Long before commercial planes, helicopters and certainly drones, Julius Neubronner invented pigeon photography, attaching a small camera to carrier pigeons, capturing great aerial photography for postcards and such. From Alyssa Coppelman at Slate: “In 1907, the German apothecary (who ran his family’s business) invented pigeon photography as a means of tracking his carrier pigeons. One of his pigeons used for getting medicinal supplies more quickly (a sort of FedEx pigeon) had stayed away a month before returning to him. Looking to track the pigeon’s journeys, Neubronner did what any curious owner would do: He strapped a small, timed camera to the pigeon to track its future travels.”
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Fittingly, Edgar Allan Poe’s death was a mysterious one. The haunting author, the first American to try to make his living solely as a writer, was found disoriented, ranting and ragged on the streets of Baltimore on an autumn day in 1849. Nobody could tell what had put him in such a state at age 40, and he was taken to a hospital where he died a few days later. Was his puzzling death the result of drunkenness or rabies or murder? No one still knows for sure. Muddling matters even further was that Poe’s enemy, the editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold, somehow became the executor of his estate and did his best to sully the writer’s reputation, suggesting his end resulted from a dissolute lifestyle.
A January 20, 1907 New York Times article promised to make sense of the puzzle nearly six decades after the Poe’s tragic demise, asserting that scientific breakthroughs had made it possible to understand what killed the poet and short-story writer. The paper called on one of the finest alienists of the era to undertake the mission, though great clarity didn’t exactly result from the enterprise. The opening of “Edgar Allan Poe’s Tragic Death Explained“:
“Edgar Allan Poe, the author of ‘The Raven,’ ‘The Gold Bug,’ and ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’–to name merely the most popular of his works–the writer whose power startled Dickens and excited the admiration of Irving, Lowell, and Browning, and whom Tennyson called ‘the most original genius that America has produced,’ was found in the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1847 [sic], dazed, in rags, a physical and mental wreck. He lay for days unconscious or raving like a madman, then sank to death. His condition was ascribed to a debauch or drugs, or both, his pitiful end to mania-a-potu.
In his lifetime and since his death, Poe’s personal habits and the circumstance of his end have been the topics of endless discussion, in which vituperation has been mingled with vehement defense. He has been pictured as a transcendent genius and a drunkard, a polished gentleman and a surly misanthrope.
Within the last few weeks, the whole topic has been reopened by the approaching dedication of a monument to Poe in Richmond, Va. To the existing mass of contradictory testimony and discussion has been added much new material on the subject. Some of this, including letters, accounts of personal experiences, and the first article dealing with Poe’s case purely from the medical standpoint, has been published very recently. Taken as a whole, however, the evidence leaves the layman as much puzzled as ever regarding Poe’s complex personality and the circumstances of his death.
To arrive at the truth of the matter and to clear Poe’s name of injustice, if such existed, the New York Times has gathered all the evidence relating to the subject, particularly the letters and accounts recently printed, and submitted them to an alienist who ranks high as an authority on such matters in this city, and a physician whose practice particularly fits him to deal with the subject. This specialist undertook to review all of this evidence and to draw therefrom his conclusions regarding Poe as a man and his fatal malady.
The expert offered a surprising opinion. It contradicts the contention that Poe died of mania-a-potu. His death is traced to cerebral oedema, or ‘water on the brain’ or ‘wet brain,’ a disease unknown in the author’s day, but now well recognized with the advance of medical science. The more recent theories that Poe suffered from psychic epilepsy or paresis are discounted. Moreover the physician’s study of the case has resulted in the belief that the psychopathic phases of Poe’s case were so unusual that his mental responsibility is to be seriously questioned. His opinion follows:
“In reviewing the case of a man of undoubted genius, like Edgar Allan Poe, we must remember that Nature, while developing certain brain centres to an unusual degree, has neglected other mental attributes, so that they are far below those found in the average man. Thus Poe’s powers of imagination were abnormal at the expense of his will power, his ability to resist temptation, and his recuperation in case of misfortune. Such facts do not apply to men of exceptional abilities like Washington–abilities often confounded with genius–but to men of very exceptional gifts in only one direction. Lord Byron furnished an example of this condition. Its presence marked Poe as a weak man. His inherited characteristics were bad. His nervous system was constitutionally deranged; he was abnormal to a degree that leads one to seriously doubt his mental or moral responsibility. Add to these elements his reckless youth, the ease with which he was surrounded early in his life, and the years of poverty and misfortune which followed, and his tragic end is already foreshadowed.”
The above classic photograph depicts Babe Ruth in the year he became a New York Yankee and tried on the pinstripes for the first time. The sale of his contract from the Boston Red Sox (for $125,000) stunned observers of the game. Truth be told, there weren’t a lot of great players in organized baseball’s early decades (because of the color line, among other reasons), so someone truly gifted like Ruth could have a massive impact on an organization. Fans in both Boston and New York were wise to that fact (for the most part), and this trade set off what would become a nearly hundred-year war between the clubs. From a January 7, 1920 New York Times article in the immediate aftermath of the deal:
“Babe Ruth, the Colossus of Swat, has signed his name to a document promising to play with the Yankees next season. Manager Miller Huggins, who went to Los Angeles to sign the player, wired President Jacob Ruppert yesterday that the home run slugger had signed an agreement to play here. Manager Huggins’s message also said that Ruth was very much pleased with the transfer that brought him to New York and would be delighted to play here next Summer. Huggins left California last night for New York.
Just what agreement Ruth has signed is not known by the officials of the New York club. That he has not yet signed a contract is certain from Huggins’s telegram. It is believed to be a tentative agreement that he will sign a contract at a certain time. Ruth expects to leave for the East next Monday. and his new contract will probably be signed in New York. He demanded a contract calling for $20,000 a year from Boston and this figure will undoubtedly be the basis of the new contract which the Yankees will give him. According to Huggins’s message, however, there is no question that Ruth is pleased with the change and glad to join the New York club.
