Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Explore the 18th c. consultation letters of Dr. William Cullen

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Dr. William Cullen was a chemist, surgeon, apothecary, physician, botanist, university lecturer and prominent figure in the Scottish enlightenment who was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the University of Edinburgh Medical School as the top medical school in Britain, if not the entire continent. Philosopher David Hume was a patient and friend. Physician and pioneering chemist Joseph Black was one of his students and remained a close friend throughout their life. The young William Hunter, the distinguished anatomist who brought us Smugglerius and whose collection formed the nucleus of the University of Glasgow’s famed Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, was Cullen’s student and partner for four years before striking out on his own. Anatomist Alexander Monro II, father of that Alexander Monro who dissected William Burke’s body after his execution, was another student and friend.

Cullen lived a long life working almost up to his last breath, only retiring as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 1789 when he was 80 years old, just a few months before he died. During his years in Edinburgh, he established his own private practice which was highly successful even though much of his work was conducted not in person but in letters. Physicians often consulted by correspondence at that time, and Cullen did us the great favor of keeping most of the letters he received from the 1760s onward along with copies of his replies, either handwritten or, after April 1st, 1781, made using the pressure copying machine invented by James Watt of steam engine fame.

That remarkable archive is now in the possession of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) and it is unique in its importance and immensity. There are 17 boxes of letters and 21 bound volumes of Cullen’s replies. Consultations were mainly the province of the wealthy (the cost was a whopping two guineas), but there are a wide range of patients and problems. There’s even a letter from James Boswell asking for help for a very ill Samuel Johnson. To make this treasury of medical history more widely available, the RCPE is working with the University of Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies to digitize the collection and make it publically available to everyone from scholars to people who love falling down research rabbit holes (not that we know anyone who answers to that description here).

[The Cullen Project] will not only render this material viewable as high-quality digital images and readable as diplomatic and normalised transcripts, but the texts will be fully searchable. Internal references to ingredients (materia medica), symptoms, conditions, treatments, preparations, actions and body-parts are being tagged using XML mark-up. Additional metadata for each item, including all associated dates, persons and places is being recorded in the edition’s innovative database.

For example, here’s a featured letter sent to Dr. Cullen by a colleague, Dr. John Cairnie, seeking advice on the treatment of a patient suffering from erectile dysfunction. The young man had suffered from numerous bouts of venereal disease starting when he joined the Navy at 12 years of age. He was now 27 and was unable to get an erection but was nonetheless experiencing unfortunately frequent ejaculations. Cullen replied a few days later and the prescription he suggested to cure the poor fellow was written on the back of the letter to the right of seal: “Take half-a-drachm of Camphor; half-a-drachm of prepared Steel; two drachms of Gentian extract, and a sufficient amount of Gum Arabic mucilage to form pills of nine grains each. Three to be taken every morning and every night.”

On the Facsimile tab of the entry are photographs of the letter, back and front. You can hover over them to zoom in. The Normalized Text tab has a corrected transcript of the letter which replaces abbreviations and numerals with full words. The Diplomatic Text tab has a transcript which cleaves to the original syntax. Every ingredient, disease term, body part, syndrome, etc. is a link to a definition and other instances in which they appear in the good doctor’s correspondence. Care to know more about 18th century testicle doctoring? Click the link in the word “testicle” from the transcripts and you’ll find another 134 references in Cullen’s consultation letters to testes, stones and the scrotum.

It is truly a most alluring Charybdis of a database. I defy anyone to read just one letter without being sucked into the link whirlpool. If your family reports you as a missing person, don’t blame me; blame The Cullen Project.

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The first selfie

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Here it is:

Robert Cornelius took this picture of himself outside of his family’s lamp Philadelphia store in October or possibly November of 1839.

Although there were reports that Louis Daguerre had devised a method to fix images captured by a camera obscura onto a metal plate as early as 1835, the daguerreotype was first announced in January of 1839 and the process released to the public on August 19th. After detailed descriptions of how to take daguerreotype were published in Philadelphia journals and newspapers in September and October, Robert Cornelius, who had a great interest in chemistry and worked for his father doing silver plating, was approached by inventor Joseph Saxton to create a light-sensitive silver-coated plate for use in daguerreotypy. With Cornelius’ plate, Saxton took the earliest known surviving picture in the United States on October 16th, capturing the round tower of the Philadelphia Central High School and the old Pennsylvania State Arsenal building at the corner of Chestnut and Juniper from the window of his offices at the US Mint.

Cornelius was intrigued by the new technology and immediately set to doing his own experiments. His first subject was far more challenging than Saxton’s. Daguerreotypes required long exposure times of up to 15 minutes. Even the shortest exposures were at least three minutes, which made the medium less than ideal for capturing living, conscious beings. Schools and arsenals do photographers the courtesy of not even twitching once. Cornelius wanted to give it a go anyway, so he took his homemade camera — a box with an opera glass lens — into the yard behind the lamp store and there, in the daylight, he took a daguerreotype half-portrait of himself with crossed arms and tousled hair that wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion magazine today. He’s a little off-center, but I think it only makes him look more natural and less like he had to hold that pose for minutes on end. The lamp store, incidentally, was located on 8th Street between Market and Chestnut, just five blocks from the US Mint where Saxton took his first photograph.

