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

 

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.

 

Sources:

Levy, Joan, “Daly City’s ‘Ghost Blimp’ remains mystery.” Archives.smdailyjournal.com. December 19, 2005. The Daily Journal. January 17, 2016. http://archives.smdailyjournal.com/article_preview.php?id=52401

Price, Mark J. “’Ghost’ blimp mystery lingers.” Chron.com. August 18, 2002. The Chronicle. January 17, 2016. http://www.chron.com/news/nation-world/article/Ghost-blimp-mystery-lingers-2106611.php

 

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.

Sources:

McLean, David. “Lost Edinburgh: The Arthur’s Seat coffins.” Scotsman.com. March 17, 2014. The Scotsman. March 28, 2016. http://www.scotsman.com/news/lost-edinburgh-the-arthur-s-seat-coffins-1-3342913

“The Mystery of the Miniature Coffins.” Nms.ac.uk. The National Museum of Scotland. March 28, 2016. http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collections-stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mystery-of-the-miniature-coffins

 

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.

 

Sources:

Phillip, Abby. “Inside the secret operation to exhume Frederic Chopin’s heart.” Washingtonpost.com. November 17, 2014. The Washington Post. February 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/11/17/inside-the-secret-operation-to-exhume-frederic-chopins-heart/

Ross, Alex. “Chopin’s Heart.” Newyorker.com. February 5, 2014. The New Yorker. February 15, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/chopins-heart

Tsioulcas, Anastasia “Uncovering the Heart of Chopin—Literally.” NPR.org. November 17, 2014. NPR. February 15, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2014/11/17/364756853/uncovering-the-heart-of-chopin-literally

 

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.

 

Sources:

“A Fresh Lens on the Notorious Episode of Ota Benga.” Nytimes.com. May 29, 2015. The New York Times. February 28, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/nyregion/a-fresh-lens-on-the-notorious-episode-of-ota-benga.html

Keller, Mitch. “The Scandal at the Zoo.” Nytimes.com. August 6, 2006. The New York Times. February 28, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/thecity/06zoo.html?pagewanted=all

Newkirk, Pamela. “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo.” Theguardian.com. June 3, 2015. The Guardian. February 28, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/03/the-man-who-was-caged-in-a-zoo

 

Ken McElroy and the Town That Kept Silent

The Grave of Ken McElroy By Bos174 (Took picture at cemetery) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Grave of Ken McElroy
By Bos174 (Took picture at cemetery) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Life in small town America is increasingly romanticized as more and more Americans move to cities. Pop culture likes to portray rural hamlets as idyllic places with quirky citizens who are full of homespun wisdom, getaways where the materialistic city dweller can vacation away from their stressful urban lifestyle and maybe learn a few life lessons while they’re at it.

While there is perhaps some truth to this, another trope about small towns is that they all harbor deep, dark secrets whose truths are not easily discovered. After all, small towns are in reality large families, with a sense of identity that comes from close kinship among its members. Secrets die hard when a community closes ranks and refuses to talk.

Skidmore, Missouri was just such a town. On July 10, 1981, the town’s most notorious member, Ken Rex McElroy, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of thirty or forty townspeople. More than 30 years later, authorities are no closer to solving the mystery of who pulled the trigger.

 

Skidmore’s Town Bully

Ken McElroy was the terror of Skidmore. A big man with a bad temper and no conscience, he did as he pleased and if anyone had the audacity to get in his way, he didn’t hesitate to resort to violence. His reign of terror over the 437 residents of Skidmore lasted for decades. From assault, to rape, to theft, McElroy was such a prolific criminal that his attorney, Richard McFadin, claimed to have defended his client from upwards of three felony convictions a year. McElroy, who never seemed to be hurting for money despite never holding down a job, paid his attorney in cash whatever amount was necessary to stay out of jail.

The strategy seemed to work, because despite a laundry list of crimes, law enforcement could never make any charges stick to McElroy. It seemed that the bully would continue to terrorize Skidmore Indefinitely. That is, until McElroy tried to murder the local grocer, the elderly Bo Bowenkamp, over some candy.

Trena McElroy, Ken’s wife, told her husband that Lois Bownenkamp, the grocer’s wife, had accused their daughter of stealing candy. Mrs. Bowenkamp tried to soothe the hurt feelings by explaining away the incident as a misunderstanding, but Ken McElroy, never one to let matters drop, offered the elderly woman money to fight Trena McElroy over the dispute. When she refused, McElroy camped out in his pickup truck outside the Bowenkamp’s home at night, on two occasions firing his shotgun into the air.

