A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.

___________________

I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

The Abominable Vice

Among the bibliographic curiosities I have been collecting for years, there is also a little book entitled L’amico discreto. It’s the 1862 Italian translation of The silent friend (1847) by R. e L. Perry; aside from 100 beautiful anatomical plates, the book also shows a priceless subtitle: Observations on Onanism and Its Baneful Results, Including Mental and Sexual Incapacity and Impotence.

Just by skimming through the table of contents, it’s clear how masturbation was indicated as the main cause for a wide array of conditions: from indigestion to “hypoconriac melancholy”, from deafness to “bending of the penis”, from emaciated complexion to the inability to walk, in a climax of ever more terrible symptoms preparing the way for the ultimate, inevitable outcome — death.
One page after the other, the reader learns why onanism is to be blamed for such illnesses, specifically because it provokes an

excitement of the nervous system [which] by stimulating the organs to transient vigour, brings, ere middle life succeeds the summer of manhood, all the sensible infirmities and foibles of age; producing in its impetuous current, such an assemblage of morbid irritation, that even on trivial occasions its excitement is of a high and inflammable character, and its endurance beyond the power of reason to sustain.

But this is just the beginning: the worst damage is on the mind and soul, because this state of constant nervous stimulation

places the individual in a state of anxiety and misery for the remainder of his existence, — a kind of contingency, which it is difficult for language adequately to describe; he vegetates, but lives not: […] leading the excited deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error — into a gradual and fatal degradation of manhood — into a pernicious, disgraceful, and ultimately almost involuntary application of those inherent rights which nature wisely instituted for the preservation of her species […] in defiance of culture, moral feeling, moral obligation, and religious impressions: thus the man, who, at the advent of youth and genius was endowed with gaiety and sociality, becomes, ere twenty-five summers have shed their lustre on him, a misanthrope, and a nadir-point of discontent! What moral region does that man live in? […] Is it nothing to light the gloomy torch that guides, by slow and melancholy steps to the sepulchre of manhood, in the gay and fascinating spring-time of youth and ardent desire; when the brilliant fire of passion, genius, and sentiment, ought to electrify the whole frame?

This being a physiology and anatomy essay, today its embellishments, its evocative language (closer to second-rate poetry than to science) seem oddly out of place — and we can smile upon reading its absurd theories; yet The Silent Friend is just one of many Nineteeth Century texts demonizing masturbation, all pretty popular since 1712, when an anonymous priest published a volume called Onania, followed in 1760 by L’Onanisme by Swiss doctor Samuel-Auguste Tissot, which had rapidly become a best-seller of its time.
Now, if physicians reacted in such a harsh way against male masturbation, you can guess their stance on female auto-eroticism.

Here, the repulsion for an act which was already considered aberrant, was joined by all those ancestral fears regarding female sexuality. From the ancient vagina dentata (here is an old post about it) to Plato’s description of the uterus (hystera) as an aggressive animale roaming through the woman’s abdomen, going through theological precepts in Biblical-Christian tradition, medicine inherited a somber, essentially misogynistic vision: female sexuality, a true repressed collective unconscious, was perceived as dangerous and ungovernable.
Another text in my library is the female analogue of Tissot’s Onania: written by J.D.T. de Bienville, La Ninfomania ovvero il Furore Uterino (“Nymphomania, or The Uterine Fury”) was originally published in France in 1771.
I’m pasting here a couple of passages, which show a very similar style in respect to the previous quotes:

We see some perverted young girls, who have conducted a voluptuous life over a long period of time, suddenly fall prey to this disease; and this happens when forced retirement is keeping them from those occasions which facilitated their guilty and fatal inclination. […] All of them, after they are conquered by such malady, occupy themselves with the same force and energy with those objects which light in their passion the infernal flame of lewd pleasure […], they indulge in reading lewd Novels, that begin by bending their heart to soft feelings, and end up inspiring the most depraved and gross incontinence. […] Those women who, after taking a few steps in this horrible labyrinth, miss the strength to come back, are drawn almost imperceptibly to excesses, which after corrupting and damaging their good name, deprive them of their own life.

The book goes on to describe the hallucinatory state in which the nymphomaniacs fall, frantically hurling at men (by nature all chaste and pure, it seems), and barely leaving them “the time to escape their hands“.
Of course, this an Eighteenth Century text. But things did not improve in the following century: during the Nineteenth Century, actually, the ill-concealed desire to repress female sexuality found one of its cruelest incarnations, the so-called “extirpation”.

This euphemism was used to indicate the practice of clitoridectomy, the surgical removal of the clitoris.
Everybody kows that female genital mutilations continue to be a reality in many countries, and they have been the focus of several international campaigns to abandon the practice.
It seems hard to believe that, far from being solely a tribal tradition, it became widespread in Europe and in the United States within the frame of modern Western medicine.
Clitoridectomy, a simple yet brutal operation, was based on the idea that female masturbation led to hysteria, lesbianism and nymphomania. The perfect circular reasoning behind this theory was the following: in mental institutions, insane female patients were often caught masturbating, therefore masturbation had to be the cause of their lunacy.

