The Chicago Christmas Tree Ship Disaster

There’s nothing like a shipwreck to spoil the holidays, and nothing like the unbridled enthusiasm of a young child to restore one’s faith in the world in general.

For many years, one of the great holiday traditions of Chicago was the arrival of the famous “Christmas Tree Ship.” Starting in 1887, Herman and August Schuenemann began docking their ship, the Rouse Simmons, at a designated mooring on the Chicago River near the Clark Street Bridge. There, they annually sold over 25,000 trees that had been cut far to the north and loaded on the vessel for the trip to the city.

Many of the largest trees ended up in public halls and theatres, and even government buildings. Marshall Fields always had several. The rest were sold to the eager citizenry. Generations of Chicagoans obtained their trees in this way. By 1912, after more than twenty five years in business, most trees on the Schuenemann’s ship were selling for seventy-five cents to one dollar each… and there was no shortage of customers. And each year after Christmas, Herman affixed a sign to the dock, reminding customers that the ship had returned to the frozen Upper Peninsula and would be back next year with another load of trees.

Herman (c) and two of the crew

Herman (c) and two of the crew

The happy crowds and holiday cheer was brought to the Second City not without risk. November – the month in which the trees had to be loaded and sailed across the Great Lakes – is a particularly treacherous time on Lake Michigan. High winds and snow squalls had sent many ships to the frigid bottom. Even August Schuenemann, who had helped Herman start the Christmas tree business, was lost in the waters off Glencoe in 1898. But the surviving Schuenemann brother had faith in the skills of his seasoned crew, and his ship, built in 1868 and specially fitted to the lumber industry, was a sturdy vessel.

On 22 November 1912, Herman Schuenemann and his men loaded sixteen passengers and between 30,000 and 50,000 trees onboard. They then set sail from Manistique MI, bound for Chicago. The sky was threatening and winds were high. Before long, the Rouse Simmons was caught in a full winter storm, far from shore. The sails ripped and ice-covered masts collapsed. The ship went to the bottom with its entire crew. Only a handful of cut trees washed ashore in the days following the ship’s loss.

The city was stunned, and the families of the drowned were grief stricken. Newspapers and the Lake Seaman’s Union organized an emergency relief fund for those facing destitution. Prayer vigils were held, and memorial plaques were installed in chapels and union halls. Searchers scoured the shoreline up and down the lake looking for clues or wreckage. A bottled message was found on a beach several weeks later; it read, “Friday. Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck load. During the night, the small boat washed over. Ingvald (a deck hand) and Steve (first mate) fell overboard on Thursday. God help us. Herman Schuenemann.” The captain’s wallet was found in 1924, and a second bottled message was found in 1927, reading, “these lines were written at 10:30 p.m. Schooner R.S. ready to go down about 20 miles southeast of Two Rivers Point, 15 miles off shore. All hands lashed to one line. Goodbye. Nelson.”

But the final location of the Rouse Simmons remained a mystery until October 1971. A diver found the remarkably preserved wreck under 180 feet of water off the coast of Two Rivers.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, though, Capt Schuenemann’s young daughter, Elsie, vowed in a newspaper interview to continue her father’s tradition of bringing trees to the city. She was quoted as saying, “I am going to try to keep doing my Papa’s Christmas tree business. I will get friends to help me and send trees to Chicago and sell them at the foot of Clark Street. Before I was born, Papa has sold them there, and lots and lots of people never think of going anywhere else for their trees.” Touched by her dedication, the W.C. Holmes shipping company offered the late skipper’s family the use of an extra ship in their flotilla, the Oneida, which was moored right next to the then-empty lot at the Clark Street Bridge where the Rouse Simmons docked for so many years.

After much thought and many misgivings, and at Elsie’s insistence, in Herman’s honor the family accepted the Oneida and continued to bring trees to Chicago, albeit in much smaller numbers. But the tradition remained unbroken, and the season’s happiness gained a foothold again where tears had so recently flowed. The year of the shipwreck was the only one in almost fifty in which no trees made it to Clark Street.

It took the Great Depression and WWII to end the Schuenemann’s business for good. Few if any are now alive who remember the tree lot at the foot of Clark Street, where stands today the Riverwalk Café and Margarita Bar.

[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]

A Field Trip To The Death Chamber

I was promoted to Director of Mental Health Services for the state’s prison system in September 2006. During my tenure, I served as ringmaster for more than a hundred clinicians who tended to the psyches of 38,000 felonious incarcerated souls… including those on Death Row.

North Carolina carried out its last execution at Central Prison not long after I assumed my role. Although the death penalty remains on the books, for the past seven years there has been much friction between the legislature and the state medical board as to whether executions would be allowed to resume (you see, the medical board now prohibits any licensed physician from being in attendance at an execution, and without a doc, the condemned can’t be declared dead and the show can’t go on).

