Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Tragedy at Clipperton Island

Survivors of Clipperton Island, 1917

Survivors of Clipperton Island, 1917

Clipperton Island is a lonely, ring-shaped coral atoll located 1610 miles southwest of San Diego. The jagged coral and sandy islands enclose a fresh water lagoon, and is home to several thousand sea birds and land crabs. While the island was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan, the tiny reef takes its name from John Clipperton, an English pirate rumored to have hidden treasure there more than three hundred years ago.

The island has changed hands several times, shifting from French to American to Mexican and to British hands. Who actually owns the place today remains unclear.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the atoll was valuable property due to the presence of large deposits of guano, a valuable source of nitrates, which can be used in fertilizers and explosives.

The British Pacific Island Company annexed the island in 1906 and with support from the Mexican government established a settlement there. In 1914, 100 settlers –men and women both–arrived on the island. Supplies were delivered over the vast ocean every two months by a ship from Acapulco. But with the starts of both the Mexican Civil War and World War I, the island colony slipped far down the priority list. What followed is a tale of brutality, tyranny, and survival that has become known as the tragedy at Clipperton Island.

 

Abandoned and alone

In 1914, Captain Ramon de Arnaud arrived on Clipperton on one of the supply ships with his young wife, Alicia. A few months after arriving, Ramon would help rescue the crew of an American schooner blown onto Clipperton Rock –the highest point of the island–during a hurricane. The American crew would be picked up that June by the USS Cleveland. It would be the last glimpse of the outside world that the people of Clipperton would see for three years.

With war sweeping the world, the men and women of Clipperton were left to fend for themselves. Dwindling food supplies began to plague the island inhabitants, and disease began to gain a deadly foothold. In April 1915, they consumed the last of their supplies. The only food supply available was that which could be scrabbled from the island itself: fish, coconut, crabs, and sea birds. with the lack of foods rich in vitamin C –there were only enough coconuts for each person to have one a week–scurvy swept through the population. The dread disease started killing the unfortunate colonists one by one.

In June, Captain Arnaud believed he saw salvation on the horizon–a ship! He gathered the remaining men and set out in a small boat toward the ship. But the Pacific breakers were too much for the men, weakened by hunger and disease, to handle. The ruthless waves smashed the tiny boat against the coral reef, killing every man aboard.

That left fifteen women and one man alive on the island. The remaining man lived in the island’s only lighthouse, far up on Clipperton Rock. his name was Victoriano Alvarez, and he was most certainly out of his mind. A big, powerful man, he declared himself King of Clipperton Island and ruled over the women and children remaining with an iron fist. He roamed around the makeshift shelters the women had built after a hurricane knocked down their houses, knife in hand. He hoarded any guns left on the island into his lighthouse, from which he ruled like a medieval despot. For years, the mad lighthouse keeper ruled over the women with violence. He regularly beat and raped them. He controlled their access to food as well.

 

Rescued!

Whereas the hope that Captain Arnaud had seen on the horizon was a mere mirage, what Alicia and the other women saw in 1917 was very real. Hope took the form of the Stars and Stripes flying over the gunboat Yorktown. Seeing the scrawny, emaciated figures on the beach, Commander H.P. Perrill ordered a boat be sent to rescue them. Lieutenant R. E. Kerr and his men came ashore on a boat to find a pitiful scene. The haggard faces of women and children who had survived something unimaginable. The survivors were taken back onto the gunboat, where Alicia told the story of the horror they had endured. When the Commander and Lieutenant went back to shore, they found pitiful huts and the dilapidated remnants of the guano mining operation. Entering one hut, they found the giant Alvarez sprawled out on the floor. Nearby were an axe and a knife, covered with blood. The tragedy of Clipperton Island was finally over.

 

Sources:

“Clipperton Island.” Molossia.org. <http://www.molossia.org/clipperton.html>

Thomas, Leslie. “An Island the World Forgot.” The Age. February 22, 1960. p. 13. Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1300&dat=19600222&id=kX41AAAAIBAJ&sjid=GKwDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6540,3660925

Little, Jack. “The Clipperton Project.” TheBubble.org.uk. September 20, 2011. The Bubble. April 25, 2014. <http://www.thebubble.org.uk/environment/the-clipperton-project/2>

 

Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins

Luigi Galvani, painted with electrode and frog legs.

Luigi Galvani, painted with electrode and frog legs.

Science is something that people take for granted in the age of ubiquitous technology. It is good to remember that the technological and scientific prowess we enjoy today is built on a foundation of trial and error spanning thousands of years. Working from scratch, our ancestors often got it wrong, sometimes hilariously so, but their efforts paved the way for today’s advances.

Now and then during that long march of progress, science has taken macabre turns. One of the stranger walks down dark paths occurred during the lives  of Luigi and Giovanni Galvani, whose odd experiments inspired the works of a horror icon.

 

Macabre but popular experiments

Luigi Galvani lived from September 9, 1737 to December 4, 1798 in Bologna, Italy. Initially, Galvani wanted to join the clergy, but his parents steered him toward the medical field. An anatomist, surgeon, physicist, and philosopher, Luigi Galvani was a gentleman of his times. And the thing that captivated the gentlemen of the 18th century was the new and mysterious power of electricity. Luigi was no exception; he discovered that applying an electrical current to dissected frogs made their legs twitch and move. From this he formulated his theory of bioelectricity, which today is known as galvanism. It is the idea that the electrical impulses that move muscles are carried by fluid in the nerves. He also formulated an idea called animal electricity, which is basically the idea that the electrical impulses that produced the movements he observed were caused by electricity sources inside the animals body, rather than the application of the outside electrical source.

This conclusion led to a conflict with an associate by the name of Volta, who believed that the so-called animal electricity was simply the result of chemical reactions that could occur outside of the body. He designed a battery called a voltaic pile that essentially demonstrated this fact. Luigi, in failing health, did not actively defend his animal electricity theory. He left that to his nephew, Giovanni, who wowed the public with a series of macabre demonstrations.

Giovanni went bigger in his demonstrations than mere frogs. One notable experiment occurred in the early 1800s where Aldini applied a strong charge from a Leyden jar to a decapitated ox head. The dead animal’s ear’s twitched, the lips moved, and the eyes opened and shut. One experiment was performed on the corpse of a recently executed 30 year old man. Electrical current applied to nerves in the base of the neck produced grotesque facial expressions. Applying current to the sciatic nerve produced violent kicking that assistants present couldn’t stop by holding down. An electrode to the rectum reportedly made the corpse bolt upright. Finally, Aldini applied current to decapitated human heads using electrodes that looked a bit like modern headphones. The heads grimaced and twitched and opened their eyes wide, much to the horror of onlookers.

 

Inspiration for a literary icon

These gruesome experiments were the talk of the learned circles of Europe. One particular group on Lake Geneva in Switzerland spoke about the experiments with great enthusiasm. Mary Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to have a competition as to who could write the best horror story. Inspired by the competition, the morbid talk, and reading about the works of Aldini and Galvani, Mary Shelley put pen to paper and wrote one of the most iconic horror novels in history: Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus.

 

Sources

Rothman, Wilson. “How a Real-Life Dr. Frankenstein Reanimated the Dead With Electricity.” Gizmodo.com. March 10, 2010. Gizmodo. May 5, 2014. <http://gizmodo.com/5504746/how-a-real-life-dr-frankenstein-reanimated-the-dead-with-electricity>

“Luigi Galvani.” Wikipedia.org. April 20. 2014. Wikipedia. May 5, 2014 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Galvani>

 

The Maunsel Sea Forts aka “Fort Madness.”

Sea fort in the Thames Estuary during WWII

Sea fort in the Thames Estuary during WWII

World War II was a desperate time for the British Empire. Early in the war, the Nazi war machine had steamrolled through most of Europe, leaving the British Isles to stand alone against the German onslaught. The German Navy prowled the seas, destroying vital shipping, while German aircraft raided English cities.  The Nazis even attempted to assassinate the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, using a scheme straight out of a comic book.

A particular problem was the Nazi strategy of using planes to mine British harbors. The practice effectively brought shipping to a standstill, starving the island of crucial resources. During those hard years, the British looked for any means possible to defend their island from German attack. One odd solution concocted by Sir. Guy Maunsel was what have come to be known as the Maunsel Sea Forts, dubbed by soldiers who had to man them “Fort Madness.”

 

Artificial islands defend Britain against Nazi navy

The first sea forts were built at the mouth of the Thames estuary. The structures were about 108 feet tall and weighed in at a hefty 4500 tons. They consisted of a seven story concrete tower, floating on giant pontoons. Each tower could support 120 men and all their supplies. A platform on top of the structure supported two 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns and two 40mm Bofors guns. Four of them were designated to defend the Thames estuary. Between February and June of 1942, they were towed out to their positions and sank into place by flooding sea water into the pontoons.

Even while work was being done on the Thames towers, Maunsel was called upon to do similar work for the Mersey estuary near Liverpool. Conditions differed from the mouth of the Thames, so Maunsel settled on designing the toward there on four concrete legs, which would support a two-story steel structure. Each of these would weight about 750 tons. Seven of them, linked by walkways, formed a fort at the mouth of the Mersey. The center tower was the control station, complete with radar. Four towers surrounding it were armed with 3.7 inch guns while another tower with two 40mm Bofors was set slightly away from arrangement. Another tower was mounted with searchlights. Each tower complex housed 265 men and their supplies. By 1943, the Army ordered three structures similar to the complexes at Mersey be built in the Thames estuary.

603px-The_British_Army_in_the_United_Kingdom_1939-45_H34542Life on the floating fortresses was tough, especially for men in the lower ranks. Long days in close quarters and cold nights spent on the sea began to wear on the men’s nerves, to the point that they dubbed the structures “Fort Madness.” Army psychologists advised the soldiers to take up hobbies such as painting, knitting, or making models to pass the time. Crews were rotated on a six week rotation, spending ten days on land before returning to sea. Many required psychiatric treatment after deployment.

Despite the hardships, the tower crews proved effective in fending off German aircraft. The Thames fort alone shot down 22 aircraft and 20 V-1 flying bombs. They also destroyed  an enemy speedboat.

 

Life after war

After the war, the forts in the Mersey estuary were destroyed. They were located on a shifting sand bar, and they would often sink to the ocean floor where they posed a danger to commercial shipping. A delegation from the War Office visited the structures in July 1948 to determine whether the forts would be useful in the post war era. With the threat of possible war with the Soviet Union, Britain still had to maintain her defensive footing. The group determined that another 11 sea forts could secure shipping all around the British seaboard. H

However, the project would have come with a steep price tag, 2.8 million pounds, a huge sum in the post-war era. And if the cost made the project unpopular, an accident on March 1, 1953 made it downright unfeasible. A Swedish freighter, the Baalbeck, crashed his vessel into one of the Maunsel forts after becoming disoriented in the fog, destroying two of the seven towers. By July, the powers that be decided to suspend the expansion project.

The forts still remain in the Thames estuary. In the 1960s they became homes for British pirate radio stations.  These days, preservation work is underway to save the four forts that remain from the ravages of weather, water, and neglect. They stand unoccupied, rusting in the salty air, mute relics of an era gone by.

 

Sources:

“World War II: ‘Fort Madness:’ Britain’s Bizarre Sea Defense Against the Germans.” Spiegel.de. November 12, 2010. Spiegel Online International. April 26, 2014. <http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/world-war-ii-fort-madness-britain-s-bizarre-sea-defense-against-the-germans-a-728754.html>

“The Maunsell Sea Forts.” WhitstableScene.co.uk. Whitstable Scene. April 26, 2014. <http://www.whitstablescene.co.uk/forts.htm>

The Ghost and The Darkness: The Tsavo Man-Eaters

Colonel_Patterson_with_Tsavo-Lion

Colonel Patterson with the first Tsavo lion he shot.

Serial killers are the predators among humanity. Amoral, and motivated only by unfathomable urges, they have killed and terrorized likely for as long as there has been civilization. However, humans are not the only animal capable of senseless killing. The animal world has its share of killer beasts as well, monsters our ancestors whispered about around camp fires while casting wary eyes toward the impenetrable blackness of the night.

Most often, animals leave humans alone. If there is an animal attack, often the violence is provoked by a human invading the animal’s territory or otherwise making the animal feel threatened. However, under certain circumstances these rules of human/animal interaction do not apply. If a predator, such as a big cat, can no longer access its regular prey, they have no problem switching to humans as a food source. After all, compared to large herbivores we are slow, easy kills. This is especially the case in regions where humans have encroached into predator territory.

Back in 1898, this was the case in the Tsavo region. From March through December of that year, monsters stalked in the darkness of the African night. Known as The Ghost and The Darkness, the pair of predators would become legends known as the Tsavo Man-Eaters.

 

Monsters on the hunt

The British Empire commissioned the Uganda/Kenya railway be built to connect its colonial territories. The workers used to build the project were primarily Sikhs and Hindus from Britain’s India colony. Designers planned the railway to cross the Tsavo River, which obviously meant that the workers would need to build a bridge to span the waterway.

The best planners in the world couldn’t have foreseen what would happen next. Panic began to ripple through the work camp when workers began to disappear, dragged screaming into the night by some massive predator, only to be found killed and shredded when the morning sun peeked over the horizon. Nothing the workers did–from building massive fires to scare the beasts to surrounding their encampments with fences of thorns–kept the attackers at bay. Fear of The Ghost and The Darkness–the worker’s name for the predators that plagued them–became so widespread that many workers fled. For all intents and purposes, construction came to a halt.

What were these creatures that inspired such terror among the work crews? The killers stalking hapless construction crews were a pair of mane-less male lions. It is odd, although not unheard of, that a pair of adult male lions would be lack a mane. And adults they were, at least in terms of size–the first of the pair to be shot was about 10 feet long, which is huge for a lion (or any animal for that matter) and it took 8 men to carry the corpse back to camp. Their appearance wasn’t the only strange thing about them. Lions do attack people from time to time, but again only if said people are in their territory. Or alone. These animals deliberately attacked a large gathering of humans, and some contemporary accounts of the attacks claim that the lions didn’t always eat their victims. In some cases, it seems, the lions killed simply to kill.

 

The second man-eater.

The second man-eater.

Enter Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson

If this sounds like something from a monster movie, well, just wait. It gets better. Or worse I guess, if you were a Sikh or Hindu rail worker. Not only were The Ghost and The Darkness brutal, they were also cunning. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, leader of the project, set out to kill the animals so that the project could continue as planned. In true monster movie fashion though, they didn’t go down easy.

When Patterson set out to hunt the lions, he soon found himself hunted. He shot the first lion in the rump, only to have it come back and stalk him that night even as he hunted it. Patterson had to shoot the thing several more times before he managed to bring it down. The second lion didn’t go down easy either–Patterson shot it five times, and then even when it was laying their crippled it tried to charge him again. Three more shots rang out, and the beast was dead.

All told, the death toll from the Ghost and the Darkness’ killing spree was exceptionally high for a series of animal attacks. Patterson claimed that 135 workers were killed in that 9 month period. Modern estimates, based on complex measurements of various isotopes taken from the bones of the Tsavo man-killers, put the number at closer to 35.

 

Not as monstrous as they first appear

Science has shown in recent years that the Tsavo Man-Eaters were not quite as monstrous as the legends surrounding the infamous incident would have them be. This begins with their appearance. Lions in the Tsavo region generally do not have the heavy manes traditionally associated with male lions, because the Tsavo region is drier and a heavy layer of fur would make it harder to stay cool. Their man eating ways were also not entirely unusual. As was mentioned earlier, any big predator will turn to humans if we are A) encroaching on their habitat and B) more plentiful than their normal prey. Arab slave caravans had long traveled through the region, often leaving behind bodies of unfortunate slaves who could not survive the harsh conditions. These became meals for lions, who have no problem being opportunistic scavengers, giving them a taste for human flesh. In addition, sick or injured predators are more likely to go for human prey, because again we’re slower and squishier than a large herbivore. One of the Tsavo Man-Eaters had an infected tooth that would have made it less able to kill its normal prey.

All in all, the story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters is unusual more for the scale of the killings than anything else. Which if anything is more horrifying. Humans are usually content to think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, but we would do well to remember that without our technology, we are little more than small, weak primates in a world full of killing machines who would like nothing better than to make us into lunch.

 

Sources:

Borzo, Greg. “Field Museum Uncovers Evidence Behind Man-Eating; revises legend of its infamous man-eating lions.” Eurekaalert.org. January 14, 2003. The Field Museum. May 18, 2014. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-01/fm-fmu011303.php

Janssen, Kim. “Scientists Restate Tsavo lions’ taste for human flesh.” ChicagoTribune.com. November 2, 2009. Chicago Tribune. May 18, 2014. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-11-02/news/0911010253_1_lions-restate-field-museum

Raffaele, Paul. “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Smithsonian.com. January 2010. Smithsonian Magazine. May 18, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/man-eaters-of-tsavo-11614317/?all

 

 


Frankenstein Castle

Frankenstein Castle Image Credit: Frank Vincentz

Frankenstein Castle
“Mühltal – Burg Frankenstein 11 ies” by Frank Vincentz – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M%C3%BChltal_-_Burg_Frankenstein_11_ies.jpg#mediaviewer/File:M%C3%BChltal_-_Burg_Frankenstein_11_ies.jpg

Frankenstein. The name evokes dark, stormy nights and brooding, Gothic castles where mad scientists perform unspeakable experiments on the remains of the unhallowed dead. While those images are more the stuff of Hollywood wizardry than the actual novel that made the name “Frankenstein” famous, the image has become entrenched in popular culture to the point that it has become a cliche. Many would be surprised to find out then that there really is a Castle Frankenstein. Located in southern Germany in the Odenwald mountain range, the ruins of a once grand castle bearing the infamous name Frankenstein remains to this day.

 

“Stone of the Franks”

The name “Frankenstein” literally means “Stone of the Franks.” The Franks were a Germanic tribe who lived in Germany and France. It turns out that the name Frankenstein was a relatively common one given that there were so many Franks around naming castles. Frankenstein Castle was built by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg before 1250 (the earliest documentation being from 1252). After building the castle, the Lord dubbed himself “von und zu Frankenstein,” founding  the Frankenstein family and the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein, which only answered to the Holy Roman Empire. The castle was built near the site of an older castle from the 11th century, which fell into disuse once the more modern fortress was built.

Over the next five hundred years or so, the castle remained in Frankenstein hands. In 1662, the head of the family, Lord John I, sold the land and lordship to the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt to settle a series of territorial, religious, and legal conflicts. The castle was used as a hospital for awhile before being abandoned and left to nature in the 18th century. What remains today are two towers–which were actually the result of restoration attempts in the 19th century–parts of the core castle, some walls, and a chapel. An inn for tourists and a restaurant complete the more modern structures built among the ancient ruins.

 

Inspiration for a horror icon?

The castle has long attracted the curious, mostly because its location among the dark forests of Germany has bred several legends and folktales. The most famous among these mixed bag of stories is that of Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist born in the castle in 1673. Dippel was famous in his era for creating the creatively named “Dippel Oil,” an animal extract that was supposed to be the equivalent in effect to the long sought “Elixir of Life,” which was supposed to confer eternal youth to any who partook. The fact that there aren’t many 17th century noblemen wandering around central Europe these days proves about how effective Dippel’s Oil was. Dippel once tried to trade the formula of his wondrous oil for ownership of the castle, an offer that was wisely declined by the owners.

More sinister rumors than merely being a snake oil salesman swirled around Dippel though. Some claimed that he engaged in ghoulish experiments not unlike those conducted by Dr. Victor Frankenstein during his stay at Frankenstein Castle. He was alleged to have dug up recent burials and transported them back to the castle, where he performed anatomical experiments on them. According to stories, a local priest warned his flock that Dippel had used the awesome power of lightning to reanimate a corpse he’d cobbled together from various ill-gotten body parts. Some locals even now claim this story is true, and that it was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece.

There is some evidence that the author was in the region before she wrote her novel. However, since she only spent a few hours in a town located ten miles from the castle, it’s tough to say just how much of an effect being in the area had on her. Some claim that she was told the story of Dippel by her stepmother, who had been told the macabre legend by none other than the Brothers Grimm. While many maintain the link between Mary Shelley, the story of Conrad Dippel, and Castle Frankenstein, the evidence for such a connection seems sketchy at best. For her part, Mary Shelley never mentions Dippel or the castle in her notes. And there’s the fact that Frankenstein seemed to be a fairly common name for castles in the region. It’s possible that she just pulled the name out of thin air and put it in her story simply because she liked the sound of it. Without hard evidence, it’s tough to tell.

 

Sources:

“Frankenstein Castle.” Wikipedia.org. May 15, 2014. Wikipedia. May 17, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein_Castle

Muller, Michael. “Castle Frankenstein an der Bergstrabe.” http://www.eberstadt-frankenstein.de/content/055_Frankenstein_Faltblatt_englisch.pdf

 

The Mona Lisa of the Seine

L'inconnue_de_la_Seine_(masque_mortuaire)In large cities the world over, the sight of a body floating down a river is not all that uncommon. People could end up in a watery grave for any number of reasons, accidental or otherwise. Many times, they are unfortunate souls who see no other way out of the torments of life than to end it all by their own hand. One such unfortunate soul, or so the legend goes, went on to lend her face to a medical tool that would save thousands of lives. This is the strange story of L’Inconnue, also known as the Mona Lisa of the Seine.

 

A haunting beauty

The body of a young woman was found floating down the Seine River in Paris, France during the waning years of the 19th century.  The corpse was duly fished out of the waters and taken to the morgue. She was put on display, as was the custom at the time, in the hopes that someone may be able to identify her. The story would have ended there if the pathologist examining the girl hadn’t been taken by her unmarred beauty, which in and of itself was surprising because water is not known to be kind to corpses.. He found no signs of foul play, and ruled her death a probable suicide. He took a plaster cast of her pretty, serene face and its secretive smile.

Soon enough, the death mask became a fad. Hundreds of copies were made, and the more fashion conscious among Parisian Bohemian society clambered to own a copy. Folks of the day compared the anonymous girl’s smile to the famously secretive smile gracing the Mona Lisa’s lips. People speculated as to why the dead girl looked so oddly happy, despite being found dead and floating down a river. The fad grew to the point where young women copied the dead girl’s look, seeing her as the epitome of beauty. She was the Marilyn Monroe of her day. The unknown woman’s notoriety and status as an ideal representation of beauty lasted up until the 1920’s, when more lively women took her place.

However, that is not the end of the unknown woman’s cultural life. Her face was used as the model for Resusci Anne, a mannequin used to teach CPR. Resusci Anne was designed by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958. In 1960, the dolls were used in the first round of CPR courses. The fact that the unknown woman’s face has been reproduced hundreds if not thousands of times and been used the world over in CPR training has led people to give the death mask the nickname “the most kissed face in history.”

 

Doubts don’t stop the legend from living on

However, not everyone buys into the story, thinking that it was more folklore than fact. They point to the fact that the woman in the mask looks too peaceful to have suffered a horrific death by drowning. While fiction would like to portray drowning as a peaceful, beautiful way to die, the reality is far from it. It’s an ugly, hard way to die that leaves behind a bloated, rapidly decaying corpse. Not to mention, if the victim jumped (or was pushed) to their death, impact with the water could cause tremendous physical injury, depending on the height of the fall. Even if the corpse had been pulled from the river only moments after death, the corpse would not be a pretty one. It seems more likely that the mask was made using a model, and the story was concocted in order to sell masks.

But perhaps not. We simply don’t know. It isn’t likely a corpse could be so pleasant to behold after floating in a river for no one knows how long, but it’s possible that happenstance conspired to to produce a beautiful corpse. The mystery lives on, and it’s that lack of knowledge that keeps people returning. The Mona Lisa of the Seine smiles on, her secrets her own.

 

Sources:

Grange, Jeremy. “Resusci Anne and L’Inconnue: The Mona Lisa of the Seine.” BBC.com. October 15, 2013. BBC News Magazine. May 11, 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24534069>

The Machine Gun’s Grandpa: The Puckle Gun

800px-Puckle_gun_advertisement800px-Puckle_gun_advertisementPuckle_gun_PhotoHumans are rarely more ingenious than when they are attempting to kill one another. Sometimes, this is an ingenuity born of desperation, but many times the motivation is more likely to be cold, hard cash. Such is likely the case with James Puckle, a lawyer, who invented his “Defence Gun,” which would later be known as the Puckle Gun. His complicated contraption is the grandfather of a weapon that redefined the battlefield of the 20th century: the machine gun.

 

A flintlock machine gun?

The Puckle Gun was essentially a large, tripod mounted flintlock revolver. The central operating piece of the gun is a revolving cylinder that is turned by a hand crank. There were several varieties of cylinders with various numbers of chambers. Turning the crank brought a cylinder in alignment with the barrel and the flintlock firing mechanism.The cylinder would be clamped into place, then a lever would be pressed to trigger the flintlock mechanism. When the charge was fired, the cylinder would have to be unclamped and the whole operation begun again. When the cylinder was empty, another could be swapped in its place and firing could resume.

Operating in this way, the Puckle Gun could fire nine rounds a minute. While this doesn’t sound impressive to a modern reader, in the early 1700s that would have been an impressive pace. A well trained musketeer could fire off about three rounds a minute with the muskets of the day. A weapon that could fire three times as fast as the best musketeer would have been quite impressive.

However, the military men of the time.were less than impressed by Puckle’s odd looking gun.

 

A clunky dud

Puckle had designed his gun to be used to defend ships from boarding parties. However, his invention was not well suited to life on the high seas, or any other battlefield for that matter. While advanced for the time, it was clunky to operate. The flintlock mechanism was unreliable, reducing the efficiency of the weapon. The parts used were complex to manufacture, making the weapon expensive. One odd feature o the weapon were cylinders with square chambers to house square bullets. These were to be used on Muslims, to show them “the superiority of Christian civilization.”

Certainly, Puckle did his best to sell the weapon, odd features and all. He demonstrated it for English military officials several times, but none of them offered to buy. No investors supported his contraption; very few were ever sold and none were fired in anger. The Puckle Gun faded into history, an eccentric footnote in the history of weapons and warfare.

 

Sources:

Brevard, Katherine McLean. The Story of Guns: How they Changed the World. Capstone. 2010. pg 34

Willbanks, James H. Machine Guns: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. ABC-CLIO. 2004. pg 22-23

The Georgia Guidestones — America’s Stonehenge

Georgia_Guidestones-lowresSet among rolling green hills, a strange granite structure rises up from the surrounding woods and farmland. It is composed of five 16 foot tall granite slabs weighing in at around 20 tons apiece, all supporting a 25,000 pound capstone. Each slab is covered in a cryptic message that is related in eight different languages. The entire structure is configured to a precise astronomical alignment: a slot in the capstone tracks movement of the sun throughout the year, a hole in the capstone marks the noon hour, and a channel carved in the stone points to the celestial pole. Known as the Georgia Guidestones, this mysterious monument has attracted attention from conspiracy theorists and religious authorities alike for its strange message to posterity.

 

A modern mystery

The Guidestones were commissioned in June of 1979 by a man under the pseudonym R.C. Christian, who hired the Elberton Granite Finishing Company to do the work. Nobody knows the real identity of R.C. Christian, but if the inscription “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason” is any indication, the motivation behind the monument was clear enough. The Guidestones bear ten principles to achieve this end, engraved in granite in eight modern languages: English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. The principles are as follows:

 

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

 

It’s pretty easy to see why there is controversy around the Guidestones, considering that it says we should maintain the global population at a small fraction of its current level. It also has fairly controversial ideas about national sovereignty, calling for not only a global language but a one world government and, apparently, a shared global spirituality. Proponents of traditional religion naturally are going to be against these ideas. In researching this post I read a rather hysterical article by a minister who claimed that the Guidestones were the blueprint of the New World Order. Not exactly a rational response there, especially considering nobody seems to be chomping at the bit to enact these principles at the moment.

While it’s hard to say for certain what R.C. Christian intended with his Guidestones, I think it’s important to take the timing of the construction in context. The Cold War was still on, and a nuclear war between the Superpowers was a very real possibility. Maybe Christian’s intention was not for his principles to be implemented in our time but in a post apocalyptic future when the population of the human race would be greatly reduced and civilization was on the brink of collapse, if not already over the edge. It was probably meant to be a guide to build a better civilization, one that would be less likely to destroy itself than our own.

Or, it could have simply been a gimmick to bring tourists to Elbert County. Maybe. The only one who really knows is the man who called himself R.C. Christian. So far, if he is still alive, he has not saw fit to elaborate on his cryptic message to the world.

 

Source:

Sullivan, Randall. “American Stonehenge: Monumental Instructions for the Post-Apocalypse.” archive.wired.com. April 20, 2009. Wired Magazine. May 11, 2014 <http://archive.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/17-05/ff_guidestones?currentPage=all>

Fashionable Violence: The Post-War Nylon Riots

Two models at the New York World's Fair playing tug of war with nylons to demonstrate their strength. Source: Smithsonian.org

Two models at the New York World’s Fair playing tug of war with nylons to demonstrate their strength. Source: Smithsonian.org

Except for the fashionistas among us, most people give little thought to the clothes they wear. However, now and then fashion can cause a shocking amount of violence. Outbreaks of fashionable violence occurred in the US in the months after World War II, when shortages of nylons caused thousands of women to riot.

 

A stocking shortage

To understand why nylons could cause a riot, first we need to understand a bit about the history of a product that many women take for granted these days. Prior to nylons, stockings were made out of silk or rayon, and they were prone to tearing and had to be replaced often. They also had to be sized. Nylon, introduced to the public around 1939, was more durable and flexible. They did not require garters to hold them up.

The new nylon stockings were a hit; more than four million were sold in a year. However, just as the public was getting a taste for the new product, the war came and the government deemed nylon a key war material. DuPont shifted all production to war materiel, using the synthetic fiber to produce parachutes, rope, and tent canvas among other things.

Nylon stockings became hot items on the US black market, selling for as much as $20 a pair (over $300 in today’s dollars), where they’d sold for only $1.15 during peacetime. Nylon robberies were not uncommon. Women who could not afford to buy black market nylons used make-up and paint on their legs to give the illusion of stockings.

When the war finally ended, the public was ready to return to normal. Women especially were excited to be able to get a hold of their beloved nylons at a reasonable price. Not long after Japan surrendered in August of 1945, DuPont announced it would begin producing stockings again. However, by September the chemical giant could not keep pace with demand, and shortages plagued retailers. The first riots began that month as women swarmed stores, eager to get a hand on the precious commodity. The riots became worse in November and December. In one incident, 30,000 women lined up in New York, while 40,000 lined up in Pittsburgh for 13,000 pairs of nylons. The result was Black Friday on steroids. Women raced through stores to get to the coveted stockings, knocking over displays and fighting one another for the prize. Newspapers tittered with the scandalous stories. Some accused DuPont of deliberately creating a shortage.

Regardless of whether the shortage was deliberate or not, the company made up the shortfall by the beginning of 1946, producing 30 million pairs of stockings a month. The influx of nylons satisfied the stocking-hungry public, and the riots subsided.

 

Sources:

“Nylon Riots.” Wikipedia.org. April 22, 2014. Wikipedia. April 20, 2014 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nylon_riots>

Spivack, Emily. “Stocking Series, Part 1: Wartime Rationing and Nylon Riots.” Smithsonianmag.com. September 4, 2012. Smithsonian.com. April 20, 2014. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/stocking-series-part-1-wartime-rationing-and-nylon-riots-25391066/?no-ist=>

Wolf, Audra J. “Nylon: A Revolution in Textiles.” Chemical Heritage Magazine. Fall 2008. Chemical Heritage Foundation. April 20, 2014. <http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/26-3-nylon-a-revolution-in-textiles.aspx?page=3>

 

Robert Bartholow and the Rafferty Experiment

Robert Bartholow

Robert Bartholow

The history of science is littered with bizarre experiments. From the macabre demonstrations of the ‘real-life’ Frankensteins in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the man who attempted to weigh the human soul, the pursuit of knowledge has taken people down very strange pathways.

Now and then, though, experimentation moves from the mere weird to unethical and borderline evil behavior that puts a blemish on the entire scientific community. Such a case occurred in 1874, when Dr. Robert Bartholow was presented with a patient named Mary Rafferty. What followed was an experiment worthy of a modern torture-porn movie.

 

A ghoulish experiment

Dr. Robert Bartholow was born November 28, 1831. He earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1854. A year later he served as a US Army surgeon, a position he held for nine years. In 1864, he became a professor at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinatti. During that time, he and Mary Rafferty fatefully crossed paths.

Mary was a 30 year old woman with a 2 in diameter hole in her skull caused by a cancerous ulcer, exposing her brain to the open air. Bartholow, whose interest was in electrical medicine, saw this as a unique opportunity. Electrical experiments had been performed on the exposed brains of animals, but never on humans. Dr. Bartholow decided to be the first to make an attempt.

Using a small needle, Bartholow applied small amounts of faradic current to different sections of Rafferty’s brain. Low current produced movements in various body parts, but it did not cause Rafferty any pain. But when Bartholow sunk the needle deeper and applied more current, Rafferty had a seizure and briefly slipped into a coma. She eventually recovered and was able to undergo more experiments, but days later she was struck by another seizure and died.

Dr. Bartholow published the results of his ghoulish experiment in the American Journal of Medical Sciences. The American Medical Association condemned Dr. Bartholow’s actions, forcing the doctor to write an apology letter to the British Medical Journal. Despite the critcism, Dr. Bartholow did not suffer any professional censure. He went on to become Professor Emeritus at Jefferson Medical College in 1893. He did eleven years later in his home. No one has tried to replicate the Rafferty Experiment since.

 

Sources:

“Robert Bartholow.” Wikipedia.org. May 8, 2014. Wikipedia. May 5, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bartholow>

“History of Neurosurgery in Cincinnati.” MayfieldClinicl.com. June 2009. The Mayfield Clinic. May 5, 2014. <http://www.mayfieldclinic.com/PDF/HistoryNeurosurg_web.pdf>