One of the most fervent promoters of extirpation was Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, English gynaecologist and obstetrical surgeon.
In 1858 he opened a clinic on Notting Hill, ad his therapies became so successful that Baker Brown resigned from Guy’s Hospital to work privately full time. By means of clitoridectomy, he was able to cure (if we are to trust his own words) several kinds of madness, epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria in his patients: in 1866 he published a nice little book on the subject, which was praised by the Times because Brown “brought insanity within the scope of surgical treatment“. In his book, Brown reported 48 cases of female masturbation, the heinous effects on the patients’ health, and the miraculous result of clitoridectomy in curing the symptoms.

We don’t know for sure how many women ended up under the enthusiastic doctor’s knife.
Brown would have probably carried on with his mutilation work, if he hadn’t made the mistake of setting up a publicity campaign to advertise his clinic. Even then, self-promotion was considered ethically wrong for a physician, so on April 29, 1866, the British Medical Journal published a heavy j’accuse against the doctor. The Lancet followed shortly after, then even the Times proved to have changed position and asked if the surgical treatment of illness was legal at all. Brown ended up being investigated by the Lunacy Commission, which dealt with the patients’ welfare in asylums, and in panic he denied he ever carried out clitoridectomies on his mentally ill patients.

But it was too late.
Even the Royal College of Surgeons turned away from him, and a meeting decided (with 194 approving votes against 38 opposite votes) his removal from the Obstetric Society of London.
R. Youngson and I. Schott, in A Brief History of Bad Medicine (Robinson, 2012), highlight the paradox of this story:

The extraordinary thing was that Baker Brown was disgraced, not because he practised clitoridectomy for ridiculuous indications, but because, out of greed, he had offended against professional ethics. No one ever suggested that there was anything wrong with clitoridectomy, as such. Many years were to pass before this operation was condemned by the medical profession.

And many more, until eventually masturbation could be freed from medical criminalization and moral prejudice: at the beginning of the Twentieth Century doctors still recommended the use of constrictive laces and gears, straight-jackets, up to shock treatments like cauterization or electroconvulsive therapy.

1903 patent to prevent erections and nocturnal pollutions through the use of spikes, electric shocks and an alarm bell.

Within this dreadful galaxy of old anti-masturbation devices, there’s one looking quite harmless and even healthy: corn flakes, which were invented by famous Dr. Kellogg as an adjuvant diet against the temptations of onanism. And yet, whenever cereals didn’t do the trick, Kellogg advised that young boys’ foreskins should be sewn with wire; as for young girls, he recommended burning the clitoris with phenol, which he considered

an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice in those whose will-power has become so weakened that the patient is unable to exercise entire self-control.
The worse cases among young women are those in which the disease has advanced so far that erotic thoughts are attended by the same voluptuous sensations that accompany the practice. The author has met many cases of this sort in young women, who acknowledged that the sexual orgasm was thus produced, often several times daily. The application of carbolic acid in the manner described is also useful in these cases in allaying the abnormal excitement, which is a frequent provocation of the practice of this form of mental masturbation.

(J. H. Kellogg, Plain Facts for Old And Young, 1888)

It was not until the Kinsey Reports (1948-1953) that masturbation was eventually legitimized as a natural and healthy part of sexuality.
All in all, as Woody Allen put it, it’s just “sex with someone you love“.

On the “fantastic physiology” of the uterus, there is a splendid article (in Italian language) here. Wikipedia has also a page on the history of masturbation. I also recommend Orgasm and the West. A History of Pleasure from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, by R. Muchembled.

The Punished Suicide

This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.

Padova, Italy. 1863.

One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.

The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.


In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.

When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.

But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.

He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of  suicide.

He called his piece The Punished Suicide.

Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.

But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.


At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.

If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.

This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.

The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.

Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1

26768908656_4aa6fd60f9_o

26768900716_9e86ee1ded_o

In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MT05uNFb6hY

Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.

____________

[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.

La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.

 

The Postman’s Palace

facteur-cheval-1

Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Charmes, a small village in the commune of Hauterives, a little less than one hundred kilometres from Lyon. Ferdinand’s mother, Rose, died when he was only eleven; as his family was very poor, a year later the little boy left school and started working with his father. The latter died a few years later, in 1854. Therefore Ferdinand Cheval, at the age of twenty, became assistant baker. After marrying the young Rosalie Revol, who was just 17, for a few years he went far from the country in search for a job, and accepted various occasional employment offers; he rejoined his wife in 1863 and their first child was born in 1864. One year later, the boy died.
Two years went by and their second child was born. In 1867, at the age of thirty-one, Ferdinand Cheval pledged to become a postman.
In 1873, his wife Rosalie died.

An ordinary life, afflicted by pain and job insecurity. Those were times of extreme poverty, in which hunger and diseases never ceased to claim victims. And yet the nineteenth century was also marked by the modernist turn – monarchy gave way to republic, sciences and medicine made progress in leaps and bounds, industry was just born, and so on. And the echo of these revolutions reached the French countryside. Ferdinand used to handle the first illustrated gazettes, namely the Magasin Pittoresque or La revue illustrée, but also the first postcards coming from all over the world; under the eyes of a poor delivery man from the countryside an exotic world opened up, made of super-fast railways, heroic colonization in Africa and Asia, spectacular and unbelievable discoveries presented at the first International Exhibitions… in other words, daily life was hard as usual but there was still plenty of fuel for dreams.

