Grad School Begins!

I wanted to update my loyal readers about what is going on in my personal life and what that means for this site. As you have likely noticed, and I said in a previous post, posts have been a little spotty in the last few months. One thing that surprises me about this is that the number of views has only gone down slightly even though the site is not being updated regularly. Even so, I’m trying to keep the wheel turning by posting every other week, give or take, and I have some other ideas for future directions I’d like to take this blog. This includes potentially starting a Facebook page, writing a line of ebooks, and even an Oddly Historical YouTube channel.

Those ideas are, for now, just that: ideas. But I wanted you guys to know I am still thinking about my regular readers and how I can make this site better for you guys. I really enjoy sharing weird history, but real life tends to intervene a lot when it comes to hobbies such as this. Which brings use to the whole point of this little blurb. Apologies for burying the lede here, but it’s not an “actual” article so hey, whatever. I am starting grad school in two days. Actually, I’ve already started: I completed two out of four modules for the first lesson. I am attending school online for a Masters of Public Health, all while working full time. So, I am going to be really busy for the next couple of years, and then probably really busy looking for a job after completing my degree.

Even so, I will still try to update this blog on a semi-regular basis. Some of the articles might be shorter than they have in the past, and I’m toying with some ideas of posts devoted to strange pictures from the past with some blurbs explaining what is going on. Just a simpler way to get some content out to you guys. Or maybe some bizarre artwork from the past. Perhaps more personal updates, and off the cuff, personal opinion posts about stuff I’ve written about in the past. We will see! If you have any ideas for content you’d like to see, let me know in the comments. I always enjoy hearing from you guys!

The Plain of Jars

CC BY-SA 2.5,

CC BY-SA 2.5,

The mists of time conceal many ancient cultures from even the most clever and determined modern archaeologist. While there are many who left behind written fragments that give scientists something to go on, many more failed to develop a system of writing. The lives of millions of men and women, with all of their struggles and triumphs, faded into the shadows of history, leaving behind only a few tangible scraps for their descendants to piece together. Some of these “scraps” might indeed be large, but their size makes them no less enigmatic than the smallest artifacts. Such is the case in Xieng Khouang province in Laos, where a high plateau is dotted with clusters of sandstone jars. The mysterious artifacts, some measuring as much as 9 feet tall, are the most tangible remains of a prehistoric southeast Asian culture about which little is known.

 

A long standing mystery

The Plain of Jars, as the site became known, was first studied by French archaeologist Madeline Colani in the 1930’s. She discovered that the jars were spread over the plain in a pattern that initially seemed to have no rhyme or reason, with as many as one to one hundred pots in each site. It was later found that most of the pots were placed in prominent areas, with commanding views of the surrounding area. Each pot was fashioned from a single stone, some being well formed while others were rather crude. There was also an assortment of small artifacts found in and around the pots, including bronze and iron tools, cowry shells, and glass beads. Many of the pots appeared to have been robbed. One site had a prominent cave, where Colani found bones and ashes.

This led Colani to hypothesize that the entire complex was a funerary site. Many Southeast Asian cultures practiced secondary burial, where a corpse is left to rot before being cremated. This allowed the soft tissues to decay, leaving behind bones and ligaments. Archaeologists believe that the bodies of nobles were thus exposed in the pots, while the poor were laid out in a trench. After cremation, the ashes of nobles along with their expensive belongings were placed back in the jars. So, the plain of jars is quite possibly a large set of funerary urns.

Similar sites in Northern India and Vietnam have led archaeologists to hypothesize that the builders of the Plain of Jars traded widely. The Laotian Highlands are rich in salt, a valuable resource in the ancient world. The accepted belief is that these people traded upon caravan routes, exchanging salt for beads, cowry shells, and other luxury goods. It appears that the stone jars represent the works of a thriving prehistoric culture dating back nearly 2,000 years. More research to unravel the enduring history of who these people were needs to be done, but unfortunately a modern conflict left the Plain of Jars the most dangerous archaeological site on Earth.

 

Bombs and mines

From 1964 to 1973, American bombers pounded Laos, attempting to destroy Viet Cong supply routes passing through the country as part of the ongoing Vietnam War. Over the course of nine years, American planes hammered the country with two million tons of bombs and other munitions. Xieng Khouang Province was targeted by some 63,000 sorties. The area is carpeted with unexploded bombs from this blitz, leading to thousands of deaths a year from farmers and other locals accidentally detonating bombs.

The Plain of Jars is itself is well within the danger zone, hampering efforts to excavate the area and find more about the culture who produced the strange urns. Efforts to clean up the site are ongoing, but the remains of a massive modern conflict could well hamper efforts to understand this ancient site for years to come.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/laos/1478626/History-haunts-the-Plain-of-Jars.html

http://plainofjars.net/prehist.htm

http://www.unescobkk.org/culture/wh/ap-sites/plain-of-jars/

The Serpent Mound–Ohio’s Mysterious Effigy

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

The ancients achieved amazing feats of engineering with the most basic tools and techniques, leaving structures that their descendants would puzzle over for centuries to come. Many such structures come readily to mind—Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the Nazca Lines are just three of the most famous.

However, the building of such structures is not often associated with the Native Americans of North America, with the exception of the massive pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous tribes of what is now the United States did engage in massive projects that could rival even those of the Old World. One of these massive structures is located in Adams County, Ohio. Dubbed the Serpent Mound, the huge effigy remains an enigma to this day.

The Serpent Mound is one of hundreds of mounds built by Native American tribes in Ohio. Most mounds are conical structures used to bury and memorialize the dead, while some of the more massive mounds are effigy mounds, meant to be representations in earth of various animals. The Serpent Mound is among the largest and best preserved of these effigy mounds. Measuring 1330 feet in length and 3 feet in height, the mound is a depiction of an undulating snake with a curled tail, possibly with its jaws open to swallow an egg. There is some dispute as to what the effigy is meant to depict, with some claiming it is not a serpent at all but rather a stylized depiction of a comet streaking through the sky. This is indeed an interesting interpretation, since there is a meteor crater nearby, but no one knows for sure.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

“No one knows for sure,” is a phrase that seems to hover over the Serpent Mound, an effigy shrouded in mystery. Even its age is in dispute. When archaeologist Frederic Putnam studied the mound in the late 19th century, he found nothing in the mound itself that revealed who made it or why. However, conical mounds situated nearby contained artifacts belonging to the Adena culture, who lived in the area from 800 BCE to 100CE. So, Putnam concluded that the site was the work of the Adena. However, evidence uncovered in 1991 disputed this age when radiocarbon dating performed on charcoal found within the mound found it to be only 900 years old. This evidence suggested that the presence of the Adena mounds nearby was happenstance, and the earthwork really was the work of the so-called Fort Ancient culture, who lived in the area from 1000CE to 1500CE. But this finding was itself overturned when a study performed in 2014 found new radio carbon dates suggesting the effigy was constructed around 300 CE, putting it firmly within the time period of the Adena culture.

So which age is right? It is difficult to tell, and more work is needed to pin point the age of the Serpent Mound as closely as possible. However, the difference in the two dates could stem from maintenance performed by later tribes who continued to utilize the site after the Adena passed into history. So, it is possible that the Fort Ancient peoples rebuilt sections of the mound, leaving behind charcoal remnants that were found by the 1991 study.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

If this is the case, it might explain the age of the effigy but it leaves many other questions. Why did the Adena build the mound in the first place, and what is it meant to represent? Clearly the mound served a ceremonial purpose rather than that of a burial place. Curves in the structure show different alignments with the sun, such as with the summer and winter solstices. Could the mound be a sort of gigantic calendar, meant to help Adena and later priests track the motions of the sky? And if it was ceremonial, what sorts of ceremonies were conducted there? These questions might never be answered, as the builders left no written language explaining their thinking. All that remains is the earthwork they left behind, a silent enigma among the green hills of southern Ohio.

 

Author’s Note: The photographs included in this post were taken by me when I visited the Serpent Mound in 2010. I wanted to include a bit about my own feelings and thoughts from visiting the site. Some report visiting this particular mound as a spiritual experience–in fact, I accidentally interrupted a very nice woman who was meditating on the site, who said it gave off good “energy.” I had no such feelings myself, but I did find myself in awe when I was standing up on the observation tower, visualizing the Adena using little more rudimentary tools to transport the dirt and build the mound. Keep in mind, they didn’t have the wheel nor beasts of burden. Everything they built was with sheer manpower. This must have been an extremely important site to warrant such an output of blood and sweat. The Serpent Mound had the feel of the sacred, and it is a unique experience I am glad to have had.

 

Sources:

https://www.ohiohistory.org/visit/museum-and-site-locator/serpent-mound

http://ancientearthworksproject.org/1/post/2014/07/new-radiocarbon-dates-suggest-serpent-mound-is-more-than-2000-years-old.html

http://archive.archaeology.org/9611/newsbriefs/serpentmound.html

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of the Mad King, Ludwig II of Bavaria

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria --- Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.

Among history’s most famous and tragic idealists is King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne. Soon after, he died under bizarre circumstances, the exact cause of his death remaining a mystery even 130 years later.

 

Upbringing and early life

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II was born August 1845 to Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia. The royal couple were aloof with Ludwig and his brother Otto. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else. Despite this restrictive environment, Ludwig II showed early that he had a vivid imagination. He enjoyed playing dress up, play acting, and loved art. He was generous with his possessions as well. Ludwig tended to keep to himself, and already was beginning to see himself as a divine sovereign. These traits would shape and define Ludwig for the rest of his life.

In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.

But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.

 

Castles, madness, and the death of a king

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.

He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry.  He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.

A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.

However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well.  The Bavarian government intervened in 1885. He was declared insane and deposed from the throne. The former king was interned in Berg Palace while the government decided what to do with him. Only a day later, Ludwig II was found floating in the lake, dead, along with this psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden.

 

What happened to the Mad King?

Ludwig II’s death was a mystery from day one. The king, who was a strong swimmer, was found floating in waist deep water. The Bavarian government claimed that the king had killed himself by drowning, and his psychiatrist ad died trying to save him. Few have bought this explanation, given the king’s piety. Many believe he was murdered by an assassin. Some fishermen on the lake claimed they heard gun shots that day, along with his psychiatrist who witnessed the killing. In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, but the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.

 

Sources:

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” neuschwanstein.de. 3/6/16. Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlosser Garten und Seen. http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/ludwig/biography.htm

 

Paterson, Tony. “Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig.” Independent.co.uk. 11/9/2007. Independent. 3/6/16. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/murder-mystery-of-mad-king-ludwig-399742.html

 

“The Death of King Ludwig II.” Lib.cam.ac.uk. 2009-2011. University of Cambridge. 3/6/16. http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/german/spotlight4.html

 

 

Ernst Hess: The Jew Saved by Hitler

Ernst Hess From Jewish Voice From Germany

Ernst Hess
From Jewish Voice From Germany

Adolf Hitler is a name that has become synonymous with evil. The atrocities committed under his fanatical Nazi government have become infamous. Needless to say, “Adolf Hitler” is not a name often associated with mercy, especially where Jews are concerned. However, there were some surprising instances where even Hitler put aside his monstrous hatred of the Jewish people and extended mercy, however brief, to certain individuals.

Such a case was confirmed in 2012 when Susanne Mauss, an editor with the Jewish Voice, discovered a note to the Dusseldorf Gestapo with an order from the Reich Chancellery  ordering that a judge by the name of Ernst Hess was not to be harassed in any way. The judge, whose despite being a Protestant was classified as a full-blooded Jew under Nazi Germany’s racial laws due to his mother being  a Jew, had received the personal protection of Adolf Hitler himself.

Before the letter, Hess suffered harassment from Nazis in Dusseldorf, once being on the receiving end of a beating by a gang of thugs. It got so bad that Hess had to move his family to South Tyrol, a region of Italy populated by Germans, to escape the growing persecution. The persecution of Jews during that time period is well known, but what separated Ernst Hess from the others was the fact that he had ties to top Nazis, including Hitler himself.

During World War I, Hess briefly served as Hitler’s superior officer in the List Regiment. Hitler retained a fondness for those he had served with during the war, even if few in the regiment remembered him. Hess, on the other hand, was well regarded by other veterans, and these ties might have been instrumental in getting him the temporary reprieve from the horrors of Nazi tyranny. One of Hess’ contacts was Fritz Wiedemann, who served as personal adjutant to Hitler from 1934 to 1939.Another was Hans Heinrich Lammers, who served as Head of the Reich Chancellery.

With these friends working in his favor, Hess was able to receive unusual leeway from top Nazis. He was able to have his pension transferred to Italy, to remove the red “J” marking him as a Jew from his passport and thus be able to travel, and to enjoy the general protection from persecution mentioned above.

Unfortunately, this protection only lasted until 1942. Hess was protected from deportation by virtue of being married to a German protestant. He worked in various forced labor camps until the end of the war in 1945. Hess’ family once believed the protection afforded him extended to them, but his mother and sister were both deported. His sister, Berta, died in Auschwitz, while his mother survived and eventually moved to Brazil to be with family.

As for Ernst Hess, he survived the war and was promptly offered another position as a judge. He declined, and went on to work as the President of the German Federal Railways Authority in Frankfurt/Main. He died on September 14th, 1983, at the age of 93.

 

Sources:

Associated Press. “’Hitler’s wish’ protected Jewish WWI vet.” FoxNews.com. July 6, 2012. Fox News. January 17, 2016. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/07/06/report-hitler-order-protected-jewish-wwi-veteran.html

Day, Matthew. “Adolf Hitler protected his Jewish former commanding officer.” Telegraph.co.uk. July 5, 2012. The Telegraph. January 17, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/9379575/Adolf-Hitler-protected-his-Jewish-former-commanding-officer.html

Mauss, Susanne. “Hitler’s Jewish Commander and Victim.” Jewish Voice From Germany.de. July 4, 2012. Jewish Voice From Germany. January 17, 2016. http://jewish-voice-from-germany.de/cms/hitlers-jewish-commander-and-victim/

 

An Update and the Future of Oddly Historical

Hello readers. You might have noticed that this site has been dormant for awhile. There has been a lot going on in my personal life, and blogging fell by the wayside for the last few months. However, yesterday I decided to start updating again, but the format will be a little different going forward. I’m going to be crunched for time starting next year, since I’ve decided to go to grad school. Between school and working full time, there isn’t going to be much free time for research or writing. So, odds are updates on this blog will be sporadic. I’ll try to update bimonthly, but we will see how it goes. As for content, it will be much the same, but the posts might be a little more concise. It just depends on what I have time for.

That all being said, it’s good to be back. Once you get the blogging itch, time away from it is nice but you also feel like you’re missing something. I’ve missed it, truth be told. So I hope you all will stick around. I’ll keep the weird history coming as often as I can!

An Immortal Mummy: The Immaculately Preserved Corpse of the Lady Dai

Xin_Zhui_3

The Lady Dai

Mummies are a recurring topic of interest on this site. I’ve had a personal interest in them since I was a kid. I remember getting out the local library’s copy of the Eyewitness book about mummies over and over. Perhaps it was a morbid fascination for a young boy to have, but that’s hardly the only strange interest I’ve pursued over the years. To regular readers, the fascination is pretty obvious. From bog bodies to frontier ruffians to dead philosophers, mummies are a pretty regularly recurring theme here. Today’s post looks at a part of the world that we’ve not explored much so far on this blog: China.

The world’s oldest continuous culture has certainly had its fair share of bizarre and interesting history. One such bit of strangeness was only discovered in 1971, when workers digging a bomb shelter near Changsha city when they stumbled across a massive tomb dating from the Han Dynasty. The more than 2000 year old complex housed more than 1000 artifacts in extraordinary condition, giving archaeologists a snapshot into the lives of the Chinese aristocracy. But the truly remarkable thing about the find lay in the center of the tomb complex. Hidden from the world for more than two millennia, the woman who is now known was the Lady of Dai, would finally see the light of day, and her mummy’s remarkable state of preservation would put even Egypt’s finest mummies to shame.

 

The Diva Mummy

There could be no doubt that Xin Zhui, the Lady of Dai, lived a life of luxury. Her tomb was stuffed full of luxuries only the wealthiest of Han era China could afford: a wardrobe containing 100 silk garments, 182 pieces of lacquer ware, make-up and other toiletries, and a vast array of delicacies the peasantry of her day could only dream of. To attend to her needs, the Lady of Dai saw that 162 carved wooden figurines representing servants were placed in the tomb as well. Xin Zhui lived the good life, and in her after life she wanted to be certain that the party continued. The opulence of her tomb led to the moniker by which she is best remembered—the Diva Mummy.

This luxury extended to the method by which she was buried. Her body swaddled in twenty layers of silk, immersed in a mildly acidic liquid, and sealed within four nested coffins. The coffins themselves were put in a massive burial vault constructed of cypress and lined with clay. This vault was then packed with 5 tons of charcoal, and then the top of the structure was sealed with 3 feet of clay. The elaborate construction of the tomb effectively made a water tight, air tight space where bacteria wouldn’t be able to thrive. The liquid also likely contributed to the Diva Mummy’s remarkable preservation, although no one is sure exactly how.

As for the mummy herself, at the time of her discovery she looked as if she had died only recently, not 2,000 years ago. Her skin was supple, and her joints flexed freely. Her hair was still intact, up to and including eyelashes and nose hair. Blood still remained in her veins as well—her blood type was Type A.

Pathologists were able to perform an autopsy on the Lady Dai, proving that her remarkable preservation was not merely skin deep. Her internal organs were fully intact, allowing the pathology team not only to ascertain what diseases she suffered from in life but how she died. Their results were telling. Her body was riddled with ailments familiar to any doctor today: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease, gall stones, and diabetes. She was obese, no doubt due to her opulent lifestyle and lack of exercise. Her lifestyle was likely what did her in—she passed away due to a heart attack at the age of 50. Her last meal was a serving of melons.

 

Mysteries remain.

The Diva Mummy’s tomb opened a window into a distant part of the past, giving a snapshot of the opulence of the Han aristocracy. But the discovery raised as many questions as it answered. The foremost being: how did the ancient Chinese manage to preserve her body so well? Clearly, mummification was a well developed art in Han China, but how did they develop these skills and what were the specific techniques employed? Obviously their method was not as invasive as that of the Egyptians, who removed many of the internal organs from their dead for separate preservation. It is apparent that the elaborate tomb structure played a large role in her preservation, but the strange liquid in which the mummy was immersed also played a part, although what exactly it was composed of remains a mystery.

Subsequent discoveries have only deepened the mystery. Two other mummies, likely the Lady Dai’s husband and son, were discovered in a similar state of preservation, but the liquid they were immersed in had different chemical properties. There may also be parts of the Han mummification process that are not readily apparent, such substances used in pre-burial rituals that might have had some effect on preservation. Until more discoveries remain, the how of Lady Dai’s remarkable preservation will remain a mystery lost to history.

 

Sources:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-08/25/content_368631.htm

http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/enduring-mystery-lady-dai-mummy-001357?nopaging=1

http://archive.archaeology.org/0905/abstracts/lady_dai.html

The Chicago Tylenol Murders

By Ragesoss - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3668817

By Ragesoss – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3668817

Most consumers think little about the potential hazards of the products they buy on a daily basis. The assumption is twofold: first, that the powers that be have protections in place to prevent the worst from happening, and second that no one would be ghoulish enough to deliberately tamper with something an unwitting person would consume. Today this is mostly true, but it was not the case in 1982, when a series of deaths sparked a national panic and nearly brought down a pharmaceutical giant. The murders, later dubbed the Chicago Tylenol Murders, remain unsolved, but the changes they brought to American consumer culture still impact consumers more than thirty years later.

The grisly crime began in September 1982, when 12-year old Mary Kellerman complained to her parents about a cold. The Kellerman’s gave her a Tylenol capsule. She died only hours later. The same morning, a postal worker named Adam Janus died of what was initially believed to be a heart attack. His brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Teresa, returned home after they heard news of the tragedy. They too died soon after taking Tylenol extra-strength capsules from the same bottle Adam had opened earlier in the day. Three more deaths followed in quick succession: Mary McFarland, Paula Prince, and Mary Weiner all succumbed to sudden deaths not long after consuming Tylenol capsules.

Police followed up on the only link the seven victims shared: the fact that they’d all consumed Tylenol hours or days before their death. The capsules in each case were sent to labs for testing which revealed a horrifying fact: the capsules had been laced with potassium cyanide, in a dose strong enough to kill a person many times over. Police concluded that since only Chicago area residents had been stricken by the cyanide, with no other deaths anywhere else in the country, the capsules must have been tampered with at the store level rather than the manufacturing level. They surmised that the killer must have taken bottles off the shelves of local stores, poisoned the capsules, and returned them to store shelves. So, the murders were not targeted but rather random acts against unknown victims. Police were baffled as to a possible motive for the killings.

The deaths sparked a frenzy of panic across the country. Worried people flooded hospitals and swamped poison control hotlines, concerned that they had consumed tainted medicine. Adding fuel to the fire, copycats looking for their own five minutes of fame tainted Tylenol caps with everything from rat poison to hydrochloric acid. There were over two hundred instances of copycats in the month following the Tylenol murders. For its part, Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, responded to the murders and subsequent panic by pulling all Tylenol products and advertising, an act costing it millions of dollars. The future of the company was left in doubt; it seemed there was no way for the giant to rebound from this disaster.

As for the person or people who started the panic, police were at a loss. In October 1982, tax consultant James Lewis wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding a million dollars to “stop the killings.” Police tracked down Lewis in New York. Lewis denied having anything to do with the Tylenol murders, but his denial didn’t stop investigators from suspecting him. He had a murky past. In Kansas City in 1978, he was charged with murder after police found remains of a former client of his stuffed into bags in his attic. The charges were dropped when a judge found the police searched his home illegally. Despite his murderous history, Lewis could never be concretely tied to the Tylenol murders. However, the letter was enough to charge him with extortion, which would lead to Lewis serving 13 years of a 20 year sentence in a federal prison. In 2008, the FBI reopened their investigation, with a renewed focus on Lewis as a probable suspect. However, their investigation turned up no new leads. The culprit remains a mystery.

In the wake of the murders, Johnson & Johnson took the lead, pledging to protect their customers from such attacks. They introduced tamper-proof packaging, which eventually became the industry standard for all over-the-counter medications. They also introduced the caplet, a tablet that was as easy to swallow as a capsule but much harder to tamper with. Tylenol rebounded in the wake of the killings, and once again became the top selling over-the-counter pain killer. The government responded as well. In 1983, Congress passed the “Tylenol bill,” which made it a felony to tamper with consumer products. For its part, the Food and Drug Administration established federal guidelines for manufacturers to adopt the new tamper-proof packaging.

The unfortunate truth is that it often takes a tragedy like the Chicago Tylenol Murders to put into place protections that, in retrospect, seem obvious. However, no one at the time could conceive that a person could be so twisted as to poison an over-the-counter medication used by millions of all ages. Seven people died, killed for reasons that might never be found. It is small comfort to their loved ones, but their deaths led to protections that have kept millions of people from meeting the same fate in the decades since.

 

Toxic Algae and the Strange True Story of ‘The Birds’

A Sooty Shearwater By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Sooty Shearwater
By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Birds is considered by many to be among the scariest movies ever made. The 1963 Alfred Hitchcock classic is set in a small California seaside town that is plagued by a massive flock of aggressive birds that attack people on a whim and disappear as mysteriously as they came. What could have been a ludicrous premise is made tense and suspenseful in Hitchcock’s masterful hands.

While the movie was based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, an event that occurred in North Monterrey Bay in California two years before its release also had a strong impact on the movie. In August of 1961, a flock of birds called sooty shearwaters, invaded the communities surrounding the bay, a real life event that eerily paralleled those of the movie.

 

A night time invasion

The avian assault came at about 3 in the morning, when residents were roused from their sleep by the sounds of birds slamming into their homes. Residents who went outside with flashlights were flocked by birds, which were drawn to the light.

The strange event lasted until daylight. Residents emerged from their homes to find the streets littered with dead birds and fish the excited fowl vomited up. The air stunk of fish.

Residents were understandably confused by the turn of events. No one had seen anything quite like this before. Ward Russel, who was a museum zoologist at the University of California, offered a plausible explanation. He believed that the birds were feeding on a school of anchovy when a heavy fog rolled over their flock. They became disoriented in the fog and headed toward the only discernible beacon in the gloom—the streetlights and houselights from the communities of Monterrey Bay.

Many weren’t satisfied by this explanation, but no others were forthcoming. The incident remained a mystery for thirty years, until a similar occurrence revealed the strange explanation for the bird’s odd behaviors.

 

Poisoned birds

Thirty years later, brown pelicans in Monterrey Bay engaged in similar behavior as the shearwaters in the 1961 incident. This time though, a culprit for the odd behavior was found. Domoic acid, a substance that can cause symptoms such as confusion, disorientation, scratching, seizures, and even death was found in their system. This toxin is produced by certain species of algae, which are consumed by fish and other species, which are themselves consumed by sea birds. The acid gets more concentrated as it moves up the food chain, so as the birds feed on fish they ingest stronger and stronger doses of the toxins. Evidence for similar poisonings was found in the preserved remains from the 1961 incident, proving that the strange incident that August morning, while unusual, was well within the realm of the natural.

