Clowns After Midnight

[Our day-sponsor for this post is arguably my youngest subscriber, Lucas Artigas, of Apex NC. Lucas, don’t read this when you should be paying attention in class. I know it’s been rough these past four months, but it’ll get better. If not, the motel might need a manager. Stay in touch.]

“There is nothing scarier than a clown after midnight”

That quote has been attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, and Vincent Price. Regardless of the source of the bon mot, it reveals a truism. Clowns, in the dark, tend to be disturbing.

And of course, we all know that cemeteries, in particular old spooky ones, give just about everyone the willies.

So let’s combine them on your next roadtrip, in Tonopah NV.

Little more than a widespot on SR 95 at the halfway point between Vegas and Reno, Tonopah, the seat of Nye County, boasts a population under 2500. The town itself, then called Butler City, was founded in 1900 by the eponymous Jim Butler, a miner looking for a lost burro. Angry at the dumb beast, he picked up a rock to throw at it once located, and noticed the unusual weight of the projectile. It turns out that he had stumbled across the second richest silver lode in Nevada history. But it was not Butler who was to strike it fabulously wealthy. One George Wingfield, a faro player briefly turned dealer at the hamlet’s soon-to-open saloon, used his winnings to invest in the Boston-Tonopah Mining Company, which, within five years, netted him a bank account of $30M.

Fortune seekers flooded into this hardscrabble town in the middle of nowhere. There was a plague that went through the population in 1902 – the etiology remains mysterious – which killed many of the inhabitants. The town’s only cemetery filled quickly, and by 1911, it had over 300 interments, then-rivaling the living population of the downtown. The boneyard was closed because it had run out of space.

Wingfield predicted the town’s imminent demise, cashed out, and moved elsewhere. Industry died. By 1920, Tonopah and the immediate environs contained less than half the population it had boasted fifteen years earlier. Things went from bad to worse. Unless you work at the now-nearby Tonopah Test Range and Nuclear Site, there’s not much economic activity in the area once the easily mined ore had dried up.

But people do need a place to stay when passing through, esp if they don’t want to drive another 70 miles to the next wide spot. And that brings us to the Clown Motel.

The Clown Motel

Not only is the inn’s lobby filled with images of clowns, but each room keeps the unsettling theme as well. From Bozo to Ronald to Punch, they’re all there in one form or another. And folks who have weathered the night as guests swear that the eyes of the pictures and figures follow you as you move around the premises.

what a view!

So if you get a bit unnerved and need fresh air, you can walk outside… and gaze at the overflowing cemetery sharing the common property line.

Oddly enough, the Clown Motel gets a 3.5/ 5 star rating on Trip Advisor.

Time to keep driving to Carson City.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

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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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]

There’s No Such Thing

When attending on a modestly-sized, community-based, high-volume psychiatric crisis unit, it isn’t always possible to immediately access the full-spectrum of diagnostic resources that are available at the big tertiary centers. For example, if a patient is admitted to a large university inpatient ward and shows signs of forgetfulness, a battery of neuropsychological testing can be readily ordered as a first step to see if, in fact, the patient is suffering from measurable cognitive decline, and if so, to determine the best course of action. The academic centers, because of their focus on education and training, are quick to do ‘the million dollar work-up,’ and many patients who probably don’t need it are nevertheless blessed with the attention of numerous mental health sub-specialists.

But if you are in a small town, short-staffed, and have no neuropsychologist on your treatment team, you may have to rely on simple screening tools that can be administered at bedside; only if there persists evidence of cognitive impairment on such screenings would you then make the (sometimes outside) referrals to further delineate what is ongoing.

The Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) is a relatively quick 30-point questionnaire that examines cognitive facets such as short term memory, word recall, object identification, and simple task performance. But if you’re backed-up with six admissions, the ten minutes to perform a MMSE on each subject means an hour of extra work in your already chaotic day.

You’re blessed if you have a medical student or resident to do an MMSE for you, but if you don’t, you need the simplest basic memory/ concentration screening possible.

Just ask the patient where they are. Ask the day, date, month, year, and season. Ask the most recent holiday. And ask who is the U.S. President. No, this isn’t the most sensitive tool, but a person with delirium or dementia will usually stumble, and throw up the requisite red flag indicating the need for referral for more detailed examination.

