Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Strange Journey of Frederick Chopin’s Heart

Frederic Chopin

Frederic Chopin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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

Ota Benga, 1904

Ota Benga, 1904

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

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

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

 

A life of struggle

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

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

 

Ota Benga arrives in New York

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

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

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

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

 

The end of Ota Benga

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

 

Ken McElroy and the Town That Kept Silent

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

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

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

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

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

 

Skidmore’s Town Bully

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

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

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

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

 

Skidmore’s Reckoning

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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