Monthly Archives: May 2016

Toxic Algae and the Strange True Story of ‘The Birds’

A Sooty Shearwater By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Sooty Shearwater
By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Birds is considered by many to be among the scariest movies ever made. The 1963 Alfred Hitchcock classic is set in a small California seaside town that is plagued by a massive flock of aggressive birds that attack people on a whim and disappear as mysteriously as they came. What could have been a ludicrous premise is made tense and suspenseful in Hitchcock’s masterful hands.

While the movie was based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, an event that occurred in North Monterrey Bay in California two years before its release also had a strong impact on the movie. In August of 1961, a flock of birds called sooty shearwaters, invaded the communities surrounding the bay, a real life event that eerily paralleled those of the movie.

 

A night time invasion

The avian assault came at about 3 in the morning, when residents were roused from their sleep by the sounds of birds slamming into their homes. Residents who went outside with flashlights were flocked by birds, which were drawn to the light.

The strange event lasted until daylight. Residents emerged from their homes to find the streets littered with dead birds and fish the excited fowl vomited up. The air stunk of fish.

Residents were understandably confused by the turn of events. No one had seen anything quite like this before. Ward Russel, who was a museum zoologist at the University of California, offered a plausible explanation. He believed that the birds were feeding on a school of anchovy when a heavy fog rolled over their flock. They became disoriented in the fog and headed toward the only discernible beacon in the gloom—the streetlights and houselights from the communities of Monterrey Bay.

Many weren’t satisfied by this explanation, but no others were forthcoming. The incident remained a mystery for thirty years, until a similar occurrence revealed the strange explanation for the bird’s odd behaviors.

 

Poisoned birds

Thirty years later, brown pelicans in Monterrey Bay engaged in similar behavior as the shearwaters in the 1961 incident. This time though, a culprit for the odd behavior was found. Domoic acid, a substance that can cause symptoms such as confusion, disorientation, scratching, seizures, and even death was found in their system. This toxin is produced by certain species of algae, which are consumed by fish and other species, which are themselves consumed by sea birds. The acid gets more concentrated as it moves up the food chain, so as the birds feed on fish they ingest stronger and stronger doses of the toxins. Evidence for similar poisonings was found in the preserved remains from the 1961 incident, proving that the strange incident that August morning, while unusual, was well within the realm of the natural.

 

Sources:

Ludka, Alexandria, “Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’” Mystery Solved.” Abcnews.go.com. December 28, 2011. ABC News. May 1, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2011/12/hitchcocks-the-birds-mystery-solved/

Parry, Wynne. “Blame Hitchock’s Crazed Birds on Toxic Algae.” Livescience.com. January 3, 2012. LiveScience. March 1, 2016. http://www.livescience.com/17713-hitchcock-birds-movie-algae-toxin.html

Santa Cruz Sentinel and Trabing, Wally. “Birds ‘Invade’ Santa Cruz, California.” Santacruzpl.org. Santa Cruz Public Libraries. March 1, 2016. http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/articles/183/

 

Grave Guns and Grave Torpedoes

A Mortsafe, another, less spectacular method for protecting graves from bodysnatchers.  By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Mortsafe, another, less spectacular method for protecting graves from bodysnatchers.
By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, a ghoulish profession thrived in England the the United States. They bore such names as resurrection men and grave robbers, but they were best known as body snatchers. The profession arose as a result of advancements in medicine and a boom in the number of medical schools across both countries, which in turn led to a spike in the demand for corpses needed for dissection in anatomy classes. Legal methods of procuring bodies, which primarily relied upon the executions of criminals or on individuals to donate their bodies to science, were woefully inadequate to keeping up with the demand. Body snatchers plied their gruesome trade to fill the gap, stealing recently buried bodies from cemeteries and selling them for a profit to doctors and medical academies.

The cottage industry of body snatching, in turn, created a demand for methods to protect the graves of the recently departed. One method is shown in the image above–the Mortsafe, a cage to keep robbers out, contrary to the popular belief that the bars were meant to keep the dead in. But perhaps the strangest of these security measures were the cemetery guns and torpedoes. Cemetery guns were flintlock guns mounted on graves that were attached to trip wires, which when disturbed would trigger the weapon. They could be loaded with bird shot, rock salt, or more deadly projectiles. The weapons would be removed by cemetery keepers during the day so that loved ones could visit graves without fear, then reset at night when the resurrection men would be more likely to attempt to steal bodies. The routine also ensured that any scouts sent by gangs of resurrection men to look for any such defenses would be none the wiser.

Cemetery guns were banned in England in the 1820s, when the trend for grave defense turned to more passive means such as placing heavy iron grates over graves. Across the Atlantic, the United States was dealing with its own epidemic of grave robbery, and similar to their English cousins, Americans went to extreme means to stop the scourge. The crime became especially popular after the Civil War, when medical schools were opening at an unprecedented rate. It was no coincidence then that several so-called “grave torpedoes” hit the market during the post war years.

These devices built on the Civil War torpedo, which today we would call mines, and adapted the design to the needs of grave defense. The device built by inventor Thomas N Howell weighted in at 8lbs and carried a charge of powder that would be detonated via percussion cap when a metal plate placed above the device was disturbed. These and other designs proved effective: one of Howell’s torpedoes killed three men in 1881 in a cemetery in Knox County, Ohio.

Cemeteries once again became places of peace rather than mine fields when changes in the law and technology led to the end of bodysnatching. Medical schools were eventually allowed to acquire unclaimed bodies, and gradually the stigma of donating one’s body to science reduced, leading to more donations. This reduced demand for illegal cadavers. The advent of refrigeration in the early 1900s allowed schools to store cadavers, another blow to the bodysnatching trade. Finally, many states enacted laws requiring coffins to be placed inside heavy, sealed vaults, making the bodies within all but inaccessible to would be robbers. The age of the bodysnatcher, and the grave weapons meant to ward them off, had come to an end.

Sources:

Eger, Chris, “Cemetery Guns and Grave Torpedoes.” Guns.com. August 6, 2012. Guns.com. January 17, 2016. http://www.guns.com/2012/08/06/cemetery-guns-grave-torpedoes/

“Grave-Robbing,” Ohiohistorycentral.org. Ohio History Connection. January 17, 2016. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Grave-robbing?rec=2701

Onion, Rebecca, “The ‘Cemetery Gun’: One Defense Against Grave Robbers.” Slate.com. January 29, 2013. Slate. January 17, 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/01/29/cemetery_gun_invented_to_thwart_grave_robbers.html