The purchase of Ruth for the record price of $125,000 was the topic of the conversation along Broadway yesterday and baseball fans of all ages and sizes already see a chance for the Yankees to land the 1920 pennant. Manhattan’s fondest dream of having a world series at the Polo Grounds between the Giants and Yankees now becomes a tangible thing and that is the big event which New York fans will be rooting for all Summer.
The two Colonels–Ruppert and Huston–were praised on all sides for their aggressiveness and liberality in landing baseball’s greatest attraction. If the club, strengthened by Ruth and by other players the owners have in mind, does not carry off the flag, it will not be the fault of the owners.
Boston is duly shocked at the sale of Ruth and there is a wide difference of opinion about its effect on the game in the Hub. The newspapers yesterday had cartoons showing a ‘For Sale’ sign on the Boston Public Library and on the Boston Common. They also picture Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox, in darkness, with a sign ‘Building Lots for Sale.’
Two Bostonians prominent in Hub baseball in the past, Fred Tenney and Hugh Duffy, are quoted as saying that the sale of Ruth is a good thing for the Red Sox and that it will be a better club without him.”
Just read Chip Brown’s New York Times Magazine piece about the boomtown that North Dakota has become thanks to its massive oil reserves in this post-peak age, which reminded of this classic photograph of Upton Sinclair selling bowdlerized copies (the so-called fig-leaf edition) of his novel Oil! on a street in Boston, where the book was banned. (This novel is the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson’s great film There Will Be Blood.) The Beantown controversy helped boost Oil! to bestseller status. Sinclair, a radical firebrand, was no stranger to such public contretemps, whether running for the office of governor or hatching plans for a commune near the Palisades in New Jersey. On the latter topic, here’s a passage from a 1906 New York Times article about the formation that year of Sinclair’s techno-Socialist collective, Helicon Home Colony, which burned to the ground the year after its establishment:
“Not less than 300 persons answered Upton Sinclair’s call for a preliminary meeting at the Berkeley Lyceum last night of all those who are interested in a home colony to be organized for the purpose of applying machinery to domestic processes, and incidentally to solve the servant problem. The idea of the proposed colony is to syndicate the management of children and other home worries, such as laundering, gardening, and milking cows.
The response to Mr. Sinclair’s call gratified him immensely. When he went on the stage he was smiling almost ecstatically. The audience applauded him and then began to mop their faces, for the little Lyceum was almost filled, and some one had to shut the front doors.
The audience was made up almost equally of men and women. A large proportion seemed to be of foreign birth. Many of them were Socialists, judging from their manifestations of sympathy for Socialistic doctrines. The mentioning of two newspapers which disapprove of Socialism on their editorial pages was hissed. Mr. Sinclair himself said that he had thought of asking a Socialist to act as temporary Chairman, but that his man had thought that two Socialists on the stage at the same time would frighten the more conservative members.
The meeting lasted about two hours. Mr. Sinclair, at various times, had the floor about an hour and a half. Now and then the arguments caused a high pitch for excitement, and more than once four people were trying to talk at the same time. In the end always, however, what Mr. Sinclair suggested was accepted, including the appointment of committees and other preliminaries of organization.
For Mr. Sinclair is certain that his home colony is to come about. He said in his introductions that he had about a dozen people who had agreed to go in with him, whether anybody else did or not. But last night’s meeting indicated, in Mr. Sinclair’s opinion, that a home colony of at least 100 families could easily be organized.”
Jordanian camel driver Hadji Ali was, in 1856, one of the few in his profession hired by the U.S. Army to create a caravan of humped beasts in the Southwest, delivering much-needed supplies. His name was bastardized by accident, and he was rechristened “Hi Jolly.” The camels, quite literally, delivered, but the War Between the States ended the program’s funding. Hi Jolly tried to make a go of it on his own, starting a camel-centric freight-delivery business, but it didn’t last long. He subsequently released his few remaining charges into the Arizona desert, where one is alleged to have frightened a young Douglas MacArthur. In the above classic photograph, the pack leader poses with bride Gertrudis Serna. By this point he had chosen the name “Philip Tedro” for himself, seemingly unaware that “Hi Jolly” was the greatest name ever. From Examiner.com:
“The story begins in 1855 when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, started tossing ideas around as to how to establish and supply a route from Camp Verde, Texas, to Fort Defiance (a.k.a. Roop’s Fort), California. After exploring his options, the future Confederate President ultimately opted for camels. Once Congress had appropriated $30,000 for the effort, the USS Supply promptly shipped 33 animals from the Middle East to Texas.
By doubling the load managed by traditional beasts of burden, eating off the land and demanding minimal water, the camels were a hit. Yes, the new kids on the block made quite a splash and their ungainly appearance put the existing pack animals on edge. In fact, due to the general avoidance shown by raider’s horses, caravans were consequently safer than wagon trails.
However, the introduction of a foreign and little-known species was not all fun and games. The craggy southwestern terrain was a far cry from the camel’s native, comparatively silken sands and they were perpetually plagued by rocks painfully wedging themselves between their toes. Moreover, the ability to deal with a biting, spitting creature characterized by its cantankerous disposition was not to be found among local talent. Experienced handlers were deemed essential and the federal government thus employed a handful of camel professionals.
The leader of the pack, so to speak, was a Mr. Hadji Ali whose name was quickly transformed to ‘Hi Jolly” by heavy-tongued residents. Mr. Jolly, therefore, led a wildly successful operation for the next several years. The venture was so successful that some 40 more camels were added to the lineup.
When the project lost funding in favor of the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction, it ceased to be a reality.”
Mary Todd Lincoln suffered many losses in her life, and one of the bitterest was the 1871 death of her youngest child, Thomas, nicknamed “Tad,” when he was just 18. The cause of death was reported to be “dropsy of the heart,” but it could have been TB or some other cardiac illness. To put it mildly, Tad was a free spirit, and he is responsible for the origin of a White House tradition. Long before President Obama was pardoning turkeys at Thanksgiving, the Lincoln child saved a similar bird. From Gilbert King at the Smithsonian history blog:
“However, the earliest known sparing of a holiday bird can be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was presented with a Christmas turkey destined for the dinner table and his young, precocious son Tad intervened.
