First of all, above you can see one of the photos of LIVE animals in anthropomorphic poses made by Harry Whittier Frees.
Man of a thousand identities and unsurpassed cheater with cards; capable of deceiving bankers as well as the most hardened criminals (but isn’t that a bit the same thing?), and even capable of defrauding scammers; and, above all, the man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower. All this was Victor Lustig, one of the greatest deceit artists ever.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a Russian doctor proposed a cutting-edge treatment to counter the damage caused by syphilis: being hung by the head. Suspension soon became a medical trend, spreading almost everywhere in Europe and even reaching the United States. But did it really work? Sofia Lincos and Giuseppe Stilo retrace the history of the bizarre treatment in this beautiful article (in Italian only).
The skeleton above belongs to a girl who died 300 years ago, and is perplexing archaeologists for two reasons: 1) her body was found in a cave in Poland, which in itself is already strange because in the area the latest cave burials date back to the Middle Ages; but if that wasn’t enough 2) she was buried with a finch’s head in her mouth. Maybe even two.
If you think geology is boring, the Spooky Geology website could make you change your mind, as it tackles underground mysteries, alternative theories, strange buried objects, anomalous phenomena, bottomless pits, extreme and dangerous places.
This gentleman wearing a mask and a wig might look creepy if you don’t know the context of the image: this is Dr. Anonymous, who delivered a historic and, in many ways, heroic speech at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in 1972.
Why this camouflage? The answer is contained in the first words of his speech: “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist.”
At that time, coming out — besides causing discrimination, dismissals and evictions — was still reason enough to be interned in a psychiatric institution, subjected to brutal treatments such as electroshock, lobotomy, chemical castration. The fact that a psychiatrist came forward, albeit hiding his identity, to admit he was gay and protest the classification of homosexuality as a mental pathology, was a shock to the world of psychiatry. The name of the doctor who hid under the mask was John E. Fryer, and his speech was essential for homosexuality to be de-listed from the official list of mental disorders the following year.
One of the very first uses of the microwave oven was not at all to reheat the leftover pizza from the day before, but to revive frozen rats and hamsters in the laboratory. In this wonderful video Tom Scott not only tells the reasons and the challenges that were at the basis of this scientific research, but even interviews the inventor and scientist James Lovelock (102 years in July!): at the time he was the one who had the idea of using microwaves because, well, he felt sorry for the little frozen rodents.
17-year-old Bianca Passarge of Hamburg dances on wine bottles, June 1958.
A couple of urban explorers entered a recently abandoned house, and found something macabre and unexpected: on the corridor floor the body stain left by the corpse of the elderly owner was still visible.
The two decided to share all the photographic material taken inside the house on their blog, because the story reminds us “how elderly & alone people can often be forgotten & that we, us, everyone needs to do their part & check in on them.”
The most important question raised by this “reportage” might not be, in my opinion, the one heralded by the authors, but it concerns the ethical issues of entering a home, photographing every detail of the life of a recently deceased person, including the ghastly proof of her lonely death, and put it all online.
Let’s keep on talking about decomposition, but this time in a positive sense: here is a nice article that summarizes the fundamental ecological function of a carcass.
I took the photo above a few years ago, when I made a pilgrimage to the Castle of Valsinni, where the poet Isabella Morra spent her short and tragic life — first a recluse, and then murdered by her brothers who suspected her of an extramarital affair. Despite the very limited literary production (ten sonnets and three songs in all, here’s the only English edition I’ve found), the figure of Isabella Morra assumed importance thanks to the studies of Benedetto Croce and, in France, by Mandiargues who reinterpreted her life in a surrealist key in one of his plays.
Here is a passage from one of her most beautiful songs (‘Poscia che al bel desir…’); these verses demonstrate how Isabella’s work is inseparable from her condition of a young woman who, segregated in dramatic isolation, only found a glimmer of beauty in poetry, and in verses veiled in infinite melancholy.
Among the harsh customs
of irrational, unintelligent people,
where without support
I am forced to lead my life,
here left by everyone in blind oblivion. […]
I have passed what is called the flowery age,
all dry and dark, lonely and herm
here blind and infirm,
without ever knowing the value of beauty.
Riddle: The maternity / paternity test proves that your child is not yours. Exchanges of babies in cribs or extramarital affairs are to be excluded. So how is this possible?
Solution: He is the son of your unborn brother, who you absorbed into your body when you were still in the womb… since then you’ve been carrying two different DNAs.
A case of male and female chimerism.
The animal pictured above is neither a tick nor a spider, but an adorable wingless, eyeless fly of the Nycteribiidae family; a highly specialized parasite, it can be only found on the body of certain bats.
Quiz: which animal is portrayed in the photo? The solution at the end of the article!
