Category Archives: Culture, Politics, and Religion

The Fake Assassination of Queen Elizabeth II

By ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg: Sandpiperderivative work: SilkTork (talk) - ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg, Public Domain,

By ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg: Sandpiperderivative work: SilkTork (talk) – ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg, Public Domain,

On December 9, 1980, the world was rocked by the assassination of John Lennon by the deranged Mark David Chapman, an act which will give the latter eternal infamy for snuffing out the light of a musical genius.  Only four months later on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.  He wounded the President and three secret service agents.  James Brady, one of the wounded agents, died in 2014 due to complications directly stemming from the wound he received in 1981.  President Reagan himself came close to death, but ultimately survived.  The perpetrator became infamous not only for his attempt on the President’s life, but for the deranged reason he perpetrated the act: he was stalking the actress Jodie Foster, and he thought assassinating the President would impress her enough that she would fall in love with him.

No doubt both individuals were twisted, and their acts inspired feverish coverage in the media that put their names on lips around the world.  This inspired another twisted individual to engage in an attempted assassination that is largely forgotten today, but had circumstances been different it might have shook the world a third time and led to another famous name being linked in infamy to the person who violently snuffed out their life.  The target was none other than Queen Elizabeth II, and the assailant was a teenager named Marcus Simon Sarjeant, who wanted to become “The most famous teenager in the world.”


The Fake Assassination

On June 13, 1981, Queen Elizabeth II was participating in a parade to kick off the Trooping the Colour ceremony.  Mounted on her favorite horse, the then 19 year old Burmese, she had only been riding for 15 minutes from Buckingham Palace when a man among the crowd, 17-year old Marcus Sarjeant, leveled a pistol at the monarch and fired off six shots.  Fortunately for the Queen, the weapon was a starting pistol loaded with blank rounds.  Guardsmen and police piled on to the would-be assassin.  As this was happening, the Queen calmed her started horse, retaining the cool, calm demeanor befitting a British monarch during the whole affair.  The procession continued, and the Queen returned to Buckingham Palace by the same route, this time with tighter security.


A Bizarre Plot

Marcus Sarjeant was a former air cadet from Folkestone, Kent.  The youth had originally planned to kill the Queen, but he was unable to obtain an actual fire arm.  His plan then changed to using a starting pistol to startle the Queen as she rode by, perhaps hoping her horse would throw her in the process.  When asked why he fired on the Queen with blanks, he replied “I wanted to be famous.  I wanted to be a somebody.”

Sarjeant was later sentenced to five years in prison under the 1842 Treason Act.  The teen pleaded guilty to the crime and apologized, but the judge saw fit to sentence him for five years due to the “public outrage” the youth had inspired.  The investigation into the matter turned up proof that Sarjeant was fascinated by assassinations and had followed the attempt on Reagan’s life closely.  Sarjeant served three years in a mental institution before being released.  Upon release, he changed his name and began a new life, apparently abandoning his quest for infamy.



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.



When the Dead Walked in Haiti: The Strange Story of Clairvius Narcisse

Zombies from the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Zombies from the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Zombies have taken over the cultural zeitgeist in recent years. They are the go to horror movie monster, dominating media from video games to commercials to TV shows.  Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon, using the phenomena as a way to promote disaster preparedness.  It has gotten to the point that there are some who seriously believe that an outbreak of zombies like the ones seen in movies could happen in reality.

However, this is not to say that zombies are not real, in a sense. The modern zombie cultural phenomenon can trace its origins back to George Romero’s classic 1968 B-movie, Night of the Living Dead.  The low-budget flick depicted a horde of “ghouls,” they were never once called zombies in the movie, attacking hapless victims trapped in a rural farm house.  While Night of the Living Dead was the first modern zombie movie, it was not the first zombie movie.  That honor goes to the 1932 Universal pictures film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as a sorcerer with a stable full of voodoo zombies to do his bidding.  This movie was the Hollywood interpretation of a longstanding Haitian folk tradition, where bokors or witch doctors use foul magic to enslave the souls of victims.  Far from mere superstition, the voodoo zombie phenomenon was and may still be a very real reality in Haiti, where the dead are said to walk among the living.



Clairvius Narcisse

Clairvius Narcisse, a Modern Zombie?

On April 30th, 1962, a man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse checked himself into the Albert Scheitzer Hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti.  Narcisse had been suffering fevers and body aches leading up to his visit to the hospital, but the tipping point was when he began to cough up blood.  Upon being admitted to the hospital, Narcisse’s condition went downhill rapidly.  He began to suffer from a variety of symptoms: pulmonary edema, hypothermia, trouble breathing, hypotension, and digestive problems.  At one point, his lips turned blue, and he reported that his entire body was tingling.  By May 2nd, Narcisse was pronounced dead by an American doctor and an American-trained doctor, both who were baffled by the man’s sudden rapid deterioration.  His oldest sister identified his body, and Clairvius Narcisse was laid to rest the next day, or so the Narcisse family thought.

Eighteen years later, Narcisse was discovered by his sister Angelina in a village market place, when he approached her claiming to be her long dead brother.  He identified himself with a childhood nickname unknown outside of close family circles, and a subsequent investigation with help from the Narcisse family proved that the man claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse knew other things about the family not known by outsiders.  For all intents and purposes, the man claiming to be Claivius Narcisse was indeed who he said he was.  His story was a strange and shocking one: he claimed to have been turned into a zombie.


A Wild Story

According to Narcisse, he was conscious but unable to move through the whole ordeal of being declared dead, being zipped into a body bag, and even during his burial.  Sometime later, Narcisse claimed he was dug out of his grave by a bokor and his helpers, who beat him senseless and transported him to a sugar plantation.  Once on the plantation, the hapless Narcisse and other zombies would labor from sunup to sundown, only stopping for one small meal a day.  This time was passed in a dream-like state, and his memories of the two years he spent on the plantation were fuzzy.  His imprisonment came to an end one day when a fellow zombie rebelled and killed the bokor with a hoe.  Free from the thrall of the witchdoctor, the zombies then escaped.  Narcisse wandered the Haitian countryside for the next 16 years, attempting unsuccessfully to contact his family.  He only returned home after his brother’s death, believing his brother was responsible for the ordeal.


The Magic of the Bokors

It is easy to dismiss Clairvius Narcisse’s wild story as a fraud, but to do so would be to show a grave misunderstanding of both human psychology in general and the Haitian culture in particular.  The belief in zombies dates back something like five hundred years in Haiti, and stems from much older African spiritual beliefs .

The word zombie comes from the word Nzambi, meaning “spirit of a dead person.”  This complex folkloric tradition was transported to Haiti with slaves, mixing with Catholic beliefs and other fragments of spiritual traditions to become voodoo.  Haitian slaves brought up in this milieu in the 1600’s believed that upon death their spirits would return to an idealized Africa, but those who committed suicide to escape the horrors of slavery would become zombies, trapped in undeath and bound to an even more horrific form of slavery than that they endured in life.

The Slave Revolt of 1791, the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

The Slave Revolt of 1791, the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

After the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the French were driven from the country, and slavery as it had been practiced for over 200 years came to an end.  The practice cast a long shadow though, manifesting in the renewed zombie folklore, where the voodoo bokor took a prominent role, becoming the ones who reanimated corpses with their magic and used them as slave labor.  In a sense, slavery under the French left an indelible imprint on the soul of Haiti, a lingering fear that found its expression in the pervasive belief in zombies.

This is the cultural environment that Clairvius Narcisse grew up in.  He would have known what zombies were, and what it meant to be branded as a zombie; namely, to be labeled a social pariah and outcast. He would have had no reason to lie about his experiences.  With the possibility of fraud discounted, the unsettling explanation for the strange story is that there might well be something to the stories of zombies.  When Dr. Nathan Kline, a psychopharmacologist heard of the case, he sought to verify that Narcisse was who he claimed, and proving that, went on to attempt to figure out what happened.  He dispatched Harvard graduate student Wade Davis to Haiti to find what substance the bokors used to create their undead servants.


Zombie Powder and Datura: Ingredients for Zombification

A stuffed specimen of a pufferfish from circa 1710.

A stuffed specimen of a pufferfish from circa 1710.

Davis was able to secure samples of zombie powder from several bokors.  Their recipes for the concoction varied, but three ingredients were constants: ground human bones, plants with irritating hairs, and dried pufferfish.  The bones and plant hairs were meant to irritate the skin of victims, causing them to scratch and open up small wounds that would force the active ingredient of the powder into their blood streams.  The active ingredient is believed to be tetrodotoxin, a deadly poison found in the skin and organs of the pufferfish.  Five hundred times more powerful than cyanide, the poison blocks nerve transmissions, resulting in the same symptoms Clairvius Narcisse suffered in the hospital on the day he was declared dead.  Depending on the dosage, it also causes a state of paralysis that is difficult to distinguish from actual death. However, the victim is fully lucid during the ordeal.

The zombie powder would be blown into the victims face, or applied to the skin on open wounds.  Sometimes, due to the variance of the amount of tetrodotoxin between individual pufferfish, several applications were needed to generate the desired effects. In these cases, the powder could be surreptitiously put into the victim’s clothing.

Once the victim enters into the paralyzed state and is buried alive, the bokor then goes to the grave site and digs up the “corpse,” who has perhaps suffered some brain damage due to oxygen deprivation and most certainly has suffered psychological trauma during the entire ordeal.  These factors can make the newly unearthed zombie more pliable, but the sure-fire next step for a bokor is to feed his new undead servant a paste of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura, the zombie cucumber.  Datura contains atropine and scopolamine, hallucinogens that induce a variety of psychological effects such as confusion, psychosis, and amnesia.  The hallucinogenic brew keeps the victim pliant to the will of the bokor.  To further sap the strength and will of the zombie, they are fed a salt-free diet.


Zombification: the Ultimate Punishment?

Haiti is a tiny country situated at the end of an island. Land is at a premium, and land rights are taken very seriously. By Rémi Kaupp - Own work. Sources of data:NASA SRTM3 for terrain (public domain);NASA SWBDfor coastlines and lakesNGDC ETOPO1 for bathymetry (public domain);NGDC World Data Bank IIfor borders and rivers (public domain);VMap-0for miscellaneous data (public domain);UN map of Haiti for checking, 2008Locator map: File:Karibik Haiti Position.png.Created using this tutorial by User:Sting., GFDL,

Haiti is a tiny country situated at the end of an island. Land is at a premium, and land rights are taken very seriously.
By Rémi Kaupp – Own work. Sources of data:NASA SRTM3 for terrain (public domain);NASA SWBDfor coastlines and lakesNGDC ETOPO1 for bathymetry (public domain);NGDC World Data Bank IIfor borders and rivers (public domain);VMap-0for miscellaneous data (public domain);UN map of Haiti for checking, 2008Locator map: File:Karibik Haiti Position.png.Created using this tutorial by User:Sting., GFDL,

Haitian folklore claims that the bokors used their zombies as slaves to perform free labor on their plantations.  However, people who go through the ordeal of zombification are not likely to make the best manual laborers.  Many would be more or less vegetables, depending how long they were underground, and those who weren’t would be suffering the effects of Datura and might well be out of their minds.  It is clear from Narcisse’s account that bokors would extract physical labor from their slaves, but given the high unemployment rate in Haiti both then (and now,) cheap labor not suffering under the effects of zombification was not in short supply.  If this was the case, there was little economic incentive to turn someone into a zombie. If that were the case, zombies would be mass produced.

The motivation to create zombies, far from being for economic reasons, stems from the social norms of Haitian culture.  Rooted in ancient memories of the horrors of slavery, to become a zombie is to become the ultimate slave.  It is to literally lose one’s self, and to become an automaton of flesh at the beck and call of another.  Zombies are not made to create a labor force, but rather to punish those who break the social norms.  It is the ultimate punishment for those who refuse to play by society’s rules.

A good example of this is Clairvius Narcisse himself.  Due to his extraordinary story, it is natural to see him in a sympathetic light, but those who knew Narcisse before his untimely death likely would not have shared the sentiment.  Narcisse was a difficult man to deal with, to say the least.  He regularly fought with family members.  He fathered children out of wedlock and refused to be responsible for them.  He became wealthy at the expense of others, and drew much jealousy in his village for being among the first to upgrade his house from a thatch roof to a tin roof.

None of this in itself warranted the punishment of zombification, but his most serious infraction came when he refused to give up his share of the family land to his brother, who was trying to support a family.  Haitians, living on an island nation that has historically relied primarily on agriculture to support itself, take matters involving land rights very seriously.  They could quite literally be life or death for a family who cannot access land needed to support itself.  So, when Narcisse refused to give his land to his brother who was in need, he crossed a line and his punishment was to be turned into a zombie.


Zombies:  A Haitian Phenomenon

It is clear from the story of Clairvius Narcisse and others that the zombie phenomenon is very real in Haiti.  However, this does not mean that zombie-phobes out there need to hole up in their zombie apocalypse bunker just yet.  Zombies in Haiti stem from a deeply rooted cultural system that grew out of the horrors of slavery and colonialism.  It is an outgrowth of the Haitian psyche and the mish-mash of cultural, spiritual, and religious influences that came together in the tiny island nation.

Put short, zombies can only happen in Haiti.  Certainly, dosing an American with tetrodotoxin and then dosing them with Datura would induce the medical effects noted earlier in the article, but without growing up in the cultural context of Haiti, the effects would be limited to their physical and psychological components.  They would lack the spiritual and social connotations they have for someone brought up in a culture who believes deeply and wholeheartedly in zombies.  To Clairvius, and other poor souls who have fallen victim to zombification, the process is the culmination of their deepest cultural anxieties.  The horror they must have felt would have been increased to the nth degree compared to that of an outsider, because in their minds they would suffering the worst fate a person could suffer: losing their soul and becoming a mindless slave.

In the end, zombies can be seen as a product of a culture deeply influenced by slavery, rather than the product of magic or sorcery.  While the pharmacological factors at work in the process cannot be ignored, in the end a person becomes a zombie in their own mind.  The rituals and medications given simply act as vehicles who bring the cultural belief embedded into the person’s mind into their reality.  It is not clear whether the practice continues in modern Haiti.  As secret and taboo as the ritual was, it is very possible that zombies are still being created in remote parts of Haiti even today, unbeknownst to the outside world.



Atwill, Mark.  Haitian Zombies. January 30, 2014. I, Science. February 5, 2017. Retrieved from:

Ginalis, Elizabeth. Zombification Process. 2014. Nathan S. Kline’s Zombi in Haiti. February 5. 2017. Retrieved from:

Hahn, Patrick D. Dead Man Walking: Wade Davis and the Secret of the Zombie Poison.  September 4, 2007. Biology-Online. February 5, 2019. Retrieved from:

Mariani, Mike. The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies. October 28, 2015. The Atlantic. February 5, 2017. Retrieved from:






The Red Death: The Pellagra Epidemic in the Early 20th Century American South

A victim of Pellagra

A victim of Pellagra

Mysterious diseases have plagued humanity throughout our history. In ancient days, there was little that could be done to explain, let alone stop, the ravages of epidemics. Such scourges as small pox, cholera, and the bubonic plague killed huge numbers of people and disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving ancient cultures reeling in their wake.

In the 20th century, mankind  began to get a better handle on the causes of disease. Even so, a mysterious disease ravaged the American South. Its symptoms were horrific and debilitating: red, peeling skin, diarrhea, mental problems up to and including dementia, and ultimately in many cases, death. The disease was pellagra, a disease caused by niacin deficiency, and it roared through the South throughout the first half of the twentieth century, killing upwards of 100,000 people before it was finally stopped.


A mystery disease

Pellagra was first described in Spain by Gasper Casal y Julian in 1735. The disease was mainly seen in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean during the 18th and 19th century. In particular, the disease was studied in Italy and Spain. Gaetano Strambio in particular studied the disease extensively. He proved that pellagra was more than only a skin disease. He was the first to connect pellagra to diet, claiming the cause was spoiled bread and polenta.  Another Italian physician, Cesare Lobroso, determined in 1869 that pellagra was caused by a poison present in spoiled corn, initiating the connection between corn and pellagra that would continue into the mid twentieth century.

When the disease appeared for the first time in American in 1902, it left doctors baffled. Experts were divided from the beginning of the outbreak—some suspected spoiled corn was the culprit, in keeping with Lobroso’s determination almost fifty years earlier, while others thought the disease was spread by insects or contaminated water. The one point of agreement was that pellagra was most prevalent among the poor. Early studies suggested that the disease was spread by some as yet unknown pathogen. In 1914, the US Public Health Service dispatched Dr. Joseph Goldberger, who had success fighting previous epidemics, to South Carolina to study the pellagra plague. His findings would cause a political tumult that would delay the needed methods to stop the disease for years.


Dr. Joseph Goldberger

Dr. Joseph Goldberger

The Three M’s

Dr. Goldberger examined institutions such as prisons and asylums were pellagra raged unchecked. He found that, while patients and inmates at these institutions often suffered from pellagra, their nurses and guards did so only rarely. If pellagra were infectious, this should not be the case. Dr. Goldberger concluded that the difference between the inmates and their caretakers lay in their diet. While guards and nurses had access to a greater variety of food, their charges’ diets primarily consisted of cornmeal, molasses, and small bits of fatty pork back. This was similar to the traditional diet of the Southern poor, called the three M’s: meal, molasses, and meat.