Thomas ‘Tad’ Lincoln was just 8 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to live at the White House after his father was sworn into office in March 1861. The youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Tad was born after Edward ‘Eddie’ Lincoln died in the winter of 1850 at the age of 11, most likely of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William ‘Willie’ Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington, and while Tad recovered, Willie succumbed in February of 1862. He was 11.
With the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, away at Harvard College, young Tad became the only child living at in the White House, and by all accounts, the boy was indomitable—charismatic and full of life at a time when his family, and the nation, were experiencing tremendous grief. Born with a cleft palate that gave him a lisp and dental impairments that made it almost impossible for him to eat solid food, Tad was easily distracted, full of energy, highly emotional and, unlike his father and brother, none too focused on academics.
‘He had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline,’ wrote John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary. Both Lincoln parents, Hay observed, seemed to be content to let Tad ‘have a good time.’ Devastated by the loss of Willie, and both proud and relieved by Robert’s fastidious efforts at Harvard, the first couple gave their rambunctious young son free rein at the executive mansion. The boy was known to have sprayed dignitaries with fire hoses, burst into cabinet meetings, tried to sell some of the first couple’s clothing at a ‘yard sale’ on the White House lawn, and marched White House servants around the grounds like infantry.”
A lot of twentieth-century America was written into the life of Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist who went from backwater tent revivals to Los Angeles megachurch media maven in short shrift. She was a feminine icon, progressive on matters of race before her country was, deeply charitable and in possession of a genius for broadcasting. She also had the type of sizable public missteps you would expect from a larger-than-life figure.
In the above classic photograph from the Los Angeles Daily News, the evangelist, left, prepares holiday baskets in a pantry. From H.L. Mencken’s 1930 writing about her in the American Mercury:
“For years she toured the Bible Belt in a Ford, haranguing the morons nightly, under canvas. It was a depressing life, and its usufructs were scarcely more than three meals a day. Often, indeed, there was too little money to buy them, and she had to depend upon the charity of the pious. She was attracted to Los Angeles, it appears, by the climate. The Bible Belt was sending a steady stream of its rheumatic mortgage sharks in that direction, and she simply followed. The result, as everyone knows, was a swift and roaring success. The town has more morons in it than the whole State of Mississippi, and thousands of them had nothing to do save gape at the movie dignitaries and go to revivals.
Aimée piped a tune that struck their fancy and in a short while she was as massive a local figure as Sid Grauman or the Rev. Bob Shuler. In five years she had a plant almost as big as that of Henry Ford, with an auditorium seating 5300 customers, a huge Bible School, a radio broadcasting station, a flourishing publishing house, three brass bands, three choirs, two orchestras and six quartettes. She is today the most prosperous ecclesiastic in America and her annual net takings exceed those of Bishop Manning.
But, as I have said, I doubt that she is happy in the homely secular sense, though the grace of God is undoubtedly in her. I detect a far-away look in her eye, an I detect a heavy heart in her book, despite its smooth, glad air of a Y. M. C. A. secretary. Certainly the attempt to jail her on perjury, a year ago, left some scars on her.
Connoisseurs will recall the outlines of the case: she alleged that she had been kidnapped, and the Los Angeles police alleged that she had been on a protracted week-end party with one of her male employees. She won in the end, but only after a long and nerve-wracking trial, in the course of which she had plenty of chance to observe that Moronia could punish as well as applaud. The trial, indeed, was an orgy typical of the half-fabulous California courts. The very officers of justice denounced her riotously in the Hearst papers while it was in progress, and she says herself that she was almost asphyxiated by the smoke of photographers’ flash-lights in the courtroom.”
I normally don’t run a Classic Photo of an image I’ve used elsewhere on the site, but I thought this gruesome, arresting image of scalpless Robert McGee, which I posted here last week, deserved to have its backstory told. An explanation of how he came to lose his scalp in 1864 when just a lad, from The Old Santa Fe Trail: The Story of a Great Highway by Colonel Henry Inman:
“One of the most horrible massacres in the history of the Trail occurred at Little Cow Creek in the summer of 1864. In July of that year a government caravan, loaded with military stores for Fort Union in New Mexico, left Fort Leavenworth for the long and dangerous journey of more than seven hundred miles over the great plains, which that season were infested by Indians to a degree almost without precedent in the annals of freight traffic.
The train was owned by a Mr. H. C. Barret, a contractor with the quartermaster’s department; but he declined to take the chances of the trip unless the government would lease the outfit in its entirety, or give him an indemnifying bond as assurance against any loss. The chief quartermaster executed the bond as demanded, and Barret hired his teamsters for the hazardous journey; but he found it a difficult matter to induce men to go out that season.
Among those whom he persuaded to enter his employ was a mere boy, named McGee, who came wandering into Leavenworth a few weeks before the train was ready to leave, seeking work of any description. His parents had died on their way to Kansas, and on his arrival at Westport Landing, the emigrant outfit that had extended to him shelter and protection in his utter loneliness was disbanded; so the youthful orphan was thrown on his own resources. At that time the Indians of the great plains, especially along the line of the Santa Fe Trail, were very hostile, and continually harassing the freight caravans and stage-coaches of the overland route. Companies of men were enlisting and being mustered into the United States service to go out after the savages, and young Robert McGee volunteered with hundreds of others for the dangerous duty. The government needed men badly, but McGee’s youth militated against him, and he was below the required stature; so he was rejected by the mustering officer.
Mr. Barret, in hunting for teamsters to drive his caravan, came across McGee, who, supposing that he was hiring as a government employee, accepted Mr. Barret’s offer.
By the last day of June the caravan was all ready, and on the morning of the next day, July 1, the wagons rolled out of the fort, escorted by a company of United States troops, from the volunteers referred to.
The caravan wound its weary way over the lonesome Trail with nothing to relieve the monotony save a few skirmishes with the Indians; but no casualties occurred in these insignificant battles, the savages being afraid to venture too near on account of the presence of the military escort.
On the 18th of July, the caravan arrived in the vicinity of Fort Larned. There it was supposed that the proximity of that military post would be a sufficient guarantee from any attack of the savages; so the men of the train became careless, and as the day was excessively hot, they went into camp early in the afternoon, the escort remaining in bivouac about a mile in the rear of the train.
About five o’clock, a hundred and fifty painted savages, under the command of Little Turtle of the Brule Sioux, swooped down on the unsuspecting caravan while the men were enjoying their evening meal. Not a moment was given them to rally to the defence of their lives, and of all belonging to the outfit, with the exception of one boy, not a soul came out alive.
The teamsters were every one of them shot dead and their bodies horribly mutilated. After their successful raid, the savages destroyed everything they found in the wagons, tearing the covers into shreds, throwing the flour on the trail, and winding up by burning everything that was combustible.
On the same day the commanding officer of Fort Larned had learned from some of his scouts that the Brule Sioux were on the war-path, and the chief of the scouts with a handful of soldiers was sent out to reconnoitre. They soon struck the trail of Little Turtle and followed it to the scene of the massacre on Cow Creek, arriving there only two hours after the savages had finished their devilish work. Dead men were lying about in the short buffalo-grass which had been stained and matted by their flowing blood, and the agonized posture of their bodies told far more forcibly than any language the tortures which had come before a welcome death. All had been scalped; all had been mutilated in that nameless manner which seems to delight the brutal instincts of the North American savage.
Moving slowly from one to the other of the lifeless forms which still showed the agony of their death-throes, the chief of the scouts came across the bodies of two boys, both of whom had been scalped and shockingly wounded, besides being mutilated, yet, strange to say, both of them were alive. As tenderly as the men could lift them, they were conveyed at once back to Fort Larned and given in charge of the post surgeon. One of the boys died in a few hours after his arrival in the hospital, but the other, Robert McGee, slowly regained his strength, and came out of the ordeal in fairly good health.
The story of the massacre was related by young McGee, after he was able to talk, while in the hospital at the fort; for he had not lost consciousness during the suffering to which he was subjected by the savages.
He was compelled to witness the tortures inflicted on his wounded and captive companions, after which he was dragged into the presence of the chief, Little Turtle, who determined that he would kill the boy with his own hands. He shot him in the back with his own revolver, having first knocked him down with a lance handle. He then drove two arrows through the unfortunate boy’s body, fastening him to the ground, and stooping over his prostrate form ran his knife around his head, lifting sixty-four square inches of his scalp, trimming it off just behind his ears.
Believing him dead by that time, Little Turtle abandoned his victim; but the other savages, as they went by his supposed corpse, could not resist their infernal delight in blood, so they thrust their knives into him, and bored great holes in his body with their lances.
After the savages had done all that their devilish ingenuity could contrive, they exultingly rode away, yelling as they bore off the reeking scalps of their victims, and drove away the hundreds of mules they had captured.
When the tragedy was ended, the soldiers, who had from their vantage-ground witnessed the whole diabolical transaction, came up to the bloody camp by order of their commander, to learn whether the teamsters had driven away their assailants, and saw too late what their cowardice had allowed to take place. The officer in command of the escort was dismissed the service, as he could not give any satisfactory reason for not going to the rescue of the caravan he had been ordered to guard.
The story of the massacre was related by young McGee, after he was able to talk, while in the hospital at the fort; for he had not lost consciousness during the suffering to which he was subjected by the savages.
He was compelled to witness the tortures inflicted on his wounded and captive companions, after which he was dragged into the presence of the chief, Little Turtle, who determined that he would kill the boy with his own hands. He shot him in the back with his own revolver, having first knocked him down with a lance handle. He then drove two arrows through the unfortunate boy’s body fastening him to the ground, and stooping over his prostrate form ran his knife around his head, lifting sixty-four square inches of his scalp, trimming it off just behind his ears.
Believing him dead by that time, Little Turtle abandoned his victim; but the other savages, as they went by his supposed corpse, could not resist their infernal delight in blood, so they thrust their knives into him, and bored great holes in his body with their lances.
After the savages had done all that their devilish ingenuity could contrive, they exultingly rode away, yelling as they bore off the reeking scalps of their victims, and drove away the hundred of mules they had captured.”
On Auguste Rodin’s 172nd birthday, I present to you this classic photograph of the sculptor, which was taken in 1893 by Felix Nadar. By this point, The Thinker was complete and the artist’s reputation secure. Rodin died 24 years after this picture was taken at age 77. In 1923, Rodin’s secretary published a book alleging that the great artist died from a lack of heat in his home, his friends and nation having turned their backs on him. In its first month of existence in March of 1923, Time magazine ran an article (subscription only) about the controversy. An excerpt:
“Paris has been deeply shocked by a report of the circumstances of the death of the great Impressionist sculptor, Auguste Rodin.
A book by Mile. Tirel, Rodin’s secretary, states definitely that Rodin died of cold, neglected by friends and officials of the state, while his sculptures, which he had given to the nation, were kept warmly housed in a centrally heated museum at public expense. His case was so desperate that he asked to be permitted to have a room in the museum—the Hotel Biron, formerly his own studio. The official in charge of the museum refused. Other officials and friends promised coal but never sent it, though his situation at Meudon, ill, and freezing to death, was apparently well known to all of them.
No one in a position to know the facts has denied Mile. Tirel’s charges. The book has the sanction of Rodin’s son.”
Rodin, through Sacha’s Guitry’s eyes:
Tags: Auguste Rodin
Carrie Amelia Moore didn’t care for alcohol and she didn’t mince words about it. But it was her axe-wielding that got most of the attention. One of the earliest and most ardent prohibitionists, Carrie Nation, as she came to be known, was infamous for entering bars and taking her axe to the inventory. No law could stop her and eventually she and her kind got the law changed, and for a while America was a dry country–well, apart from speakeasys and bathtubs and flasks. (For a good book about the period, read Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.)
