As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.
Remember my article on smoked mummies? Ulla Lohmann documented, for the first time ever, the mummification process being carried out on one of the village elders, a man the photographer knew when he was still alive. The story of Lohmann’s respectful stubbornness in getting accepted by the tribe, and the spectacular pictures she took, are now on National Geographic.
Collective pyres burning for days in an unbearable stench, teeth pulled out from corpses to make dentures, bones used as fertilizers: welcome to the savage world of those who had to clean up Napoleonic battlefields.
Three miles off the Miami coast there is a real underwater cemetery. Not many of your relatives will take scuba lessons just to pay their last respects, but on the other hand, your grave will become part of the beautiful coral reef.
This one is for those of you acquainted with the worst Italian TV shows. In one example of anaesthetic television — comforting and dull, offering the mirage of an effortless win, a fortune that comes out of nowhere — the host randomly calls a phone number, and if the call is picked up before the fifth ring then a golden watch is awarded to the receiver. But here’s where the subversive force of memento mori comes in: in one of the latest episodes, an awkward surprise awaited the host. “Is this Mrs. Anna?” “No, Mrs. Anna just died.“, a voice replies.
For such a mindless show, this is the ultimate ironic defeat: the embarassed host cannot help mumbling, “At this point, our watch seems useless…“
How can we be sure that a dead body is actually dead? In the Nineteenth Century this was a major concern. That is why some unlucky workers had to pull cadaver tongues, while others tried to stick dead fingers into their own ears; there were those who even administered tobacco enemas to the dead… by blowing through a pipe.
What if Monty Python were actually close to the truth, in their Philosphers Song portraying the giants of thought as terminal drunkards? An interesting long read on the relationship between Western philosophy and the use of psychoactive substances.
If you haven’t seen it, there is a cruel radiography shattering the self-consolatory I-am-just-big-boned mantra.
Man will soon land on Mars, likely. But in addition to bringing life on the Red Planet, we will also bring another novelty: death. What would happen to a dead body in a Martian atmosphere, where there are no insects, no scavengers or bacteria? Should we bury our dead, cremate them or compost them? Sarah Laskow on AtlasObscura.
In closing, here is a splendid series of photographs entitled Wilder Mann. All across Europe, French photographer Charles Fréger documented dozens of rural masquerades. Creepy and evocative, these pagan figures stood the test of time, and for centuries now have been annoucing the coming of winter.
Enclosed in their display cases, unperturbed behind the glass, the heads attract yet another group of visitors.
They are watched, scrutinized, inspected in every smallest detail by a multitude of wide-open eyes. The children are in the front row, as usual, their noses pressed against the glass, their small faces suspended between a grimace of disgust and an excited, amazed look.
As for the adults, their wonder is somehow tarnished by judgment or, better, prejudice. “You have to understad that for these indigenous people it was a sacred practice”, sentences a nice gentleman, eager to prove his broad cultural views. “Still, it’s a horrible thing”, replies his wife, a little disgusted.
The scene repeats itself each and every day, for the heads sitting under the glass.
And few of the visitors understand they’re not actually looking at real objects from an ancient, distant culture. They are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture that Westerners have created and built.
The two basic kinds of heads presented in anthropological sections of museums all around the world are tsantsas and mokomokai.
The most famous tsantsas are the ones hailing from South America and created by the Jivaro peoples; among these tribes, the most prolific in fabricating such trophies were undoubtedly the Shuar and the Achuar, who lived between Ecuador and Peru.
The Shuar technique for shrinking heads was complex: an incision was made from the nape to the top of the head; once completely skinned, after paying specific attention as to keep all the hair intact, the skull was discarded. The facial skin was then boiled. Any trace of soft tissue had to be eliminated by rolling red-hot pebbles inside the skin, which was then further scraped with hot sand, roasted on flat stones, and so on. It was a delicate and meticulous procedure, until eventually the head was reduced to one fourth of the original size.
What was the purpose of such dedication?
The tsantsas were part of solemn celebrations which lasted several years, and were meant to capture the extraordinary power of the victim’s soul. They were not actually war trophies, in spite of what you can sometimes read, because the Shuar and Achuar usually lived quite peacefully: the occasional raids organized by the various tribes to hunt for tsantsas were a form of socially accepted violence, as there was no purpose in it other than obtaining these very powerful objects.
Great feasts welcomed the return of the headhunters, and these celebrations were the most important in the whole year. The intrinsic power the tsantsas was transferred to the women, assuring wealth and plenty of food to the families. After seven years of rituals, the shrunken heads lost their force. For the Shuar, at this point, the tsantsas had no pratical value: some kept the heads as a keepsake, but others got rid of them without giving it a second thought. The focus was not the material object in itself, but its spiritual power.
That was not at all the case with Western merchants. To them, a shrunken head perfectly summarized the idea of a “savage culture”. These indigenous people, in the collective imaginary of the Nineteenth Century, were still depicted as brutal and animal-like: there was a will to think them as “stuck in time”, as if they had been lingering in a prehistoric underdeveloped stage, without ever undergoing evolutions or social transformations.
Therefore, what object could be a clearer symbol of these tribes’ barbarity than a macabre and grotesque souvenir like tsantsas?
If at the beginning of European settlements, in the Andes region and the Amazon River basin, the colonists had traded various tipes of goods with the indigenous people, as time went by they became ever more autonomous. As they did not need the pig or deer meat any more, which until then the Shuar had bartered with clothes, knives and guns, the settlers began to request only two things in exchange for the precious firearms: the indios’ labor force, and their infamous shrunken heads.
Soon enough, the only way a Shuar could get hold of a rifle was to sell a head.
That’s when the situation got worse, along with the exponential growth of Western fascination with tsantsas. The shrunken heads became a must-have curiosity for collectors and museums alike. The need for arms pushed the Shuar people to hunt heads for purposes which were not ritual any more, but rather exclusively commercial, in an attempt to satisfy the European request. A tsantsa for a gun, was the usual bargain: that gun would then be used to hunt more heads, exchanged for new arms… the vicious cycle ended up in a massacre, carried out to comply with foreigners’ tastes in exoticism.
As Frances Larson writes, “when visitors come to see the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum, what they are really seeing is a story of the white man’s gun“.
The tsantsas lost their spiritual value, which had always been connected with the circulation of power inside the tribe, and became a tool for accumulating riches. Ironically, the settlers contributed to the creation of those cruel and unscrupulous headhunters they always expected to find.
The Shuar by then were killing indiscriminately, and without any ritual support, just to obtain new heads. They began making fake tsantsas, using the remains of women, children, even Westerners – confident that someone would surely fall for the scam.
In the second half of the ‘800, the commerce of tsantsas flourished so much that even peoples who had nothing to do with Jivaros and their traditions, began fabricating their own shrunken heads: in Colombia and Panama unclaimed bodies were stolen from the morgue, their heads given to helpful taxidermists. In other cases the heads of monkeys or sloths, and other animal skins, were used to produce convincing fakes.
Today nearly 80% of the tsantsas held in museums worldwide is estimated to be fake.
The history of New Zealand’s mokomokai followed an almost identical script.
Unlike tsantsas, for the Maori people these heads were actually war trophies, captured during inter-tribal battles. The heads were not shrunk, but preserved with their skull still inside. Brain, eyes and tongue were gouged, nostrils and orifices sealed with fibers and gum; then the heads were buried in hot stones, in order to steam-cook them and dry them out. The mokomokai were meant to be exposed around the chief’s house.
In the second half of ‘700, naturalist Joseph Banks, sailing with James Cook, was the first European to acquire a similar head, after convincing an elderly man at a village to part from it – thanks to his eloquence, and to a musket pointed at the old man’s face. In all the following trips, Cook’s company spotted only a pair of mokomokai, a clue suggesting that these objects were in fact pretty uncommon.
Yet, after just fifty years, the commerce of heads in New Zealand had reached such intensity that many believed the Maori would be totally annihilated. Here too, the heads were traded for guns, in a spiral of violence that seriously threatened the indigenous population, particularly during the so-called Musket Wars.
Collectors were mainly attracted by the intricate tā moko(carved tattoos) which adorned the chiefs’ faces with elegant and sinuous spirals. So, Maori chiefs began tattooing their slaves just before beheading them – in some cases giving the Western buyer the option to choose a favorite head, while the unlucky owner was still alive; they tattoed heads that had already been cut, just to raise their price. The tā moko, a decorative art form of ancient origin, ended up been emptied of all meaning related to courage, honor or social status. In New Zealand, even Europeans began to get killed, to have their heads tattoed and sold to their unsuspecting fellow countrymen: a fraud not devoid of a certain amount of black humor.
Trading mokomokai was outlawed in 1831; the import of tsantas from South America was only banned from 1940.
So, in displays of ethnic artifacts in museums around the globe, in those darkened exotic heads, one is able to contemplate not only an ancient ritual object, packed with symbols and meanings: it is almost possible to glimpse at the very moment in which those meanings and symbols vanished forever.
Tsantsas and mokomokai are difficult, controversial, problematic objects.
Among the visitors, it is easy to find someone who feels outraged by an indigenous practice which by today’s standards seems cruel; after reading this article, maybe some reader will be disgusted by the hypocrisy of Westerners, who were condemning the savage headhunters while coveting the heads, and looking forward to put them on display in their homes.
Either way, one feels indignant: as if this peculiar fascination did not really affect us… as if our entire western culture did not come from a very long tradition of heads cut off and exposed on poles, on city walls and in public places.
But the beheadings never stopped existing, just as the human head never ceased to be a very powerful and magnetic symbol, both shocking and irresistibly hypnotizing.
Most of the information in this article, as well as the inspiration for it, comes from the brilliant Severed by Frances Larson, a book on the cultural and antrhopological significance of severed heads.
Sometimes the most unbelievable stories remain forever buried between the creases of history. But they may happen to leave a trail behind them, although very small; a little clue that, with a good deal of fortune and in the right hands, finally brings them to light. As archaeologists dig up treasures, historians unearth life’s peculiarities.
If Paul Grappe hadn’t been murdered by his wife on the 28th of July 1928, not a single hint to his peculiar story would have been found in the Archive of the Paris Police Prefecture. And if Fabrice Virgili, research manager at the CNRS, scrutinizing the abovementioned archives almost one hundred years later to write an article about conjugal violence at the beginning of the century, hadn’t given a look at that dossier…
The victim: Grappe Paul Joseph, born on the 30th of August 1891 in Haute Marne, resident 34 Rue de Bagnolet, shot dead on the 28th of July 1928.
The culprit: Landy Louise Gabrielle, born on the 10th of March 1892 in Paris, Grappe’s spouse.
This is how the life of Paul Grappe ended. But, as we go back through the years starting from the trial papers, we discover something really astonishing.
In the 1910s Paris sounds like a promise to a young man coming from Haute-Marne. It was mainly a working-class context and like everybody else the twenty-year-old Paul Grappe worked hard to make ends meet. He hadn’t received a proper education but the uncontrollable vitality that would mark out his entire existence encouraged him to work hard: with stubborn determination he obliged himself to study, and became an optician. He also attended some mandolin’s courses, where he met Louise Landy.
Their modest financial means didn’t interfere with their feelings: they fell in love and in 1911 they tied the knot. Shortly afterwards, Paul had to leave for military service, but managed to be appointed to stand guard over the bastions of Paris, in order to be close to his own Louise. Our soldier was a skilled runner, he could ride, swim (which was quite uncommon at the time) and he quickly distinguished himself until he was appointed corporal. Having spent the required two years on active service, Paul thought he was finally done with the army. But the War clouds were gathering, and everything quickly deteriorated. In August 1914 Paul Grappe was sent to the front to fight against Germany.
The 102nd Infantry division constantly moved, day after day, because the front was not well defined yet. Then gradually came the time to confront the enemy: at the beginning there were only small skirmishes, then came the first wounded, the first dead. And, finally, the real battle began. For the French, the most bloody stage of the entire world war was exactly this first battle, called Battle of the Frontiers, that claimed thousands of victims – more than 25,000 in one day, the 22nd of August 1914.
Paul Grappe was at the forefront. When Hell arrived, he had to confront its devastating brutality.
He was wounded in the leg at the end of August, he was treated and sent back to the trenches in October. The situation had changed, the front was stabilized, but the battles were not less dangerous. During a bloody gunfight Paul was wounded again, in the right index finger. A finger hit by a bullet? He was strongly suspected of having practiced self-mutilation, and in such situations people were not particularly kind to those who did something like that: Paul risked death penalty and summary execution. But some brothers in arms gave evidence for him, and Paul escaped the war court. Convalescent, he was moved to Chartres. December, January, February and March went by. Four months seemed to be too much time to recover from the loss of one single finger, and his superiors suspected that Paul was willingly reopening his wounds (like many other soldiers used to do); in April 1915 he was ordered to go back to the front. And it was here that, confronted with the perspective of going back to that horrible limbo made of barbed wire, mud, whistling bullets and cannon shots, Paul decided that he would change his life forever: he chose to desert.
He left the military hospital and, instead of going to the barracks, he caught the first train to Paris.
We can only imagine how Louise felt: she was happy to learn that her husband was safe and sound, far from the war, and afraid that everything could end at any moment, if he was discovered. During the spring of 1915 the army was desperately in need of men, even people declared unfit for military service were sent to the front, and consequently the efforts to find the missing deserters were redoubled. For three times the guards burst into the home of his mother-in-law, where Paul was hidden, but couldn’t find him.
As for Paul – that had always had a wild and untamed temper – he couldn’t stand the pressure of secrecy. He was obliged to live as a real prisoner, he didn’t dare stick his nose out of the door: simply walking down the streets of Paris, a young man in his twenties would have aroused suspicion at that time because all the young men – maybe with the exception of some ministry’s employees – were at the front.
One day, overcome by boredom, joking with Louise he chose one of her dresses and wore it. Why not dress up as a woman?
Louise and Paul took a turn. He had a careful shave; his wife put a delicate make-up on him, adjusted the female clothes, put his head into a lady’s little hat. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work.
Holding their breath, they went out in the streets. They walked down the road for a little while, pretending to be at ease. They sat down in a café, and realized that people apparently didn’t notice anything strange about those two friends that were enjoying their drinks. Coming back home, they shivered as they noticed a man that was intensely gazing at them, fixing them… the man finally whistled in admiration. It was the ultimate evidence: disguised as a woman, Paul was so convincing that he deceived even the attentive eye of a tombeur de femmes.
From that moment on, to the outside world, the two of them formed a couple of women who used to live together. Paul bought some clothes, adopted a more feminine hairstyle, learnt to change his voice. He chose the name of Suzanne Landgard. For those who take on a new identity, it is very important to choose a proper name, and Landgard could be interpreted as “he who protects (garde) Landy?”.
Now Paul/Suzanne could go out barefaced, he could also contribute to the family economy: while Louise worked in a company that produced educational materials, Suzanne started working in a tailor’s shop. But maybe she struggled to stay in her role, because, as far as we know, she frequently changed job because of problems concerning her relationship with her colleagues.
War was over, at last. Paul wanted to stop living undercover, but he was still in danger. Like many other deserters used to do at the time, also our couple left for Spain (a neutral country) and for a short time took shelter in the Basque Country. They returned to Paris in 1922.
But the atmosphere of the capital had changed: the so-called “crazy years” had just begun and Paris was a town that wanted to forget the war at any cost. It was therefore rich in novelties, artistic avant-gardes and unrestrained pleasures. Louise and Suzanne realized that after all they may look like two garçonnes, fashionable women flaunting a masculine hairdo and wearing trousers, shocking conservative people. Louise used to paint lead toy soldiers during the evening, after work, to make some extra money.
Paul couldn’t find a job instead, and his insatiable lust for life led him to spend some time at the Bois de Boulogne, a public park that during those years was a well known meeting point for free love: there gathered libertines, partner-swappers, prostitutes and pimps.
Did Paul, dressed as Suzanne, whore to bring some money home? Maybe he didn’t. Anyhow, he became one of the “queen” of the Bois.
From then on, his days became crowded with casual intercourses, orgies, female and male lovers, and even encoded newspaper ads. Paul/Suzanne even tried to convince Louise to participate in these erotic meetings, but this only fuelled the first conflicts within the couple, that was very close until then.
His thirst for experience was not yet satiated: in 1923 Suzanne Landgard was one of the first “women” that jumped with a parachute.
“You are not tall enough, my dear, I am a refined person, I want to get out of this mass, this brute mass that goes to work in the morning, like slaves do, and goes back home at evening”, he repeated to Louise.
In January 1924 the long awaited amnesty arrived at last.
The same morning in which the news was spread, Paul went down the stairs dressed as a man, without make-up. The porter of the apartment building was shocked as she saw him go out: “Madame Suzanne, have you gone crazy?” “I am not Suzanne, I am Paul Grappe and I am going to declare myself a deserter to apply for the amnesty.” As soon as the authorities learnt about his case, even the press discovered it. Some newspaper headlines read: “The transvestite deserter”. Prejudices started to circulate: paradoxically, now that he was discovered to be a man (so the two supposed lesbians were a married couple) Paul and Louise were evicted. The Communist Party mobilized to defend the two proletarians that were victims of prejudices, and in a short time Paul found himself at the core of an improvised social debate. The little popularity he gained maybe went to his head: believing that he may become a celebrity, or have some chance as an actor, he started to distribute autographed pictures of him both as a male and as a female and went as far as to hire a book agent.
But the more prosaic reality was that Paul told the fantastic story of his endeavours mostly in the cafés, to be offered some drinks. He showed the picture album of him as Suzanne, and also kept a dossier of obscene photographs, that are lost today. Little by little he started to drink at least five litres of wine per day. He lost one job after another, and turned aggressive even at home.
As he recovered his manhood – that same virility that condemned him to the horror of the trenches – he became violent. Before the Great War he had shown no signs of bisexuality nor violence, and most probably the traumas he suffered on the battlefield had a share in the quick descent of Paul Grappe into alcoholism, brutality and chaos.
He used to spend all the salary of his wife to get drunk. The episodes of domestic violence multiplied.
In a desperate attempt of reconciliation, Louise accepted to participate in her husband’s sexual games, and in order to please him (this is what she declared later in her deposition) took an attractive Spanish boy named Paco as her lover. But the unstable Paul didn’t appreciate her efforts, and started to feel annoyed by this third party. When he ordered his wife to leave Paul, Louise left him instead.
From that moment on, their story looks like the sad and well-known stories of many drifting couples: he found her at her mother’s home, he threatened her with a gun, and begged her to go back home with him. She surrendered, but she quickly discovered she was pregnant. Who was the father? Paul, or her lover Paco? In December 1925 the child was born, and Louise decided to call him Paul – obviously to reassure her husband about his fatherhood. The three of them lived a serene life for some months, like a real family. Paul started again to look for a job and tried to drink less. But it didn’t last. Crises and violence started again, until the night of the murder the man apparently went as far as to threaten to hurt his child. Louise killed Paul shooting twice at his head, then ran to the police headquarters to give herself up.
The trial had a certain media echo, because of the sensationalist hues of the story: the accused, the wife that shot dead the “transvestite deserter”, was represented by the famous lawyer Maurice Garçon. While Louise was in prison, her child died of meningitis. Therefore the lawyer insisted on the fact that the widow was also a mourning mother, a victim of conjugal violence that had to kill her husband to protect their infirm child – on the other hand he tried to play down the woman’s complicity in her husband’s desertion, transvestism, and shocking behaviours. In 1929, Louise Landy was declared innocent, which rarely happened in the case of trials for murder of the spouse. From that moment on Louise disappeared from any news section, and there was no more news about her except that she got married again, and then died in 1981.