Although I could see the sun brightly glistening off the dew-bespeckled concertina wire each morning from my corner office overlooking the complex, and despite the number of hours I’ve spent on the cellblocks, I had never seen the actual execution suite. I wasn’t even certain where, in the labyrinthine maze that is the prison, that room is located.

Recently, I asked the Warden if he’d show me the death chamber when he had a moment. “How ’bout in ten minutes?” he replied.

Prior to the early 1980s, executions were conducted in the ‘old section’ of the prison – the nucleus of which dates to the 1860s. Just over 30 years ago, the current execution suite was constructed in the newer part of the front building, which I then learned happens to be directly over the Warden’s head as he sits at his desk in his office!

He and I walked to the elevator past his secretary’s desk a few steps away. I had seen this elevator in the corridor next to the administrative wing for years, but never knew to where it lead. We went up one floor and exited onto a short hallway, a doorway being directly across from the elevator. There was no one around, and it was entirely quiet. The floor and walls were clean, brightly lit, and with a hint of institutional antisepsis. I sensed a yellowish tint to everything from the paint. To our left at the end of the short hallway was a room containing a black telephone. It is on this phone that last minute calls from the courts are received, if they are coming at all. Those calls can order a stay of execution at the 11th hour, sometimes when the condemned is already strapped to a gurney.

To our right, the short hallway curved leftward and out of sight.

Initially we proceeded through the doorway directly across from the elevator, which I found leads into the execution witnesses’ room.

the witnesses' room, pre-yellow paint (courtesy AP)

the witnesses’ room, pre-yellow paint (courtesy AP)

It’s an oddly-shaped and cramped little quarter. Three rows of plastic chairs remain lined up facing a window overlooking the site of the gurney, even though no execution has taken place in years. That same yellowish tint was present, and the ventilation seemed poor and the room stuffy. I can imagine when filled with a dozen witnesses, it gets hot and muggy in there quickly. And in these cramped quarters, journalists, official observers, and those from both the victim’s and convict’s families sit almost knee to knee.

That must make for some interesting small talk before the main event.

Back outside the witnesses’ room, we turned and went down the hall, around the corner, and entered what is a technician’s room. This vestibule – once again, cramped and oddly shaped – also has a window, much smaller, overlooking the site of the gurney from a different angle. During an execution, it is in this second cubbyhole that a physician and technician sit and monitor the EKG attached to the condemned for telltale signs of death.

[there are also a number of buttons on a console on the wall that have nothing to do with EKGs, but more on that in a moment]

We exited the technician’s room and turned to the left, walking in essence in a circle around the death chamber, which is roughly in the middle of this layout.

The next stop, only feet away, was the prisoner holding area. When someone is under death watch immediately prior to execution, they are brought from death row proper to a cell which is spitting distance from the chamber itself. Paradoxically, there are five holding cells in a row, though it’s unlikely that there would be more than one inmate in any of them at a given time (I don’t think this state has ever performed multiple executions in one day before).

Continuing to the left, we came finally to the entrance to the death chamber. There is ‘the’ gurney parked in the hallway just outside the portal, neatly fitted with clean white sheets as if ready to use in a few minutes. Stepping inside the room, there are small marks on the floor to show officers where to park the gurney once the condemned has been strapped into place so that everything is visible to the witnesses and the physician and technician. The death chamber, like the witnesses’ room, is not a perfect rectangle, but instead an odd rhomboidal shape, probably because the building was retrofitted for this purpose long after construction. A thin yellowish curtain – there’s that color again – hangs from the ceiling so that staff can set up the gurney before revealing it to observers once everything is in place.

gurney in place, as seen from witnesses' room (courtesy AP)

gurney in place, as seen from witnesses’ room (courtesy AP)

The biggest surprise of my tour? I had been under the impression that the current death chamber was used only for lethal injections. But it turns out that until the late 1980s, it was also the gas chamber! I was astounded to learn this because, honestly, the windows into the technician’s and witnesses’ rooms don’t look very thick. But sure enough, the sole door leading into the small room in which the executions take place is constructed airtight like those on a submarine, with steel bulkheads, heavy thick rubber gaskets, and a hatch wheel. Plus there are vents visible in the ceiling of the chamber through which the cyanide gas goes out to the roof.

Having now seen the setup, I am not certain that I’d want to be a witness with just a pane of glass separating me from instant aerosolized death.

And those buttons on the console in the technician’s room? Those controlled the flow of gas, but it was too much trouble to take them out when lethal injection became the norm, so the piping for the potassium cyanide still exists and just isn’t used.

I hope they’ve removed and stowed the canisters. I didn’t ask.

Given the difficulty that states have encountered in obtaining the necessary chemicals for lethal injection of late – and our current administration’s desire to resume executions – there is talk that we will employ other means to clear the, er, backlog. I doubt seriously that returning to poison gas would be politically palatable. However, I’m told that Old Sparky (the chair) is still stored somewhere in the bowels of the prison, so I wonder if we might be re-wiring the chamber shortly to accommodate the extra voltage needed?

Not sure, but stay tuned.

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

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (XIV)

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

Heading out of Dallas, Mr Knobby and I were facing a long drive to our next stop on the cross-country itinerary. We knew that we must spend another night on the road, since we’d be arriving at our planned destination well after dark.

You’d think that, after my experience with the Adobe Inn/ Cotton Eyed Joe’s of Clint TX, I would avoid run-down dumps like the plague.

You’d be wrong.

The Bonester was covered in the back seat as I pulled into West Memphis AR after midnight. I was so exhausted that I didn’t feel I could operate the car safely any longer. Fleabag or not, we had to find a place to stop… and in this particular town, sleeping by the side of the road was definitely NOT an option.

In add’n to its urban decay, West Memphis doesn’t have very good road signs. The billboards along the interstate instructed us to exit, but once we did so, I couldn’t locate the strip of motels that were visible from the highway. Frustrated, I was driving up and down deserted avenues looking for the service road access, and not finding it. Recent construction, detours, and orange cones rendered my GPS confused and worthless. And there were no gas stations or fast food joints that appeared safe enough at which to stop to ask for directions.

As I drove down one empty street, I saw what looked like the service road access. There were no cars around. I made a quick u-turn.

The siren and red lights came out of nowhere.


I pulled over into the parking lot of a burned-out storefront. The officer approached.

“License, please.”

I keep my license in my wallet next to my Dept of Public Safety badge, and it’s impossible that he didn’t see it. His demeanor became friendlier. He looked young and was probably new on the force. He asked me where I lived and to where I was headed so late at night. He seemed bored. Forgetting my apparent traffic offense, we began to chat as public safety colleagues.

“Yeah, I hate working the night shift. This is a rough town. You see some really bad stuff. Gunshots and knife fights all the time. Drugs. Robberies. Assaults. And you pull people over in cars and never know what you’ll find. Just the other day, I stopped a guy and he had a stiff in the back!”

“You don’t say?!”

[just minutes before, the officer’s hand had been resting on the back seat window of the driver’s side, not a yardstick from my own stiff’s blanketed bony head]

Sensing my fatigue, the officer told me how to get to the nearest row of highway motels. We parted with a smile – not even a traffic warning – and I followed his directions, soon coming upon an Econolodge ‘vacancy’ sign. There were signs of life in the office despite the late hour. The night clerk buzzed me in, and a very loud chime announced my entrance.

This place lacked bulletproof glass. The door leading to the front desk wasn’t braced with a heavy chair. And there were no bailbondsmen’s cards on the counter (though there was a sign inviting guests to partake of “free alcohol at the manager’s reception each Friday evening.”)

Not free beer or wine. Not champagne, mind you. For the discriminating Arkansan palate, it’s generic alcohol that’s offered.

Vast distances notwithstanding, this Econolodge did nevertheless share some ambience with the Adobe Inn more than 1000 miles to the west.

Abandoned dumpsters out back? Check.

Scattered rattletrap cars all parked ‘facing out’? Check.

Spartan décor that was mid-century Salvation Army at best? Check.

The olfactory pervasion of stale cigarettes? Check

The nagging sensation that Boney was not the first dead body to spend the night there? Check.

An added bonus was the liberal use of concertina wire topping the back parking lot’s fence, which abutted a deserted, trash strewn, and graffiti-bedecked public housing complex. Nice.

Too tired to care, I backed in – like the few other hardy souls braving the place that night – and carried Santa Muerte into our ground floor room. Being the travel pro that I had become, I braced the door with a chair. I then collapsed on the bed and fell fast asleep.

Were there flashing lights or sirens in the parking lot that night, I wasn’t cognizant of them.

I awoke the next morning, still alive and feeling better. Packing my friend in the car once more, we headed off, sorry to have missed the manager’s reception, but brimming with enthusiasm.

Today we would reach Mecca.

[to be continued…]

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

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[from the medical records dept] A Modern Ozymandias?

[the Alienist is still on sabbatical, but this essay, originally from the year before last, is one of his better ones]

I met a traveler from an antique land
who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read.
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings!
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Once the ubiquitous symbol of the Communist World, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, has had a rough time of late. Certainly there remain places where he is still revered, at least officially – parts of Russia proper along with some former Soviet republics and satellites (e.g., Belarus, Cuba, Tajikistan) and a few far eastern workers’ paradises (e.g., Vietnam). But for the most part, the political system he championed has wound up in the dustbin of history.

[sidebar: ironically, Trotsky first used that phrase in reference to Capitalism’s perceived demise]

Into that same dustbin went a lot of likenesses of Lenin and his cronies, torn down in frenzy, left and right, as the Iron Curtain crumbled.

The Man

The Man

I fully understand the passions that symbols evoke, but as a historian, I hate to see ‘history’ destroyed. Better to put these images in collections for the benefit of future generations to learn about the Second World than to annihilate them as scrap metal.

Some of those fallen did find their ways to new leases on life.

Both England and the Netherlands have museums with statues of the USSR on display.

The Ukrainians tossed Soviet era ‘stuff’ into a lake near Tarhankut, and now divers can see Lenin and all of his friends in the underwater divers’ playground.

Those sculptures which have been saved are not all in museums or underwater parks, though. There is a gigantic Soviet-era image of The Man in Seattle. Delhi has a large icon downtown, as do Kotka, Finland; Vittsjo, Sweden; Quebec City; Bilbao, Spain; and both Cavriago and the Isle of Capri in Italy. Imposing visages of Lenin are displayed outside the Communist Party headquarters in both Athens, Greece, and Montpelier, France.

There’s a large Lenin simulacrum on a rooftop in Manhattan (while photos of it are widely available on Google, I can’t locate the address).

There’s his bust on the roof of the old Soviet Antarctic station, with snowdrifts now up to the chin.

His metal representation is located at both the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City and the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas – the latter being headless because the cranium is kept inside the walk-in freezer of the vodka bar.

But even if you firmly adhere to P.T Barnum’s old saw that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the alloy Comrade Ulyanov located at the entrance to the Kremlin will test your resolve. Not that Kremlin… this is the famous gay bar of the same name in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which regularly dresses their bronze doorman in all manner of drag for special occasions.

On my last visit East, it was Lithuania’s treatment of Lenin that I wanted to see. Near the resort spa town of Druskininkai there exists a rural landscape that has been converted into a wonderland of rejected political detritus. Grutas Park, unofficially known as Stalin’s World, is an open-air repository of relics of the USSR. After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, most things Soviet were taken down and dumped. Entrepreneur Viliumas Malinauskas saw an opportunity, though, and purchased these relics, for what was probably a pittance, with full government approval. I suspect that transporting the artworks – many of which weigh tons – was the most expensive part of the project. The Soviet-theme park was thus created in the wetlands of the Dzūkija National Forest, and is an easy day trip from the capital, Vilnius.

You arrive, find a spot for the car, and walk past some pastures leading to the ticket booth. Suddenly you’re transported into a gulag-esque environment. There are wooden-plank and concrete pathways winding through the forested landscape, and periodically you stumble across barbed wire fences and old guard towers on which are mounted 1950s-vintage loudspeakers playing propaganda and revolutionary music. Interspersed along the paths there are almost 90 busts, monuments, and larger-than-life-sized effigies of the pantheon of Soviet civilization: Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Marx, Engels, Kapsukas, Dzerzhinsky… the gang’s all here.

Uncle Joe at his namesake park

Uncle Joe at his namesake park

[another sidebar: what was particularly funny is that the missus recognized many of these works from her young adulthood, exclaiming in surprise more than once, “oh, I wondered where that statue went…”]

Stalin’s World has not been without controversy, however, and some ideas originally meant to be part of the visitors’ experience were never allowed. One example was the proposal to have transported visitors from their vehicles in a Gulag-style train, since period locomotives and boxcars are on-site but not functioning. Perhaps that idea was a bit too fraught with realism?

Founder Malinauskas won the 2001 IgNobel Prize for his brainchild. But then the capitalist lawyers moved in; since January 2007 the enclave has been in dispute with the Lithuanian copyright protection agency because seven of the (now ancient) surviving artists – or their heirs or estates – are claiming that Stalin’s World is in violation of their intellectual property rights by displaying works without expressed permission.

Keep in mind that Lenin was, himself, a lawyer.

Grutas Park, though, is a finite space, and there were an awful lot of iron dictators out there. What to do with the inevitable excess? Are they all destined for the melting pot?