On one visit to Atlantic City in 1901, Nation behaved unusually soberly, didn’t go crazy with an axe, and sort of disappointed everyone. From the August 19 New York Times of the year:
“Atlantic City, N.J.–Mrs. Carrie Nation has come and gone, and there was not a smashing nor anything else sensational. The hopes of the crowds that she would use a hatchet upon some saloonkeeper’s outfit were accordingly dashed.
Mrs. Nation sold 2,500 of her souvenir hatchets at 25 cents each, so that her day’s work was highly profitable. She took a bath in the ocean this morning, and later spoke to an audience of 5,000 persons. Her talk was on morals.
Her visit was a great disappointment for it was hoped that to liven things she would proceed to some of her characteristic acts. Perhaps that she did not do so was partly due to the weather, which was not conducive to enjoyment.”
If the apartment house I grew up in had a fire escape like the tube model displayed in this 1924 image taken by the Cheyenne River Agency, I may have become an arsonist just for the excuse to go for a spin. The record connected to it at the National Archives and Records Administration has only a simple description:
“Drops from second story of brick building; small child is sitting in the end of the tube.”
By any standards, Luther Burbank was a virtuoso botanist and horticulturist, mixing, matching and creating. Among the hundreds of exotic varieties that were hatched from his experimental Santa Rosa farm, greenhouse and nursery–which included plants, potatoes, fruits and flowers–was the spineless cactus featured in the above classic photograph. The opening of an admiring 1906 New York Times profile of Burbank:
“Every summer our transatlantic steamers are burdened with great throngs of travelers beginning their pilgrimages to the shrines of departed genius. In America, too, we may visit places made illustrious by the former presence of Washington, Jefferson, Lee, Lincoln, Emerson, Poe, and other native men of genius. But, disguise it as we will, the visits are at last to cemeteries, where everything is described in the past tense.
But there is in America at this moment a man of the very greatest genius, just in the flower of his fame, a visit to whom not only emphasizes his genius and his leadership in thought and living things, but also enables one to see far into the future. There is a searchlight of truth in constant operation at Santa Rosa, Cal., and the mind and heart of Luther Burbank are the lenses through which the light is focused. Long ago I resolved to beg the privilege of standing near the searchlight and making a few observations as it illumined some of the peaks of knowledge I could never hope to scale.
Our so-called ‘Captains of Industry’ are busy men, but many of their duties and responsibilities they may delegate to others. Luther Burbank is the busiest man in the world. I make that statement without fear of successful contradiction. His ship is alone on a vast sea of nature’s secrets. With him on the voyage of discovery are a few near relations to encourage him, a dear friend or two for protection and companionship, and several humble helpers to feed the boilers and oil the engines. But he is more alone than was Columbus, because he has no first officer, no second officer, no mate. Like Columbus, upon him alone falls the responsibility for the expedition; he alone knows why the vessel’s prow is kept always in one direction; he alone has faith that it must ultimately touch the shores of truth and reality.”
Tags: Luther Burbank
These three classic 1950 photos of pensive, unsmiling people were taken at a Dianetics seminar in Los Angeles, with the shadowy L. Ron Hubbard himself leading the meeting. Hubbard and his $4 self-empowerment book were largely ignored by the mainstream press until the title became a mammoth bestseller. From a 1950 Look magazine article about the rise of a new belief system, which initially took root most strongly in Los Angeles:
“Of all the dianetic centers, Los Angeles is the most exuberantly expansive and enthusiastic. There the Hubbard Foundation moved into a suite of modest offices last July. In August, it took over a two-story building housing a lecture theater and 20 ‘processing’ rooms. A few weeks later, it had to expand again – this time into a 110-room building where swarms of student auditors raptly attend Hubbard’s lectures and practice processing one another.
Still more recently, there have been instituted a series of weekend sessions at the swank Country Club Hotel in Hollywood. Here, taking over 20 or 30 rooms, a band of student auditors and pre-clears meet under the guidance of professional auditors for ‘intensive auditing with chemical assist.’
Hubbard and his associates insist that this use of drugs has nothing to do with narcosynthesis. They claim that ‘chemical assistants,’ purchasable in California at any drugstore, aid in helping resistant pre-clears to achieve dianetic reverie and to dredge up their basic-basic engrams.”
Tags: L. Ron Hubbard
It seems to me that we’ve forgotten a very important fact about photography. That photographs are physically connected to the world. And part of the study of photography has to be recapturing, recovering, that physical connection with the world in which they were taken. Something which has rarely been part of the enterprise of studying photographs. Take a photograph of Einstein, for instance. The point is, it doesn’t matter who I think it’s a photograph of. What matters is, was Einstein in front of the lens of the camera? That man. Was that man in front of the lens of the camera? Is there a physical connection between the image on that photographic plate or the digital device, whatever, and the man standing there? It doesn’t matter what’s in my head. It matters what that physical connection is.
What actually happened. But the question remains, why do you care? Or rather, why do you care so much? Because I think you really do care.
Ultimately, why do people care about reference? Because… let’s put it this way. If you care what our connection is to the world around us, then you care about basic questions. Questions of truth. Questions of reference. Questions of identity. Basic philosophical questions. So go back to the [Roger] Fenton photographs for a moment. I want to know what I’m looking at. I think photographs have a kind of subversive character. They make us think we know what we’re looking at. I may not know what I’m looking at, even under the best of circumstances here and now. But I have all this context available to me. I know you’re Ren Weschler. I’ve met you before. We actually are friends. And I have this whole context of the world around me. But photographs do something tricky. They decontextualize things. They rip images out of the world and as a result we are free to think whatever we want about them.”
I came across this classic photograph of Harry Houdini and President Lincoln, and assumed it was the former debunking seances, which he loved to do. But it was actually a different kind of demystification–that of spirit photography. That phenomenon, which was first documented in the 1850s, supposedly showed ghosts of the dead making their presence known in photographs. It was a funereal kind of photobombing. In the 1920s, when Houdini created this image to show how phony the whole thing was, even bright people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were still arguing that spirit photography was genuine. From Kristi Finefield at the Library of Congress:
“In fact, Sir David Brewster, in his 1856 book on the stereoscope, gave step-by-step instructions for creating a spirit photo, beginning with:
‘For the purpose of amusement, the photographer might carry us even into the regions of the supernatural. His art, as I have elsewhere shewn, enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture.’
