Category Archives: Articles/Miscellaneous

Profane vampire burials

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

People in every time and place have harbored fears of the restless dead.  In medieval England, suicides were given profane burials at crossroads to prevent their tormented spirits from returning to wreak havoc on the community.  In Haiti, people live in fear of being made into a zombie, one of the living dead in the thrall of a witchdoctor.  And even today in 21st century America, many fear the modern zombie, a walking incarnation of death and pestilence.

But a far older folkloric beast has haunted the feverish dreams of humanity through the ages: the vampire.  While the stories vary from culture to culture, the basic concept is the same: a vampire is a person who came back to life after dying, and needs the blood of the living to continue its unholy existence.  These beings are, for the most part, regarded as mere superstition today; subjects of horror movies and tv series, nothing more.  But as recently as the 19th century, the belief in vampires was very real and they were regarded by many as an urgent threat to the community.  The actions superstitious locals took to vanquish this evil remain in various burial sites throughout Europe and in New England, where profane burials of suspected vampires continue to be uncovered.

 

 Macabre Methods

Lithograph depicting a vampire exhumation.

Lithograph depicting a vampire exhumation.

Skeletons that underwent profane burials meant to protect the community from vampires have been discovered in Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, and New England.  The macabre methods used to destroy the undead monsters varied from country to country.  In Italy, corpses tend to be found with bricks jammed into their mouths, to prevent them from feeding on the living.  In Poland and Bulgaria, the methodology was more variable.  The ancient Slavic custom for dealing with suspected vampires was to sever the corpse’s head and lay it on or between its legs.

Another common method would be more familiar to modern audiences: the vampire was staked through the heart, but with a metal rode rather than a wooden stake.  Skeletons have also been found buried with a sickle over their neck, so when they rise they would decapitate themselves.   Some bodies were buried face down, so that when the corpse reanimated it would dig deeper in the earth rather than be able to emerge and assault the living.  Some suspected vampires might be buried in coffins rather than winding sheets, so that they would have a harder time escaping.  In New England, a man was found with his head and upper leg bones arranged in a skull and cross-bone pattern.

 

Disease, Death, and Decomposition

While these methods may seem bizarre and gruesome to modern eyes, in the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, many believed they were the only way to protect their community from destruction.  Knowledge of the causes of epidemic disease was non-existent, and such illnesses ran rampant.  Two ailments in particular seem linked to the legend of the vampire: rabies and tuberculosis.

Rabies Virus Particles

Rabies Virus Particles

Rabies is a virus that spreads via bodily fluids, particularly the saliva of infected animals.  It is a mammalian virus, typically spread to humans by dogs, bats, and wolves.  While the virus can be dormant for long periods of time, when it becomes symptomatic death is all but assured.  It begins with flu like symptoms, but in late stages the symptoms become more extreme and include: hydrophobia (aversion to water), sensitivity to light, aggression, anxiety, delirium, increased saliva production, and eventually, death.  It is thought that some of the folklore around vampires developed after outbreaks of rabies, when deranged individuals suffering the late stages of the infection could be found wandering at night due to their light sensitivity, showing aggressive behavior.  It is interesting to note that vampires were often reported to shape shift into wolves and bats, two animals associated with the transmission of rabies.

The bacteria that causes Tuberculosis.

The bacteria that causes Tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is perhaps more strongly linked to vampire folklore; after all, rabies has been pretty well known to humans for thousands of years, and while the idea of a virus being responsible was a mystery, people knew that getting bit by a rabid animal caused rabies.  Tuberculosis was more mysterious, as its causes could not be as well documented by medical professionals of the day.

Tuberculosis is an airborne bacteria that typically infects the lungs.  Onset of symptoms could take months, beginning with a fever and leading to coughing, fatigue, weight loss, chills, and night sweats.  It was typically called consumption, because the victims of the disease would typically lose weight, fading way, appearing to be “consumed.”  It was not much of a leap to connect the appearance of one infected with TB to that of a person drained of blood, and so the thought arose that someone was stealing their blood.  In addition, TB doesn’t spread as readily as, say influenza.  It is more likely to spread to people who are in constant contact with an individual, such as family or caretakers.  This might explain one piece of vampire folklore that is often overlooked in the modern world: Old World vampires seemed to torment their families in particular, rather than any random stranger.

So, to illustrate how a vampire panic might have begun, say that one member of a family came down with TB.  They grew progressively sicker and sicker, only to pass away.  Then, another family member falls ill with the same ailment perhaps weeks or months after the original death.  If vampirism was suspected, the family might dig up the body of the deceased.  Decomposition was not well understood back then, so they might see a body with blood around its mouth that was pushed out by gasses generated by decomposition.  It would appear then that the body had been “feeding,” reinforcing the belief in vampires by a combination of observation and ignorance. The next step would be to ritually desecrate the body in order to protect the family and the rest of the family from the undead menace.  This, of course, would do nothing to actually stem the tide of infection, but it would give some sense of control over the unknown, and in that sense the rituals were effective.

 

Enduring Beliefs

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 classic.  His depiction of the infamous vampire brought vampires into the main stream and changed forever how they were viewed.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 classic. His depiction of the infamous vampire brought vampires into the main stream and changed forever how they were viewed.

There is still much to learn about the connection between vampire folklore, profane burials, and epidemic disease.  Not every desecrated body is found to have suffered from a TB or any known disease that can be discerned from their remains.  Indeed, plenty have been found who are not observably different from any other skeleton buried around them.  It is unclear then what the exact criteria were that made a person prone to becoming a vampire.  It is clear that generally speaking, becoming a vampire was something that happened to someone, rather than something they did deliberately.  In other words, their dead bodies become taken over by some other entity, rather than it being some evil inherent in the person themselves.  But this does somewhat run counter to the evidence from Poland that suggests that some who suffered desecration had emigrated from other parts of Europe; so, social class and standing in the community played some role in determining who was a vampire and who wasn’t.  It remains to be seen then exactly what people believed about vampires then, and how they conceived of what today are considered ghoulish acts of desecration.

However, the belief in vampires is not limited to the distant past.  Plenty of people today seem to believe in the undead.  As recently as the mid 2000s, reports have come out of Romania of villagers disinterring the body of a suspected vampire and burning its heart.  There are even those who embrace vampirism as a lifestyle.  Some feed on blood, human or animal, while others are “psychic” vampires who believe they feed on the psychic energy of the living.  Strange, perhaps, but these facts do attest to the lasting impact that vampires have on the human psyche.  They appeal to something primal in the mind, the innate fear of death we call carry.  Because of that, vampires will remain a part of human culture for time immemorial.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/11153923/Vampire-grave-found-in-Bulgaria.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130715-vampire-archaeology-burial-exorcism-anthropology-grave/

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/vampire-burial-site-discovered-poland-article-1.1806863

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/how-fear-undead-led-vampire-burials-sick-murdered-those-born-sign-beast-1526467

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113564

Grad School Begins!

I wanted to update my loyal readers about what is going on in my personal life and what that means for this site. As you have likely noticed, and I said in a previous post, posts have been a little spotty in the last few months. One thing that surprises me about this is that the number of views has only gone down slightly even though the site is not being updated regularly. Even so, I’m trying to keep the wheel turning by posting every other week, give or take, and I have some other ideas for future directions I’d like to take this blog. This includes potentially starting a Facebook page, writing a line of ebooks, and even an Oddly Historical YouTube channel.

Those ideas are, for now, just that: ideas. But I wanted you guys to know I am still thinking about my regular readers and how I can make this site better for you guys. I really enjoy sharing weird history, but real life tends to intervene a lot when it comes to hobbies such as this. Which brings use to the whole point of this little blurb. Apologies for burying the lede here, but it’s not an “actual” article so hey, whatever. I am starting grad school in two days. Actually, I’ve already started: I completed two out of four modules for the first lesson. I am attending school online for a Masters of Public Health, all while working full time. So, I am going to be really busy for the next couple of years, and then probably really busy looking for a job after completing my degree.

Even so, I will still try to update this blog on a semi-regular basis. Some of the articles might be shorter than they have in the past, and I’m toying with some ideas of posts devoted to strange pictures from the past with some blurbs explaining what is going on. Just a simpler way to get some content out to you guys. Or maybe some bizarre artwork from the past. Perhaps more personal updates, and off the cuff, personal opinion posts about stuff I’ve written about in the past. We will see! If you have any ideas for content you’d like to see, let me know in the comments. I always enjoy hearing from you guys!

An Update and the Future of Oddly Historical

Hello readers. You might have noticed that this site has been dormant for awhile. There has been a lot going on in my personal life, and blogging fell by the wayside for the last few months. However, yesterday I decided to start updating again, but the format will be a little different going forward. I’m going to be crunched for time starting next year, since I’ve decided to go to grad school. Between school and working full time, there isn’t going to be much free time for research or writing. So, odds are updates on this blog will be sporadic. I’ll try to update bimonthly, but we will see how it goes. As for content, it will be much the same, but the posts might be a little more concise. It just depends on what I have time for.

That all being said, it’s good to be back. Once you get the blogging itch, time away from it is nice but you also feel like you’re missing something. I’ve missed it, truth be told. So I hope you all will stick around. I’ll keep the weird history coming as often as I can!

A Small Hiatus

I have decided to take a small break from this blog for the time being. Between work and other projects, I haven’t had the time nor the energy to give it the attention it deserves. In time, I want to get back to posting on a weekly basis, but right now that isn’t going to happen. Never fear though, I will be back! In the mean time, I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Feeding the Body to Save the Soul: The Bizarre Custom of Sin-Eating

Peasant_FuneralDeath is as much a part of living as being born. This morbid fact has been handled very differently by cultures throughout history. Much has been written on this site about mummification, from the accidental to the deliberate. Certainly mummification was a method among many cultures to attaining eternal peace in the afterlife. Christian cultures, on the other hand, believed that eternal life came in the spiritual realm. While it was important in many Christian sects to have a body buried whole and in consecrated ground, they believed that said body would be raised at judgment day and transmogrified into a new body that would meet God face to face. This is why the custom of profane burial in England and other parts of Europe was considered one of the ultimate sanctions—a body that was desecrated and buried in unconsecrated ground would not be able to participate in this great resurrection.

There were other strange customs in England surrounding the treatment of the dead. Like the profane burials, it was a collision of Christian theology and local folkways. Unlike the profane burials, it was not meant as a punishment toward the deceased but rather a way to absolve the deceased of any sins. This was done by having another person—dubbed a sin eater—take upon themselves the burden of that wickedness, by quite literally eating their sins.

 

Bread, salt, and milk (or beer)

Most funerary practices involve food in some way shape or form. Some cultures have specific meals that are traditionally eaten after a funeral, while in more modern times it’s customary to eat a meal after a funeral but it is not necessarily limited to traditional fare. The corpse is generally not present for such meals, depending on tradition.

In the custom of sin-eating, however, the corpse is very much present for the meal. In fact, it is central. The custom, which was mainly practiced in parts of Wales and Scotland, generally involved hiring an impoverished local  to eat a meal over the body of the dead for the grand sum of six pence. The meal itself varied a bit from region to region, but generally speaking it consisted of bread, salt, and beer. Some regions swapped the beer for milk.

The idea was that, by consuming the food over the corpse, the sin-eater would take upon themselves the sin of the deceased. The custom was usually employed when someone died unexpectedly. Naturally, this did not sit well with local church officials, who saw it not only as superstition but perhaps as an affront to their own authority. Still, many priests looked the other way, since the custom lasted from at least the 17th century to the late 19th and early 20th century.

 

The Life of a Sin-Eater

Every community in areas where sin-eating was practiced had a village sin-eater. Typically these individuals were low status members of the community, who were desperate enough to take on the sins of others for money. With their ritual uncleanness came social stigmatization. As the village sin-eater partook in the ritual more often, they became more and more unclean in the eyes of their peers.

However, not all sin-eaters were social pariahs or poor, desperate beggars. The last known sin-eater, Richard Munslow, passed away in 1906. Running counter to the general trend, he was a prosperous farmer in the area around Shropshire village. So, not all the sin-eaters were necessarily outcasts, but neither was it an acceptable occupation. No mention seems to be made about what their fate would be for taking upon themselves the sins of others when their own death came. Perhaps if they were fortunate some kind soul would eat their sins and take that burden upon themselves, leaving the sin-eater in peace.

 

Sources:

Brown, Erica. “Soul Food and Sin-Eating: Folklore, Faith, and Funerals.” ShapWorkingParty.org. 2009/10. The Shap working party on Education in Religions.  November 1, 2015. http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/journals/articles_0910/browne.pdf

“Last ‘sin-eater’ celebrated with church service.” BBC.com. September  19, 2010. BBC News. November 1, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-shropshire-11360659

“Sin eaters and sin eating.” Logoi.com. 2007. November 1, 2015 http://www.logoi.com/notes/sin-eaters.html

Veronese, Keith. “The Weird but True History of Sin Eaters.” Io9.com. April 30, 2013. Io9. November 1, 2015. http://io9.com/the-weird-but-true-history-of-sin-eaters-479990066

 

Modern Day Hermits: The Sad Story of the Collyer Brothers

Homer Collyer, arguing with police. "Homer Collyer 1939" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Homer Collyer, arguing with police. “Homer Collyer 1939” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Throughout history, some people have decided to forgo human contact and live a life of solitude. Whether for religious reasons or simple preference, these hermits become objects of gossip and curiosity in the surrounding community.

While history is scattered with such lonely souls, one of the saddest and strangest stories of self- imposed solitude is that of the Collyer brothers. The descendants of one of the country’s oldest families, Homer and Langley Collyer were wealthy eccentrics who med a sad, lonely end after years of solitude in their New York brownstone mansion.

 

Upbringing and hermitage

Homer Collyer was born in 1881, while Langley was born four years later. Their father, was Herman Collyer, a prominent New York doctor. They grew up i the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, and summered on Long Island on the family’s spacious country estate. Both brothers attended college: Homer graduated from City College in 1902, then moved on to study law at Columbia. Langley studied electrical and mechanical engineering, also at Columbia.

In 1909, Herman Collyer purchased the brownstone manner on 2078 Fifth Avenue, where his sons would meet their sad fates 38 years later. Herman and his wife separated sometime after that, allegedly because Herman wanted to turn the brownstone into a sanitarium and his wife disagreed. After the split, Herman moved into another house, where he lived until his death in 1923. Mrs. Collyer lived the remainder of her life with her sons in the brownstone, until she passed away in 1929. The brothers Collyer inherited their father’s estates, and with the death of their mother, they withdrew more and more into their reclusive little world.

 

A reclusive life

“All we want is for people to leave us alone. A man’s home is his castle. What we do inside it is our business.” Homer Collyer

After their parent’s deaths, the Collyer brothers withdrew into their three story brownstone. Homer briefly worked for the City Title Insurance Co., from 1929 to 1931. But by 1932, he told a neighbor that he was going blind. After that, the neighbors never saw him leave the house again.

Langley followed his brother’s lead. He only left the mansion at night, when he bought food and dumpster dived for cast-offs with which he increasingly hoarded their home. He fed Homer 100 oranges a day, hoping it would cure his blindness. He bought several daily papers for his brother, which he kept in boxes so that his brother could catch up on current events when his sight returned.

Conditions in the house deteriorated as the hoarding situation worsened and the brothers withdrew into themselves. The city cut power because the brothers would not allow anyone in to read the meter. In response, Langley rigged up a generator to provide electricity, but the system proved too cumbersome to use so the brothers resorted to kerosene for light and heat.

Rumors began to spread about the brothers. Many assumed that the dilapidated house contained a trove of riches: from rare antiques, to valuable artwork, to safes full of cash. Neighbors frequently knocked on the front door, while vandals threw rocks and bottles at the windows.

The unwanted attention made Langley paranoid. He boarded up the windows and formed all the junk he had accumulated over the years into makeshift barricades and a maze of tunnels rigged with booby traps that would drop hundreds of pounds of garbage upon any hapless intruder.

By 1940, Homer’s health was in decline. Rheumatism paralyzed his body. Langley moved him to a barricaded room where he attended his brother’s every need. The last time anyone saw Langley alive was six years after Homer was stricken with Rheumatism. He testified against a man accused of attempting to break into his house.

During the trial, Langley claimed that he had ten grand pianos in the house, one of which was a gift to his mother from Queen Victoria. He played this treasure for his brother. It was later found that the total was not ten as he had claimed, but fourteen. Perhaps this lapse was a sign of Langley’s deteriorating mental state, or a simple oversight by a man who owned far too much to keep track of it all.

 

A mysterious call and a grisly discovery

A view inside the Collyer house. "Collyer1a". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

A view inside the Collyer house.
“Collyer1a”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

The morning of March 21, 1947, a man calling himself Charles Smith called the police, saying that there was a dead man in the Collyer house.

Officers arrived to find that they couldn’t force the front doors. When they took the doors off the hinges, they found a wall of boxes. Upon breaking the first floor window, they found that the ground floor was crammed with stacks of junk to the ceiling.

By noon, officers found entrance through a second story window. They wound their way through the piles of junk to find the corpse of Homer Collyer. He had not eaten or drank for three days before his death. He died from a combination of chronic bronchitis, gangrenous bedsores, and emphysema. Langley was nowhere to be found. Officers suspected that he was the one who placed the call once he found his brother dead, and he then slipped away.

On the second day, clean up began. By the end of the day, officers had removed 19 tons of trash from the residence. The curious gathered, but didn’t stay long due to the horrendous stench. Police smoked cheap cigars to ward off the foulness. A housing inspector present at the scene said that the house was rotten inside and out due to a leaky roof and open windows.

By March 31, the city hired movers to finish the clean up. The hoard was an eclectic mix: 25,000 books, 14 grand pianos, hope chests, toy trains, 13 ornate mantel clocks, fine violins, two organs, and ton after ton of papers, assorted bric-a-brac, and trash. By April 3, the movers cleaned 51 tons of trash from just the first floor rooms.

On April 8, after removing another 52 tons of junk, the movers made a grisly discovery: a foot poking out of a pile of garbage. It was the body of Langley Collyer. Officers believed that, when crawling through a tunnel in the garbage, his cloths caught on a trip wire and he was buried under tons of garbage. He eventually suffocated to death.

Once the mansion was cleaned out, the city’s building commissioner ordered it demolished.

 

Sources:

Bryk, William. “The Collyer Brothers.” NYSun.com. April  13, 2005. The Sun. October 21, 2015. http://www.nysun.com/on-the-town/collyer-brothers/12165/

“The Collyer Mystery Solved.” The Pittsburgh Press. April 9, 1947. Pg 21

“Police Await Hermit’s Return Following Death of Brother.” The Pittsburgh Press. March 22, 1947. Pg 3

What Exactly Does “Weird History” Mean?

The most common question I get about this site is how I choose what to write about. This is something that I’ve put a fair bit of thought into myself. After all, this is a site devoted to odd and interesting history. So, then, what exactly is “odd” history? There isn’t an answer that is going to satisfy everyone, of course, because different people see different things as odd.

So, I thought I might take some time and explain how I pick my topics. The short answer is that anything that makes me think, “huh, weird,” is a candidate for a post on this blog. Some choices are obvious, like the story of Elmer McCurdy and how his mummy wound up on the set of an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man (on a side note, I talk about mummies a lot on here because I have always found them fascinating.) Less obvious choices might be the post I did about the wrong turn that helped spark WWI. That the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the event that precipitated the Great War is (hopefully) well known, but the fact that the event was brought about by a simple miscommunication is, perhaps, not. Besides, the role of coincidence in history is fascinating, and it’s always fun to speculate how things might have been different if one small event had been different. An event doesn’t have to be completely bizarre to make you scratch your head and go “huh, weird.”

On that note, now and then I simply pick a topic because it is obscure. I have lists of little known historical figures; some had a big impact, but some didn’t, but regardless they are mostly unknown. Some are badasses, some are villains, and some were unjustly written out of history by rivals.

Technology and science is always good post fodder as well. This blog was originally going to be devoted to weird instances in the history of science, but I felt that topic was too narrow to sustain a blog and broadened my focus to include, well, everything. Still, from Cold War engineering shenanigans, to surprisingly advanced ancient weapons, to bizarre 20th century ideas, there’s a lot of material to be found in the world of science.

There are a lot of miscellaneous areas I focus on, from propaganda to mass hysteria. One that I debated whether to include or not was urban legends. I used to run a site devoted to ghost stories and urban legends, but eventually quit that to focus on things of a more factual nature. But I still find such stories fascinating. While I will not include anything of a supernatural or paranormal nature on this site, I don’t mind occasionally adding some odd bit of urban legend that is actually rooted in history. The post that comes to mind is this one about the legend of Bunnyman Bridge, which shows how, sometimes, reality is stranger than the stories it spawns.

Long story short, there isn’t much of a process that goes into choosing material for this blog. I simply have some loose criteria, and I make the final decision whether to include it when it comes time to do research. Regardless of whether we all agree that a bit of history is weird, I hope that you all at least enjoy reading!

Tararre–France’s Most Infamous Glutton

Lately, I have focused on bizarre food related history. This wasn’t anything that I did on purpose; in fact, it only happened that way because my research for the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 led me to the Bradford Sweets Poisoning and the London Beer Flood. This week we are moving away from food to the people who eat it. While these days, eating is a competitive sport, big appetites are nothing new to history.  If anything, historical eaters make our modern competitive eaters look like amateurs. None more so than a Frenchman only known as Tararre, whose disgusting and bizarre eating habits would go on to inspire a play in his name.

 

A life of gluttony

Tararre began his life of gluttony early on. His biographer, Professor Percy, claims that his massive appetite began in childhood, and became so out of control in his teenage years that his parents forced him out of their house because  they couldn’t afford to feed him. Now on his own, he spent years wandering France with a company of robbers and whores, and then as an act for an itinerant snake-oil salesman, drawing attention to the swindler by swallowing stones, whole apples, and live animals.

His career as a showman continued when he reached Paris in 1788, where he drew audiences with his disgusting gastronomic feats. He joined up with the French Army during the French Revolution, where he was constantly exhausted despite eating quadruple rations and scavenging in gutters and trash heaps. Military surgeons became interested in his case, and they began a series of bizarre experiments to test his appetite. He was given a live cat–he drank its blood by tearing its abdomen open with his teeth, and proceeded to eat it fur and all. He later vomited up the skin and fur. They fed him other live animals, all of which he ate with relish.

While under the dubious care of the military surgeons, Tararre met his biographer, Professor Percy. A chronicler of medical oddities, Percy took a special interest in his ravenous patient. The professor described his charge as thin and of normal height, weighing no more than 100lbs. His hair was fair and strangely soft, and his teeth were stained from his bizarre diet. His mouth was very wide. Doctors of the day did not think Tararre was mentally ill, judging by the standards of the day, but he was extremely apathetic, likely due to the constant hunger raging in him. Strangely, he was always sweaty, and his body odor was legendary even in a time period when everyone stunk. This became worse after a meal.

 

Tararre’s military career

Not knowing what else to do with the glutton, the French military decided to put his gastronomic prowess to good use. In a test run, a doctor at the military hospital persuaded the glutton to down a wooden box with a document inside, which was successfully retrieved two days later from the hospital latrines. With this test passed, Tararre became an unlikely spy.

Mission one for the glutton was to smuggle a document to a French colonel held by Prussian forces in a fortress near Neustadt. Disguised as a German peasant, despite not knowing any German whatsoever, he attempted the feat but was quickly arrested. He was beaten and eventually confessed what he was up to, and he ended up chained up until he passed the box containing the message. It turned out that the French feared trusting their new spy with anything too sensitive, and gave him a useless dummy message. The Prussians were not amused, and beat the unfortunate Tararre again before releasing him.

After that incident, Tararre returned to the military hospital and pleaded with Professor Percy to help him with his raging appetite. The doctor tried everything from opium to tobacco to cure Tararre’s out of control appetite, but nothing helped. The young man was driven by his hunter to stalk the back alleys of Paris, fighting with dogs over scraps of carrion in gutters. In the hospital itself, workers caught him more than once drinking blood from patients being bled. He was eventually banned from the morgue for taking chunks out of the corpses. Finally, a 14 month old infant disappeared from a ward. Doctors and porters blamed Tararre for the disappearance and chased him out of the hospital.

Little is known of what happened to Tararre in the next four years, but he eventually turned up at a hospital in Versailles, where he was admitted to a ward suffering the a suspected case of tuberculosis. He suffered constantly from diarrhea, and died within days of being admitted. Disgusting as he was in life, Tararre was even more putrid in death. His body rotted faster than normal, and was so foul that surgeons were unwilling to dissect him. When they finally did muster up the courage to do so, they found his entrails were swimming in pus, his liver large and swollen, and a massive gallbladder. His stomach was abnormally large, filling the majority of the abdominal cavity. The surgeons could actually see down his throat and into his stomach. His habit of swallowing food whole had distended his gullet.

Tararre’s disgusting and sad story raises the inevitable question–what was wrong with him? The go-to diagnosis seems to be polyphagia, a term for an increased and excessive appetite. However, slapping a term onto his behavior does little to explain why he was so hungry in the first place. While many diseases can cause polyphagia–from diabetes to hyperthyroidism–it is unclear which if any of these Tararre suffered from given the evidence recorded by his doctors. Any diagnosis will be speculative, and so the odds are we will never completely understand what drove Tararre’s enormous, disgusting appetite.

Sources:

Bondeson, Jan. “The Cat Eaters.” Fortean Times. October 2001. Retrieved from: http://www.lightforcenetwork.com/sites/default/files/Fortean%20Times%20%20Cat%20Eaters.pdf

Godman, John D. The Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature. Volume 4. pgs 135-136 1824

The London Beer Flood of 1814

The manor house at Toten, near the site where the beer flood began.

The manor house at Toten, near the site where the beer flood began.

Food related disasters happened with an unsettling frequency throughout history. These disasters come in one of two varieties. The first variety involve food that is somehow adulterated, whether on purpose or as a tragic mishap. One such incident occurred in Bradford, England, in 1858, when a mistake at a druggist led to a batch of peppermint lozenges being prepared with arsenic, leading to several deaths. The second variety of food related disaster involves massive amounts of a food product itself breaking out of its storage and releasing mayhem on unsuspecting passerby. Perhaps the strangest such happening occurred in 1919, when a massive flood of molasses swept through northern Boston, killing 21 people and injuring 150 more.

Today’s food disaster is of the latter type. The unsuspecting people of London were subjected to a flood of the alcoholic variety when a huge fermentation tank in a brewery burst, releasing its contents in a 15 foot high wave of beer that killed 8 people.

 

A wave of beer

The disaster took place at The Horse Shoe Brewery, at the corner of Great Russel Street and Tottenham Court Road. The tank responsible for the disaster was a 22 foot high wooden structure held together with iron rings. At full capacity, it held upwards of a 3500 of beer. On the afternoon of October 17, 1814, one of the iron rings snapped, and an hour later the rest of the tank ruptured, unleashing a wave of beer that collapsed the back wall of the brewery and ripped open other vats.

Soon, 320,000 gallons of beer flooded St. Giles Rookery, a densely populated slum. Passing through the slums, the 15 foot wave of alcohol picked up debris along the way and inundated George Street and New Street in a few minutes. It collapsed two houses, killing Marry Banfield and her daughter Hannah in one house and killing four mourners at an Irish wake being held for a 2 year old who had died the day before.

When the flood ended, a total of 8 people were found dead in the rubble. Naturally, the shell-shocked Londoners demanded answers.

 

An act of God

Popular myth has Londoners turning out in their hundreds, armed with pots and pans, to scoop up the free beer laying in pools all over the streets. Some died of alcohol poisoning in the party that followed. However, there do not appear to be any reports of such activitiy in the newspapers of the day. In reality, the crowds who turned out to view the destruction were respectful, keeping quiet so that rescuers could hear victims trapped in the rubble.

There is no mythology surrounding the inquiry that followed. The brewery was taken to court, but courts found that the disaster was an Act of God and that the tank owners were not liable for damages. The disaster cost the brewery around  £23,000. The company was able to reclaim the excise duty paid on the beer, and were granted  £7250 in compensation for the lost beer.

The Horse Shoe Brewery managed to survive the disastrous flood, continuing to do business until it was eventually demolished in 1922. After the London Beer Flood of 1814, wooden fermentation tanks were phased out and slowly replaced with lined concrete vats.

 

Sources:

“The London Beer Flood of 1814.” Historic-uk.com. Historic UK. May 24, 2015. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-London-Beer-Flood-of-1814/

Tingle, Rory. “What really happened in the London Beer Flood 200 years ago?” Independent.co.uk. October 17, 2014. The Independent. May 24, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/what-really-happened-in-the-london-beer-flood-200-years-ago-9796096.html

History, Context, and Changes Coming to Oddly Historical

Normally, I stay behind the scenes on this site. After all, I cover some pretty big personalities here, and there’s really no reason for me to interject myself into the situation. I’m a big believer in reducing authorial interference as much as possible. Unless, of course, it helps to do so. In the case of this blog, this is one instance where doing so is justified.

I’ve recently had cause to rethink my approach to the blog. Of all things, it began on Facebook. I saw a post paralleling the modern debate over gun rights here in the US to the actions of Hitler in Nazi Germany in the run up to World War II. This isn’t unusual, of course, especially where I live. However, that day I decided to do a bit of myth busting and wrote a fairly long Facebook post about actual Nazi German gun laws, as opposed to how they’re presented in today’s current political morass (this, by the way, will be the subject of a future post, but more on how posts will change later.)

Surprisingly, comments on my miniature Oddly Historical post I slapped together on my Facebook page where positive. One struck me though, because it mentioned how important context is. This made me think about how I approached this blog in the past. It began mostly to indulge my twin interests in weird stuff and history. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they went together pretty well. The concept was to highlight the bits of history that textbooks forgot. History has a bad reputation for being a dry, boring topic. I hoped to show, through some of the stranger bits of the past, how history could actually be very entertaining. However, something was missing, and that comment on what amounted to a Facebook rant put it into perspective: the site lacked any kind of context. It was just a bunch of stuff, all crammed together with no rhyme or reason.

The problem is that I’m not entirely sure how to tackle the problem. After all, with just over a hundred posts in a nine month span, the site has a fair bit of momentum. The solution I have landed on wraps into other changes I’ve been toying with for awhile. The first is to reduce the posting schedule from twice a week to once a week. I’d like to post more, of course, but I work blog around a day job, and sometimes there just is not time or energy to put toward writing. This will allow me to spend more time doing research on each post, hopefully leading to more in depth and better quality posts in the future. Regular posts will be on Saturdays from now on. I intend to give more context within the posts themselves, explaining how the events mesh into current events of the day and the impact they had on our world today. Some posts will, by the nature of the subject matter, be essentially one offs, because some things are just too weird not to share, but by and large I’ll try to demonstrate exactly why all these odd incidents have some relevance.

This scheduling change doesn’t preclude multiple posts during the week. I want to limit longer, research intensive articles to once a week, but I’ve been toying with the idea of editorial style articles (a bit like this one!) that require little or no research to produce. Basically, they’d synthesize the bits and pieces of subject matter into something halfway coherent. I’m also toying with the idea of doing some sort of mini post, but I haven’t decided how to go about that yet.  Also, I’m toying with the idea of building some sort of index page. There isn’t a whole lot of organization on the site at the moment. I’m trying to figure out a way to remedy that situation that doesn’t involve a complete overhaul.

Time will tell how things will turn out. But I’m having fun, and that’s what matters. I hope you are having fun too, and that you’ll join me in these changes. Let me know what you might want to see on the site, be it subject matter or features. I appreciate any input!