When workers broke down a brick wall inside a convent in Leicestershire, they found a couple of skeletons. However, these are anatomical preparations, the bones are numbered and in some cases still articulated with wire. How they got behind a convent wall is still a mystery.
In 1968 Barbara Mackle, then 20 years old, became the victim of one of the most infamous kidnappings in history. The girl was locked up in a reinforced box equipped with two tubes for air circulation, then buried in the woods as her kidnappers awaited ransom. Here you find the letter she found upon waking up in her coffin. She spent more than three days underground before she was located and brought to safety.
If Charlotte Thornley hadn’t survived a terrifying cholera epidemic, we might had never had Dracula. Because Charlotte was Bram Stoker’s mother, and with her chilling tales she probably influenced the concept for the most famous gothic novel ever. Here is a wonderful article (in Italian) by Sofia Lincos and Giuseppe Stilo.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark“: at least some critical voices seem to think so, as they protest against an animated series for children whose protagonist is a little man with a very long and prehensile penis. Given the contemporary efforts to change the macho/phallocentric mentality, this concept does not strike as very thoughtful, but others claim the cartoon is actually harmless, free from sexual references, respectful towards women and kindly goliardic. A good article (in Italian) on Il Post summarizes the scandal and the different opinions, also embedding some episodes that you can see to get an idea. (Thanks, Massimiliano!)
Italy is the country that boasts the largest number of mummies in the world, a unique historical and anthropological heritage (as I explained in this video). Still we are not capable of giving value to this heritage. In May 1999, two more mummies were found in an excellent state of natural conservation and still dressed in period clothing and jewels, under the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Siena. And what happened following this exceptional discovery? “We regret the mummified bodies are once again hidden under the floor of the church; as for the ancient clothes, the jewels, medals and coins found on them, we do not know where they are, nor if they have ever been restored”, a researcher said. Meh.
“You are stupid. And not only are you stupid, but you are nasty. ” So said one of the letters that arrived in the editorial office of the French magazine Hara-Kiri, founded in 1960. From that moment on, the subtitle of the magazine became “A stupid and nasty newspaper”. A strange editorial case, Hara-Kiri was a satirical, incorrect and in many cases openly obscene magazine, so much so that in the course of its 29 years of activity it went through various judicial troubles (it was after one of these interdictions that the team gave birth to the collateral project Charlie Hebdo, now sadly famous for the terrorist attack of 2015). But perhaps the most distinctive elements of Hara-Kiri remain its covers: shocking, extreme, vulgar, deliberately unpleasant, designed with the intent of épater les bourgeois. Here is a collection of 45 covers that are even today an example of explosive, unhinged and unrestrained punk graphics. (Thanks Marco!)
Mariano Tomatis gave me a heads-up about a curious text, available for free online, detailing the method devised in the late nineteenth century by the Swedish physiotherapist Thure Brandt to treat numerous female genital pathologies through massages, stretching, lifting. Mariano tells me that “the curious figures employed in the book are an attempt to de-sexualize the subjects’ appearance”; too bad the result looks like a manual of esoteric rituals for aliens.
The representation of death often relies on euphemization or symbolic rendering, in order to avoid the “scandal” of the corpse, that is, to avoid being obscene. The approach is different for the kind photography which is aimed at social criticism, where shock is an essential element in order to convey a moral position. This is the case of the series Grief by Hungarian photographer Peter Timar, who between 1980 and 1983 documented the disrespectful and questionable treatment of bodies at the Funeral Institute in Budapest: the corpses piled on top of each other, the collapsed coffins on the floor, the bodies stretched in pairs on the autopsy tables caused a huge controversy when the Mucsamok gallery in Budapest exhibited Timar’s photographs. The exhibition was closed by the authorities a few days after it opened. You can see the Grief series at this link (warning: graphic images).
The effects of the torture on Guy Fawkes emerge from his writing: above, his signature (“Guido”) just after being tortured at the Tower of London; below, the same signature a week later, when he had regained his strength.
Lee Harper is an Oxford-based artist passionate about the darkest side of history; in her works she decided to revisit those bizarre episodes that most struck her imagination, by creating detailed dioramas. “All of the pieces — says the artist’s statement — are about real people, events or customs from some point in this crazy world.” Those range from Countess Bathory’s bloodbaths to sin-eaters, from Freeman’s Lobotomobile to body snatchers. But, as if the events represented weren’t enough to make you shiver with morbid delight, Lee Harper’s grotesque miniature scenes are all played out by little skeleton actors. You can see her creations on History Bones and on her Instagram profile.
