In the fifth episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: the incredible case of Mary Toft, one of the biggest scandals in early medical history; an antique and macabre vase; the most astounding statue ever made. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
The ladies and gentlemen you see above are practicing the sexual roleplay called pony play, in which one of the two participants takes on the role of the horse and the other of the jockey. This is a quirky niche within the wider field of dom/sub relationships, yet according to the alternative sexuality expert Ayzad
aficionados can reach impressive levels of specialization: there are those who prefer working on posture and those who organize real races on the track, some live it as a sexual variant while others tend to focus on the psychological experience. Ponygirls often report loving this game because it allows them to regress to a primordial perception of the world, in which every feeling is experienced with greater intensity: many describe reverting to their usual “human condition” as harsh and unpleasant. Although there are no precise figures, it is believed that pony play is actively practiced by no more than 2,000 people worldwide, yet this fantasy is appreciated by a far greater number of sympathizers.
But few people know that this erotic mis-en-scene has an illustrious forerunner: the first unwilling ponyboy in history was none other than the greatest philosopher of ancient times1, Aristotle!
(Well, not really. But what is reality, dear Aristotle?)
At the beginning of the 1200s, in fact, a curious legend began to circulate: the story featured Aristotle secretly falling in love with Phyllis, wife of Alexander the Macedonian (who was a pupil of the great philosopher) .
Phyllis, a beautiful and shrewd woman, decided to exploit Aristotle’s infatuation to teach a lesson to her husband, who was neglecting her by spending whole days with his mentor. So she told Aristotle that she would grant him her favors if he agreed to let her ride on his back. Blinded by passion, the philosopher accepted and Phyllis arranged for Alexander the Great to witness, unseen, this comic and humiliating scene.
The story, mentioned for the first time in a sermon by Jacques de Vitry, became immediately widespread in popular iconography, so much so that it was represented in etchings, sculptures, furnishing objects, etc. To understand its fortune we must focus for a moment on its two main protagonists.
First of all, Aristotle: why is he the victim of the satire? Why targeting a philosopher, and not for instance a king or a Pope?
The joke worked on different levels: the most educated could read it as a roast of the Aristotelian doctrine of enkráteia, i.e. temperance, or knowing how to judge the pros and cons of pleasures, knowing how to hold back and dominate, the ability to maintain full control over oneself and one’s own ethical values.
But even the less educated understood that this story was meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy of all philosophers — always preaching about morality, quibbling about virtue, advocating detachment from pleasures and instincts. In short, the story mocked those who love to put theirselves on a pedestal and teach about right and wrong.
On the other hand, there was Phyllis. What was her function within the story?
At first glance the anecdote may seem a classic medieval exemplum designed to warn against the dangerous, treacherous nature of women. A cautionary tale showing how manipulative a woman could be, clever enough to subdue and seduce even the most excellent minds. But perhaps things are not that simple, as we will see.
And finally there’s the act of riding, which implies a further ambiguity of a sexual nature: did this particular type of humiliation hide an erotic allusion? Was it a domination fantasy, or did it instead symbolize a gallant disposition to serve and submit to the beloved maiden fair?
To better understand the context of the story of Phyllis and Aristotle, we must inscribe it in the broader medieval topos of the “Power of Women” (Weibermacht in German).
For example, a very similar anecdote saw Virgil in love with a woman, sometimes called Lucretia, who one night gave him a rendez-vous and lowered a wicker basket from a window so he coulf be lifted up to her room; but she then hoisted the basket just halfway up the wall, leaving Virgil trapped and exposed to public mockery the following morning.
Judith beheading Holofernes, Jael driving the nail through Sisara’s temple, Salome with the head of the Baptist or Delilah defeating Samson are all instances of very popular female figures who are victorious over their male counterparts, endlessly represented in medieval iconography and literature. Another example of the Power of Women trope are funny scenes of wives bossing their husbands around — a recurring theme called the “battle of the trousers”.
These women, whether lascivious or perfidious, are depicted as having a dangerous power over men, yet at the same time they exercise a strong erotic fascination.
