Monthly Archives: June 2014

Dr. Leo Stanley and the San Quentin Eugenics Experiments

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin State Prison

Medical science has taken humanity down some very strange paths during its long history. From cures that involved cannibalism to an attempt to measure the weight of the soul at the beginning of the last century, doctors–those sober, respectable people we trust with our lives and health–can sometimes have more in common with the fictional Dr. Frankenstein.

One such doctor turned mad scientist was Dr. Leo Stanley. Serving as San Quentin’s chief surgeon for the better part of forty years, he played a big role in modernizing the infamous prison’s medical facilities. While this was undoubtedly good for prisoners, the good doctor’s research took darker, more unethical turns during his years at the prison. His research focused on eugenics, a now infamous pseudoscience that posits that humans can be bred via artificial selection to function better in society. The most extreme version of eugenics was practiced by Nazi Germany, who killed millions during the Holocaust in an attempt to rid the world of those they believed were racially undesirable.

Dr. Stanley did not want to exterminate those who he felt were undesirable. Instead, he focused on rejuvenating their masculinity through two bizarre methods: sterilization, and by implanting them with “testicular substances” from executed prisoners or, in some cases, livestock.


Rejuvenation and sterilization

While it might seem strange today to implant another person’s–or an animal’s for that matter–testicles into a human being, the procedure had become something of a fad in the early 20th century. The practice was known as rejuvenation, the idea being that an aging man could have his masculinity renewed by having the testicles of a younger man implanted into him.

Teasing out just how a quack cure like rejuvenation has anything to do with eugenics takes a little lateral thinking. Dr. Stanley–who was not coincidentally an aging middle class white man–obsessed over the plight of white masculinity in a country increasingly inhabited by a melting pot of races and ethnicities. He believed that the decline of white, masculine vigor would lead to a degrading of the moral values of the country. To put it bluntly, he was afraid that “undesirables” would reproduce faster than “good” people (which naturally meant white Christian people in the racial thinking of the time) and flood society with their bad genes. By reinvigorating aging white men, and by sterilizing more people with less desirable traits, Dr. Stanley believed that violence in society could be reduced.

While involuntary sterilization was legal in California, and in many parts of the country at the time, the amount allowed in prisons was limited. Dr. Stanley found a workaround to this by asking for volunteers for what he called “asexualization.” He advertised it as a procedure that would increase their “general health and vigor,” and that it would increase their libidos to boot. By 1940, 600 prisoners had volunteered to be sterilized. Some did so simply because they did not want more children. others believed the notion that the procedure would improve their health, while others feared that they might father children who were as bad as themselves.



Image from the Eugenics Congress of 1920.

Bizarre experiments

The sterilization program at least fit in with the idea of stopping the spread of “undesirable” genes. Rejuvenation fit into the scheme in a twofold way. First, if the practice could be proven to actually work, it might be something that could become more available to the broader society. the prison gave Dr. Stanley a controlled setting with lots of male test subjects with which to develop proof of concept. Second, Dr. Stanley and others at the time believed that disease and malfunction of endocrine glands might play a part in criminal behavior. So, while Dr. Stanley did no want the prisoners reproducing, he still felt that by revitalizing their masculinity they might be reformed.

He began the rejuvenation experiments in 1918, five years after taking the post at San Quentin. He grafted testicles from executed prisoners into old, senile prisoners. Over time, the supply of human testicles could not keep up with experimental demand, and he began to source the glands from goats, boars, and deer. These surgeries were meant to correct the imbalance of the prisoner’s glands and thus correct their behavior.

When the “donors” moved from humans to animals, Dr. Stanley changed the procedure from implanting the glands to smashing them into a kind of slurry, which was injected into the patient’s abdomen just under the skin. Patients reported an increase in energy and health, although how much of that was psychological and how much actually resulted from the treatment itself is anyone’s guess. Many prisoners volunteered for the procedure; prison society is hyper-masculine, and any way to improve one’s physical strength and manliness was welcome in such a society. When World War II came around, volunteering for medical experiments gave prisoners a way to feel like they were helping a bigger cause.

Dr. Stanley did his part for the war as well, serving as a surgeon for the Navy in the Pacific. He returned to San Quentin after the war, and found that the institution had undergone a shift in thinking, away from the more biologically driven ideas of yesteryear toward psychological treatment. The sterilizations dropped to a trickle, and the rejuvenation experiments dropped to nothing.

Stanley retired in 1951 and took a position as a doctor aboard a cruise ship. He himself underwent a vasectomy, apparently believing his own hype about their benefits. He died in 1976 at the age of 90. It is interesting to note that despite his beliefs in eugenics and his fear that inferior stock would take over the human population, Dr. Stanley never had any children of his own.



Blue, Ethan. “The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951.” Accessed May 3, 2014.

The Dead Hand–Russia’s Doomsday Device

800px-Castle_Bravo_BlastSuper weapons have been a staple of both fiction and warfare since time immemorial. One of the oldest–and most deceptively simple–is attributed to Archimedes, whose weapon building prowess has been greatly exaggerated by subsequent history. Super weapons often turn out to be more fantasy than reality, even when conceived by one of the greatest minds to ever grace humanity.

While most super weapons turn out to be nothing more than pipe dreams, one class of weapon that seems to only exist in fiction has been built in reality: the doomsday device. The worst nightmare of fevered Cold War dreamers, a doomsday device would be a weapon that would be unstoppable by any human means. It would use the most fearsome weapon ever devised–the thermonuclear bomb–to wipe out humanity. Exact designs of the device varied. Such a weapon was discussed in the classic film, Dr. Strangelove. In the movie, the weapon consisted of 50 large thermonuclear devices scattered around the world, designed to detonate automatically should the Soviet Union be struck by a nuclear attack. These weapons were salted with radioactive “cobalt-thorium-G,” which would leave the world irradiated for almost a century. The titular Dr. Strangelove quipped: “The whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world?”

In the movie, the terror weapon was detonated by a rogue bomber squadron launching an unauthorized strike on Russia. In a terrifying case of fiction and reality mirroring each other way too closely, such a weapon actually exists. The system is called Perimeter, but it is known more ominously as Mertvaya Ruka, literally “Dead Hand.”


Brinksmanship leads to a real-live doomsday machine

The Dead Hand resulted from one of the most harrowing times in human history. It was the 1980s, and America had elected a new president, the now legendary Ronald Reagan. Determined to bring America back to glory after a decade marked by a scandal, oil crises, recession, and the end of Vietnam, he took a hard line against the Soviet Empire. His administration expanded the US nuclear arsenal, and signaled that it was not afraid of a nuclear war with Russia. This gave the US, the administration believed, leverage when dealing with the Soviet Empire.

But the most provocative move came when the Reagan administration announced plans to build a space-based shield against Soviet nuclear attack. Consisting of lasers and nuclear weapons, the science fiction construct was known as the Strategic Defense Initiative officially, but it was known to the public (somewhat mockingly) as “Star Wars.”

Images of Trident missile tests. The submarine based ICBM could carry several nuclear devices that could be individually targeted.

Images of Trident missile tests. The submarine based ICBM could carry several nuclear devices that could be individually targeted.

The Soviets weren’t laughing. What they saw was an American president preparing for nuclear war. With a shield over America that could effectively stop many–but not all–Soviet nukes, the Americans would have less fear of lobbing their own ICBMs at the Soviet homeland. In addition, the US had recently developed accurate submarine based ICBMs that could hit any target within the Soviet Union within minutes. While the US would be bloodied, the Soviet Union would be left a smoking crater.

It was under this climate of fear and brinksmanship that the Soviets conceived of The Dead Hand system. While details are a bit sketchy, the system allegedly came online in 1985. It was not automatic like the fictional doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove, however. Dead Hand consisted of four layers, four if/then statements that would determine the fate of the world. First, it had to be switched on by a high official, presumably during a crisis. The system would then begin monitoring a system of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors, looking for evidence of a nuclear strike. If the sensors found enough evidence, the system would then monitor communication connections to the Soviet General Staff. If a connection existed and if a certain amount of time passed without anymore evidence of nuclear attack, and if the connection to leadership remained intact, the system would shut down. However, if communications were severed, the system would assume the worst and give the authority to launch Soviet missiles to those manning a bunker deep underground. Whoever that was–and it is unclear who exactly that would be–would make the final decision whether or not to end civilization as we know it.

If the fateful decision were made, a signal would be sent via low frequency radio signals to hardened silos containing missiles designed to fly across the ruined Soviet Union, signalling whatever silos remained active to launch their deadly payloads at the US and her allies like a Soviet version of SkyNet.


Still active?

Dead Hand is shrouded in secrecy. It has never once been officially acknowledged by Russian officials, although former Soviet defense officials and advisers have confirmed its existence. Like the Soviets mocked in Dr. Strangelove, the Russians have never once announced to the world their doomsday device, thus defeating the purpose for building it. Unless, of course, that wasn’t their purpose at all. The Dead Hand was not designed to deter the US from nuclear war, but rather designed to keep anxious Communist Party officials from jumping the gun. By insuring that the Soviet Union could hit back in the event of a strike aimed at the central leadership, the Dead Hand put distance between Soviet officials and the decision to end the world. Put short, the Dead Hand was a terrifyingly high tech way to achieve the age old work of politics: passing the buck.

While the Cold War has ended, the Dead Hand slumbers on. Sketchy reports show that the system continues to be upgraded from time to time, but Russian officials remain hush hush and many US officials are still ignorant of its existence. A bad situation, especially with the tensions between the US and Russia at the moment. Let’s hope that cooler heads will prevail, and the Dead Hand will never awaken in our lifetime.



Rosenbaum, Ron. “The Return of the Doomsday Machine?” September 5, 2007. Slate. May 11, 2014.


Thompson, Nicholas. “Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine.” September 21, 2009. Wired Magazine. May 11, 2014.


Broad, Williams. “Russia Has ‘Doomsday’ Machine, US Expert Says.” October, 8, 1993. The New York Times. May 11, 2014.

Nazi Forest Swastikas: Fact or Tabloid Fodder?

Image Credit: Reuters

“Swastikatree” by © Reuters, November 2000. Duplicated across a number of news sites, see references of article.. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Forest swastika via Wikipedia –

Supermarket tabloids are entertaining, if only for how absurd they are. From Elvis and Bigfoot partying it up on Venus to allegations of presidential homosexuality, there isn’t a limit to how absurd tabloid rags can get. That is why I initially dismissed the story of the forest swastikas. I recall seeing the alleged swastika plastered across the front page of a tabloid when I was a kid. While I probably believed it at the time–it was on paper, after all, they couldn’t lie in a paper!–as time went on I grew a lot more skeptical. So when I was sitting down to come up with ideas for the site, I went ahead and wrote it down, fully expecting to find that it was nothing more than a National Enquirer editor’s attempt to grab headlines.

Much to my surprise, it turns out that there is more fact to the story than I expected.


Hate in the forest

The first time anyone noticed a swastika in the forest was in 1992. An intern at a local landscaping company in the Uckermark region of northeastern Germany was reviewing aerial photographs looking for irrigation lines when, much to his shock, he noticed a giant yellow swastika in one of the photos. The symbol of hate was comprised of 140 larch trees, which had been planted in the middle of a forest of pines. The tree’s leaves turn yellow in the fall, making a striking contrast to the surrounding pines. However, the swastika was only visible from a certain height, which explained in part why it had gone unseen for close to sixty years–airliners flew too high to be able to see it, and Communist East Germany banned private aircraft who were more likely to be flying at the correct altitude to see the swastika.

Samples taken from trees in the sinister formation dated it to the late 1930s. No one is exactly certain how they got there. A local farmer claimed he’d planted the stands as a child, while locals claimed that the symbol was installed as a sign to authorities that local villages were loyal to the Nazi regime. Another report said that a local Nazi official had the trees planted to commemorate Hitler’s birthday.

Whatever its origins, the leafy swastika was a reminder of the darkest time in German history, and many wanted it gone. Forestry workers cut down 40 of the trees, hoping that would make the symbol unrecognizable. It was five years before anyone took another look, and they saw a swastika there plain as day. In 2000, workers took to the heath once more, culling 25 strategically chosen trees and destroying the swastika for good.


A swastika planting fad

It turns out that planting swastika groves was something of a fad among Nazi foresters in the 1930 (Nazi foresters? Who knew?) US troops reported a giant swastika formed out of larches on a hillside in the state of Hesse (which is also the state where Frankenstein’s Castle is located). A second forest swastika was found in Hesse in the 1980s, while a swastika comprised of Douglas firs was discovered in a deciduous forest in Wiesbaden.

Bizarrely, a forest swastika was found in a remote part of Kyrgystan as well. No one knows who planted the stand of trees. Some say it was an exiled Nazi forestry service official, while others claim it was the work of German POWs.


Kringiel, Danny. “Horticultural Hate: The Mystery of the Forest Swastikas.” July 5, 2013. Spiegal Online. May 25, 2014

The London Monster

Illustration of the London Monster attacking a woman. It was based on witness testimony, but produced before Williams was arrested.

Illustration of the London Monster attacking a woman. It was based on witness testimony, but produced before Williams was arrested.

Humans have always believed in monsters. Our ancient ancestors told tales of giants, dragons, and less classifiable things lurking in the impenetrable darkness of the night. While the march of progress has shown these stories to be nothing more than collective nightmares, now and then real-life monsters rear their all too human heads. It turns out that the real monsters–with a few exceptions–take human form. From Delphine LaLaurie’s attic of horrors to the castle of the Blood Countess, tales of human savagery litter the historical record. Even today we are not clear on what goes wrong in a person’s mind to make them turn monstrous, although many have turned down dark pathways in an effort to figure out why. Some folks are just broken, and nobody can figure out how to fix them.

One such monstrous figure stalked the streets of London in 1790. Dozens of women reported being attacked by a boisterous, lewd man who slashed at their clothing and stabbed their buttocks with a dagger. Panic quickly spread through the city as citizens and police alike tried to track down the mysterious figure who came to be dubbed “The London Monster.”


The Monster’s first strike

The Monster’s first reported attack occurred January 19, 1790, on the Queen’s birthday. The Porter sisters–Sarah and Anne–were on their way home to their fathers hotel after enjoying the festivities when a strange fellow approached. He stared intently at Sarah before saying “Oh ho! Is that you?” and hitting her on the back of the head. Confused by the unprovoked assault, she ran toward her sister and the chaperone–Mrs. Miel– escorting the pair. The group hurried toward the  hotel, but the man was not following. He appeared again when they were pounding on the hotel door. He stabbed Anne on the hip. He then left while the frantic women tried to raise the attention of those inside, but soon returned. He stared at the women, a grin on his lips. John Porter, their brother, let the group inside. He was the first to see the blood on Anne’s dress. He summoned servants to search for the attacker, but the mysterious assailant disappeared.

That night, four other women would reportedly be attacked by the strange grinning man. The Monster established his modus operandi that night. He approached pretty, well-dressed women, usually coming uncomfortably close. He spoke to them in a crude manner, making vulgar sexual comments and foul language. If they tried to walk away, he would pursue them, often for a good distance. Then he would stab them in the hips or thighs using a sharp instrument before running away.

While this constituted most of the Monster attacks, the mysterious pervert slightly modified his approach in later cases. Some women reported being approached by a man who asked them to smell an artificial nosegay. When they did so, he stabbed them in the face with an object concealed within the flower before running away.


A phantom with many faces

As reports of attacks flooded in after the initial spate on January 19, many different descriptions of the alleged assailant were given by his victims. Mrs. Mary Smyth, who was attacked two years before the Porter sisters, making her the first victim of the Monster, claimed her attacker was a “villanous” looking man with a narrow face. Another woman reported the attacker was a small, thin, big nosed man. A little less than a year before the Porter sisters were attacked, Mrs. Sarah Godfrey was attacked by a man of medium build wearing a good black suit. Miss Mary Forster was accosted six months later by a slender man with regular features and a big nose. Still another victim described her attacker as a six foot tall man with pale skin and sallow features. Investigators–both the professionals and vigilantes who later took to the streets–believed the Monster was a rich man who used disguises to commit his crimes, thus accounting for the varying appearance.

It seemed the Monster could be anyone. Panic was growing on the streets of London. By early April 1790, the incidents had attracted the attention of a Lloyd’s Insurance broker named John Julius Angerstein. He took it upon himself to interview victims. He found that there had been 30 attacks between May 1788 and April 1790. Eager to do his part to stop the scourge of the Monster, Angerstein and some associates pooled their money for a reward: 50 pounds for information that led to the arrest of the Monster, or for the capture of the Monster himself, and another 50 pounds if the culprit was convicted. The group plastered posters around the city advertising the reward. The already bewildered police were flooded with tipsters and men hauling in folks they thought were the culprit.



Pickpocket caught in the act. Pickpockets took advantage of the panic to ply their trade.

Pickpocket caught in the act. Pickpockets took advantage of the panic to ply their trade.

The Monster hunters taking to the street in search of reward didn’t seem to deter the London Monster, who continued to wage his campaign of terror against the female citizens of London. He began to prey on more homely ladies during that time. Panic grew into a flat out mania. Women were terrified to leave their homes, especially at night. Rich women began wearing copper cuirasses over their rear ends, while the less well off had to settle for girding their loins with copper cook pots. Men roved the streets, searching for the Monster and beating any man suspected of being the phantom assailant. Enterprising pick pockets took advantage of the hysterical climate. They would burgle an unsuspecting fellow, then denounce him as the Monster and run off while the mob descended. Others named their enemies the Monster and watched with satisfaction as the mob beat the tar out of the unfortunate.

With hysteria in the packed London streets, police had to act fast before they had a full scale riot on their hands. They snapped up a Welsh artificial flower maker named Rhynwick Williams, arresting him on suspicion of being the Monster. He was an average looking fellow who wasn’t very well educated. Four Monster victims could not identify him in the pre-trial hearing. In addition, his coworkers at the flower factory vouched for him, telling the judge that he was at work when the Porter sisters were attacked. No fewer than thirteen character witnesses came forward and vouched for Williams, telling the court he was a good man. Despite all this, Williams was found guilty on the testimony of the Porter sisters.

Strangely, Williams was not found guilty of assault. Cutting a person with intent to kill was considered a misdemeanor at the time, punishable by fines, prison time, or flogging. Prosecutors went for a felony charge–punishable by death or transportation to Australia–of cutting clothes. Yes, it turned out that in late 18th century London, cutting clothes was a worse crime than cutting flesh. The statute was instituted when weavers, who were angry over the import of cheap Indian fabrics, attacked anyone wearing clothes made from the foreign material. Under this statute, Williams was sentenced to 7 years transportation.

Theophilus Swift, relative of the great satirist and novelist Johnathon Swift, heard about the results of the charges and believed a great injustice had been done to Williams. He offered his assistance to the hapless Welshman, and managed to bluster his way to a second trial. During the trial, Swift contended that the Porter sister’s were using the courts to get revenge on Williams. He had approached Anne, and become angry when she rejected him. He insulted her about a past indiscretion with a mysterious figure named Captain Crowder. Swift also alleged that Porter was angling to get the reward money, since she’d married the man who captured Williams and netted the reward money.  Furthermore, Swift argued that there had been two more Monster-style attacks while Williams was in prison, so it couldn’t have been his client who did the original crimes. In addition, women were coming forward claiming that they had faked their injuries in order to garner attention as victims of the Monster, casting suspicion on all of the victim’s accounts by association.

These arguments–and the pamphlets Swift published which trumpeted them to the public at large–were enough to cast doubt on the proceedings of the first trial. The felony charge against Williams was dropped, and he was charged with the lesser misdemeanor of cutting with the intent to kill. He was sentenced to two years of prison time for each offense, totaling six years. Williams served out his sentence, married and fathered a children, and basically dropped out of the historical record at that point.


A monstrous delusion?

London was a rough and tumble city during the late 18th century. The population had swelled to about a million, and more people meant more of the problems that plagued any large city, especially crime. The odds of someone falling victim to the swarms of footpads, pickpockets, and other nasty sorts were pretty good. So it wasn’t much of a leap for the city’s residents to believe that a monstrous madman might be on the loose among them.

They certainly did believe it, but that doesn’t mean that the London Monster actually did exist. What seems likely given the evidence–the varying descriptions of the attacker, the relatively minor wounds, the faking of wounds for attention, the fact that most victims were female–is that the London Monster was a type of mass sociogenic illness called a collective delusion. The term “delusion” in this sense does not mean that the victims were psychotic and hallucinating. In this usage, it simply means that a false belief spread through the population. There is no doubt that at least some of the women were actually victims of assault; it’s inevitable, considering that so many crimes were being committed daily in the London streets. But these assaults came to be lumped together as the actions of one attacker, rather than the random acts of anonymous hoodlums. The London Monster put a face on the problems plaguing the city; crime, overcrowding, and the low status of women in British society at the time. By putting a face on abstract issues, it gave people a way that they could act on these unconscious stresses and anxieties. It wound up that poor Rhynwick Williams was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He became a scape-goat, bearing the burdens of societal sin so that the larger community could believe justice had been done.



Bondeson, Jan. “The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale.” Da Capo Press, July 2009





The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack

Springheel_JackHistory is littered with strange, unexplained happenings. From a Phantom Barber who tormented a Mississippi town during World War II to a man in a bunny suit who inspired an enduring legend, some stories give truth to the old cliche, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” While those examples are all from the US, Great Britain is no stranger to weirdness. Perhaps one of the strangest unexplained incidents on the British Isles occurred in the 19th century, when a mysterious figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack began a reign of terror that some claim has continued into the 21st century.


An agile assailant

The funny business all began back in 1837, in London. The story goes that Mary Stevens was walking home when a strange figure accosted her. He kissed her face and ripped at her clothes with cold, clammy fingers. Mary screamed, and the assailant fled. The next day, the strange figure resurfaced–a stage coach driver lost control of his coach when a figure suddenly jumped into the road in front of him. Witnesses to the incident reported that the figure proceeded to jump over a nine-foot wall, babbling and laughing to itself as it did so.

From there, the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack would take on a life of its own. People reported seeing the humanoid figure on and off up until 1904, and there are some who claim to have seen the creature as recently as 2005. Accounts of encounters varied from witness to witness. Many times Jack was said to scare the living daylights out of coach drivers, as he did the day after his first appearance. He was also commonly said to attack young women, tearing at their clothes and faces with his claws and groping them before disappearing into the night. Now and then he would jump out of the shadows, slap a man in the face several times, and disappear again before the victim knew what happened.

220px-Spring_Heeled_Jack-penny_dreadfulOddly, descriptions of the mysterious assailant were fairly consistent. Jack was described as being a tall, lean figure of gentlemanly appearance. Some described Jack as wearing oilskins, a helmet, and a heavy cloak, attire similar in appearance to the police uniforms of the day. When Jack would strike, he did so with clawed hands and blue-white flames that he spewed out of his mouth. Some accounts claim Jack’s face sported an elongated chin, and most accounts claim that his eyes glowed red while he attacked.

Obviously, some of the physical descriptions of the mysterious assailant varied depending on witness testimony. The one common feature amongst all the reports though was Jack’s phenomenal jumping abilities. More than one story described how Jack could jump inhumanly high. Often, when the miscreant was cornered by an angry mob, he would use his springy heels to avoid a death by pitchfork. There was no way (so the argument goes) a mere human could perform the high jumping feats attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack, such as performing a standing jump nine feet in the air. A human lacks the musculature to jump that high, and even if they could they’d likely break their ankles when gravity inevitably dragged them back down to earth.

Spring-Heeled Jack become quite the sensation back in his day. He was the star of countless penny dreadful novels and serials, and more than one gaudy stage show. His story gained a air of legitimacy when newspapers reported on it; even the Lord Mayor of London looked into the phenomena, although admittedly His Lordship was skeptical.


Was a bored aristocrat responsible for the attacks?

With all the excitement and fear surrounding the odd occurrences in England, it was natural that all sorts of explanations would crop up. Even today, there is a lot of speculation as to what actually occurred.

The hypotheses range from the plausible to the plain odd. Modern skeptics fall back to the old stand-by explanation–collective delusion, better known (somewhat erroneously) as mass hysteria. They believe that Spring-Heeled Jack was a miscreant and a prankster with a penchant for harassing women, and stories of his exploits became exaggerated as panic spread.

The "Mad" Marquess of Waterford

The “Mad” Marquess of Waterford

There is some evidence to support this notion. The Lord Mayor of London himself believed something similar. He received an anonymous complaint describing a wager among three young noblemen who planned to cause general mischief of the sort attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack. Indeed, there was even a named suspect in the conspiracy. The man was the Marquess of Waterford, the so-called “Mad Marquess”, and he had a nasty habit of drunken disorderly conduct along with a bad track record of behaving badly toward women.

But then, if Jack was a mere man, how could anyone possibly perform the jumping feats attributed to the creature, and how could they spit blue-white flame from their mouths?

Modern skeptics again claim mass hysteria. The crimes perpetrated by the Mad Marquess became inflated in the popular imagination, both by being sensationalized by the media of the day and by being conflated with traditional English folklore. Like the London Monster or the New Jersey Ghost Sniper, Spring-Heeled Jack was a “phantom attacker.”

Those of a less skeptical frame of mind would disagree, and they tout out all sorts of different explanations. One that I found particularly amusing was the alien explanation. Some claim that Jack was actually some sort of an extraterrestrial. As for why some being from another world would come all the way to Earth to grope Victorian English women, proponents of the hypothesis have no real explanation.

A more common supernatural explanation was that Jack was a demon or devil of some sort; indeed, some believed he was the Devil, summoned by occult practitioners who were supposedly quite common in London back in those days.

Whether he be a devil, an alien, or the product of mass hysteria, there can be no doubt that the people of Victorian England at least believed that a devil skulked in their midst. Real or not, Jack had a life all his own in the culture of his day, a life that continues to this day because of the enduring legend of Spring-Heeled Jack.




“Spring-Heeled Jack.” October 6, 2006. The Scotsman. June 21, 2014.


Upton, Chris. “Local Legends: Spring-Heeled Jack.” February 2004. BBC News. June 21, 2014.





Delphine LaLaurie — The Murderous Mistress

The LaLaurie Mansion, from a 1906 postcard.

The LaLaurie Mansion, from a 1906 postcard.

More often than not, when you hear the word “serial killer” you think of a man, since the vast majority of serial killers are, indeed, men. However, the fairer sex is not immune from murderous instincts; in fact, some of the most notorious serial killers in history were women. Among their number is the wealthy New Orleans socialite Marie Delphine LaLaurie, better known as Madam LaLaurie, whose mansion has gone down in the eccentric history of New Orleans as a house of horrors.


A cruel mistress.

On April 10, 1834 a fire broke out in her mansion. While neighbors and firefighters struggled to put out the flames, LaLaurie herself went about the mansion trying to save her valuables. Rescuers began to question where all the household slaves were, and why they weren’t helping to fight the fire. I also imagine they were curious as to why an elderly slave was chained to the stove.

Rumors had abounded before the fire of LaLaurie’s alleged cruelty towards her slaves. Certainly slavery itself was a cruel institution, but slave holders were expected to treat their slaves with some minimum degree of humanity. This evidently didn’t exclude slave holders from using whips and chains to discipline their slaves, so to be considered “cruel” back then meant very much going above and beyond.