Ferdinand Cheval used to stack up thirty kilometres a day, always the same way. At that time a postman’s pace was very different from the current “motorized” one. In his journal he wrote:

What shall I do, perpetually walking through the same landscape, but dream? To take my mind off, I used to dream of building a fantastic palace…

But the eccentric daydreaming of this humble postman from the countryside would have stayed as such, if Nature hadn’t sent him a sign.
On the 19th April 1879 Ferdinand Cheval was 43 years old, and his life was about to change forever.

One day of April in 1879, while I was carrying out my usual tour as a countryside postman, a quarter-league before arriving at Tersanne, I was hastily walking when my foot stumbled on something that made me slide a few metres further, and wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or some caves, I cannot express it properly… I never told it to anyone for fear to seem ridiculous, and felt ridiculous myself. After fifteen years, when I had almost forgotten my dream, and didn’t think about it at all, my foot made me remember it. My foot had bumped into a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… The shape of the stone was so bizarre that I put it in my pocket in order to admire it whenever I liked. The day after, I went through the same place. I found more of them, even more beautiful, I picked up them all on the spot, was enchanted by them… It is a molasse worked by waters and hardened by the force of time. It becomes hard like rocks. It represents such a bizarre sculpture that it can’t be reproduced by any human being, you can read all kinds of animals, all kinds of parodies in it. I told myself: if nature wants to be a sculptress, I will deal with masonry and architecture.

The stone which awoke the sleeping dream.

That stone, discovered by chance, was something like a conversion on the road to Damascus for the postman. And Cheval didn’t draw back, in front of this obvious call to action: little by little, he started to set up his building site – although he had no education, nor the least idea about how a house should be built, let alone a fairy castle.
The country people started to take him for a fool. But all of a sudden life had presented him with a grandiose purpose and, although everyday he made his usual thirty kilometres on foot, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. The weight of the mail to be delivered was increased by that of stones: during the outward journey he selected and positioned them along the road and, on his return, he picked them up with his loyal barrow. Postman Cheval and his barrow became a true icon for the inhabitants of Hauterives.

Cheval-with-his-Wheelbarrow

During his time off, every evening and every morning, Cheval continued to build the structure; he went ahead off the cuff, as a perfect autodidact, adding decoration after decoration without a real planning. Tireless, feverish, possessed by the grandeur of the task he was accomplishing.

facteur2

Postman Cheval started his work with a fountain, the “Source of Life”, then added the so-called “Cave of Saint Amadeus”, the Egyptian Tomb, and a series of pagodas, oriental temples, mosques, and other representations of sacred places, on show one besides the other; the Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix, Archimedes) were in charge of mounting guard over the sculptural complex.

facteur3

facteur1

cheval

palais-ideal-4

The postman never had a rest. In 1894 Cheval saw another of his children die, the fifteen-year-old daughter he had by his second wife. Overwhelmed by this new loss, he retired after two years but continued to devote himself to his Palace. He was half the battle, he couldn’t stop.

facade-est-0836a581

palais-ideal-facteur1

palais2

architect-ideal-palace-5

IDEAL-PALACE-FRANCE

Le_Palais_Idéal-9757

The Ideal Palace was not conceived as a real building, inhabitable, but as a monument dedicated to the brotherhood that unites people, regardless of their creed or origin: a mix of western and eastern forms and styles, an elaborate syncretism inspired by nature, postcards and the magazines that Cheval used to deliver. Sculpted figures, concrete palms, beasts, intertwined branches and columns decorated in arabesque surrounded the sacred representations or buildings; messages and poems by the builder should be reproduced on inscriptions and signs; finally, in the crypt, a small altar was dedicated to his inseparable barrow, that made all this possible and that Cheval used to call “my faithful mate of misery”…

facade-est-details1

facade-est-details3

facade-est-details4

visites1

facade-est-details5

Facteur_Cheval_-_Détail_façade_Nord

Facteur_Cheval_-_Façade_Est

Facteur_Cheval_-_Temple_hindou

Postman Cheval achieved his Ideal Palace in 1912, after having devoted thirty-three years of his life to it. He commemorated it with a writing, visible under a stairway that runs along the Temple of Nature towards the Northern Façade:

1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of obstacles and trials. The work of one single man.

Satisfied, Cheval announced that the monument would also be his tomb; but, surprisingly, authorities denied him the permission to be buried there. What should he do? Cheval didn’t lose heart.

After having achieved my dream Palace at the age of seventy-seven and after thirty-three years of hard work, I discovered I was still brave enough to build my tomb by myself at the Parish cemetery. There I worked hard for eight more years. I was lucky enough to complete this tomb called “The Tomb of Silence and endless rest” – at the age of 86. This tomb is about one kilometre from the village of Hauterives. Its manufacturing makes it very original, almost unique in the world, but its beauty comes from originality. After having seen my dream Palace, a high number of visitors go and see it, then they go back to their country in amazement, telling their friends that it is not a fairy-tale, it’s reality. See it and believe it.