The most amusing scenes — such as Aristotle turned into a horse or Virgil in the basket — were designed to arouse laughter in both men and women, and were probably also staged by comic actors: in fact the role reversal (the “Woman on Top”) has a carnivalesque flavor. In presenting a paradoxical situation, maybe these stories had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the hierarchical structure in a society dominated by males.
And yet Susan L. Smith, a major expert on the issue, is convinced that their message was not so clearcut:
the Woman on Top is best understood not as a straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism but as a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.
The fact that the story of Phyllis and Aristotle lent itself to a more complex reading is also confirmed by Amelia Soth:
It was an era in which the belief that women were inherently inferior collided with the reality of female rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Catherine of Portugal, and the archduchesses of the Netherlands, dominating the European scene. […] Yet the image remains ambiguous. Its popularity cannot be explained simply by misogyny and distrust of female power, because in its inclusion on love-tokens and in bawdy songs there is an element of delight in the unexpected reversal, the transformation of sage into beast of burden.
Perhaps even in the Middle Ages, and at the beginning of the modern period, the dynamics between genres were not so monolithic. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle had such a huge success precisely because it was susceptible to diametrically opposed interpretations: from time to time it could be used to warn against lust or, on the contrary, as a spicy and erotic anecdote (so much so that the couple was often represented in the nude).
For all these reasons, the topos never really disappeared but was subjected to many variations in the following centuries, of which historian Darin Hayton reports some tasty examples.
In 1810 the parlor games manual Le Petit Savant de Société described the “Cheval d’Aristote”, a vaguely cuckold penalty: the gentleman who had to endure it was obliged to get down on all fours and carry a lady on his back, as she received a kiss from all the other men in a circle.
The odd “Aristotle ride” also makes its appearance in advertising posters for hypnotists, a perfect example of the extravagances hypnotized spectators were allegedly forced to perform. (Speaking of the inversion of society’s rules, those two men on the left poster, who are compelled to kiss each other, are worth noting.)
In 1882 another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, brought to the stage his own version of Phyllis and Aristotle, himself taking on the role of the horse. In the photographs, he and his friend Paul Rée are at the mercy of the whip held by Lou von Salomé (the woman Nietzsche was madly in love with).
And finally let’s go back to the present day, and to those pony guys we saw at the beginning.
Today the “perversion of Aristotle”, far from being a warning about the loss of control, has come to mean the exact opposite: it has become a way to allow free rein (pun intended) to erotc imagination.
Ponies on the Delta, a ponly play festival, is held every year in Louisiana where a few hundred enthusiasts get together to engage in trot races, obstacle races and similar activities before a panel of experts. There are online stores that specialize in selling hooves and horse suits, dozens of dedicated social media accounts, and even an underground magazine called Equus Eroticus.
Who knows what the austere Stagirite would have thought, had he known that his name was going to be associated with such follies.
In a certain sense, the figure of Aristotle was really “perverted”: the philosopher had to submit not to the imaginary woman named Phyllis, but to the apocryphal legend of which he became the unwilling protagonist.
There were once two animals: a dog called Tumang, and a female boar named Celeng Wayungyang. They weren’t ordinary animals, but two deities transformed into beasts because of a sin they had committed long before.
One day, in the jungle, the sow-goddess drank the urine of a king who was hunting nearby and got pregnant; being a supernatural creature, she gave birth to her daughter within a few hours. The king, who was still in the jungle, heard the baby cry, and when he found her, he adopted her.
The little girl, called Dayang Sumbi, grew up at the palace and became a skilful weaver, a beautiful girl courted by many princes and noblemen.
One day, while she was spinning on the terrace, her loom fell down to the courtyard and since, being a princess, she could not put her feet on the ground to go and get it, Dayang Sumbi promised aloud that she would marry anyone who would bring it back to her. To her great disconcert, it was Tumang the dog the one who granted her wish, and she was obliged to marry him, unaware that he was actually a demigod. As soon as the king found out about the outrageous union between his daughter and a dog, he disowned her and banished her from the palace.