Said rumors were probably in the back of the rescuer’s minds as they put out the fire. They headed up the stairs toward the attic, guided by the words of the elderly kitchen slave who had told them about her fellow slaves who were sent to the attic, never to return. Some believe the slave set the fire in the kitchen herself to try to draw attention from the outside world to Madam LaLaurie’s cruelty. If that was her intention, the plan worked.


House of horrors

Rescuers broke down the attic door and found a scene straight out of the worst modern day horror movies. Accounts vary, and many are more folklore than fact, but regardless what was inside was terrible enough to make hardened firefighters become sick to their stomachs. Slaves were bound in chains to the wall, with collars around their throats. Some were locked in dog cages. All of them showed signs of starvation and maltreatment, and some were horribly mutilated. One man had had his genitals removed in a crude sex change operation. One woman’s limbs had been broken at the joints which were then reset at odd angles, resulting in a crab-like appearance. Another woman’s limbs had been removed and strips of her flesh had been stripped away in sort of a striped pattern. A man had been vivisected (autopsied while alive) and lay on the makeshift operating table with his organs exposed. Buckets of organs and blood were scattered all over the room.

Now I should mention that descriptions these rather more horrific and specific tortures came later, as near as I can tell. They may not have (and hopefully didn’t) occur. Legends have a way of taking on a life of their own, facts be damned. Regardless, the fact seems to stand that Madam LaLaurie and her husband committed atrocities against their slaves that were shocking even to the culture of the day that regarded them as nothing more than property.

Not long after the discovery, Madam LaLaurie was forced to flee her home as an armed lynch mob attacked the mansion when word spread of the attic room and its grisly contents. LaLaurie and her husband fled in a carriage and escaped to Paris, France. On December 7, 1842 Madam LaLaurie died in Paris, allegedly of wounds sustained during a boar hunt. She was never punished for her crimes.



“Delphine LaLaurie.” May 12, 2014. Wikipedia. May 18, 2014.

“A torture chamber is uncovered by arson.” 2014. The History Channel website. May 18 2014, 12:14

“History of Delphine LaLaurie.”

Lobotomy — The Ice Pick Cure

Dr. Walter Freeman (left) and Dr. James W. Watts studying an x-ray before performing a lobotomy.

Dr. Walter Freeman (left) and Dr. James W. Watts studying an x-ray before performing a lobotomy.

Psychiatric medicine has come a long way in the 21st century. While the mind still holds many mysteries, at the very least we now have many non-invasive treatments, typically drug therapies but also talk therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, that bring relief to millions suffering from mental illnesses every year.

Fifty or sixty years ago, however, many of the treatments taken for granted today were not available. Families, caretakers, and patients alike were desperate to find a cure for mysterious mental ailments that seemed to defy all treatment. This desperation, in many cases, led them to turn to a controversial treatment that today is viewed as barbarous: lobotomy.


Surgery for the soul

A lobotomy is a procedure where the prefrontal cortex’s connections to the rest of the brain are severed. It was intended to ease the symptoms of such severe mental disorders as schizophrenia, manic depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorders, and severe depression. Research had established that these ailments stemmed from malfunctions in the brain itself, although just how these malfunctions arose was anyone’s guess. Some claimed the brains of patients suffering from these disorders functioned differently on a fundamental level, that their brains were morphologically different than healthy brains. Another school of thought, the one that informed those who performed lobotomies, believed that the brains of those with mental illness were structurally the same as healthy brains, but that disordered thinking trapped certain neuronal circuits in loops that could only be broken by physically destroying the neurons.

While it’s obvious to the modern observer that this wasn’t the case, we have to remember that the modern diagnostic techniques like fMRI and CT scans didn’t exist at that point in time, so really anyone’s hypothesis could have been correct because there wasn’t any way to tell.

If that sounds like a faulty basis to perform a surgery on…well, it is. Especially a surgery like lobotomy. Initially the procedure was performed in an operating room, with the patient under anesthesia. Holes would be drilled into the front and back of the skull, and then alcohol was injected into the front hole to dissolve the white matter.

Horrifying though that is, for Walter Freeman–a lobotomy pioneer–the procedure wasn’t enough. Psychiatric hospitals and asylums were not exactly wealthy institutions, and many lacked the funds or facilities to perform the procedure outlined above. An outpatient procedure was needed, one that could be performed with little training and relatively simple tools.


Illustration of the prefrontal cortex (highlighted in orange) from Gray's Anatomy.

Illustration of the prefrontal cortex (highlighted in orange) from Gray’s Anatomy.

The ice-pick cure

Freeman hit on the so-called ice pick lobotomy, known in clinical circles as a suborbital lobotomy, where an instrument that looked like an ice pick (hence the name) was placed into the corner of the eye, then hammered through the back of the skull into the brain. Then the instrument was twisted around, destroying the prefrontal cortex’s tissue. The instrument was withdrawn and then repeated on the other side. No anesthesia was necessary, although usually patients were given electroshock therapy to knock them out before the procedure was performed. The surgery took approximately ten minutes.

Sounds pretty awful, right? Awful though it was, for many families this was the only option to attempt to cure their loved ones. Sadly, in many cases the procedure was forced on people for less noble reasons, as families or caretakers who tired of trying to care for an unruly loved one saw the procedure as a way to make the patient more docile and easier to handle. For these and other reasons, lobotomy became something of a craze (maybe a poor choice of words) in the fifties and sixties.

In truth, results from the procedure were mixed. There was no real precision involved, as the surgery was essentially performed blind. Some patients saw improvement of symptoms with no significant side effects. Other patients saw their symptoms become worse, to the point where some became suicidal. Still others reverted back to a child-like mentality where they acted essentially like a full grown toddler. Some, including John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, became little more than vegetables. In all groups, seizures were a common side effect.


End of an era.