After his first foray into daguerreotypy, Robert Cornelius caught the bug. In February of 1840 he opened a portrait photography studio and captured the likenesses of other sitters, wealthy clients and family and friends. He also published what is believed to be the first photograph in an advertisement in the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Very few of his works, only around two dozen, have survived. Thankfully his masterful selfie is among them.

Cornelius quit the photography business in 1843 and returned to work for the family’s lamp and chandelier concern where he had a very successful career building a better mousetrap, mainly lamps that ran on cheaper and more easily accessible fuels like pig lard rather than the prohibitively expensive whale oil that was still the default option when he began. Under his tenure the company became the largest lamp business in the country before they were eventually overtaken by other better-mousetrap-makers. Robert Cornelius retired a wealthy man in the 1860s.

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Huge silver ingot found on alleged Captain Kidd shipwreck

Friday, May 8th, 2015


A massive silver ingot weighing 110 pounds has been found in the Indian Ocean waters near the island Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar. It was discovered by explorer Barry Clifford on a shipwreck that he alleges is what’s left of Captain Kidd’s vessel the Adventure Galley. The silver bar is believed to be the largest ever found on a shipwreck.

The ingot has extensive markings on both sides which Clifford’s team thinks point to its originating in 17th century Bolivia. The History channel (they dropped “channel” from the official name but I just can’t bring myself to call it HISTORY the way they do), which has been filming Clifford’s exploration of the wreck for an upcoming multi-part series, has an image of the underside of the ingot with the marks labelled but not explained. I guess they’re saving the full explanation for the show. The ingot was recovered from the wreck and handed over to Madagascar’s President Hery Rajaonarimampianina in a public ceremony.

Clifford found this wreck 15 years ago and has been returning to it regularly ever since. The problem is there is no concrete evidence that it’s the Adventure Galley. They found an oarlock that’s the proper size for a galley like the Adventure and copious fragments of Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain that stylistically dates to the late 17th century and that’s it. They had hoped to find personal belongings sailors might have left behind that would help identify the wreck, but that came to nought.

Île Sainte-Marie became known as the Island of the Pirates because a number of pirates used it as a base due to its convenient location next to the lucrative shipping lanes of the East India trade, its many protected bays and inlets and its rich endowment of fruit. Captain Kidd is known to have harbored there in the Spring and Summer of 1698, but the ship could have belonged to any of the many pirates and privateers who hung out on Sainte-Marie around that time.

That hasn’t stopped Clifford from making claims that are, to put it generously, hyperbolic.

“Captain’s Kidd’s treasure is the stuff of legends. People have been looking for it for 300 years. To literally have it hit me on the head – I thought what the heck just happened to me. I really didn’t expect this,” Mr Clifford said.

“There’s more down there. I know the whole bottom of the cavity where I found the silver bar is filled with metal. It’s too murky down there to see what metal, but my metal detector tells me there is metal on all sides.”

This has generated many a breathless “Captain Kidd treasure found!” headlines, but it’s really a shameless equivocation because even if Clifford truly did find the remains of the Adventure Galley — an if even bigger than a 150-pound silver bar — the legendary treasure of Captain Kidd was not on it. The £100,000 treasure he claimed in his famous last letter to have hidden was in a secret location in the Caribbean, and indeed, what kind of pirate would leave any part of his vast treasure on a derelict vessel while he took his best ship across the world to the Caribbean Sea?

According to Kidd’s testimony at his trial and a statement from pirate Theophilus Turner, the Adventure Galley, which by then was taking on so much water as to render it barely seaworthy, was burned to the waterline and then sunk. Before it was destroyed, Kidd had anything of value, from the cannon to the very hinges, loaded onto the Quedagh Merchant, a 400-ton merchant vessel he had captured in January of 1698 and renamed the Adventure Prize. Kidd testified that the Adventure Prize was loaded with 10 tons of scrap iron and 14 or 15 spare anchors before leaving Madagascar for the Caribbean. A giant silver ingot is not likely to have been overlooked.

The archaeological record supports his testimony, as the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, discovered in 2007 in the Caribbean Sea near Catalina Island off the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, was found with 26 cannons, most of them stacked in the hold muzzle to cascabel as cargo rather than armed on deck. Three large anchor crowns were found underneath one of the cannon piles and there were magnetic anomalies detected underneath the anchors that are consistent with the tons of scrap iron Kidd mentioned.

Even Clifford himself noted in 2000 when he first found the wreck that the Adventure Galley was stripped to the bone before it was destroyed and that therefore he did not expect to find any treasure. Now that a magnificent ingot has “literally” hit him on head (in actual fact he literally picked it up from the seabed, as is clear from a screencap of the History channel footage), instead of concluding from this that the wreck is likely not the Adventure Galley, Clifford has chosen to embrace it as Kidd’s legendary treasure no matter how groundless a claim it is. The ingot is so awesome on its own it really doesn’t need this kind of sensationlism tarnishing its cool.

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Letter written in murderer William Burke’s blood on display

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

The University of Edinburgh is participating in this year’s Festival of Museums, a Scotland-wide series of special exhibitions and activities that will take place the weekend of May 15th – 17th, with a romp through their most deadly collections. One Last Fright will include events like a talk about gruesome Victorian medical procedures as seen in prints collected by surgeon Sir John William Thomson-Walker, poisonous cosmetics and dyes from the University’s geology collection and A Scandal in Surgeons’ Hall, an evening of dancing, magic, fortune-telling and a recreation of a Victorian crime scene.

The most popular event — tickets are already sold out but you can still add yourself to the waiting list — is a tour through the University’s collection of Arthur Conan Doyle books and related materials and best of all, a rare glimpse at a scrapbook relating to the Burke and Hare murders. The scrapbook, thought to have been compiled by a medical student shortly after the grisly events were exposed, has never been display in public before. Neither has its most gruesome page: a letter written in William Burke’s blood.

William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who moved to Edinburgh looking for work as navvies (canal diggers). Burke arrived in Scotland around 1817 and worked the Union Canal. Hare arrived around that time or a little later and also worked the Union Canal. In 1826, he married a widow who owned a cheap but not entirely disreputable (meaning it wasn’t a brothel) flop house. Burke and Hare didn’t know each other or meet until 1827 when Burke and his common-law wife Helen McDougal moved into the same neighborhood as the boarding house. They became friends and, when opportunity struck, partners in murder.

The late 18th and early 19th century saw an explosion of interest in medical studies. The University of Edinburgh was widely reputed to have the best medical school in Britain, if not Europe. So many students clamored to attend its lectures that private anatomy classes sprang up to service the demand. Dr. Robert Knox, a surgeon with a stellar reputation garnered attending to the wounded of the Battle of Waterloo, ran hugely popular anatomy, physiology and surgery courses starting in 1825. At their peak, his classes were attended by 400 students, more than attended all the other private anatomy lectures combined.

Knox’s advertisements emphasized that the every lecture would “comprise a full Demonstration on fresh Anatomical Subjects,” a very tall order when you consider that his 1828-9 Practical Anatomy and Operative Surgery lecture course ran from October 6th 1828 through the end of July 1829 with twice daily demonstrations, ie, dissections of human cadavers. “Arrangements have been made,” the ad assured prospective students, “to secure as usual an ample supply of Anatomical Subjects.”

Just what those arrangements were turned out to be the sticking point. By law, only executed murderers who had been condemned to posthumous dissection were released to anatomy schools. There were nowhere near enough people hanging from the gallows to satisfy the voracious appetite of the University and the private lecturers. For Knox’s Practical Anatomy course alone, we’re talking 10 months of twice daily dissections. Even if he reused bodies a few times — let’s go so far as to say the same cadaver could last a week (highly unlikely) — he still would have needed more than 40 bodies just to get through that one course. Then there was his Physiology course to supply, plus the University’s and the lectures by all the other anatomists.

Where there’s demand, someone is going to come up with the supply, and those someones were known as body-snatchers, grave-robbers, ghouls or resurrection men. Digging up recently deceased bodies was highly lucrative work. Resurrectionists would be paid the equivalent of months of wages for a single body. It was the kind of work best performed by locals who knew who was dead or dying and who had relationships with bribable cemetery sextons and with the anatomists. Locals also knew their way around, necessary for surreptitious nighttime excavation and transportation of dead bodies, and could better avoid or pay off law enforcement.

Burke and Hare were not local. They had none of the connections and knowledge resurrection men needed to make their macabre living. In fact, they quite fell into selling bodies by accident. When an elderly lodger at the Hare boarding house named Donald died still owing £4 rent, Hare and Burke stole the body out of the coffin, replaced it with tanner’s bark, and then schlepped it to the University of Edinburgh where they had heard Professor Alexander Monro III, Chair of Anatomy, was always keen to take a dead body off a guy’s hands. They asked a student in the courtyard if any of Monro’s staff was about and the student suggested they take their merchandise to Robert Knox at Number 10 Surgeon’s Square instead.

There they found three of Knox’s assistants — Jones, Miller and Ferguson — and arranged to deliver Donald’s body after nightfall. Dr. Knox examined the corpse and determined its market value was £7.10s (more than $1,000 in today’s money). None of them asked any questions. They just told Burke and Hare that they would be glad to see them again when they had another body to dispose of. That was December of 1827.

A few months later they had another body to dispose of, only this time it was no accident. Hare got a lodger so drunk he (it might have been a woman; the order of murders is unclear) couldn’t move, then covered his mouth and nose while Burke laid his weight across his chest until he was smothered to death. They put the corpse in a chest and alerted Knox’s assistants that they had fresh material. Miller arranged for a porter to meet them for their convenience and the body was brought to Knox’s lecture rooms. Knox expressed approval at its fresh condition and gave them £10 for the body.

Thus began a pattern that would continue undisturbed for another year. Lodgers would come in and if they weren’t already ill, Mr. and/or Mrs. Hare would get them pass-out drunk so Burke and Hare could suffocate them without the victims being able to put up much of a fight. This method ensured there were no obvious marks on the body indicating murder so Knox and his crew could continue to ask no questions.

Burke and Hare killed at least 16 people before they were finally found out. The last victim was Mrs. Mary Docherty. They were extra sloppy this time, stashing her dead body under a bed that a lodger had left her stockings on. The lodger saw the body and went to the police. Instead of disposing of her promptly in the river or somewhere, they quickly brought the body to Knox and made yet another sale even though they knew the cops would be sniffing around. An anonymous tipster told the police to check Knox’s anatomy lecture rooms and there they found Mrs. Docherty.

Burke, McDougal, Hare and Mrs. Hare were arrested. They had circumstantial evidence of two other murders — a young man names James Wilson (aka Daft Jamie) who was well known in the neighborhood and a beautiful young woman named Mary Paterson who was falsely rumored to be a prostitute — but charged them with Mrs. Docherty’s first because she was the only whose body had been found. The evidence was weak even in the one case because there was no proof she’d been murdered. Concerned Burke and Hare would get off by blaming each other, Lord Advocate Sir William Rae granted the Hares immunity if they testified against Burke.

It was at the trial in December of 1828 that the notion that Burke and Hare had been resurrectionists came into play. The only reason there was any question of whether they were resurrection men was because Helen McDougal needed plausible deniability. She knew Burke and Hare were dealing in corpses, but if she could claim that she thought they had bought the bodies or robbed graves to get them, then she wouldn’t be an accessory to murder. It worked; the jury found the charge against her not proven. Burke was found guilty of the murder of Mrs. Docherty and sentenced to death and dissection.

On Wednesday, January 28th, 1829, Burke was hanged. His body was delivered to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection by Alexander Monro who immortalized the event by writing the following letter with the murderer’s blood.

This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28th Jan. 1829 for the Murder of Mrs. Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1st of Feb. 1829.

As was the custom at the time, Burke’s skin was used to bind books and make accessories, some of which are on display today at the University’s Anatomical Museum. Burke’s skeleton was preserved for anatomical study, as recommended by the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle at sentencing: “I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes.”

Monro’s letter made its way into the scrapbook along with news stories, songs and other references to the murders, trial and execution. It will be on display along with a petition signed by medical students around the time of the murders demanding more bodies be made available for anatomical studies. Ultimately the Burke and Hare murders solved the cadaver bottleneck once and for all. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act allowing any unclaimed bodies to be given to medical schools for dissection before burial. That gave medical schools access to the great masses of dead paupers instead of the much thinner supply of murderers and put a virtually immediate end to the resurrection trade in the United Kingdom.

(In the US it went on for much, much longer, but that is another story and will be told another time.)

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Original The War of the Worlds drawings for sale

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

H.G. Wells first published his groundbreaking alien invasion story The War of the Worlds in serialized form in Pearson’s Magazine from April to December of 1897. The next year the first edition of the complete novel was published. It was an immediate success. Translated editions in Dutch, German, Polish, French, Russian and Italian followed in close succession, as well as several other English language editions, and while some of them had a smattering of graphic elements — the occasional tripod on the cover or title page — the first fully illustrated edition wasn’t published until 1906. It was this expensive special edition of only 500 copies that would influence the depiction of Wells’ creations for the next century.

The illustrator was Henrique Alvim Corrêa, a Brazilian artist who lived a short but intense and productive life. Alvim Corrêa was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1876 to a wealthy family. His father, a prominent lawyer, died when he was seven years old. His mother was remarried to banker José Mendez de Oliveira Castro in 1888, and in 1892, when Alvim Corrêa was 16 years old, the family moved to Lisbon before settling permanently in Paris a year later. In 1894 at the age of 18, he began his formal instruction in art under military painter Édouard Detaille. Military themes had been extremely popular in French art since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and Henrique followed in his master’s footsteps, exhibiting well-received military pieces in the Paris Salons of 1896 and 1897.

In 1898 Alvim Corrêa suddenly quit his studies, and against the wishes of his family married 17-year-old Blanche Fernande Barbant, daughter of engraver Charles Barbant, who was himself a successful illustrator of books by Jules Verne, among other authors. The newlyweds moved to Brussels and had their first child late that year. Cut off from his family’s financial support and connections in the art world, Alvim Corrêa had to scrape together whatever commercial work — advertisements, house painting — he could find to make do. By 1900 his finances were stable enough that he was able to move his family to the suburb of Boitsfort where he opened a studio.

Still little known as an artist, Alvim Corrêa hustled like crazy to get his work out there. He developed a style of strong contrasts and dynamic movement in drawing and painting, exploring surreal dreamscapes, caricatures, figures in action (military men, working women), landscapes real and fictional, themes of eroticism and violence individually and in combination. In 1903 he read The War of the Worlds and was inspired to draw his vision of Wells’ Martians which fit so handily with the recurring themes in his private work. Entirely unsolicited, Alvim Corrêa took his handful of drawings to London and showed them to Mr. Wells, who didn’t know him from Adam. The author was so impressed with the artwork that he invited Alvim Corrêa to illustrate the upcoming special edition of The War of Worlds by Belgian publisher L. Vandamme.

Alvim Corrêa returned to Boitsfort where he spent two years working on the illustrations. At the same time, he organized a solo exhibition of his own work which opened in 1905 and garnered him significant buzz. He went back to London that year to show Wells the finished group of 32 drawings. Wells loved them and in 1906, L. Vandamme published the large format luxury illustrated French edition of The War of the Worlds. Each of the 500 copies of the special edition was numbered and signed by Henrique Alvim Corrêa. Wells would say of the illustrations: “Alvim Corrêa did more for my work with his brush than I with my pen.”

Unfortunately his busy 1905 also included several months spent in Switzerland where he had surgery in the vain attempt to stop the tuberculosis that was laying waste to his lungs and intestines. He recovered from the surgery but not from the TB. That powerful drive of his could not overcome tuberculosis. He had to slow down his hectic work schedule considerably, but even a slowed down Alvim Corrêa continued to produce unique art, like Visions Erotiques, a collection of 20 erotic drawings entwining sex and death that he published under the pseudonym Henri Lemort (Henry the dead) in 1908. In 1910 he put together another exhibition of his work, this time alongside other artists’ pieces.

Working until the very end, Alvim Corrêa died in 1910 at the age of 34. He remained virtually unknown, even in his own country, outside of a small circle of rare book collectors and Wells connoisseurs. In the early 1970s Brazilian art historians brought him back into the light as a native son of great talent and innovation. Over the following decades his work, especially the Wells drawings, went on display at museums all over the country. His original drawings for The War of the Worlds remained in his family until 1990 when 31 of the original 32 were sold to a private collector, along with a poster announcing the special edition and a charming note Wells wrote to Alvim Corrêa in November of 1903 in which he told him he was “very glad indeed you like my Moon Men.”

That entire set is now on sale again at Heritage Auctions. Each piece is being sold in individual lots, with the letter being the least expensive at an estimated sale price of $500-$700, which is basically its autograph value. The estimate for the poster is $3,000-$5,000. The illustrations range from $5,000 to a high range of $25,000 for the title page. The collection all together could take in $500,000.

Such a shame it’ll be broken up, though. I hope some proper nerd buys the whole group and donates or loans it permanently to a museum. The 31 original artworks, poster and letter were displayed at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame’s inaugural The War of the Worlds exhibition in Seattle, Washington, from October 2004 to October 2005. That was the first (and last, as far as I know) time Alvim Corrêa’s drawings were exhibited in the United States. The museum is the passion project of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who could light his cigars with half a million dollars and has repeatedly proven himself unafraid to pour money into his love of history.




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Starring Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday

Monday, May 4th, 2015

While frolicking through silent movie history yesterday, I came across a veritable treasure of a comedic short. It’s called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and it stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday the “scientific detective,” a parody of Sherlock Holmes who was a cocaine aficionado albeit nowhere near as rabid a one as Mr. Ennyday. The character’s name isn’t the only shameless, even joyful, drug reference. Our hero is not only an avowed drug user, he wears a bandolier of syringes filled with liquid cocaine strapped to his chest and injects himself every few minutes. He also has a large round box labelled “COCAINE” in large print that he grabs fistfuls of powder out of that he then buries his face into with Scarface-like gusto. His wall clock eschews hour markers in favor of four words at the cardinal points: eats, sleep, drinks, dope. When the single hand points to drinks, Ennyday’s manservant makes him the beverage of champions: equal parts Gordon’s Gin, laudanum and prussic acid (a solution of hydrogen cyanide).

This is no Reefer Madness. There is no stern moral conclusion about the evils of drugs. Fairbanks is his usual gregarious, athletic self, just sillier than usual. This was filmed in 1916 when drugs like cocaine, cannabis and opiates were readily available from pharmaceutical companies. Many states had laws against the sale and use of coca and opium and in December of 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which in theory made it a federal crime. Authorized companies (pharma) and individuals (doctors, patients) could still dispense and use cocaine and opiates, however.

Douglas was still a comparative rookie when he made this wacky picture, having moved to Hollywood in 1915 and signed a contract with the newly formed Triangle Pictures where he worked under the D.W. Griffith point of the triangle (the other two points were Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet). His first film was released in November 1915. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released just seven months later in June of 1916. By then, with fewer than 10 films under his belt, he already had above the title billing. It was the second time he worked with husband and wife writing team John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson directed the picture — very amusingly, I might add; there are some great comedic beats in there — and Loos wrote the intertitles with tongue firmly in cheek. Fairbanks made his own contributions to the script, something you see reflected in the beginning and closing sequences where he’s playing himself pitching the madcap story of Coke Ennyday to a studio writer who naturally tells him this is a ridiculous idea for a picture that will never be made.

(Loos would later go on to write the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a huge success in print, on stage and in film, with the most famous movie version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Emerson would go on to be a huge parasite on his wife, sponging off her success, stealing her money, losing it all and stealing it again when she bounced back, all the while cheating on her and manipulating her with faked illnesses and endless drama.)

When Fairbanks rose to the loftiest heights of Hollywood fame, he reportedly came to hate this wild foray into drugged-out good times and tried to have it destroyed. With all the silent pictures we’ve lost to time and nitrate volatility and studios not giving a crap about their history, it’s remarkable that this bizarre little two-reeler survived even when the greatest star of the era wanted it gone.