But COVID also took away Kim Ki-Duk, one of the major Korean directors. If many remember him for 3-Iron, Pietà or Spring Summer…, here on these pages it seems just right to remember him for his most disturbing and extreme film, The Isle (2000). One of the best Italian reviews, written by Giuseppe Zucco, called it a “powder-keg film”: a cruel and moving representation of incommunicability between human beings, which can be overcome only at the cost of hurting each other, tearing the flesh to the point of erasing oneself into the Other.
sleeping: “I dreamt I had done it. I awoke to find it
(Evening Star, August 14, 1924) <ahref=”https://t.co/JO7J96LwUs”>pic.twitter.com/JO7J96LwUs
Sturgeons smashing doors, candles that “sulk”, rotting cats under the bed, panthers exhumed and tasted… This article (in Italian) on the larger-than-life figure of Frank Buckland is a true riot of oddities.
The Taus is an Indian chordophone musical instrument, originating from Punjab. Created, according to tradition, by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), it is composed of a 20-fret neck and a body sculpted in the shape of a peacock. Real peacock feathers were often added to the instrument to complete the illusion.
One, two, three! Watch the elephants standing All the fleas jump Watch out, here comes the trainer!
Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)
Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.
The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.
First of all, let’s address the question that might already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?
The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.
A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus
It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.
Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.
In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.
He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.
Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.
The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.
Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.
In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of $3,000.
The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea
Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.
Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.
You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.
For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.
In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.
Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.
Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.
As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:
They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.
To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.
Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist
There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.
Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.
Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:
People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.
Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.
And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.
In the fourth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about the most incredible automatons in history, about the buttocks of a girl named Fanny, and about a rather unique parasite. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
“Cogito, ergo… memento mori“: this Descartes plaster bust incorporates a skull and detachable skull cap. It’s part of the collection of anatomical plasters of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and it was sculpted in 1913 by Paul Richer, professor of artistic anatomy born in Chartres. The real skull of Descartes has a rather peculiar story, which I wrote about years ago in this post (Italian only).
A jarring account of a condition which you probably haven’t heard of: aphantasia is the inability of imagining and visualizing objects, situations, persons or feelings with the “mind’s eye”. The article is in Italian, but there’s also an English Wiki page.
15th Century: reliquaries containing the Holy Virgin’s milk are quite common. But Saint Bernardino is not buying it, and goes into a enjoyable tirade: Was the Virgin Mary a dairy cow, that she left behind her milk just like beasts let themselves get milked? I myself hold this opinion, that she had no more and no less milk than what fitted inside that blessed Jesus Christ’s little mouth.
A great piece by Jen Aitken on obituaries, and on death and end-of-life terminology: Death isn’t a war. When we “battle,” “fight,” or “struggle” “valiantly” and “courageously,” we’re setting up death as something evil that we can “beat.” Death isn’t failure. It’s inevitable. People don’t “lose,” they simply die.
In 1973 three women and five men feigned hallucinations to find out if psychiatrists would realize that they were actually mentally healthy. The result: they were admitted in 12 different hospitals. This is how the pioneering Rosenhan experiment shook the foundations of psychiatric practice.
Can’t find a present for your grandma? Ronit Baranga‘s tea sets may well be the perfect gift.
David Nebreda, born in 1952, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19. Instead of going on medication, he retired as a hermit in a two-room apartment, without much contact with the outside world, practicing sexual abstinence and fasting for long periods of time. His only weapon to fight his demons is a camera: his self-portraits undoubtedly represent some kind of mental hell — but also a slash of light at the end of this abyss; they almost look like they capture an unfolding catharsis, and despite their extreme and disturbing nature, they seem to celebrate a true victory over the flesh. Nebreda takes his own pain back, and trascends it through art. You can see some of his photographs here and here.
The femme fatale, dressed in glamourous clothes and diabolically lethal, is a literary and cinematographic myth: in reality, female killers succeed in becoming invisible exactly by playing on cultural assumptions and keeping a low and sober profile.
Speaking of the female figure in the collective unconscious, there is a sci-fi cliché which is rarely addressed: women in test tubes. Does the obsessive recurrence of this image point to the objectification of the feminine, to a certain fetishism, to an unconscious male desire to constrict, seclude and dominate women? That’s a reasonable suspicion when you browse the hundred-something examples harvested on Sci-Fi Women in Tubes. (Thanks, Mauro!)
I have always maintained that fungi and molds are superior beings. For instance the slimy organisms in the pictures above, called Stemonitis fusca, almost seem to defy gravity. My first article for the magazine Illustrati, years ago, was dedicated to the incredible Cordyceps unilateralis, a parasite which is able to control the mind and body of its host. And I have recently stumbled upon a photograph that shows what happens when a Cordyceps implants itself within the body of a tarantula. Never mind Cthulhu! Mushrooms, folks! Mushrooms are the real Lords of the Universe! Plus, they taste good on a pizza!
Can a 18th-century cabinet make your jaw drop? Just take a look at this video.
The latest entry in the list of candidates for my Museum of Failure is Adelir Antônio de Carli from Brazil, also known as Padre Baloeiro (“balloon priest”). Carli wished to raise funds to build a chapel for truckers in Paranaguá; so, as a publicity stunt, on April 20, 2008, he tied a chair to 1000 helium-filled balloons and took off before journalists and a curious crowd. After reaching an altitude of 6,000 metres (19,700 ft), he disappeared in the clouds.
A month and a half passed before the lower part of his body was found some 100 km off the coast.
La passionata is a French song covered by Guy Marchand which enjoyed great success in 1966. And it proves two surprising truths: 1- Latin summer hits were already a thing; 2- they caused personality disorders, as they still do today. (Thanks, Gigio!)
Two neuroscientists build some sort of helmet which excites the temporal lobes of the person wearing it, with the intent of studying the effects of a light magnetic stimulation on creativity. And test subjects start seeing angels, dead relatives, and talking to God. Is this a discovery that will explain mystical exstasy, paranormal experiences, the very meaning of the sacred? Will this allow communication with an invisible reality? Neither of the two, because the truth is a bit disappointing: in all attempts to replicate the experiment, no peculiar effects were detected. But it’s still a good idea for a novel. Here’s the God helmet Wiki page.
California Institute of Abnormalarts is a North Hollywood sideshow-themed nightclub featuring burlesque shows, underground musical groups, freak shows and film screenings. But if you’re afraid of clowns, you might want to steer clear of the place: one if its most famous attractions is the embalmed body of Achile Chatouilleu, a clown who asked to be buried in his stage costume and makeup.
Sure enough, he seems a bit too well-preserved for a man who allegedly died in 1912 (wouldn’t it happen to be a sideshow gaff?). Anyways, the effect is quite unsettling and grotesque…
I shall leave you with a picture entitled The Crossing, taken by nature photographer Ryan Peruniak. All of his works are amazing, as you can see if you head out to his official website, but I find this photograph strikingly poetic.
Here is his recollection of that moment: Early April in the Rocky Mountains, the majestic peaks are still snow-covered while the lower elevations, including the lakes and rivers have melted out. I was walking along the riverbank when I saw a dark form lying on the bottom of the river. My first thought was a deer had fallen through the ice so I wandered over to investigate…and that’s when I saw the long tail. It took me a few moments to comprehend what I was looking at…a full grown cougar lying peacefully on the riverbed, the victim of thin ice.
Mrs. Josephine M. Bicknell died only one week before her sixtieth birthday; she was buried in Cleburne, Texas, at the beginning of May, 1928.
Once the coffin was lowered into the ground,her husband James C. Bicknell stood watching as the grave was filled with a thick layer of cement; he waited for an hour, maybe two, until the cement dried completely. Eventually James and the other relatives could head back home, relieved: nobody would be able to steal Mrs. Bicknell’s body – not the doctors, nor the other collectors who had tried to obtain it.
It is strange to think that a lifeless body could be tempting for so many people.
But the lady who was resting under the cement had been famous across the United States, many years before, under her maiden name: Josephine Myrtle Corbin, the Four-Legged Girl from Texas.
Myrtle was born in 1868 in Lincoln County, Tennessee, with a rare fetal anomaly called dipygus: her body was perfectly formed from her head down to her navel, below which it divided into two pelvises, and four lower limbs.
Her two inner legs, although capable of movement, were rudimentary, and at birth they were found laying flat on the belly. They resembled those of a parasitic twin, but in reality there was no twin: during fetal development, her pervis had split along the median axis (in each pair of legs, one was atrophic).
between each pair of legs there is a complete, distinct set of genital organs, both external and internal, each supported by a pubic arch. Each set acts independently of the other, except at the menstrual period. There are apparently two sets of bowels, and two ani; both are perfectly independent,– diarrhoea may be present on one side, constipation on the other.
Myrtle joined Barnum Circus at the age of 13. When she appeared on stage, nothing gave away her unusual condition: apart from the particularly large hips and a clubbed right foot, Myrtle was an attractive girl and had an altogether normal figure. But when she lifted her gown, the public was left breathless.
She married James Clinton Bicknell when she was 19 years old, and the following year she went to Dr. Lewis Whaley on the account of a pain in her left side coupled with other worrying symptoms. When the doctor announced that she was pregnant in her left uterus, Myrtle reacted with surprise:
“I think you are mistaken; if it had been on my right side I would come nearer believing it”; and after further questioning he found, from the patient’s observation, that her right genitals were almost invariably used for coitus.