Lobotomies fell out of vogue with the rise of antipsychotic medications like chlorpromazine, thorazine, and others. These drugs could have similar effects as lobotomies, but with less risk of permanent brain injury or death. As for Walter Freeman, he continued to champion the procedure even as the psychiatric world moved on. He performed the final lobotomy of his career in February, 1967. His patient was named Helen Mortenson, and she died later of a brain hemorrhage. Freeman’s career ended with her death. he spent the rest of his life traveling the country in a camper, trying to reconnect with his former patients, to show that his now infamous procedure had improved their lives. He died of cancer in 1972.

Today, lobotomies are not performed, although in their place a similar sounding but altogether different procedure has arisen – the loboectomy. This procedure essentially separates the two hemispheres of the brain, and it is used in severe cases of epilepsy to reduce the risk of permanent brain injury from epileptic seizures.

Psychiatry in particular and medicine in general has come a long way in the past sixty odd years. It’s easy to look back now from our era of advanced technology and be horrified at this barbaric procedure. And we should be, because this was an often ineffective and many times unnecessary procedure inflicted on people, often without their consent, by care givers who simply wanted to silence them. However, in the cases where the procedure was undertaken in good faith it did provide hope for those in suffering, and while in some circles it was criticized frankly at the time there was no better alternative.



“‘My Lobotomy’: Howard Dully’s Journey.” November 16, 2005. NPR. May 18, 2014.

“Introduction: The Lobotomist.” American Experience. May 18, 2014.

Levinson, Hugh. “The Strange and Curious History of Lobotomy.” November 8, 2011. BBC News.

Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell

“The Door to Hell” by flydime – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Most of the world’s fuel takes the form of fossil fuels. These fuels are the remains of ancient plant matter that has been compressed under immense pressures for millions of years. Whether it’s oil, coal, or natural gas, we are burning the remains of long dead creatures to heat our homes and fuel our commutes. Extracting these energy sources is a dangerous business though. Centralia became a ghost town after an underground fire made it unlivable.

There is a more spectacular underground fire than the one that killed Centralia, though. In 1971, Soviet geologists were drilling a natural gas well in Turkmenistan, near the village of Derweze. The Karakum Desert, which covers most of the country, is rich with natural gas deposits deep underground. It should have been a routine drill, but something unexpected happened; they drilled into an open cavern filled with natural gas. The weight of the drill rig above on the now weakened cavern ceiling caused a horrific collapse. Luckily, no one was killed, but the geologists had a problem in the form of a 70m diameter hole in the ground that was leaking natural gas and poisonous gasses. Hoping to stop the leak, the scientists lit a fire, fully expecting it to burn out within a few days. More than forty years later, the blaze is still burning strong. Locals have dubbed the open pit “the Door to Hell.”

The Door to Hell has become something of a tourist attraction in the country of Turkmenistan, which is not exactly known as a tourist mecca. Still, the runaway fire burns off several tons of natural gas a day, and it prevents drilling in the area. The president of Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, visited the site in 2010 and ordered local authorities to figure out a way to seal the hole or stop the fire. Turkmenistan is seeking to leverage its natural gas resources to become a player in the regional energy market, and exploiting the rich gas wells around Derweze would go a long way toward helping that goal. Four years later, no workable plans to snuff out the fire have been presented. The Doorway to Hell is still wide open.



Gurt, Murat. “Turkmen President Wants to Close ‘Hell’s Gate.'” April 20, 2010. Reuters. June 1, 2014


Preece, Rob. “The Door to Hell: Take a look inside a giant hole in the desert which has been on fire for more than 40 years.” July 26, 2012. The Daily Mail. June 1, 2014.


The Night Shakespeare Caused a Riot: The Astor Place Riot

Astor_Place_Opera-House_riots_cropShakespeare. The name conjures images of mustachioed men in poofy pants professing undying love to women in ridiculously impractical skirts. Most people, in America at least, are only familiar with the Bard’s work after having slogged through it for their high school English classes. Today, his works have a reputation (among the public if not academics) for being something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

This was not so during the 19th century, when attending operas or plays was as common as going to a movie theater today. Shakespeare’s works were enjoyed by rich and poor alike. A well known actor would have been as beloved then as a cinematic super star today. Two such 19th century superstars were the famous actors William Macready, a Brit, and Edwin Forrest, an American. Their rivalry, and the struggle between rich and poor it came to represent, would spark a bloody riot at the Astor Opera house on May 10, 1849 that would leave 22 people dead and over a hundred injured.


Rival actors, simmering tensions

While riots can seem to be spontaneous outpourings of aggression, such as the Straw Hat riots of 1922, but usually the anger is based in far deeper tensions than the immediate reason for the riot. Sometimes all it takes is a small spark, like a shortage of a hot product, to bring out the ugliness lurking beneath the surface. The rivalry between Macready and Forrest was merely a representation of a long standing conflict within New York City between the rich and poor.

Their rivalry didn’t initially take classist overtones. It began innocently enough years before the riot. Macready went on an American tour and Forrest followed not far behind (whether by coincidence or design is unclear), performing the same roles. The gimmick of an actors rivalry was good for both men as ticket sales spiked. Forrest did quite well when he toured Macready’s homeland of England the first time, but a second tour in the 1840s didn’t fare quite as well. Forrest accused his rival of sabotage and showed up at one of Macready’s plays to boo and hiss at him.

The rivalry had mostly been a gimmick to that point, but the incident in England turned things ugly. It didn’t get much better when Macready returned to America and Forrest once again followed him. The rival actors became figureheads of the classist rivalry in New York, and America as a whole. Wealthy members of the upper class favored the refined British gentleman, Macready, while lower classes favored their fellow American, Forrest. It didn’t help that Macready tended to do his plays at posh establishments like the Astor Opera House, whose ticket prices and dress code put it far out of reach for the average American.