In that same mausoleum Ferdinand Cheval obtained his well-deserved rest in 1924.

tombeau

“Le Tombeau du silence et du repos sans fin”.

tombeau2

Shortly before his death, facteur Cheval had the satisfaction of seeing his Palace acknowledged by some artists and intellectuals as an extraordinary example of architecture, without rules or structures, a spontaneous and unclassifiable artwork. In 1920 André Breton brought him to attention as the pioneer of surrealism in architecture; then, as the concept of art brut emerged, Cheval was even more admired for his work; nowadays people prefer to use the term outsider art, or Naïve art, but the concept stays the same: as he didn’t have an artistic culture, Cheval took the liberty of making impulsive and non-academic choices that made the Palace a unique work in its own way. Picasso, Ernst, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle all loved this crazy and incredible place, that – more or less explicitly – inspired several other fictitious “citadels”.
In 1969
André Malraux decided to protect the Palace as a historic monument, against the opinion of many other officials of the Ministry of Culture, with these motivations:

In a time when Naïve Art has become a remarkable reality, it would be childish not to protect – when we French are as lucky as to possess it – the only naïve architecture in the world, and wait for it to be destroyed.

Kent-par-Emmanuel-Georges-au-Facteur-cheval-13

e-georges-5218

The small town of Hauterives is still there, between the hills and the fields, at the foot of the French Alps. And yet only in 2013 almost 160,000 visitors went on a pilgrimage to the Ideal Palace, today completely restored and in whose frame art exhibitions, concerts and events are organized.
And, as our gaze is lost for the umpteenth time in the tangled stone doodles, we are astonished by the idea that they have really been created by a simple postman who, with his barrow, scoured the countryside in search for bizarre stones; you can’t help thinking about the sardonic provocation that Cheval himself wrote on the front of his Palace:

If some of you is more stubborn than me, then set to work.

But this ironic remark, we like to read it also as an invitation and a challenge; an exhortation to cultivate stubbornness, madness and temerity – necessary for all those who really want to try and build their own “Ideal Palace”.

palais-ideal

Here is the official site of the Ideal Palace.

Don’t touch my hair

Every now and then we come across news reports about bullying acts that involve, among other things, the complete shaving of the vexed person.
In these pages we have often drawn attention to the fact that human beings are “symbolic animals”, namely that our mind acts through symbols and frequently – sometimes unconsciously – relies on myths: therefore, why do people consider cutting someone’s hair by force as a disfigurement? Is it only an aesthetic concern, or is there more to it?

3182627973_c70861bb75

First of all, this kind of violence damages somebody’s appearance, and the hairdo has always been one of the most important ways of expressing personality. Since ancient times, every hairstyle has been assigned more or less explicit meanings.

For example, to wear one’s hair down was normally considered as a sign of mourning or submission. Yet, in different contexts such as ritual ceremonies, to leave one’s hair down was a crucial element of some shamanic dances – the irruption of the sacred that wildly sweeps social conventions and restrictions away.

Consider that women have always regarded their hair as one of their most effective weapons of seduction: the hairdo –to hide or show the hair, to wear it up or down – frequently marked the difference between available or modest women; therefore, some cultures go as far as to forbid married women to show their hair (in Russia, for example, there is a saying that “a girl has fun only as long as she is bareheaded“), or at least oblige her to hide it every time she enters a church (Christian West), in order to inhibit its function as a sexual provocation.

The way people comb their hair reflects their individual psychology, of course, but also the values shared by specific social contexts: fashion, the beliefs widespread in a certain period, precepts of religious institutions or a rebellion against all these things. Hairdos that challenge the dominant taste and knock down barriers have often come with social or artistic rebellions (Scapigliatura, the beat generation, the hippie movement, punk, feminism, LGBT, etc.).

tumblr_mk6z6okp8v1rtzebco1_1280

Therefore at the end of the 1960s – a period marked by strong social tensions – longhaired people were often charged by the police, in most cases for no other reason than their look:

Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.
It’s getting’ kinda long, I coulda said it wasn’t in my way.
But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
Cause I feel like I owe it to someone.

(Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Almost Cut My Hair, 1970)

Have you ever changed the colour of your hair, your haircut or hairdo at crucial moments in your life, as if by changing the appearance of your hair, you could also change your inner self? Obviously nowadays hairdos are still strongly connected to personal emotions. But there’s more to it.

Like nails, hair has always been associated with sexual and vital force by the public imagination. Therefore, according to magical thinking a powerful empathy exists between people and their hair. It is a bond that can’t be broken even after the hair are severed from the body: the locks that have been cut or got stuck between the comb’s teeth are precious ingredients for spells and evil eyes, whereas a saint’s hair is normally worshipped as a very miraculous relic. Hair preserves the virtues of its owners and the intimate relationship between human beings and their hair outlive its severance.

Hence the custom, within many families, to keep hair bunches and the first deciduous teeth. The scope of such practices goes beyond the perpetuation of memory – in a sense they attempt to guarantee the survival of the condition of the hair’s owner.

(Chevalier-Gheebrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, 1982).

The hair bunch that a man receives from the woman he loves as a token of love is a recurrent fetish in nineteenth century Romanticism, but it is during the Victorian era that the obsession with hair attains its summit, especially in the field of jewellery and of accessories connected with mourning. Brooches and clasps containing the hair of the deceased, arranged in floral patterns, complicated arrangements to be hanged on walls, bracelets made of exquisitely plaited hair… Victorian mourning jewelry is one of the most moving examples of popular funeral art. At the beginning the female relatives of the deceased used his/her hair to create these mementos to carry with them forever; photography wasn’t always available at that time, and many people couldn’t afford a portrait, so these jewels were the only tangible memory of the deceased.