One July night in 1980, McElroy took the dispute to dangerous proportions. Bo Bowenkamp stood on the loading dock of his grocery store, waiting for a repairman. McElroy pulled up in his pickup truck, pulled out his shotgun, and unloaded a round of buckshot at the elderly grocer. The round tore through Bowenkamp’s neck, and the old man collapsed. McElroy fled the scene, but was picked up later that night by State Troopers. Bowenkamp survived his wounds. The town was outraged by the attack, calling for justice. McElroy would subsequently go to trial, but justice grinds slow, and the bureaucratic court system would once again fail Skidmore, setting the stage for an act of vigilante justice that remains unsolved to this day.

 

Skidmore’s Reckoning

Ken McElroy received a two year sentence for shooting Bowenkamp. McFadin put in an appeal, and much to Skidmore’s dismay, McElroy was freed on bond. He showed up in the D&G Tavern with a rifle, telling the bar dwellers that he intended to finish the job he started the previous year. Carrying the rifle violated his bond, and several witnesses agreed to testify. But once again McElroy was able to duck his comeuppance, because his lawyer was able to postpone the bond hearing. Skidmore was infuriated, and some among the villagers decided enough was enough.

On Friday July 10, 1981, Ken and Trena McElroy drove into town in Ken’s signature pickup truck. McElroy pulled up in front of the bar and went inside for some cigarettes. A large crowd gathered, including patrons from the bar. McElroy started his truck and lit a cigarette. Shots cracked through the morning stillness, coming from both in front of and behind the truck. McElroy was struck several times in the head and neck.  No one called for an ambulance, and when sheriff’s deputies arrived, no one but Trena said they saw anything. The wall of silence went up that day, and to this day it remains standing.

More than thirty years have passed since that July morning when Skidmore gunned down its most notorious citizen. Those years have not been kind to Skidmore—its population has shrunk by nearly half, and the local grocery, the bar and the gas station have all closed down. Many of the protagonists in this strange story have moved on or passed away. Meanwhile, the murder of Ken McElroy remains an open case, one that law enforcement will not solve anytime soon.

 

Sources:

Bradley, Donald. “3 decades on, who killed Skidmore town bully still secret.” Mcclatchydc.com. August 29, 2010. McClatchyDC. March 6, 2016. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/crime/article24591469.html

Reese, Diana. “Law fails Skidmore.” Washingtonpost.com. July 10, 2012. The Washington Post. March 6, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/law-fails-skidmore-mo/2012/07/10/gJQAV7L7aW_blog.html

Sulzberger, A.G. “Town Mute for 30 Years About a Bully’s Killing.” Nytimes.com. December 15, 2010. March 6, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/us/16bully.html

 

 

 

The Mystery of Skeleton Lake

Roopkund Lake By Schwiki - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35324114

Roopkund Lake
By Schwiki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35324114

The soaring heights of the Himalayas have long sparked the imagination of human beings. While Everest is the highest peak among the massive mountain chains, and has in the last one hundred years become the site of a bleak open graveyard, there are other, stranger places tucked among the peaks who have no less of a grisly history. One such place lay among the Garwhal Himalayas, at a dizzying height of 16,000 feet. There is a lake, Roopkund Lake, that has played host to a macabre mystery that has gone unsolved for 1200 years, until now.

Surrounded by glaciers and bleak stretches of rocks, the approximately six foot deep lake is generally covered in ice and snow most of the year. When the snow melts in the warmer months, it reveals a gruesome secret: skeletons, hundreds of them, scattered in and around the lake. Some of the bodies still have bits of flesh and hair stuck to the otherwise bare bones.

Explanations of where the unfortunates came from have varied over the years. Some believed the dead were victims of some strange ritual murder performed on the shores of the high lake. Others believed attendees of some ritual were perhaps killed by a sudden epidemic, or perhaps killed themselves in a suicide ritual. In the 19th century, some speculated that the bodies belonged to the army under General Zorawar Singh of Kashmir, who disappeared returning from the battle of Tibet in 1841.

