The Girl In The Cake

[Today’s post is sponsored by my dear friend and colleague, Oreana Harless LCSW, inarguably the best social worker in all of Idaho. She tells me she like Vegas, she likes kitsch, she likes history, and she likes to eat. Therefore, this tale seems a natural to dedicate to her]

When one thinks about it, having a grown woman jump out of a baked pastry is rather odd. Where did this practice originate?

As with most things decadent, we have the Romans to thank, although they merely got this ball rolling, and future generations of lecherous males perfected it. To the Romans, food WAS entertainment. Wealthy hosts tried to outdo one another with exotic fare: peacocks, ostriches, and rare songbirds were oft on the menus. Then, someone thought up the idea of stuffing one entree inside another, and the fad caught on. A host might carve the belly of a beef only to reveal an entire roasted pig inside. Petronius wrote of dishes that were staged to make the animals appear that they were still alive: baked fish arranged to be swimming in a sea of sauce, for example, or a roasted rabbit with a fowl’s wings attached to appear as Pegasus taking flight.

With the passage of the Roman Empire, the wealthy of medieval times and the Renaissance kept up the practice. Peacocks grilled and then adorned in their original plumage. Fried roosters decked out in (thin paper) armor doing battle with equally cooked suckling pigs. You get the grotesque picture.

Having to always up the ante, eventually it was decided to use live animals. An Italian cookbook from 1474 had one Maestro Martino explaining how to make a hole in the bottom of a pie’s crust such that

“some live birds, as many as it will hold [can be put inside], and the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away. This is done to entertain and amuse your company.”

Robert May, author of a 1660 British cookbook, describes how these birds would tend to flap everywhere, creating “a diverting hurley-burley amongst the guests.”

[sidebar: this trend may have inspired the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which four-and-twenty blackbirds are presented in a dish to the king]

[sidebar: today, this practice lives in the form of “pie birds,” diminutive ceramic figurines placed in pies to allow steam to escape]

Once again, in keeping up with the Joneses, in 1626, the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham presented Charles I with a pie from which emerged a dwarf.

You see where we’re going with this, don’t you?

Depending on the social mores of the age – think Stuart Restoration, think pre-Victorian Hanoverians, think Edward VII, think the Roaring Twenties – attractive women began to replace mere birds and dwarfs, not surprisingly as such banquets were thrown by rich males for other rich males, all of the dutiful wives staying at home. One particularly debauched party was thrown by Stanford White, a prominent NYC architect, in 1895. His enormous pie contained a nearly-naked 16 year old beauty, one Susie Johnson, much to the delight of the diners. This is now known to history as the Pie Girl Dinner… go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.

[sidebar: White’s excesses were the eventual end of him, since he was murdered by the enraged spouse of a former pie girl – White, you see, apparently performed this schtick more than once. The fact that White had deflowered the maiden before putting her in a pie didn’t help his case with said enraged spouse]

By the 1950s, it became downright mainstream for office blow-outs and alcohol-fueled conventions to feature an attractive woman in a giant cake, usually in a skimpy bathing suit or completely nude, depending on the audience and event. The girl-in-cake trend became so pervasive that it was even featured in Marilyn Monroe’s landmark 1959 film Some Like It Hot.

And while a few still made actual cakes – one 1975 AP story said that a baker in San Francisco would create just such a confection for $2000, plus $50 for the jumper – it became cheaper and more convenient to fabricate a ‘cake’ out of cardboard.

Political correctness, media coverage, and shareholder oversight sounded the death-knell of such festive gatherings in business venues, surviving today mostly by the patronage of denizens of the Vegas bachelor party scene.

I just wish I could expunge from my memory the visual of James Franco and Seth Rogen popping out of a cake to celebrate Jimmy Fallon’s birthday. Yuck.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[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:

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Mojave Phone Booth

Just as my generation never knew of the automat except in cultural history books, the current crop of young adults likely has no first-hand experience with public coin-operated telephones. Given that cellphones are ubiquitous, who now would ever need to drive around town looking for [one of the very few extant] coin-op examples on which to make a call? Were it not for Maxwell Smart reruns, Bill & Ted, retro Superman comics, and Dr Who, I doubt anyone younger than 40 would even know that payphones and their booths once existed @ drug stores, bus stations, libraries, and street corners nationwide.

As I prepare for my own relocation to a far-away desert location in coming months, two observations are unavoidable. First, truth really is stranger than fiction. And second, the American Southwest is a very odd place.

the Mojave Phone Booth

the Mojave Phone Booth

Enter the Mojave phone booth.

California instituted a network of what were called ‘policy stations’ after WWII in an attempt to bring infrastructure – in this case, telephone service – to remote parts of the state. A public phone booth was installed in 1948 not far from the Cima Cinder Mine in eastern San Bernadino County. This was done at the behest of one Emerson Ray, owner of the mine, in order to provide payphone service to the (very few) local employees in the area. The phone booth was located at the intersection of two remote dirt roads – 35° 16′ 40” North, 115° 43′ 53” West, to be exact – eight miles from the nearest pavement, and fifteen miles from the nearest numbered road.

At first, the phone inside the booth was a hand-cranked magneto, but that was replaced by a rotary coin-op in the 1960s, and then a touch-tone model in the 1970s.

The only problem? The mine closed.

The phone and booth remained.

In the late 1990s, the nascent Internet took notice of the isolated booth, located inside what had since become the Mojave National Preserve. A hiker from Los Angeles spied a ‘telephone icon’ on his map of the expanse and, in disbelief, decided to visit the site. Yes, there it was. He made note of the phone’s number, and when he got back to LA, wrote an article for an underground paper telling of his adventure and publishing the number. Before long, a reader created a website dedicated to the phone, and soon fans were calling the number. Others went to see the phone and to answer any incoming calls; a reporter from the Los Angeles Times visited and found a man camped there who had been at the site for a month and had answered over 500 incomings, including one from an individual who identified himself as “Sergeant Zeno at the Pentagon.”

The booth, in the middle of nowhere, became covered in graffiti, and detritus of the visitors from all around the world littered the site. Its days were numbered. PacBell removed it on 17 May 2000 at the request of the National Park Service, largely because of vocal environmentalists unhappy with the effects of all of the increased traffic.

PacBell is said to have destroyed the booth. A headstone-like plaque was installed on the empty site, but that was later removed by the park service as well… but not before an eponymous indy rock back, short film (Dead Line), documentary (Mojave Mirage), full-length movie (Mojave Phone Booth), and extensive coverage by National Public Radio guaranteed the phone’s pop-cultural apotheosis.

All is not lost. The phone booth’s number is no longer owned by PacBell, instead having been acquired by a small regional provider. And that number now rings into a conference call, sometimes. The idea is that strangers can once again connect just as when the phone booth was still active. But if there is no one else on the line, it’s often just static.

BTW, the number is (760) 733-9969. And if you get through, ask for Sergeant Zeno.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Nasty Little Holes

those horrible lotus seeds

those horrible lotus seeds

Three caveats before I dive into this very strange topic:

First, I own a pet Lesser Sulfur Crested Cockatoo which was rescued from a meth lab outside Gastonia NC (where she was being employed as the proverbial ‘canary in a coalmine.’) As her subspecies is critically endangered in the wild, it’s almost certain that she was hatched here in the U.S. Because of that, Koko has never seen any of the predators that would normally populate her home in East Timor. But she totally ‘loses it’ when one of my family approaches her cage wearing a leopard print blouse. Evolutionarily, Koko knows that such a pattern is bad news, and she reacts quite viscerally to it.

Second, looking back over my medical training and subsequent career, I’ve encountered some fairly disgusting things. Self mutilations? Check. Head traumas? Been there. Major abdominal surgeries? Yup. Autopsies? Yawn. But far and away, the most revolting cases came from… dermatology. To really churn one’s stomach, nothing compares with skin diseases.

Third, I still, to this day, remember a vivid and upsetting dream I experienced as an adolescent. It involved seeing a classmate, nameless, faceless, with her arms bandaged. In the dream, she removed the wrap, and underneath, both of her forearms were covered with deep holes, and inside of each one was an insect. I don’t have any idea what triggered this thought in my subconscious, but the dream occurred years before I had ever heard of the subject matter of today’s post, and it has obviously stayed with me all of these years.

Keeping those observations in mind, I now present you with Trypophobia, the fear of small irregularly shaped cavities (or blisters, fissures, and bumps, from the Greek root trypo, for hole). This may sound like a joke, but to those who are purported to suffer from it, the condition is anything but funny. And from a quick Google search online, there seem to be a lot of folks out there who are afflicted – or at least who talk about it. Which is even more odd given that in my 27+ years of clinical work, I’ve never encountered a single patient who endorsed these symptoms, nor was I ever instructed that the condition may even exist!

Specifically, trypophobes say that certain images are ‘triggers’ that reliably produce gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, nausea, vomiting) as well as more classically psychogenic ones (e.g., sheer panic, dread, diaphoresis, tachycardia, vertigo).

If you look online, you will see frequent mention of triggers both innocuous and nightmarish:

skin conditions, such as severe athletes foot, chicken pox, measles, and deep cystic acne;

maggots doing their thing;

plants with cystic structures or reproductive pods, such as lotus seed heads, cantaloupes, or pomegranates;

porous coral formations;

soap foam;

the honeycombs of bees;

pancakes with little bubbles in them;

circular shower drains;

popcorn (and bumpy popcorn-finishes on ceilings);




weathered sandstone;


and pregnant Surinam Toads, the dorsal aspects of which are pockmarked by gestating young under the skin – and then those little buggers squeeze out of holes in mamma’s back when developed.

There are researchers who claim that some people’s repulsion to certain stimuli is an unconscious evolutionary association vis a vis dangerous animals/ organisms or infectious conditions that have ‘the look,’ and from which we’re wired to stay far far away, for our own safety.

Others, however, state that so-called trypophobia is nothing more than conditioned yet over-generalized disgust to possible contaminants and unpleasant images – think rotting corpses – fanned by pop psychology, photoshopping, armchair diagnosis, and the internet.

[sidebar: and we all know that if something is on the internet, it must be true]

Anyone who has read my blog for a length of time will be aware of my jaundiced view of ever-increasing disease categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. That noted, there is a lag-time between identifying a condition and having it gain wide acceptance within the profession (e.g., Seasonal Affective Disorder, about which Scandinavians have known for centuries, but which didn’t make ‘the cut’ in early editions of the DSM).

Will trypophobia also make ‘the cut,’ or instead join the ranks of far more suspect ailments like sex addiction and multiple personalities? I’m not sure yet. Either way, don’t now go to YouTube and look for videos of parasitic bot fly infestations. You have been warned.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[from the medical records dept] Alas, Poor Yorick!

[this missive first appeared from The Alienist in early 2013]

“Bones are all that survive of the body. They are keys to our collective past and reminders of our own mortality, so it is no mystery that they have a magic aura for artists, for the faithful of many religions, for collectors, for all of us.”
~Barbara Norfleet (1993)

In the winter of 1983 I engaged in that time-honored rite of passage known as the campus visit. In this case it was pursuant to my applications to medical school. Of the schools I had tentatively chosen, all of the curricula were similar, and the work load at each appeared predictably onerous. But one thing that stood out almost immediately was the manner in which the respective schools addressed and dealt with the dead. And I don’t necessarily mean dead patients. I mean dead teaching tools and specimens.

Case in point: at one public university, as part of the prospective students’ tour, we were brought through the anatomy lab. I remember that it was a large antiseptic room with gurneys, tables, and bodies in zipped bags, along with some articulated skeletons on stands next to the walls. I didn’t sense anything lurid about the showing of this area to the applicants; it was just another part of the tour: “on your left, you see some cadavers, and over here on your right….”

However, later at a private university, it was entirely different. The prospectives’ tour stopped outside the doors to the anatomy lab, and the tour guide said, “here is the anatomy lab. I can’t take you inside because it would violate the sanctity of the area. Every day before we begin our dissection, we have a moment of silence and introspection to thank the deceased for their priceless gift to us and our ability to learn from them and assist in the care of those who are still living.”

What a contrast! It’s not that I’m advocating for disrespect, but the second institution struck me as utterly dour. Being accepted at both, I wound up going to the first school, and I didn’t regret the choice. And yes, I did later give my cadaver a name, one rather tongue-in-cheek and in keeping with the usual ‘whistling past the graveyard’ approach to death employed by many in the health professions.

So much for that moment of silence and introspection.

But I’ve pondered at length since then the manner in which we collectively interact with the dead in the 21st century. I’m not a policy-maker, a mortician, a crime scene investigator, or a hospice-worker. But I do think our society’s approach is rather schizophrenic, perhaps reflecting our own conflicted feelings.

Another case in point: later, as a second year medical student, one recurrent exercise in pathology class was known affectionately as the “pot case” or, better, “the man in a can.” Teaching assistants would obtain the leftovers from recent autopsies performed in the medical center and would place the offal in large plastic buckets. Hearts, livers, pertinent bones, brains, kidneys. Any part of a human body was potentially sloshing around inside. After pots were distributed, we would divide into groups and dump out the contents. We’d be told that we had an hour to look through the contents and then to report on our findings. It seemed entirely scientific and not in the least lurid. But while I remember the pathologies encountered in the pots quite well, I have no recollection of ever having pondered the ultimate question: “who WAS this person, and did she ever think that she was going to wind up like this?”

When one looks, human remains are everywhere. There are medical museums – the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington DC and the Mutter in Philadelphia come to mind – with vast collections of bizarre wet and dry specimens. The Smithsonian has anthropological exhibits of human skulls from around the world, and other academic and research centers possess similar holdings. There are the Capuchin ossuaries in Italy, charnal houses in Egypt, and bone chapels in Portugal that are filled with piles of skulls and stacks of femurs and pelvic bones upon which we gaze. Extant life-sized statuary of saints from the Middle Ages often employ real bones as accessories. And as a lapsed Freemason, I can personally attest that human crania do indeed find their way into lodge ritual more often than not.

So then there is the unavoidable question: how to treat those remains that are not in the ground? It’s not as easy a question as it might at first seem. Many answer by waffling on the age and apparent anonymity of the original owners – specimens from ancient Paleolithic sites rarely stir visceral emotions, whereas that difficult grey zone is encountered, skirting frank grave-robbery, when the remains at issue are nearly identifiable or at least bear an association with someone(s) still living.

For example, at legislative hearings in the 1990s over the fate of the Dickson burial mound in Illinois (active 9thc – 13thc CE), Professor Raymond Fogelson of the University of Chicago spoke for (a distinct minority within) the scientific community when he characterized the curated display of human remains from that site as “obscene pornography.” I prefer to think that another academic who testified, Professor William Sumner, also from the University of Chicago, was closer to accurate when he said that the display “fires the imagination of school children and adults alike…. It inspires a striking recognition of how the past is a continuation with the present and leaves a lasting impression that leads to an enriched intellectual life.”

Besides, it’s not as though such academic collections are spread out to gawkers like a carnival side show. As author Christine Quigley noted in 2001, “the bulk of institutional collections of human remains is rarely visible to the public, despite the fact that displays of [such] are among the most effective tools for luring people into museums.”

And admittedly, not all displays of human remains fall into the academic realm. The successful Bodies tour that has been viewed by hundreds of thousands in cities all across the U.S. is one example of the (some would say crass) commercialization of the dissected dead. There are businesses that specialize in providing “osteological specimens” – certainly a sanitized description – to just about anyone with interest and cash. Prominent auction houses have sold remains when they have historical interest. And human skulls and other bones are freely available online to anyone, no questions asked, as long as the items are listed as “medical teaching tools” to circumvent purported bans on selling body parts on the Internet.

This dichotomy is perhaps easier to understand when viewed through the prism of the early modern age, a time when the scientific method was blossoming alongside P.T. Barnum. Or as Alberti and Hallam presciently noted, “the macabre seeds sewn in the Enlightenment bore their morbid fruit in the Victorian era. Medical collections founded in the late 18th and 19th centuries were at the intersection of a number of cultural and scientific currents: the development of pathology and comparative anatomy as disciplines, the formalization of medical education, European colonial expansion, and the spread of popular shows and exhibitions.”

There is a wonderful book entitled Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930, by Warner and Edmonson. Based on the vintage collection of the Dittrick Museum of Case Western Reserve University, the book illustrates a surprisingly common form of group photography that became popular around the turn of the 20th century – medical students and house staff posing with skeletons and cadavers. If you search ‘cadaver’ and ‘antique’ and ‘photograph’ on Google Images, you’ll find dozens of these pictures. It seems that just about every American medical school and hospital of the day had students and staff posing openly with the dead.

This ‘art form’ died out after WWII – students would risk expulsion were they to try this today – but even when viewed through the lenses of modern sensibilities, the photos, at least to me, do not seem exploitative or pornographic. Instead the scenes appear innocent, good natured, and in a manner, curious and inquisitive.

But the question remains answered, if at all, unsatisfactorily. It is still unclear what has changed in our collective consciousness of, and appreciation for, the dead. Is it political-correctness run amok? Or something deeper that we are only now coming to understand?

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (XI)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the great showman P.T. Barnum, in order to keep crowds flowing through his well-attended carnival exhibits, put large signs with arrows on the walls that read, “THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS!” The masses, ignorant of that word, surged forward to see the Egress! And soon they found themselves on the far side of the turnstiles, keeping the flow moving just as Barnum had wished.

The point? People can start to act like lemmings with the strategic application of ads and signs. Anyone who has been on I-95 at South of the Border, I-75 at Rock City, or I-90 at Wall Drug knows this well.

Thus, in the spirit of the Egress, I give you… The Thing.

After leaving Tombstone, Boney and I headed up route 80 until we intersected I-40 at Benson AZ. Heading east, it wasn’t long before we encountered signs for The Thing: “What is The Thing?” “Dare you to see The Thing?” “The Thing – Mystery of the Desert?” &c.

you know you'll stop

you know you’ll stop

Unlike other stretches of American highway schlock (e.g., SOB signs start a good 90 miles before one hits Dillon SC), we didn’t have far to go before reaching the unincorporated wide-spot of Dragoon AZ, home of The Thing. That said, fear not! The Thing’s handlers make the most of concentrated signage carpet-bombing before you do reach it.

Guide books tell you that The Thing lives in nearby Cochise AZ, but I think that’s merely for GPS purposes. In actuality, The Thing can be found at exit 322, where it resides somewhere behind the pumps at the Johnson Road Shell/ Quickee-Mart, the only structure, it seems, in all of Dragoon.

the anticipation builds

the anticipation builds

There is dispute as to who brought The Thing to its current domicile. The state historical society and the Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff maintain that it was the brainchild of one Homer Tate, an erstwhile carnival worker. Not so fast, said syndicated columnist Stan Delaplane, who claimed in a published 1956 interview that it was instead a local (bored?) attorney, one Thomas Binkley Prince. Either way, where to send thanks may never be entirely settled, since both of the principals have gone to that Great Sideshow In The Sky. This pearl of American culture is now owned and operated from afar by an Albuquerque-based company, Bowlins, Inc. Let’s just hope that they appreciate the magnitude of the caretaking responsibility they’ve assumed for this and future generations.

Regardless, you stop, you enter the Quickee-Mart, and you are immediately assaulted by the usual assortment of male enhancement dietary supplements, beer displays, postcards, cigarettes, bobbleheads, silk flowers, beltbuckles, t-shirts, and packaged snack foods.

don't forget souvenir Thing water

don’t forget souvenir Thing water

You find yourself looking around, expectantly. Something is different, but what? Then you look down and see that there are large yellow footprints on the floor, starting near the cash registers. They lead to the back of the store. There is a door which looks dungeon-esque along with a faux stone wall. Nearby there is an arrow-and-sign that rhetorically asks once again, “Dare You See The Thing?!?” For only $1, payable to the cashier in front, how can you say no?

I backtracked to the cashier and handed over my dollar. “I’d like to see The Thing,” I told him, as if it were the first time, and not the 546th, that he had heard that statement this day. He nodded without even looking up. The yellow footprints beckoned with more urgency now that I had been granted entry to the sanctum sanctorum.

I guess I expected to open the door and see The Thing standing in front of me, glaring. That is not the case. Instead, one finds a passageway that leads out back. It seems that The Thing lives in an extensive compound of half a dozen buildings – all single-story corrugated steel or cinderblock – arranged in a very large oval such that there is a central courtyard. There are stretches of high fence in between the buildings. There’s nothing of note in the courtyard itself, just some broken picnic tables and benches, dirt, scrub grass, and those yellow footprints on the cement. The buildings and fences, it appears, are arranged that way to form a defensive perimeter to keep prying eyes and non-paying guests out. Or perhaps to keep The Thing in?

I was the only person back there. I followed the footsteps across the courtyard and entered the first building. No Thing in sight.

Instead I was greeted by the oddest assortment of detritus that I’ve seen since I was last in my freshman dormitory’s basement.

Imagine that you have been tasked with creating a museum. That with which you have to work includes the contents of the local Salvation Army thrift shop, a number of mismatched glass display cases, cardboard and paint for signs, cars and appliances in any condition from the local junk yard, all items from the ‘free’ section of Craigslist, and mannequins seized when the recently bankrupted department store downtown was liquidated. This was the apparent scenario faced by Tate/ Prince at the Dawn of The Thing.

Inside The Thing’s compound, one finds a series of displays with no common theme except that they coalesced from the raw materials just noted. Old tractors that are falling apart. A few 1930s vintage cars, including one beat-up Rolls purported to have been owned by Hitler (complete with mannequin in back seat). A wax figure that looks like Charlie Chaplin if you squint. A display of steering wheels. A broken Edison phonograph. Zuni kachinas. An ancient Chinese stool. Excavated soda bottles. Odd wooden carvings of people being tortured in various historical settings. Framed reproduction Currier & Ives lithographs. Some dusty broken rifles. A large covered wagon with wax Indians creeping toward unsuspecting wax passengers and taxidermied oxen. A huge jumble of mason jars. Victorian furniture cast-offs with springs protruding from the frayed upholstery. Several saddles. A weird collection of painted driftwood.

inside a grand exhibit hall

inside a grand exhibit hall

The kitsch here knows no bounds. There are signs next to all of the displays reading, “The Thing Is, This Is A ______.” But no Thing.

Soon I began to think that The Thing didn’t actually exist, but that the dumb signs, worded thusly, are the only connection to the semantics of the roadside ads.

Oh ye of little faith.

Still wandering, alone with my thoughts in the last building and its impressive assortment of obsolete typewriters, I found in the corner ahead a cinderblock bunker perhaps a yard in height. It had a glass top, and over it hung a banner proclaiming, “Here Lies The Thing?” (not sure why the question mark).

the Crypt

the Crypt

Approaching cautiously, peering inside, I found myself face to face with a tableau of two desiccated human mummies, apparently a mother and child. Their sunken eyeless sockets stared back at me, pleading, “this ain’t the Smithsonian… get us out of here!” The pair looked like Slim Jims that had seen better days. I suppose they were real, but it was hard to tell through the dirty glass and dust.

star of the show

star of the show

Remembering the published 1956 interview, when Delaplane asked of the source of The Thing, a Prince family member said that “[a] man came through here… years ago. He had three of them he got somewhere. He was selling them for $50 [each].”

And now for all eternity. In Dragoon. Under dirty glass. Next to the mason jars and wax Hitler. A fate truly worse than death.

Boney-M, I thought, was so much better looking. I felt like heading out to the parking lot and dragging him back inside to charge viewers $1 myself!

But we still had a long way to go. I walked a few more steps and found that I was back in the Quickee-Mart gift shop. As I was leaving, more travelers were lined up at the cashier to hand over their dollars and see The Thing.

P.T. Barnum would be so proud.

[to be continued…]

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Kopi Luwak

[Today’s post is sponsored by Lisa Kamarchik, JD, an accomplished family lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina. When asked about her own coffee preferences a while back, she said something to the effect of “I like good coffee, not that [expletive] you get from [insert local grocery chain here].” So, counselor, here’s your post…]

For my birthday recently, my family bought me some really pricey shit.

Okay, it wasn’t actually feces. But it had been plucked directly from feces, and that’s close enough.

Kopi Luwak, or ‘Civit Coffee,’ is made from berries that have been eaten and excreted by the Asian Palm Civit (Paradoxurus hermaphrodites), a small catlike mammal found along the Indonesian archipelago. No particular coffee species need be employed, since ‘Kopi Luwak’ refers to the, er, processing rather than the variety of bean.

the star of the show

the star of the show

Connoisseurs claims that the resulting Kopi Luwak brew is sublime for two reasons – selection and digestion.

Of the former, it’s because the civit intentionally seeks the juiciest and ripest coffee berries to consume, far more selectively than what is accomplished by (human) manual picking and mechanized sorting.

Of the latter, the fleshy pulp of chosen berries is fermented in a civit’s gut during digestion. This occurs as the animal’s proteolytic enzymes seep past the berries’ outer shells, resulting in a chemical malting reaction that is said to change the flavor of the end product.

The coffee, collected wild, is very expensive because it is labor-intensive (farmed/ caged civit coffee is considered inhumane and inferior, and responsible brokers avoid dealing with that product). After spending approx. 36 hours in a civet’s digestive tract, the beans are defecated in clumps, having retained their shape and intact layers of shell and pulp. Workers then go around picking up the clumps and extracting the undigested bean parts, washing them (!) and transporting them for further sorting and roasting.

However, not all critics are uniform in their praise. For example, Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post, reviewed Kopi Luwak and concluded that “it tasted just like Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn’t finish it.” Other equally vocal critics claim that Kopi Luwak is simply bad coffee, purchased for novelty rather than taste.

But in the United States, Kopi Luwak sells for approx $700 per kilogram. And with that kind of money involved, you can predict there will be ripple effects.

1. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, as well as the University of Florida, have tried to replicate the malting processes in the lab, developing a means by which Kopi Luwak can be made, minus the civits. No word on success yet.

2. There was recently a Craigslist ad in Portland OR from a man named Randy who said he’d eat and defecate the beans himself for a fraction of the price, $30 per kilogram. No word on takers yet.

3. Can’t find civits? Entrepreneurs in southeast Asia are marketing Elephant and Panda Coffee using those species’ respective droppings. No word on sales yet.

But back to my birthday present. How, you ask, did the joe taste? It was nothing special. It tasted like coffee. I think the hype is a crock of… well, you get the picture.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[from the medical records dept] Sorcery, Body Parts, and Pharmaceuticals

[some of the following was originally posted by the Alienist last summer, but you really can’t get enough of this stuff]

In keeping with April’s mummy theme – soap cadavers, artists’ corpses – I now complete the trifecta with observations on the use of dead people as medicinals and ingestibles.

Cannibalism has existed for as long as there have been humans, and probably longer. It’s the societal revulsion at such behavior, and not the actual metabolic issues of the consumption, that renders the subject anathema. But the proscribed always fosters lurid fascination, and makes for good press.

Take, for example, the British Gazetteer on 3 May 1718, wherein was reported:

“We have intelligence from Lincoln [of] a man being hanged there … [who] within three days after his execution, [had] … apothecaries contract[] with a butcher for a sum of money, to take the body out of the grave, and cut off all the flesh, fit for them to make a skeleton of; which flesh he sold for venison to an inn-keeper; who making it into a pasty, invited many of his neighbors to the eating of it; but sometime after the villainy being detected, the butcher and the two apothecaries were committed to [the] Lincoln [jail].”

Accurate? I’m not certain. And with apologies to honest druggists everywhere, and even the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this is not really the flavor – pun intended – of today’s post. Instead, I wish to talk about the odd and surprisingly common archaic belief that noshing on the dead was somehow therapeutic, not just delicious. And we start with blood.

In order to restore vigor and youth, some medical practitioners of the late Middle Ages recommended drinking the blood of those not so aged. The physician Marsilio Ficino, in the 15th century, wrote, “why shouldn’t our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse… suck the blood of a youth? A youth who is willing, healthy, happy and temperate, [and] whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant. They will suck, therefore, like leeches, an ounce or two from a scarcely- opened vein of the left arm; they will immediately take an equal amount of sugar and wine; they will do this when hungry and thirsty and when the moon is waxing. If they have difficulty digesting raw blood, let it first be cooked together with sugar; or let it be mixed with sugar and moderately distilled over hot water and then drunk.”

Blood therapy was not a rare recommendation it appears.

Edward Taylor (c.1658–1702), a Puritan minister and lay physician in New England, wrote that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness [epilepsy].” In Denmark, the use of blood as a cure for epilepsy was widespread; it is documented that the sick and infirmed would gather under a scaffold hoping to catch the spilt blood of a freshly executed criminal for this very purpose. Many English physicians, too, believed in the curative potency of blood, and recommended it to patients as late as 1747.

Regarding other parts of the human corpus, physician [Nicholas] Lemery recommended mother’s milk for inflamed eyes, feces to heal sores, and skull, brain, fat, nails and “all the parts of man” to cure a variety of conditions in 16th century France.

axungia hominis (human fat)

axungia hominis (human fat)

In The Marrow of Physick (1669), Scotsman Thomas Brugis wrote, “a man’s skull that hath been dead but one yeare, bury it in the ashes behinde the fire, and let it burne untill it be very white, and easie to be broken with your finger; then take off all the uppermost part of the head to the top of the crowne, and beat it as small as is possible; then grate a nutmeg, and put to it, and the blood of a dog dryed, and powdered; mingle them all together, and give the sick to drinke, first and last, both when he is sick, and also when he is well, the quantity of halfe a dram at a time in white wine.”

Though a few formulas called for fresh, when fresh wasn’t available, dessicated would do; one of the most commonly advertised apothecary substances at that time was ground mummy, a preparation of the ancient remains of an embalmed or dried body from the distant sands of Araby. One 16th century surgeon, Ambrose Paré, noted that mummy was “the very first and last medicine of almost all our practitioners.”

Mummy heads were used to create plasters to assist with wound healing as late as 1750. Many practitioners were also prescribing “three drams of [crushed] human skull” for epilepsy, or “two ounces of mummy in a plaster against ruptures.” These forms of therapy, though, were beginning to fall from favor by the early 18th century as public opinion – not necessarily ‘science’ – turned against the practices.

That said, the best is never cheap, and mummy in 1678 was selling in London for 5s 4d for a pound! Thus, many apothecaries substituted, for a genuine Bedouin, cheap imitations that typically came from the corpses of east-side beggars, lepers, and plague victims.

Assuming one could afford it, perhaps the palate craved mummy with sweetener? Then mellified man, or human mummy confection, was for you. This was a legendary substance created by steeping a human cadaver in honey. Interestingly, it is only mentioned in a single Chinese source from the 16th century by one Li Shizhen, a pharmacologist relying on second hand hearsay (sound reliable?) Li wrote in his reference work, Bencao Gangmu, in the chapter entitled ‘Man as Medicine,’ that in the deserts far to the west, there were elderly men who would volunteer to undergo mummification in honey to create a medicinal suspension that would help their descendants. What separated this mellification process from simple body donation was that it had to commence ante-mortem. It was reported that the donor would stop eating all food other than honey. The donor would even bathe daily in honey. Soon, his feces became mellified, and even his sweat was said to be sweet and thick. When the diet or other illness finally proved fatal, the donor’s corpse would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey… for about a century. By then, the contents would have turned into a thick rich yellowish goo that was said to be capable of healing broken bones and curing other ailments. Li claimed that this was available in Middle Eastern bazaars at a very hefty price.

Maybe one desired mummy, with sweetener or without, but just couldn’t afford it? Fear not, for you too could still partake of the goodness of the body tissues of others. In one 17th century French kabbalist’s magic book (the genre often doubling as a medical text), there is listed what we would call today a sedative, tranquilizer, or anxiolytic, one guaranteed to defuse those with short tempers and violent tendencies.

It involved scraping and collecting the white skin from the tongue of a newborn on a clean piece of linen, and then secretly placing it under the infant’s bonnet during baptism. The tongue, with its ability to curse or bless, was considered a potent anatomical part. Thus activated, the tissue was said to calm the angry, though whether it had to be ingested or just placed in close proximity to a potential outburst remains vague.

At first glance, quack practices such as these seem far removed from our own advanced healthcare. However, the utilization of body parts in therapy still persists. Though blood transfusions and organ transplantations are dramatically different than drinking blood or eating flesh, such interventions do share a core belief in the human body as an instrument of healing.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]


In keeping with our mummy-theme, a few words on adipocere are in order.

With the proper substrate and environment – cold, humid, and lacking oxygen, as might be found in mud or a well-sealed coffin – the fatty tissues in a recently buried corpse will be hydrolyzed by anaerobic bacteria. This hydrolyzation is usually seen in dearly departed who are obese, female, or newborn (i.e., those with extra body fat). Instead of putrefaction, the hydrolyzed soft tissues then form carboxylated sodium salts, with an add’n by-product that we know as glycerin.

In this setting, the glycerin is firm, crumbly, and grey-tan in color – hence its name ‘grave wax’ in the vernacular but ‘adipocere’ in scientific and mortuary circles.

The phenomenon of saponification – the creation of adipocere – was first described in Western print by no less a luminary than Sir Thomas Browne in 1658:

“In a … body ten years buried in a [nearby] church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated [into] large lumps of fat [which were] the consistency of the hardest castile-soap.”

I therefore give you… the soap mummy.

While it is possible that an entire body will saponify, it is more usual that only parts will undergo this chemical conversion. Sometimes the outer ‘shell’ is preserved, while in other cases the internal organs alone undergo saponification. And those parts that saponify can remain intact for centuries. Soap mummies have been unearthed in which stomach contents can still be clearly identified hundreds of years post-mortem.

And people being as they are, it didn’t take long for sensationalism to take hold. Augustus Bozzi Granville, MD, an early 19th century physician, and the first anatomist to conduct an autopsy of an Egyptian mummy before the Royal Academy in London, made candles from adipocere, and then used them to light the anatomic theatre in which he conducted the scientific demonstration.

Needless to say, the event was sold out.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]


‘Mummy Brown,’ also known as ‘Egyptian Brown’ or ‘Mummia,’ is a rich dark earth-tone pigment, somewhere between burnt and raw umber, commonly used by artists starting in the 16th century. And yes, it’s called Mummy Brown for a reason.

It was made from mummies.

The color comes not from the dead body per se, but from the bitumen and asphaltum resin that the ancient Egyptians used in the embalming process. Renaissance artists believed that when pigment from mummified flesh was used in paintings – along with the inevitable bits of ground-up bone – the resulting compound had more solidity and wouldn’t later crack or chip.

finger painting, anyone?

finger painting, anyone?

[this was later shown to be wholly inaccurate… though Mummia had good transparency and could be used successfully for glazes, shadows, and flesh-tones, it did have a tendency to craze, as well as alter other nearby colors because it contained both ammonia and fat]

Entrepreneurs being as they are, when genuine dead Egyptians were not available, hucksters would supply faux-Mummia, made from Egyptian cat mummies (best case) or any old human corpse lying around (worst case). Artists sneeringly referred to such cheap imitations as ‘Mummia Falsa.’ In 1915, one London colourman, touting the quality of the real thing, claimed that he could satisfy the demands of his customers for twenty years from a single genuine Egyptian mummy.

Accept no substitutes.

But once the Edwardians learned of the macabre source, Mummia started its fall from favor. Some artists held (mock?) funerals for their tubes of paint. And yet the need for the shade didn’t go away. As late as 1964, TIME reported that one of London’s best-known art suppliers, C Roberson & Co, had stopped selling Mummy Brown. Geoffrey Roberson-Park, then managing director of C Roberson, is quoted in the article as having said, “we might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere… but not enough to make any more paint. We sold our last complete mummy [a while back].”

So Mummia Falsa was resurrected; it was false, not in the sense that it was made from dead cats or ordinary corpses in lieu of ancient human ones, but rather because it wasn’t made from dead tissues at all. You can still purchase variations of Mummy Brown in art supply stores, except that it is now composed of kaolin, quartz, goethite, and hematite, and ranges from yellow to dark red (the latter being called ‘Mummy Violet.’)

And it’s not just for art anymore.

Mummia was used as a medicinal preparation – it was for sale in Merck’s pharmaceuticals catalogue as recently as 1908. But more on that later.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]