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.



Associated Press. “’Hitler’s wish’ protected Jewish WWI vet.” July 6, 2012. Fox News. January 17, 2016.

Day, Matthew. “Adolf Hitler protected his Jewish former commanding officer.” July 5, 2012. The Telegraph. January 17, 2016.

Mauss, Susanne. “Hitler’s Jewish Commander and Victim.” Jewish Voice From July 4, 2012. Jewish Voice From Germany. January 17, 2016.


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


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.



The Chicago Tylenol Murders

By Ragesoss - Own work, GFDL,

By Ragesoss – Own work, GFDL,

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 ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Sooty Shearwater
By JJ Harrison ( – 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.



Ludka, Alexandria, “Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’” Mystery Solved.” December 28, 2011. ABC News. May 1, 2016.

Parry, Wynne. “Blame Hitchock’s Crazed Birds on Toxic Algae.” January 3, 2012. LiveScience. March 1, 2016.

Santa Cruz Sentinel and Trabing, Wally. “Birds ‘Invade’ Santa Cruz, California.” Santa Cruz Public Libraries. March 1, 2016.


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.


Eger, Chris, “Cemetery Guns and Grave Torpedoes.” August 6, 2012. January 17, 2016.

“Grave-Robbing,” Ohio History Connection. January 17, 2016.

Onion, Rebecca, “The ‘Cemetery Gun’: One Defense Against Grave Robbers.” January 29, 2013. Slate. January 17, 2016.


The Ghost Blimp

An L-8 blimp.

An L-8 blimp.

Ghost ships have been a facet of history since humans first began to explore the world’s vast oceans.  Vehicles lost under mysterious circumstances, ghost ships evoke a sense of mystery and loss. One such lonely vessel haunted the Arctic for decades, before being lost to the endlessly churning icebergs. There are hundreds of similar stories, ships and crews lost to the enigmatic waters.

But ships are not the only vehicles that can become ghosts. One of the strangest stories of ghostly vehicles comes out of World War II.  Blimps were used for a variety of purposes during the war, from reconnaissance to anti-submarine patrols to protection from dive bombers.  They were useful because they could hover in place for long time periods and could also fly for long distances without needing to refuel.

In 1942, one such blimp, an L-8, went on a patrol off the California coast, never to return. What happened to the blimp, and her crew, remains an enduring mystery to this day.


A foggy morning

The morning of Sunday, August 16, 1942 was a foggy one. When the Navy blimp was set to take off from Treasure Island, her crew was reduced from three to two, owing to the increased weight caused by the mist that had settled on the skin of the balloon. So, Lt. Ernest DeWitt Cody, the pilot, and Ensign Charles E. Adams took off that day, while Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class James Riley Hill remained on the ground. The decision would save Hill’s life.

When the L-8 took off on its anti-submarine patrol, everything seemed normal. An hour and a half into the flight, Lt. Cody radioed back to base saying that they had seen a possible oil slick that warranted investigation. No further communications were heard from the doomed blimp.

At 11:15, witnesses saw the blimp floating in from the ocean, near San Francisco. The blimp drifted further to Daly City, where it was losing altitude. It hit a bluff, and dropped a depth charge on a golf course. It hit roofs and a car before settling down on Bellevue Avenue. When rescuers rushed to assist the stricken crew, they found the cabin empty.


An enduring mystery

Investigators found that the life raft and parachutes were still in the cabin. The life jackets were missing. For some unknown reason, the pilot had set the motor to idle, and propped open the door. The radio still worked, so there was a mystery as to why, if something went wrong, the pair didn’t call for help. Some believed that they were captured by an enemy submarine. Others believed the crew got into some sort of fight and fell out of blimp. Still another story was that one member of the crew fell and accidentally pulled his would be rescuer down into the ocean.

Whatever the case, neither man was ever found, and they were officially declared dead. The blimp continued to serve in the Navy as a training vessel. After the war, it was returned to Goodyear, where it was put into storage before eventually being rebuilt in 1968 as one of the famous Goodyear Blimps, where it flew over Houston, Texas until it was retired in 1982.



