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From the August 17, 1885 New York Times:

Victoria, British Columbia–The body of a petrified giant has been found by two farmers who were sinking a well 10 miles from town. Its appearance closely resembles that of a human being. The head gives the appearance of having been scalped. The material is as hard as flint and the arms and legs are broken short off. The veins and ribs are plainly traced. A party has gone out for the legs, arms, and hands, which lie in a hole. The man when alive must have been about 12 feet in height.”

August Engelhardt, far right.

August Engelhardt wasn’t the only European thinker to run Kurtz-like into the heart of darkness, but he may have been the maddest of all. In 1902, the 25-year-old German health reformer, who believed in sun worship and a strict coconut diet, retreated from Bavarian university life to Kabakon Island in New Guinea, which he purchased from his mother country with an inheritance. Though he brought a library’s worth of books to keep him company, Engelhardt invited others from home to join him in “paradise.” Things did not go well, and it’s a marvel that Engelhardt was able to survive until 1919, though some of his acolytes weren’t nearly so “aged” when they expired.

Despite the title of this New York Times piece from the October 15, 1905 edition, as you can see in the top photo, some women eventually made their way to Engelhardt’s folly, but they were largely too bright to get caught up in Kabakon’s severe cocovorism and nudism. But the far larger error in the Times story is the fact that 1905 wasn’t nearly the end of his life or experiment; Engelhardt recovered from his serious illness and returned to Kabokon, unable to to depart from his radical lifestyle anymore than T.E. Lawrence could leave the sands, drawn again and again by some ineffable void inside.

I suppose the most generous assessment of Engelhardt came from an Australian captain after visiting the colony: “Could the world do without living examples in self-sacrifice–even if their ideals are wrong? And would we not all fall asleep, if it were not for a sprinkling of extremists?”

An excerpt from the Times article:

“August Engelhardt was at least sincere in his faith and in the observance of its tenets. For days he lived alone, eating nothing but bread fruit and cocoanuts, swimming in the sea or the still lagoon; studying in the fauna and flora of his island by day, or lying on the hot beach; by night sleeping in a hollow scooped out of the sand.

Occasionally he saw, or thought he saw, men moving in the cocoa groves, and once when he went to investigate he discovered for a certainty that he was not alone on the island. A number of lithe, naked, dark-skinned men and women ran hastily away. But the natives were few and harmless; apparently, too, they feared if they did not actually worship this great man with white skin and shaggy yellow hair who emerged glistening from the lagoon, or appeared suddenly in the cocoa groves. They kept away from him and were even more exclusive when his companions came.

It may be supposed that Engelhardt led a dreary life on Kahakua while awaiting the arrival of his disciples, but if one may judge the student’s temperament from his acts it seems more likely that this was the happiest period of his existence on the atoll. He had left the world behind him; he was free. Of the food of his choice he lacked none, and the balmy air of the Pacific, the warm sun of the tropics, and the cool spray of the ‘combers’ were his playthings. At dawn the nature feasted upon his eyes with beauty as the sun, his god, climbed over the horizon, tinted the palm crests with gold, the sea with amber and opal and crimson, and bathed the kneeling figure on the beach with a mantle that was his inspiration. By day Engelhardt’s joy was that of a dream realized. At sunset the lagoon clasped his god in a broil of molten lava; then came the night, with the great dome of stars, the breeze rustling though the cocoa fronds, and the Pacific chanting like a great organ, lulling him to sleep.


But there was an end to this, and a beginning to disillusion. The vessel which was to have brought his converts dropped anchor in the lagoon. A boat came ashore with four men in it, two of them sailors, the other two Engelhardt’s staunchest disciples. They were Max Lutzow, at one time director of the well-known Orchestra of Berlin, and Heinrich Eukens, a student of Bavaria and a native of Heligoland. The other converts, upon the departure of Engelhardt and his eloquence, had received the attention of other sects, and been convinced that Kahakua was full of cannibals, sweltering with fever miasma; in brief, that Engelhardt was leading them to death.

It was a great blow to Engelhardt, but the die had been cast. The vessel sailed away, and he, with Lutzow and Eukens, was left on the island. The two new arrivals were delighted with the appearance of Engelhardt. Weeks of life under the sun, in the salt sea, and living upon fruit, had brought him to a state of wonderful physical perfection. His skin was like copper and against it his yellow hair shone like gold. The two disciples immediately joined him in his method of living. For days theirs was an idyllic state, and they were contented. But an end came. The sudden change had been too much for the less-rugged constitution of Eukens, who contracted a cold, developed fever, and died quite suddenly. He had been given no remedies, as it was contrary to the faith of the sun worshippers.

His companions buried him in the sand. For days they wandered listlessly about the island, the spell of which had been broken. But at length they realized that such an undertaking could not be expected to succeed without suffering.

They began again, and things went well, although the gloom attending the death of Eukens never left them. Lutzow, the musician, developed the physical strength which characterized Engelhardt. For a year the two men lived comparatively happily, except for one thing, which is the one ray of humor in the whole history.

It was understood that the world of civilization–art, letters, dress, and diet–had been forgotten, but the genius of Lutzow was something which was all Lutzow and nothing of Engelhardt. Lutzow and his music could not be separated. Donizetti was his favorite, although the long hours of the idle day he did not forget passages from Wagner, Verdi, Mascagni, Bach, Liszt, Beethoven, and others. Engelhardt loved music, but he had a particular aversion to Donizetti and a positive horror of Bizet, who was associated in his mind with “Carmen,” who in turn was the bête noir of his faith.

Engelhardt tolerated the music as long as he could; then, unable to associate with a human musical, he quarreled with Lutzow. It was a bitter quarrel, for the student had hurt the musician to the quick. Eventually the two men became so estranged that Lutzow applied one night for permission to sleep away from the island on the Wesleyan mission cutter from Ulu, which was in the lagoon.