That first pregnancy sadly ended with an abortion, but later on Myrtle, who had retired from show business, gave birth to four children, all perfectly healthy.
Given the enormous success of her show, other circuses tried to replicate the lucky formula – but charming ladies with supernumerary legs were nowhere to be found.
With typical sideshow creativity, the problem was solved by resorting to some ruse.
The two following diagrams show the trick used to simulate a three-legged and a four-legged woman, as reported in the 1902 book The New Magic (source: Weird Historian).
If you search for Myrtle Corbin’s pictures on the net, you can stumble upon some photographs of Ashley Braistle, the most recent example of a woman with four legs.
The pictures below were taken at her wedding, in July 1994, when she married a plumber from Houston named Wayne: their love had begun after Ashley appeared in a newspaper interview, declaring that she was looking for a “easygoing and sensitive guy“.
Unfortunately on May 11, 1996, Ashley’s life ended in tragedy when she made an attempt at skiing and struck a tree.
Did you guess it?
Ashley’s touching story is actually a trick, just like the ones used by circus people at the turn of the century.
This photographic hoax comes from another bizarre “sideshow”, namely the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid known for publishing openly fake news with funny and inventive titles (“Mini-mermaid found in tuna sandwich!” “Hillary Clinton adopts a baby alien!”, “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!”, and so on).
The “news” of Ashley’s demise on the July 4, 1996 issue.
Another example of a Weekly World News cover story.
To end on a more serious note, here’s the good news: nowadays caudal duplications can, in some instances, be surgically corrected after birth (it happened for example in 1968, in 1973 and in 2014).
And luckily, pouring cement is no longer needed in order to prevent jackals from stealing an extraordinary body like the one of Josephine Myrtle Corbin Bicknell.
Il quartiere speciale di Meguro, a Tokyo, si trova al di fuori dalle classiche mete turistiche: più discreto del vicino rione di Shibuya, sprovvisto dei templi e della ricchezza storica di Asakusa o Ueno, distante dalle variopinte follie manga di Akihabara, Meguro è essenzialmente un sobborgo residenziale che ospita consolati, ambasciate e uffici aziendali.
È fra queste vie piuttosto anonime che sorge un museo unico al mondo, il Meguro Parasitological Museum, dedicato a tutte quelle specie animali che fanno di altri esseri viventi la loro dimora o la loro fonte di sostentamento.
Fondato nel 1953 grazie ai fondi privati del dottor Satoru Kamegai (1902-2002), il Museo è una struttura scientifica dedicata allo studio dei parassiti, ed organizza attività educative, editoriali e di ricerca. Oltre ai 300 preparati in formalina visibili al pubblico, conserva anche 60.000 campioni parassitologici, e una biblioteca di 5.000 volumi e 50.000 saggi accademici. Arricchiscono la collezione le ceroplastiche di Jinkichi Numata (1884-1971).
Il Museo non è molto grande, e si sviluppa su due piani: al piano terra viene approfondita la biodiversità dei parassiti, mentre al primo vengono trattate le infestazioni che possono colpire uomo e mammiferi.
I parassiti, per quanto sgradevoli possano sembrare a prima vista, sono in realtà organismi estremamente affascinanti, e per più di un motivo. L’evoluzione li ha portati, nel corso dei millenni, a modificare la propria struttura tramite adattamenti unici e inediti. Vivere all’interno del corpo di un altro animale, infatti, non è affatto un’impresa da poco: il parassita deve fare i conti con la temperatura corporea dell’ospite, la pressione osmotica, gli enzimi digestivi, le risposte immunitarie, l’assenza di luce e di ossigeno. Spesso questo significa sacrificare alcune capacità, come quelle sensoriali, nervose, di movimento oppure digestive.
Il Museo Parassitologico di Meguro propone un approccio divertito, curioso e privo di preconcetti al mondo dei parassiti: “Provate a pensare ai parassiti senza lasciarvi influenzare dalla paura, e prendetevi il tempo di imparare il loro stupefacente e ingegnoso modo di vita. […] Ci sono alcuni parassiti che, durante il corso dell’evoluzione, perdono gli organi ormai superflui, sviluppando o mantenendo soltanto quelli riproduttivi per lasciare discendenti, e assumendo strane forme come quella delle tenie. Se questa forma può urtare la vostra sensibilità, per la tenia è quella ottimale“.
Per ridimensionare le comuni fobie, si ricorda anche che la maggioranza dei parassiti non arreca danni letali all’ospite, dato che ucciderlo andrebbe contro gli interessi del parassita stesso.
Varcare la soglia del museo significa entrare in un mondo alieno, popolato di esseri microscopici oppure enormi (un verme solitario conservato qui raggiunge gli 8.8 metri di lunghezza), dalle sembianze di insetti, di minuscoli granchi o di anellidi, e dai cicli vitali sorprendentemente complessi. E’ la fantasia dell’evoluzione senza freno, eppure proprio in questi organismi risulta evidente quanto l’adattamento abbia affinato la loro morfologia: i corpi di questi animali si sono trasformati in maniera precisa per colpire un determinato ospite, e soltanto quello, e il ciclo vitale è specifico da specie a specie.
Il loro adattamento è talmente esclusivo che talvolta per arginare un’epidemia nell’uomo è sufficiente adottare una strategia altrettanto mirata: è successo, ad esempio, con lo Schistosoma japanicus, un parassita che infesta le vene intestinali dei mammiferi, e che è stato debellato in Giappone sterminando le lumache Oncomelania nosophora, che fungevano da ospite intermedio. Oggi sono le lumache ad essere a rischio estinzione.
Dai protozoi responsabili della malaria, a quelli che provocano l’elefantiasi, il percorso non è privo di brividi e di visioni estreme.
Scopriamo così che le vittime di Dirofilaria immitis, un nematode che infesta l’arteria polmonare e il cuore, venivano un tempo operate chirurgicamente perché le lastre erano interpretate erroneamente come cancro o tubercolosi.
C’è poi il Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense, un verme solitario di grandi dimensioni che si contrae mangiando trota cruda: conta fino a 3.000 segmenti (proglottidi), produce un milione di uova al giorno e, poiché non causa problemi evidenti, spesso ci si accorge della sua presenza quando lo si vede penzolare fuori dall’ano, durante la defecazione.
E infine capiamo che anche i parassiti, a volte, sbagliano. Si conoscono circa 200 specie che infettano l’uomo, ma per il 90% si tratta di parassiti che sono capitati nel corpo umano per errore: i loro ospiti definitivi sarebbero in realtà animali selvatici o uccelli. La qual cosa, purtroppo, non riduce in nulla la loro pericolosità.
Considerando che la visita è gratuita, il Museo Parassitologico di Meguro ha un solo punto debole: fatta esclusione per i nomi dei reperti, tutte le tavole esplicative sono scritte soltanto in giapponese. Eppure proprio questo dettaglio rende l’esplorazione, per chi è digiuno di lingua nipponica, ancora più straniante: di fronte ad alcune teche si rimane come ipnotizzati, nel vano tentativo di decifrare quale sia l’ospite e quale il parassita, fusi assieme nella stessa carne.
Una sintetica guida in inglese, acquistata allo shop del piano superiore (che vende anche T-shirt e portachiavi a tema per finanziare la struttura), può aiutare la comprensione del percorso; ma perché privarsi subito del sublime senso di disorientamento di fronte alle impensabili forme che la natura può assumere?
La vita fiorisce rigogliosa sempre e soltanto alle spese di altra vita; e ammirando i preparati esposti al Museo Parassitologico questa verità emerge ancora più evidente, fra organi che pullulano di vermi e pesci dalle branchie “abitate” da organismi estranei.
Le vittime sono mammiferi, piante, creature acquatiche, crostacei, insetti: ogni essere vivente sembra avere i propri inquilini indesiderati, nessuno è al riparo. Così come nessuno sa con precisione quante specie di parassiti esistano in natura. Secondo alcune stime, potrebbero addirittura superare in numero quelle degli altri animali.
Dopotutto, forse, questa Terra è il loro mondo.
Il mondo degli insetti, così fantasioso e variopinto, si rivela ad un’occhiata più attenta spesso crudele e sconcertante: dotati di armi terrificanti, gli insetti sono costantemente impegnati in una sanguinosa lotta che non conosce distrazioni o riposo.
Alcuni tipi di vespe hanno sviluppato delle tecniche di riproduzione parassitaria che si basano sulla modifica del comportamento dell’ospite – in quello che potrebbe apparire come un vero e proprio “controllo della mente”. La vespa Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga inietta le sue uova all’interno del ragno Plesiometa argyra. Le larve, una volta schiuse, avranno intorno a sé tutto il nutrimento che necessitano, e si faranno strada all’interno dell’addome del ragno fino ad uscirne. Ma questo non è tutto. La sostanza tossica iniettata dalla vespa assieme alle uova, alterando il sistema nervoso, “costringe” il ragno morente a creare una ragnatela con una conformazione del tutto diversa da quelle che realizza normalmente: la nuova, particolare configurazione è adatta affinché le larve, una volta venute alla luce, possano creare i loro bozzoli in tutta sicurezza. Nella foto sottostante, la ragnatela normale e quella “modificata” ad uso e consumo delle vespe.
Ma la vespa Dinocampus coccinellae, che assomiglia un po’ a una formica volante, si spinge ancora più in là. Come suggerisce la sua nomenclatura tassonomica, il bersaglio preferito di questa vespa è la coccinella: quando è pronta a deporre le uova, ne cerca una che sia adulta, e femmina. L’uovo della vespa viene impiantato nell’addome della coccinella, e dopo una settimana le larve si schiudono.
Dotate di grosse tenaglie mandibolari, come prima cosa queste larve divorano le uova della coccinella; in seguito cominciano a mangiarne la carne dall’interno, facendo però attenzione a non ledere organi vitali. Dopo essersi nutrite degli strati lipidici della coccinella per 18-27 giorni, le larve sono finalmente pronte ad uscire dal corpo che le contiene: paralizzano quindi la coccinella, e cominciano a farsi strada mangiando attraverso l’addome, fino ad uscirne. Ma i tormenti della coccinella non sono ancora finiti, perché la sua presenza è ancora utile alle larve.
Le larve creano il bozzolo proprio sotto alla coccinella, assicurandolo bene alle sue zampe. L’insetto, paralizzato, non può far altro che rimanere immobile sopra il bozzolo, in preda ad occasionali tremori. Dopo un’altra settimana, le vespe sono sviluppate ed escono dal loro rifugio. Ma qual è il motivo di questa complessa strategia parassitaria?
Alcuni entomologi, in uno studio del 2011 coordinato dall’Università di Montreal, hanno scoperto che i colori sgargianti e gli spasmi della coccinella tengono le larve al riparo dai predatori.
In laboratorio, più di 4.000 sfortunate coccinelle sono state portate a contatto con le vespe, in modo che venissero loro impiantate le uova. Una volta formati i bozzoli, i ricercatori hanno fatto entrare in scena i predatori: i Crisopidi, ghiotti di larve.
Il risultato è stato evidente: il 65% dei bozzoli protetti dalle coccinelle sopravvive, rispetto allo 0-5% di quelli lasciati da soli e immediatamente attaccati dai predatori.
Lo studio ha anche dimostrato che non è escluso un sorprendente lieto fine per queste involontarie “balie-zombi”. Nonostante infatti le coccinelle vittime di questo trattamento spesso muoiano di stenti (a causa della paralisi che impedisce loro di nutrirsi), incredibilmente il 25% sopravvive alla terribile esperienza: le larve delle vespe non hanno infatti intaccato alcuna parte biologicamente fondamentale dell’insetto ospite.
Da tempo non aggiorniamo questa rubrica dedicata ai più dolci e teneri animaletti a cui spalancare le porte della vostra casa.
Se il vostro amore per gli amici animali è davvero senza confini e desiderate portare sempre con voi il vostro cucciolo, perché non ospitarlo all’interno del vostro stesso corpo?
Il dracunculus medinensis, ad esempio, è un simpatico vermetto il cui ciclo vitale ha del prodigioso: le larve infestano dei minuscoli crostacei chiamati copepodi; voi bevete un bicchiere d’acqua in cui ci sono questi millimetrici crostacei, e le larve finiscono nel vostro stomaco. Sopravvivono ai succhi gastrici, attraversano la parete dell’intestino ed entrano nella cavità addominale. Lì crescono e diventano adulti, cominciano a conoscersi, sapete com’è, una cosa tira l’altra ed ecco che sboccia l’amore! I vermi si accoppiano nella vostra pancia, e dopo un anno circa la femmina è gravida di tre milioni di nuove larve.
Si è spostata adesso a livello sottocutaneo, di solito nel piede o nella gamba, e secerne una sostanza che forma una bella bolla sulla vostra pelle. Per alleviare il bruciore immergete il piede nell’acqua; la bolla si rompe, la femmina fa uscire la coda dalla ferita e spruzza le larve nell’acqua, dove andranno ad infestare nuovi mini-crostacei e faranno ripartire lo straordinario ciclo della vita.
Se siete invece quel tipo di persona che ama esibire orgogliosamente i propri animali domestici, ci permettiamo di consigliarvi il loa loa filaris. Un altro verme parassita, che arriva all’uomo tramite la puntura di una mosca: una volta entrato a livello subcutaneo, il verme si sposta sotto la pelle, in giro per il vostro corpo e addirittura gli piace attraversare i vostri occhi! Potrebbe farvi un po’ male mentre si muove sinuoso nei tessuti che stanno sotto la congiuntiva, o quando dal bulbo oculare passa attraverso la radice del naso… ma quale altro cucciolo si affeziona a voi in modo così commovente, tanto da non volere più lasciarvi?
Questi due vermiciattoli non sono certamente gli unici animali a sopravvivere grazie alla nostra generosa ospitalità – oltre alle tenie e ad altri vermi intestinali, i parassiti dell’uomo includono diverse specie di protozoi, fino agli ectoparassiti come zecche o pidocchi: insomma, c’è tutto un mondo là fuori che ha bisogno di noi. E ricordiamo che, come diceva Konrad Lorenz, “il nostro amore per gli animali si misura dai sacrifici che siamo pronti a fare per loro”.
Juan Baptista Dos Santos nacque attorno al 1843 a Faro, in Portogallo, figlio di una coppia che aveva avuto già due gemelli. Anche questo secondo parto, in realtà, sarebbe dovuto essere gemellare: e invece nacque solo Juan, che portava nel suo corpo le vestigia del fratello mai nato.
Perfettamente formato dalla vita in su, e addirittura di bella presenza, Juan aveva però due peni, due ani (di cui uno non funzionante) e un arto in sovrannumero che pendeva dal suo addome. Ad essere precisi, questa “terza gamba” era il risultato della fusione delle due gambe del gemello parassita. Avendo un rudimentale ginocchio dotato di patella, l’arto si poteva piegare ma non aveva motilità volontaria: Juan quindi prese l’abitudine di legarlo alla coscia destra, in modo da essere più libero nei movimenti e potersi dedicare alla sua passione, l’equitazione.
Esaminato regolarmente dai dottori fin dall’età di sei mesi, Juan si trasferì a Parigi dove sarebbe diventato un caso clinico celebre, assiduo frequentatore di università e invitato a prestigiosi convegni medici come oggetto di studio. Certo, per buona parte della sua vita si esibì nei circhi; ma nel 1865 rifiutò un ingaggio da 200.000 franchi in un freakshow, deciso a concedersi esclusivamente alla ricerca scientifica. Quando, di tanto in tanto, riprendeva a vagabondare con gli spettacoli itineranti, era sempre uno dei nomi di punta del cartellone.
Più passava il tempo, però, e più i dottori si rendevano conto che la particolarità più sensazionale di Juan Baptista erano i suoi due peni. L’urinazione avveniva da entrambi, così come entrambi erano perfettamente funzionanti per capacità erettili e riproduttive, fatto questo più unico che raro. Un rapporto fisiologico del 1865 stilato all’Havana descrive Juan, all’età di 22 anni, come “posseduto da passione animale”, avido di sesso e conosciuto per il suo comportamento promiscuo: utilizzava entrambi i suoi peni nell’atto sessuale, e quando aveva “finito” con uno, continuava con il secondo.
Se esisteva al mondo qualcuno che potesse avere un’affinità elettiva con un uomo particolare come Juan Baptista Dos Santos, era sicuramente Blanche Dumas (o Dumont). Purtroppo della sua vita ci sono arrivati meno dettagli, ma pare che sia nata attorno al 1860 in Martinica, da padre francese e madre meticcia. A quanto riportato nel famoso trattato Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1896), Blanche aveva un addome molto largo, che conteneva, nell’ordine: le sue due gambe, malformate; una terza gamba attaccata al coccige; due seni in sovrannumero all’altezza del pube, rudimentali ma completi di capezzoli (ma questo dato è probabilmente falso, alcune foto d’epoca sono in tutta evidenza truccate); e, soprattutto, due vagine con vulve perfettamente formate e dalla sviluppata sensibilità.
Proprio come per Juan Baptista, anche l’appetito sessuale di Blanche era straordinario; si dice che avesse decine di ammiratori e che talvolta si intrattenesse con due uomini alla volta, utilizzando contemporaneamente le sue due vagine. Tanto che ad un certo punto, conscia del successo delle sue particolari “abilità”, Blanche decise di trasferirsi a Parigi dove divenne una prostituta d’alto bordo.
Aveva sentito spesso parlare di Juan Baptista Dos Santos, celebre per i suoi genitali doppi quanto per la sua sfrenata libido; quando seppe della sua presenza a Parigi in occasione di un tour circense europeo, Blanche, incuriosita, decise che era venuto il momento che l’uomo con due peni e la donna con due vagine si incontrassero. Dopotutto, quante possibilità c’erano, nell’intero cosmo, che due esseri talmente straordinari nascessero nello stesso secolo, a distanza di pochi anni, e si ritrovassero nella stessa città? Così, confidando in questo segno del destino, Blanche organizzò l’incontro.
Ma il detto popolare Dio li fa e poi li accoppia non è infallibile. La scintilla della passione, purtroppo, non si accese, e dopo una breve (e molto chiacchierata) relazione i due ritornarono alle loro vite: Juan a girare il mondo con il circo, e Blanche nella sua casa di appuntamenti… e nessuno può dire se vissero felici, o contenti.