8540528_orig

8

vj plumes flowers button

Over time, this kind of objects became part of the fashion of the period, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when queen Victoria and her courtiers dressed in mourning for dozens of years. After the example of the Royals, black turned out to be the most popular colour and mourning jewellery became so widespread that it began to contain hair belonging to other people as well as to the deceased. In the second half of the nineteenth century, 50 tons of human hair were imported by English jewellers to their country every year. In order to establish a connection between the jewel and the deceased, the name or its initials started to be carved on the object.

3331698750_52412a7265

19c4sk5bcbjb3jpg

19c4nm6ptv4g4jpg

All this brings us back to the idea that hair is connected to the essence of its owner’s life, and holds at least a spark of his/her personality.

Let’s go back to the victim mentioned at the beginning of this article, whose head was shaven by force.

This is a shocking insult because it is perceived as a metaphorical castration for a male, and as a denial of femininity in the case of a female victim. The hair is associated to certain powers, such as strength and virility – consider Samson, for example – but above all to the concept of identity.

In Vietnam, for example, a peculiar divinatory art was developed, that may be called “trichomancy”, which allows to understand somebody’s destiny or virtues by observing the arrangement of hair follicles on the scalp. And if hair tells many things about individual personality, to the monks that renounce their individuality to follow the ways of the Lord, shaving is not only a sacrifice but a surrender, a renunciation to the subject’s prerogatives and identity itself.

Fra_Angelico_052

To cut the hair is not a trivial act.
In the past centuries a thick head of hair was a sign of power and nobleness. So the aristocratic privilege to wear long hair in France was exclusively reserved to Kings and Princes, whereas in China all that wore their hair short – which was considered as a real mutilation – were banned from some public employments. According to American Natives, to scalp the enemy was an ultimate mutilation, the highest expression of contempt. In parallel, within some cultures to cut the hair during the first years of somebody’s life was a taboo because the new-born babies may run the risk to lose their soul. Countless peoples consider a baby’s first haircut as a rite of passage, involving celebrations and propitiatory acts to draw evil spirits away – after part of their vital force has gone together with their hair, babies are actually more exposed to dangers. Within the Native American tribe of the Hopi in Arizona, the haircut is a collective ritual that takes place once a year, during the celebrations of the winter solstice. Elsewhere, the haircut is suspended during wars, or as a consequence of a vow: Egyptians didn’t shave during a journey and recently the
barbudos of Fidel Castro swore not to touch their beards nor hair until Cuba would be freed by dictatorship.

liebermann-max--simson-und-delila-790506

All this explains why to cut the enemy’s hair by force is regarded as a terrible punishment since antiquity, sometimes even worse than death. People always assign deep meanings to every aspect of reality; even today a mere offence between kids that, all things considered, could be innocuous (the hair will quickly grow back) is usually a shock for the public opinion; maybe because in the haircut people recognize – with the obvious differences – the echoes of cruel rites and practices with an ancestral symbolic significance.

Indian_Warrior_with_Scalp

Hananuma Masakichi

2011-04-03-self-portrait

Non molti conoscono lo scultore giapponese Hananuma Masakichi, nato nel 1832, e la sua triste e straordinaria storia. Quasi un secolo prima che nell’ambito dell’arte si incominciasse a parlare di iperrealismo, Masakichi riuscì a stupire il mondo intero con una scultura praticamente indistinguibile dalla realtà.

A quanto si racconta, la statua in questione avrebbe avuto una genesi del tutto particolare. Quando Hananuma Masakichi aveva circa cinquant’anni, si ammalò di tubercolosi: era convinto di avere ancora poco tempo da vivere. Eppure Masakichi era innamorato di una donna, e quando si ama si trova anche nei momenti più disperati la forza di reagire. Così l’artista decise che avrebbe tenuto duro, sacrificando ogni attimo che gli restava, per lasciare alla propria amata un ricordo di sé che le tenesse compagnia dopo la sua morte. Quello sarebbe stato il suo ultimo, grandioso progetto: creare un’esatta copia di se stesso, a grandezza naturale e perfetta in ogni minimo dettaglio, che potesse durare per sempre. In quel modo, non sarebbe mai veramente scomparso dalla vita e dal cuore della donna dei suoi sogni.

Masakichi cominciò a lavorare alla scultura mediante specchi girevoli, in modo da poter osservare e studiare ogni parte del proprio corpo, e replicarla con il legno. La pazienza e il sacrificio necessari per raggiungere il suo scopo lasciano sbigottiti, soprattutto se pensiamo che la statua non venne scolpita a partire da un blocco unico: l’artista incise ogni muscolo, ogni vena, ogni minima protuberanza del suo fisico servendosi di minuscoli pezzi di legno separati, striscioline che poi assemblava con incastri a coda di rondine e colla. Non usò nemmeno un chiodo metallico, ma soltanto piccoli agganci e pioli di legno per collegare l’enorme quantità di ritagli che compongono la statua, cava al suo interno. Si calcola che il numero di pezzetti utilizzati stia tra le 2.000 e le 5.000 unità. Eppure i vari dettagli sono incastrati ed uniti con una tale perfezione che perfino esaminando la superficie della statua con una lente d’ingrandimento si fatica a riconoscere la linea di “saldatura” fra un segmento e l’altro. Ogni ruga, ogni tendine, ogni increspatura della pelle venne replicata ossessivamente da Masakichi. Ma non finisce qui.

