they continued, as they did before, to challenge each other with increasingly spectacular performances.
As early as November 11, just three days after Everton’s unfortunate act, a New York Times headline reported:
EVERTON’S RIVAL TRIUMPHS: Somerville’s Other Hypnotist Puts THREE Men on His Subject’s Chest.
The show, as they say, must go on.
- Mariano Tomatis tells the amazing story of Doña Pedegache, a Portuguese 18-century mentalist woman; and, as usual, his writing proves to be surprising and touching.
- Since we’re in Portugal, we might as well take a tour of the Capela dos Ossos with this nice post by Cat Irving.
- August 21, 1945: physicist Harry Daghlian was stacking a nice pile of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium sphere when a brick slipped from his hand and brought the core into supercritical condition. Daghlian died 25 days later.
May 21, 1946: physicist Louis Slotin was working on a plutonium sphere — but not just any sphere: the very same that had killed Daghlian. To separate the two halves, he had the bad idea of using a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped, the top fell off. Slotin died 9 days later.
From that moment on, the poor plutonium sphere no longer enjoyed a good reputation, and it also earned an unflattering nickname.
- But nuclear history is full of incredible incidents. There is one aspect regarding the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is not often talked about: human experiments on unsuspecting subjects. Take for instance Albert Stevens, who survived the highest dose of radiation ever accumulated in a human’s body when, without his knowledge or consent, scientists injected him with 131 kBq of plutonium.
- Everybody speaks ill of poor HAL, but perhaps it is time to reevaluate the guy. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the infamous supercomputer kills some astronauts, and gets eventually killed itself. Now that artificial intelligence is a reality, we’d better start asking ourselves some questions about the ethics of murder by machines, but also of the murder of machines.
- A brief history of children sent through the mail.
- The always excellent Lindsey Fitzharris (author of The Butchering Art) delights us with some anecdotes about beauty hacks from the past. For example, a method that was used to make 18th-century wigs look attractive by spreading them with lard. Attractive, that is, for fleas and lice.
- A geologist discovered an ancient cave, but he immediately noticed that it was not a natural cavity. Someone or something must have bored it. And what were those huge scratch marks, produced by gigantic claws, on the walls…? When reality surpasses Lovecraft: here are the underground tunnels excavated by the mysterious prehistoric megafauna.
- Take a look at the picture below. It’s entitled Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig and his wife Eleanore ad Caritas Romana, and it’s a 1797 painting by Barbara Krafft. When you are done laughing and/or feeling uncomfortable, check out the meaning of that “Caritas Romana“ in the title, and enjoy other examples of young girls breastfeeding old geezers.
- Paranormeow activity.
- The next time you need to remodel your bathroom, I suggest you take inspiration from these 18th-century toilets for bibliophiles.
- There are those who spend hours scrolling through the photos of influencers. I would spend days watching the Russian poet, body-builder and futurist Vladimir Goldschmidt hypnotizing a chicken.
- Idea for an action film / comedy drama.
Title: White Trip.
Concept: think The Revenant meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Plot: Finnish soldier Aimo Koivunen, during the Second World War, is ski patrolling a mountain area when his unit is suddenly caught under Soviet fire. Aimo begins to escape from the ambush, but after skiing for a long time he feels exhausted; the enemies are still on his tail, and they are getting closer and closer. So he decides to take one of the methamphetamine tablets that the commander has entrusted him with; but, partly because of the big gloves he’s wearing, and partly because he has to keep skiing to save himself, he can’t take the tablet out of the package. To hell with it, he thinks, and swallows the whole jar of pills. Suddenly he starts skiing again with renewed, exceptional energy, but after a while everything becomes blurred, and Aimo passes out: he wakes up alone, lost in the snow and separated from his patrol, without any food and in full overdose delusion. He keeps on skiing frantically, and avoids some more Soviet soldiers. At one point he manages to catch a bird which, in his hallucination, appears to him like a wonderful crispy chicken skewer; he swallows it raw, feathers and everything. Then he runs into a land mine that blows him up in the air. Although badly injured, he continues to ski. After covering 250 miles and spending a week in the open, bleeding and now reduced to skin and bones, he finally manages to return to the Finnish front. When they take him to the infirmary, his heart rate is still twice the average. As soon as he sees the doctor Aimo says: “Hello dear, you don’t happen to have some chamomile tea? I feel a bit nervous and your antennae look ridiculous.”
Based on a true story. (Thanks, David!)
- Philosophical thought of the day. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the soul is a kind of black chasm, a bottomless crater:
- Welcome to the scariest church in the world. (Thanks, Serena!)
- Simon Sellars (author of Applied Ballardianism), tells us about the dazzling beauty of Google Earth — which doesn’t so much reside in panoramas or virtual tours, but rather in 3D glitches, rendering errors, misaligned joints that reveal the collage behind 360 views, thus creating altered and distorted perceptions. The map may not be the territory, but it is a territory of the mind.
- I like to imagine that when the human species has long since become extinct, alien archaeologists coming to Earth to study mankind will find this video as the only remaining clue: