Houdini wishes you a Happy Halloween

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

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

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

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

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: