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]

Coins Hitting The Pans

My earliest recollections of slot machines – not that I was actually playing them back then, mind you – involved lights flashing, sirens wailing, and the delightful sound of clink-clink-clink as coins dropped into the metallic catch pans below. From Vegas to Atlantic City to cruise ships, it was the same. Even if the actual dollar amounts weren’t princely, it sure sounded that way.

But then technology interfered.

There are just under 1,000,000 licensed slot machines in operation in the United States at present, and hardly any of them spit out coins anymore. Things changed in the 1990s. Now, you insert your club card or paper bills into a machine’s feeder. When you win, the machine still makes noise – sometimes even poorly-simulated recorded metallic clanking sounds – but out comes a slip on which is a barcode, and that is what you take to the cashier’s cage to redeem for real money.

No more buckets full of quarters. No more dirty hands. It’s all so sterile and lifeless.

In the 1990s, technology abbreviated as ‘TITO,’ or ‘ticket in ticket out,’ became widely available. It’s not that the casinos were necessarily killjoys, but TITO allowed them to cut down on the manpower needed to run their businesses. Apparently it takes a lot of staff to keep the change machines filled, keep the slots stocked (the average quarter machine, for example, holds $1k worth of coins at any given time), and then fix the machines when the inevitable jams occur. When it all changed over to paper – card/bill in and slip out – far fewer staff were needed, helping the casinos’ bottom lines.

Indeed, the migration away from coin machines was motivated by reasons even beyond mere maintenance and having to stock change on the casino floors and back rooms. From a casino’s point of view, the key to successful slot play is to separate the player from his money as efficiently as possible. So when a gambler inserts a $20 bill into today’s slots, the money buys “credits.” The gambler is now playing with (emotionless) numerical credits, just numbers on a screen, and not hard-earned cash. And there’s less incentive for one to cash out when a win is registered because that player ends up with a piece of paper in hand, not money. Sure, the paper can be taken to the cashier’s cage. But it’s much easier to just insert it in another machine and play until it’s all gone. Casinos like that.

It’s unlikely that TITO will be rolled back in favor of coins on a large scale. The current system is just too convenient for both casinos and hardcore gamblers. But, as Mike Spinetti, owner of a Vegas gambling supply house, recently offered, “a certain segment of the population still loves playing the old slots; they’ve really had a resurgence in the past couple of years.”

So, the last time I was in Vegas, I spoke to locals and went on a search to see if there even were any coin operated machines left in the area.

None of the high-profile casinos on the Strip could be bothered with them. The only place on that famous boulevard that still has coin machines is Slots-A-Million, owned by and adjacent to (the decidedly run down and dated) Circus Circus. This place needs a good steam cleaning, and even a nostalgia hound such as myself was turned-off, clanking $1 and 25c coin machines or not.

Moving toward Fremont Street, The D Casino has a so-called Vintage Room on the second floor that has a number of coin-ops still in operation. The Golden Gate also has a smattering of the older machines, though none that date as far back as its founding in 1906. Sadly, Bugsy Siegel’s former place a couple of blocks away, El Cortez, claims to have antique coin-ops on site, but in actuality has them on display in the lobby, and when I was last there, none were functional.

Traveling further from town, the Eastside Cannery Casino, past McCarran International Airport and the I-515 connector, was the first establishment to bring back the coin-op machines following the widespread introduction of TITO, and twenty years later there are still a few on the premises.

And for the adventuresome who are traveling out-of-state, 30 miles south of the Strip in the middle of the desert on I-15 is the wide-spot/ rest stop town of Jean. This is the home of the Gold Strike Casino (as well as the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car exhibit) and not much else. However, over half of the 400 machines at the Gold Strike are of the paperless variety.

So yes, with a little effort, one can still find a slot into which to drop a coin in southern Nevada. If readers know of any other places, please let me know.

[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 vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[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 vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[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 vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[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.

marker

marker

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 vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[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 vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Peering Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not much, it seems, has changed.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Fay Ce Que Voudras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Grown-Up Toys and the Uber-Wealthy

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

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

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

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

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

Peacemaker

Peacemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S&W Model 3

S&W Model 3

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

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

No word yet on any buyer’s remorse.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Addendum, but this time involving old wine: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/09/03/the-jefferson-bottles

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The City of Lights and Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]