The couple went to live in a hut in the jungle, where Dayang Sumbi soon discovered that on full moon nights Tumang returned to his original appearance, turning into a young and wonderful lover; together they conceived a son, and they called him Sangkuriang.
When Sangkuriang was ten years old, his mother asked him to find a deer’s liver, for which she had a taste. So the boy went hunting in the jungle with his loyal dog Tumang (he didn’t know the dog was his father).
In the forest there was no sign of deer, but the two of them bumped into a beautiful female boar, and Sangkuriang thought that maybe her liver would do anyway. However, when he tried to kill the beast, Tumang the dog – having realized it was the goddess, which means Sangkuriang’s grandmother – diverted the bow and made him miss the target. Sangkuriang was furious and aimed his arrows at Tumang, killing him. Then he brought the dog’s liver to his mother, who cooked it believing it was wild game. As soon as she discovered the trick, though, poor Dayang Sumbi flared up, realizing that she had just eaten her husband’s liver; therefore she hit her son on the head with a ladle, and the blow was so severe that the boy completely lost his memory, and ran away into the forest, terrified.
Twelve long years passed.
Sangkuriang had become a handsome, strong and attractive young man. He didn’t remember anything at all about his mother, so when one day he accidentally met her – being the daughter of a goddess, she was still young and beautiful – he fell in love with her. They decided to get married, until one day Dayang Sumbi, while she was combing her fiancé, noticed on his head the scar left by the ladle and realized Sangkurian was her son.
She tried to convince him to break off the engagement but the young man, still a victim of amnesia, didn’t believe her and insisted that the wedding should be celebrated.
Then Dayang Sumbi devised a trick, an impossible proof of love. She told Sangkuriang she would marry him only if he managed to fill the entire valley with water: furthermore, still before the cock crowed, he should build a boat so that the two of them could sail together on the newly formed lake. The woman was sure that this was going to be an impossible task.
But, to her great surprise, Sangkuriang invoked the help of heavenly spirits and made the riverbanks collapse, filling the valley with water: he had managed to create a lake!
Then he cut down a huge tree and started to carve a boat.
Dayang Sumbi realized that her son was going to succeed in the challenge, so she feverishly started to weave huge red veils; she too prayed the heavenly creatures, and they spread the big veils along the horizon. The cocks, deceived, thought that dawn had already come and began to crow. Deceived, Sangkuriang flared up and kicked the unfinished boat upside down, which turned into an enormous mountain. The splinters formed other mountaintops around the first one.
Mount Tangkuban Perahu, its profile reminiscent of a capsized boat.
This very old legend is still told nowadays by the Sundanese people of the Island of Java, and it sounds surprising not only because of its resemblance with the story of Oedipus.
This myth actually explains the creation of the Bandung basin, of Mount Tangkuban Parahu (which literally means “capsized boat”) and of the mountains nearby. But Lake Bandung, described in the legend, is dried out since no less than 16,000 years and the mountains took shape even earlier, because of a series of volcanic eruptions.
Archaeologists and anthropologists are positive that in the colourful legend of Sankguriang and of the challenges his mother threw down at him to avoid the incestuous relationship there is a kernel of historical truth: orally handed down through generations, it seems to bear the ancestral memory of the lake which disappeared thousands of years ago and of the seismic events which gave rise to the mountain range.
On the base of this myth, scholars have therefore dated the settlement of the Sundanese people in this geographical area to approximately 50,000 years ago.
During this holiday season, more than ever, there’s been so much talking about trees.
It seems that the latest fad is positioning Christmas trees upside down. I have my doubts about the “medieval origins” of this “tradition” (as some suggested), but upside down trees definitely have a bizarre and surreal element which I do not dislike.
But here in Italy, and especially in Rome, we’ve been also talking about “Mangy” Christmas trees that fell short of everybody’s expectations.
Leaving all political issues aside, I would like to take these “deviant” trees as a pretext to wish you all a weird, nonconventional, offbeat Christmas.
And to do this, there’s nothing better that this funny little story, narrated by Tom Waits during one of his gigs.
Once upon a time in a forest, there were two trees: there was the crooked tree, and there was the straight tree. And all day long the straight tree would look over at the crooked tree, saying “Look at you, you’re crooked! You’re crooked — look at your branches, they’re crooked too! Even your leaves, they’re crooked! You’re probably crooked underground as well… but look at me. I’m tall. I’m straight. But you’re crooked!” So one day… the lumberjacks came into the forest. And they took a look around. And one of them said “Bob, cut off the straight trees.” And that crooked tree is still there to this day, growing stronger, and stranger, every day.
The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.
Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.
First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.
Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.
A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.
Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.
Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…
It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.
But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.
Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711
At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.
You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.
This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.
After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).
And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?
This article originally appeared on The LondoNerD, an Italian blog on the secrets of London.
I have about an hour to complete my mission.
Just out of Liverpool Street Station, I look around waiting for my eyes to adapt to the glaring street. The light is harsh, quite oddly indeed as those London clouds rest on the Victorian buildings like oilcloth. Or like a shroud, I find myself thinking — a natural free association, since I stand a few steps away from those areas (the 19th-Century slums of Whitchapel and Spitafield) where the Ripper was active.
But my mission has nothing to do with old Jack.
The job was assigned to me by The LondoNerD himself: knowing I would have a little spare time before my connection, he wrote me a laconic note:
“You should head straight for Dirty Dicks. And go down in the toilets.“
Now: having The LondoNerD as a friend is always a sure bet, when you’re in the City. He knows more about London than most of actual Londoners, and his advice is always valuable.
And yet I have to admit that visiting a loo, especially in a place called Dirty Dicks, is not a prospect which makes me sparkle with enthusiasm.
But then again, this proposal must conceal something that has to do with my interests. Likely, some macabre secret.
For those who don’t know me, that’s what I do for a living: I deal with bizarre and macabre stuff. My (very unserious) business card reads: Explorer of the Uncanny, Collector of Wonders.
The collection the card refers to is of course made of physical obejects, coming from ancient times and esotic latitudes, which I cram inside my cabinets; but it’s also a metaphore for the strange forgotten stories I have been collecting and retelling for many years — historical adecdotes proving how the world never really ceased to be an enchanted place, overflowing with wonders.
But enough, time is running out.
Taking long strides I move towards Dirty Dicks, at 202 Bishopsgate. And it’s not much of a surprise to find that, given the name on the signs, the pub’s facade is one of the most photographed by tourists, amidst chuckles and faux-Puritan winks.
The blackboard by the door remarks upon a too often ignored truth:
I am not at all paranoid (I couldn’t be, since I spend my time dealing with mummies, crypts and anatomical museums), but I reckon the advice is worth following.
Dirty Dicks’ interiors combine the classic English pub atmosphere with a singular, vintage and vaguely hipster design. Old prints hanging from the walls, hot-air-balloon wallpaper, a beautiful chandelier dangling through the bar’s two storeys.
I quickly order my food, and head towards the famous restrooms.
The toilets’ waiting room is glowing with a dim yellow light, but finally, there in the corner, I recognize the objective of my mission. The reason I was sent here.
A two-door cabinet, plunged in semi-obscurity, is decorated with a sign: “Nathaniel Bentley’s Artefacts”.
It is so dark in here that I can barely identify what’s inside the cabinet. (I try and take some pictures, but the sensor, pushed to the limit of its capabilities, only gives back blurred images — for which I apologize with the reader.)
Yes, I can make out a mummified cat. And there’s another one. They remind me of the dead cat and mouse found behind Christ Church‘s organ in Dublin, and displayed in that very church.
No mice here, as far as I can tell, but there’s a spooky withered squirrel watching me with its bulging little eyes.
There are several taxidermied animals, little birds, mammal skulls, old naturalistic prints, gaffs and chimeras built with different animal parts, bottles and vials with unspecified specimens floating in alcohol that’s been clouded for a very long time now.
What is this dusty and moldy cabinet of curiosities doing inside a pub? Who is Nathaniel Bentley, whom the sign indicates as the creator of the “artefacts”?
The story of this bizarre collection is strictly tied to the bar’s origins, and its infamous name.
Dirty Dicks has in fact lost (in a humorous yet excellent marketing choice) its ancient genitive apostrophe, referring to a real-life character.
Dirty Dick was the nickname of our mysterious Nathaniel Bentley.
Bentley, who lived in the 18th Century, was the original owner of the pub and also ran a hardware store and a warehouse adjacent to the inn. After a carefree dandy youth, he decided to marry. But, in the most dramatic twist of fate, his bride died on their wedding day.
From that moment on Nathaniel, plunged into the abyss of a desperate grief, gave up washing himself or cleaning his tavern. He became so famous for his grubbiness that he was nicknamed Dirty Dick — and knowing the degree of hygiene in London at the time, the filth on his person and in his pub must have been really unimaginable.
Letters sent to his store were simply addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse”. It seems that even Charles Dickens, in his Great Expectations, might have taken inspiration from Dirty Dick for the character of Miss Havisham, the bride left at the altar who refuses to take off her wedding dress for the rest of her life.
In 1804 Nathaniel closed all of his commercial activities, and left London. After his death in 1809 in Haddington, Lincolnshire, other owners took over the pub, and decided to capitalize on the famous urban legend. They recreated the look of the old squallid warehouse, keeping their bottles of liquor constantly covered in dust and cobwebs, and leaving around the bar (as a nice decor) those worn-out stuffed and mummified animals Dirty Dick never cared to throw in the trash.
Today that Dirty Dicks is all clean and tidy, and the only smell is of good cuisine, the relics have been moved to this cabinet near the toilets. As a reminder of one of the countless, eccentric and often tragic stories that punctuate the history of London.
Funny how times change. Once the specialty of the house was filth, now it’s the inviting and delicious pork T-bone that awaits me when I get back to my table.
And that I willingly tackle, just to ward off potential kidnappers.
The LondoNerD is an Italian blog, young but already full of wonderful insights: weird, curious and little-knowns stories about London. You can follow on Facebook and Twitter.
Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was. (Tiny Tim)
That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.
Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.
If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.
It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.
Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.”
Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.
Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.
Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.
In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.
But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).
According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?”
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.”
But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.
And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.
That’s how it turned out to be — your mother was bleeding.
The doctors opened the woman’s body, and saved her. You should know that, despite all their cruelty and barbarity, human beings do this as well: they keep each other alive.
Your mother was out of the woods but the doctors wanted to understand why there was so much blood (another human thing, to try and understand). The flesh became a casket and revealed the secret that had been hidden till then, a secret of which the woman herself was not aware: they saw you.
You had struggled to surface, and you had failed.
They called you extrauterine, but you are actually extraterrestrial. From the dark of your mother’s womb you moved to the shining transparency of the liquid that would prevent you from dissolving. Your floating feet have never touched this planet. You have not touched the ground, you have not landed. Our bitter dimension could not damage you.
Out of time — at least out of the time of the human beings — you are floating motionless.
I found an ancient vase, hand-blown more than a century ago by an artisan who lived in a faraway continent, to honour your alien beauty. I gently immersed the minuscule, snow white limbs in the liquid, as if they were holy relics and I was their humble keeper.
Now you are watching from the shelf, suffused with gleam.
I talk to you as if I addressed my own wonder. Only a fool would expect answers from a mystery.
What do you know about the Universe?
Maybe life is precious and rare. Maybe it is more similar to a mould, a moss clinging to every minimal surface, to any rock it can find in the cold of the cosmos.
What dreams have you dreamed?
Maybe for a while you have felt the warmth, the ancient and familiar sensation, because we all know how to be born and how to die. But maybe your incomplete shape did not let you perceive the beginning nor the end.