Levy, Joan, “Daly City’s ‘Ghost Blimp’ remains mystery.” December 19, 2005. The Daily Journal. January 17, 2016.

Price, Mark J. “’Ghost’ blimp mystery lingers.” August 18, 2002. The Chronicle. January 17, 2016.


The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

The Arthur's Seat Coffins By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins
By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Arthur’s Seat, a hill near the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, is a place that inspires mystery and wonder. Cited by legend as a potential site for  Camelot, the hill has long had a place in local Scottish folklore, but perhaps the strangest story surrounding Arthur’s Seat is very much rooted in reality.

In June of 1836, five local boys were hunting for rabbits when they stumbled across something bizarre hidden in a rocky recess in the northeast side of the hill—17 tiny coffins, containing carved figures dressed in customized clothing.

No one at the time—or since—knew what to make of the odd figurines. The Scotsman, reporting on the story soon after the discovery, postulated that the figures were used in some malevolent witchcraft ritual. The Edinburgh Evening Post took its own stab at an explanation, claiming that the dolls were laid to rest by a modern practioner of an ancient custom from Saxony of burying effigies of friends who had died in far off lands.

None of these explanations were quite satisfactory, though. In time, the figures were forgotten. Of the 17 initially discovered, only about 8 survived, the rest having been destroyed by the boys themselves. In 1901, these remaining eight were donated by a private collector to the Musuem of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and then to the National Museums of Scotland. The conclusion these august institutions reached were in line with that of the Edinburgh Post—they were some sort of proxy burial. Who the effigies were meant to honor, no one knew.

While the mystery of why the coffins were made remained, in the 1990s more research into the dolls themselves shed more light on the circumstances of their creation. The figurines themselves were all created in the same style, probably by the same person, probably as a set. Their swinging arms, flat feet, and stiff bearing suggest they were originally crafted to be toy soldiers, while their open eyes suggest they were not intended to be corpses. This is further reinforced by the fact that some of the figures are missing their arms, which were in all probability removed so they could fit in the diminutive coffins. This led to the inference that the person who made the dolls and the person who made the coffins were two different people. The fabric the figures are clothed in is from the early 1830s, so they couldn’t have been buried much more than six years before they were discovered.

None of this shed any light on exactly why the little bodies were laid to rest on Arthur’s Seat. One more modern explanations is that the figures were tied to the infamous duo Burke and Hare, who killed 17 people in Edinburgh and sold the bodies to a medical school for dissection. The thinking goes that the figures were laid to rest in honor of those killed by the duo. The only real relation between the killings and the figures is the fact that they are close to one another chronologically—other than that, there is no relation between the two. In the end, two hundred years later, the mystery of the Arthur’s Seat is no closer to being solved.


McLean, David. “Lost Edinburgh: The Arthur’s Seat coffins.” March 17, 2014. The Scotsman. March 28, 2016.

“The Mystery of the Miniature Coffins.” The National Museum of Scotland. March 28, 2016.


The Strange Journey of Frederick Chopin’s Heart

Frederic Chopin

Frederic Chopin

For most, death is a somber and sedate affair. Bodies generally don’t venture much further than the local mortuary to the cemetery. Some bodies, however, take a much more adventurous path to the hereafter. One good example was the strange story of Elmer McCurdy, a two-bit criminal whose mummified corpse ended up on the set of the 6 Million Dollar Man before finally being laid to rest.

A more famous historical figure had an afterlife that was no less strange. Frederick Chopin, the famous 19th century composer well known for his genius on the piano, died from what was long believed to be tuberculosis in 1849 in Paris. On his death bed, the composer asked that his heart be brought back to his native Poland even as his body rested in Paris.