All seemed plausible, until 21st century technology revealed several details about the mystery bodies. A team with the National Geographic magazine retrieved several of the skeletons and took them to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, where genetic tests were run. The results were revealing. The skeletons were made up of men, women, and children, and all were of Indian descent, and dated from 850AD. Some were Brahmins from the region of Maharashta.  The lake has long been the site of a pilgrimage every twelve years called the Nanda Devi Raj, where the devout worship the Goddess Nanda. Judging by the diversity of the skeletons and the probably presence of Brahmins amongst the dead, it is likely that the victims were a group of such pilgrims.

Examinations of the bones showed that the victims were struck a killing blow to the head by something round. The lack of injuries to any other parts of the bodies ruled out deaths by violence or avalanche. Researchers then concluded that the victims died when huge hailstones fell on them from above in what must have been a freak hailstorm.

There are more mysteries to be solved about what exactly happened at Skeleton Lake. The site is in danger from the hundreds of hikers who visit it every year. Bones have a tendency to disappear, or they are rearranged or otherwise desecrated by visitors.

 

Sources:

Alam, Aniket, “Fathoming the Ancient Remains of Roopkund,” thehindu.com. June 29, 2004. The Hindu. January 15, 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/2004/06/29/stories/2004062905461200.htm

“National Geographic expos solves Roopkund skeleton mystery,” archive.deccanherald.com. October 20, 2004. Deccan Herald. January 15, 2016. http://archive.deccanherald.com/Deccanherald/oct302004/n12.asp

“Roopkund lake’s skeleton mystery solved: Scientists reveal bones belong to 9th century people who died during heavy hail storm,” indiatoday.intotoday.in. May 31, 2013. India Today. January 15, 2016. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/uttarakhand-roopkund-skeleton-lake-mystery-solved-bones-9th-century-tribesmen-died-of-hail-storms/1/277681.html

 

Provincetowne’s Black Flash

A beach front art class in 1940. Could some of the summer visitors, such as these, been responsible for the panic that gripped the town in 1939, or was something more sinister at work?

A beach front art class in 1940. Could some of the summer visitors, such as these, been responsible for the panic that gripped the town in 1939, or was something more sinister at work?

Shadowy figures have long haunted the pages of history. From ghosts to goblins to things less mentionable, the human psyche has a habit of inventing monsters to inhabit the dark reaches of the unknown. Several such figures have been chronicled on this site: the Halifax Slasher, the London Monster, and Spring-Heeled Jack, to name a few. Today, we’ll be adding another cloaked and hooded terror to the rogue’s gallery, this one known by a name straight out of a comic book: the Black Flash.

The year was 1939. The winds of war were blowing in Europe as Nazi tyranny began its spread. German submarines lurked off the Atlantic Coast, and the American public feared the growing likelihood of war. It was out of this atmosphere that the Black Flash appeared in Provincetown, Rhode Island. The village was tormented for a few weeks in the fall, scaring children and leading to a puzzle that still has people scratching their heads: who, or what, was the Black Flash of Provincetown?

 

A figure in black

School children on their way home from class were the first to report the black phantom. They claimed that a tall figure, dressed all in black, would appear from nowhere and disappear just as fast. Huge, and impossibly fast, it seemed the creature aimed only to frighten, a job it did exceedingly well.  The adults in town didn’t take the accounts very seriously, at least until one of their own saw the ghostly figure.

Mary Costas was walking by town hall one night in October when a tall figure dressed all in black jumped out of the bushes in front of her. The creature had glowing blue eyes, silver ears, and could jump impossibly high. The frightened Costas ran into a nearby coffee shop for help. A group of men who ran outside to look for the creature found nothing. Police who arrived at the scene thought the whole affair a big joke, despite Costas being genuinely frightened.

After Costas’ terrifying encounter, several more townspeople saw the monster. Reports were scattered all over town; as police received a call from a resident on one end of town claiming they had seen the beast running through their yard, another call would simultaneously come in from the opposite end of town. Even police began to believe the monster might be some sort of devil.  Townspeople knew the beast by various names: the Provincetown Phantom, the Devil of the Dune, and the name by which the apparition is known to history, the Black Flash.