In this current election cycle, though, I’ve added for fun one add’n question of my own design: name any one person who is running for President (recall at one point, there were more than 16 declared candidates between the two parties). For all but the truly addled, it’s nigh impossible to live in America of 2016 and not be aware, even in passing, that primaries and caucuses are brewing.

In asking this specific question of hundreds of patients with every imaginable mental disorder over the past six months, I’ve observed a very interesting phenom.

Young. Old. All races. Every level of education. Both genders. Psychotic. Neurotic. Organic. On Rx or off. I hear it every day.


Now, there are variations. Sometimes it’s just his surname. Other times, unmistakable descriptors such as “the crazy guy with all the money, the fake tan, and the hair,” or “that dude who thinks the Mexicans are going to pay for a wall.” But there’s no doubt whom they mean.

Even the ones whom I suspected had early dementia answered as the rest.

A couple of times, I thought I had uncovered a heretofore unheard reply, only to have my hopes dashed at the very end with a compound answer:

“Rubio… and then there’s that guy Trump.”

“Christie… and that rich bastard with the Atlantic City casino.”

“Bernie… and that slick New York billionaire with the big mouth.”

“Cruz… boy I wish he’d put the Donald in his place.”

Only once – ONCE – in the past months did someone say “Hillary.” And then stop. I must have appeared expectant (“and…?”) as the patient looked at me quizzically, breaking my train of thought and resulting in the fumbling of papers.

My point in all of this? Probably nothing. And come November 2016 it’ll be back to the simple vanilla questions. But in the meantime, I can’t help but appreciate the late great P.T. Barnum’s old saw that “there’s NO such thing as bad publicity.”

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Dial Z For Zombies

[today’s post is sponsored by Lisa S. Kaplan RN, the best nurse practitioner with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work. As she is also skilled in those aspects of the time-space continuum not of this plane, what follows seems an appropriate article to which to affix her name… ]

“The Zombies Are After Brains. Don’t Worry, You’re Safe”
~seen recently on a coffee mug at the office

bon apetite!

bon apetite!

Ask any teen, or horror movie aficionado, and they’ll tell you that zombies of modern western pop culture – not those of Caribbean or African folklore – eat brains. Why that is odd is because the cinematic masterpiece that jumpstarted the whole modern zombie craze, George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), makes no mention of brain-eating. As a matter of fact, none of Romero’s six ‘Of The Dead’ films do.

So from where did this near-diagnostic facet of zombie behavior arise?

When asked, even Romero didn’t know. In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, he noted, “whenever I sign autographs, they always ask me [to write], ‘Eat Brains!’ I don’t understand…. I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain. But it’s become this landmark thing.”

He went on to say that while his zombies do feast on flesh in general, he is amused that people even care about the specifics of it all (i.e., if they actually have favorite body parts or cuts of human meat). He closed by asking rhetorically if the next question will be, “do zombies shit?”

Turning back the clock, mention of brain-eating didn’t first appear, and then only fleetingly, until Return Of The Living Dead (1985). You’re forgiven if you thought that Romero had a hand in that film, but he didn’t. You see, like an amicable marital divorce, when Romero and his erstwhile collaborator John Russo parted ways in the 1970s on good terms, they agreed that all subsequent releases with ‘Living Dead’ in the title would be Russo’s, while those ‘Of The Dead’ belonged to Romero.

[sidebar: the two split over their differences re: zombies. Romero’s can be killed, whereas Russo felt that his should be essentially immortal]

So that 1985 release was Russo’s. Fans asked him about it vis a vis brain-eating.

He professed ignorance too about the etiology of the whole cerebrum schtick.

But his chief writer and director, Dan O’Bannon, once made a flip comment – one that would have unforeseen cultural consequences – that zombies probably eat brains to “ease their pain.” This was seconded by Bill Stout, the production designer of the 1985 film, who, when ambushed by interviewers, said that such an explanation “made sense” to him. Those with way too much time on their hands took these clues and offered that zombies are merely trying to boost their serotonin levels to produce the desired analgesia, and brains are a great source of that particular neurotransmitter.

Romero has expressed surprise/ amusement at the attention to such zombie detail, especially as he has noted repeatedly that the focus of his movies was always on us, and how we react to the zombies, not on the zombies themselves. He has frequently criticized those who “take it all too seriously.”

And although the definitive answer may never be known, it has been suggested by film and TV critics that neither O’Bannon nor Stout are directly responsible for the focused brain-eating craze. Paradoxically, Matt Groening of The Simpsons may have earned the honor of popularizing what is now universally held. And Groening ain’t talking.

You see, in his 1992 Halloween classic, Dial Z For Zombies (itself a parody of Return of the Living Dead), Groening had his cartoon zombies eat brains, perhaps as a nod to Russo, et al., or perhaps for entirely silly and comedic effect. But as Matthew Belinki of has since opined, “millions of kids saw [Dial Z For Zombies] before they were old enough to see a real zombie film. I suspect that for a whole generation, [the cartoon] was the first zombie story [they] ever saw. And that, my friends, is why we think that zombies eat brains, even though most of us have never seen a movie where this is actually the case.”

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

My Struggle

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ~Requiem For A Nun

I have always loved Faulkner’s oft-recounted quote, since it is true on so many levels.

With that in mind, here is an odd present-day story that started almost a century ago, and is neither dead nor past.

Adolf Hitler wrote the draft for his 720-page autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), while imprisoned after the failed coup of 1923. It represented his vision and blueprint for a National Socialist world, and was not at first a best-seller when released in 1925 (9000 copies). Once Hitler rose to prominence, however, the Nazis mandated its distribution to soldiers, newlyweds, and schools nationwide, and it started to generate large sums in royalty. Over Hitler’s lifetime, it is estimated that the book sold 10M copies (and ~$430M for its author, adjusted for inflation, all of it tax-free since he was in charge and made the rules).

Fast forward to May 1945. Hitler was dead and the war was fast closing. Bavaria, as the jurisdiction of Hitler’s official residence (Munich), seized all of his property, including the rights to the book. None of Hitler’s distant surviving heirs cared to contest this confiscation. And through assertive de-Nazification efforts, the Bavarian government promptly prohibited the publication of Mein Kampf, now their book, anywhere in (then-West) Germany.

But of course, that had little binding effect on other countries, where the tome continued to be printed and sold to varying degrees, both by previously-licensed publishing houses and bootleg operations [strangely, it has enjoyed strong sales in both Turkey and India]. Those international licensees then generated royalties for the legal copyright holder – the reluctant Bavarian state.

[sidebar: Bavaria holds the copyright for most of the world, but things are a little different in the U.S. and U.K. More on that in a moment…]

So, what to do with the tainted gains? Bavaria started to quietly donate all proceeds to charity.

In the U.S., Houghton Mifflin purchased the rights to Mein Kampf in 1933. The U.S. government seized the copyright in 1942 under the Trading With The Enemy Act – even though Houghton Mifflin is an American company based in Boston – and amazingly held it until 1979, placing the $139,000 generated in sales over those years in the War Claims Fund. In 1979, with no fanfare or press release, Houghton Mifflin bought back the rights from Uncle Sam for $37,254, and then proceeded to pocket over $700,000 in sales over the next two decades. When this was publicly revealed in 2000, the chagrined publisher said that they were distributing the monies to charities that promote “diversity and cross-cultural understanding,” and a host of other things that Hitler would have hated. Still, many of those charities – the Red Cross amongst them – refused to take the cash, leaving Houghton Mifflin wondering if buying back the rights was such a good business idea after all.

In the U.K., Hurst & Blackett (Random House) had purchased the rights to a translated English version from Hitler’s publisher also in 1933, still retaining that right in the post-war years; as with the Bavarians, H&B gifted all proceeds to charity. Interestingly, the Jewish charities initially selected didn’t want the money, so H&B started gifting anonymously (and it remains uncertain if the recipients ever knew the source of the donations).

Under U.K. law, the copyright on Mein Kampf expired in 1995. And under both U.S. and German copyright law, Mein Kampf is scheduled to enter the public domain in seven weeks, on January 1st, 2016. But while that will sever any direct connection between the text and Hitler’s estate, publishers, or those who directly dealt with them, it doesn’t mean that the book will not still be printed and sold.

Meaning that, ninety-two years after first conceived, the hate-filled diatribe of a fallen dictator dead for seventy years is still churning out income… that no one wants.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Marketing, Morality, and Spin

I’ve always held that it is unfair to judge historical figures, acts, and events through the lens of 21st century morality. The taking of underaged concubines of either gender was de rigueur for centuries amongst potentates of the Orient, Middle East, and African continent. Bear-baiting was a wholly accepted sporting event during the Stuart Restoration. Some of our Founding Fathers owned slaves, and there’s that mess with Jefferson and Sally Hemings with which to contend. ‘Idiot,’ ‘Imbecile,’ and ‘Moron’ were professionally-employed psychiatric terms. It has only been within a few decades that the Ottoman murders of Armenians have been referenced as genocide. Remember poll taxes? Until recently, disenfranchising the poor was considered appropriate (wait, it still is). Children’s toys of the turn-of-the-century were often overtly racist, depicting minorities as contemptible buffoons. And blackface vaudeville was common in early 20th century America.

Openly advocating such improprieties today would be unconstitutional and immoral at best, and a matter for the International Criminal Court at worst.

But societal mores do change, and there are few if any absolute constants.

Marketing and the almighty dollar? Well, that’s a whole ‘nuther subject.

You may think you know the story below, but trust me, you don’t.

It begins in the autumn of 1902. Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino was up for reelection, facing a primary challenge from a rabid white supremacist, one James Vardaman. Longino, though a Democrat, had invited the sitting President, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, to come south for some recreational bear hunting, knowing the chief executive’s proclivity for outdoor activities. TR, sensing an opportunity to help a moderate politician-in-need, even if a Democrat, and get away from the Capitol at the same time, enthusiastically accepted.

[sidebar: Vardaman saw this as a wholly political ploy, calling out Roosevelt with racial epithets and adding that he was nothing but a miscegenationist hell-bent on destroying the last vestiges of Confederate culture. And you think Obama has it rough?]

Included in the Roosevelt-Longino party were two local celebrities, Robert Bobo and Holt Collier. Bobo was a renowned breeder and trapper who brought with him fifty of his prized bear hounds. Collier was a former slave and scout for none other than Nathan Forrest’s cavalry, and said to possess the best nose for bear in the delta. Roosevelt, to the consternation of the white Southerners present, interacted with Collier as an equal and comrade-in-arms, being particularly impressed with Collier’s accuracy with his Winchester M1894 using either hand.

[sidebar: Collier’s service for General Forrest has often be used by Lost Cause apologists to illustrate that there were, in fact, black Confederates. Whether Collier’s time with Forrest was volitional in nature or not, we may never fully know, but see the above opening statement re: judging history by the lens of 21st century expectations, and proceed]

Anyway, the vast undeveloped tract on which the Roosevelt-Longino party decided to hunt – in Outward, MS, 30 miles north of Vicksburg along what is now state highway 61 – was then owned by railroad magnate W.W. Magnum, the man also known to having once imported monkeys to Mississippi in a failed effort to train them to pick cotton. But that’s a tale for another post.

This hunting preserve was thick with tangled underbrush, stunted pines, and canebrake. Progress on foot was slow. It was Collier with Bobo’s hounds who first picked up the scent of bear early on Saturday, November 15th. They tracked but found nothing at first. The party, having no other leads, and tired from traversing the demanding terrain that morning, returned to camp for a late lunch. But Collier persevered, and at 3:30 p.m., cornered an old 235lb female black bear. Sounding his bugle to alert the president’s party back at camp, Collier and the dogs surrounded the bear near a watering hole. The bear may have been old, but still had some fight in her, killing one of the dogs with a swipe from her claws, and maiming several others. Collier smashed the bear’s skull with the butt of his Winchester, and while dazed, he was able to lasso the beast and tie it to a tree trunk awaiting his colleagues.

Roosevelt, upon arriving at the watering hole, was disgusted. He found there a mortally wounded dog, several others seriously injured, blood everywhere, and a half-dead mangy bear tied to a tree trunk and gasping for air. Those present told TR that the honor of shooting the bear was his.

But Roosevelt was not cut from the same cloth as his contemporary outdoorsman, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (the man famous in part for indiscriminate mass killings of bison on the western plains). TR refused to shoot the bear under these circumstances.

the Berryman cartoon

the Berryman cartoon

The papers smelled a popular story. The Washington Post ran the now-famous Clifford Berryman cartoon and the ‘official’ line in its edition of Monday, November 17th: conservationist president upholds personal honor and refuses to shoot captive bear in an unsportsmanlike setting. What a wonderful guy that TR is!

[sidebar: each time the Berryman cartoon was reprinted in the days that followed, the bear was drawn smaller and smaller, until it was nothing more than a frightened cub]

A New York candy shop owner, Morris Mitchom, saw the cartoon and article. He asked his wife Rose to make two plush toy bears, stuffed with excelsior and sporting black shoe-button eyes, and put them in the window of his shop with the sign, “Teddy’s Bears” (I’m not sure why it was plural, since there was only one bear.) This simple act, and TR’s later permission to use his name on the product, soon evolved into a new business venture for the Mitchoms, one that eventually became the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. Its sales soared on the strength of sales of its Teddy’s Bear line.

Copied around the globe, today’s teddy bear has remained a staple of childhood memories now for over a century, all from the warm and fuzzy story of the kind president who refused to shoot a frightened captive bear.

But as the Late Great Paul Harvey would have said, now it’s time for the rest of the story, the part you almost certainly don’t know.

First, a post-script. When TR left the White House in 1908, there was fear in toy-land that the popularity of the teddy bear would quickly wane. They needed a new gimmick. The incoming President. W.H. Taft, wasn’t nearly as charismatic as TR. Taft was hugely fat, and his eating habits were the stuff of tabloid fodder. At one banquet in Georgia during the campaign, Taft was served barbequed possum with potatoes, and apparently ate all of it and asked for seconds. The president-to-be, while wiping his lips, was quoted as saying, “I’m for possum first, last, and all the time between.” Toy companies decided to market what they called the Billy Possum, the incoming administration’s answer to Teddy’s Bear. It was to be a political symbol for adults, but one that could easily be made into a cuddly toy with which children across the country would play and contentedly fall asleep for years to come.

Billy Possum

Billy Possum

Teddy’s Bear survived and thrived. Billy Possum failed miserably, though if you’re lucky enough to find a surviving example of the latter, buy it, as they can fetch well into the tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

But secondly, and of more importance, what became of Teddy’s actual bear?

Having put away his rifle that November day, the president instead had handed his 14” Bowie knife to an aide and told him to put the bear out of its misery. The aide obliged, slitting the struggling bear’s throat as it vainly tried to escape. Butchered on site, the bloody carcass was brought back to camp, and the feasting began.

So much for the warm and fuzzy story trumpeted by the media.

Perhaps readers in the early 20th century would have seen nothing wrong with the conservationist president’s mercy knifing. Whether his directive was humane or not remains to be seen. Whether this should be judged by 21st century mores in the era of PETA is debatable. But the marketing people, even back then, knew that leaving this last tidbit OUT of the story of Teddy’s bear was probably good for business. They were correct.

Oh, and Andrew Longino lost reelection.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Dryden’s Rule, and the Grammar Nazis

Many writers in Restoration-era England felt that they had vastly improved the quality of domestic literature over that of their Tudor and Elizabethan forebears. The 17th century poet John Dryden opined, “the language, wit, and conversation of our age are improved and refined above the last… the absurdities which those poets [e.g. Shakespeare] committed [were due to] the want of education and learning.”

The education to which Dryden referred included a mastery of Latin, a language which he and his peers revered.

In Latin, one cannot end a sentence with a preposition.

Dryden, et al., said that it shouldn’t be allowed in English either.

Given his influence in learned circles, many listened to Dryden, including Bishop Robert Lowth, a fellow of the Royal Society of London and author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). An extremely popular textbook on the subject, Short Introduction included what came to be known as “Dryden’s Rule,” although even Lowth acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was not only dominant “in common conversation [but also that it] suits very well with the familiar style in writing.”

Nonetheless, since Lowth, like Dryden, felt that “placing the preposition before the relative is more graceful,” and since those two literary giants were in favor of it, many adopted the style. By the dawn of the 20th century, it had taken on the characteristics of an inviolable rule, especially amongst elementary and high school teachers. And Grammar Nazis.

Not everyone bought into Dryden’s Rule, however. When Henry Fowler published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), he called Dryden’s Rule “a cherished superstition.”

I confess that, personally, I cringe when I see a preposition ending a sentence, and while almost all of us do it in our spoken communications, I still never allow a preposition to end a sentence in my writings – old habits die way too hard. But to highlight the ridiculousness of always adhering to this structure, I quote the late great Winston Churchill, hardly a slouch himself when employing the Queen’s English. He is quoted as having said, when asked about Dryden’s Rule, that “this is exactly the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]