What do you see when you look out at me from inside there?
Maybe my pain means something to you. Maybe it is only the consequence of my persevering in living.
You who are out of the game, out of the world. You who have known the basics — to take shape and vanish — without your perceptions being clouded by words, thoughts, emotions. You who, of the heart, only knew the ephemeral vertigo.
Tell me. How can we go on, blinded and wounded as we are, fallen into the morass, belonging to the race that burnt the wings in the attempt to reach the sun?
“Do not fight. Slow down the collapses. Relax the muscles. Let yourself be conquered.”
This is what the Moon Baby seems to whisper to me.
“You cannot fall. There is nothing you have to do.”
The billboards for Sparks World Famous Shows, which appeared in small Southern American towns a couple of days before the circus’ arrival, seem quite anomalous to anyone who has a familiarity with this kind of poster design from the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Where one could expect to see emphatic titles and hyperbolic advertising claims, Sparks circus — in a much too unpretentious way — was defined as a “moral, entertaining and instructive” spectacle; instead of boasting unprecedented marvels, the only claim was that the show “never broke a promise” and publicized its “25 years of honest dealing with the public“.
The reason why owner Charlie Sparks limited himself to stress his show’s transparency and decency, was that he didn’t have much else to count on, in order to lure the crowd.
Despite Sparks’ excellent reputation (he was among the most respected impresarios in the business), his was ultimately a second-category circus. It consisted of a dozen cars, against the 42 cars of his main rival in the South, John Robinson’s Circus. Sparks had five elephants, Robinson had twelve. And both of them could never hope to compete with Barnum & Bailey’s number one circus, with its impressive 84-car railroad caravan.
Therefore Sparks World Famous Shows kept clear of big cities and made a living by serving those smaller towns, ignored by more famous circuses, where the residents would find his attractions worth paying for.
Although Sparks circus was “not spectacularly but slowly and surely” growing, in those years it didn’t offer much yet: some trained seals, some clowns, riders and gymnasts, the not-so-memorable “Man Who Walks on His Head“, and some living statues like the ones standing today on public squares, waiting for a coin.
The only real resource for Charlie Sparks, his pride and joy widely displayed on the banners, was Mary.
Advertides as being “3 inches taller than Jumbo” (Barnum’s famous elephant), Mary was a 5-ton indian pachyderm capable of playing different melodies by blowing horns, and of throwing a baseball as a pitcher in one of her most beloved routines. Mary represented the main source of income for Charlie Sparks, who loved her not just for economical but also for sentimental reasons: she was the only real superior element of his circus, and his excuse for dreaming of entering the history of entertainment.
And in a sense it is because of Mary if Sparks is still remembered today, even if not for the reason he might have suspected or wanted.
On September 11, 1916, Sparks pitched his Big Top in St. Paul, a mining town in Clinch River Valley, Virginia. On that very day Walter “Red” Eldridge, a janitor in a local hotel, decided that he had enough of sweeping floors, and joined the circus.
Altough Red was a former hobo, and clearly knew nothing about elephants, he was entrusted with leading the pachyderms during the parade Sparks ran through the city streets every afternoon before the show.
The next day the circus moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Mary paraded quietly along the main street, until the elephants were brought over to a ditch to be watered. And here the accounts begin to vary: what we know for sure is that Red hit Mary with a stick, infuriating the beast.
The rogue elephant grabbed the inexperienced handler with its trunk, and threw him in the air. When the body fell back on the ground, Mary began to trample him and eventually crushed his head under her foot. “And blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street“, as one witness put it.
Charlie Sparks immediately found himself in the middle of the worst nightmare.
Aside from his employee’s death on a public street — not really a “moral” and “instructive” spectacle — the real problem was that the whole tour was now in jeopardy: what town would allow an out-of-control elephant near its limits?
The crowd demanded the animal to be suppressed and Sparks unwillingly understood that if he wanted to save what was left of his enterprise, Mary had to be sacrified and, with her, his personal dreams of grandeur.
But killing an elephant is no easy task.
The first, obvious attempt was to fire five 32-20 rounds at Mary. There’s a good reason however if elephants are called pachyderms: the thick skin barrier did not let the bullets go deep in the flesh and, despite the pain, Mary didn’t fall down. (When in 1994 Tyke, a 3.6-ton elephant, killed his handler running amok on the streets of Honolulu, it took 86 shots to stop him. Tyke became a symbol for the fights against animal cruelty in circuses, also because of the heartbreaking footage of his demise.)
Someone then suggested to try and eliminate Mary by electrocution, a method used more than a decade before in the killing of Topsy in Coney Island. But there was no nearby way of producing the electricity needed to carry out the execution.
Therefore it was decided that Mary would be hung.
The only gallows that could bear such a weight was to be found in the railyards in Erwin, where there was a derrick capable of lifting railcars to place them on the tracks.
Charlie Sparks, knowing he was about to lose an animal worth $20.000, was determined to make the most out of the desperate situation. In the brief time that took for Mary to be moved from Kingsport to Erwin, he had already turned his elephant’s execution into a public event.
On September 13, on a rainy and foggy afternoon, more than 2.500 people gathered at the railyards. Children stood in the front line to witness the extraordinary endeavour.
Mary was brought to the makeshift gallows, and her foot was chained to the tracks while men struggled to pass a chain around her neck. They then tied the chain to the derric, started the winch, and the hanging began.
In theory, the weight of her body would have had to quickly break her neck. But Mary’s agony was to be far from swift and painless; in the heat of the moment, someone forgot to untie the animal’s foot, which was still bound to the rails.
“When they began to lift her up — a witness recalled — I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot“; the men hastily released the foot, but right then the chain around Mary’s neck broke with a metallic crack.
The elephant fell on the ground and sat there upright, unable to move because in falling she had broken her hip.
The crowd, unaware that Mary at this point was wounded and paralyzed, panicked upon seeing the “murderous” elephant free from any restraint. As everyone ran for cover, one of the roustabouts climbed on the animal’s back and applaied a heavier chain to her neck.
The derrick once more began to lift the elephant, and this time the chain held the weight.
After she was dead, Mary was left to hang for half an hour. Her huge body was then buried in a large grave which had been excavated further up the tracks.
Mary’s execution, and the photograph of her hanging, were widely reported in the press. But to search for an article where this strange story was recounted with special emotion or participation would be useless. Back then, Mary’s incident was little more than quintessential, small-town oddity piece of news.
After all, people were used to much worse. In Erwin, in those very years, a black man was burned alive on a pile of crosstiles.
Today the residents of this serene Tennessee town are understandably tired of being associated with a bizarre and sad page of the city history — a century-old one, at that.
And yet still today some passing foreigner asks the proverbial, unpleasand question.
“Didn’t they hang an elephant here?“
In the past years we have already delved into love stories that surpass the barrier of death (the case of Carl Tanzler and a similar story which took place in Vietnam).
Perhaps less macabre than these other two incidents, but just as moving, was Jonathan Reed’s passion for his wife Mary E. Gould Reed.
When Mary died, she was buried in her father’s crypt, at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. But Jonathan, who then was in his sixties, could not abandon his wife. He kept telling himself that maybe, by showing her his unconditional love, things could go on like before.
His visits to her grave began to be judged excessively frequent, even for a grieving widower who, as a retired businessman, had plenty of free time. As the neighbors began to murmur, Mary’s father asked Reed to behave in a more discreet manner: he therefore reduced his apparitions at the graveyard. But when his father-in-law passed away, for Jonathan there were no more obstacles.
He bought a new mausoleum in another section of the cemetery in which he transferred his dead wife’s body. Beside Mary’s casket he positioned a second empty one, where he himself would be lying when time came to join her.
Eventually Jonathan moved into the crypt.
He took some domestic furniture to the vestibule of the tomb, and hung a clock to the funeral cell wall; he equipped the mausoleum with a potbelly stove, complete with chimney tubes carrying the smoke out through the roof. He decided to decorate the small room with all the things Mary loved – flower pots, picture showing her at different ages, fine paintings on the walls, her last half-finished knitting – and even found place inside the tomb for their pets, a parrot and a squirrel.
Jonathan Reed’s routine knew no variation. He came to the cemetery when gates opened, at six o’clock in the morning, entered the mausoleum and lit the fire. He then went up to Mary’s coffin, which he had especially equipped with a small window, at eye level, that he could open: through that peephole he could see his wife, and talk to her. “Good morning Mary, I have come to sit with you”, was his morning greeting.
Jonathan spent his whole day in there, chatting with his wife as if she could hear him, telling her the latest news, reading books to her. The he would dine in their wedding china. After lunch, he would pull out a deck of cards and play some game with Mary, laying down the cards for her.
Whenever he wanted some fresh air, he sat before the entrance in a rocking chair: he looked just like a classic old man on his front porch, always politely saying hello to whoever was passing by.
At six o’clock in the evening the cemetery closed and he was forced to leave, after wishing his Mary goodnight.
This strange character quickly became a small celebrity in the district. Some said he could communicate with the afterworld. Come said he was crazy. Some said he was convinced that his wife would wake up sooner or later, and he wanted to be the first person for Mary to see when she came back. Some said he developed complicated theories about the “heat”that would bring her back to life.
The story of the widower who refused to leave his wife’s grave appeared in several short pieces even on international press, and litlle by little a curious crowd began to show up every day. In his first year as a resident at Evergreens some 7000 people came to greet him. Many women, it is said, intended to “save” him from his obsession, but he always kindly replied that his heart belonged to Mary. According to the reports, Reed even received the visit of seven Buddhist monks from Burma, who were convinced that he might have acquired some secret knowledge on the afterlife. Jonathan had to disappoint them, confessing he was just there to be close to his wife.
The everyday life of Evergreens Cemetery’s most famous resident went on undisturbed for ten years, until on March 23, 1905, he was found unconscious on the mausoleum’s floor, in cardiac arrest. Jonathan Reed was transferred to Kings County Hospital, where he died some days later, aged seventy. He was buried in the grave he had spent the last decade of his life in, beside his wife.
An article on the New York Times claimed that “Mr. Reed could never be made to believe that his wife was really dead, his explanation for her condition being that the warmth had simply left her body and that if he kept the mausoleum warm she would continue to sleep peacefully in the costly metallic casket in which her remains were put. Friends often visited him in the tomb, and although they at first tried to convince him that his wife was really dead, they long ago gave up that argument, and have for years humored the whims of the old man”.
The article on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which appeared the very day of his admission at the hospital. had a similar tone; the author once again described Reed as obsessed by the idea of keeping Mary’s body warm, even if it was noted that “in spite of this remarkable eccentricity in regard to his dead wife, Mr. Reed is in other respects an unusually intelligent and interesting man. He converses on all subjects with a degree of knowledge and insight rare to a person of his age. It is only upon the subject of death that he appears to be at all deranged”.
Clearly, the story the papers loved to tell was one about denial of grief, about a man who rejected the very idea of death, too painful to accept; what was appealing was the figure of a romantic, crazy man, stubbornly convinced that not all was lost, and that his Beauty might still come back to life.
And it could well be that in his last years the elderly man had somewhat lost touch with reality.
But maybe, beyond all legends, rumors and colorful newspaper articles, Reed’s choice had a much simpler motivation: he and Mary had been deeply in love. And when a relationship comes to be the only really important thing in life, it also becomes an indispensable crutch, without which one feels completely lost.
In 1895, the first year he spent in the cemetery, Jonathan Reed replied to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewer with these words: “My wife was a remarkable woman and our lives were blended into one. When she died, I had no ambition but to cherish her memory. My only pleasure is to sit here with all that is left of her”.
No whacky theories in this interview, nor the belief that Mary could come back from the grave. Simply, a man who was sure he couldn’t find happiness away from the woman he loved.