 

A story grown with each telling

The Black Flash made radio news broadcasts around the world. It was the perfect sort of story for the radio broadcasts of the day, where news programs elbowed room on the dial along with serials and pulp dramas. The story grew and grew with the telling; the monster went from merely jumping out to frighten people to full on attacking hapless townspeople, spewing blue fire as it did so much like the legendary Spring-Heeled Jack. Here it is good to note how much the story has grown from those early reports. It entered into the folklore of the area and became more and more embellished over time. Many details that will be found on various sites about the monster and its attacks come from this oral tradition. The story as it exists today claims that the monster tormented Provincetown for the entire duration of the War, from 1939 to 1945, and that it was only stopped after children poured a pot of hot water on its head. In reality, the panic only lasted a few weeks in the fall of 1939.

As for Provincetown residents at the time, while a significant minority lived in fear of the Devil of the Dunes, most wrote the whole affair off as hogwash. They attributed the happening to a prank pulled by a local track star, or perhaps a left over tourist looking to stir up trouble.  Chief of Police Anthony Tarvers claimed the Black Flash was simply four teens playing a trick on the town. One boy sat on the shoulders of another. They wore a long cape and a flour sifter over their face; the device’s handles were the large silver ears that victims reported. The case, it seems, was closed.

 

A case of collective delusion?

While it would seem that the initial reports of the Black Flash were, as the Chief of Police stated, the work of four bored teens playing a Halloween prank, what can be made from the other “attacks?” And of the exaggerated abilities of the monster? After all, it would be difficult for anyone to make the leaps attributed to the monster with another person on his shoulders, not to mention sprinting at the speeds the monster was said to sprint.

It seems likely that, while a group of pranksters started the panic, from there the idea of a monster spread to those who were vulnerable: uneducated adults, particularly women, and children. Time and again, in cases of mass hysteria and collective delusion, these are the groups who are primarily affected. This can be seen in such cases as the Halifax Slasher, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and the laughter epidemic that struck Tanganyika in the 1960s.

The environment was ripe in Provincetown for such a panic to take root. Nazi subs lurked in the Atlantic, and news from overseas made the possibility of American being sucked into another global conflict more and more possible. America was still in the midst of the Great Depression as well. These stressors provided fertile ground for a collective delusion to take root. The idea spawned from this bout of collective delusion has proved to be hardy, as it moved from an odd incident that burned out within a few weeks in 1939 to a part of Rhode Island folklore, one likely to inspire chills among residents of Provincetown and beyond for decades to come.

 

Sources:

Desroches, Steve, “The ‘Black Flash’…The Legend Lives On.” Provincetownmagazine.com. October 26, 2011. Provincetown Magazine. January 30, 2016. http://provincetownmagazine.com/2011/10/26/the-black-flashthe-legend-lives-on/

“Fall Brings Out The “Black Flash.” http://advocate.provincetown-ma.gov/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Search&Key=PRO/1939/10/26/1/Ar00103.xml&CollName=EVT_PREDEFINE&DOCID=22254&Keyword=%28black~+and+flash~%29&skin=Provincetown&AppName=2&PageLabel=1&ViewMode=GIF&GZ=T

Muise, Peter, “The Black Flash of Provincetown.” NewEnglandFolklore.blogspot.com. August 01, 2009. New England Folklore. January 30, 2016. http://newenglandfolklore.blogspot.com/2009/08/black-flash-of-provincetown.html

 

 

 

The Red Death: The Pellagra Epidemic in the Early 20th Century American South

A victim of Pellagra

A victim of Pellagra

Mysterious diseases have plagued humanity throughout our history. In ancient days, there was little that could be done to explain, let alone stop, the ravages of epidemics. Such scourges as small pox, cholera, and the bubonic plague killed huge numbers of people and disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving ancient cultures reeling in their wake.

In the 20th century, mankind  began to get a better handle on the causes of disease. Even so, a mysterious disease ravaged the American South. Its symptoms were horrific and debilitating: red, peeling skin, diarrhea, mental problems up to and including dementia, and ultimately in many cases, death. The disease was pellagra, a disease caused by niacin deficiency, and it roared through the South throughout the first half of the twentieth century, killing upwards of 100,000 people before it was finally stopped.

 

A mystery disease

Pellagra was first described in Spain by Gasper Casal y Julian in 1735. The disease was mainly seen in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean during the 18th and 19th century. In particular, the disease was studied in Italy and Spain. Gaetano Strambio in particular studied the disease extensively. He proved that pellagra was more than only a skin disease. He was the first to connect pellagra to diet, claiming the cause was spoiled bread and polenta.  Another Italian physician, Cesare Lobroso, determined in 1869 that pellagra was caused by a poison present in spoiled corn, initiating the connection between corn and pellagra that would continue into the mid twentieth century.