Extrapolating his results to the broader population, Dr. Goldberger realized that the traditional Southern diet itself was the cause of the epidemic, particularly among poor populations who did not have access to wider variety of foods. This revelation caused a ruckus among Southerners, especially the political class. The post Reconstruction South was still sensitive over its defeat in the Civil War, and saying that the cause of the horrific disease ravaging its population was due to economic factors was seen as a slight against Southern pride and the idea that the South would rise again to its former greatness.

Dr. Goldberg struggled against this blowback at first, but he found that the forces who favored the infectious theory of pellagra’s spread were too intransigent to be convinced. He devoted himself to figuring out what specific deficiency was behind the disease. He died of renal cancer in 1929 before finding that which he sought. The final revelation came in 1937, when it was found that niacin deficiency, among others, was the cause of pellagra. The subsequent enrichment of flour with niacin and other b vitamins virtually eliminated pellagra in the United States.


The law of unintended consequences

The question remains: what caused the pellagra epidemic to occur so suddenly in the early 20th century? There were likely multiple causes. It is a given that the poor Southern diet mixed with a reluctance to admit that the cultural touchstone were both factors in extending the epidemic. However, the diet was nothing new in the South, and while it is not entirely known how widespread pellagra was before 1902, there is no evidence of it being to epidemic proportions before the 20th century.

Looking to another, similar disease can shed some light on the beginning of the epidemic. Beriberi, a deficiency of the nutrient thiamin, became epidemic in the Far East in the 1880s, shortly after a new method for milling rice was developed.  Similarly, a new method of milling corn was developed around 1900. Called degermination, it removed the germ of the corn, resulting in a product that was more stable but lacking in many of the nutrients present in corn milled the traditional way. This explained then why pellagra was more common in institutions, where corn meal was the primary food source. It also explained why the disease was more common in mill workers, who ate corn meal shipped from the Midwest that had undergone the degermination process. It was less common among rural farmers, who ate corn prepared in traditional stone mills.

So, then it was a confluence of factors that brought about the pellagra epidemic. Cultural bias, technological innovation, and long standing tradition conspired to produce an epidemic that sickened millions and killed around 100,000. Largely forgotten today, the southern pellagra epidemic is a case study in both the importance of good science and the strength of tradition in the study of disease.



Bollet, Alfred Jay. “Politics and Pellagra: The Epidemic of Pellagra in the U.S in the Early Twentieth Century.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65 (1992) 211-221. Retrieved from:

“History of Pellagra.” UAB Libraries. Reynolds-Finley Historical Library. Retrieved January 15, 2016. Retrieved from:

Tuttle, Grace. “A Mysterious Epidemic: Pellagra in South Carolina.” August 5, 2014. South Carolina Digital Newspaper Program. January 15, 2016.


A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads


William Ryland, a forger, attempting suicide. He was later executed for his crimes, and would most likely have been interred in an ignoble crossroads grave.

Burial customs vary wildly across the long span of human history. From the mysterious bog burials of Northern Europe to Egypt’s elaborate tombs and mummification procedures, how a culture disposes of its dead can reveal much about its customs and values. This is true both of conventional, reverent burials, and of profane burials.

A burial is considered “profane” when the body of the deceased is somehow desecrated to show disapproval  of the person’s actions in life. One more modern example of a profane “burial” was when the bodies of the Nazi war criminals who were executed in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials were cremated and secretly scattered into a river. This was to prevent Nazi holdouts from using their graves as a kind of shrine, and it sent the clear message that society deemed their actions so abominable that it their punishment extended beyond the end of their lives.

Perhaps some of the strangest examples of profane burials comes from medieval Europe, particularly England. Lonely rural crossroads in England host a dark, sad secret. Many are the sites of profane burials, where the bodies of suicide victims were laid to an uneasy rest.


Suicide—A Crime Against God and Man

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas

In the modern world, suicide is viewed with largely sympathetic eyes. While a lot of stigma still exists around the topic, and there are certainly a lot of myths and misunderstanding around it, by and large the average person today has more sympathy for suicide victims than the average person in medieval and late medieval England.

In the medieval world, suicide was seen as a crime against God and Man. Thomas Aquinas, whose works profoundly influenced medieval theology, posited that suicide was sinful for three reasons. The first was that killing oneself violated the divine order: God gives life and takes life away, and taking your own life is taking that decision out of God’s hands into your own. The second reason was that suicide was a crime against society, because everyone belongs to a community and killing yourself does harm to that community. Finally, the act of suicide upends the natural law, because the natural tendency of living things is to try to preserve its own life, not lose it.

These ideas were reflected in the laws and customs of the day. Suicides faced spiritual consequences for their actions: they were denied a proper Christian burial in consecrated ground and posthumously excommunicated, which put their souls in jeopardy of being trapped forever in purgatory or worse being sent directly to hell.  They also faced legal penalties. Suicide was deemed a felony, a crime against the Crown. This is stemmed from the feudal system of early medieval England, where landless peasants swore fealty to lords, who in turn swore fealty to the king. Depriving ones lord, and ultimately thing king, of one’s labor by killing oneself was seen as theft,  and the Crown was in its rights to seek repayment in the form of the deceased’s property. It was common then for a suicide’s property to be confiscated by the monarchy, and for families to go to great lengths to conceal suicides to prevent this.

This situation led to a fairly complicated legal dilemma surrounding suicide. Suicides were tried posthumously, by jury (as an aside, attempted suicide was also a crime.) Suicide was considered a felo d se (Latin for “felon of himself”), but for a crime to be considered a felony, it had to be committed with malicious intent. Even medieval and late medieval people recognized the role of mental illness in suicide. While the level of sympathy varied depending on the time period, by and large suicides that were due to such things as severe mental illness and debilitating pain from physical illness were more kindly looked upon.  In the late medieval/early modern period, English law recognized the concept of non compos mentis (“not of sound mind”), although through most of the period the majority of suicides were ruled as felo de se.

Once a suicide was determined to have indeed been done with premeditation, the gruesome custom of a profane crossroads burial would commence.


Where Christianity and Pagan Folkways Collide

Once a suicide was deemed a felony, the body would be stripped naked then tied to a wagon and dragged through the streets to a crossroads far from town. There, in front of a crowd of witnesses, the body would be desecrated. This could be achieved in a variety of ways. The body might be laid in the grave north to south (Christians were buried East to West), face down, and then staked through the heart. The body might have been staked through the heart, then decapitated and the head placed between the legs. Some bodies were buried under a pile of stones, a very visible symbol for passersby.

Crossroads were also chosen because it was believed that the ghost of a suicide, who would come up out of their grave at night, would be confused by the choice of four paths and stay deliberating until dawn (but heaven help anyone who stumbled across them in the meantime!) Stakes were utilized to pin the spirit into place and keep it from getting out of the grave, and to deny them from rising up to meet God come Judgment Day.

The custom came from a collision of Christian thought and pagan folkways. Crossroads have long been a place where the walls of reality were thought to thin, where the spirit world could more easily bleed into our corporeal world. They were places for the spirits, for demons, and for things “outside” the community. Ancient cultures would often leave garbage and other unclean materials at crossroads. Burying the bodies of executed criminals at crossroads was also common, probably also for the practical reason that it would send a vivid message to any travelers on the road and make them rethink any nefarious doings they might be planning.

Suicides, then, were lumped in with murderers and other criminals and treated as such, although their crime was considered more heinous by medieval and early modern people than even murder, largely due to Saint Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning outlined above.


The End of Crossroads Burials

King George IV

King George IV

Crossroads burials continued straight through the medieval and early modern periods into the 19th century. The last known crossroads burial occurred in June 1823. Abel Griffiths was a 22 year old law student who killed himself after murdering his father. He was buried at a crossroads in the traditional manner. The crowd attending the spectacle held up George IV’s carriage. The burial was highly criticized in papers, and public outcry combined with pressure from the King led to the 1823 ‘Burial of Suicide Act’.

While suicide was viewed more sympathetically at that time, suicides were still buried on the north side of churchyards, with unbaptized infants, the excommunicated and executed criminals. Up until 1870, the government could still seize suicide victim’s property, and religious sanctions also continued. Suicide was a criminal act in England right up until the Suicide Act of 1961.

Society as a whole has come a long way when it comes to attitudes toward suicide, although there is still a lot of progress to be made. The graves of those poor souls who succumbed to suicide so many years ago still dot the English countryside, silent reminders of the superstitious past.



Halliday, Robert. “Criminal graves and rural crossroads.” British Archaeology, no 25, June 1997. Retrieved from:

Kushner, Howard L. “American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration.” Rutgers University Press. January 1, 1991. Pgs 17-20

Laskey, Mark. “Rites of Desecration: Suicide, Sacrilege, and Profane Burial at the Crossroads.” September 8, 2014. Cvlt Nation. September 26, 2015.


Mystery at Cladh Hallan: Who Were the Scottish “Frankenstein” Mummies?

Cladh Hallan, where the composite skeletons were found. "Bronze Age Settlement - - 1340839" by Anne Burgess. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -

Cladh Hallan, where the composite skeletons were found.
“Bronze Age Settlement – – 1340839” by Anne Burgess. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

Mummification of various forms is a remarkably consistent feature of many cultures across history. Sometimes this form of preservation comes with an elaborate religious practice, such as the Egyptian belief that mummifying the body and providing it with funeral goods it could use in the afterlife would ensure that the deceased would have happiness in the next world. In other cases, mummification occurred largely by accident, a result of unrelated rituals or perhaps murder. This is the case, it is believed anyway, for many bog mummies. Some were likely killed in ritual murders performed for religious reasons, while many were victims of accidents or more “run of the mill” murders.

Until recently, the mummies of Europe’s distant past fell into the category of accidental mummies. More and more evidence is coming to light that points to deliberate mummification, but with a bizarre twist unique to its time and place in history. Such evidence surfaced in 2001 at Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. A pair of 3,000 year old skeletons, one male and one female, were found buried in the fetal position. They showed evidence of preservation; it is believed that they were initially preserved in nearby peat bogs, before eventually being retrieved and buried in soil, where their bodies decomposed, leaving bones behind. One quirk of bogs is that they preserve flesh and soft tissues well, because they provide an anaerobic environment that prevents microbes from growing. However, bogs are bad at preserving bones because they are acidic, so most bog mummies are found with soft or nearly none existent bones. Clearly, the local people knew enough about the nature of the bogs to let bodies sit long enough to be preserved, but not so long that their bones turned to mush.

But these mummies contained one more secret, one that is bizarre and unprecedented in the British Isles and Northern Europe. Both skeletons were composites. The torso, skull, and neck of the male skeleton belong to three separate males. The skull, torso, and arm of the female skeleton also belonged to three separate people. Oddly enough, the skull on the female skeleton belonged to a male, and was added as late as 200 years after the body was first interred.

The people of Bronze Age Scotland left no written records, so the reasoning behind this bizarre practice is lost to history. Archeologists can only speculate. Perhaps the mixing of the bodies was a symbolic means of merging family lines and bringing together clans.

These composite skeletons are remnants from a dim period of history, where the rituals were strange and appalling to modern eyes. The next question is whether this practice was widespread, or if it was a quirk of this region of Scotland. No one knows for certain, because typically DNA tests are only done on one part of ancient remains to preserve the sample. A closer examination and sampling from more parts of ancient skeletons could reveal more composite bodies in the future.


A Typo? Or a Hoax? The Story of the Infamous Wicked Bible

Marked_Wicked_bibleThe Holy Bible consistently ranks as the top selling book and the world. An inspiration to millions of faithful, it is seen by many as the direct word of God. Whether this is true or not is more a matter of belief. What is true, however, is that the very physical form the Bible takes is produced by the hands of fallible humans.

The results of this collision between the human and the holy can be downright funny at times. One such incident occurred in 1631, when a seemingly innocent typo drastically changed one of the Ten Commandments. The resulting text caused quite a stir in its day. Known as “The Wicked Bible,” those copies of the text that survived destruction remain today as one of the rarest and sought after printings of the Bible in the world.


The Birth of Wickedness

King Charles I

King Charles I

The story began innocently enough. King Charles I of England ordered 1,000 copies of the King James Bible from London printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas. Now, it needs to be understood that printing then was not as simple as it is today. Early printing presses required printers to set each letter of type by hand. The process was painstaking and tedious, although it was leaps and bounds better than the previous method for producing books, which required people to laboriously copy texts by hand. Even so, printing was an error prone process, one that required careful proofreaders with sharp eyes to catch mistakes.

Evidently, Barker and Lucas’ proofreader was bad at his job, because a critical mistake made it into the edition. It was not discovered until after the 1,000 copy run was already being sold. One of the Ten Commandments, the seventh to  be exact, was missing the word “not.” So, the text read: “Thous shalt commit adultery.”

Needless to say, the mistake (if a mistake it was) caused a ruckus. King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury were outraged at the typo. Barker and Lucas were hauled into court, where they were fined £300 (£35,000 in today’s money) and stripped of their printing license. All available copies of the so-called “Wicked Bible” were rounded up and destroyed. It is said that only a dozen survived, although some question that number because so many copies were sold before the alteration was found. In any case, it is a rare book that is highly sought after by collectors. It is hard to place a value on such a text, as other factors such as the quality of the specimen enter into the equation. Taking that into account, one copy is listed at $99,500. Most copies are probably worth far less, as this is a full retail price, but it does give an impression as to how much collectors might be willing to pay for this rare book.


A typo? Or a prank?

A wood-cut of a late medieval printing press in action.

A wood-cut of a late medieval printing press in action.

The generally accepted notion is that the infamous omission of the word “not” was a simple mistake resulting from the cumbersome and error prone 17th century printing process. However, there are some reasons to believe this might have been a deliberate act. The first is that there is another such error, this one in the Book of Deuteronomy. In chapter 5, verse 24, the word “greatness” was replaced with “great arse.” So the text read that God showed his glory and “great arse.”

One unfortunate typo is one thing, but two starts to show a pattern. George Abbot, the Archbisop of Canterbury, thought the error was due to shoddy workmanship. He was quoted saying:

“I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially, good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and the letter rare, and faire every way of the beste, but now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned.”

It is interesting to note that he said that the composers were “boyes.” The errors do have a sophomoric nature, especially the “great arse” line. It sounds like something a bored teenager would slip into a text if they thought no one was looking. Perhaps the printers hired the late medieval equivalent of temp workers, and a disgruntled young man subtly altered the text of the print to thumb his nose at his employer, or simply for the fun of it. Maybe he expected the “corrector” to catch the error before the book printed.

We can never know for sure whether this was the case or not. Simple human error could have inadvertently created one  of the most infamous Bibles in history, but due to the nature of the “typos” a bored prankster seems more likely. Either way, the Wicked Bible will remain a historical curiosity, a testament to the fact that even humanity’s holiest works can be subject to a very human quality: imperfection.



The Unusual Tomb of Chiltan Mountain

A 12th century Koran on display in the British Museum. "IslamicGalleryBritishMuseum3" by LordHarris - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A 12th century Koran on display in the British Museum. “IslamicGalleryBritishMuseum3” by LordHarris – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A lone prayer, lilting and melodic, dances on the arid wind. The sound wraps Chiltan Mountain near Quetta, Pakistan. The baritone praise and wishes bounces through the 30 caves. It caresses those that forever rest, shrouded, silent and forgotten.  The holy mountain tomb offers forgiveness from sins for those who care for it.

The tomb contains no skeletons of bone.  These skeletons are of ink, paper, and parchment.

The written word is sacred to the people of the book: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Like the Torah, the Koran is too sacred to throw away. Allah’s book is a part of his personality. But what to do when a Torah or Koran is overused? What do you do when the binding no longer holds?

You have a funeral.

The Koran is considered too sacred for anything but a formal burial.

Chiltan Mountain became a tomb of these well loved books. After some 30 years of digging through the mountain’s caves, about 50,000 Koran’s have been found. The books molder in their white shrouds, still out lasting the people that laid them to rest.  Some of the pages discovered date to the first 200 years of Islam. Many of these pages contained text that is accepted as the standard version of the Koran today. The mountain is a gold mine for archeology and scholars interested in how the Korans text became standardized.

Other book tombs have been found. Although none have matched the number of books buried int the Chiltan Mountain. In 1972, laborers working on the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen found a room long forgotten. In the room, were piles of damaged books and pages of Arabic text.  The room contained nearly one thousand different books of the Koran. Some of these texts also dated to the dawn of Islam.

In 1890, a Jewish book tomb was also found. Unlike the Chiltan Mountain and the Great Mosque, this tomb contained children’s books, poems, biblical texts, letters, bills, lists, calendars, medical texts, and Arabic texts.

Both Jews and Muslims believe in the importance of the written word. Muslims focus on the Koran. Jews venerate the written word in general. As the rabbi Solomon Schechter states:

When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide the book to preserve it from profanation. The contents of the book go up to heaven like the soul.

Chiltan Mountain, unlike our Western cemeteries, sees frequent visitors. People visit the mountain to pray among the thousands of Korans that are laid to rest. At the base of the mountain, a more traditional cemetery stands. People wanted to be buried as close to their beloved book as they could be.  Mountains have a long history in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief. It brought the person closer to God and lifted them away from the concerns of society below. What more fitting place to lay a Holy Book to its final rest? What better place than to be suspended between earth and heaven, just as the message contained in its pages is suspended between earth and heaven.



Battles, M (2003). Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lester, T. (1999). What is the Koran? (Cover story). Atlantic, 283(1), 43.

Tasgola Karla, B. (n.d). Mountain full of Qur’ans becomes holy site. Toronto Star (Canada).


A Blasphemous Invention–Religious Objections to Ben Franklin’s Lightning Rod

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West

The march of science has been a long and arduous one. Over the last 5,000 years since the dawn of history, and for generations before that since lost to time, humans gradually learned the inner workings of the natural world around them. Phenomena once explained by the actions of gods and demons can now be explained in rational terms by scientists.

Of course, this process has never been a smooth one. When the findings of science contradict what people would like to believe about the world, there is naturally resistance. One of the most famous instances of such resistance was the slow adoption of the current model of the solar system with the sun at its center. For centuries, people relied on the Ptolemaic model to explain the movement of the celestial spheres; partially because it worked, and partially because it was the view sanctioned by the powers that be, most notably the Catholic Church. Only after the passage of time, when better technology led to better data that showed unequivocally that the solar model was superior, did the new system gain wide acceptance.

A similar clash between scientific thought and religious dogma occurred in the late 18th century, involving none other than Ben Franklin. Scientist, inventor, and diplomat, Franklin was a child of the Enlightenment who used his curiosity and ingenuity to produce inventions that he believed would be helpful to humanity. Primary among his many contributions to science was his work with electricity, especially the famous experiment we all hear about as kids involving a key, a kite, and a thunderstorm. Franklin’s studies of the strange phenomena of lightning led him to produce the humble lightning rod, a design feature so ubiquitous in today’s world that modern people rarely give it any thought. In Franklin’s day, however, such a device was a revolution. It finally gave people a way to protect themselves against lightning, a frightening and deadly phenomena. Of course, not everyone was on board with the new development; soon after, a strong resistance to Franklin’s invention sprang up among the more religiously inclined. What followed was decades of debate, pitting Franklinian science against long held dogma.


The Wrath of God (or the Devil)

There were two rival religious explanations for lightning. Perhaps “rival” is not the best term, because at times the two seemed to coexist despite their obvious differences. The first and most traditional was that lightning was the wrath of God. Such a notion goes back to Ancient Greece, when Zeus used his famous thunderbolts to mete out divine justice from atop mount Olympus. When the pagan gods gave way to the Christian God, the same notion persisted.

This, of course, raised some difficult theological questions for believers, mostly due to the fact that churches tended to be the tallest buildings in most towns and thus attracted more lightning bolts than “dens of iniquity” like taverns or brothels. Perhaps this fact and the difficult–not to mention potentially embarrassing–conundrum it presented resulted in an alternate hypothesis: that lightning and storms resulted from the air being full of devils.

While the idea neatly solved the theological conundrum presented by the original idea of lightning as God’s wrath, it brought about a deadly custom designed to ward off evil spirits. During lightning storms, hapless bell ringers would be sent up to church towers to ply their trade in an attempt to scare off the demons of the air. Naturally, tugging a rope attached to a large brass bell in the highest point in town during a lightning storm is not a job for those too attached to this earthly life. In Germany alone, 120 bell ringers were killed by lightning in the last 30 years of the 19th century. Despite this, the custom continued in many localities.


Slow adoption

In spite of the obvious advantages that lightning rods presented for owners of tall buildings, particularly churches, their adoption was a slow and painful affair. Superstition and fear prevented people from trying the invention for themselves. Their fear found encouragement from many ministers and priests of the day. In America, Reverend Thomas Price of Old South Church in Massachusetts blamed the earthquake of 1755 on Franklin’s blasphemous invention. Since God could not vent his retribution from the sky, the Reverend said, he did it by shaking the Earth. He concluded by saying that “God’s  wrath will not be thwarted.”

A similar mood prevailed in Europe, where lightning rods sparked borderline riots in many towns and cities. Fearful citizens tore down lightning rods, while in some places those fearful of such mobs removed their newly installed lightning rods to forestall any violence.

Not all of the actions against the hated contraption were violent, of course. Many turned to the law to get their neighbors to take down Franklin’s invention. Robespierre, who would become an influential figure in the French Revolution, got his start in one such case nearly 30 years after the lightning rod was invented, where he was able to successfully defend the right of his client to install a lightning rod despite neighborhood misgivings.

Robespierre was not the only Enlightenment notable to throw himself into the debate. Ben Franklin himself, who normally stayed above controversies caused by his inventions, threw his considerable influence behind the lightning rod. His allies preached the benefits of the lightning rod and spoke out against religious misgivings around the device both in America and in Europe. Their influence went a long way toward demystifying both lightning and the lightning rod, but for some the intervention came too late.

Many churches still refused to install lightning rods, even as the custom of ringing bells during storms began to decline. Even a tragedy seemed to do little to change superstitious beliefs regarding lightning. In 1767, some 16 years after Franklin’s invention, priests at  the Church of San Nazaro in Brecia ignored repeated requests to install what they believed to be a blasphemous device. That year, lightning struck the church tower has it likely had many times before, but this time the Republic of Venice had decided to store thousands of pounds of gunpowder in the  church vaults. The strike ignited the stores, and the resulting explosion leveled 1/6 of the city and killed 3,000 people.

Even with the tragedy, obstinate refusal to install the “heretical rod” would continue for decades, until in the 19th century Franklin’s invention would become a common design feature. Church bell ringers could finally breath a sigh of relief.





Kapitza, P.L. “Experiment, theory, and practice: articles and addresses.” Springer science & Business Media, April 30, 1980. pgs 312-316

Schiffer, Michael B and Hollenback, Kacy L. “Drawn the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment.” University of California Press, 2003. pgs 184-195

Seckel, Al and Edwards, John. “Franklin’s Unholy Lightning Rod.” November 25, 2002. ESD Journal. April 12, 2015.

Superman vs. the KKK–How the Man of Steel Took on America’s Most Infamous Hate Group

Christopher Reeves in his most iconic role, Superman. "Sprmnmovie" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Christopher Reeves in his most iconic role, Superman.
“Sprmnmovie” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Mythology has played an integral part in the development of human societies since our ancestors first developed the ability to tell stories. Mythology allowed ancients to make sense of a world that was hostile and random. It also gave people ways to relate ideas about morality and how to live a good life.

These days, traditional mythologies are largely relegated to the pages of textbooks, and the mythologies of the large established modern religions have been largely tamed by familiarity or literal interpretations that leech away their rich metaphorical underpinnings.  However, humans seem to have a need to tell stories about divine beings fighting cosmic battles against evil. The new mythology, that of the super heroes,  largely consists of well-muscled men in brightly colored tights fighting equally garish opponents. From the pages of comic books to the theater to the television, super heroes have become a cultural force to be reckoned with, especially in recent years.

Of these god-like beings, none are as well known as Superman. The champion of truth, justice, and the American way, Superman has been wowing fans with his magnificent feats of strength and courage since Action Comics #1 was released in 1938. Superman has combated a variety of foes in his long career, but perhaps his greatest victory spilled over from the world of fiction into our world when the Man of Steel fought his most dastardly real-life enemy since he battled the Nazis for Uncle Sam: the Ku Klux Klan.


Stetson Kennedy’s superhero origin story

"Stetson Kennedy" by Sean Kennedy - Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Stetson Kennedy” by Sean Kennedy – Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The story of how Superman took on the KKK began with a man by the name of Stetson Kennedy. Born in Florida in 1916, Kennedy grew up in the Jim Crow South, where African Americans were treated as second class citizens due to their skin color. Seeing the gross inequality left a deep impression on Stetson, which was deepened when he took a job in 1937 working for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. There he worked with Zora Neale Hurston, who later wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, traveling around Florida to collect folklore and oral histories. Hurston, obviously a talented writer, was unable to use the front door of the office, and couldn’t even legally travel with Kennedy.

Soon after Kennedy’s work with the WPA, the US was plunged into World War II. Kennedy was kept out of the conflict by a back problem, so he instead fought the Nazis at home by using his writing to shed light on the inequalities in the South that were so similar to the horrific racist ideas espoused by the Nazis. Once the war ended and the Nazis were defeated, Kennedy turned his attention to America’s own homegrown racist group: the KKK.

While today the KKK is not much of a force in America, in Kennedy’s day the Klan was a force to be reckoned with, claiming politicians, police officials, and other important figures among its ranks. In the wake of World War II, the Klan hit a period of rapid growth. Kennedy, seeing a chance to make a difference, decided to infiltrate the racist organization and gather its secrets and stories.

Once he gathered his information, Kennedy approached authorities, but no one was really interested in taking on the Klan. They were too powerful, and too entrenched. Kennedy then hit on a brilliant idea–he approached the producers of The Adventures of Superman, a popular radio serial, and pitched them the idea for a serial where the Man of Steel took on the Klu Klux Klan.


Clan of the Fiery Cross

Members of the Ku Klux Klan attending a 1922 parade.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan attending a 1922 parade.

To understand why Kennedy approached the producers of a Superman radio show with his information, it is critical to know how much of a phenomenon the Man of Steel was at the time. By 1946, Superman comics circulated in the millions, and the radio show of his exploits reached millions more. Superman was the champion of the little guy, who stood against racism, corruption, and stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.” (A phrase that originated on the the Adventures of Superman.) If Americans, especially children, were going to be swayed by any popular character, it would be Superman.

The producers of The Adventures of Superman jumped at the chance to pit Superman against the KKK. What resulted was a 16 part radio serial titled “the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” Though the Klan was not mentioned by name, it was obvious to everyone that the enemies Superman was taking down were the KKK. The show revealed much about the Klan’s activities and beliefs, although contrary to popular belief it did not contain secret codewords and passwords that had Klan leaders scrambling to change their codes.

Even so, the serial was a body blow to the KKK. A secret organization, the Klu Klux Klan depended on secrecy (and violence) to maintain its aura of mystery and fear. Ripping away that secrecy and exposing the Klan for what it was–a club of racists in white sheets–did much to turn away prospective members. Many current members left when they saw their organization had been outed and was now seen as ridiculous in the public eye. There was one story of a man who decided to quit the Klan when he came home to find his son had found his Klan hood, and was playing the bad guy to the neighbor boy’s Superman. After all, who wants to be in an organization that is on Superman’s bad side?

One radio serial cannot end racism and hatred, of course. The Klan still exists, and although it is not as widespread as it once was, it is still a dangerous and rabidly racist organization. But what can be gleaned from this strange episode is that stories are important. They can have a real and lasting impact on the real world. Iconic characters like Superman can be used to sway opinions on critical issues. That is why it is important that the art of story telling, the craft of building compelling characters and worlds for them to inhabit, does not die. It shows the lasting power of mythology. Sometimes, even in a world of science and reason and order, we need Superman to swoop in and save the day.



Bell, J.L. “Five questions for Rick Bowers.” February 3, 2012. The Horn Book. January 17, 2015.


Juddery, Mark. “How Superman Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.” October 31, 2009. Mental Floss. January 17, 2015.


Sims, Chris. “Ask Chris #221: Superman Takes Down the Clan of the Fiery Cross.” November 21, 2014. Comics Alliance. Januuary 17, 2015.