He went on to explain how this was easily done. Simply pose your main subjects. Then, when the exposure time is nearly up, have the ‘spirit’ figure enter the scene, holding still for only seconds before moving out of the picture. The ‘spirit’ then appeared as a semi-transparent figure, as seen in The Haunted Lane.
One of the more famous–and infamous–spirit photographers was William H. Mumler of Boston. He turned his ability to make photographs with visible spirits into a lucrative business venture, starting in the 1860s. Doubts grew about his work, but even when a spiritualist named Doctor Gardner recognized some of the so-called spirits as living Bostonians, people continued to pay as much as $10 a sitting. Mumler was charged with fraud in 1869, though not convicted, due to lack of evidence. However, his career as a photographer of the spirit world was essentially over.
Celebrities took sides in the debate in the 1920s. Famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an outspoken Spiritualist who believed that the supernatural could appear in photographs, while illusionist Harry Houdini denounced mediums as fakes and spirit photography as a hoax. Doyle and Houdini publicly feuded in the newspapers.
To demonstrate how easy it was to fake a photograph, Houdini had this image made in the 1920s, showing himself talking with Abraham Lincoln. He even based entire shows around debunking the claims of mediums and the entire idea of Spiritualism.”
I know there’ve been cults all throughout human history, but I tend to think of the ones that popped up in America after 1965. The classic 1949 photo above shows an earlier cult, a postwar sect established in Los Angeles known as the WKFL (Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love) Fountain of the World. Founded by inveterate jailbird Francis Herman Pencovic, who reinvented himself as the self-styled messiah Krishna Venta, the group had an apocalyptic edge and seemed to be an antecedent to the Manson Family. Penecovic was murdered in 1958 in a suicide bombing perpetrated by former members of the cult. From the International Cultic Studies Association:
“His name was Krishna Venta, and Monday, December 10, 2008, marked the 50th anniversary of his violent assassination, which all told ended ten lives.
Born Francis Pencovic in the San Francisco of 1911, Venta was an interesting candidate for messiah, having previously lived as burglar, thief, con artist, and shipyard timekeeper. This changed in 1946 when, following a stretch on a chain gang and a stint in the Army, Pencovic’s body (or so he claimed) became the host vessel for the ‘Christ Everlasting,’ an eternal spirit being who had not only died on the cross at Calvary 2,000 years earlier, but had commandeered to Earth from the planet Neophrates a convoy of rocket ships whose passengers included Adam and Eve.
But in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, insisted Venta, such ancient history was irrelevant. This time around, his Earthly mission was to gather the 144,000 Elect foretold in Revelation and deliver them from an apocalypse heretofore unseen by mankind.
To draw attention to this cause, Venta donned a monk’s robe, permanently discarded footwear, and thereafter forewent cutting both hair and beard. In the Truman and Eisenhower eras, Venta, who frequently made headlines for both his luck at the dog track and his repeated arrests for failure to pay child support, cut a unique figure. His message, however, could not have been more tailor-made for Cold War America.
Armageddon, prophesied Venta, would begin as an armed race war in the streets of America.”
This classic photograph by Francis M. Fritz of John Muir shows the California conservationist in late life, seven years before his passing. Muir spent the majority of his years studying rocks, icebergs, forest and birds, and pressing successfully for the formation of national parks. A folksy story about him that was republished in the April 24, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
“A writer in Ainslie’s Magazine tells this of John Muir:
John Muir, the mountain climber, is a fascinating companion. He abounds in fun and his talk is apt to become a monologue, as listeners grow too interested even for comment. He runs in a steady, sparkling stream of witty chat, charming reminiscences of famous men, of bears in the woods and red men in the mountains; of walks with Emerson, of tossing in a frail kayak on the storm-tossed waters of Alaskan floods. By turn he is a scientist, mountaineer, story-teller and light-hearted school boy.
Alhambra Valley, where he has a home of many broad acres, is a beautiful vale curled down in the lap of Contra Costa hills, sheltered from every wind that blows and warmed to the heart by the genial California sunlight. Here he dwells, a slender, grizzled man, worn-looking and appearing older than he is, for hard years among the mountains have told upon him.
It was a fair picture of peace and plenty under the soft, blue September sky. A stream ran close at hand, shaded by alders and sycamores and the sweet-scented wild willow. On the bank nearest us stood a solitary blue crane, surveying us fearlessly. A flock of quail made themselves heard in the undergrowth, and low above the vineyards a shrike flew, uttering his sharp cry. Noting him I said to Mr. Muir:
‘So you don’t kill even the butcher birds?’
He looked up, following the bird’s flight.
‘Why, no,’ he said, ‘they are not my birds.’”
Tags: John Muir
As you can tell from this classic 1933 photograph, when it came to love, Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow only had eyes for each other. But there were a number of others they called on in a professional capacity. One such partner in crime was W.D. Jones, who ran roughshod with the pair for eight months in the early 1930s. In 1968, Jones shared his story of life on the lam with the infamous duo with Playboy. The opening of “Riding with Bonnie & Clyde“:
“‘BOY, YOU CAN’T GO HOME. You got murder on you, just like me.’
That’s what Clyde told me. That was what he said after I seen him kill Doyle Johnson in Temple, Texas, on Christmas Day, 1932. For me, that’s how it all started.
I had got with Clyde and Bonnie the night before in Dallas. Me and L. C., that’s Clyde’s younger brother, was driving home from a dance in his daddy’s old car. Here come Bonnie and Clyde. They honked their car horn and we pulled over. I stayed in the car. L. C. got out and went back to see what they wanted. Then he hollered at me, ‘Hey, come on back. Clyde wants to talk to you.’ Clyde was wanted then for murder and kidnaping, but I had knowed him all my life. So I got out and went to his car.
He told me, ‘We’re here to see Momma and Marie.’ (That’s Clyde’s baby sister.) ‘You stay with us while L. C. gets them.’ I was 16 years old and Clyde was only seven years older, but he always called me ‘Boy.’
Them was Prohibition days and about all there was to drink was home-brew. That’s what me and L. C. had been drinking that Christmas Eve and it was about all gone. Clyde had some moonshine in his car, so I stayed with him, like he said, while L. C. fetched his folks. They lived just down the road in back of the filling station Old Man Barrow run.
After the visiting was over, Clyde told me him and Bonnie had been driving a long ways and was tired. He wanted me to go with them so I could keep watch while they got some rest. I went. I know now it was a fool thing to do, but then it seemed sort of big to be out with two famous outlaws. I reckoned Clyde took me along because he had knowed me before and figured he could count on me.
It must have been two o’clock Christmas morning when we checked into a tourist court at Temple. They slept on the bed. I had a pallet on the floor.”
This horrifying classic photograph was taken sometime during May 1871, when members of the failed Paris Commune uprising were executed en masse. An estimated 20,000 Communards faced the firing squad and thousands more were jailed or deported. The heady two months of Socialist rebellion ended with scores of lifeless citizens who resembled broken dolls returned to their boxes. From an eyewitness account of a triple execution of revolutionaries who had been convicted of murder, which first appeared in the London Daily Telegraph and was reprinted in the New York Times on June 10, 1872:
“The priest, going up to each in turn, kissed him on both cheeks, in what seemed to me a hurried and perfunctory manner. Then, while the sentence was being read to the prisoners in a quick, low, quite inaudible tone, BOIN made a long harangue, much of which was lost in the perpetual rolling of those ghastly drums. But one could distinguish snatches of sentences such as ‘Soldiers, you are children of the people as we are, and we will show you how children of the people can die. Nous mourons innocents,’ and then opening wide his light coat–he wore no waistcoat–he offered white shirt-front for a mark, and striking his heart with his open palm, he exclaimed: ‘Portez armes en joue! feu! tirez au coeur!’ This he repeated several times, and while he was yet speaking, standing out clear away from the poteaux, and looking death at ten paces literally in the face, a sword flashed in the sun, and the three men leaped from the ground only to fall to it in horrible contortions. The smoke and the report were unheeded, for all the senses of the horrified spectator were arrested by the awful spectacle of writhing limbs and twisting hands. BOIN seemed to be rewarded for his bravery by suffering less than the others, but SERIZIER literally rolled over, and BOUDIN also moved. The surgeon then went up, examined BOUDIN first, and then directed one of the sergeants in reserve to give the coup de grace in the ear. Then SERIZIER was examined and treated in the same way; and lastly, after a considerable interval, BOIN was dragged into position and dispatched. I cannot give you any idea of the sickening impression produced by this seemingly deliberate butchery. I can say seemingly, for the men may have been dead, but, in any case, surely if the coup de grace must be given, it should be done at once. I did not time the proceedings, but, long as my description is, I believe not more than two minutes elapsed from the time that the ambulance wagons came on to the ground to the time that the volley was fired. Several more minutes, however, elapsed before the dull thud of the last coup de grace delivered a bout pontant right into the poor wretch’s ear stuck upon the ground. I have seen something of the horrors of war at Sedan and Strasbourg; I have witnessed the degradation of a public hanging in England, but have never seen anything so horrible as this supplemental butchery of the coup de grace.“
Phineas Gage wasn’t a medical man, but he did a great deal to enrich America’s knowledge of brain science and psychology.
In 1848, the Vermont railroad construction foreman somehow survived an explosion in which a long, 13-pound iron rod passed completely through his head. His left frontal lobe destroyed, Gage was “no longer Gage,” and was now prone to streaks of stubbornness, profanity and impatience that were not previously native to him. It strongly suggested to scientists that different parts of the human brain governed different functions. The marked change in his personality and his odd but formidable notoriety made him the most famous freak in an America for a time, and Gage was even a featured performer at Barnum’s American Museum in New York. He lived a dozen more years following his accident, dying in San Francisco after a series of convulsions. From his case study the 1868 Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society:
“He has no pain in the head, but says he has a queer feeling (in his head) which he is not able to describe. His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible… Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart business man, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’”
Tags: Phineas Gage
Nils Strindberg, the photographer responsible for these two classic pictures of the Andrée Polar Expedition of 1897, was dead long before the film was developed. Strindberg, fellow crew member Knut Frænkel, and exploration leader, Salomon August Andrée, all succumbed to freezing conditions several months after a ballooning crash stranded them far from their destination. (The film they shot of their struggles wasn’t recovered until 1930, when their mysterious disappearance was finally solved.)
Salomon August Andrée, born in 1854, was a Swedish engineer, physicist and his country’s first aeronaut. He longed to reach the North Pole and set out with that goal in mind in the hydrogen balloon Örnen (or Eagle). He and his cohorts were ill-prepared in numerous ways and certainly he had deluded himself about the possibility for success, but beneath his bravado the truth nagged at him. Even though the skilled adventurer had been nervous about the dangerous expedition, many weren’t worried when he first lost contact with civilization. They should have been. From the July 26, 1897 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
“Andrée has not been heard from. His alleged pigeons were somebody else’s pigeons. Nevertheless, there is no cause for alarm. His balloon is the staunchest that ever was made and although gas will leak from an ordinary balloon so that it would be unlikely to stay up for more than a week, there is no reason why his should not float for a month, because it has been made actually tight, is composed of three layers of silk, each oiled, and the outer one was thickly varnished. Only an accident could puncture it so as to allow any rapid escape of gas. The loss of his drag rope may have compelled him to fly higher than he had intended, for he wanted, if possible, to keep at a height of about 600 feet. His brief experience in the air may have modified this intention. From a higher altitude he can overlook a far wider expanse of country and even if portions of it were covered with clouds of fog he would still be able to define his whereabouts with a measure of certainty, which he could not do if he were immersed in the vapors near the sea.