When the disease appeared for the first time in American in 1902, it left doctors baffled. Experts were divided from the beginning of the outbreak—some suspected spoiled corn was the culprit, in keeping with Lobroso’s determination almost fifty years earlier, while others thought the disease was spread by insects or contaminated water. The one point of agreement was that pellagra was most prevalent among the poor. Early studies suggested that the disease was spread by some as yet unknown pathogen. In 1914, the US Public Health Service dispatched Dr. Joseph Goldberger, who had success fighting previous epidemics, to South Carolina to study the pellagra plague. His findings would cause a political tumult that would delay the needed methods to stop the disease for years.

 

Dr. Joseph Goldberger

Dr. Joseph Goldberger

The Three M’s

Dr. Goldberger examined institutions such as prisons and asylums were pellagra raged unchecked. He found that, while patients and inmates at these institutions often suffered from pellagra, their nurses and guards did so only rarely. If pellagra were infectious, this should not be the case. Dr. Goldberger concluded that the difference between the inmates and their caretakers lay in their diet. While guards and nurses had access to a greater variety of food, their charges’ diets primarily consisted of cornmeal, molasses, and small bits of fatty pork back. This was similar to the traditional diet of the Southern poor, called the three M’s: meal, molasses, and meat.

Extrapolating his results to the broader population, Dr. Goldberger realized that the traditional Southern diet itself was the cause of the epidemic, particularly among poor populations who did not have access to wider variety of foods. This revelation caused a ruckus among Southerners, especially the political class. The post Reconstruction South was still sensitive over its defeat in the Civil War, and saying that the cause of the horrific disease ravaging its population was due to economic factors was seen as a slight against Southern pride and the idea that the South would rise again to its former greatness.

Dr. Goldberg struggled against this blowback at first, but he found that the forces who favored the infectious theory of pellagra’s spread were too intransigent to be convinced. He devoted himself to figuring out what specific deficiency was behind the disease. He died of renal cancer in 1929 before finding that which he sought. The final revelation came in 1937, when it was found that niacin deficiency, among others, was the cause of pellagra. The subsequent enrichment of flour with niacin and other b vitamins virtually eliminated pellagra in the United States.

 

The law of unintended consequences

The question remains: what caused the pellagra epidemic to occur so suddenly in the early 20th century? There were likely multiple causes. It is a given that the poor Southern diet mixed with a reluctance to admit that the cultural touchstone were both factors in extending the epidemic. However, the diet was nothing new in the South, and while it is not entirely known how widespread pellagra was before 1902, there is no evidence of it being to epidemic proportions before the 20th century.

Looking to another, similar disease can shed some light on the beginning of the epidemic. Beriberi, a deficiency of the nutrient thiamin, became epidemic in the Far East in the 1880s, shortly after a new method for milling rice was developed.  Similarly, a new method of milling corn was developed around 1900. Called degermination, it removed the germ of the corn, resulting in a product that was more stable but lacking in many of the nutrients present in corn milled the traditional way. This explained then why pellagra was more common in institutions, where corn meal was the primary food source. It also explained why the disease was more common in mill workers, who ate corn meal shipped from the Midwest that had undergone the degermination process. It was less common among rural farmers, who ate corn prepared in traditional stone mills.

So, then it was a confluence of factors that brought about the pellagra epidemic. Cultural bias, technological innovation, and long standing tradition conspired to produce an epidemic that sickened millions and killed around 100,000. Largely forgotten today, the southern pellagra epidemic is a case study in both the importance of good science and the strength of tradition in the study of disease.

 

Sources:

Bollet, Alfred Jay. “Politics and Pellagra: The Epidemic of Pellagra in the U.S in the Early Twentieth Century.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65 (1992) 211-221. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2589605/pdf/yjbm00051-0058.pdf

“History of Pellagra.” UAB Libraries. Reynolds-Finley Historical Library. Retrieved January 15, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.uab.edu/reynolds/pellagra/history

Tuttle, Grace. “A Mysterious Epidemic: Pellagra in South Carolina.” Library.sc.edu. August 5, 2014. South Carolina Digital Newspaper Program. January 15, 2016. https://library.sc.edu/blogs/newspaper/2014/08/05/a-mysterious-epidemic-pellagra-in-south-carolina/