Masakichi-statue

Dopo aver dipinto e laccato la statua in modo da replicare il colore e il tono della sua pelle, Masakichi si spinse ancora oltre. Desiderava infondere maggior vita alla statua, renderla a tutti gli effetti una parte di sé. Così cominciò a praticare dei piccolissimi fori per replicare la porosità della pelle, e ad incollarvi i propri peli e capelli. Li trasferiva, dal suo corpo alla statua, facendo bene attenzione che la posizione rimanesse la medesima: i capelli sulla tempia destra della statua provenivano dalla tempia destra dell’artista, e così via. Masakichi proseguì, donando alla sua opera capelli, ciglia, sopracciglia, fino alla peluria delle parti intime.

Certo, poi la leggenda pretenderebbe che, non ancora soddisfatto, nell’ormai ossessivo intento di consacrare alla statua (e alla donna che amava) il rimasuglio di vita che gli restava, Masakichi si fosse strappato le unghie da mani e piedi per applicarle alle dita della statua (c’è chi afferma che addirittura i pochi denti visibili fra le labbra socchiuse della statua sarebbero quelli dell’artista). Ma non c’è bisogno di arrivare a questi fantasiosi estremi per rimanere stupefatti dall’incredibile perfezionismo di Masakichi.

Finalmente, nel 1885, la sua opera fu compiuta. Come ultimo tocco, l’artista sistemò i propri occhiali sul naso del suo doppio, e gli mise uno scalpello nella mano destra. Nella sinistra invece, con perfetto senso della vertigine simbolica, Masakichi pose una maschera, che gli occhi della statua sembrano contemplare fissamente. Un doppelgänger che si specchia nella sua stessa ambigua identità.

La somiglianza era davvero strabiliante: secondo i racconti dell’epoca, quando Masakichi si metteva in posa di fianco alla sua statua, la gente faticava a comprendere immediatamente quale fosse l'”originale” e quale la “copia”. Nella fotografia qui sotto, ad esempio, la statua è quella a sinistra.

Masakichi-statue2

La storia, così come ci viene tramandata, ha un triste epilogo. La donna tanto agognata, per amore della quale la titanica impresa era stata portata a termine, nonostante tutto rifiutò Hananuma. L’artista non morì di tubercolosi, ma visse ancora una decina d’anni, fino a terminare i suoi giorni in povertà nel 1895 (pare a causa di una diagnosi sbagliata).

Fu Robert Ripley, il disegnatore-avventuriero di cui abbiamo parlato in questo articolo, che all’inizio della sua carriera di collezionista dell’insolito, negli anni ’30, acquistò per dieci dollari la statua di Masakichi esposta in un saloon di Chinatown a San Francisco. L’autoritratto dell’artista giapponese rimase sempre uno dei suoi pezzi favoriti fra le migliaia che accumulò negli anni, e la esibì più volte nei suoi vari musei attraverso il mondo, e anche in casa propria.

625683_420652391361951_1441235524_n

598938_420654488028408_1460619474_n

549809_420651518028705_1497294977_n

540991_420654124695111_801388779_n

296304_420655841361606_434227253_n

64873_420653294695194_956981915_n

La statua è sopravvissuta a ben due terremoti, quello di San Francisco nel 1989 (era posizionata su una piattaforma rotante, venne sbalzata via e ci vollero quattro mesi per restaurarla) e quello di Northridge del 1994. Oggi non viene esposta se non in occasioni eccezionali: nonostante i danni subiti siano evidenti, la scultura di Hananuma Masakichi sorprende ancora oggi per realismo e perfezione del dettaglio, e si può soltanto immaginare quale effetto potesse avere sul pubblico di fine ‘800. Una replica della statua (una “copia della copia” del corpo di Hananuma…) è visibile nel London Ripley’s Odditorium a Piccadilly Circus.

Un buco allo stomaco

canada-cenario

Il Canada, all’inizio dell’800, era una terra più selvaggia e incontaminata di quanto non lo sia ancora oggi. La Francia napoleonica aveva ormai definitivamente rinunciato alle sue colonie in Nord America, lasciandole in mano all’Impero Britannico; il governo coloniale inglese aveva dunque cominciato a regolamentare il commercio di pelli in Basso Canada, uno dei mercati all’epoca più lucrativi. Quelli che un tempo erano chiamati coureur des bois – contrabbandieri che intrattenevano dei rapporti con le tribù di Nativi Americani, dalle quali acquistavano le pellicce di castoro – vennero messi in regola, e assunsero il più rispettabile nome di voyageur. I voyageur si muovevano in team, e conducevano le grandi canoe-cargo lungo i fiumi del Canada, trasportandole via terra qualora incontrassero rapide o cascate; il lavoro era pesante, ma anche ricco di avventura e pericolo, tanto che i voyageur avevano un loro esclusivo bagaglio di leggende e canzoni.

St_Martin_Alexis_67
Uno di questi “viaggiatori” si chiamava Alexis Bidagan, detto St. Martin.
Nato nel 1802 a Berthier (per inciso, la stessa piccola cittadina che quasi 150 dopo avrebbe visto crescere il pilota Villeneuve), Alexis era canadese di terza generazione. Suo nonno proveniva da Bayonne nei Pirenei, suo padre si chiamava Joseph Pierre Bidagan e sua madre Marie Des Agnes Angelique Guibeau. Un suo fratello omonimo era nato nel 1794, ma era morto a pochi anni di età. Queste sono le sole informazioni biografiche che abbiamo di lui, a partire dal suo certificato di nascita.
Povero, senza un’istruzione, Alexis St. Martin (come si faceva chiamare) batteva foreste, fiumi e laghi della provincia del Quebec per conto della American Fur Company: ma il suo nome sarebbe rimasto completamente sepolto nelle pieghe della storia, se non fosse stato per quel fatidico incidente occorso il 6 giugno del 1822.

Quella mattina Alexis si trovava all’interno di un negozio sull’isola Mackinac, nel bel mezzo dello Huron, uno dei passaggi strategici nella regione dei Grandi Laghi per il commercio di pelli. A meno di un metro da lui stava in piedi un uomo che imbracciava un fucile caricato per la caccia alle anatre. Accidentalmente, il moschetto fece fuoco e la scarica di pallini colpì Alexis in pieno fianco. I proiettili gli strapparono i muscoli, alcune parti di costole andarono in frantumi, e l’imbottitura della sua giacca e i pezzi di vestiti vennero sparati dentro al suo corpo. Mentre si accasciava con la giacca in fiamme, gli astanti che cercarono di prestargli soccorso capirono immediatamente che per lui non c’erano più speranze.

William_Beaumont_painting
Dal vicino fortino dell’Esercito Americano venne chiamato di gran carriera il medico militare, Dr. William Beaumont, che arrivò sulla scena a pochi minuti dall’incidente. Quello che gli si parò davanti era davvero un caso disperato. Dopo aver rimosso i brandelli di vestiti, pulito la carne e spuntato in maniera più regolare i bordi della ferita, il medico esaminò meglio il danno causato:

La ferita era stata ricevuta appena sotto il seno sinistro e aveva, in quel momento, tutto l’aspetto d’essere mortale. Un larga parte del fianco era esplosa, le costole erano fratturate e vi erano aperture nelle cavità del petto e dell’addome, attraverso le quali protundevano porzioni di polmoni e stomaco, di molto lacerati e bruciati, rendendo il caso terribilmente disperato. Il diaframma era lacerato e una perforazione si era aperta direttamente nella cavità dello stomaco, attraverso cui scivolava fuori il cibo della colazione.

Dopo aver tamponato la ferita e somministrato un catartico al paziente, il medico confidò ad uno dei presenti: “quest’uomo non sopravvivrà trentasei ore; verrò a visitarlo ogni tanto“. Ma Alexis St. Martin, è il caso di dirlo, aveva la pelle più dura di quanto ci si sarebbe potuti aspettare.

Nei diciassette giorni successivi, qualsiasi cibo ingerisse per bocca usciva subito dall’apertura nel suo stomaco. Così il Dr. Beaumont lo alimentò con clisteri nutritivi, finché St. Martin non cominciò a riprendersi lentamente; gli intestini ricominciarono la loro regolare attività, e la quarta settimana Alexis iniziò a mangiare normalmente.
Durante la quinta settimana, successe qualcosa di davvero particolare: il foro nello stomaco di St. Martin e il foro nella pelle del fianco aderirono e si fusero assieme, creando una fistola gastrica permanente grande più o meno come una moneta. Certo, lo stomaco era in questo modo sempre aperto verso l’esterno; ma almeno il cibo non sarebbe scivolato fra un buco e l’altro, finendo per perdersi nella cavità addominale con conseguenze facilmente immaginabili. In questo modo, “tappando” con garze e bendaggi la fistola, la digestione del paziente poteva svolgersi in maniera naturale.

alexiswound

Engraving_by_Dr_William_Beaumont

1b600fc8819ac88312fab4cbafa0f2ae

Ovviamente il ricovero fu lungo e difficoltoso. Tre mesi dopo, Beaumont stava ancora estraendo pallini di piombo dagli ascessi intorno alla ferita, rimuovendo pezzi instabili di costole e cartilagini. Dopo dieci mesi, nonostante le sue condizioni migliorassero, St. Martin era ancora messo piuttosto male, e non essendo in grado di lavorare le autorità locali decisero che sarebbe stato rispedito nella sua terra natale. Ma Beaumont sapeva che Alexis non avrebbe retto il lungo viaggio, e lo accolse in casa sua, continuando a curarlo.

Passarono quasi due anni dall’incidente quando, nell’aprile del 1824, Beaumont riuscì a far entrare St. Martin nell’Esercito Americano come suo impiegato. Alexis si dedicò quindi ad ogni tipo di lavoro in casa, dalle pulizie, al lavoro nei campi, al tagliare la legna; si era ristabilito talmente bene che, a parte il bendaggio sullo stomaco, che doveva tenere costantemente pulito, non si lamentò mai una sola volta per il dolore o la fatica.

Se fino ad ora il Dr. Beaumont vi è sembrato un uomo gentile e premuroso – cosa che probabilmente sarà anche stata vera – da questo momento in poi il suo rapporto con il paziente prende una piega che ai nostri occhi moderni è certamente poco piacevole; ma occorre ricordare che stiamo parlando della prima metà dell’800, quando la professione medica non aveva gli stessi standard etici di oggi. Così, invece di suturare la fistola del povero e ignorante trasportatore di pellame ormai completamente ristabilitosi, e lasciarlo andare per la sua strada, il Dr. Beaumont cominciò a vedere in lui un’opportunità scientifica unica.

Questo caso permette in maniera eccellente di sperimentare sui fluidi gastrici, e il processo della digestione. Non causerebbe dolore, né provocherebbe il minimo fastidio, l’estrarre un campione di fluido ogni due o tre giorni, dacché frequentemente e in maniera spontanea esce in considerevoli quantità; e si potrebbero introdurre varie sostanze digeribili nello stomaco, ed esaminarle facilmente durante l’intero processo di digestione. Potrei, dunque, essere in grado di svolgere alcuni interessanti esperimenti al riguardo.

Corbis-BE060798

Nel 1825 Beaumont diede inizio agli esperimenti sullo stomaco che continueranno, a fasi alterne, fino al 1833. Il dottore inseriva pezzi di cibo direttamente attraverso la fistola, per poi estrarli tramite un filo al quale erano stati legati in precedenza; nonostante i buoni propositi del medico, le sue manipolazioni non erano prive di effetti collaterali e in alcuni casi provocavano nella “cavia umana” reazioni decisamente poco piacevoli – nausea, difficoltà respiratorie, vertigini, offuscamento della vista, se non dei veri e propri dolori lancinanti.
Così non c’è da sorprendersi che il paziente, per tre volte nel corso di quegli otto anni, decidesse di interrompere gli esperimenti nonostante le proteste di Beaumont, e tornasse a casa dalla moglie Marie e dai figli. Salvo scoprirsi, poco dopo, talmente povero da dover accondiscendere nuovamente alle pressanti richieste del ricercatore.

Beaumont2

Dal 1833 in poi, i rapporti fra i due si guastarono. St. Martin si stabilì in Quebec, e per i vent’anni successivi Beaumont cercherà disperatamente di farlo tornare da lui per riprendere gli esperimenti.
Dalla loro corrispondenza, emerge un rapporto emblematico della relazione che c’era all’epoca fra medico e paziente: Beaumont appare totalmente ossessionato dal buco nello stomaco di St. Martin, intollerante del fatto che un reietto della società possa rifiutarsi di contribuire al progresso scientifico, quando dovrebbe sentirsi onorato anche solo della compagnia di un esimio dottore; dall’altra St. Martin, nelle lettere dettate al suo parroco e inviate a Beaumont, rivela certamente rispetto e riconoscenza per il benefattore, ma anche la necessità di far fronte alle preoccupazioni materiali della sua famiglia, versante nella povertà più assoluta. Ma le richieste di Alexis di poter portare la moglie e i figli con sé (a spese del medico) non vennero ascoltate.
Fra le insistenze di Beaumont e le controproposte di St. Martin, i due uomini non troveranno mai un accordo, e non si vedranno più.

Nel frattempo, però, il Dr. William Beaumont pubblicò nel 1833 il suo Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, un testo dall’importanza fondamentale per la comprensione dei processi digestivi, e le cui tabelle dietetiche rimarranno in uso per quasi un secolo. I suoi 240 esperimenti sullo stomaco di St. Martin provarono come la digestione fosse inconfutabilmente un processo chimico – un argomento su cui si discuteva da sempre.
Considerato oggi, nonostante tutto, un vero e proprio pioniere della fisiologia, Beaumont morì nell’aprile del 1853 a causa delle ferite riportate un mese prima, scivolando su alcuni gradini ricoperti di ghiaccio.

A quel punto cominciò forse la fase più triste della vita di Alexis St. Martin. Senza un soldo e dipendente dall’alcol, egli accettò l’invito di un ciarlatano che si faceva chiamare “Dr. Bunting” per un tour di più di dieci città negli Stati Uniti, esponendo il suo straordinario buco nello stomaco per racimolare un po’ di soldi. I medici che assistettero ad alcune tappe del tour conclusero che Bunting era tutto fuorché un dottore, e che l’ormai sessantenne St. Martin che esibiva il suo stomaco perforato era soltanto un povero ubriaco. L’attenzione della stampa fece rizzare le orecchie perfino al celeberrimo imprenditore circense P.T. Barnum, ma Alexis non venne mai ingaggiato.

St_Martin_Alexis
St. Martin si ritirò definitivamente a St. Thomas de Joliette, Quebec, e qui morì il 24 giugno 1880. Alla messa per il suo funerale, la bara restò fuori dalla chiesa, per il troppo odore: la famiglia aveva infatti lasciato che il corpo si decomponesse in maniera irreparabile, di modo che i ladri di cadaveri non trafugassero le spoglie per portarle in segreto alla comunità medica. Dal giorno in cui Alexis era morto, la famiglia aveva dovuto subire le pressioni dei numerosi medici impazienti di poter eseguire un’autopsia, o di conservare il favoloso “stomaco a tre buchi” in un museo. Per ulteriore sicurezza, la bara venne posta ad otto piedi di profondità nel camposanto, invece che ai regolari sei piedi.

Alexis & Marie

A ottant’anni dalla morte di Alexis St. Martin, la Società di Fisiologia Canadese gli pagò un commovente tributo postumo con una solenne cerimonia, rintracciando i suoi eredi e infine la sua tomba, su cui oggi è visibile una targa dedicata all’uomo che “attraverso la sua afflizione, servì l’umanità intera“.