Death Takes A Holiday (IV)

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 an interesting phenom I’ve noticed in the past when driving to Vegas. Depending from which direction you’re approaching, the Nevada border runs through some pretty desolate areas. Usually, there are no landmarks to tell where you are located. The road seems long and endless. You have to depend on the car’s odometer and count the miles yourself. But before you reach the Silver State, you’ll notice what appears to be a dark line just below the visual horizon, way in the distance. At first, what forms this dark line is not apparent. But as you get closer – you’re still miles away – you realize that the ‘line’ is created by buildings. Clustered buildings. All casinos. And all within feet of the border.

Casino owners crowd there because they want to be ‘first’ when desperate traveling gamblers cross into the Land of Legal Gaming. It’s funny to see all of those establishments right on the line – as if they’re aren’t more than enough video poker outlets elsewhere in Nevada to fill the need.

Anyway, as my articulated companion and I were approaching the California-Nevada border at Primm, I noticed ‘the line,’ and before long the individual casinos came into focus – half a dozen large buildings. And the most prominent of them is Whiskey Pete’s.

Whiskey Pete's

Whiskey Pete’s

Whiskey Pete’s is both a casino and an adjoining hotel. It’s pretty big for being in such a God-forsaken place – almost 800 rooms and suites, a large swimming pool, several gift shops and restaurants, and a casino of more than 36,000 sq ft. It also has a monorail that connects to its neighboring casinos across I-15.

Whiskey Pete’s namesake was a real man – Peter MacIntyre, a gas station owner in State Line, NV, back in the 1920s. Selling petrol for pennies didn’t make much of a living, so Pete decided to supplement his income with bootlegging. And apparently he did quite well at it. His gas station was known, surprisingly, as Whiskey Pete’s. When he died in 1933, Pete asked to be buried on his property with a bottle of hooch in his hand so that he could stay close and watch over the illicit activities from the Great Beyond (note: when building the casino that bears his name in 1977, the construction crews accidentally disturbed his unmarked grave and he was subsequently reburied down the road at a site where once had been located his copper stills).

Anyway, a developer who decided to build in State Line, Ernest Primm, modestly named his new wide-spot-in-the-road after himself; before long, Primm, NV, sported several gaming complexes: Whiskey Pete’s, Buffalo Bill’s, and the Primm Valley Resort. And normally, unless you’re totally addicted to gambling, most of us zoom right past Primm on the interstate in our rush to get to the Vegas Strip.

But you’d be missing the rather unusual if you did. And I don’t mean Whiskey Pete’s final resting place.

I exited the highway with the Grim Reaper, covering him with a jacket in the back seat after I parked. I wasn’t going to be long, but there are two interesting cars to see inside the casino, even though they are little-advertised in either print or highway billboard format.

In December 1941, the U.S. Secret Service found itself in a quandary. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor the day before, and the President was to address Congress. Normally, FDR would have ridden from the White House to Capitol Hill in his limo. But everyone was very tense about possible Japanese agents-provocateur being nearby and possibly making an attack on the person of the president. An armored car was needed for the short trip, but the presidential limo was not hardened. Then, one Secret Service agent remembered seeing an armored car at the U.S. Treasury Department’s impound lot. It was a 1928 Cadillac 341A Town Sedan that had been custom built for high-ranking gangsters; both Dutch Schultz and Al Capone had made use of it, in no small part because of its lead-filled doors and inch-thick glass.

[despite its construction, the car was never involved in any actual gunfights; Schultz died in 1935 after being shot in the men’s room of the Palace Chophouse in Newark, NJ, and Capone died of the ravages of neuro-syphilis in 1947 at his mansion in Palm Island, FL]

The car had been seized from Capone by the government when he was convicted of tax evasion in 1931. That is how it came to be used by FDR to drive to Congress to request a declaration of war ten years later. And now it resides at Whiskey Pete’s.

The second car on display is not in as good condition, but it’s had a harder life. You see, in April 1934, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker – yes, that Bonnie and Clyde – stole a brand-new Ford Model 730 Deluxe Sedan with a powerful V-8 engine, and used it for the next six weeks as their getaway car during a number of robberies and killings. The joyride ended in late May in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, when they were ambushed by a lawmen’s posse and the car was riddled with over 100 bullets.

The Death Car then

The Death Car then

Since then, the Death Car has traveled to carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, race tracks, and state fairs all over the country; at one point, hucksters charged the luridly-obsessed $1 to sit in the front seat. But fearing that overuse might destroy the automotive cash cow, the car was taken off the touring circuit and then spent time in a museum in Reno and several casinos before winding up in its now-permanent (?) home at Whiskey Pete’s in July 2011.

The Death Car now

The Death Car now

[in case you missed my earlier post on Bonnie and Clyde, here it is again:]

And don’t be fooled by imposters! The prop car from the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde is often passed as the Death Car, but Whiskey Pete’s has the real deal. And while you’re there, don’t miss, next to the Death Car, Clyde’s bullet-tattered Shirt of Death also on display. In the same case with the shirt is a formal-looking notarized document from none other than Marie Barrow, Clyde’s sister, attesting to its authenticity.

Clyde's Shirt of Death (courtesy Roadside America)

Clyde’s Shirt of Death (Courtesy Roadside America)

If you are wondering, Clyde wore a 14-32 – he was kinda scrawny.

Both of these cars are sitting in the middle of the casino floor, albeit behind glass, near the cashier’s cage. All around there are flashing lights, ringing bells and whistles, and the other expected sensory stimuli of a Nevada gambling house. They are on display 24/ 7/ 365 for free. And yet, both vehicles were being ignored by the addicts mindlessly feeding quarters into the surrounding machines. I seemed to be the only one paying them attention.

Now, if only Whiskey Pete’s could just track down Dutch Schultz’ ‘Urinal of Death,’ THAT would be impressive!

[to be continued…]

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Death Takes A Holiday (II)

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.

Prior to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 (2 & 3 Will. IV c.75), it was illegal in Great Britain and the empire to own, possess, or dissect any human body except that of a convicted felon who had been sentenced to death and post-mortem anatomization. As the number of capital sentences was far outstripped by the demand for bodies, however, there had developed a robust and entirely illegal trade in human remains since the late middle ages.

The sensational crimes of Burke and Hare

brought the need for legal bodies to a head. With the passage of the Anatomy Act which permitted wider procurement of bodies, the black market began to wither. Other countries soon followed suit with similar laws. Before long, guards no longer had to be posted at cemeteries to prevent the resurrectionists from snatching grandma before she had turned to dust.

And although the trade in human remains remained tightly regulated at first – individual bodies were numbered and tracked by the UK Office of the Home Secretary – at last there existed in the English-speaking world a means by which physicians, surgeons, and students could study anatomy without having to sneak around at night with shovels and lanterns after paying bribes to night watchmen.

At first the corpses obtained were those of the unclaimed dead, mostly from poorhouses and jails. But in time, progressive individuals began to will their mortal remains to medical science for this expressed purpose.

Predictably, it wasn’t long before a commercial market in anatomic specimens developed. An early example is seen through Millikin & Lawley, a company located in London that sold medical “teaching tools” during the Victorian era. M&L became the largest supplier of human skulls and skeletons by the turn of the 20th century, its location in Pall Mall near the medical school of King’s College helping growth in no small part.

M&L marketed their bones by stressing the quality – that the skulls and skeletons were from the continent, especially Italy and France (do those countries produce better bones?) Apparently many medical students bought their study aids at M&L and then a robust secondary market sprung up as those nearing graduation sold their items to incoming students. Thus, the bones were recycled year after year and class after class as a form of educational hand-me-down.

In add’n, M&L sold medical and surgical supplies, and they rented “magic lanterns” and slides for both didactic and amusement purposes. If that weren’t enough, M&L also contracted with entertainers such as conjurors (magicians), ventriloquists, and handlers with trained animals for parties and other festive gatherings.

But back to the bones. In the 1880s and ’90s, M&L’s most popular item amongst medical students was the “half skeleton.” This consisted of a latched pine box containing a set of human bones – a full skull and vertebral column, along with half (i.e., one side) of the rest of the bones of the body: one hand, one foot, one humerus, one radius, one ulna, one femur, one tibia, one fibula, one scapula, one patella, one clavicle, seven ribs, and a sawn-half each of a sternum, a pelvis, and a hyoid bone. On the inside of the lid of the pine box was glued the company’s label, and M&L also advertised with applique logos on the bones themselves!

While a less costly half-skeleton might have worked for students on a budget, there was even greater demand for whole articulated skeletons. Ads for such can be found in late 19th century publications on both sides of the Atlantic. And after a while such ads weren’t aimed merely at the medical community. The tracking of individual bodies to licensed clinicians, seen at first in the 1830s in the UK, gave way in latter years of the century to a lucrative commercial trade in bones to just about any interested party.

Artists comprised one non-medical group that sought bones. Another was the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOF).

IOOF was a fraternal order of the 17th and 18th centuries (UK) and 19th century (US), second in prominence and membership only to the Freemasons. Part of the secret IOOF initiation ceremony required the presence of a human skeleton in a mock coffin; a candidate would be blindfolded, draped with chains, and led to a place after which the blindfold would be removed and the frightened neophyte found himself in the flickering candlelit presence of Old Boney (the allegorical setting used to impress upon the initiate the ephemeral nature of life, his own mortality, death-as-the-great-equalizer, and the need to do charitable work and walk the straight and narrow).

Some of the less-affluent IOOF lodges used plaster models of skeletons

old plaster IOOF

old plaster IOOF

but most lodges wanted the real deal.

Boney-M, the real deal

Boney-M, the real deal

Many times, the desired authentic skeletons were obtained from medical schools which had gone defunct or were upgrading the specimens in their collections. Perhaps some skeletons were pilfered by faculty members who were also Oddfellows. There is even rumor that Oddfellows’ regalia catalogues in the 1880s sold initiation skeletons by mail order.

early IOOF catalogue

early IOOF catalogue

Although far from common, these vintage IOOF skeletons still periodically surface. As lodges fold because the current membership is dying off, their property is sold to settle taxes and other debts… only for someone to find a skeleton in the closet. Literally. And though often in rough condition from years of storage neglect, more than one estate liquidator or realtor has come unexpectedly face to face with a dusty but still-grinning skeleton in its original silk lined coffin emblazoned with the IOOF emblem on the lid.

There have even been times in which a local police department was summoned to investigate the uncovering of an “unknown body,” but once no signs of foul play are uncovered by the men in blue and the medical examiners office, the bones are good to go. If ever determined to be of native American origin (which has happened, albeit rarely), the bones are repatriated to the nearest federally recognized tribe. Other skeletons of unknown provenance are sometimes buried. But more times than not, such skeletons wind up at auction. And from there they have found their way to Halloween parties, bars, galleries, libraries, dens, museums, and antique shops. One IOOF skeleton is even said to have enjoyed a prop-cameo in George Romero’s classic 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, though I’ve been unable to confirm that at present.


“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)

While I didn’t go into surgery, throughout my medical education I was always fascinated by anatomy and osteology. And readers of this blog will not be shocked to learn of my interest in the slightly macabre. Being a physician with such tastes, it seemed only natural that I should locate an old skeleton for my office. But it had to be an old one. I didn’t want a recent import from China or India. I wanted a delicate patinated 19th century specimen that probably hung in the corner of an anatomy lab while men in bowler derbies and starched collars with handlebar moustaches went about their work.

The old skeletons, by the way, can be identified by the salt-cured cartilege of the rib cage (modern skeletons use rubber or synthetic composite instead) and the articulation with brass (modern bones having stainless steel attachments). Plus the IOOFs look old and weathered. You can just tell.

After some inquiry, I contacted a dealer in the LA ‘burbs who had located the very type of old skeleton I wanted. He was said to have started life (death?) at a California medical school before moving into the fraternal world. He was then uncovered in a now-defunct IOOF lodge in the Bay area, found in the basement in his coffin lined with the San Francisco Chronicle from the 1880s. He was in marvelous shape, missing only one tooth, though his coffin was no longer available. I negotiated for him, and before long I was Boney-M’s new owner.

Now I just had to get him back to the east coast in one piece. Shipping was inadvisable given his age and fragility.

So on the morning of the second day of the trip, I was sitting in my rental car, the engine turned off, outside the appointed meeting place at 5:00 a.m., in the pitch black. Why? Because I had to make it to Las Vegas by midday, and the Los Angeles morning traffic threatened to be interminable if I (we?) were to get a late start. The seller was kind enough to meet me at an ungodly hour to allow for an early start. Thus we connected, we loaded in darkness – it all had a slightly illicit feel to it, carrying bones out into an alleyway with the sun not even up – and before long the car was pointed to Sin City, almost 300 miles distant, with Boney-M secured in the back seat.

Plus there were six days and almost 2000 miles to go before we would reach Mecca.

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

the Hennin (Boqta)

Of what do you immediately think when you hear, “princess”? Castles and jewels and thrones? What about clothing? Just about everyone has seen the pointy, cone-shaped hats that princesses (used to) wear – from kids in Halloween costumes to 700 year old paintings – and nothing screams “princess!” quite as loudly.

Princess wearing Hennin (van der Goes)

Princess wearing Hennin (van der Goes)

There’s actually a name for such a hat. It’s called a “hennin,” and what is particularly unusual about it is its source. Despite being commonly worn by early European blue-bloods, the style actually hails from thousands of miles to the east, in Mongolia of all places.

You see, the European hennin is modeled directly after the boqtas worn by Mongol queens. Boqtas were cone-shaped hats that were made of willow and felt, and could reach heights of 7′, which is really impressive when you remember that the Mongols of the 14th century were not particularly tall. And the boqta wasn’t meant to be wholly decorative. In Mongolian society, the genders were traditionally treated more or less equally, and this extended to similar forms of dress (think: unisex Mao suits from later Red China). The boqta, therefore, identified a royal female from a distance.

Marco Polo is said to have brought back at least one boqta from his travels. The Mongol Empire was respected (and feared) in Europe, and it wasn’t long after Polo’s return that pointy headwear became the rage in royal courts. Those westerners tended to wear their hennins further back on the head, at an angle, while Mongols wore them vertically. And, without a good source of peacock feathers, always present on true Mongolian boqtas, the western versions had instead gauzy streamers flowing in the wind at the top as substitutes.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

A Medieval Quarrel

The winter months are a time in which many pay homage to creation and regeneration. In November, Hindus celebrate Diwali, the festival of the return of Lord Rama from exile. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha celebrates, in part, the miraculous discovery of the Zamzam Well. Bodhi is recognized in December as the day on which the Buddha finally achieved perfect enlightenment. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice – called Dongshi amongst the Chinese, Yalda amongst the Persians, Modraniht amongst the Anglo-Saxon pagans, Saturnalia amongst the ancient Romans, and Soyal in Hopi and Navajo lands – is the point at which the days incrementally grow longer. Christians celebrate the birth of their savior in late December. On Hanukkah, the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple.

In all of these traditions, a cycle begins anew.

In that spirit, I present to you the story of a resurrection of a more temporal nature, albeit one impossible to have predicted, and most unusual. But to fully appreciate this tale, we need first to turn back the clock a bit… say, seven centuries.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Medieval improvements in the crossbow represented in that era a military advance arguably as important as that of firearms in the 17th century or airplanes in the 20th century. It was in many respects a game-changer. While weapons similar to crossbows, or arbalests as they were then called, existed far into antiquity, the classical medieval crossbow gained wider use, especially amongst troops of minimal training and discipline – think conscripts. The most common form of the weapon consisted of a horizontal limb, the lathe, as well as a push-lever and a ratcheted drawing mechanism, the crannequin, all mounted on a sturdy stock – wood and whalebone at first, and iron later. This contraption was designed to fire metal projectiles, called bolts or quarrels, with much greater velocity and kinetic energy than could be produced by longbows powered only by an archer’s upper extremities. The earliest arbalests were comparatively light and could be ratcheted by hand while the stock was braced against the body. Later variants were much heavier and required that the stock be placed on the ground with the bowman’s feet holding it down as both arms and the back were used to mechanically retract the string and hook it over the nut in preparation for shooting.

But it wasn’t just the increased energy behind the crossbow’s projectile that was so significant. The training of those skilled in the use of longbows took years, and constant practice and physical training was required. The crossbow could be mastered by draftees with a mere week’s instruction. As they were simple to operate, and deadly, suddenly mounted and armored troops became far more vulnerable. By the 12th century, arbalests were in wide use throughout Europe. Seeing the potential decimation of ancient noble families (read: supporters), Pope Innocent II at the Second Lateran Council in April 1139 forbade the use of such weaponry against the faithful:

Artem autem illam mortiferam et Deo odibilem ballistoriorum et sagittariorum, adversus christianos et catholicos de cetero sub anathemate prohibemus” (we prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hated by God, to be employed against Catholics from now on)

In 1215, the Magna Carta also made mention of crossbows and the need to rid the realm of them:

Et statim post pacis reformacionem amovebimus de regno omnes alienigenas milites, balistarios, servientes, stipendiarios, qui venerint cum equis et armis ad nocumentum regni” (as soon as peace is restored, we will banish from the kingdom all foreign-born knights, crossbow men, sergeants, and any mercenary soldiers who have come with horses and arms to the kingdom’s hurt)

These proscriptions were widely ignored.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Saint Severin was the third Bishop of Cologne, living there in the late 4th century. His earthly dust is today preserved in a golden reliquary in the choir of the city’s church that bears his name. In his honor, too, one of the gates of Cologne’s fortified city wall was named for him. The Severinstorburg, or Severin’s Gate, was first documented as a portal and defensive bulwark in the early 13th century. It was used not only to protect the city, but also as the formal entrance for the wealthy and powerful approaching from the south. Today it remains one of the only extant portions of the wall.

Cologne was a major economic and political center in medieval times. It was a vital harbor and transportation hub on the Rhine, and it also served as an important center of religious pilgrimage. Cologne and its environs, however, were in a near-constant state of internecine warfare during the 13th through 15th centuries. A fortified city wall was therefore very much needed.

The now-nameless individual in question might have been a peasant conscript or a nobleman. He might have been on foot, or mounted. He might not even have been a combatant – perhaps he was a priest? But what we do know is that he was present during one of the many battles at Severinstorburg, and he was struck by a crossbow bolt in his left anterior thigh. The deadly iron projectile hit the limb a few inches above the knee. Because we don’t know from how far away the weapon was shot – crossbows of this type were often rampart weapons, raining death upon combatants below – we don’t know the exact force at impact. However, a typical crossbow of the era could produce up to 1200lbs of draw-weight, far greater than any longbow of the Middle Ages, and would have yielded significant damage upon striking.

One can tell from the location of the subsequent skeletal injury that the bolt pierced the vastus medialis, rectus femoris, or vastus lateralis – all major muscles – and could have lacerated the quadriceps bursa, quadriceps femoris, and synovial capsule on entry as well. Regardless, the bolt failed to exit at the linea aspera of the posterior aspect, instead remaining lodged firmly in the bone’s marrow. The bolt probably missed the femoral nerve and artery, though it is near-certain that large branches of the lateral femoral circumflex artery, and possibly the femoral vein, were severed by the hit, causing profuse bleeding.

One also suspects that our subject died at the same time and place that he sustained the crossbow injury, though we don’t know if that wound was the fatal insult, or merely one of many. This is because, had our subject been moved from the field of battle and succumbed later, it seems highly improbable that he would have been carted back to the site of his mortal injury for interment.

Instead, our subject was not apparently carried from the field, but instead wound up in the city moat, at the site of battle.

Not a particularly good way to go.

He became embedded in the muck at the bottom of the moat. Or at least did his injured limb. And there it remained. For a very long time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the early 1920s, the canal around what was left of the city wall of Cologne was drained in preparation for construction. In the course of dredging at Severinstorburg was found a human femur with a crossbow bolt embedded in it. The relic was obtained by a private collector and, almost a century later, displayed in the exhibit, “Aufruhr 1225: Das Mittelalter an Rhein und Ruhr” at the Archaeological Museum of Mainz in 2010. The curator’s catalog lists the relic thusly:

“#124. Human Femur with Hole from Crossbow Projectile. 13th century. Severinstoburg. 42.5cm length. Inv. No. A67. The iron tip has frontally penetrated halfway into the bone above the knee. Surrounding the entry wound, tiered comminuted fractures are visible, which resulted from penetration of the blunt tip into the bone surface. The projectile has a solid forged-iron rhomboidal head with a short shaft. Crossbow projectiles were in the Middle Ages feared long-range weapons that could pierce through ones armor, and the massive spikes often caused lethal damage. One of the numerous combat operations in connection with the feuds of the 13th century in Cologne produced this serious injury.”

femur and bolt/ quarrel, 13thc

femur and bolt/ quarrel, 13thc

With unpredicted preservation and chance discovery, a long-forgotten death has achieved unexpected curated immortality.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Postscript: my medical training has rendered me a person of rational thought, and I do not consider myself superstitious in the least. However, after negotiating with the museum during its deaccession process and bringing the femur-and-bolt back to my cabinet of medical curiosities, I washed my denim jeans… and a jagged rip developed in exactly the same location as would have been the entry wound 750 years ago. These were new jeans, and had not been abused doing yard work or heavy lifting. And the rest of the denim was undamaged. The tear spontaneously developed while all of the other clothes in the same wash load were spared. Same leg, same spot.

Laugh if you must, but even for a man of science, this is a bit too coincidental.

Happy New Year!

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Cabinets of Curiosities

“I like to tell people that I have the heart of a small boy, but then I add that it’s in a jar on my desk” ~Stephen King

I wasn’t kidding when I said in my online introduction that this blog would be “the attic of [my] psyche.” While I try to focus on items of a historical nature as they pertain to medicine in general, and psychiatry in particular, there are just too many interesting things ‘out there’ to thematically restrict my posts entirely.

But that’s not necessarily a sign of an attention-deficit spectrum disorder. As a matter of fact, there is a long and storied history of just such collecting (be it of objects or ideas), and before I go further with my blog, I think I should share this background with the readership.

a 17th century cabinet (courtesy of British Museum)

a 17th century cabinet (courtesy of British Museum)

The wunderkammer (“wonder-room”) was a phenomenon which arose in the courts and parlors of Europe in the early days of the Renaissance. It was an attempt (by those who had the means) to display the erudition and wealth of the owner. These encyclopedic amalgamations could be as small as those contained in a large chest of drawers (what would later evolve into modern day curio cabinets in which grandma keeps her tchotchkes). They could also be as vast as those contained in whole wings of a palace or mansion. In time, their German moniker gave way to an English term: the cabinet of curiosities (the original use of the word “cabinet” describing a room rather than a piece of furniture).

So what exactly was contained in a cabinet of curiosities? Well, just about everything and anything; it was a juxtaposition of widely disparate objects, their only unifying feature being their rarity or ability to fascinate. Such cabinets tended to focus on natural history (sometimes faked; e.g., unicorn horns, mermaid remains, dragon eggs, and phoenix tail feathers). They also stressed geology, ethnography from distant and mysterious lands, archaeology, religious or historical relics (more fakery; e.g., pieces of the True Cross and Ark of the Covenant), works of fine art, clockwork automata, and miscellaneous antiquities.

In short, they were microcosms of the known and unknown worlds, and many of the better ones formed the nuclei of present day museums – the British Museum’s ‘Enlightenment Gallery,’ the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums at Oxford, and Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology all started out this way. The concept of the cabinet of curiosities also gave rise to later 19th century hucksterism in the form of P.T. Barnum’s freak shows, and in the present, to the nationwide grotesqueries of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the tongue-in-cheek displays of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

Although referenced in texts far earlier, the first wunderkammer appeared in illustration in 1599, in Naples; the engraving shows a room fitted out like a studiolo, with built-in cabinets, the front panels of which could be unlocked and lowered to reveal intricate pigeonholes for display. In this 16th century print, identifiable mounted birds and reptiles, along with other strange and curious animals of uncertain provenance, are also seen suspended from the ceiling.

Both the wealthy and the learned fell under the spell of competing with each other for the best assortments of curios. Ferdinand II of Austria had a vast wunderkammer. Charles I of Great Britain also had one. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II created such a space in his castle to which he retired to contemplate life when weary of the affairs of state. Others with notable collections included Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Sir Hans Sloane, both Augustus the Strong and Christian I of Saxony, Francesco I de Medici of Tuscany, Frederick III of Denmark, Tsar Peter the Great, Sir John Tradescant (said to possess Chief Powhatan’s deerskin mantle), the Hapsburg Dynasty (said to possess Montezuma’s headdress) … the list goes on and on.

During the Enlightenment, traveling to see these wondrous collections became the rage, so much that guide books and catalogs were published – Musaeum Tradescantianum (1656) by Ashmole, Museum Museorum (1714) by Valentini, and Schuyl’s catalog of 1727 all come to mind.

Schuyl's catalog of 1727 (courtesy of Univ of Leiden)

Schuyl’s catalog of 1727 (courtesy of Univ of Leiden)

And in a modern analogy to our era’s bloggers, both Ole Worm and Athanasius Kircher used their personal collections as starting points for published speculations on philosophy, science, and natural history. Just think what Worm and Kircher could have accomplished with the Internet!

The collecting bug finally crossed the Atlantic. Dr Thomas Mutter, a prominent surgeon in Philadelphia, gathered medical oddities and related items from his own practice and those sent to him by colleagues. When he died in 1859, he willed his collection to the American College of Surgeons; with additions gathered in the subsequent years – including Benjamin Rush’s medical chest, Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit, an early 19th century saponified corpse known as the ‘soap lady,’ the conjoined liver of Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and President Cleveland’s resected mandibular adenocarcinoma – these holdings became today’s Mutter Museum.

Add’n, there was the Hobby Club in New York City. In 1908, it was formed as a rival to the cross-town, tangentially related, and better known Explorers’ Club. The Hobby Club was a lavish dining fraternity limited to 50 men of education and means, and was basically an opportunity for grown-up ‘show and tell.’ Selected items from each of the members’ cabinets would be brought to dinner meetings to share with the other attendees. According to its constitution, “the object of [the club] shall be to encourage the collection of literary, artistic and scientific works; to aid in the development of literary, artistic and scientific matters; to promote social and literary intercourse among its members and the discussion and consideration of various literary and economic subjects.” While the transcripts of a number of the group’s meetings from the years prior to WWI are extant, the club appears to have withered and died by the 1920s.

But NOT the desire to collect and explore.

With that background in mind, let the show begin…

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