The task fell to his eldest sister, Ludwika Jedrzejewicz, who had her brother’s heart removed from his chest and placed in a sealed crystal jar filled with cognac. The jar was then encased in an urn of mahogany and oak. Then, a few months later, she smuggled the organ into Poland, passed Russian and Austrian inspectors, by hiding it under her cloak (other versions of the story have her smuggling the urn in under her dress.)

It wasn’t until 1879 that Chopin’s heart was placed in its present resting place—a pillar within the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. A memorial slab placed on the pillar reads: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The pillar became a source of Polish pride, even as the country was occupied by tsarist forces, and it became something of a national monument once Poland declared independence in 1918. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the country was quickly bowled over by the German juggernaut. The occupiers did their level best to crush the spirit of the Poles. Aware of how much power Chopin and his music had to stir the hearts of the Polish people, the Nazis banned performances of his music and destroyed a statue erected in his honor.

Later, when the city was flattened in the fighting that occurred during the failed Warsaw Uprising, Holy Cross itself was damaged. Fearing that the heart was in danger of being destroyed, a German priest approached his Polish counterparts and asked if they’d let him remove the heart to a safer place. The Polish priests eventually agreed. Eventually, the heart came into the possession of a high-ranking S.S officer named Heinz Reinefarth. A fan of Chopin, he made certain the heart was kept safe at the Nazi headquarters.

When the fighting stopped, Erich von dem Bach Zelewski, the German commander in the region, returned the heart. He attempted to make quite a show of it, commissioning a film crew to document the transfer to the new archbishop of Warsaw. However, the lights set up to illuminate the spectacle malfunctioned, ruining the Nazi’s propaganda attempt.

With the heart back in Polish hands, the priests of Holy Cross were afraid that the Germans would claim the organ once again. They moved the urn to Milanowek, outside Warsaw, to hide it. On October 17, 1945, Chopin’s heart was returned to Holy Cross. The burial was a patriotic spectacle. Crowds gathered to fly white and red flags and throw flowers in the path of the vehicle carrying the relic.

The heart rested for the next several decades, untouched but still a source of pride for the Polish people. In 2014, a team of scientists, historians, and clergy removed the heart to examine it to determine whether the cause of death was tuberculosis or, as some suspect, cystic fibrosis. The jar was resealed with hot wax and re-interred, not to be disturbed for another fifty years. The ultimate result was that it is still believed that Chopin died of tuberculosis complicated by other lung diseases. Any further testing will be up to a new generation of Poles. In the mean time, the pianist’s heart can finally rest peacefully in his native land.



Phillip, Abby. “Inside the secret operation to exhume Frederic Chopin’s heart.” November 17, 2014. The Washington Post. February 15, 2016.

Ross, Alex. “Chopin’s Heart.” February 5, 2014. The New Yorker. February 15, 2016.

Tsioulcas, Anastasia “Uncovering the Heart of Chopin—Literally.” November 17, 2014. NPR. February 15, 2016.


Ota Benga–The Man Who Was Caged at the Bronx Zoo

Ota Benga, 1904

Ota Benga, 1904

America loves a spectacle. Something about the American character lends itself to both showmanship, both a love of showmanship and a predilection toward the grandiosity necessary to be a showman. Not necessarily bad in itself, this quality can be easily turned toward fraud and forgery, as the stone giant crazes of the 19th century can attest.

Aside from fraud, the love of showmanship can have a dark, shameful side. Perhaps one of the most shameful episodes were the human exhibitions. Popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these exhibitions consisted of people brought from all corners of the globe and exhibited in mock ups of their native villages for the American public’s amusement. These exhibitions were meant to show off America’s imperial power, but they also had a deeper, more dark intent. They were meant to show the progress of human civilization, from the depths of savagery to the enlightenment of 20th century life. Implicit to the thought process behind these shows was a belief in the supposed superiority of the white race over the darker skinned races.

One of the most infamous of these exhibitions occurred in New York in 1906, when a Pygmy from the Congo was put on exhibition in the monkey cage at the Bronx Zoo. His name was Ota Benga, and his sad story showed the racial prejudices and ideological divisions that plagued, and still plague, America.