That night the cutter dragged her moorings and was carried on the tide through the narrows to the open sea. Cross-currents prevented the craft from pulling back for two days, during which Lutzow still observant of the sun-worshippers’ faith, refused to take shelter, and also refused all nourishment that was not fruit. There was no fresh fruit on board, consequently he starved. He lay upon the deck of the cutter, too, for two days and two nights, exposed to a cold, wet wind. Shorty after the cutter put back into the lagoon the musician developed a high temperature. He grew worse, lingered for a week, then died.

He was buried in the sand by Engelhardt beside the unfortunate Eukens. The Wesleyan missionaries offered to take Engelhardt back to civilization. He flew into a rage, said he owned the island, and forbade them ever to drop anchor in the lagoon of Kahakua again.

So the cutter sailed away to Ulu and Engelhardt was left alone in the Palm Temple. For nearly two years more he continued to live the ‘pure, natural life,’ but the charm had been completely broken by the death of his two disciples.

Then in 1903 came a drought which reduced the fruit crop. The little left of it was wiped out in the Spring of 1904 by a storm. Engelhardt had the alternative of casting in his lot with the natives and eating hogflesh, or sending a request for succor to Ulu or Herbertshohe. He did neither in his stubborness, and starvation and thirst did their work.

One day a canoe paddled into Herbertshohe, driven by two natives who said the white man was sick and possessed of devils; wandering about Kahakua preaching his doctrine to the trees and frightening the natives. Would the German officials please come and take him away?

Engelhardt refused all nourishment to the last, refused all medicine, and accused the missionary of interfering with his convictions. He wrought himself up to a great frenzy, fell upon the deck, and was restrained only with difficulty from flinging himself overboard and swimming back to his island. Before the beach had sunk below the horizon the man was dead. Then the launch put back.

Wrapped in a German flag, August Engelhardt, founder and last survivor of the sun worshippers, was laid to rest beside Lutzow and Eukens on the beach at Kahakua.”

Engelhardt in 1911, six years after his "death."

Engelhardt in 1911, six years after his “death.”

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From the June 3, 1898 New York Times:

Sioux City, Iowa–Loaded with wealth, but deserted and starving, John Rochel, once a well-known manufacturer in Sioux City, perished last April on the trail between Dawson City and Alaskan points. The news of his death reached here in a letter to his widow, written by Richard Hendrickson, from Seattle, under date of March 24.

The details of Rochel’s death are meagre, but from what can be gleaned it appears that he was returning from the mines, after disposing of a valuable claim. His party was short of provisions, and as Rochel, who was quite an old man, delayed the march, it was decided to abandon him. Rochel had been engaged here in the manufacture of brick, but was tempted from home by the stories of immense wealth in Alaska. From all accounts he was among the luckiest of the miners at Dawson City, but was unable to bring his winnings back to civilization. His body will be brought here for burial.”

“He had big, muscular fingers, and he snapped them with a sound like the crack of a black snake whip.”

“He had big, muscular fingers, and he snapped them with a sound like the crack of a black snake whip.”

Prior to antibiotics and penicillin, lesser methods were used to treat a raft of ailments–including, um, finger snapping. From an article about the fad in the December 19, 1896 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“A friend who was born in Central Illinois asked me the other day whether I have ever heard of the snapping craze that raged in the back country districts in his part of the state some thirty odd years ago. I have inhabited this planet for a little over half a century and have always been interested in popular delusions, but I had never before heard of the snappers. My friend said that a snapping doctor, who came from nobody knew where, started a curious movement by lectures in rural schoolhouses and churches. His theory was that all diseases could be thrown off by bringing the body up to a condition of high nervous tension by a peculiar method of snapping the fingers, which he had discovered and which he alone was competent to teach. He had big, muscular fingers, and he snapped them with a sound like the crack of a black snake whip. He soon got his audiences to work snapping and made them believe that they were experiencing marked benefits from the performance. For complete instruction in the art, however, he charged $50.

The craze had a run of a few months, and while it raged the school children snapped their fingers at recess time, and in the farmhouses men and women gathered evenings to practice the marvelous new healing art.”

From the August 5, 1899 New York Times:

Mount Holly, N.J.–Frederick W. Pope, the fourteen-year-old son of Charles A. Pope of Columbus, is paralyzed hopelessly as a result of an application of cocaine by a dentist, and has lost the power of speech. Seven weeks ago the lad suffered from a severe toothache and went to a dentist to have the tooth extracted. It was necessary because of the lad’s nervous condition for the dentist to administer some drug. He used cocaine to relieve the pain.

A short time after the tooth was pulled paralysis set in on the right side of the body. It was thought by the physicians that the attack would pass away and leave the lad unharmed. Yesterday the boy was stricken speechless. Several physicians have examined him, and all agree that the case is a hopeless one. The general opinion is that the cocaine went to the brain.”

“He gravely announced himself as the ‘Spirit of Truth,’ being the Matthias mentioned in the Scriptures who had risen from the dead.”

“He gravely announced himself as the ‘Spirit of Truth,’ being the Matthias mentioned in the Scriptures who had risen from the dead.”

Gilbert Seldes’ magnum opus, The Stammering Century, first published in 1928, is the true story of the stranger-than-fiction twists and turns that religion took in 19th-century America, as it splintered into cults and manias, driven by charismatic mountebanks who passed themselves off as messiahs. (In that sense, it’s much like our age.) One section focuses on New York-based Robert Matthews (a.k.a. Robert Matthias, Jesus Matthias, etc. ), a struggling carpenter who in the 1830s managed to convince a band of wealthy Baptist apostates to make him the head of their crazy, cult-like sect, “The Kingdom.” From “The Impostor Matthias” in the December 25, 1892 New York Times:

“The delusions of the period, thus far harmless, had assumed a progressive character that was destined to develop rapidly to a tragical conclusion. Among the leading spirits of the ‘Holy Club’ was a Mrs. Sarah Pierson, whose husband, Elijah Pierson, was a successful and highly respected merchant. She was a woman of wide culture and engaging manners, and the couple were among the most esteemed members of the Baptist society of that day. They resided on Bowery Hill, an agreeable suburb of New York, sixty years ago, somewhere in the vicinity of the present Madison Square. In this rural locality were situated, on a breezy, shaded eminence, a number of handsome houses, the summer residences of the well-to-do merchants of that period. 

In the year 1828 Mr. Pierson came to regard himself as being in constant direct communication with the Almighty, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, and his wife being equally impressed with his divine associations, the operations of the Christian world were too slow for their heated imaginations, and in 1829 they withdrew from their affiliation with the Baptist Church and organized an independent religious society, with a nucleus of twelve members, which they called ‘The Kingdom.’ Meetings were held daily and often twice a day in the Pierson residence on Bowery Hill, brief intervals only being allowed for sleep and light refreshment. The labors and vigils of the new faith, together with the protracted seasons of entire fasting, broke down the health of Mrs. Pierson, and in June, 1830, her husband having, while riding one day down Wall Street in an omnibus, received the Divine command in these words: ‘Thou art Elijah, the Tishbite. Gather unto me all the members of Israel at the foot of Mount Carmel,’ anointed her with oil from head to feet in the presence of the assembled elders of ‘the Kingdom.’ A few days later the unfortunate woman died.

“The delusion that his beloved wife was still to be raised from the dead possessed the unhappy husband’s mind for many months afterward.”

“The delusion that his beloved wife was still to be raised from the dead possessed the unhappy husband’s mind for many months afterward.”

On the day of the funeral, about 200 persons being in attendance, Mr. Pierson endeavored to effect the miracle of her resurrection, attributing his failure to the lack of faith of the bystanders. The scene was harrowing in the extreme, and the delusion that his beloved wife was still to be raised from the dead possessed the unhappy husband’s mind for many months afterward. In 1831 Mr. Pierson removed to a spacious house in Third Street, where he held forth daily to the elect of ‘The Kingdom,’ which now numbered quite a large congregation of converts, some, indeed, being attracted from points outside the city. Among the latter were a Mr. Benjamin Folger and his wife, persons of wealth and standing, who had recently removed their residence from New-York to a handsome country place, near Sing Sing, or Mount Pleasant, as the place was then designated. Another conspicuous member of the strange association was a Mr. Sylvester H. Mills, a well-to-do Pearl Street merchant–a man whose naturally gloomy temperament had been intensified by the death of a beloved wife, a few months previous to the decease of Mrs. Pierson. These people, with many others of all social grades, gathered about Mr. Pierson, to listen to his denunciations of the churches, and his exhortations to place their faith in the Lord in order that, like the Apostles, they might be enabled to ‘heal the sick, cast out the devils, and raise the dead.’

While those extravagances were in progress and the inflamed imaginations of the fanatical leaders were worked up to a high pitch of expectancy, there appeared among them on May 5, 1832, a stranger, whose pretensions, while according with the tenor of their diseased minds, were so far in advance of their own most enthusiastic flights that he was at once accepted as their leader, and worshipped as a divine being. He gravely announced himself as the ‘Spirit of Truth,’ being the Matthias mentioned in the Scriptures who had risen from the dead and possessed the spirit of Jesus Christ. He further declared that he was God the Father, and claimed power to do all things, to forgive sins, and to communicate the Holy Ghost to such as believed in him.

A short account of the previous history of this singular character is necessary at this point, in order to explain how he came to fasten himself thus on ‘The Kingdom,’ with his monstrous claims of divine powers. His name was Robert Matthews, and he was born in Washington County, New York, about the year 1790. He followed the trade of carpentering, and in 1827 he lived in Albany, where he was known as a zealous member of the Dutch Reformed congregation, over which Dr. Ludlow presided. Happening to attend a service conducted by a young clergyman named Kirk, who was visiting Albany from New-York City, he returned home in a state of great excitement, and sat up all that night discussing the sermon he had heard. His enthusiasm was so great that his wife remarked during the night to her daughter: ‘If your father goes to hear that man preach any more he will become crazy.’ He did go to hear him a number of times, and the reader may gather from the sequel of this story whether the wife’s prediction was fulfilled.”

From the April 16, 1856 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

The Napoleon, Arkansas, Sentinel, of March 24, says:

‘We were shown by Dr. Legrader, a few days since, a most singular and remarkable head–that of Fouchee, a celebrated chief of the Creeks. The singularity of the head consists in two perfect mouths–a front and rear mouth, with a double set of masticators to each. It is a remarkable fact that it made no difference in his eating or feeding operations which mouth he used, as either answered the same purpose, but whenever he imbibed from the rear mouth, drunkenness ensued much sooner than if he had taken it by the front. Such a head is worthy of the study of anatomy of the medical faculty.’”

From the February 9, 1913 New York Times:

“In 1895, when electric pleasure cars were new, a certain manufacturer noted with alarm that these strange vehicles running around through the streets frightened horses, then unused to such a spectacle. So this enterprising man, with a touch of imagination, constructed a model on the dashboard of which were attached the head and shoulders of a horse. This he believed would reassure his equine brothers.”

"She is positive one of them is killed."

“She is positive one of them is killed.”

In the days before telegraph and Morse code let alone radio, TV and the Internet, reports about events that occurred in Europe wouldn’t reach America for several days. A newspaper in New York came up with a novel (and highly irresponsible) way to bridge the information gap: have a clairvoyant tell them what happened. An excerpt from a story in the April 19, 1860 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“The New York Daily News has been consulting a clairvoyant on the result of  the Prize Fight which all suppose to have been fought by Heenan and Sayers on Monday, and says:

‘A clairvoyant in this city declares that one of the pugilists who yesterday fought for the championship of England has been killed. We have been unable to ascertain which; but the lady inclines to think it is the ‘larger man,’ whether as to the muscle or as to the pugilistic fame we know not. But she is positive one of them is killed. We are, therefore, all the more curious to know the result. It will affect either spiritual seeing or material hitting; which, a few days will tell. The old lady adds that the killed man is not the winner.”

From the August 19, 1874 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Yesterday afternoon, Officer Irwin was attracted by yells and drunken screams to the den No. 91 Degraw Street, occupied by Mrs. Duck. On entering the place, the officer found three women and a child in the place. The women were drunk, and tossing the child about ‘just like,’ said the officer, ‘as if it were a foot ball.’ The little child, who is scarcely three years old, presented a most pitiable sight. The officer, on ascertaining who the mother was, arrested her. The health authorities have been notified of the den which is described as the filthiest hole in Red Hook.”

Johnny Clem was a mere ten-year-old orphan in 1861 when he managed to talk his way into what was ostensibly a non-combat role for the Twenty-second Michigan Infantry during the early fire of the Civil War. But it was hard to escape the brutality of the War Between the States once attached to a division, and the lad was soon in the heat of battle. To say that he served long is an understatement: Colonel John Clem wound up being the final Civil War soldier on active duty, forced into retirement by law at age 64 in 1915. (He was originally set to step away from military life three years earlier but hung on a little longer.) It’s important to remember that there were other children just like him, and thousands and thousands of men just removed from boyhood, whose limbs and torsos wound up in piles, their daring exploits to never be recorded. From an article about his farewell to uniformed life in the August 7, 1915 New York Times:

“Clem was just a little ‘shaver’ of 10 years when President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers. The Third Ohio Infantry was recruited in the Newark (Ohio) district. In the regiment was an officer, Captain McDougal, a friend of Johnny Clem. The future Senior Master of the Quartermaster Corps was an orphan, and there was no near relative to stop him when he sought out his friend McDougal and begged permission to accompany the Third Ohio to the front.

Clem told McDougal that he could carry a gun provided it was not too heavy, and that he could beat the drum to ‘beat the band.’ Captain McDougal, however, could not see the proposition in the same light as did his enthusiastic young friend, and told him point blank he was entirely too little and too young for such dangerous business as that of as a soldier in wartime. All this happens in May, 1861.

But Clem did not lose hope. Early in June of that year the Third Ohio started for the mobilization camp at Covington, Ky. A little boy smuggled himself into one of the baggage cars, and the following day climbed out of the car very tired, very dirty, and very hungry, in Covington. The lad was ‘Johnny’ Clem.

Also at Covington as the Twenty-second Michigan Infantry. Clem decided that he would try and get a berth in that regiment, and so he boldly sought out the tent of the Colonel and walked right in. The ‘kid’ from Newark told the Colonel that he wanted to go to the front with the regiment. The Colonel laughed and patted the boy on the back.

‘You are a game little fellow, all right,’ said the Colonel, ‘but this is no place for children like you. If you were a foot taller and some years older maybe I’d take you along, but as you are neither of these things I am afraid you will have to say back here with the home folks.

But Clem refused to be left behind, and was so persistent that the Colonel finally agreed to let him go along as sort of combination regimental mascot and emergency drummer boy.

The soldiers rigged him out in a uniform, they provided him with a drum and also with a musket, the barrel of the gun being sawed off short so as to make it possible for the little fellow to carry it.

One of the first battles in which the regiment figured was that of Shiloh, where the Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was killed and where the fame of Ulysses S. Grant, as a soldier, may be said to have begun. In their battle Clem got into the very hottest of the fight. He came very near losing his life when a shrapnel shell exploded within a few feet of him. A fragment of the shell crashed through the drum and the shock of the explosion hurled him unconscious to the ground, where he was subsequently found and rescued by his bigger comrades.

After the battle the soldiers nicknamed Clem ‘Johnny Shiloh,’ and the name stuck to him until a greater fame came to him at the terrible battle of Chickamauga.

At Chickamauga the boy was again in the thickest of the fight. He fired right and left with his little sawed-off musket. General Thomas and General Rosecrans both heard of the heroism of the little Newark boy at Chickamauga and he was personally commended for his coolness and bravery by both of them. It was General Rosecrans who then and there made him a Sergeant, the youngest non-commissioned officer who ever served in the armies of this country.

Now comes the story of how Clem won the title of ‘drummer boy of Chickamauga.’ The brigade to which the Twenty-second Michigan was attached had been ordered to hold its position, which position happened to be a very dangerous one. The brigade fought for all it was worth but the job could not be done, and finally the order came for it to fall back to a safer position. As the brigade retreated ‘Johnny’ Clem managed to get lost. He got mixed up with a command that was almost surrounded by Confederates and the dead and dying were all about him.

The boy realized his predicament and made up his mind he would not be captured, and so he did what any healthy youngster of his years would do and started to run. He ran like a ‘scared rabbit,’ and when he stopped running he was in a little clump of woods all by himself.

Cautiously he came out of the woods and he ran full tilt into a Confederate Colonel. The Confederate officer looked at the boy with the little gun and despite the awfulness of the situation he had to laugh.

‘My, but you are a little fellow to be in this business,’ said the Confederate, ‘but war is war, and I think the best thing a mite of a chap like you can do is to drop that gun.’

Instead of dropping the gun Clem brought to to his shoulder, pointed it at the Colonel and fired. The Colonel fell badly wounded and Clem turned on his heels and ran for all he was worth. Finally he landed back with the Twenty-second Michigan and ever afterward  they called him ‘the drummer boy of Chickamauga.’

As for the Confederate Colonel he recovered after many weeks in the hospital, and after the war Colonel Clem learned about him and wrote and told him how glad he was that he had not killed him.

‘When I heard that I had not killed that Confederate officer it was the best news I ever got,’ Colonel Clem remarked years afterward.”

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From the April 2, 1856 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“The camel experiment over the plains (for mail and other transport), for which Congress made appropriation two years ago, will soon be tried. The camels are now en route from Asia Minor. The whole number is 33, viz: 9 male and 15 female camels; 4 male and 5 female dromedaries. The vessel and this cargo is expected to arrive in Texas about that time. Several of the animals are presents from the Viceroy of Egypt.”