Fear not! Though they deny it, North Korea’s attempts to earn foreign currency have included exporting excess statues of Kim Jong Il, minus the heads. Apparently, there’s a market for such glut in Africa; those skilled in socialist artistry (on loan from Mansudae Studio and the University of Fine Arts, both of Pyongyang) weld the cranial likenesses of local despots onto the necks of suspiciously-Korean looking metal bodies to give them new (local) life. For example, in the middle of a traffic circle in Kinshasa, Congo, is a 25’ statute of a dour-looking Laurent Kabila, that country’s former strongman. With his finger raised to the sky, a small book grasped in his left hand, and dressed in pleated military slacks and a buttoned-up jacket, the corpus has a decidedly juche look to it. On top, though, is a bald and grumpy-appearing Kabila noggin, perhaps ever so slightly out of proportion.

[note to potential sub-Saharan heads of state: it seems that Korean artisans have had difficulty making realistic looking African features on the heads and faces of these regifted statues, resulting in the need for corrective weldings on more than one occasion. But you get what you pay for…]

Finally, let’s not forget Ronald McDonald’s statue in all of its neo-Socialist glory, beckoning to the horizon, outside his namesake eatery on Wangfujing Street in Beijing. That particular Mickey-D’s is just a hop-skip-jump from Mao’s own mausoleum and the Forbidden City walls.

No joke. There’s a commie-looking hamburger clown in the Chinese capital. And the last time I checked, Comade Ronald was still there, looking toward the very bright future.

Is there any doubt who won the Cold War?

[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]

Self Preservation

The following is a true story. Some may find it distasteful, unprofessional, unethical, and all of those other ‘non-PC’ adjectives. I offer it without commentary, merely to illustrate the lengths to which overworked, exhausted, and stressed people will go in their attempts at self-preservation.

While a senior medical student at UVa, I did a six week stint as an acting intern at the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans – you know it as Charity Hospital.

Charity Hospital

Charity Hospital

Even in those pre-Katrina days, Charity was at baseline a chaotic zoo. The currently extant but abandoned Art Deco building, constructed in 1939, was at its opening the second largest hospital in the U.S., with over 2600 beds. It was so large that it hosted students and residents from not one, but two, medical schools (LSU and Tulane). I was with the former, on the pulmonary service.

In 1988, we used to say that Charity offered “state of the art medical care… from 1940.” That wasn’t entirely inaccurate. While the trauma unit was well known and highly regarded because of the constant stream of knifings and gunshot wounds that showed up on the doorstep, other aspects of the physical plant left much to be desired. For example, on the pulmonary service where I worked, those with TB were put in ‘isolation,’ which in Charity parlance meant pulling a floor-to-ceiling curtain all the way around their bed. No joke. We’d be rounding past patients coughing and hacking with nothing but a gossamer-thin curtain between us. Today, such patients are put in sealed rooms with negative pressure airflow, but back in the 1980s, the curtains were the best that Charity could offer. It’s a miracle that I never seroconverted.

[gross humor sidebar: the house staff referred to the 24-hr cafeteria in the basement of Charity as “the fistula” because “it’s always open.” If you don’t get the medical double-entendre there, look up the definition of ‘fistula’]

Anyway, there was a senior resident at Charity whom I knew – let’s call her Dr X – who found herself one night in a particularly difficult bind. She hadn’t slept in ages (these were the days before there were rules about how many hours a resident could work without a break). She hadn’t eaten either, and she had ten admissions waiting to be seen. It was after midnight, and the pager kept urgently demanding attention for all of the new problems on the inpatient wards.

And then Mrs Y died. Dr X went to see her and she had expired. She was elderly, very ill, and death was not unexpected, as she was DNR (no-code). Still, this came at the worst possible time for Dr X. Stopping to do the death certificate and all of the related paperwork would have set her even further behind answering pages and seeing new admissions (forget about eating and sleeping).

In Charity Hospital in those days, there were few orderlies available, so most times the residents themselves hauled patients onto gurneys and transported them wherever they needed to go within the complex. It was hard physical labor, but often a better choice than calling and waiting for an orderly who might never actually arrive.

Then, with apologies to Dr Seuss and the Grinch, “[S]he got an idea. An awful idea. [Dr X] got a wonderful awful idea.”

Mrs Y had not been dead for long. She was a small woman. Dr X moved her onto a gurney with a pillow, covered her with a blanket, and wheeled her along the darkened labyrinthine halls and onto an elevator. It was in the wee hours of the morning and there were few people around. She took the elevator down to radiology and pushed the gurney to xray. She quickly completed a request form for a chest film, tucked it under the pillow, and left Mrs Y on the gurney outside the radiology suite along with several other patients who were lined up for studies. All was quiet. Dr X returned to the ward to answer pages and see new admissions.

