Category Archives: Historical Figures

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of the Mad King, Ludwig II of Bavaria

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria --- Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.

Among history’s most famous and tragic idealists is King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne. Soon after, he died under bizarre circumstances, the exact cause of his death remaining a mystery even 130 years later.


Upbringing and early life

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II was born August 1845 to Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia. The royal couple were aloof with Ludwig and his brother Otto. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else. Despite this restrictive environment, Ludwig II showed early that he had a vivid imagination. He enjoyed playing dress up, play acting, and loved art. He was generous with his possessions as well. Ludwig tended to keep to himself, and already was beginning to see himself as a divine sovereign. These traits would shape and define Ludwig for the rest of his life.

In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.

But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.


Castles, madness, and the death of a king

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.

He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry.  He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.

A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.

However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well.  The Bavarian government intervened in 1885. He was declared insane and deposed from the throne. The former king was interned in Berg Palace while the government decided what to do with him. Only a day later, Ludwig II was found floating in the lake, dead, along with this psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden.


What happened to the Mad King?

Ludwig II’s death was a mystery from day one. The king, who was a strong swimmer, was found floating in waist deep water. The Bavarian government claimed that the king had killed himself by drowning, and his psychiatrist ad died trying to save him. Few have bought this explanation, given the king’s piety. Many believe he was murdered by an assassin. Some fishermen on the lake claimed they heard gun shots that day, along with his psychiatrist who witnessed the killing. In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, but the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.



“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” 3/6/16. Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlosser Garten und Seen.


Paterson, Tony. “Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig.” 11/9/2007. Independent. 3/6/16.


“The Death of King Ludwig II.” 2009-2011. University of Cambridge. 3/6/16.



Ernst Hess: The Jew Saved by Hitler

Ernst Hess From Jewish Voice From Germany

Ernst Hess
From Jewish Voice From Germany

Adolf Hitler is a name that has become synonymous with evil. The atrocities committed under his fanatical Nazi government have become infamous. Needless to say, “Adolf Hitler” is not a name often associated with mercy, especially where Jews are concerned. However, there were some surprising instances where even Hitler put aside his monstrous hatred of the Jewish people and extended mercy, however brief, to certain individuals.

Such a case was confirmed in 2012 when Susanne Mauss, an editor with the Jewish Voice, discovered a note to the Dusseldorf Gestapo with an order from the Reich Chancellery  ordering that a judge by the name of Ernst Hess was not to be harassed in any way. The judge, whose despite being a Protestant was classified as a full-blooded Jew under Nazi Germany’s racial laws due to his mother being  a Jew, had received the personal protection of Adolf Hitler himself.

Before the letter, Hess suffered harassment from Nazis in Dusseldorf, once being on the receiving end of a beating by a gang of thugs. It got so bad that Hess had to move his family to South Tyrol, a region of Italy populated by Germans, to escape the growing persecution. The persecution of Jews during that time period is well known, but what separated Ernst Hess from the others was the fact that he had ties to top Nazis, including Hitler himself.

During World War I, Hess briefly served as Hitler’s superior officer in the List Regiment. Hitler retained a fondness for those he had served with during the war, even if few in the regiment remembered him. Hess, on the other hand, was well regarded by other veterans, and these ties might have been instrumental in getting him the temporary reprieve from the horrors of Nazi tyranny. One of Hess’ contacts was Fritz Wiedemann, who served as personal adjutant to Hitler from 1934 to 1939.Another was Hans Heinrich Lammers, who served as Head of the Reich Chancellery.

With these friends working in his favor, Hess was able to receive unusual leeway from top Nazis. He was able to have his pension transferred to Italy, to remove the red “J” marking him as a Jew from his passport and thus be able to travel, and to enjoy the general protection from persecution mentioned above.

Unfortunately, this protection only lasted until 1942. Hess was protected from deportation by virtue of being married to a German protestant. He worked in various forced labor camps until the end of the war in 1945. Hess’ family once believed the protection afforded him extended to them, but his mother and sister were both deported. His sister, Berta, died in Auschwitz, while his mother survived and eventually moved to Brazil to be with family.

As for Ernst Hess, he survived the war and was promptly offered another position as a judge. He declined, and went on to work as the President of the German Federal Railways Authority in Frankfurt/Main. He died on September 14th, 1983, at the age of 93.



Associated Press. “’Hitler’s wish’ protected Jewish WWI vet.” July 6, 2012. Fox News. January 17, 2016.

Day, Matthew. “Adolf Hitler protected his Jewish former commanding officer.” July 5, 2012. The Telegraph. January 17, 2016.

Mauss, Susanne. “Hitler’s Jewish Commander and Victim.” Jewish Voice From July 4, 2012. Jewish Voice From Germany. January 17, 2016.


The Strange Journey of Frederick Chopin’s Heart

Frederic Chopin

Frederic Chopin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Phillip, Abby. “Inside the secret operation to exhume Frederic Chopin’s heart.” November 17, 2014. The Washington Post. February 15, 2016.

Ross, Alex. “Chopin’s Heart.” February 5, 2014. The New Yorker. February 15, 2016.

Tsioulcas, Anastasia “Uncovering the Heart of Chopin—Literally.” November 17, 2014. NPR. February 15, 2016.


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

Ota Benga, 1904

Ota Benga, 1904

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

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

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


A life of struggle

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

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


Ota Benga arrives in New York

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

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.

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

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


The end of Ota Benga

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

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



“A Fresh Lens on the Notorious Episode of Ota Benga.” May 29, 2015. The New York Times. February 28, 2016.

Keller, Mitch. “The Scandal at the Zoo.” August 6, 2006. The New York Times. February 28, 2016.

Newkirk, Pamela. “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo.” June 3, 2015. The Guardian. February 28, 2016.


An Epilogue to Assassination: The Rathbone Tragedy

Major Henry Rathbone

Major Henry Rathbone

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theater on April 14, 1856, a war weary nation was rocked  by the tragic, violent death of the leader who had led them their darkest hour. The tragedy of Lincoln’s final hours would overshadow a lesser known incident that would befall two other present in the Presidential Booth that fateful night. Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, friends to the President and First Lady, could never know the impact the horrific attack would have on the remainder of their lives. The couple would be haunted by both the events of that fateful evening and the ever-present specter of mental illness, culminating in a murder dubbed by the 19th century American press by the simple but apt named, the Rathbone Tragedy.


An Up and Coming Couple

Clara Harris, aged 30 at the time of the assassination, was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. From a family of means, she was a cultured woman well liked in top Washington social circles, and an intimate friend of none other than the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Henry Rathbone was the son of Pauline Rathbone, a wealthy widow who married Ira Harris in 1848. Harris brought a son of his own to the mixed family, a boy named Henry, and three daughters: Amanda, Louise, and Clara. In addition to Henry, Pauline also had a son named Jared.

Despite growing together as step siblings, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone planned marry. Henry had studied law in college, and later joined the Army, Where he worked a desk job until the outbreak of the Civil War. As the war began its early phases, Henry became an officer of the 12th Infantry.

He participated in the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredricksburg, and although he did not participate in the worst of the fighting, the war took its toll on the young officer, who according to contemporary sources was a man of frail health even under the best of circumstances. He suffered a string of illnesses, but continued to return to active service against doctor’s advice. By 1865, with the war winding down, he finally relented and took another desk job, this time in Washington D.C.

With the end of four long years of war, the mood in the Union capital was celebratory, and even the often melancholic Abraham Lincoln allowed himself to feel some of the Jubilation. He and Mary Todd decided to see the comedy Our American Cousin at the Ford’s Theater. To accompany them, the couple originally invited the hero of the hour, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife Julia, but the Grants turned down the invitation, opting to visit their children in New Jersey instead. No doubt, this refusal was due in part to the fact that Mary Todd and Julia did not get along well at all. With that particular invitation turned down, the President and Mary Todd decided instead to invite their young friends and an up and coming couple in Washington’s elite social circle, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone.


A Dark Truth Behind a Prosperous Facade

800px-The_Assassination_of_President_Lincoln_-_Currier_and_Ives_2The events of that April evening are well known. John Wilkes Booth, famous actor and Southern sympathizer, entered the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a Derringer pistol. Major Rathbone attempted to wrestle the gun away from the assassin, but only succeeded in getting stabbed in the arm with a Bowie knife for his troubles. Boothe escaped, famously leaping from the balcony and yelling, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Death to Tyrants!”). The assassin escaped in the confusion. Lincoln would die of his wound the next day. The other injured party, Major Henry Rathbone, severely wounded and delirious from blood loss, would survive, but he would never be the same again.

Two years after the assassination, Clara and Henry were  married. They lived in a twenty-two room mansion in Washington D.C. Major Rathbone still served in the Army, but had no real need to as both he and Clara were heirs to substantial fortunes. The couple would have three children, the oldest of whom was born in 1870, on Lincoln’s birthday.

Despite the appearance of happiness and prosperity, all was not well in the Rathbone household. Henry was plagued with a long list of mysterious illnesses for the rest of his life. Symptoms included heart palpitations, trouble breathing, and painful digestive issues. By the time his eldest son was born in 1870, perhaps due to these health woes or perhaps due to his deteriorating mental health, Rathbone resigned from the Army.

While Rathbone did not need to work due to his wealth, by 1877 his friends were lobbying Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration hard to get him a State Department posting in Denmark. Perhaps the push was because they saw his growing paranoia and erratic behavior. By this time, Rathbone had become convinced that Clara was going to leave him and take the children. His well meaning friends may have thought a posting with the State Department would help allay these fears. Despite their efforts, the administration posted another man to the position.

Eventually, Rathbone got his overseas posting–a Consulship in Hanover, Germany. In 1883, Major Rathbone and his family, including Clara’s sister, who she insisted come along, sailed from New York aboard a steam ship bound for Europe. However, the new role and the new locale did nothing to change Major Rathbone’s mental state.

Henry became increasingly paranoid and depressed. Worse, he started hallucinating. He told a friend he was afraid of himself. Perhaps because he was convinced she would leave him, he did not allow Clara to be alone.

Sometime during this period of mental deterioration, Henry bought a revolver.


The Rathbone Tragedy

The tragedy occurred before dawn on Christmas Eve, 1883. Henry attempted to enter the room where the children were sleeping. Clara, who must have known something was terribly wrong, convinced him to join her in the master bedroom. When they were alone, Henry emptied the revolver into his wife, then stabbed her in the chest with a knife. He then turned the knife on himself.

News of the sensational killing spread across the Atlantic quickly, with newspapers revealing all the lurid details of the murder. Germain authorities found Rathbone to be insane at the time of the killing, and remanded him to the custody of the Provincial Insane Asylum, where he would live out the rest of his days haunted by chronic paranoia and tormented by hallucinations. He died on August 14, 1911 of unknown causes. Experts today believe that his psychosis stemmed either either from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or that he had paranoid schizophrenia which was exacerbated by the trauma of the assassination. His body was shipped back to the United States, and then laid to rest next to his wife on November 2nd. The graves were subsequently abandoned, and were likely reused. The remains of the Rathbones have been lost to history, a sad ending to this tragic epilogue of the Lincoln assassination.




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.

The Hungarian Peasant Revolt and the Grisly Fate of its Leader, Gyorgy Dozsa

Viktor Madarasz's imaginary portrait of Gyorgy Dozsa, from 1913.

Viktor Madarasz’s imaginary portrait of Gyorgy Dozsa, from 1913.

Rebellions and revolutions are a long standing feature of history. Throughout most of history, governments have been despotic, with power in the hands of the wealthy few. This left the vast majority of people lower on the economic and political ladder, often with barely enough resources to survive. Unlike today, they could not write their local representative and complain. The only other option was revolt, be it by violence or through less conventional means.

Rebels and freedom fighters throughout history have attempted to throw off the shackles of oppressive social systems. From Spartacus to the Founding Fathers, the thirst for freedom has driven men to do daring deeds. However, victory is never assured, and most attempts to win freedom at the point of the sword failed miserably, with horrifying consequences for rebel leaders and their followers alike. Few, though, met as grisly a fate as Gyorgy Dozsa, who led the Hungarian peasant revolt of 1514.


Peasant fury runs out of control

The revolt grew out of a complex web of factors, as revolts tend to do. At the risk of oversimplifying, there were three main causal factors, two that increased the misery of the peasant’s lot and a third that allowed them a chance to vent their anger. The first was a series of wars against the Ottoman Turks, which led to a great deal of destruction among the peasantry, who suffered alike under the raids of the Turks and the depredations of their own armies. Second was that their king, King Vladislas II, was weak. His nobles ran the show, and could basically do as they pleased to the peasants who worked their land.

The third factor leading to the revolt came when Pope Leo X commanded Cardinal Tamas Bakocz to assemble a crusading force in east-central Europe to fight against the Ottoman threat. He arrived in spring of 1514, with a papal bull in hand and promising salvation for any who fought and damnation for anyone who obstructed the holy work. Nobles were not happy, not wanting their serfs to join the crusade before the spring planting was complete. This did little to endear the nobility to the peasants. A rumor began to circulate, oddly enough encouraged by Franciscan friars, that the nobility had been excommunicated.

Something like 15,000 peasants, soldiers, and students joined the crusading force. Bakocz placed Gyorgy Dozsa, a minor noble and hero of the Turkish wars, in charge of the mob. However, the rumors combined with the actions of the nobility in trying to curtail the crusade had led to an explosion of peasant anger. Reports began to filter in from the countryside of serfs rising up and killing their masters. Bakocz tried to disband his crusading army, but the peasantry ignored the cardinal.

The rebellion spread across Hungary, although Dozsa himself, now the nominal leader of the insurgency, operated largely in the eastern and central part of the country. His force, swelling with new recruits, managed to take several towns and cities. Nobles were killed, their mansions were burnt, and in one case a bishop who organized a force to try and put down the rebels was impaled.

While the peasants raged across the countryside, the nobles gathered their forces. While the peasants had fury born of decades of oppression on their side, the nobles could call up decades of fighting experience, not to mention reserves of wealth and better equipment. Their more organized forces began to push back against the mobs.

The end of the revolt came at the castle of Temesvar. Dozsa’s army had the castle surrounded, but the stubborn defenders thwarted their efforts to take the fort. This gave the noble forces, led by a Translyvanian noble (and future king of Hungary) Janos Szapolyai to strike hard at the rebels and break their ability to fight.


Dozsa’s horrible fate

Contemporary engraving of Dozsa's execution.

Contemporary engraving of Dozsa’s execution.

Dozsa was captured. What happened to him next is among the most gruesome fates in all of history. Reports of his torture vary somewhat, but they agree on key points. On the day of his execution, Dozsa was stripped naked and forced to sit on a red hot iron throne. A heated iron scepter was forced into his hand, symbolizing his pretense at kingship. A red hot iron crown was placed on his head.

Then, fourteen of his followers were brought before him. They had been starved for more than a week before this point. Some accounts said that they were commanded to eat his flesh, or be drawn and quartered. They then set on him like rabid dogs, tearing the flesh from Dozsa’s bones with their teeth. Other accounts claim that they were offered freedom if they would eat Dozsa’s flesh, which was torn from his body with red hot pliers. Those who refused were cut to pieces right in front of their former leader. Whatever might have been the case, the rebel leader soon died of his horrific injuries.

The stoic resolve he showed in the face of his torture impressed his captors, but did little to help his former followers. The nobility cracked down on the peasant class in the wake of the revolt, proclaiming the Diet of 1514, which condemned all Hungarian peasants to “real and perpetual servitude.” They were bound permanently to the soil, were forced to work more days for the lords, heavily taxed, and forced to pay for damage done during the rebellion.

Despite his crushing failure and ignoble death, Dozsa has become a national hero in Hungary. His name and likeness have been invoked by subsequent rulers, most notably the Hungarian Communists after World War II. They renamed the main avenue of Budapest after him. Small comfort for a man who met such a grisly fate.



Godkin, Edwin Lawrence. “The History of Hungary and the Magyars.” Oxford University. 1853. Digitized April 28, 2006. pgs 136-137.


The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dozsa Rebellion.” Encyclopedia Britannica.


Roman, Eric. “Austria-Hungary and the Successor States: A Reference Guide from the Rennaissance to the Present.” Infobase Publishing. January 1, 2009. pg 465.




Mollie Fancher–The Brooklyn Enigma

Mollie Fancher in bed.

Mollie Fancher in bed.

History is populated by many strange and wonderful people. There was Jeremy Bentham, who lives on today as a mummy in the University of London, per his last will and testament. Elmer McCurdy was a two-bit outlaw who only became famous when his mummy popped up in a carnival side show and was discovered while filming an episode of the $6 Million Dollar Man. Giovani Aldini and Luigi Galvani performed ghoulish experiments that advanced the human understanding of how bodies function and simultaneously helped inspire a work of horror that remains a genre staple even today.

Not every strange story from history is quite as entertaining as the ones mentioned above. Some are as odd as they are sad. Mollie Fancher, better known as the Brooklyn Enigma, would fall into the latter category. She was held up as an example of the paranormal acting in the real world by some, and as an example of a rare and little understood mental illness by others. Whatever the case may be, the story of Mollie Fancher remains one of the more mysterious to emerge from the 19th century.


‘a child of sorrow’

Mary J. Fancher, known as Molie, was born in Attleboro, Massachuesetts on August 16, 1848. She and her two surviving siblings moved with their parents, James and Elizabeth Fancher, to Brooklyn, New York in 1850. A few years later, she was enrolled in a private school. The first trauma in  Mollie’s sad life occurred in 1855. Her mother died, and her father remarried and abandoned his children. Mollie’s aunt, Susan Crosby, took over care of the children.

Mollie suffered terribly during this time. She was described as ‘a child of sorrow’ before these traumatic events, and required special care, although it wasn’t clear exactly what her affliction was. Despite this, by all accounts she remained in good health until around age 15.

In 1864, Mollie was finishing her work at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Nearing graduation, she was looking forward to moving onward and upward with her life. She had looks to go with her brains–she was tall and slender, with a good complexion and an overall air of frailty that was the Victorian feminine ideal. Two months before graduation, this ideal of feminine frailty began to manifest in several health complaints, including nervous indigestion, weakness of the chest and frequent fainting spells. More seriously, she stopped eating and her already slight frame began to waste away even further. She was forced to drop out of school. Now, these types of complaints were not uncommon among Victorian women of a certain age and social standing, mostly because the frail, sickly role for women was reinforced by the culture of the time, including novels and plays. However, in Mollie Fancher these complaints were rooted in a deep seated mental illness that would only completely show itself after two accidents.

The first was minor only in comparison to what would follow. Mollie’s doctor prescribed horseback riding to cure her nervous indigestion. Horseback riding was commonly prescribed for all sorts of nervous complaints among women for centuries. If it seemed to work, it was probably because riding horses allowed women freedom and control they didn’t often get in their daily life. Whatever the case, Mollie’s prescription proved less than therapeutic. She was thrown from her horse in May 1864. She hit her head on a curbstone, knocking her unconscious. She also broke several ribs. For the next year, she suffered headaches and pains in her side. She might have recovered from this trauma and gone on to live a relatively normal life, if the second accident hadn’t occurred on June 8, 1865.

Mollie had agreed to a marriage prior to the second accident. On June 8, she was finishing up some shopping related to the coming wedding. She went to step off a street-car on her way home, The conductor signaled the coachman to move on, and when the car lurched forward she lost her balance and fell. Her dress was caught on a hook on the rear of the car and she was dragged a city block before anyone noticed her. She was unconscious when they found her, and her ribs were broken. She was put to bed to heal. Her suitor broke off the marriage plans, although it isn’t clear whether that had anything to do with her injuries. she would remain in bed for the rest of her life.


Bizarre symptoms and alleged clairvoyance

It was after Mollie took to bed that her case went from sad to plain bizarre. Her fifty-one years in bed were characterized by many varied and strange ailments that baffled observers and physicians alike. The symptoms that began shortly after her accident remained almost a constant for the rest of her life–namely, trances and violent spasms. Those early months were characterized also by lock jaw, vision problems, and fainting spells. She lived on remarkably little food, once reportedly going seven weeks without eating (although that should be taken with a grain of salt, because there were times she was force fed.)  More modern doctors characterize the illness as a kind of hysteria. While that was a catch all term for any behavior deemed unladylike in Mollie’s day, today hysteria refers to conversion disorder, where strong pent up anxieties are converted into physical symptoms. This is similar to how the people in Mattoon believed they were the victims of gas attacks, and showed symptoms such as fainting, dizziness, and vomiting. Mollie’s was a form of motor hysteria, which was more common to pre-20th century societies where the belief in demonic possession and witchcraft were more common. One more modern example of mass motor hysteria was the Tanganyika Laughter epidemic, where a fit of laughter (among other symptoms) started in a girl’s school and spread throughout the country over several months.

The strangest stories about Mollie Fancher, who would come to be known as the Brooklyn Enigma, occurred in a nine year period from 1866-1875. During this time, she lay with her arm drawn up over her head, her legs twisted, and her eyes closed. Despite this, she managed to write 6500 letters, sewed fine embroidery, kept a diary, and made wax flowers. Quite a lot for a bedridden woman with one usable hand. She was also said to be able to read writing from great distances, read minds, and give prophecies. She became a sensation in a country obsessed with the supernatural. Spiritualism was in vogue in America and Britain at the time, and the belief in ghosts, spirit communication, and other supernatural phenomena were at an all time high. Mollie Fancher became something  of a celebrity.


Many Mollies, but which one was real?

Doctors, then and now, dismiss the supernatural claims as so much hookum. But the psychiatric phenomenon at play was almost as strange, and as controversial in psychiatric communities, as the paranormal. In 1875, Mollie fell unconscious for a month, and when she awoke had no memory of the previous nine years. None of the letters or works of art seemed familiar to her, and she resumed conversations where they had left off nine years before. In Mollie’s mind, the works of those nine years were from someone else, someone dead. This mysterious person was dubbed “Madame X.”

Strangely enough, the trend continued. Mollie split into several selves. The Mollie who awakened after the nine year period and the month’s unconsciousness was dubbed “Sunbeam” for her rosy personality. Sunbeam was the primary personality. This was the Mollie that saw visitors and attempted to recreate the artistic feats of her previous, more clairvoyant alternative.

Four more Mollies would emerge in 1876, and they would remain with her the rest of her life. Sunbeam ruled the daylight hours, but her “sisters” emerged after 11pm. The transitions were not easy. They were punctuated by trances and fits, as if the personalities fought to take over control.

Idol was the first personality to take over at night. She was jealous of the daytime Molly, and had a habit of undoing her embroidery or otherwise sabotaging Sunbeam’s artistic efforts. The two personalities wrote letters to one another, in different handwriting. Idol’s experience seemed to constitute Mollie’s early childhood to the time of the first accident. Every night, she resumed her life right where she left off. Rosebud came after Idol, and couldn’t be more different than her more surly counterpart. She spoke and behaved like a seven year old child, and when asked claimed she was seven. She only remembered what happened when she was present, but unlike the other personalities she was more given to wandering. She appeared first in 1875, and only appeared intermittently until 1886 when she took up a more permanent residence. Personality three was named Pearl, and she was a sweetheart, presenting with an age of about 17 or 18. She remembered events in Mollie’s life up until about that age, but she couldn’t remember the accidents. Finally, Ruby was a more outgoing version of Mollie, with a quick with and robust energy. She couldn’t care less what daytime Mollie got up to.

Mollie’s case was, obviously, a very complex one. Today she is diagnosed as suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, an extremely rare condition where a person’s self fragments under extreme emotional strain. Less than 100 true cases have been diagnosed, and there is some debate in psychiatric circles as to whether it exists at all. Mollie’s case might have been a good candidate for study, had scientists of the day paid more attention. Unfortunately, the supernatural trappings made many in the growing field of psychology shy away from it, and so a great chance to understand the workings of the mysterious human brain was lost. As for Mollie, she and her various selves succumbed to illness in February 15, 1916, taking her secrets with her.




Stacey, Michelle. “The Puzzling Story of Mollie Fancher and Her Times.” April 7, 2002. Chicago Tribune. September 18, 2014.


Walsh, Anthony A. “Mollie Fancher…the Brooklyn Enigma: The Psychological Marvel of the 19th Century.” (1978) Faculty and Staff-Articles & Papers. Paper 28.


Elizabeth Bathory–Queen of the Serial Killers

A portrait of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.

A portrait of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.

Serial killers are the monsters of the modern world. They haunt the cities and countryside of America, preying upon the most vulnerable among us to fulfill their sick and twisted needs. Most often, serial killers are men who kill to derive pleasure of some sort be it sexual, psychological, or both.

Many believe the man who began this trend, the first serial killer in history, was Jack the Ripper, that mysterious madman who terrorized Whitechapel in 1888. However, as often turns out to be the case, popular opinion is wrong on this count. The first recorded serial killer in history (although I’m certain there have been serial killers as long as there have been people) lived about three hundred years before Jack the Ripper stalked his first victim that chilly London night. Her name was Elizabeth Bathory, and she stands as the queen of serial killers with a body count that is said to dwarf that of even the most vicious modern madman.


Royal. Beautiful. Deadly.

Elizabeth was born August of 1560 to a powerful branch of the royal family in Hungary. She was brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of 16th century elites – her every whim was satisfied, and people from all walks of life fawned over the beautiful aristocrat. And she was a beauty by the standards of the day, with her porcelain white skin and hair the color of raven’s feathers. In addition to beauty, she had brains too–she could speak four languages, ran her husband’s estate while he was off fighting the Ottoman Empire, and even defended said estates when the Ottomans invaded Hungary and struck out toward Vienna.

Beauty and brains could not compensate for the ugliness that lay deep inside her, though. Elizabeth was a narcissist who changed her clothes six times a day and was known to spend hours admiring her own beauty in the mirror. She was impulsive and had a violent temper, and was known to lash out at her servants in a fit of rage, beating them senseless for the most minor of offenses. She was not the good, faithful wife her husband (who was a brutal, unsavory fellow himself) would have liked and expected her to be–she was rumored to participate in sadomasochistic orgies, often forcing her victims to participate on the threat of severe beatings and other torture. Beside that, she took many lovers both male and female.

Rumors spoke of even darker habits. She allegedly participated in satanic rituals and other dark rites, which often involved the torture or death of her hapless servant girls.

Like any serial killer, Elizabeth Bathory had a modus operandi, or a distinct way of going about her crimes. Often in this sort of case the MO involves some kind of ritual, and victims with similar attributes are targeted each time. Most of the time the victims are vulnerable people who won’t be missed by the larger society–the homeless, runaways, and people in poverty stricken areas.

Bathory acted in a similar manner, but with one fundamental difference–in her world, she ruled. Her primary home was Cseltje Castle, which lay in the Little Carpathians. It was a fairly isolated area, and she had complete control over the lives of the peasants living in the seventeen villages on her estates. There literally was no risk of punishment–in that time, the nobles could basically do as they pleased and mistreatment of their social inferiors was commonplace and even accepted. However, the horrors to come would be appalling even for their day.

The killer aristocrat targeted lovely peasant girls and women, who she lured to the castle with promises of jobs and decent pay. Sometimes though she eschewed this formality and simply had the girls abducted and brought back to her chambers of death. When they were brought back to the castle, Bathory and four of her collaborators subjected the girls to terrible torture. She would beat them senseless then cut them with razors. She also enjoyed sticking them with pins and scissors, and burning with candles and hot pokers were two other favorites.

In addition to the torture and humiliation, she sexually assaulted her victims, often by forcing them to take part in the aforementioned orgies, and at least once by performing genital mutilation with a hot poker.


Was Bathory a vampire?

Many of her victims were found covered in bite marks, some having even been bitten to death. This, coupled with the tremendous vanity that marked her personality, leads many to believe that Bathory was a vampire. The story goes that once a servant girl was braiding Bathory’s hair when she pulled too hard. The enraged aristocrat walloped her unfortunate servant upside the head, so hard the girl’s nose gushed blood that spattered spots on Bathory’s face. One of her later collaborators noted that the skin where the blood had been seemed whiter and more fair than the surrounding skin. From this incident, so it goes, Bathory became convinced that bathing in the blood of slaughtered servant girls would keep her young forever.

It’s also widely believed that hearing this story, along with the story of that other alleged blood sucker, Vlad Dracula, inspired Bram Stoker to write his iconic vampire story. These stories, both of them, are nothing more than stories. There is no evidence from the earliest sources documenting the Bathory case that she bathed in or drank the blood of her victims, or that she believed doing so would make her younger. These stories are embellishments added by later authors.

Could she have done either one? It’s possible. She was allegedly involved in black magic rituals, so it could be possible she used the blood for ritual purposes. It seems more likely that she had a fetish for violence and blood, and the sadistic cruelty she subjected her poor victims to fulfilled that need, rather than any need for eternal youth. And as for Bram Stoker being inspired by her story, it’s likely he was aware of it but just because he was doesn’t mean it was the one causative idea that lead to “Dracula”. He was well versed in the folklore of East Europe, and it seems most of the attributes of Dracula were taken from the nosferatu legends endemic to that area. And on a side note, Dracula was only loosely based on Vlad Dracula…basically, Stoker liked the name Dracula and lifted it for his own use.


The downfall of Elizabeth Bathory

Eventually, Elizabeth Bathory began to believe she was untouchable. Who could blame her, since she was an aristocrat and royalty? But eventually she committed a crime whose consequences even her position among Hungarian royalty couldn’t protect her from.

Killing commoners got to be a bit boring, so Bathory decided it would be entertaining to go after a bit tougher prey. She decided she would open a school for the children of nobility, where they could come to her castle and learn etiquette. Once the first of her students arrived, Bathory almost immediately began to abuse them. However, when a daughter of a lesser noble died, the jig was up. There was a half baked attempt at a coverup, but soon the evidence mounted against the Blood Countess and her collaborators and they were outed for what they were – cold blooded killers.

The crime was horrendous, even by the standards of the day (remember, this a time when a plague could come through and wipe out half a city in a matter of weeks, when torture was an accepted part of the legal system and when nobles still had the power of life and death over their serfs). Two of Bathory’s collaborators were brutally executed, tortured then burned alive, while another was beheaded and the fourth jailed for fifteen years. The Blood Countess herself, being royalty,w as immune from execution. Instead, she was walled into her apartments in her own castle, where she lived out the last four years of her life. The legend goes that she couldn’t live without the blood of servant girls to sustain her youth.

That of course is only a legend, but maybe in her own way Bathory WAS a vampire. Her Ego fed off of the praise and the suffering of others. Maybe being walled away, cut off from all the praise and power she’d grown accustomed to, unable to indulge her sick fantasies, was too much for her. Maybe she just gave up living. No matter how it happened, we do know she died in 1614.

At the end of the day, Bathory stands alone amongst the ranks of the most depraved people in history. Her body count is the highest of all the known serial killers. The tallies vary wildly, and there is a lot of debate over what the right number is, but she and her collaborators were indicted on 80 counts of murder. The records from the time though put the count at upwards of 650, a number so huge as to be mind boggling. Some reject the number as too large, accepting the smaller (but still mind bogglingly huge) count of 300 victims. One source at the time counted “only” 37, but with the caveat that those where only the ones he was aware of.

It should be mentioned that some scholars believe that the entire case was fabricated to destroy Bathory. She was a powerful woman who ran her own estates, in a time when women were supposed to be meek and mild and let men run things. Perhaps the accusations were politically motivated, and allowed Bathory’s relatives to lay claim to the land that had once belonged to her husband and became hers upon his death. The lurid tales of torture and murder could have been meant to shock the public and turn opinion against Bathory.

But perhaps not. Maybe events really did transpire as laid out in court accounts. If so, that would rank Bathory as among the most deadly women in history. Whether or not the story is true, it has become the way that history remembers Elizabeth Bathory. After 400 years, it isn’t likely the truth behind the case will come to light. Only the legend remains.



“Elizabeth Bathory–Wikipedia.” February 25, 2015. Wikipedia. February 28, 2015.

Malathronas, John. “On the trail of the ‘Blood Countess’ in Slovakia.” October 30, 2014. CNN. February 28, 2015.

Pallardy, Richard. “Elizabeth Bathory.” February 24, 2014. Encyclopedia Britannica. February 28, 2015.


Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins

Luigi Galvani, painted with electrode and frog legs.

Luigi Galvani, painted with electrode and frog legs.

Science is something that people take for granted in the age of ubiquitous technology. It is good to remember that the technological and scientific prowess we enjoy today is built on a foundation of trial and error spanning thousands of years. Working from scratch, our ancestors often got it wrong, sometimes hilariously so, but their efforts paved the way for today’s advances.

Now and then during that long march of progress, science has taken macabre turns. One of the stranger walks down dark paths occurred during the lives  of Luigi and Giovanni Galvani, whose odd experiments inspired the works of a horror icon.


Macabre but popular experiments

Luigi Galvani lived from September 9, 1737 to December 4, 1798 in Bologna, Italy. Initially, Galvani wanted to join the clergy, but his parents steered him toward the medical field. An anatomist, surgeon, physicist, and philosopher, Luigi Galvani was a gentleman of his times. And the thing that captivated the gentlemen of the 18th century was the new and mysterious power of electricity. Luigi was no exception; he discovered that applying an electrical current to dissected frogs made their legs twitch and move. From this he formulated his theory of bioelectricity, which today is known as galvanism. It is the idea that the electrical impulses that move muscles are carried by fluid in the nerves. He also formulated an idea called animal electricity, which is basically the idea that the electrical impulses that produced the movements he observed were caused by electricity sources inside the animals body, rather than the application of the outside electrical source.

This conclusion led to a conflict with an associate by the name of Volta, who believed that the so-called animal electricity was simply the result of chemical reactions that could occur outside of the body. He designed a battery called a voltaic pile that essentially demonstrated this fact. Luigi, in failing health, did not actively defend his animal electricity theory. He left that to his nephew, Giovanni, who wowed the public with a series of macabre demonstrations.

Giovanni went bigger in his demonstrations than mere frogs. One notable experiment occurred in the early 1800s where Aldini applied a strong charge from a Leyden jar to a decapitated ox head. The dead animal’s ear’s twitched, the lips moved, and the eyes opened and shut. One experiment was performed on the corpse of a recently executed 30 year old man. Electrical current applied to nerves in the base of the neck produced grotesque facial expressions. Applying current to the sciatic nerve produced violent kicking that assistants present couldn’t stop by holding down. An electrode to the rectum reportedly made the corpse bolt upright. Finally, Aldini applied current to decapitated human heads using electrodes that looked a bit like modern headphones. The heads grimaced and twitched and opened their eyes wide, much to the horror of onlookers.


Inspiration for a literary icon

These gruesome experiments were the talk of the learned circles of Europe. One particular group on Lake Geneva in Switzerland spoke about the experiments with great enthusiasm. Mary Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to have a competition as to who could write the best horror story. Inspired by the competition, the morbid talk, and reading about the works of Aldini and Galvani, Mary Shelley put pen to paper and wrote one of the most iconic horror novels in history: Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus.



Rothman, Wilson. “How a Real-Life Dr. Frankenstein Reanimated the Dead With Electricity.” March 10, 2010. Gizmodo. May 5, 2014. <>

“Luigi Galvani.” April 20. 2014. Wikipedia. May 5, 2014 <>