 

Sources:

Ludka, Alexandria, “Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’” Mystery Solved.” Abcnews.go.com. December 28, 2011. ABC News. May 1, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2011/12/hitchcocks-the-birds-mystery-solved/

Parry, Wynne. “Blame Hitchock’s Crazed Birds on Toxic Algae.” Livescience.com. January 3, 2012. LiveScience. March 1, 2016. http://www.livescience.com/17713-hitchcock-birds-movie-algae-toxin.html

Santa Cruz Sentinel and Trabing, Wally. “Birds ‘Invade’ Santa Cruz, California.” Santacruzpl.org. Santa Cruz Public Libraries. March 1, 2016. http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/articles/183/

 

Grave Guns and Grave Torpedoes

A Mortsafe, another, less spectacular method for protecting graves from bodysnatchers.  By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Mortsafe, another, less spectacular method for protecting graves from bodysnatchers.
By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, a ghoulish profession thrived in England the the United States. They bore such names as resurrection men and grave robbers, but they were best known as body snatchers. The profession arose as a result of advancements in medicine and a boom in the number of medical schools across both countries, which in turn led to a spike in the demand for corpses needed for dissection in anatomy classes. Legal methods of procuring bodies, which primarily relied upon the executions of criminals or on individuals to donate their bodies to science, were woefully inadequate to keeping up with the demand. Body snatchers plied their gruesome trade to fill the gap, stealing recently buried bodies from cemeteries and selling them for a profit to doctors and medical academies.

The cottage industry of body snatching, in turn, created a demand for methods to protect the graves of the recently departed. One method is shown in the image above–the Mortsafe, a cage to keep robbers out, contrary to the popular belief that the bars were meant to keep the dead in. But perhaps the strangest of these security measures were the cemetery guns and torpedoes. Cemetery guns were flintlock guns mounted on graves that were attached to trip wires, which when disturbed would trigger the weapon. They could be loaded with bird shot, rock salt, or more deadly projectiles. The weapons would be removed by cemetery keepers during the day so that loved ones could visit graves without fear, then reset at night when the resurrection men would be more likely to attempt to steal bodies. The routine also ensured that any scouts sent by gangs of resurrection men to look for any such defenses would be none the wiser.

Cemetery guns were banned in England in the 1820s, when the trend for grave defense turned to more passive means such as placing heavy iron grates over graves. Across the Atlantic, the United States was dealing with its own epidemic of grave robbery, and similar to their English cousins, Americans went to extreme means to stop the scourge. The crime became especially popular after the Civil War, when medical schools were opening at an unprecedented rate. It was no coincidence then that several so-called “grave torpedoes” hit the market during the post war years.

These devices built on the Civil War torpedo, which today we would call mines, and adapted the design to the needs of grave defense. The device built by inventor Thomas N Howell weighted in at 8lbs and carried a charge of powder that would be detonated via percussion cap when a metal plate placed above the device was disturbed. These and other designs proved effective: one of Howell’s torpedoes killed three men in 1881 in a cemetery in Knox County, Ohio.

Cemeteries once again became places of peace rather than mine fields when changes in the law and technology led to the end of bodysnatching. Medical schools were eventually allowed to acquire unclaimed bodies, and gradually the stigma of donating one’s body to science reduced, leading to more donations. This reduced demand for illegal cadavers. The advent of refrigeration in the early 1900s allowed schools to store cadavers, another blow to the bodysnatching trade. Finally, many states enacted laws requiring coffins to be placed inside heavy, sealed vaults, making the bodies within all but inaccessible to would be robbers. The age of the bodysnatcher, and the grave weapons meant to ward them off, had come to an end.

Sources:

Eger, Chris, “Cemetery Guns and Grave Torpedoes.” Guns.com. August 6, 2012. Guns.com. January 17, 2016. http://www.guns.com/2012/08/06/cemetery-guns-grave-torpedoes/

“Grave-Robbing,” Ohiohistorycentral.org. Ohio History Connection. January 17, 2016. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Grave-robbing?rec=2701

Onion, Rebecca, “The ‘Cemetery Gun’: One Defense Against Grave Robbers.” Slate.com. January 29, 2013. Slate. January 17, 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/01/29/cemetery_gun_invented_to_thwart_grave_robbers.html