Within the hour – now pushing 3:00 a.m. – Dr X rec’d a page from radiology. The technician’s voice on the other end of the line said, “Dr X? I’ve got some bad news. You ordered a chest xray on Mrs Y a while ago, but she has died. I’m really sorry to report this.” A brief moment of silence was then followed by, “Dr Z [the radiologist] will take care of the paperwork down here.”

Which was exactly the plan all along. Mrs Y went to her reward, and Dr X lived to fight another day.

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

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

In The Name Of Temperance

[Today’s post is sponsored by a new subscriber, Joseph Mason, MSW, MD, of Charlottesville, VA. Welcome!]

In addition to the federal constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and possession of intoxicating spirits in the 1920s, a number of states enacted their own supplementary statutes. Many of them were strange and counterproductive to the original intent.

Take that bastion of common sense, South Carolina, for example.

In 1892, prohibitionists in Columbia had won a non-binding referendum calling for a ban on alcohol. The legislature then had tried to find a happy-medium between free-flowing booze and an outright drought. It subsequently created what came to be known as the South Carolina Dispensary, a government-owned and operated monopoly on alcohol sales – similar to today’s ABC stores. The dispensary system operated for about twenty years before the prohibition movement gained enough steam to end sales of liquor in the state altogether, and finally throughout the nation.

But even after federal prohibition ended in the 1930s, South Carolina retained its earlier and very restrictive approach. It still banned alcohol sales in restaurants as recently as the early 1970s.

Anyway, as with most laws, there are loopholes – in this case, BYOB. The law in effect in South Carolina starting in the 1930s prevented restaurant sales of alcohol, but patrons could bring their own. This lasted until 1973, when the restaurant owners’ lobby told the legislature that patrons drank way too much (and became rowdy in the dining establishments) because no one wanted to carry home half-filled bottles. So start chugging! The legislature, in its infinite wisdom, accordingly allowed restaurants to sell alcohol by the drink at last – but only if strictly pre-ordained amounts of hooch were used.

A 2004 article in USA Today explained, “South Carolina is the only state that does not allow bartenders to pour drinks from regular-sized bottles of liquor. Instead, for every drink, the bartenders have to open a 1.7-ounce bottle of spirits like the ones served on airplanes.” You see, 1.7-ounces was the legislature’s strictly pre-ordained amount of booze. The rule, effectively, put a cap on the amount of liquor in each drink, since few bartenders were going to open a second mini-bottle in order to add more alcohol to a single drink at the same price, and few patrons were willing to pony up additional cash for a second bottle in the same drink.

But the law also put a de facto minimum on the amount of alcohol used per drink. As bartenders had to open a new bottle for every drink, they made sure to use all of it… I mean, why skimp on the rotgut if it’s otherwise going down the drain?

The net result was that mixed drinks in the Palmetto State were all made with 1.7 ounces of firewater, or a multiple of that. Not more, not less. Critics of this foolishness pointed out that the drinks served in all other states almost always contained less than 1.7 ounces of the good stuff. In effect, South Carolina’s restrictions on free-flowing alcohol resulted in more tipple per drink, earning the state the reputation of having the strongest highballs in the nation… all in the name of temperance.

[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]

Rasos Cemetery

There he was, smiling at us!

I realize that’s an anthropomorphic attribution to an inanimate chunk of calcium no longer alive, but a skull does appear to smile, even when dirty, fractured, and missing most of its mandible.

My stepdaughter and I were peering into a cracked mausoleum, and there on the dirt floor, amidst the detritus of a century of rotting wood coffins and other accumulated debris, he sat and ‘looked’ in our direction. We tried to get a picture, but the light didn’t cooperate. How very macabre.

Rasos entrance

Rasos entrance

We were in Rasos Cemetery, which is the oldest municipal burial ground in Vilnius, Lithuania. There were burials on the site as early as 1769, but the 11 hectare Roman Catholic property was not formally consecrated until 1801, which is therefore its official date of founding. Two days after consecration, the late Mayor of Vilnius, one Jan Muller, was interred there, and it’s been a busy place ever since. It’s now filled with neo-Gothic tombs, fragments of columbaria, mausoleums, chapels, bell towers, and memorials, all packed together on the hills and in the ravines with little apparent order. Having run out of space long ago despite the crowding, Rasos has been closed to new burials – except those in preexisting family plots – since 1990.

The boneyard is filled with notables from Lithuanian and Polish history. There are politicians, generals, academics, artists, and writers at every turn. Two of the men who signed the Lithuanian Articles of Independence rest there. Arguably the most famous remains are those of Mikalojus Čiurlionis (1875-1911), the renowned abstract composer, painter, and poet.