Also of historical note is the relatively subdued racist angle. There’s a Chinese laundry guy/opium dealer stereotype, but it’s small potatoes compared to the blatant racism of the debate around the passage of the Harrison Act which was all about cocaine making black men crazy, aggressive, superstrong and driving them to rape white women, while the Chinese used opium to lure innocent white girls into drug addiction, illicit relationships and, inevitably, prostitution.

The movie really doesn’t care about any of that noise. It’s quite remarkable, because studios were consistently cowardly when it came to potentially controversial issues, even before the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the later implementation of the Production Code. The story was by Tod Browning, best known today for his ground-breaking and still creepy as hell talkie Freaks. He had run away from home to join the circus when he was a teenager, so he was not easily scandalized.

Anyway, without further ado, here is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

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Watch Too Much Johnson online

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Last night Turner Classic Movies aired the restored work print of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson found in Pordenone, Italy, in 2008. It was the second film Welles ever made (the first was a short eight minutes long; the third was Citizen Kane) and had long been thought lost before the silent film experts of Cinemazero discovered the print that had been languishing forgotten in a shipping company warehouse since the 70s.

An adaptation of an 1894 play by William Gillette, Welles made significant changes to the original script of Too Much Johnson for an experimental staging by his Mercury Theatre company. The original plan was for the three reels of the picture to be introductions to each act, the first reel 20 minutes long, the remaining two 10 minutes each. The film was silent slapstick in the style of Mack Sennett’s early comedies and it would set the stage for a performance of the play done as a screwball comedy.

This was Welles’ first full experience of shooting and editing a movie. In 10 days of filming, he shot 25,000 feet of film. He took all 25,000 feet of highly flammable 35mm nitrate to his hotel suite at the St. Regius and edited it himself on a Moviola machine. Producer John Houseman and assistant director John Berry aided him in this slightly insane endeavor, and would later recall that nitrate film covered the floor of the suite reaching knee-high. There was at least one fire. Somehow, the men, the film, the hotel suite and the hotel, for that matter, survived this cockamamie scheme, and Welles managed to narrow down the 10 reels of footage to a rough working print just over an hour in running time.

He never did finish editing the movie. There may have been an issue with royalties — Paramount owned the film rights to the original play — and legend has it the Stony Creek Theatre, the theater near New Haven where the play was to have its trial run, did not have the fireproof projection booth and/or a high enough ceiling to show the film. However, Paramount has no record of sending Welles a letter asserting their rights and the Stony Creek Theatre started out as the Lyric Theater, a nickelodeon, in 1903 (the same year The Great Train Robbery altered the movie-going landscape forever) so even though it was purchased by a community theater group in 1920 and a proper stage and fly gallery added, it seems odd that it would have lost all its original film projection capabilities by August 16th, 1938, when the Too Much Johnson preview began.

Whatever the reason, the movie part of the Mercury staging of the play never did happen. Without it the play, which Welles had modified extensively assuming there would be introductory films, didn’t work and the New Haven trial was a flop. Although Welles made noises that the play would move on to Broadway, the debut kept getting postponed and ultimately dropped. The Mercury Theatre company had begun putting on live hour-long radio dramas in July of 1938, and in October of that year they pulled off the greatest radio drama caper of all time with the broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The huge reaction got them a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and two more years of weekly shows, so Too Much Johnson fell by the wayside.

The footage wound up in storage. Welles himself completely forgot about it until he found a print at his house in Madrid in the 1960s. He refused to show it publicly, saying that it made no sense without the play context, much like the play had made little sense without the companion film. When that print was lost in a fire, scholars thought this important transitional piece that had much to reveal about the development of Welles’ directorial approach was gone forever. That’s why the discovery of the second print in Pordenone was greeted with such joy by film nerds and Welles’ fans.

Too Much Johnson was restored by the geniuses at the George Eastman House with invaluable help from Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands and had its world debut at a silent film festival in Pordenone in October of 2013 before making its US debut later that month at the George Eastman House. That viewing was for members only; the rest of us had to wait to get our eyeballs on it, so I was kicking myself for not realizing ahead of time that the movie would finally air on a widely accessible cable channel. It’s pretty great, too. I didn’t find it all that confusing, even though there are no intertitles and there are repetitive takes included.

The stand-outs for me are Joseph Cotten, who legs it over the rooftops of New York City with impressive gameness, grace and skill, the cinematography and the angled shots, surprising quick-cuts and close-ups that would come to define the Welles of Citizen Kane and after. Cotten makes Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, one of Welles’ inspirations for the picture, look like an accountant at a desk job. This was done with a shoe-string budget. There were no stunts, no carefully arranged shots that made a guy dangling from a clock a few feet above a platform look like he was dangling from a clock many stories in the air. Cotten and the man he has cuckholded, played with moustache-twirling zest by Edgar Barrier, scramble up and down Battery tenements, scooch around ledges and plank over chimneys with the greatest of ease.

Cinematographer Paul Dunbar pulled a rabbit out of a hat, making this two-buck-chuck of a film look way more expensive than it had any right to look. There are great shots capturing the geometry of the city (diagonal criss-cross fire escapes, stacks and stacks of boxes, background skyscrapers, hats covering the ground like confetti). Scenes set in “Cuba” were shot in a quarry over the Hudson River planted with palm trees Welles picked up at a local plant nursery. It’s downright eerie how well it all works.

But you don’t have to take my word for it just because I neglected to alert you to the impending airing. Thankfully the National Film Preservation Foundation has come to the rescue. When I posted about the restoration two years ago, the NFPF was raising money to digitize the movie and make it available for free on its website. Well, they were successful! You can watch the whole restored 66-minute work print online here. Being a particularly awesome organization, they have also uploaded an edited version which is an “educated guess” of how Welles might have pared down the footage for use alongside the play.

The NFPF version (I’ve only seen the work print all the way through) is actually better than the version TCM showed, in my opinion, because the score is so much better. They’ve added a proper silent movie score whereas the TCM version was a very repetitive, sloooooow, minimalist composition that doesn’t match the slapstick action at all. They’ve also provided phenomenal notes explaining the full context of the play, comparing the original to drafts of the Mercury version so it’s much easier to follow the story. So yeah. Two thumbs most enthusiastically up.

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British soldiers, archaeologists find early shots fired at Waterloo

Friday, May 1st, 2015

An international team of archaeologists and British war veterans have come together to excavate the Waterloo battlefield. It’s the first large-scale archaeological survey of the Hougoumont Farm area which proved to be a vital position attacked repeatedly by French forces during the June 18th, 1815, battle. So far the team has focused on the site of a wood south of the farm buildings that took the brunt of early French attacks. It’s been less than a week and a geophysical survey, a metal detector survey and test trenches have found coins, uniform buttons, fragments of firearms and English and French musket balls.

Dr Tony Pollard, Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, leading the archaeology, said: “The full team has only been working on site for two days and we have made some very interesting discoveries. In particular, we have started a comprehensive survey, including metal detecting, of the area of the former wood to the south of the Hougoumont buildings and we have already found spent and unfired musket shots at the southern-most tip of the wood, also fragments of firearms and clothing such as uniform buttons.

“We know that shots were exchanged between the French and Allied armies in these woods during the night before the battle, as the French probed the allied position and the first real fighting took place in the same spot. I am confident these shots were fired very early in the battle, probably in the first exchanges.”

The team is hoping this excavation will answer questions about the battle. Much has been written about it, but eye-witness accounts and reports from the battlefield can be biased, muddled and contradictory. Although some topographical features have been altered either deliberately (the Lion Mount) or through natural processes and illegal metal detecting by souvenir hunters has removed a lot of the metal artifacts, the field has been left largely undeveloped in the 200 years since the battle. Battlefield archaeologists are optimistic that there is a great deal left to discover, including the locations of mass graves. The geophysical survey of the area around Hougoumont Farm detected anomalies that could be buried human remains. Any human remains discovered will be studied but not disturbed. The aim is to mark the graves, not to exhume bodies.

The Waterloo Uncovered excavation project was conceived by Major Charles Foinette, serving with 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, and Mark Evans, an Afghanistan veteran who was also an officer with the Coldstream Guards. The dig is all the more meaningful to them because a company of the Coldstream Guards were stationed at the farm and defended it valiantly against French attacks. Several other former and current Coldstream Guards are part of the excavation team through project partner Operation Nightingale, a program found in 2012 that puts soldiers injured in Afghanistan to work on archaeological excavations as a form of vocational training and physical and social therapy. It’s been a great success from the first year and Mark Evans is living proof of it since he was first introduced to archaeology through his participation in Operation Nightingale as an Afghanistan veteran suffering from PTSD. To have soldiers working at the site lends valuable insight to battlefield archaeology.

“Now we’ve got some of the top archaeologists in the world working on this site, but none of them has ever been in a battle, and it’s that perspective that the soldiers bring. They’ve been there, they’ve seen it. A different time and a different place, but they understand the confusion, they understand how ground is so important to cover and to make into advances,” Evans said.

The project is currently slated to last a year, but it could develop into a longer-term investigation if the will is there.

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16th c. murals, burials found in Cuzco church

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

During the restoration of the 16th century Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in the Peruvian town of Maras, 25 miles northwest of Cuzco, researchers discovered a crypt with skeletal remains and the original murals that had been covered with more fashionable artworks by a famous native son in the 17th century. Experts from the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco (DPDDC), the governmental organization in charge of administering the cultural patrimony of the Cuzco region in southeastern Peru, found the crypt under the floor of the Virgen de las Nieves chapel. Inside are a jumble of human bones that researchers estimate belong to 32 people interred in the early days of the church. The remains are disarticulated and scattered likely as a result of deliberate and repeated desecrations that are known to have occurred in the region.

The Templo Mayor San Francisco de Asís was built in 1556, 22 years after the conquest of Peru, the same year the town was founded by Spanish general Pedro Ortiz de Orué. It was constructed in colonial style with adobe walls on a masonry foundation and a tile roof and packed with religious art. Since the restoration of the church is a top-to-bottom project covering the building and all the art inside of it, paintings on the presbytery wall by Antonio Sinchi Roca were removed for conservation.

Antonio Sinchi Roca, born in Maras, was one of the most prominent artists of the Cuzco School, many of whom are unfortunately anonymous today. Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo, born to a wealthy Madrid family in 1626 and the powerful bishop of Cuzco from 1673 until his death in 1699, was his patron. His painted a series of portraits of the saints and scenes from the Gospel for the church of Saint Francis in his hometown. There are some great views of them in this video from right before the refurbishment began.