This didn’t sit well with many New Yorkers. On March 7, 1849, Macready was scheduled to perform “Macbeth” at the Astor Opera House when a group of working class New Yorkers filed into the place. Macready walked on stage only to be greeted by booing and hissing. Other ruffians chucked eggs at the gentleman actor. The uproar forced management to cancel the night’s event. Macready, understandably angered, threatened to leave America the next day, but was persuaded by rich patrons to stay. The performance was rescheduled for May 10. To keep the peace, city government posted a militia company nearby in Washington Square Park.  Clearly expecting trouble, the night of the play city officials had the opera house board up its windows and policemen were posted outside.


A bloody end

They were right to expect trouble. That night, an ugly crowd from the rough end of town gathered outside the theater. Someone had printed up pamphlets denouncing Macready and his fans as British subjects who were trying to impose British values on Americans. This especially incensed Irish immigrants, who had no love of the British. Macready took the stage while outside the violence started. Rioters tried to storm the theater, only to be beaten back by club-wielding police. The rioters surged back into the melee, and the violence started to swirl out of control. Finally, the belegured police called a company of militia to help them silence the crowd. Rioters pelted the soldiers with rocks as they approached. Nervous officers, fearing they were about the be overrun by the crowd, ordered their men to fire. Within seconds, tweny-two people lay dead and hundreds more were injured.

The bloodshed shocked New York and America as a whole. In part this was because the news spread more quickly than in the past via the newly built network of telegraph wires. For the first time, Americans could get news from far off places almost in real time. For his part, Macready managed to sneak out of the back of the theater in the wake of the killing and make his way to his hotel. Some feared a mob would attack the hotel and kill the cowed gentleman, but that threat never materialized. Within a few days the actor made it to Boston and relative safety.

New York remained in a state of shock and fear after the shootings. Another ugly crowd gathered the next day, intent on marching to the theater to take revenge. But city officials were ready and the crowd was stopped by armed police. For a time at least, peace was restored to the streets of New York.



McNamara, Robert. “The Astor Place Riot.” June 6, 2014.

“Remembering New York city’s Opera Riots.” May 13, 2006. NPR. June 6, 2014.

The Cold War Beetle Battle

The Colorado Potato Beetle

The Colorado Potato Beetle

The Cold War was a conflict of appearances and propaganda. Each superpower sought to appear unbeatable to the other. That is why the USSR detonated the biggest bomb ever built; to show off their technological prowess, and to show that they were not to be toyed with. However, one thing that is often forgotten about the propaganda war is that most of it was directed at a country’s own citizens, not at rivals. Detonating the big bomb made Soviet citizens feel powerful. Stories of lost cosmonauts made Americans feel justified in their sense of superiority over the Soviets in terms of space technology.

But propaganda was not always meant to make citizens feel positive. More negative propaganda could be useful to a superpower as well, if it spurred hatred toward the enemy. In the end, the results were the same: the citizens felt superior to their rivals, with the added bonus of feeling a healthy dose of fear, which always makes people more pliable. Sometimes though, this fear mongering propaganda could take absurd turns. Take, for example, the Cold War beetle battle, when East Germany tried to convince its citizens that Americans were trying to destroy their potato crops by air dropping Colorado Potato Beetles.


Paranoia and propaganda

East Germany was in sorry shape after the devastation of World War II and the transformation to a Communist style government and economy. Hunger was rampant throughout the country. Potatoes were a key staple that many people depended on for sustenance, so when large numbers of black and yellow beetles showed up in the fields, people took notice. The potato beetles were a scourge that could wipe out whole fields of the valuable crop. It was 1950 and American planes were flying low over parts of East Germany, bringing much needed supplies to West Berliners who were suffering under Stalin’s blockade of their city. The East German government seized on the presence of American planes overhead and claimed that the American Imperialists were air dropping beetles onto East German fields to destabilize the country’s attempts at reconstruction.

Children were employed to fight this supposed American menace. Every day after school, they’d be dispatched to the potato fields to pluck up the beetles by hand. The pests would be dumped into jars or bottles of alcohol and destroyed. This of course did very little to stop the spread of beetles, but it at least made people feel as if they were doing their part in the effort against the Imperialists, which was all that mattered to the authorities anyway.

It is interesting to note that, despite what Westerners thought of citizens of Communist countries at the time, many did not buy the propaganda. There were many in rural areas who did, and to this day still do, believe that the beetles were a CIA plot, but many younger people thought the government explanation was so much bunk. In the climate of paranoia running through the country at the time though, it wouldn’t have been good to say so and be labeled an American sympathizer, so most kept their mouth shut and went about going through the motions.


A simple explanation

While talk of a CIA plan to dust fields with beetles sound absurd, it wouldn’t be the first time someone had the idea to use the pests as weapons. France considered doing just that in World War I, in hopes of harming the German war effort. But they abandoned the plan when smuggling the bugs into Germany proved unfeasible. That, and there was a fear that the plan would backfire and French farmers would find their own fields infested.

Precedent for the weird plan aside, there’s no evidence that the CIA executed a plan to attack East Germany with potato beetles. The pests had plagued European farmers since the 19th century, when they arrived with shipments of potatoes imported from America. Certainly they were invasive species, but their invasion was purely unintentional. The Cold War beetle battle was nothing more than propaganda, an attempt to stir up the masses against the enemy.



Burns, Lucy. “The great Cold War potato beetle battle.” September 2, 2013. BBC News. June 6, 2014.