Archive for October, 2010

Houdini wishes you a Happy Halloween

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Houdini poster, 1906It’s the 84th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death today, since he so thoughtfully got himself punched in the inflamed appendix and held out just long enough for peritonitis to kill him on the spookiest day of the year. Just in time to celebrate his dramatic life and death, a new exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York has put the artistry, craftsmanship and showmanship of Harry Houdini on display for the first time in a major art museum.

Houdini: Art and Magic doesn’t reveal any magicians’ secrets. It tells the story of Ehrich Weiss, a Hungarian immigrant who ran away from his Wisconsin home when he was 12 to join the circus. He came back, though, to help support the family, and only began his vaudeville career in earnest after his father died in 1892 when Harry was 18. He started off doing card tricks. He quickly moved on to handcuff escapes and by 1900 he was a sensation touring Europe as “The Handcuff King.”

The exhibit recreates the shadowy interiors and sharp spotlights of the vaudeville halls that launched Houdini’s magic career. There are photographs, posters, rare film footage of his dramatic public escapes as well as films starring him shot by his own production company in the late teens/early twenties, and coolest of all, some of his most famous props.

Far more intriguing are Houdini’s own main props: a weighty steamer trunk, an oversize milk can and a vertical, coffinlike box with a glass front. These were the sites of his most famous acts: the trunk and can were everyday objects, the exhibition notes, well within the ken of immigrant audiences.

The trunk here, we learn, was one with which Houdini performed the “Metamorphosis” trick. He would be tied up, put in handcuffs, perhaps, then stuffed inside a tightly tied sack and locked in the trunk. His assistant would stand on top. A curtain would then shield them from view. And in three seconds, it would drop, revealing not the assistant but Houdini himself standing atop the trunk, his assistant locked and bound inside.

Houdini's giant milk canThis wasn’t a trick of Houdini’s invention, but he expanded its resonance. It seemed to demonstrate the power to overcome bondage, to dissolve material obstacles, to confound expectations. But Houdini took his act further. Being locked in a trunk is nobody’s idea of a good time, but this was still playful artifice. What if he were stuffed inside a milk can, and it was then filled with water? The trick starts to invoke claustrophobic terror. (Houdini owned one of Edgar Allan Poe’s desks.)

Water Torture Cell, reproductionAnd if the milk can were replaced with a vertical glass-walled, water-filled, coffinlike box, as it was in 1912, the audience members wouldn’t even have to imagine that terror. They watch Houdini being lowered upside down into his “water torture cell” and see him pressed against the glass as he is locked in place. Two assistants stand with axes, prepared to smash the apparatus if Houdini doesn’t make it out in time. When he does (we don’t see how), it seems a conquest of morbid fear, a defiance of death.

You can’t see inside any of the props, though. That would be telling. The Water Torture Cell on display is the only reproduction. The rest are Harry’s own devices. You have to listen closely to understand through the noise, but here’s a recording of Harry Houdini describing his Water Torture Cell procedure for a 1914 audience:

Houdini WTC intro

The exhibit is not just neat gadgets. It also features contemporary art inspired by Houdini, like a pair of chained holographic hands emerging from the milk can. It ties all of that together with the art and craftsmanship of Harry’s showstopping performances and with the sociological significance of his Jewish immigrant heritage.

The exhibit runs in New York until March 27, 2011. Then it will travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin.


Dinosaur skull found in Italian church

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

Palentologist Andrea Tintori has identified what appears to be the cross-section of a dinosaur skull fossil embedded in a slab of stone in the balustrade of the Cathedral of St. Ambrose in Vigevano, a small town 20 miles west of Milan.

The fossil is embeded in a rose-colored calcareous stone called Broccatello, quarried in the Italian Swiss town of Arzo. This kind of stone is about 190 million years old, the Lower Jurassic period, and the area it comes from is known as a rich source of fossils.

The original stone workers who cut the slab during the construction of the Cathedral (1532 to 1660) sliced themselves off a cross-section of 11.8-inch dinosaur skull without realizing it. Then they did it again, and in fact Tintori found another section of the same skull in a nearby slab.

‘Fossils such as these are very rare in the world and in Italy, in this rock type, unique,’ Tintori told the newspaper, La Repubblica. […]

‘Initially I thought it could be the fossil of a Ichthyosaurus,’ he said referring to giant marine reptiles that resembled fish and dolphins.

‘But now I’m convinced it is a dinosaur, even if examining it in its present condition it is impossible to say much more … not even whether it was flesh-eating or plant-eating,’ Tintori said.

The reptile’s cranium, its nasal lobes and numerous teeth are ‘clearly visible,’ the paleontologist explained.

Dinosaur skull cross-section in balustrade stone Balustrade of Cathedral of St. Ambrose in Vigevano, skull outlined mid-left

Tintori hopes he’ll be allowed to remove the stone so he can have it scanned, replacing it with another slab of the same type of stone quarried from the same place. I don’t know if the church would be amenable to that. Meanwhile, he will create a 3D reconstruction of the skull based on the visible cross-section.


Civil War smuggling dolls X-rayed

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Nina (left) and Lucy Ann (right)Nina and Lucy Ann are Civil War-era dolls, part of the enormous collection of Civil War artifacts at Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy. As innocent as they seem, they’ve long been thought to have a dirty little secret: the were used to smuggle medical supplies past the Union blockade to Confederate troops.

Their undercover activities haven’t ever been confirmed, so museum collections manager Catherine M. Wright took Nina and Lucy Ann to the VCU Medical Center to get X-rayed.

Registered technologist Lanea Bare gently placed each doll on the X-ray table, taking images of each facing up, then on their sides. Ghostly images were then displayed on a screen in the busy radiology department, drawing stares and wisecracks from passing doctors and technicians as the dolls lay neatly back in their box.

“Looking here, this looks like a cavity in the head and upper chest,” said Dr. Ann S. Fulcher, pointing to Nina’s image on the screen. “That’s probably where the majority of the goods, the medicine, was put.” […]

The dolls’ heads and shoulders are stitched to the bodies, which are stuffed with wool or cotton. Safety pins used to secure their clothing, including undergarments, were visible in the X-rays.

X-ray of Lucy Ann, white area is hollow X-ray of Nina, white area is hollow

In the article Wright seems to be suggesting that the hollow busts alone are confirmation that the dolls were used for smuggling, but they’re just the most recent link in the chain. First there’s the ownership record. The children of Gen. James Patton Anderson, commander of the Tennessee Army of the Confederacy, donated Nina to the museum in 1923. They told museum officials at the time that she was a smuggling doll.

Lucy Ann was donated in 1976 by someone who wished to remain anonymous. He too told officials that the doll was used to carry medicines past the blockade. She also has a gash on the back of her head, possibly received when someone opened her up to get her cargo. Nina is intact. Museum officials think she may have been taken apart and stitched back together for reuse.

Both of the dolls are most likely not of American manufacture. There was no doll industry in the US until after the Civil War. Only rag dolls were made locally. Nina and Lucy Ann have papier-mache torsos stitched to stuffed cotton bodies, so they were probably purchased in Europe, packed with quinine or morphine, and smuggled past the Union ships blockading Confederate ports. The idea was that even if the smugglers were boarded by Union troops, inspectors wouldn’t bother searching toys for contraband, at least not thoroughly enough to get to the contents of a doll’s head.

Quinine was desperately needed. Almost a million Union soldiers contracted malaria, and although there are no statistics for Confederate troops, malaria was probably even more widespread in their ranks due to their chronic shortages of food and medicine. Most victims survived only to get it again the next year.


Witchfinder General trial journal to be digitized

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Matthew Hopkins the Witch Finder General, from a self-published broadside, ca. 1650During the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne traveled the Puritan counties of east England looking for witches. Hopkins styled himself the Witchfinder General and claimed to have been appointed by Parliament to root out witchcraft. Hopkins and Stearne cut a swathe through the women of Essex and surrounding counties between 1645 and 1647, inspecting them very carefully for moles and skin tags, aka devil’s marks from which familiars, imps and demons suckled witches’ blood like babies at the teat. They even had a staff of women “prickers” whose job was to stab, jab and probe suspected witches naked and shaved bodies for hidden marks.

During those 2 years, Hopkins and Stearne were directly responsible for the hanging of 112 people for practicing witchcraft. That’s more than were killed in the previous century, and approximately 40% of the total number of witches killed during all persecutions in Britain between the early 15th and late 18th centuries. After their strenuous efforts, both Hopkins and Stearne retired in 1647 and wrote how-to books on finding witches and beating the Devil (for a modest fee, of course).

Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches was highly influential in the New England colonies. Executions for witchcraft began in Massachusetts the year after the book was published and that first witch-hunt would last until 15 years until 1663. The Salem Witch Trials would pick Hopkins’ baton 30 years later between 1692 and 1693.

Nehemiah Wallington's journal of a witch trialPuritan diarist and professional turner Nehemiah Wallington witnessed Hopkins’ trial of 33 young women in Chelmsford in July of 1645. He described what he saw and heard in great detail in his journals. So great a detail, in fact, that the story he told would become the 1968 Vincent Price cult classic The Witchfinder General.

In the journal Hopkins – who died of tuberculosis in August 1647 – was referred to as the ”Gentle man” and Wallington wrote of how Rebecca confessed after seeing flames disappear when she became separated from her mother.

In the passage he wrote: ”Shortly after when she was going to bed the Devil appeared unto her again in the shape of a handsome young man, saying that he came to marry her.

”Asked by the Judge whether she ever had carnal copulation with the Devil she confessed she had. She was very desirous to confess all she knew, which accordingly she did where upon the rest were apprehended and sent unto the Geole [jail].

”She further affirmed that when she was going to the Grand Inquest she said she would confess nothing if they pulled her to pieces with pincers.

”Asked the reason by the Gentle man she said she found herself in such extremity of torture and amazement, that she would not endure it again for the world.

”When she looked upon the ground she saw herself encompassed in flames of fire and as soon as she was separated from her mother the tortures and the flames began to cease whereupon she then confessed all she knew.

”As soon as her confession was fully ended she found her contience so satisfied and disburdened of all tortures she thought herself the happiest creature in the world.”

The confession saved Rebecca’s life even as it doomed her mother and the other suspects. With no defense attorneys on their side and the whole trial generally being a chaotic sham, Rebecca was the only woman to be acquitted. The rest were all condemned, 19 of them hanged, 9 others reprieved.

The sole manuscript of Wallington’s account is kept at the historic estate of Tatton Park, but it’s in such delicate condition that it’s rarely seen in public. Thanks to the fancy imagine equipment and experts at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, however, the journal is being digitized and will become part of an online exhibit.


Woman busted trying to mail a mummy to France

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Police in La Paz, Bolivia, arrested a woman who tried to mail what appears to be a pre-Columbian mummy to France through the regular post office. She would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling routine postal inspections.

The Bolivian national told police that she gotten the package in Desaguadero, a town about 40 miles west of La Paz near the border with Peru, from a man she calls Don Gustavo. She claimed not to know what was inside the box. Don Gustavo just instructed her to mail it from the post office in La Paz to one Annette Huc in Compiegne, France, and that’s what she did.

The Police said that a preliminary inspection of the mummy indicated that it probably corresponds to a child and seems to be in good state of conservation.

Ronald Terán, Head of Bolivia’s Cultural Heritage Study Society, said the case is being reviewed and investigated and that a report will be issued soon. The antiquity of the mummy has not yet been determined, but it may date about 750 years and pertain to the Inca culture.

You can see footage of the mummy, the alleged mummy mule and the wee tiny post office where it all went down in this ITV report:


Magna Carta of basketball to be sold

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

James NaismithI can’t take credit for that deliciously grandiose title. It was Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist for Historic American Manuscripts, who described the first typewritten pages listing the 13 original rules of basketball as the “Magna Carta of the sport.” Said Magna Carta, as you might have guessed, is for sale.

In December of 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a 30-year-old PE teacher at a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, dreamed up a sport that could be played indoors to keep those YMCA ruffians busy during the long winter break between the football and baseball seasons. He typed 13 rules on 2 pages and hung them on the gym wall. The sport was instantly popular and the players spread it to other YMCAs. Only 7 years later, Naismith was bringing the game to the University of Kansas and only 30 years after that, the first NCAA tournament took place with 8 teams.

What makes these rules particularly important is that basketball is the only major sport that didn’t evolve from an earlier form. Naismith invented it, the players added their input — including the whole idea of dribbling — the rustic peach baskets and soccer balls were replaced by netted hoops with backboards within 15 years and now the rules are 80 pages long, but it’s still the same game developed from Naismith’s original rules.

The rules memorialized by Naismith are both recognizable and a little bit alien.

The game was to be played with an “ordinary Association football.” Players were not permitted to run with the ball and disqualified for a second foul “until the next goal is made.” But he made a provision for a flagrant foul if “there was evident intent to injure the person.” The only handwritten words in the document read like the most significant ones in Rule 8’s definition of a field goal; in his hand, he inserted “into the basket.”

Perhaps to ensure that people in the future would know the source of the rules, he also wrote in ink in the open space below Rule 13: “First draft of Basketball rules hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules — Dec. 1891.”

Ian Naismith, James Naismith’s grandson, is offering them for sale. The proceeds will fund the non-profit Naismith International Basketball Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting good sportsmanship in sport in the spirit of the good doctor. The estimated sale price is $2 million.

Fun fact: This one time Ian thought he’d left the rules in a Kansas City Hooters but then he found them under his seat in the van after all.

James Naismith's Founding Rules of Basketball


Syphilis found in 13th c. London

Monday, October 25th, 2010

WPA poster encouraging testing and treatment of SyphilisIt’s become a mainstream convention that syphilis was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus’ sailors returning from the new world. The first documented syphilis outbreak in Europe was among the French troops besieging Naples in 1495. (That’s why the French called it “the Italian disease” and the Italians called it “the French disease.”) The syphilis those poor soldiers got was far more virulent and deadly than the venereal disease we know today. It was highly contagious, spread through casual touch and oral contact, and killed within months. There are descriptions of victims’ flesh falling off their bodies before a painful death just weeks after the appearance of the first symptom.

By the mid-16th century the disease had settled into a the more subtle, insidious, long-term infection spread primarily by sexual contact that we know it as. The date of that first epidemic and the lack of any precedent in the historical record couldn’t help but suggest that this new pathogen came to the continent via Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. Syphilis was endemic in the Americas. The skeletal record shows widespread syphilis contagion, with lesions primarily located on the legs, suggesting a non-venereal version caused by a subspecies of the Treponema pallidum bacterium. There is no such skeletal record in Europe.

There have been a few pre-Columbian skeletal finds, including in Pompeii, that suggest a form of syphilis going as far back as the Romans. Some researchers think some Medieval skeletons that show signs of leprosy might actually have been afflicted with syphilis. It’s all been speculative, though, because both dates and disease are hard to pin down, and because ancient and medieval sources don’t describe any disease that matches the symptoms that sprang up in the 15th century.

Also, recent genetic studies of the Treponema pallidum bacterium indicate that the STD version is a more recent descendant of the American strain that causes the non-veneral yaws. That old yaws strain could well have begun in ancient Africa or the Middle East then the two diverged.

