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]

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again!

When I was a pre-teen, I went to Disneyland and enjoyed an attraction called Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. The little cars in which visitors sat careened left and right through narrow faux-Victorian streets whilst barely missing lamp posts, carriages, curbs, suits of armor, and other obstacles. It was fast-paced, frenetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I must have ridden it a dozen times over the days my family was at the Magic Kingdom, and I remember desperately wanting to go back almost as soon as I had returned home.

I didn’t get a chance to return to southern California until the last year of medical school, probably 15 years after the initial visit. I couldn’t wait to see Mr Toad after all that time! But when I got there, everything seemed smaller and less impressive than before. The ride was slower, more sophomoric, and less exciting than I remembered. After disembarking, I had no desire to repeat, and I found myself wondering why I had been so taken by it in the first place.

Welcome to the ‘You Can Never Go Back’ phenom.

When I was a freshman in college, I was invited in my first weeks to go to a midnight movie by dorm friends, one of whom had a car at his disposal. I asked what we were going to see, and was told The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then a flick only four years old. I had never heard of this movie, but I knew that anything that involved 1. leaving campus at night, 2. driving somewhere strange, and 3. seeing a purportedly hip and experimental film was something I did not want to miss.

For those of you who may not know, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) is an Anglo-American movie released in 1975 and based on the London musical stage production of essentially the same name from several years earlier. It was designed as both a parody and a tribute to Hollywood’s grade-B science fiction and horror films of the 1930s through 1960s. In essence, it is a very loose retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, except that the (androgynous) scientist who animates the monster Rocky is actually an alien transvestite, and Rocky is to be his adult plaything. The film contains much allusion to non-hetero sex and violence. There is cannibalism, there is oiled skin, there is S/M leather, and there are oddly costumed characters of dubious gender throughout.

Think Halloween meets La Cage Aux Folles

Despite its catchy soundtrack, the movie was critically panned on release, though Rotten Tomatoes gave it a surprising 80%. Its original eight-city U.S. release was quickly scaled back because of very small audiences. However, the following year, it was decided to try RHPS as a midnight movie at select theaters, the first being the Waverly Cinema in NYC. Quickly it became a campy cult classic amongst the costumed fans who took to acting out scenes in the aisles and yelling back at the screen with comic/ vulgar commentary. RHPS is to this day the longest-running theatrical release in movie history, never having been pulled by Twentieth Century Fox over more than four decades. Against all odds, it was even selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion on the National Film Registry – those works deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – in 2005.

[sidebar: the Library of Congress ‘honor’ aside, I’m certain that then-unknowns in the film who became bigger stars in later years – think Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Meatloaf – would prefer that modern audiences basically forget that they appeared in RHPS]

Anyway, my dorm friends and I drove from tiny Williamsburg to larger Newport News to attend the show. As I wasn’t driving, I did partake of adult beverages on the trip, so was not entirely of sober demeanor during the screening. To be honest, I don’t even recall the ending from that first experience, as I nodded off sometime after Riff Raff started engaging in elbow sex. But it didn’t matter. The movie was so shocking, so kitschy, so non-conservative! This, I thought, is what it means to be in college and experiencing things so radical!

[sidebar: it’s funny the things one does remember. The girl sitting in the backseat with me on the trip was a punk rocker named Cindy, and the driver was a fellow named George – I rarely saw them afterward. The stereo was playing Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Why those factoids remain with me decades later is a mystery]

As with Mr Toad, one recent Saturday night I decided to go see RHPS at midnight just for old times’ sake, at an indy theater in downtown Tucson that is said to be the flick’s longest running venue in Arizona (1978). The difference, of course, is that I was entirely sober, married, graying, and 36 years older this time around.

I was planning to write a commentary on the movie itself, but driving home at 2:30 a.m. and thinking back on the two hours just passed, nothing particularly insightful came to me. I felt, if anything, curmudgeonly. The movie sets looked cheap. The costumes, while flamboyant in their day, were nothing compared to modern Mardi Gras. The subject matter was a yawn. The dialogue was dumb. The story was contrived. And the cavorting audience members and their running commentary in the theater were immature and goofy. That about sums it up.

In retrospect, the scourge of AIDS opened the door and brought into public discourse subjects that were never mentioned in the mass media prior to the epidemic; discussions of gay marriage, internet porn, gender-reassignment surgery, and public bathroom access and LGBTQ rights appear in print today in ways never imagined when Jimmy Carter resided in the White House. And just as a 21st century denizen viewing formerly ‘racy’ Victorian swimwear might instead see such attire as now more suitable for matronly bathers, topics that were taboo pre-AIDS are no longer viewed by most as forbidden subjects of conversation.

Predictably, with that change in societal mores did RHPS lose some of the creative campiness that made it so unique and naughty.

As I noted, you can never go back.

[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 Great Stink

London in the 1850s was arguably the capital of the world, situated at the nerve center of the Victorian Empire at its pinnacle. But the municipal authorities of the magnificent city hadn’t quite figured out what to do with the tons and tons of, er, waste that the metropolis produced on a daily basis.

And it wasn’t just (phenomenal) amounts of human refuse. It was also the raw and unfiltered effluvium from the city’s slaughterhouses, along with run-off from the breweries and paper mills, solvents from the Industrial Revolution, and everything else imaginable that escaped composting or reuse. It all wound up in the Thames.

The thought at the time was that the debris that sloshed into the river would be ejected out to sea; thus, as long as the river kept flowing, no one thought there was a problem (unless, of course, you were downstream and depended on the river for potable water). The problem, though, is that the Thames is a tidal river, and the rotting garbage it contained didn’t always flow quickly to Poseidon. And oddly, this fact was noted as early as the mid-17th century, but in classic human form, no one did a thing about it for more than two hundred years.

Cesspits overflowed. Sewage ran in the streets. People dumped directly in creeks, streams, and channels. And it all found its way to the Thames.

In the first half of the 19th century there were several widespread cholera outbreaks in London, the particularly bad one of 1849 resulting in over 2000 deaths per week! Still, nothing was done. This inaction was compounded by the fact that people thought the odor – the miasma – was the cause of the illness, not the contaminants in the water; thus, they’d stay away from the river itself, but nevertheless drink its water when brought from a ‘safe’ distance.

One John Snow MD decided that, as cholera was an illness of the bowels and not the lungs, it made more sense that the disease was cause by ingestion and not inhalation. He wrote an article on this… and was entirely ignored.

[sidebar: the anti-intellectual anti-science crowd existed then too]

Undeterred, the good doctor enlisted the help of a man of the cloth, one Rev Henry Whitehead, and the two crusaders mapped where cases of cholera were discovered. In one neighborhood near Broad Street, they focused on a water pump that had been dug mere yards from a cesspit. Cases were all around it. They petitioned the local authorities to shut down the pump. It was, and within days, cases of cholera plummeted.

Sadly, Dr Snow died in 1858 and did not live to see his theories proven correct. Perhaps fortunately, though, he also did not live to experience The Great Stink of later that same year.

You see, the summer of 1858 was particularly warm and humid, and the water level of the river dropped significantly, exposing all manner of accumulated filth. It was said that people located miles from the nearest bank would be overcome with nausea and vomiting when the winds changed.

In 1858, London’s City Press noted that “It stinks [here], and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it, and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” Shortly before, The Times had stated that “near the bridges [over the Thames] the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface…. The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water, it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.”

When Victoria went outside, she carried a bouquet of flowers, dutifully handed to her by those in her entourage, and she kept it in front of her face the entire time.

Parliament was not so fortunate. After years of ignoring the problem, those lawmakers situated on the banks of the grand old river were forced to endure in stuffy and poorly ventilated chambers right next to the flow. They put pots of chloride of lime in meeting rooms to mask the odor. They debated moving the government to Oxford. And while many had hidden behind the time-honored political excuse of “it’s not my jurisdiction,” the Great Stink finally won their attention like nothing prior.

Following years of inaction, a bill was passed – after only three weeks – authorizing £3M to “refurbish the entirety of the River Thames.” Joseph Bazalgette, a famed civil engineer of the day, was commissioned to propose and execute a sewerage system. Once the twenty-year project was completed, not only did the odor improve, but cholera vanished and the death toll in the surrounding areas markedly decreased.

Bazalgette presciently planned on growth. He made everything more than twice the size estimated for then-current need. His system is still in place and working today.

He was knighted in 1875.

[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]

Plot E

I have visited many American military cemeteries over the years, and I have always found them to be beautiful and humbling places. They are quiet and dignified edens wherein lie the honored dead who have defended the nation.

There is one cemetery, though, that doesn’t quite live up to this archetype.

Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American cemetery in northern France.

Go ahead and look. You won’t find it listed on the Veterans Administration website, nor any of the literature provided by the cemetery. Maps will show Plots A, B, C, and D only, those containing 6012 American dead from WWI. Google Earth will just show an expanse of green. It’s like it doesn’t exist, which is exactly what its creators intended.

But it’s very much there, and serves a necessary if somewhat unsavory purpose.

Plot E is where American servicemen are buried who were executed – by firing squad or hanging – for capital crimes committed in the European theatre during or shortly after WWII. Some of the victims were children. Many were women. Most are forgotten by the modern age, though at least one – Sir Eric Teichman, killed on his ancestral estate confronting two U.S. soldiers poaching on the land – was a prominent member of society who still has his own Wikipedia page.

Those capital crimes once included aggravated rape, murder, and desertion, though currently none interred in Plot E are deserters. More on that in a moment.

Plot E

Plot E

Plot E is located 100 meters from the main cemetery, and contains the remains of 94 servicemen. It is across a small road and deliberately hidden from view by a tall border of hedgerows that surrounds the 90′ x 50′ oval space. Because of the dense shrubbery, and the fact that there is no path nor gate, the only access to the area is through the back door of the cemetery superintendent’s office… and this is highly discouraged. There are no gravestones, nor any plaques with names – the graves are designated by white index-card sized stone markers with stark black numbers, in four rows, and all facing away from the recognized burial ground nearby. Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” esp as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name (it was only after a Freedom of Information lawsuit in 2009 that a list of grave numbers and occupants was released to the public). No U.S. flag is allowed to fly there, although there is a single small granite cross to one side. Nevertheless, it is maintained, with grass being cut and hedges trimmed, perhaps more for the aesthetic sensibilities of the superintendent than due to any niceties afforded the deceased.



Originally, the 98 condemned by the U.S. Army following general courts martial were buried near the sites of their executions, which took place at locations as far-flung as England, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Algeria. In 1949, however, it was decided to relocate all such remains to a single venue; that site is described by the Graves Registration as being for “the dishonored dead,” since, according to protocol, all had been dishonorably discharged from the service just prior to execution.

For reasons unclear, two of those executed during the 1940s never were sent to Plot E. Two others were buried there but later exhumed and returned to the United States. One of those was Private Alex F. Miranda, who came back to the U.S. in 1990, though details of the transfer were never made public.

The second was the former occupant of Row 3, #65, Private Eddie Slovik, the only man executed during WWII for desertion. His later became a cause celebre, as other soldiers deserted during the war, but Eisenhower decided to make a sole example of the rough street kid from Detroit on 31 January 1945. His remains were finally returned to the U.S. on order of President Reagan in 1987, and rest today at Woodmere Cemetery in the city of his birth, next to the grave of his wife.

[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 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.

[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]

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.

[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 Primordial Hackers

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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]

Peering Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not much, it seems, has changed.

[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]

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.

[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]

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!”

[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]