Rasos is situated on very hilly land. Lithuania gets a lot of rain. Hills + Rain = Erosion. Thus, almost all of the graves in Rasos are tilted, lopsided, or in some cases have toppled over altogether – hence the cracks in many of the mausoleums, and our ability to spy at least one of the inhabitants. We were accordingly not surprised to learn that an old ossuary had gone over a precipice and shattered at the bottom a number of years ago, scattering bones along the ground.



Geology aside, though, Rasos has another problem. Prior to the end of WWI, both Lithuania and nearby Poland were under the firm grip of the Tsar. Vilnius at that time had a majority of Polish-speaking residents. After the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, Lithuania and Poland regained independence, and immediately came to blows over the possession of Vilnius. The Poles seized the city from 1922 to the late 1930s, after which Lithuania again took control under the aegis of the Soviet occupation; Vilnius has remained the Lithuanian capital ever since.

But that period of control by Warsaw resulted in a lot of Polish graves in Rasos. And memories die hard.

The heart of the general who orchestrated Poland’s initial seizure of Vilnius, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, lies enshrined near the cemetery’s entrance along with almost 200 of his soldiers (including three members of the previously permanent honor guard who were summarily shot when the Soviets took over). Polish flags abound in that section of Rasos. And while the Marshal’s tomb appears untouched, a number of the soldiers’ stones have been desecrated.

1930s Polish graves

1930s Polish graves

When asked, our guide said that the damage to the markers resulted from WWII. But this is not accurate. The plaza wherein is buried Pilsudski and his guards was restored by the Polish government in 1993 with the permission of the Lithuanian authorities. Which makes the damage recent.

I don’t recall now if our smiling skull was Polish or Lithuanian. But it is worth noting that the dead seem to get along just fine in the quiet decay of the old cemetery. It’s the living about whom I’m concerned.

[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]

An Observation On Socialized Medicine

Prior to leaving for our family visit in Lithuania earlier this month, we learned that my 92 year old grandmother-in-law, Antanina, had been hospitalized in Kaunas. She’s a hardy individual – a 1950s Soviet gulag survivor who still lives independently and has all of her mental faculties about her – but any hospitalization at that age is of concern. At first we were told it was simple dehydration, but then we learned that some pneumonia was involved as well. Thus, as soon as we landed in Vilnius, we made arrangements to drive the 1.3 hours to the hospital to visit and find out more for ourselves.

There are several campuses of the medical center in Kaunas, and Antanina was at one of the older ones. The visit to this Soviet-era hospital is a story in itself: no central climate control (or even electric fans that I could see), no private rooms, no electronic medical records, and only one tiny elevator – meaning that most staff and visitors used the un-air-conditioned staircases. Did I mention that the geriatric unit of this particular building is on the 5th floor?

Kaunas Hospital, early 1950s

Kaunas Hospital, early 1950s

Anyway, we reached Antanina’s room, and the first thing that surprised me was that she didn’t have an IV running or evidence of one having been d/c’d recently. She looked good and sat up in bed talking and later walking down the hall under her own steam. But she wasn’t able to give us much medical information, so we hunted down the ward’s doctor to learn more.

This doctor – from Ukraine – was very interested in learning the ‘American perspective’ on the current civil war in her home country (we had to tread lightly on this topic, since it wasn’t immediately apparent on which side of the divide she fell). Once we had (successfully) navigated and dispensed with the politics, we inquired of Antanina’s condition. The doctor said that she had been receiving IV fluids and antibiotics last week, but was now doing “very well” and not needing IVs any longer. There were, however, some abnormalities in her blood.

“What abnormalities,” we asked?

It seems that Antanina was mildly anemic and also had a modest dip in her serum calcium level (not unexpected in a woman in her 90s). In the U.S., neither of these findings on their own would necessitate hospitalization. An elderly person in this condition could be easily be given oral Rx and followed on an outpatient basis with an office or home health visit scheduled.

The doctor added that Antanina might need to stay in the hospital for as much as another week before discharge.

Another week?! In the U.S., 3d party payors often kick you out of your hospital room when the bandages are still bloody.

Rumor has it that medical house staff can be, er, persuaded to keep patients in the hospital a bit longer than might otherwise occur; whether the Ukrainian doctor had been thusly encouraged by others in our family before our arrival I do not know.

My GMIL seemed happy enough with her surroundings and the attention she was getting, so we visited a bit longer and then bid her farewell. I am thankful to the staff of the hospital for taking good care of her and keeping her stable and safe. But as we drove back to Vilnius, I couldn’t help but wonder if there might exist – somewhere – a happy medium of resource allocation between full-blown capitalism and the accountants who rush you out the door, and socialized medicine and what seems like overly protracted inpatient stays that aren’t entirely indicated?