Syphillitic skullsMuseum of London researchers examining the skeletal remains excavated at St. Mary Spital, an Augustinian priory and hospital founded in East London in 1197, think they’ve found stronger evidence of pre-Columbian European syphilis.

Brian Connell, an osteologist for the Museum of London who studied the bones, said he had no doubt that the skeletons were buried before Columbus’ voyage. Radiocarbon dating of the samples is estimated to be 95 percent accurate.

“We’re confident that Christopher Columbus is simply not a feature of the emergence and timing of the disease in Europe,” Connell said.

The seven syphilitic skeletons from St Mary’s Spital, two from 1200-1250 and five from 1250-1400, are not only better preserved than those considered previously, but buried alongside other skeletons and objects such as coins that corroborate radiocarbon dating results.

Connell said it was probably a coincidence that the first well-documented outbreak of the disease was after Columbus’ return.

Could be. Or the New World yaws bacterium might have encountered the Old World yaws bacterium and been stimulated to mutate into something new. It seems unlikely to me that it was a complete coincidence, especially considering that genetic analysis of the strains themselves indicates European syphilis is a descendant of the New World bacterium. Osteological examination is inherently limited because you can’t know for sure what caused the bone lesions, even when they’re characteristic of syphilis.


Queen Eadgyth laid to rest. Again.

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Queen Edith's sarcophagusThe remains of Queen Eadgyth, granddaughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, were reburied in an ecumenical ceremony in Magdeburg Cathedral this Friday. Her bones were found in a lead coffin inside a stone sarcophagus by archaeologists doing some work on the cathedral in 2008. Even though there was a cenotaph dedicated to her in the church, the find was unexpected because her remains were known to have been moved several times.

The burial wasn’t original. She died in 946 A.D, and an inscription on the lead coffin noted her name and the reburial date (1510), but of course that wasn’t sufficient to prove that the bones belonged to the queen herself. It wasn’t until this year that isotope analysis on her teeth confirmed that the remains did indeed belong to Queen Eadgyth.

Now that the science has been done, the good Queen has been put to her final rest. Again. Hundreds gathered in the 800-year-old Magdeburg Cathedral to pay their respects. First there was an ecumenical 2-hour funerary service with both Lutheran and Catholic clerics presiding, then a closed coffin viewing of Queen Eadgyth’s remains. After that, the coffin was placed inside the stone sarcophagus and reburied under the floor of the cathedral.

The original lead coffin was too corroded and broken to reuse, so the Arts Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt held a competition to chose a new long-lasting coffin design. The winner was Leipzig sculptor Kornelia Thümmel. She created a polygonal container made of titanium that looks like a crystal. On one side of the coffin in a cross, on the other the following inscription: “This sarcophagus contains the mortal remains of Queen Edith, wife of Otto the Great, once again buried Anno Domini 1510, re-discovered by archaeological excavations in 2008 and now again buried in 2010.”

Queen Edith's new titanium coffin Incription on titanium coffin

The coffin is so small because there are actually not that many bones left, only 40 out of the usual 200, and some fragments of her skull.

Otto had given the city of Magdeburg to Eadgyth as a wedding present. She was widely beloved and known for her charitable works and kindness. She was never canonized, but she was revered locally as a saint for centuries, hence the missing bones. Whenever she got moved, people helped themselves to pieces of her as relics.


First US performance of Shakespeare in the original pronunciation

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

This November, University of Kansas theater professor Paul Meier will be staging the first US production of a Shakespeare play spoken in the original pronunciation. This is not only a first for the United States, but it’s an extremely rare event worldwide. There have only been 3 other productions of original pronunciation (OP) Shakespeare before this one, 2 at The Globe theater in London, and 1 at Cambridge in the 1950s.

The reason these performances are so rare is not that Shakespeare’s accent is too far out of our reach. Linguists know quite a lot about early modern English, and for Shakespeare in particular, there’s a blueprint of original pronunciation in the rhymes that no longer work today but did in his time. It’s that the linguists who have the appropriate expertise don’t also have the qualifications or interests to teach it to actors and put on a play, nor do most theaters have the wherewithal to put together the necessary team.

Meier is not only a theater professor with a particular passion for Shakespeare, but he’s also a top-notch dialect coach with 30 years’ experience researching accents and dialects all over the world. In 2007, he took a small group of students to Stratford-upon-Avon where they attended a seminar in original pronunciation led by linguist and OP expert David Crystal. Crystal had been the consultant on the Globe’s OP productions, and Meier determined on the spot that he would find a way to bring Crystal to Kansas to work on an OP play together.

It took a few years, but Meier finally made it happen. They decided to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because it’s packed with rhymes that worked in OP but not in today’s English. David Crystal spent 2 weeks with Meier the cast in September, working to get the accents just right.

“American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” Meier said. “The original pronunciation performance strongly contrasts with the notions of precise and polished delivery created by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and their colleagues from the 20th century British theater.”

Meier said audiences will hear word play and rhymes that “haven’t worked for several hundred years (love/prove, eyes/qualities, etc.) magically restored, as Bottom, Puck and company wind the language clock back to 1595.”

“The audience will hear rough and surprisingly vernacular diction, they will hear echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney that survive to this day as ‘dialect fossils.’ And they will be delighted by how very understandable the language is, despite the intervening centuries.”

The play will run for 8 performances between November 11th and November 21st. If you plan to be in the Lawrence, Kansas, area during that time, you can purchase advance tickets from the KU website. The rest of us need not weep, however, because after the play closes, the cast will be recording a radio drama version, complete with sound effects and music, for Kansas Public Radio. It will be made available online and via CD after it airs on the radio.

For the linguist nerds among you or for those of you who just want to try your hand at OP, Paul Meier has created a free e-book with embedded sound files from the documentation he used to train the cast: The Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English (pdf).

Here’s a subtitled video of the cast rehearsing in original pronunciation:



UK’s oldest hospital found; predates Normans

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Arial view of early hospital foundations, WinchesterUntil recently, historians thought the first hospitals were built in England only after the Norman conquest of 1066. Radiocarbon dating of burials at the site of the former St. Mary Magdalen leper hospital in Winchester, however, return results ranging from 960-1030 A.D. Archaeologists also found artifacts, postholes and foundations that date to the same time.

Before this excavation, St. Mary Magdalen hospital was thought to have been founded in 1170. Many of the bodies from the site that were found to date to the 10th and early 11th century show signs of advanced leprosy, so either St. Mary’s was founded earlier than previously thought, or it was built on top of an earlier leper hospital.

Prof Nicholas Orme, a leading researcher on medieval hospitals, added: “I have only studied the documentary evidence but I could not find any such evidence for a hospital before 1066 except perhaps as an activity within a monastery or minster.

“A late Anglo-Saxon hospital would surely be a first for archaeology and indeed for history.”

Winchester at that time was the capital of England (London didn’t achieve that laurel until the 12th century, well into Norman rule) and the epicenter of religious reform. Monasteries were become more tightly regulated and were enclosing their properties. The hospital could have been a religious community of lepers, if not a traditional monastery, and evidence of community outreach in what is generally seen as a inward-focused, self-segregating reform movement.

The earliest known hospital in England before this discovery was in Harbledown, Canterbury, founded in the 1070’s by Lanfranc, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who aggressively put Normans in every possible position of importance, ousting native English officeholders no matter what their virtues and talents. He also foiled a plot by Saxon earls to assassinate William the Conqueror in 1075 by ratting out a confession, and would later be instrumental in making William Rufus the Conqueror’s successor to the crown of England.

Finding a hospital that predates his by a hundred years is therefore quite the coup for pre-Norman England.





October 2010


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