“Benjamin Harrison appeared to be especially affected.”

Well, this is rather macabre. A decade prior to his Presidency, in 1878, Benjamin Harrison investigated a number of Ohio medical colleges in search of the stolen corpse of a deceased family friend, and came face to face with his own freshly fallen father. It’s likely the jaw-dropping tale is true as that state was known in those years for the brisk business conducted by so-called resurrectionists, who were often in cahoots with academics in need of cadavers. The full story from the March 13, 1910 New York Times:

“One of the strangest, and at the same time the most gruesome stories that ever reached a newspaper office was told by H.E. Krehbiel, the musical critic, the other night. Though it reached a newspaper office and has been known to a few persons in the twenty years succeeding, it was not printed when the incidents happened, because those concerned took the precaution of narrating them in confidence. Here it is, however, as Mr. Krehbiel tells it, long after those most intimately concerned are dead:

‘Many years ago I was at work one afternoon in the offices of a Cincinnati newspaper when Benjamin Harrison, afterward President of the United States, and his brother came into the office and began a long conversation with the city editor. They spoke in low tones, which did not reach beyond the desk where they were sitting.

‘After nearly half an hour had elapsed the city editor called me over to him and introduced me to the two gentlemen, both of whom seemed to be laboring under strong emotion. Benjamin Harrison appeared to be especially affected. This did not surprise me very much, as I was aware that they had only buried their father, to whom they were both devotedly attached, a few days before. The city editor instructed me to take down their story, giving me also explicitly to understand that, whereas, I was to listen to all they had to say, I was to write no more, and the paper was to print no more than they should decide.

‘Now,’ continued Mr. Krehbiel, ‘this is what Benjamin Harrison told me. A few days before the death of his father, the husband of a dear old German woman who lived near their farm also died and was duly buried. When he came from the East to attend his own father’s obsequies this old woman went to him in great distress and told him that the grave of her husband had been opened and his body stolen. Those were the days of body snatchers or ‘resurrectionists,’ before the State had made provision for subjects for medical colleges.

‘Mr Harrison went on to say that his old German friend’s distress was so intense that he and his brother had themselves undertaken a search for the body in Cincinnati. This search had occupied them two days and had just ended.

“‘We swore out a search warrant and took a constable with us,’ said Mr. Harrison. ‘One by one we have been to every medical school in the City of Cincinnati. It was a terrible ordeal for us, especially as our own grief was fresh and poignant. We kept up the search without inkling, clue or result, until we had visited every medical school in Cincinnati except one.

“‘The last one was the Ohio State Medical College. We went over there more as a formality than anything else. With search warrant and constable we were enabled there, as elsewhere, to have everything opened to us. We found nothing.

“‘Just as we were about to leave the college the constable noted a shaft such as is used in apartment houses. Down this shaft hung the ropes of a hoist. The constable went up to the ropes of a hoist and took hold of the taut rope. He turned to me sharply, saying that there was a weight on the hoist. I told him to pull it up. He did so.

“‘Attached to the rope by a hook was the body of my own father. They had known at the colleges whose the body was. They had taken this fiendishly ingenious method of moving it from floor to floor as we in our search had moved from one floor to another.’

‘This,’ said Mr. Krehbiel, ‘is the story in Benjamin Harrison’s own words just as he gave it to me.’”


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From the November 9, 1904 New York Times:

“EVANSTON, Wyo.–Mrs. Leon Demars, shot in a duel with her neighbor, Mrs. Nancy Richards, is dead. Several times the women had come to blows, and each had warned the other that the next time would be with guns.

Mrs. Demars went to Mrs. Richards’s ranch, near Fort Bridger, and upon being ordered away, displayed a big revolver.

Mrs. Richards drew a pistol, and at the second shot Mrs. Demars fell with a bullet in her breast, but kept on firing, emptying the revolver. Mrs. Richards also fired six shots.

Both are wives of ranchers. They are thirty years old.”

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"The nose, eyes and ears will be hermetically sealed with wax."

“The nose, eyes and ears will be hermetically sealed with wax.”

An Illinois mind reader planned in 1893 to have himself buried alive where he would remain while a crop grew above him. He would then emerge unscathed. There are easier ways to kill yourself. From an article in the August 7th edition in that year’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Hillsboro, Ill.–The mind reader, A.J. Seymour, is generally known in Illinois and his proposed attempt to be buried and remain in the ground while a crop of barley is grown on his grave creates interest in this state. Dr. E.C. Dunn of Rockford has been selected by Seymour as manager. Dr. Dunn says: ‘There is no question that this feat can be performed. I have seen it performed successfully three times in India, at Allahabad, Delhi and Benares. For several days Seymour will be fed upon a diet of fat and heat producing food. He will then throw himself into a cataleptic state. Their lungs will be filled with pure air to their fullest capacity and the tongue placed back and partially down the throat in such a manner as to completely close the aperture to the lungs. The nose, eyes and ears will be hermetically sealed with wax. After parafine has been spread over the entire body, to close the pores, it will be ready for burial. The body will be put in an extra large casket. This will be placed inside another and both  will be perforated, in order that if any poisonous gases exude from the body they may make their escape and be absorbed by the soil. The interment is to be made in a clay soil.’”

From the September 4, 1892 New York Times:

St. Paul, Minn.–Miss Josie Letson of Minneapolis has been lying at the point of death at the Northwestern Hospital for the last six weeks, but because of a remarkable surgical operation, will recover. She had been taking nothing but liquid food for over a year and had become so weak she could not raise her head.

As a last resort, physicians, by the use of a stethoscope, located an obstruction in the aesophagus about two inches below the clavicle, or collar bone. Miss Nelson was given no anesthetic and an incision was made on the left side of the neck about 4 1/2 inches in length.

The doctors dissected down to the aesophoaus, opened it, ad there found two teeth pointed downward, firmly inserted in the interior walls of the aesophagus. They almost entirely obstructed the passage.

Miss Nelson said six years ago, while in a fit of laughter, she swallowed the two teeth, which were then attached to a triangular piece of rubber in her gums.”



“With a stout stick Hirsch raised the head of his son’s corpse.”

I suppose you could say that Charles Hirsch was a consumer advocate of sorts, but he probably took things a little too far. Perhaps he was driven mad by diphtheria claiming most of his children. From an article in the May 20, 1882 New York Times:

Batavia–The village of Oakfield, in this county, is thoroughly excited over the actions of a German named Charles Hirsch, who has dug open the grave of his son Charles for the purpose of ascertaining the material of which the coffin is composed. In December, 1889, malignant diphtheria appeared in the family of Hirsch, who was the father of several children. The disease was of the most destructive type, and, one after another, in quick succession, he was bereft of five of his children. A child would be attacked in the morning, and at night would be dead, and within 24 hours buried. One son drank a cup of coffee, and in 15 minutes was taken with choking and died almost instantly. At this time the burial of another child was taking place. A Batavia undertaker had charge of the funerals, five in one week, and a few weeks ago some difficulty arose between him and Hirsch in reference to quality of the coffins which were provided. The undertaker claimed they were of certain materials, while the father and purchaser believed he had been cheated.

The misunderstanding could not be made clear, so the German determined to open one of the graves and satisfy himself. He employed the sexton to assist to him, and proceeded to the burying ground. With spades and shovels they accomplished their work speedily, for, the grave was in a low portion of the cemetery, and the earth was filled with water and handled readily. They began operations about 10 o’clock in the morning, and in an hour and a half had the grave opened and the coffin-box was reached. With tools with which he had thoughtfully provided himself Hirsch unscrewed the top of the box and removed it. Then he crushed in the glass at the head of the coffin. The body had been buried nearly 17 months, and the odor which arose from it in its advanced state of decomposition was extremely nauseating. It was borne with coolness, however, and the work was prosecuted. The coffin was nearly filled with water, and it is said the body was actually floating in it. The head and upper part of the body were best preserved. With a stout stick Hirsch raised the head of his son’s corpse and propped it up so that he could get a piece of the bottom of the coffin. He succeeded, and then broke off splinters of the side and top. Having secured what he had worked so hard for, Hirsch, assisted by the sexton, filled the grave and left it. It is reported that at noon Hirsch left the grave and secured his dinner, entering the dining-room of the village hotel and being ordered out by the landlord on account of the unbearable stench with which his clothes seemed impregnated. When the news of his proceeding became noised about, much indignation prevailed and expressions of condemnation were heard on all sides. By some it was charitably considered that the man was insane, while others believed he did it without knowing better. The former theory prevails, however, for citizens of Batavia who know him, state for some time that they have noticed peculiarities in his conduct which would be inexplicable in a sane man. He is a prosperous farmer and evidently is well to do. There is a growing feeling over his strange actions, but it is not likely the authorities will make any move in the matter. Hirsch rendered himself amenable to the law, however, besides endangering the health of many persons, by opening the grave and permitting the foul, poisonous gases and odors to escape. The grave was open for nearly three hours.”


“Mr. Edison was not entirely present, but he was not entirely absent.”

Thomas Edison’s phonograph, or “talking machine,” though not an immediate commercial success, was nonetheless an amazement. “He” was received in London society for a demonstration of the remarkable machine. From an article in the August 15, 1888 New York Times:

London–Thomas A. Edison was given a very handsome reception this afternoon by Col. Gourand at his beautiful villa, Little Menlo, at Upper Norwood, in Surrey. A large number of ladies and gentlemen gathered there to meet the distinguished inventor of America. The reception included a dinner, lasting from 3 o’clock to 8 o’clock. Under the inspiring influence of popular appreciation Mr. Edison made a speech, in which he dwelt first upon his first visit to England, 18 years ago, and then devoted himself to a humorous criticism of English politics and climate. He then proceeded to amaze the company by reciting ‘Bingen on the Rhine,’ and winding up with a most extraordinary whistling spasm. Then he sang a funeral march, and without waiting for an encore gave ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ He told funny stories, and, in fact, conducted quite a variety entertainment all by himself. Mr. Edison was not entirely present, but he was not entirely absent, and the perplexity of the company over the human voice and its absent owner, 3,000 miles away, was very great.

Mrs. Alice Shaw, who has quite conquered London, whistled for the perfected phonograph, and it whistled back quite as brilliantly as she did. A large number of the guests were presented to Mr. Edison via the phonograph, each making a short speech to him suitable to the occasion. When the company was breaking up three rousing cheers were given for Edison, with a tiger and long clapping of hands. The effect, when the cheers and applause were repeated a moment later, was funny in the extreme. All the introductions, whistling solos, British cheers, &c., dryly recorded on the wax cylinders, will be taken to America by Mr. W. H. Crane of ‘The Henrietta.’ When they arrive Mr Edison will find that he has a lot of acquaintances who know him very well by voice but not by sight. The reception was an exceedingly novel one, and the new machines, with their perfect articulation, excited wonder, reaching in many cases to amazement.”

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From the August 23, 1896 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“For the first time in the memory of the police of the Fifth Precinct an Italian committed suicide in that section of the city yesterday afternoon when Joseph Sanagora, 21 years old, of 67 South Second Street, shot himself in the mouth with a .38 caliber revolver. The only apparent reason Sanagora had for committing the rash act was the fact that his parents refused him 5 cents with which he wanted to buy a package of tobacco.”


“Already she has put a patient to sleep by electricity without performing an operation.”

In the early years of automobiles, electric models were favored, and even steam-driven cars were predominant over models powered by fossil fuels. Things change. Ultimately, the internal-combustion engine proved more stable and became the king of the road.