Underneath Roca’s paintings researchers found a multi-panel mural with scenes of the Virgin Mary. Covered up barely a century after their creation, the murals are in remarkable condition with beautifully bright colors. Another mural was discovered on the wall of the central nave that has more abstract geometric and zoomorophic designs.

These murals predate the Cuzco School of religious art, the first organized artistic movement in the New World of which Roca was one of the most famous exponents. Keen to dive right into the conversion of the Inca people after the conquest, Spain sent artists to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, to found a school that would teach the local Quechuas and mestizos to paint religious art in the European style. The Cuzco School artists painted scenes integral to the Catholic catechism — the Holy Family, the Virgin and Child, Christ in Glory, saints, angels (often depicted as warriors), the Final Judgement, the sacraments — using a palette of bright reds, yellows, earth tones and shining gold. They eschewed perspective, focusing instead of emphasizing the important figures by making them dominant in size and in the splendour of their robes.

Restoration of the church began in July 2013 and is scheduled to be complete by July of 2016. The art has been removed to a lab for conservation. No word on whether or how they’ll integrate the original murals with the works that have been covering them for more than 300 years.

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Chauvet Cave replica opens in France

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015


The walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France are decorated with the earliest known pictorial drawings made during the Aurignacian period, between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. More than 1,000 drawings of animals — including horses, bison, lions, cave bears, panthers, eagle owls, woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses — hand prints and abstract line and dot designs cover 91,000 square feet of space. The art has unique qualities like incised outlines that give figures depth and a sense of dynamic movement conveyed by multiple legs as if we were seeing the animals in motion.

The cave was discovered in December of 1994 by three speleologists: Jean-Marie Chauvet (after whom it was named), Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. They were the first people to see the splendour on the walls since the cave opening was sealed by a rockfall 23,000 years ago. France learned a hard lesson with the Lascaux Cave which was discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and in dire condition by 1955 thanks to the carbon dioxide, moisture, contaminants and lichens introduced by unwitting visitors. This time they took no chances. The French government declared the Chauvet Cave a protected heritage site almost immediately and only made it available to fewer than 200 researchers a year.

Because of its excellent condition, the density and quality of the art, which includes some species of animals like the panther and owl seen in no other Paleolithic art, and the rich remains of prehistoric fauna and human footprints found on the ground, the cave was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June of 2014. But how to share said heritage with said world without causing irreparable harm to it? Again Lascaux paved the way. Lascaux II, a replica of the main sections of the cave and its art, opened in 1983 and has been very popular to the tourists who can no longer see the original cave.

In 2008, a contest was launched to select the architect who make a replica of the Chauvet Cave. French architects Fabre and Speller won, but their design for the concrete building that would house the replica cave was only one part of a complex whole. This construction and art project would ultimately requiring the close collaboration of 500 people employed by 35 different companies. A 3D laser scanning survey was carried out in 2011 so that every feature of the cave interior could be duplicated. Since the cave is very long, it was rearranged in the replica, basically folded into a circle with all the art consolidated, but meticulously mapped out to its original topography. The original 91,000 square feet were thus reduced to a more manageable but still vast 32,000 square feet, 10 times the size of Lascaux II.

The construction of the walls, ceilings and floors with their accurate topographic features was achieved by bending thousands of metal rods to precisely match the natural lumps and bumps mapped by the 3D scans. The rods were then welded together in sections that could be affixed to steel beams in the ceiling of the new structure. Before they were installed in place, the cage-like sections were covered with two layers of mortar: one of landscape mortar and a top layer of finishing mortar the same colors and textures as the clay and limestone of the original. Even the cracks were reproduced exactly. A thin layer of fine mortar sprayed with a retardant to keep it damp while the artists work was used for the walls with engraved images and finger paints.

Once the sections were prepped, the artists got their turn. Painters used the same kind of charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and the ocher pigment used by the Aurignacian artists tens of thousands of years ago. Pictures of the originals were projected onto the wall sections, ensuring they were reproduced accurately to the millimeter. Thanks to the mortars used as a base, these materials will sink into the walls over time just the original ones did.

Because they wanted to reproduce not just the art but convey the experience of being in the original cave, geological features like stalactites and calcite concretions were recreated out of epoxy resin or concrete. Crushed or powdered glass was added to the resin to give it that beautiful glittery look you see in natural cave formations. Some of the pieces were treated with glossy topcoat that make them look wet, like the water that formed them is still dripping.

Once all 27 large panels were complete, they were installed in the building along with replicas of the bones and footprints found on the ground in the original cave. It took only 30 months from the time construction began in 2012 until its completion. The cost was $59 million, sure to be recouped many times over by the expected influx of 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year. On Saturday, April 25th, 2014, the replica opened to the public.

This video is in French, but even if you don’t speak any you should still be able to follow it roughly based on the descriptions above, and you really should watch it because it is mind-blowing how they put this thing together.

Also, if you have Netflix, you have to watch Werner Herzog’s breathtaking documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was allowed very rare access to the original cave and the result is an artistic tour de force as much in execution as in subject matter.

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