A life of struggle

Ota Benga’s life was already a difficult one before he found himself presented as a spectacle to the inhabitants of New York City. At the time, Ota Benga’s native Congo was under the rule of Belgium. The white rulers were bloody and violent toward the native peoples of the Congo, including the pygmys. Ota’s family was slaughtered in a violent attack by the Force Publique, a military force in service to the King of Belgium. The Force Publique sold Ota into slavery to a tribe called the Baschilele. It was in the slave market when Ota Benga first crossed paths with Samuel Phillips Verner, an anthropologist from South Carolina with an obsession for all things African.

Verner had been dispatched to Africa, in part, to find pygmies and members of other tribes to take back to St. Louis as part of a so-called anthropology exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair. Members of various tribes would be brought there to live in replicas of their traditional houses, for the delight of a predominantly white audience.  Verner bought Ota Benga from his owners both for his gregarious nature and his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points, and brought him back to America for the exhibition. When the fair was over, he returned the tribespeople to their various homes. However, this was not the end of the story for Ota Benga.


Ota Benga arrives in New York

Ota Benga arrived in New York City in 1906. First, Verner left the pygmy at the American Museum of Natural History with some chimpanzees and the various collectibles he gathered in Africa. Verner himself was out of money, and returned to the South to raise funds, leaving Ota in the care of Hermon Bumpus. The pygmy was allowed to wander the museum, wearing a white duck suit bought for him by Bumpus. However, Ota did not much enjoy his stay in the museum, and became difficult. He once reportedly threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim, a philanthropist. Bumpus then suggested to Verner that the pygmy should be lodged at the Bronx zoo. Thus, the strangest episode in Ota’s sad, odd life began.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

As before at the museum, Ota was given free range at the zoo. He enjoyed helping the zookeepers with the animals. Especially, he spent a lot of time in the monkey cage caring for one of Verner’s chimps and an orangutan named Dohong. Ota only gradually became a spectacle. When zookeepers noticed how much time he was spending in the monkey cage, they goaded him into hanging his hammock in there. Then, they provided him with a bow and arrow to practice his target shooting. Then, the crowds came to gawk at the captive “savage,” who was inadvertently performing for the masses.

Once word got out, thousands came to see the Ota Benga exhibit, to marvel at the pygmy and his ape companions. Protests from the Colored Baptist Minister’s Conference soon brought an end to the spectacle, but even so Ota’s lot in life didn’t improve much. Thousands still came to see the pygmy in the Monkey House. They followed him around the zoo, yelling insults, poking him, and tripping him. Understandably, Ota became hard to control, threatening to attack his tormentors.


The end of Ota Benga

By September 1906, Verner decided to send Ota Benga to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. From there he was transferred to Lynchburg in January 1910. Ota had his teeth capped and started to go by Otto Bingo. He spent a lot of time hunting and gathering plants, and worked in a tobacco factory. He rubbed elbows with such luminaries a the poet Anne Spencer and the civil rights leaders, W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Ota also spent time with the children living in the orphanage, showing them how to hunt and gather plants. He would build fires and dance, singing songs of his homeland.

Over time, the Ota Benga became more and more morose, his songs sadder, full of longing for his home in the Congo. He lacked the means to return, and this seemed to have crushed his spirit. By 1916, he was in a full depression, sometimes spending long stretches sitting silently under a tree, showing no interest in the hunting and fishing that had filled his time before. On the night of March 19, 1916, Ota Benga shot himself in the heart. His strange story remains today as a reminder of the prejudice and racism that remains in the dark depths of our collective thinking.



“A Fresh Lens on the Notorious Episode of Ota Benga.” May 29, 2015. The New York Times. February 28, 2016.

Keller, Mitch. “The Scandal at the Zoo.” August 6, 2006. The New York Times. February 28, 2016.

Newkirk, Pamela. “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo.” June 3, 2015. The Guardian. February 28, 2016.