Interestingly, electricity had a chance to make inroads in another area in which gases had proven to be unstable: anesthesia. In the nascent years of the practice, miscalculations with ether and chloroform led to deaths. No one wanted to go back to the brutality of surgery during consciousness, but there had to be a better way. Enter Dr. Louise G. Rabinovitch, who experimented successfully (and chillingly and unethically, often) with bringing a blissful unconsciousness to animal and human test subjects with electric shock. A better understanding of anesthesia made this jolting scheme unnecessary, but the doctor’s jaw-dropping reports of her experiments likely would have prevented her methods from becoming popular in any case. From an article about “electric sleep” in the September 27, 1908 New York Times:

“PARIS–Dr. Louise G. Rabinovitch, the well-known New York psychoclacist, and Dr. V. Magnan are preparing another stop in their series of discoveries in electric sleep experiments, which have been safely conducted on rabbits and dogs, will be made soon on human beings, patients in the insane hospital in Paris.

Dr. Rabinovitch has been conducting her experiments with hopes of finding the means of doing away entirely with the usual anaesthetics–ether and chloroform–and so far has been very successful.

The City of Paris early in the Summer fitted up a laboratory for the hospital of Sainte-Anne, and there she has been working steadily. Already she has put a patient to sleep by electricity without performing an operation. She has also in several cases used electricity as a local anaesthetic on a part of the arm or leg and has performed a slight operation. Her intention now is, in which she is encouraged by the veteran Dr. Magnan, to perform a serious operation made under the influence of electric sleep. This will be the first time that this has been done anywhere in the world.

Dr. Rabinovitch has made some remarkable discoveries while she has been working in her laboratory, and finds no difficulty in instilling life into animals which have died on the operating table. The immense value of this discovery to physicians when patients die because of an anaesthetic can be seen at once.

"After I had killed the dog and resuscitated it."

“While under the influence of electric sleep I killed her instantly with chloroform.”

One dog playing about the laboratory, the doctor told me, had been dead three times. ‘While under the influence of electric sleep I killed her instantly with chloroform. The heart stopped beating and respiration ceased. If the animal had been left alone then it would have remained dead, but I immediately instituted artificial respiration by means of electricity, and presently the animal started to breathe of its own accord. Again, after I had killed the dog and resuscitated it, hemorrhage set in, caused by an operation, and the dog bled to death. I brought it back to life again. The animal is at present perfectly healthy.’

While I was in the laboratory the doctor put a rabbit under the influence of electric sleep. In a comparatively short time, when the rabbit came out from under the influence, it hopped away contentedly. …

The doctor is confident that all her experiments can be put into practice on human beings. When the animal is under the influence of the current it reacts to no stimulus, and when the current is turned off the awakening is instantaneous. There is no after sickness or stupor.”


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From the March 17, 1876 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“The horrible alternative of cannibalism or death was forced upon the surviving portion of the crew of the British ship Greta, on its recent trip from San Francisco. The captain’s two sons died of starvation, eleven of the crew were drowned and four died from exposure. In the little boat in which was the captain and thirteen men, the men who died were eaten to allay the horrible hunger of those who survived. Their sufferings made them little else than beasts, though the dim spark of the divine in their natures saved them from the worse and most extreme act of adding murder to the lesser crime. In the last stage of emaciation and absolute wretchedness they held to the manhood of men, and waited for death to come to the others that life might be retained to them.”

We appreciate the pioneering spirit but sometimes in retrospect discount the costs. The experiences of Clarence M. Dally, a former military man and glassblower who worked as Thomas Edison’s point person on the development of X-rays, serve as a cautionary tale. From an article in the October 4, 1904 New York Times:

“EAST ORANGE–Clarence M. Dally, electrical engineer, died yesterday at his home 108 Clinton Street North, East Orange, a martyr to science, the beginning of his illness having been due to his experimental work in connection with the Roentgen rays. For seven years he patiently bore terrible suffering and underwent seven operations, which finally culminated in the amputation of both his arms.

During the experimental work on the X-rays Mr. Dally was Thomas A. Edison’s chief assistant. Mr. Edison himself was slightly burned with the chemicals, but Mr. Dally, who had almost all of the experimenting to do, was quite badly burned on his hands. He suffered no pain from these burns, but his hands looked as though they had been scalded.

Six months after the first indications appeared the hands began to swell, and Mr. Dally was unable to keep at work continuously, but went to many of the hospitals where the X-ray was being installed and set up the machines and did some work in the laboratory besides. He suffered in this way for two years, when he and his family went West.

Cancer finally developed on the left wrist, and he came East for treatment. An operation was performed, but not successfully.

The disease then steadily spread and Dally was taken to the New York Post-Graduate Hospital, where the affected arm was amputated four inches below the shoulder. For a time an improvement was apparent, but the little finger on the right arm became affected, and on Nov. 1902, this member was taken off at his home.

Three other fingers were removed on June 16, 1903. The development of a spot on the wrist made it necessary to perform another operation on Sept. 7 of the same year. On Nov. 18 the physicians performed another operation where the stump of the little finger remained. Later the right arm was amputated.

A pair of artificial arms was provided for him, but he used them only a week when he was obliged to succumb, the disease having affected his entire system. During the seven years he had been unable to care for himself, and all the time he was West he was obliged to rest his hands in water during the night to allay the terrible burning sensation.”

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From the January 9, 1920 New York Times:

“LONDON–England’s public executioners, the hangmen, want their pay increased, and their claim has been presented to the House of Commons by a member of that body. Augustine Hailwood inquired whether the Government knew that it was paying the executioners no more than in pre-war days. A Government representative replied that the matter would receive consideration. 

The hangmen recently were deprived of the privilege of taking away the rope with which the criminal was hanged. This reduced one of the sources of their revenue, as the rope could be sold to curiosity collectors.”


A repost of the item that I run on or around Valentine’s Day each year that recalls the brutal and unlikely origins of the sweet holiday.


“St. Valentine’s Day is chiefly remarkable for having no personal connection with St. Valentine.”

An excerpt of an article from February 14, 1884 Brooklyn Daily Eagle which explains how the charming but heathen holiday of Valentine’s Day became associated with a Christian saint, and recalls the (thankfully) lost art of the insulting “comic valentine”:

“Like many other Ecclesiastical festivals which have assumed strange social transformations, St. Valentine’s Day is chiefly remarkable for having no personal connection with St. Valentine. That respectable old bachelor bishop was beaten with clubs and beheaded in the third century, and if he is conscious of his subsequent fame he must enjoy the reflection that no author as well as no saint ever achieved such a posthumous reputation for what he had nothing to do with. The feasts of Pan and Juno, held in February, upon which among other hilarious ceremonies the names of pretty Roman girls of the period were put in a box, and the Roman dudes and greenhorns and old bachelors drew them out, suggested to the ever appropriate instincts of the Christian clergy the holding of them on a saint’s day. Poor old Bishop Valentine was in partibus at the time and had been canonized as well as clubbed and decapitated also at the middle of February, and his commemoration would do very well for the heathen pastime, which would thus acquire a Christian aroma. That is the process by which, in modern times, he has become the patron saint of postmen.

“For the antiquated maid or corpulent bachelor, the valentine is scarcely a thing of beauty or joy.”

St. Valentine’s Day has become chiefly a joy to children, who await eagerly the postman’s coming with the welcome letters which are pictures as well. For the antiquated maid or corpulent bachelor, the valentine is scarcely a thing of beauty or joy. The meanness that would gratify its petty spite by anonymous insults through the mail on this literary deluge day would not deserve mention if this morning’s newspapers had not contained a curious and perhaps fatal caution against indulging one’s venom through the valentine. Two women in Philadelphia, who were next door neighbors, mutually accused each other of sending an insulting valentine. Each denied the charge, but neither accepted the denial. They fell upon each other tooth and nail, and, not content with bites and scratches, while one ran for a hatchet the other shot her with a pistol.”


“Tchaikovsky contracted cholera by drinking unboiled water in a restaurant.”

To put it crudely, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of humankind’s most refined composers, died because he drank water that had shit in it. We’re all a glass of shitwater, or something equally horrible, from death, even the best of us. Such is life: Luck plays a bigger role than we’d like to admit.

The announcement of Tchaikovsky’s death by cholera in the November 7, 1893 New York Times, which spells his name in a variety of ways, includes a passage about the Russian master’s visit to America. The opening:

“ST. PETERSBURG–Pierre Tschaikowsky, the Russian composer, died in this city last night. He died of cholera, hours after he fell ill.

Tchaikovsky contracted cholera by drinking unboiled water in a restaurant. 


A cable dispatch from St. Petersburg brings the unexpected news that Peter Ilitsch Tschaikowsky is dead. This famous Russian musician was without much question the most strikingly original and forceful composer of the day, and his death at a time when his intellectual powers were, or ought to have been, at their maturity must be accounted a serious loss to music. The present is by no means richly productive in great orchestral works, and Tschaikowsky’s masterpieces have the hallmarks of real genius. If he had lived he would surely have given the world new works which it would have received with great gladness.

Tschaikowsky was the son of an engineer who held a post under the Government in the imperial mines of the Ural Mountain district. The musician was born at Wotkinsk, in the Province of Wlatka, on April 25, 1840. Like not a few other composers, the boy was not intended by his parents to follow in the footsteps of Glinka. He received his early education in the schools of his native place. In 1840, however, his father who was evidently a man of solid attainments, was appointed Director of the Technological Institute at St. Petersburg. In that city the son was entered as a student in the School of Jurisprudence, which is open only to the sons of Government officials of the higher orders. It was the father’s desire that the boy should enter the public service, and in 1859, when he had completed his course of study, he was appointed to a post in the Department of Justice.

In the meantime his love for music had declared itself, and while a law student he had made essays in composition. These attempts met with not a little opposition from his father, and for a time young Tschaikowsky’s musical studies were abandoned. But music eventually prevailed over law, and the consent of the father to his devotion to the study of composition was at length obtained. It was fortunate for Tschaikowsky that the great movement for the advancement of music in Russia had now begun. In 1862 Anton Rubinstein, the famous pianist and composer established his now celebrated Conservatory of Music at St. Petersburg. Tschaikowsky was one of the first of the institution’s many gifted pupils.

He devoted himself diligently to study until 1865. His principal masters were Zaremba, who taught him harmony and counterpoint, and Rubinstein, who taught him composition. In 1865 he was graduated with high honors, receiving a prize medal for his setting of Schiller’s ode, ‘An die Freude,’ of which he made a cantata. The composition.is not found among his published works.

In 1866 Nicolas Rubinstein, then the head of the conservatory, offered his the post of Professor of Harmony, Composition, and the History of Music. As his heart was in the Russian musical movement, he accepted the chair, and for twelve years did admirable work as an instructor. In 1878 he resigned his position in order to devote himself more assiduously to composition, in which he had already gained enviable distinction. He lived at various times in St. Petersburg, Italy, Switzerland, and Kiev. In recent years he had made his home at the last-named place, which is near Moscow.

Two years ago last May Tschaikowsky, at the invitation of Walter Damrosch, an enthusiastic follower and performer of his works, visited America, and appeared in the series of festival concerts with which the Music Hall, at Fifty-seventh Street and Seventh Avenue, was opened. The composer conducted his splendid third suite, his second piano concerto, in G, Opus 44, and two a capella choruses. The magnificent performance if the suite by the Symphony Orchestra under his electric leadership will long be remembered by music lovers, as will also also by Miss Aus Der Ohe’s playing of the piano concerto. The composer subsequently visited other cities, and was everywhere received with enthusiasm. …

Tschaikowsky was a prolific composer for a modern master, yet given to somewhat close self-criticism. Only three or four years ago he threw into the fire the score of his early ballet, ‘Wojowode,’ produced in 1860.”

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