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

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (XIII)

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

The Bonester and I settled in for a long drive across Texas after escaping the Adobe Inn. The terrain, esp in the far western panhandle, is very reminiscent of Spielberg’s 1971 movie ‘Duel’ – brown, dry, dusty, with the occasional building, wind farm, or oil derrick, and mostly flat but with hills in the distance. Highway mileage signs that read in the ‘400’s. A few vultures feasting on ubiquitous roadkill. A couple of really long BNSF freight trains on the horizon with their soulful whistles. And miles and miles of nothingness. I found the solitude relaxing, but there was little to pass the time except to be alone with one’s thoughts. Even the few radio stations that could be located were in Spanish (though spinning the dial I did briefly find Wall of Voodoo’s 1982 ‘Mexican Radio’ in English just before reaching the wide-spot of Junction, TX).

Despite my love of back roads and unscripted stops, we were trying to drive as fast as possible to make it to College Station, where my son attends university. Once we arrived, he and I had a nice visit – I left my back-seat specimen in the car, however – and I even learned a good recipe for college student chili while there. Afterward, bidding my son farewell, the dead hombre and I turned north and headed toward the Big D and our next destination.

Although I was just 15 months old in November 1963, I was raised hearing about the assassination in Dallas and the myriad conspiracy theories which subsequently grew like kudzu. The centerpiece of these tales was Dealey Plaza, and none of my generation or older can fail to immediately recognize that name and its historical significance instantly.

Dealey Plaza – a National Historic Landmark only since 1993 – was a west-end feature even before the events of November 1963. The area bounded by Main St, Elm St, and Commerce St was named in honor of Dallas publisher George Dealey prior to WWII. It contains monuments to prominent Dallas residents that have long since been overshadowed by the tragedy with which it is otherwise eternally associated.

Visitors to Dealey Plaza today will see a panorama that has (intentionally) changed little in the past half century. Trees are larger and a few new signs are in place. But the buildings that ring the plaza, the triple underpass, the railroad bridge, and the grassy knoll look as they do in period photographs. Even the streetlights are circa 1963.

And then there is the Texas School Book Depository, 411 Elm St, at Elm’s intersection with Houston St, facing the plaza.

411 Elm St

411 Elm St

Just a stone’s throw from the grassy knoll, what we know as the depository started its existence in 1903 as the HQ of the Texas division of the Southern Rock Island Plow Company. After going through several more owners, the building became the schoolbook warehouse in the early 1960s. Fatefully, in the autumn of the year, the employees of the depository found an oil leak on the upper floors; immediately prior to the Presidential visit, work had begun to fix the leak and protect the boxes of books, meaning that there was much disarray on the sixth floor and many stacks of boxes in places where they weren’t normally kept.

It was this disarray that allowed Lee Harvey Oswald to secrete himself near a window, hidden from view, and fire no fewer than two, and possibly three, bullets into the Presidential motorcade as it slowed to turn just below his perch.

The building was slated for demolition at one point, but cooler heads prevailed, and it too still looks as it did on that fateful day 51 years ago. The top two floors are now open to visitors – the Sixth Floor Museum it is called – and over 6,000,000 have availed themselves of the opportunity since it opened in February 1989.

Leaving my articulated companion in the trunk once again, I parked, paid, and took the elevator to the top. The exhibits document the life, times, death, and legacy of President Kennedy. The museum – run privately by the Dallas County Historical Foundation which rents the space from the city government – contains photos, audiotapes, films, artifacts, and interpretive displays – arguably the most poignant of which is the President’s original place setting for the lunch at the Trade Mart which he never reached.

Even more than the displays, though, it’s the old warehouse itself – with brick walls, a rickety old service elevator, and exposed wooden beams – that sets the tone. One cannot help but wonder how a plebeian structure played such a pivotal role in world history.

There are still stacked boxes. There is the sniper’s nest. And there is the unchanged view.

the view

the view

Chilling to this day, as cars still busily traverse the fatal spot marked on the pavement below.

Back in our own car, Santa Muerte and I headed northeast out of town. We had to make good time, as we were fast approaching Mecca.

[to be continued…]

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

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Deathly Cameos

I just returned from a trip to Lithuania, during which I found more interesting material that I’ll be sharing online in coming days. And while on the road, I was honored to learn that an essay that I had composed on two unusual antique cameos had been selected to post by The Order Of The Good Death.

Don’t let the name alarm; the Order – brainchild of Caitlin Doughty, undertaker extraordinaire and star of YouTube’s ‘Ask A Mortician’ series – is a group of funereal professionals, academics, writers, and artists who use the venue to explore topics of mortality in our death-phobic modern culture. It’s an erudite, entertaining, and insightful website, and well worth exploring.

Here is my post:

[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]