As he is prepared for reasonable emergencies, however, the time for anxiety is not yet. As to his forebodings, they count for nothing. Any body would feel a trifle anxious in undertaking a journey of this kind, especially when he had other lives than his own in his charge; but these glooms were probably dispelled within ten minutes after the balloon had risen into the bracing air above Spitzbergen. If Andrée attains the pole and loses his life in so doing we may get the news of the achievement in some of the ways that he has devised.”
This classic (and unintentionally prophetic) photo, taken by Rudolph Eickemeyer, profiles chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit atop a fearsome bearskin rug when she was not yet either famous or infamous. Five years later the love triangle of Nesbit, husband Harry K. Thaw and architect Stanford White came to a tragic end on the roof of Madison Square Garden. The ensuing media sensation cannot be overstated. In a 1907 New York Times article, Mrs. Evelyn Florence Nesbit Holman recalls the odd and chilly nuptuals that took place on April 4, 1905 between her daughter and the sadistic and batshit crazy Thaw:
“I was not consulted about the marriage. We did not know that a marriage had been arranged until my husband and I were asked to go to the home of the Reverend Dr. McEwan. This was one hour before the ceremony. All the arrangements had been carried out by Mr. J. Dennison Lyon, Mr. Thaw’s banker. Mr. Lyon had the marriage license clerk at the clergyman’s house. It was necessary that the mother sign an application for a license, for my daughter was a minor. This I readily and cheerfully did. I was glad that Mr. Thaw was man enough to give her his name.
“We were shown into the drawing room. No one greeted us or spoke to us. Mrs. William Thaw came in, accompanied by her son, Josiah, and another witness. The clergyman was there. No salutations were exchanged. Florence and Mr. Thaw entered. The ceremony ended, they and the rest immediately left the room. No words of farewell were said. I went into the hall and encountered one of the witnesses, a woman. I asked to see my daughter. ‘I will see if I can find her,’ she replied. She went away and did not return.
“Mrs. William Thaw came into the hallway. I told her I wished to see Florence. ‘I don’t know where she is,’ she said, and turned away.
“The clergyman was the next to whom I appealed. ‘I don’t know anything about her,’ he responded, passing by me. I have never seen my daughter since.”
Jessie Earvin Dixon was a mid-century American inventor from Alabama who would appear to have designed a roadable helicopter. In the classic photo above, Dixon seems to be hovering above ground in his vehicle, though apart from this photo there are no test results extant. It’s hard to believe an invention of this magnitude wouldn’t have been a bigger deal if it truly worked, but perhaps it somehow fell through the cracks.
- From a 1941 Mechanix Illustrated article that was posted on Modern Mechanix:
“This Helicopter-Car Flies Over Traffic!
JESS DIXON, of Andalusia, Ala., got tired of being tied up in traffic jams, so he designed and built this novel flying vehicle. It is a combination of automobile, helicopter, autogiro, and motorcycle. It has two large lifting rotos in a single head, revolving in opposite directions. It is powered by a 40 h.p. motor which is air-cooled. He claims his machine is capable of speeds up to 100 miles an hour.”
- From Aerofiles:
“1936 = Roadable helicopter. 1pOH; 40hp air-cooled engine. Coaxial rotor system with cyclic and collective pitch control. ‘Foot pedals actuated a hinged vane on the tail, counting on rotor downwash for yaw control.’ In a photo the helicopter is seen hovering, but no test results were found.”
Tags: Jess Dixon
Although they’re dressed like sheiks rather than spacemen, the 14 robed figures in this classic photograph had just completed the grueling three-day Astronaut Desert Survival School near the Stead Air Force base in Nevada. Mercury and Apollo astronauts were brought not only to the scorched sands of Nevada but transported all around the nation to prepare them for the rigors of outer space. An excerpt from Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon:
“There was some heavy and intense training to be carried out. The men had to condition their bodies to withstand multiple stresses such as those associated with weightlessness and acceleration, vibration, immobilization and disorientation, noise, and heat and cold. They had become proficient in the use of dozens of training devices and rescue aids, to simulate a number of incidents and learn how to avoid or survive them.
Just as they had undergone contingency training in the Panamanian jungle, the astronauts could not exclude a landing in the ferocious heat and isolation of the desert, so after the classroom studies it was back on the road again. They were transported to a survival-training group near Stead AFB in the dry sagebrush country of western Nevada. Once again they could use only the equipment they would have at hand after an emergency landing as their survival gear.
Apart from survival training, field trips saw the astronauts conveyed to all corners of the country, where they were acquainted with geological compositions similar to those they might encounter on the moon’s surface. They descended into the mile-deep grandeur of the Grand Canyon, scouted the Big Bend country of the Rio Grande, visited the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in the Katmai Monument in Alaska, and crunched over black lava flows in Arizona’s Sunset Crater.”
Months before America sent its first astronaut into space in 1961 and kicked the race to the moon into another gear, a chimpanzee named Ham departed Earth on a Mercury mission. Trained beginning in 1959 with behaviorist methods, Ham was not only a passenger but also performed small tasks during his suborbital flight. In the classic NASA photo above, Ham shakes hands with his rescuer aboard the U.S.S. Donner, after his 16-minute mission was successfully completed and he plunged back to his home. The famous chimp lived until 1983 and is buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. From a wonderfully terse account of Ham at Find A Grave:
“The first chimpanzee in space. Born in present-day Cameroon, captured by animal trappers and sent to Miami, FL. Ham’s name is an acronym for the lab that prepared him for his historic mission — the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, located at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Purchased by the United States Air Force and brought to Holloman Air Force Base in 1959, he was selected from among a group of six chimpanzees (four female and two male). They trained to perform a series of simple tasks while in space to ascertain whether a human might be able to do the same tasks under space flight conditions. On January 31, 1961, Ham blasted off from Cape Canavaral becoming the world’s first AstroChimp. He proved that it was possible for a human to venture into space by taking a 16½ minute, 2000 mph ride atop an 83-foot Mercury Redstone rocket known as the MR2. Three months later the first American human, Alan Shepard, followed him into space.”
“The chimp has been carefully selected, thoroughly examined and patiently tutored”: