In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: the secret behind the grotesque wedding organized by Tsar Peter the Great; the story of a sperm whale cub that beached in Italy in the 1930s; the black flood that swept a neighborhood in Boston in 1919.
In the 2nd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: pharmacy mummies and products of the human body used in medicine; a mysterious artist; a theater built from the carcass of a whale. [Remember to turn English subtitles on.]
In the nineteenth century the coastal town of Eden, Australia, was one of the epicentres of whaling. It fronted (as it still does) onto Twofold Bay, where between winter and spring the southern right whale used to appear, ready for mating.
This huge cetacean moves very slowly, its body size prevents it from springing and leaping. It was therefore the perfect prey for whale hunters, who were able to obtain many barrels of oil from a single mammal; during one hunting season, as many as 22 specimens were caught, and they guaranteed enough income for the entire year to the families of Eden.
But every winter, together with the whales, even the school of killer whales arrived, and wanted the same thing as the fishermen.
At the beginning the fishermen, feeling in competition with them, tried to chase the killer whales away.
But, as far as we know, things began to change from about 1840, when the whalers started to recruit some aborigines of the Thaua tribe as harpooners. These natives had actually practised whale hunting for thousands of years before the European arrived, and had made a “deal” with the killer whales.
When the killer whales intercepted a group of migrating whales, they surrounded them and pushed them into Twofold Bay, by the coastline. Here a male killing whale, the leader, swam to the dock to alert the whalers, leaping and slapping the water with its tail. The men jumped on the boats and easily harpooned and killed the whales. In return for this help, the whalers established the so-called “law of the tongue”: they used to fasten the carcass of the whale they had just killed to a boat or a buoy and left it in the water all night so that the killing whales could reclaim their share of the spoils – namely, the cetacean’s huge lips and tongue for their meal. The killer whales did not touch the rest of the body, which contained the fat and bones that were precious for the fishermen.
A whale carcass photographed in 1908: killer whales had already eaten its tongue and lips.
The killer whales became fundamental partners for the citizens of Eden, they were freed as soon as they got caught in the fishing nets and it is said that they even kept the dangerous sharks away from the whalers’ fragile lifeboats.
One male killer whale that most interacted with the men, drawing their attention, was seven metres long and weighed about six tons: it became well-known by the nickname of Old Tom.
A whaler and Old Tom.
This cooperation lasted for almost a century.
In 1923 someone called John Logan, a retired breeder, went hunting with third-generation whaler George Davidson. As he used to do, Old Tom pushed a small whale towards the men and they killed it. But a storm was approaching, and the season had really been meagre: Logan, being afraid that that whale may be the last of the year, decided to break the law of the tongue for the very first (and last) time.
He used his harpoon to push Old Tom, that was properly demanding its reward, away from the prey. With a badly executed blow, without really wanting it, Logan yanked off two of the poor killing whale’s teeth. When wounded Old Tom swam away from the boat, Logan whispered: “Oh my God, what have I done?”.
The gums of Old Tom became infected and during the following years the killing whale had to struggle harder and harder to feed; on September 18, 1930 it was found beached near Eden. It had died of consumption and starvation.
From that moment on, its school disappeared and never returned.
Today, the skeleton of Old Tom is exhibited at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, in everlasting memory of the weird, but fruitful alliance between men and killer whales.
Tomorrow I will be at Winchester University to take part in a three-day interdisciplinary conference focusing on Death, art and anatomy. My talk will focus on memento mori in relation to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome — which, together with other Italian religious ossuaries, I explored in my Mors Pretiosa.
Waiting to tell you more about the event, and about the following days I will spend in London, I leave you with some curiosities to savour.
SynDaver Labs, which already created a synthetic cadaver for autopsies (I wrote about it in this post), is developing a canine version for veterinary surgery training. This puppy, like his human analogue, can breathe, bleed and even die.
Even if it turned out to be fake, this would still be one of the tastiest news in recent times: in Sculcoates, East Yorks, some ghost hunters were visiting a Nineteenth century cemetery when they suddenly heard some strange, eerie moanings. Ghost monks roaming through the graves? A demonic presence haunting this sacred place? None of the above. In the graveyard someone was secretely shooting a porno.
Speaking of unusual places to make love, why not inside a whale? It happened in the 1930s at Gotheburg Museum of Natural History, hosting the only completely taxidermied blue whale inside of which a lounge was built, equipped with benches and carpets. After a couple was caught having sex in there, the cetacean was unfortunately closed to the public.
In case you’ve missed it, there was also a man who turned a whale’s carcass into a theatre.
The borders of medieval manuscripts sometimes feature rabbits engaged in unlikely battles and different cruelties. Why? According to this article, it was basically a satire.
If you think warmongering rabbits are bizarre, wait until you see cats with jetpacks on their backs, depicted in some Sixteenth century miniatures. Here is a National Geographic article about them.
One last iconographic enigma. What was the meaning of the strange Sixteenth century engravings showing a satyr fathoming a woman’s private parts with a plumb line? An in-depth and quite beautiful study (sorry, Italian only) unveils the mystery.
Adventurous lives: Violet Constance Jessop was an ocean liner stewardess who in 1911 survived the Olympia ship incident. Then in 1912 she survived the sinking of the Titanic. And in 1916 the sinking of the Britannic.
Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.
I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.
The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.
There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).
The vicissitudes of Haydn’s head: Wiki page, and 1954 Life Magazine issue with pictures of the skull’s burial ceremony. This story is reminiscent of Descartes’s skull, of which I’ve written here. (Thanks, Daniele!)
In case you missed it, here’s my article (in English) for Illustrati Magazine, about midget pornstar Bridget Powers.
Continuing my exploration of human failure, here is a curious film clip of a “triphibian” vehicle, which was supposed to take over land, water and the skies. Spoiler: it didn’t go very far.
In the Sixties, the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania fell prey to a laughter epidemics.
Found what could be the first autopsy ever recorded on film (warning, strong images). Our friend pathologist says: “This film clip is a real gem, really beautiful, and the famous Dr. Erdheim’s dissecting skills are remarkable: he does everything with a single knife, including cutting the breastbone (very elegant! I use some kind of poultry shears instead); he proceeds to a nice full evisceration, at least of thoracic organs (you can’t see the abdomen) from tongue to diaphragm, which is the best technique to maintain the connection between viscera, and… he doesn’t get splattered at all! He also has the table at the right height: I don’t know why but in our autopsy rooms they keep on using very high tables, and therefore you have to step on a platform at the risk of falling down in you lean back too much. It is also interesting to see all the activity behind and around the pathologist, they were evidently working on more than one table at the same time. I think the pathologist was getting his hands dirty for educational reasons only, otherwise there would have been qualified dissectors or students preparing the bodies for him. It’s quite a sight to see him push his nose almost right into the cadaver’s head, without wearing any PPE…”
I have a horror of victories.
(André Pieyre de Mandiargues)
Museums are places of enchantment and inspiration (starting from their name, referring to the Muses). If they largely celebrate progress and the homo sapiens‘ highest achievements, it would be important to recognize that enchantment and inspiration may also arise from contemplating broken dreams, misadventures, accidents that happen along the way.
It is an old utopian project of mine, with which I’ve been flirting for quite a long time: to launch a museum entirely dedicated to human failure.
Lacking the means to open a real museum, I will have to settle for a virtual tour.
Here is the map of my imaginary museum.
As you can see, the tour goes through six rooms.
The first one is entitled Forgotten ingenuity, and here are presented the lives of those inventors, artists or charlatans whose passage on this Earth seems to have been overlooked by official History. Yet among the protagonists of this first room are men who knew immense fame in their lifetime, only to fall from hero to zero.
As a result of an hypertrophic ego, or financial recklessness, or a series of unfortunate events, these characters came just one step away from victory, or even apparently conquered it. Martin F. Tupper was the highest grossing anglo-saxon XIX Century poet, and John Banvard was for a long time the most celebrated and successful painter of his era. But today, who remembers their names?
This introduction to failure is a sort of sic transit, and pushes the visitor to ask himself some essential questions on the ephemeral nature of success, and on historical memory’s inconsistency.
John Banvard (1815-1891)
The second room is entirely dedicated to odd sciences and wrong theories.
Here is a selection of the weirdest pseudoscientific ideas, abandoned or marginalized disciplines, complex systems of thought now completely useless.
Particular attention is given to early medical doctrines, from Galen‘s pneuma to Henry Cotton‘s crazy surgical therapies, up to Voronoff‘s experiments. But here are also presented completely irrational theories (like those who maintain the Earth is hollow or flat), along other ones which were at one point influential, but now have an exclusively historical value, useful perhaps to understand a certain historical period (for instance, the physiognomy loved by Cesare Lombroso, or Athanasius Kircher‘s musurgy).
This room is meant to remind the visitor that progress and scientific method are never linear, but rather they develop and grow at the cost of failed attempts, dead-end streets, wrong turns. And in no other field as in knowledge, is error as fundamental as success.
The third room is devoted to Lost challenges. Here are celebrated all those individuals who tried, and failed.
The materials in this section prove that defeat can be both sad and grotesque: through multimedia recreations and educational boards the visitors can learn (just to quote a few examples) about William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, who persisted in composing poems although his literary abilities were disatrous to say the least; about the clumsy and horrendously spectacular attempt to blow up a whale in Florence, Oregon, or to free a million and a half helium balloons in the middle of a city; and of course about the “flying tailor“, a classic case of extreme faith in one’s own talent.
Next, we enter the space dedicated to Unexpected accidents, often tragic-comic and lethal.
A first category of failures are those made popular by the well-known Darwin Awards, symbolically bestowed upon those individuals who manage to kill themselves in very silly ways. These stories warn us about overlooked details, moments of lessened clarity of mind, inability to take variables into account.
But that is not all. The concept behind the second section of the room is that, no matter how hard we try and plan our future in every smallest detail, reality often bursts in, scrambling all our projects. Therefore here are the really unexpected events, the hostile fate, all those catastrophes and fiascos that are impossible to shun.
This double presentation shows how human miscalculation on one hand, and the element of surprise “kindly” provided by the world on the other, make failure an inevitable reality. How can it be overcome?
The last two rooms try to offer a solution.
If failure cannot be avoided, and sooner or later happens to us all, then maybe the best strategy is to accept it, freeing it from its attached stygma.
One method to exorcise shame is to share it, as suggested by the penultimate room. Monitors screen the images of the so-called fail videos, compilations of homemade footage showing common people who, being unlucky or inept, star in embarassing catastrophes. The fact these videos have a huge success on the internet confirms the idea that not taking ourselves too seriously, and being brave enough to openly share our humiliation, is a liberating and therapeutic act.
On the last wall, the public is invited to hang on a board their own most scorching failure, written down on a piece of paper.
The final room represents the right to fail, the joy of failing and the pride of failure.
Here, on a big bare wall, failure and fortune are represented as yin and yang, each containing the other’s seed, illusory opposites concealing only one reality – the neverending transformation, which knows no human category such as success or failure, indifferent, its vortex endlessly spinning.
To take failure back means to sabotage its paralyzing power, and to learn once again how to move and follow the rythm.
Above the exit door, an ironic quote by Kurt Vonnegut reminds the visitor: “We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different“.
Quando una balena morta si adagia sul fondo dell’oceano l’enorme mole della sua carcassa procura cibo a una moltitudine variegata e impressionante di animali. Il cortometraggio che vi proponiamo, diretto da Sharon Shattuck e Flora Lichtman, e animato con semplici ritagli di cartone, mostra questa straordinaria “vita dopo la morte” di un cetaceo. Come spiega il cartello finale del filmato: “Una balena può vivere dai 50 ai 75 anni. Una balena può sostentare una comunità di organismi per 50-75 anni dopo la morte“.
Ed ecco un filmato in time-lapseche mostra la decomposizione di una foca: più piccola di una balena, certamente, ma altrettanto preziosa per chi potrà sopravvivere grazie alle sue carni.
Every kid loves to think about Jonah in the belly of the big fish. Just like the Baron Münchhausen in the whale, or Pinocchio in the shark, living for some time inside one of these great sea animals is a fantastic idea which inspired artists and writers for centuries.
Well, you can probably guess what we are about to tell you. Yes, somebody actually lived inside a fish. Better yet, he built a theatre out of it.
This is Simon-Max, a French opera-bouffe tenor (1852-1923). He maily performed in Paris, but once he reached wide acclaim he managed to diversify his business, and in 1893 he already owned a casino in Villerville, a coastal city in Lower Normandy.
Just about at the time he opened his casino, news arrived that a whale was beached near the town. It was actually not so unusual for whales to end up beached on the coast of Normandy due to the low tide, as shown in this postcard published that same year (1893).
Simon-Max bought the whale from the local fishermen, and sold the oil and meat obtained from the animal. But then he decided that he was going to try something unprecedented, using its skin. He built a theatre-museum inside the mounted cetacean.
The size of the animal in the original poster ads may be a little exaggerated, but they convey the idea of what the theatre might have looked like. The public entered through the whale’s mouth, watched the show in the interior room, which could host almost a hundred people, then exited through a small door in the tail. This attraction, called Théatre-Baleine (whale theatre), earned Simon-Max a huge amount of money, and made the city of Villerville quite famous for over a year. The tenor, inside his whale, performed an act called Jonas Revue (“Jonah Revisited”) which quickly became a hit.
The whale theatre was then transferred to the Paris Casino, but the following winter was completely destroyed by a fire.
Il 12 novembre del 1970, infatti, un’enorme balena morì dopo essersi spiaggiata a Florence, Oregon. La carcassa, di notevoli proporzioni (14 metri di lunghezza per 8 tonnellate di peso) pose da subito un gravoso problema: come sbarazzarsene?
La Oregon Highway Division, responsabile dello smaltimento dell’animale, pensò che seppellirla in loco non fosse attuabile, per motivi sanitari (la carcassa emanava già un odore insopportabile), e di spostarla non se ne parlava neanche. Si pensò quindi di sbarazzarsene proprio come si farebbe con un enorme macigno.
Mezza tonnellata di dinamite fu applicata al cadavere della balena. L’idea era di ridurla in piccoli pezzi, che sarebbero poi stati mangiati da gabbiani e dagli altri animali che si nutrono di carogne. Non andò proprio come ci si aspettava.
L’esplosione riempì il cielo di grossi pezzi di grasso (presente a livello sottocutaneo nei cetacei, vedi blubber) che si riversarono a pioggia sugli attoniti astanti, atterrarono vicino alle case e nei parcheggi, anche a una certa distanza dalla spiaggia. Uno di questi pezzi di balena sfondò una macchina. Soltanto una minima parte della carcassa risultò poi disintegrata, e gli uomini della Oregon Highway Division dovettero assumersi l’ingrato compito di eliminare a mano (e con molta pazienza) l’enorme e puzzolente carogna.
L’esplosione fu filmata, e come prevedibile le immagini dell’incidente hanno goduto di una nuova vita nell’era di internet. Ecco il servizio originale del 1970.