The Axeman

It’s easy to believe, in this epoch awash in social media with 24/7 coverage of everything, that the world is a far more messed-up place than back in “the good ol’ days.” While certainly our capacity for destruction has increased – high capacity magazines, bio-terror, nuclear proliferation – I offer that man’s basic instability (read: cruelty, sociopathy, violence) likely has not changed very much.

As evidence, I further offer the story of an American serial killer who, despite having a body count comparable to Jack the Ripper’s and being much closer to those of us in the U.S. than is Whitechapel, seems to have been largely forgotten by history.

I offer you The Axeman.

This murderer was active in New Orleans and neighboring Gretna at the end of WWI, and only for a period of about 18 months. A considerable public panic arose, and like most serial killers, he left as abruptly as he came.

His first known victims were Joseph and Catherine Maggio, owners of a grocery store and bar who were attacked while they slept in their apartment over their business on the evening of 22 May 1918. The killer broke into the house and slashed both of the victims’ necks, and then proceeded to bludgeon both with the dull side of a heavy axe blade. Catherine was killed on the spot, while Joseph lived long enough to give details to his brother, who found him, before expiring himself. Nothing valuable – including cash in plain sight – had been stolen. Police found the killer’s bloody clothing in another room of the apartment, as he apparently changed into clean clothes before fleeing the crime site; they also found his bloody straight razor tossed carelessly on the neighbor’s front lawn. That straight razor was determined to belong to Andrew Maggio, the same brother who found the victims, and who owned a barber shop down the street. Police focused on him as the perpetrator when he said he had been at his adjoining apartment and, though drunk, had heard nothing of the attack. Only much later, and sober, did he claim to detect “a strange groaning noise,” and going to investigate, found the bodies. Andrew told police that he had seen a strange man lurking around the block prior to the crime, and the straight razor notwithstanding, as police had nothing more with which to charge Andrew, he was released.

The next two victims were Louis Besumer, another grocer, and his mistress, Harriet Lowe, who were found early on the morning of 27 June 1918 by a bakery delivery truck, lying in pools of their own blood in the back of the store, both with slash and bludgeon wounds. Once again, nothing of value had been taken. The police arrested a new employee, but without any evidence, released him shortly thereafter. The media turned to their attention to the fact that Lowe, as she regained consciousness, accused Besumer of being a German spy who had attacked her, and sure enough, a search of the store uncovered letters written in strange tongues (turns out to have been Russian and Yiddish). Lowe died after botched surgery, and Besumer was charged with her murder once he recovered. Police, though, were unable to explain how he sustained his own injuries. He was acquitted after a ten minute jury deliberation.

And there were more victims. At least eight more. Elsie Schneider, discovered grievously wounded by her husband returning from work. Joseph Romano, an elderly pensioner found by his nieces with his head gashed and a bloody axe in the backyard. Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia and their infant daughter, all sustaining skull fractures, leading to the child’s death and lifelong disabilities for the parents. Steve Boca, another targeted grocer who sustained severe brain damage from his assault. Sarah Laumann, a single teen living alone who was gored and amnestic after her attack. Mike Pepitone, killed by the axe-wielding intruder as his wife and children were elsewhere in the home.

The city panicked. Axes were found at the crime scenes. Neighbors were arrested but released without evidence. The authorities wondered if this were a Mafia-influenced spree, given that many of the victims were Italian. Police began to suspect that the same individual was responsible for murders of other Italian couples stretching back to 1911, though this was never confirmed.

Then came the following letter to the local newspaper [the byline ‘Hell’ is no doubt a hat-tip to Jack the Ripper]:

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest Hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Franz Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don’t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

The Axeman

On 19 March, the dance halls, saloons, and bars of New Orleans were filled to capacity, with the citizenry all partaking of loud jazz music.

There were some locals, though, who not only refused to be intimidated, but took out ads in the paper, telling the Axeman that they’d be waiting for him with back doors unlocked, and 12-gauge shotguns in hand, and then provided street addresses.

There were no attacks that night. And shortly thereafter, the Axeman vanished.

And like Jack, he was never apprehended.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Butterfield’s Lullaby

In the early months of the Civil War, the signal for soldiers to prepare for the final roll call of the day, and lights-out, was known as “Scott’s Tattoo,” a bugled melody named for General Winfield Scott, and in use since the 1830s. Union Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, commanding officer of the 3d Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac, found his unit bivouacked along the James River following the Seven Days’ Battle. He thought that Scott’s Tattoo was too harsh, and “not as smooth, melodious, and musical as it should be [for that hour of the evening].” In July 1862 while still encamped, he summoned one of his buglers, an Oliver Willcox Norton, and asked him to rewrite the piece more to his liking. Norton, only 23, nervously told the general that he couldn’t read music, and only played by ear. Undeterred, Butterfield insisted that he experiment with changes, and Norton tweaked the notes while his boss listened.

Norton later recounted,

“After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call in place of the regulation call. The music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade. The next day I was vis­ited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music.”

The call is officially known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby,” and it quickly spread throughout the Union Army, crossed enemy lines, and was adopted by Southern forces as well, being published in the CSA Mounted Artillery Drill Manual within months. But its lasting legacy commenced near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, in 1863, when a corporal of Battery A, 2d U.S. Artillery, was killed by skirmishers, and his company prepared to bury him with the traditional three-volley salute. The senior officer present, Captain J.C. Tidball, feared that an outburst of musketry at close quarters might spark further fighting. He then recalled Butterfield’s Lullaby, and asked his own bugler to play the soothing tune at graveside in lieu of more shooting; this proved to be the first recorded instance of the music being used in this setting. Witnesses said the score was a poignant addition to the service, and its use at funerals spread informally throughout the army thereafter.

Despite widespread application, and long after Southern adoption, Butterfield’s Lullaby was not included in the U.S. Army Infantry Drill Regulations until 1891. It remains in use to this day.

And unknown to most, it has lyrics, albeit unofficial:

“Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh – Falls the night.

“Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

“Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright,
God is near, do not fear – Friend, good night.”

You know the twenty-four notes as Taps.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Primordial Hackers

Anyone above the age of 40 should remember Max Headroom, the fictional British ad-pitchman (New Coke, anyone?) who was the world’s first computer-generated TV host. He was said to have been modeled after the insincere and egotistical media talking heads of the day, in particular the smarmy Ted Baxter role from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. His stuttering electronic cadence made his voice instantly recognizable to viewers worldwide. He was such a pop success that the year following his TV debut, he even appeared in a now-forgettable film feature, 20 Minutes Into The Future.



[sidebar: computer graphics were not very advanced in 1984 when he debuted, so the ‘cyber host’ was actually portrayed by an actor in prosthetic makeup, a fiberglass suit, Ray Bans, and hand drawn backdrops]

[sidebar: the character’s name came from the supposed last thing that his consciousness saw before the fatal car wreck that claimed his corporeal self: “Max. Headroom: 2.3 meters” suspended across a tunnel entrance]

Max, however, had greater fame awaiting him: his role in the first documented hack of the computer age.

At 9:14 p.m. on 22 November 1987, the regularly scheduled programming at Chicago’s WGN was interrupted, and instead appeared on the screen a person wearing a mask in front of a non-descript retro-futuristic looking metallic backdrop. He strongly resembled Max, coming to haunt from the dystopian future. It was brief and silent. WGN technicians quickly switched back to the local news. But two hours later, during a broadcast of Dr Who, cross-town WTTW-11 experienced an identical break in service. On came the same figure, but this time there was an audio feed of largely unintelligible cackling, some mumbled threats to Chuck Swirsky (an area sportscaster), and the hummed theme song of a well-known cartoon series. The masked figure then mooned the audience, and a mysterious woman appeared who was trying to smack an airborne insect with a flyswatter. This went on for 90 seconds before regularly scheduled service was resumed.

In 2010, a Reddit user by the handle of Bpoag provided some add’n information. He claimed to have been part of a phreaking cell operating in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange in the late 1980s (phreaking was the slang term used at the time for those who could manipulate telephone networks and the systems that depended on them… in other words, the precursors of today’s internet hackers). Bpoag claimed to have been warned by two other members of the group – named J and K – to watch the TV on the evening of 22 November “for something big.” He did, and immediately recognized the handiwork of his fellow phreakers.

According to Bpoag, the actual hack was simple enough to accomplish, and didn’t require any advanced technical equipment beyond what an avid phreaker would already have had in his arsenal. He opined, “all that had to be done was to provide a signal to the satellite dish that was of a greater power than the legitimate one.”

Bpoag likened the stunt to a public service announcement: “it only lasted as long as it needed to get the point across, that point being that the airwaves were woefully unprotected, and easily exploitable.”

The feds were not amused and launched an investigation. But after almost three decades, the actual identities of the hackers have never been determined. But they no doubt foretold what would later become, for pranksters, governments, protesters, activists, and terrorists alike, a global and likely permanent phenomenon.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Peering Tom

We all know the expression “Peeping Tom,” but did you ever wonder who exactly is “Tom”?

To answer this question, we actually have to go all the way back to the 11th century, to Coventry. You must be familiar with Lady Godgyfu, or in modern English, Godiva. Her husband was Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and knowing his wife to be a prude, he said he’d lower taxes on the populace when she rode naked through the streets, the equivalent of “when Hell freezes over.” To her husband’s shock, she accepted the challenge, and then asked the townsfolk to avert their gazes. Being generally liked, unlike her miserly husband, the populace shuttered their windows and looked away as the good lady rode au naturel through the city streets for the benefit of all.

But men being men, there was at least (only?) one who had to sneak a peak. Thomas the Tailor drilled a hole in his shop’s window shutters so he could watch. And depending on your source, Tom was either permanently blinded by Godiva’s beauty, struck dead by God, or torn limb from limb by enraged locals who discovered his moral turpitude.

The problem is, there is no evidence to suggest that any of this is true.

First, the initial reference to the ride was not contemporary, but instead appeared a full two centuries after the subject’s death, in Flores Historiarum, written by one Roger of Wendover.

[sidebar: always be suspicious of stories that are appended years after a purported event; it would be the equivalent of one of my readers today telling heretofore unknown stories of George Washington]

Next, according to the contemporaneous Norman Domesday Book (1086), Godiva was one of the very few women of the day who were landowners in their own right. She apparently controlled vast swaths of territory in and around present day Coventry. So SHE would have set the tax rate, not her husband, and therefore there would have been no reason for her to ride to convince him of anything.

Add’n, ‘Thomas’ is not an Anglo-Saxon name. But in the 15th century, long after Godiva, it became a common moniker for a generic common man, the equivalent of our ‘average Joe.’ There exists a painting from the mid-16th century that shows the ride and a man looking at Godiva from his window. Not long after the painting’s creation, people commonly held that the man was just some leering ne’er-do-well, a Tom, violating the lady’s requested privacy. Interestingly, art historians have since determined that the Tom in the work is actually Leofric watching his wife, and his money, heading down the road. But the common perception stuck.

In the late 17th century, the bored inhabitants of Coventry started reenacting the ride yearly, the Godiva Procession, with the chosen woman naked some times, others not, depending on the sensibilities of the city fathers of the day. And what is a parade/ party without a villain on which to focus the mock-indignation of the alcohol-sopped crowd? Tom effigies began to crop up, and the locals went after them with gusto.

With centuries of evolution of the tale, the actual phrase “Peering Tom” (not “Peeping” then) first appeared only on 11 June 1773 in Coventry municipal records, documenting the purchase of a wig and paint to fabricate an oaken effigy of Tom for the then-upcoming procession.

By the late 18th century, we finally have an actual definition: Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) is the first to include Peering Tom as “a nickname for a curious prying fellow.”

So there you have it. Peeping Tom wasn’t a real person, but a 17th century legend attached to an 11th century myth of a noble that, despite having no basis in fact, persists today in popular culture because it involves a famous woman who got naked in public.

Not much, it seems, has changed.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Fay Ce Que Voudras

From the (historical) ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ file, we remember today the Brotherhood of St Francis of Wycombe, founded in 1749 by Sir Francis Dashwood. You are forgiven if you thought that the ‘St Francis’ referenced is he of Assisi, of Caricciolo, of Paolo, of Sales, or of Xavier – all recognized and venerated hallows of Christendom. Instead, it references the founder, Dashwood, which may suggest that this organization is not one’s standard religious order.

Other suggestions that this group was far from standard includes their motto, fay ce que voudras, which translates to “do as you please,” along with their initial meeting place, London’s George and Vulture pub.

This fraternity was dedicated to debauchery, the Enlightment’s anti-clericism meeting Animal House.

This wouldn’t be so notable were it not for the fact that, over two decades, many prominent member of British society counted themselves as members, and regularly attended the conclaves.

There was Dashwood himself, 15th Baron le Despencer, Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty. There was George Dodington, 1st Baron Melcombe, close friend and financier of the Prince of Wales who also ran a highly-regarded anti-Jacobite spy ring. There was John Wilkes, a prominent member of Parliament who was an early radical pamphleteer and supporter of the American colonies. There was also another well-known MP, Thomas Potter, an accomplished attorney who also happened to be the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Members referred to themselves as ‘brothers,’ the leader as ‘abbot,’ and the women of loose virtue in attendance as ‘nuns.’ The group ate, drank, gambled, and fornicated at will, always a winning combination when trying to recruit add’n converts. As the brotherhood grew, Dashwood, no longer satisfied with the pub, leased Medmenham Abbey, a rundown former haunt of the Cistercians, close to his ancestral home and residence. He proceeded to rebuild the ruin, and excavated an extensive network of caves and tunnels that reached over 1500 feet into a nearby hillside. This honeycomb came to be known as the Hellfire Caves, where the group – by then sometimes called the Order of the Monks of Medmenham – conducted, er, business. It was over the caves’ entrance that was found the motto carved into a granite cornice.

In Nocturnal Revels (1779), a two volume anonymously-authored work on Georgian nightlife and prostitution, there is a contemporary if wordy description of activities of the meetings:

“They always meet in one general set at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a lady of cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: the ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, musick, tambour-work, etc. The salt of these festivities is generally purely antic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty; and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.”

Or as parliamentarian and Brother John Wilkes said more succinctly, the club was “a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury.”

While rumors grew of Satanist rituals being conducted, other than their general licentiousness, there is no evidence to support that anything darker was actually occurring. Interestingly, Dashwood was a major benefactor and protector of the nearby St Lawrence’s Parish, a real house of worship that had fallen on hard times.

Dashwood may have been a most convivial host, but he was tone-deaf in his respectable professional role. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he imposed a tax on adult beverages by passage of the Cider Bill of 1763, an act which resulted in riots and his hasty resignation… odd for a man who threw alcohol-fueled bacchanals in his free time, albeit for a very limited and well-heeled crowd.

The aging of the attendees, and Dashwood’s resignation, spelled the end of the Order. By 1766, the Hellfire Caves were silent, stripped of their scandalous adornments, and the wild rumpuses had ceased. But not, it should be noted, before a diplomat and scientist from the Colonies, one Benjamin Franklin, was documented to have attended a number of the meetings when he was in London on, er, business.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Piety and the Oval Office

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” ~Seneca the Younger (5 BCE – 65 CE)

Anyone who has been following this election cycle knows that with very few exceptions (e.g., Bernie Sanders), our current crop of politicians tend to trip over themselves to declare their faith in, and commitment to, perceived Judeo-Christian values. One only needs to hear the uber-capitalist Donald Trump state that the Bible is his favorite book to realize that affirming ones piety has become a prerequisite to aspiring to higher elective office.

[sidebar: ongoing defamation of Barack Obama aside, there is not a single known/ admitted atheist currently holding national-level elected office. The last two were Rep Pete Stark (D-CA) who left Washington in 2012, and Rep Barney Frank (D-MA) who left the following year. It is particularly interesting to note that Frank felt more comfortable admitting to his same-gender sexual orientation decades earlier in his career than his non-theism, which he admitted only AFTER he left Congress.]

In looking back at our collective history, there were the administrations of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, times during which the nation faced truly existential crises that might reasonably have called for some divine intervention. And yet none of the three wore their devotions on their sleeves.

Certainly those Presidents – probably all Presidents – have invoked some religious imagery in their public statements. But until comparatively recently, any such invocations have fallen into the category of what Dean Eugene Rostow of Yale’s Law School first described in 1962 as “Ceremonial Deism,” an observation later legitimized in Supreme Court decisions by both Justices William Brennan (Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668) and Sandra O’Connor (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1). Ceremonial Deism describes a nominally religious statement made by a public official that has been watered-down to mere rote by reflexive habit or long-standing precedent. In short, it’s meaningless tradition, the political equivalent of the non-ecclesiastic amongst us uttering “bless you” when a stranger sneezes in public.

With Western Europe and Japan – other advanced and developed democracies – becoming less overtly religious during recent years, how is it that America’s modern leaders have all set a far more spiritual tone for the body politick?

It seems to be the handiwork of Dwight Eisenhower.

The Eisenhower Administration (1953-61) did occur during the height of the Cold War. Perhaps Ike saw his first landslide win as a mandate for a national tent revival, and his stewardship as a chance to contrast his conservative Pennsylvania Dutch roots with the Godless Communism then seemingly threatening our existence in every corner of the globe. While running for office, Scotty Reston of The New York Times likened the campaign to “William Jennings Bryan’s old invasion of the Bible Belt during the Chautauqua circuit days.” True to form, it was during Ike’s tour in the White House that “In God We Trust” was placed on U.S. currency, and the Pledge of Allegiance (originally written in 1887) was altered to include the phrase “Under God” (1954).

At a transition meeting with his cabinet nominees after his first election, Ike announced that the nominees and their families were invited to a special religious service at Na­tional Presbyterian Church the morning of the inauguration. Perhaps then recalling that Constitutional inconvenience about separating Church and State, he added hastily that no nominee should feel pressured to go to his Presbyterian services, and that anyone could go instead to a church of his own choice.

Needless to say, everyone present opted to be seen with the President-elect.

Immediately after taking the oath of office, Ike asked those in attendance – and by proxy the millions on TV and radio – to bow their heads so that he might lead the nation in “a little private prayer of my own [that I wrote this morning].” This caused a sensation at the time, not because of anything particularly radical that he said, but that he said it at all.

Shortly thereafter, Ike became the first President to be baptized while in office.

And right after the baptism, he broadcast from the Oval Office an address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign, urging millions of listeners to recognize and rejoice in the (unsaid but inescapably Christian) spiritual foundations of the nation.

Four days later, he was the guest of honor at the first National Prayer Breakfast, which has since become not only an annual tradition, but a stump from which the currently-elected leader and his immediate circle can try to outdo themselves in their stated devotions to the Almighty. At that first breakfast, Ike made this statement: “The very basis of our govern­ment is that we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain rights. In [that] one sentence, we established that every free government is embedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith or it makes no sense.”

Please read that last part again: the President of the United States stating unequivocally that unless one sees a faith-basis in our form of governance, what we are doing makes no sense. The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. Other amendments. The United States Code. The common law. All make no sense.

Before long, prayers had become de rigueur at the openings of cabinet meetings.

Perhaps Ike’s faith was sincere – it’s really impossible to know for certain what dwells deep inside one’s breast – but he created the soapbox from which all manner of suspected opportunists and charlatans have preached since.

[sidebar: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” ~Matthew 6:5, KJV]

But even Pious Ike needed to get acclimated to the demands of his new role as Pastor-in-Chief. His personal secretary recalled that after one of the first cabinet meetings, the President emerged from the room and stopped abruptly to exclaim, “Jesus Christ! We forgot the prayer!”

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Grown-Up Toys and the Uber-Wealthy

On April 18th, 2014, a gun said to have been used by Wyatt Earp during the famous shootout at (actually near) the O.K. Corral sold through a Scottsdale Arizona auction house for the princely sum of $225,000, well above its pre-event estimate of ‘only’ $100,000 to $150,000.

Note that I said, “said to have been used.”

Wealthy aficionados always run up auction prices for the rare and unusual. Anything with a purported Earp or Old West provenance is certain to bring big money.

[sidebar: speaking of gunslingers in general, see my earlier post on the sale of the pistol of Bonnie Parker – of Bonnie and Clyde fame – at]

A well-heeled collector from New Mexico, who was absentee-battling over the phone, placed the winning bid for the .45 Colt single action army revolver, the so-called Peacemaker model known from every western movie ever filmed. The Colt in question came from the estate of the late Glenn Boyer, an author of several books on Earp who collected Earpabilia until his death in 2013.



The gunfight near O.K. was actually a small event in a time and place known for not-infrequent barroom brawls and the public brandishing of weaponry. It really wasn’t until 1930 – the year after the subject died – when Stuart Lake published the then-definitive biography of Earp that the gunfight began to assume mythical proportions.

[sidebar: the gunfight wasn’t the only thing that experienced an apotheosis; Earp too became a larger-than-life lawman thanks to Lake and, later, Hollywood, despite evidence that strongly suggests that he was an opportunistic con-man, pimp, and horse thief who skirted both the spirit and letter of the law more than once in his life]

In other words, a small law enforcement action in a backward town in desolate southern Arizona probably wouldn’t have drawn much notice at the time… and it’s uncertain if anyone would have actually paid attention to the weapons used in the immediate aftermath.

And predictably, its sale price notwithstanding, there exists some controversy about that auctioned Colt.

For one, the revolver appears to have had its grips and cylinder replaced, and the serial numbers rubbed off.

There was suspicion that Boyer tweaked the history in his tome to magnify the value of a gun already in his possession.

And further, two other academics, D.K. Boorman and Joseph Rosa, in their respective works, stated unequivocally that Earp carried a Smith & Wesson Model 3, and not a Colt single action army, at the O.K. Corral. Even biographer Lake, who actually interviewed his subject, noted that Earp “preferred” the Smith & Wesson, though he was silent on whether that preference translated into possession on the fateful day in October 1881.

S&W Model 3

S&W Model 3

[sidebar: if true, Earp kept good company, as Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Teddy Roosevelt, and Billy the Kid were all said to prefer the Smith & Wesson model as well]

So why the outrageous price with so much uncertainty? Is there more to the gun than is immediately apparent? Or might such uber-wealthy buyers be more interested in (unsubstantiated) bragging rights than in the decidedly non-glamourous research that should invariably accompany such relics.

No word yet on any buyer’s remorse.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Addendum, but this time involving old wine:

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The City of Lights and Medicine

Denizens of the 21st century complain of how super-specialized the practice of medicine has become. Few modern medical students aim to be generalists – even the discipline now known as Family Practice is a specialty – as most aim for many additional years of training to become expert in scientific minutiae.

It would appear, however, that our world has nothing on 19th century Paris.

The City of Lights in the epoch between Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War was an epicenter of medical study, one reason being that French citizens were entitled to free medical care by royal decree. Students and young doctors flocked there from all over the continent, and from across the Atlantic, because of the amazing proliferation of facilities dedicated to very specific conditions and illnesses. No where else could doctors-in-training see so much pathology at the sides of renowned clinicians all in the same place.

Obstetrical complications? That would be Hôpital de la Maternité, with no fewer than a dozen births per day. Gravely sick children? The largest such hospice in the country was Hôpital des Enfants-Malades, sadly filled to capacity. Venereal diseases? There were two: for the women, Hôpital Lourcine, and for the men, Hôpital du Midi – the former being a house of tertiary-staged horrors, and the latter, while equally ghastly, mandating in the earliest years the additional ‘treatment’ of public whippings to teach patients to stay away from strumpets and keep their trousers on.

Lunatic women of childbearing years, idiots and imbeciles and morons of both genders, the terminally ill, the deaf, the blind, the dumb… all had their own specific destinations in the capital. There was a hospital for elderly married couples who wanted to die together in the same room (they could bring their own furniture and effects, the price of admission in part being bequeathment to the facility on joint passing of all personal property).

Lepers, however, were not welcomed, and instead were shipped out of the city limits should any show up at the front doors.

There was even Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés for homeless children (distinct from an orphanage, as Enfants-Trouvés had physicians on staff to tend to the lesser ailments of the abandoned whose sicknesses didn’t quite require admission to Enfants-Malades). Some of the arrivals were orphaned when their mothers died at la Maternité (1:50), while others were voluntarily surrendered by caretakers unable to provide for their special needs. When these youngsters were deemed medically stable, they were offered for public adoption, though without surprise, many stayed at Enfants-Trouvés until they reached majority and were turned back to the streets by the hundreds.

Enfants-Trouvés had an anonymous drop-zone called le tour d’abandon (‘the desertion tower’) where sliding doors and a small bell would herald to the nurses within the arrival of a new human deposit. The citizens of Paris were encouraged to mark their children so they could potentially be reclaimed, though very few were ever later sought.

The American doctors in town, however, were most astonished by École Pratique d’Anatomie. While not a hospital per se – it was more of a pathology foundation – it allowed any physician, for the equivalent of $6, to access his own personal cadaver for dissection (no doubt many of whom were unfortunate former patients of Paris’ other healing institutions). In the early 19th century, human dissection remained illegal in the U.S., and many practitioners there had to resort to grave robbing to obtain specimens. In Paris, for a modest fee, cadavers were plentiful for the taking.

There was one small catch. The stuffy and warm dissection room often contained two dozen physicians whittling away on unpreserved corpses. The smell was said to be overpowering, and at the end of the day, leftover chunks of the deceased were tossed to packs of snarling street dogs who waited out back.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Oxygen From Thin Air

All who fly the friendly skies regularly can probably recite from memory the safety instruction that bored-appearing flight attendants are mandated to present as planes at U.S. and Canadian airports taxi for takeoff. But as a parrot ignorantly mimics its keeper, oftentimes I wonder if any of the proffered information is actually sinking into stupefied passengers?

For example, we all know from being told countless times that if there is a change in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartments; hopefully you also recall that you’re supposed to yank on the tubing, and then put your own mask on first before helping those next to you, especially since, depending on the altitude, you might have less than 15 seconds of useful consciousness left once the masks deploy.

Why that yank? And where is the oxygen stored that will sustain a hundred or more passengers, all breathing through masks at the same time? Has anyone who is not in the aviation industry ever stopped to think about that?

Actually, there is no oxygen stored on planes. Not only would such a combustible be dangerous to have onboard, but the storage needed – either one big centralized tank, or many smaller individual ones – would take up valuable space within the limited confines of the jet fuselage.

When you pull on the tubing, the tug triggers a spring-loaded mechanism that sets off a spark inside a small generator, the size of a canister of tennis balls, that is located over each seat. The resulting spark ignites tablets of lead styphnate and tetracene, which in turn generate heat. A mixture of sodium chlorate, barium peroxide, and potassium perchlorate inside the canister, once heated, releases oxygen.

[sidebar: of course, you might also smell a faint burning odor from the spark and heat, but this is no cause for alarm in light of what else is probably ongoing at that time all around you. In fact, if the plane is actually on fire, the masks usually won’t deploy, so as not to make the fire even worse due to the addition of extra oxygen in the immediate environment]

This chemical reaction won’t last for long, and production inside the canister starts to fade after ~15 minutes. But assuming that you put on your mask as soon as it dropped from the ceiling, you should have enough oxygen from the bubbling compound overhead to sustain you until the pilot can quickly get the stricken jet below 10,000′ altitude. At that point, ambient air pressure will be high enough for relatively normal atmospheric breathing.

Bon voyage!

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[From The Medical Records Dept] Kakorrhaphiophobia

[Originally published two years ago, I have reposted and added an addendum from this weekend past]

Psychological literature classifies kakorrhaphiophobia broadly as the ‘abnormal fear of failure,’ but it takes many nuanced forms. It can be seen in the pursuit of relationships, especially first dates. It sometimes rears its head in job interviews and requests for raises or promotions. It may prove the bane of academic pursuits. And in the entrepreneurial world, its presence can render one a hopeless fundraiser, a useless solicitor, or a wholly inept seller of Girl Scout cookies or encyclopedias.

In more serious cases, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those afflicted can be insecure, less-assertive, and easily manipulated due to the pathological desire to please and avoid conflict. The feared failure is, in fact, the usual outcome. Consequently, severe kakorrhaphiophobia can be crippling regarding even simple life activities.

I suffer, but in my case, it’s nothing that serious; it’s more an annoyance, stemming from my intense dislike of retail negotiating – haggling or bartering, if you will – and the desire to avoid looking foolish and being duped in the process. As a matter of fact, the only such ‘negotiating’ I enjoy is that of or eBay’s ‘Make an Offer,’ probably because they’re anonymous and done online – with no face-saving needed in such a venue.

I am the sort who detests buying new cars, making offers directly to owners at estate sales, or visiting native bazaars in Third World countries. I just want to learn the cost and then figure out if I can afford the item or not. I’ve been known to pay the damned price just ‘to make it all go away.’ No theatrics. No gamesmanship. Just the facts, ma’am.

My late father, who enjoyed what I deem tortuous, is spinning in his grave. Thus, imagine my chagrin at feeling as though I wear a sign, visible to all but me, that boldly proclaims, ‘Easy Mark.’

Case in point: my second child recently turned 18, and I promised her a father-daughter trip somewhere as a belated celebration. She was excited for a long weekend jaunt to NYC, complete with a Broadway show and all of the usual tourist activities.

Then she dropped the bomb: “I want to look for some knock-off designer stuff!”

I could see it coming.

The recent Saturday afternoon in question found the two of us near Mulberry and Canal Streets in lower Manhattan. We enjoyed a delicious sushi lunch and then spent time wandering up and down the avenues looking at the exotic wares, tourist schlock, and – more interesting for me as a psychiatrist – the humanity flocking the area. But paradoxically, there wasn’t a single brand-name rip-off to be seen anywhere.

I’ve spent time in Italy in years past, and I recall the Senegalese street merchants in both Florence and Rome with their counterfeit goods spread on the sidewalk on blankets (to make it easier to pack up and depart quickly when lookouts announced the approach of the Carabinieri). These hucksters were totally out-in-the-open until the cops arrived. One didn’t have to go looking in Italy, as they always found you. In droves.

But apparently that’s not so in this part of NYC. Everyone appeared – dare I say? – above-board.

I don’t consider myself naïve re: human nature, especially given two decades in penal and related forensic circles. But it took my college-age daughter – who had never been to Manhattan before – to opine the obvious:

“Maybe we have to ask someone for it?”

That seems reasonable in retrospect, but I was still remembering Italy and didn’t think any New York shopkeepers would say, “What’s that? You want some of my illegal stuff? Well, right this way….”

Nevertheless, my daughter boldly approached the closest merchant while I hung back. She asked him something. His eyes darted around. He answered her. I couldn’t hear their words, but he gestured for her to follow him. I quickly hurried to catch up, not wanting to lose her in the labyrinthine alleyways as she disappeared from sight.

The three of us snaked our way through the narrow streets for several blocks and then entered a second shop, at which time words were exchanged in a hushed foreign tongue. Quickly a large laminated card was produced. It was folded in half lengthwise and had pictures on it. From a few yards’ distance, it looked like a restaurant menu, while on closer examination, it displayed color photos of numerous ‘designer’ goods, all grouped by (purported) manufacturer, and all fake as a $3 bill.



Our guide into the seamy underbelly of retail then told us that the items were kept off-site, but we could choose a few and he would go and get them for our examination.

My daughter was delighted with the options, and pointed to two Louis Vuitton handbags. The slippery dude nodded and disappeared out the door. He was gone for at least ten minutes while we cooled our heels. Finally, carrying a non-descript shopping bag, he reappeared and gestured for us to approach. I went to peer inside the bag and lift out the contents, but he quickly grasped my arm and pulled me closer behind the counter – apparently he thought the bag was still visible from the door and he didn’t want passers-by to see what was being shown.

Inside were two lovely Vuitton-looking bags. They were surprisingly well-constructed. The metal grommets and small bits of hardware were heavy and nicely formed. The interior was lined with fabric and leather of the appropriate style, and all of the trademarks were in place. The bags were wrapped in Vuitton tissue. Even the paper tags that were attached to each item were written in French and looked entirely correct.

My spawn didn’t appear disturbed by potential ethical or legal issues in the least. Like a true consumer, she immediately attached to the brown one, at which time I asked the seller the price.

He quoted X. I countered with Y (in cash). He parried with X-$30. I suggested Y+$10. He shook his head gravely and offered X-$40. I caved and said okay. For me, making two counter-offers during a negotiation was about the limit of my tolerance, and besides, the bag appeared of above-average quality and my daughter really liked it. I wasn’t about to quibble (or was it merely my kakorrhaphiophobia kicking in?)

Still, poor girl, she violated the primary tenet of such transactions before the hour was up. Even I knew better than that.

Riding back to our mid-town hotel on the 6-train, we were talking about our afternoon when an Irish couple standing near us overheard the conversation. They gestured to a bag the woman was carrying – a Michael Kors, apparently one recently obtained and of dubious provenance. Broad and knowing smiles were exchanged along with some shouted pleasantries over the background din of screeching rails as we hurtled through the dark tunnels.

And then, as only Europeans and ill-bred Americans can do, they asked the question: “what did you pay for it?”

Before I could deflect, my excited companion blurted out X-$40.

The Irish couple looked surprised and quoted a price almost half of our figure. Granted, theirs was a mere Kors, but the message was unmistakable.

“You were had.”

I am now looking for kakorrhaphiophobic support groups in the area.

– – – – – –

Predictably, my youngest daughter, Anna Maria, decided that she, too, wanted to go to NYC to experience the Big Apple… and find some knock-off designer haute couture and accessories. To be fair, we headed to Manhattan this weekend past to have a three-day stint of Broadway, museums, and support of illegal trademark infringement, two years to the week since my last delve into the dark side.

She worried all the way on the plane: “what if we can’t find anything there? I mean, Suzanne seemed to know where to go, but what if there’s nothing for us to purchase?”

I assured her that, as Newcastle is to coals and Eskimos are to ice cubes, we would find that for which she was looking.

We landed at LaGuardia, took a shuttle to our hotel in Times Square, and then hailed a taxi to Canal Street to get some good Chinese food for lunch and scratch AM’s itch.

As we were disembarking from the cab, I turned to pay the driver, and an elderly Asian woman approached AM and said, “you like Chanel?”

AM turned to me with a look both incredulous and confused.

“Talk to her.”

“Do you have any Louis Vuitton?”

“Of course.”

Photographs were produced on the street corner before I had even completed tipping our cabbie. A purse was selected, and out of a doorway materialized the product, wrapped naturellement in plain brown paper.

AM was delighted. But Suzanne was annoyed when she heard of this later.

“I had to work hard to find mine. AM didn’t have to do anything.”

I guess business is slow in Chinatown these days.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]