A love that would not die – III

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In the past years we have already delved into love stories that surpass the barrier of death (the case of Carl Tanzler and a similar story which took place in Vietnam).
Perhaps less macabre than these other two incidents, but just as moving, was Jonathan Reed’s passion for his wife Mary E. Gould Reed.

When Mary died, she was buried in her father’s crypt, at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. But Jonathan, who then was in his sixties, could not abandon his wife. He kept telling himself that maybe, by showing her his unconditional love, things could go on like before.
His visits to her grave began to be judged excessively frequent, even for a grieving widower who, as a retired businessman, had plenty of free time. As the neighbors began to murmur, Mary’s father asked Reed to behave in a more discreet manner: he therefore reduced his apparitions at the graveyard. But when his father-in-law passed away, for Jonathan there were no more obstacles.

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He bought a new mausoleum in another section of the cemetery in which he transferred his dead wife’s body. Beside Mary’s casket he positioned a second empty one, where he himself would be lying when time came to join her.
Eventually Jonathan moved into the crypt.

He took some domestic furniture to the vestibule of the tomb, and hung a clock to the funeral cell wall; he equipped the mausoleum with a potbelly stove, complete with chimney tubes carrying the smoke out through the roof. He decided to decorate the small room with all the things Mary loved – flower pots, picture showing her at different ages, fine paintings on the walls, her last half-finished knitting – and even found place inside the tomb for their pets, a parrot and a squirrel.

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Jonathan Reed’s routine knew no variation. He came to the cemetery when gates opened, at six o’clock in the morning, entered the mausoleum and lit the fire. He then went up to Mary’s coffin, which he had especially equipped with a small window, at eye level, that he could open: through that peephole he could see his wife, and talk to her. “Good morning Mary, I have come to sit with you”, was his morning greeting.
Jonathan spent his whole day in there, chatting with his wife as if she could hear him, telling her the latest news, reading books to her. The he would dine in their wedding china. After lunch, he would pull out a deck of cards and play some game with Mary, laying down the cards for her.
Whenever he wanted some fresh air, he sat before the entrance in a rocking chair: he looked just like a classic old man on his front porch, always politely saying hello to whoever was passing by.
At six o’clock in the evening the cemetery closed and he was forced to leave, after wishing his Mary goodnight.

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This strange character quickly became a small celebrity in the district. Some said he could communicate with the afterworld. Come said he was crazy. Some said he was convinced that his wife would wake up sooner or later, and he wanted to be the first person for Mary to see when she came back. Some said he developed complicated theories about the “heat”that would bring her back to life.
The story of the widower who refused to leave his wife’s grave appeared in several short pieces even on international press, and litlle by little a curious crowd began to show up every day. In his first year as a resident at Evergreens some 7000 people came to greet him. Many women, it is said, intended to “save” him from his obsession, but he always kindly replied that his heart belonged to Mary. According to the reports, Reed even received the visit of seven Buddhist monks from Burma, who were convinced that he might have acquired some secret knowledge on the afterlife. Jonathan had to disappoint them, confessing he was just there to be close to his wife.

The everyday life of Evergreens Cemetery’s most famous resident went on undisturbed for ten years, until on March 23, 1905, he was found unconscious on the mausoleum’s floor, in cardiac arrest. Jonathan Reed was transferred to Kings County Hospital, where he died some days later, aged seventy. He was buried in the grave he had spent the last decade of his life in, beside his wife.

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An article on the New York Times claimed that “Mr. Reed could never be made to believe that his wife was really dead, his explanation for her condition being that the warmth had simply left her body and that if he kept the mausoleum warm she would continue to sleep peacefully in the costly metallic casket in which her remains were put. Friends often visited him in the tomb, and although they at first tried to convince him that his wife was really dead, they long ago gave up that argument, and have for years humored the whims of the old man”.
The article on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which appeared the very day of his admission at the hospital. had a similar tone; the author once again described Reed as obsessed by the idea of keeping Mary’s body warm, even if it was noted that “in spite of this remarkable eccentricity in regard to his dead wife, Mr. Reed is in other respects an unusually intelligent and interesting man. He converses on all subjects with a degree of knowledge and insight rare to a person of his age. It is only upon the subject of death that he appears to be at all deranged”.

Clearly, the story the papers loved to tell was one about denial of grief, about a man who rejected the very idea of death, too painful to accept; what was appealing was the figure of a romantic, crazy man, stubbornly convinced that not all was lost, and that his Beauty might still come back to life.
And it could well be that in his last years the elderly man had somewhat lost touch with reality.

But maybe, beyond all legends, rumors and colorful newspaper articles, Reed’s choice had a much simpler motivation: he and Mary had been deeply in love. And when a relationship comes to be the only really important thing in life, it also becomes an indispensable crutch, without which one feels completely lost.
In 1895, the first year he spent in the cemetery, Jonathan Reed replied to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewer with these words: “My wife was a remarkable woman and our lives were blended into one. When she died, I had no ambition but to cherish her memory. My only pleasure is to sit here with all that is left of her”.

No whacky theories in this interview, nor the belief that Mary could come back from the grave. Simply, a man who was sure he couldn’t find happiness away from the woman he loved.

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The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

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Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

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In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

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So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

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But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

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In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

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The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

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In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

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The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

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The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

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Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

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The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

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Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

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The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

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One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

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The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

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Cadaver

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On the day his sister, a med student at Chicago’s Northwestern University, had to perform her first autopsy, Jonah Ansell wrote a little whimsical poem to lighten her mood and celebrate that important moment on her path to becoming a doctor.
My sister successfully cut open her cadaver. I successfully moved onto other projects. A year passed. But something in the poem kept prying me back to it. Beneath the rhyme that tickled the ear lurked a text that tackled a truth“, he recalls.

That is the genesis of Cadaver (2013), an animated award-winning short movie, longlisted for the Academy Awards and featuring the voices of great actors Christopher Lloyd and Kathy Bates. It’s a humorous, melancholic story with a peculiar charm: a man, convinced that love is stronger than death, is ready for a desperate quest to offer his heart to the most important person. But several revelations await, because in death one may discover things he ignored in life… and even a happy ending could really hide new painful illusions.

That is why Jonah Ansell is willing to share his work “with anyone who has had their heart broken – and with anyone who has broken a heart. It is a story for the hopeful romantics. It is a story for the harshest cynics“.

The short movie has also been published in the form of a picture book (Cadaver: A Bittersweet Love Story) and, if everything goes well, could even become a feature-lenght musical. Here is the film’s official website.

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Special: Innocenzo Manzetti

We like to think scientific progress as something evolving in a clear way, relying exclusively on research and method, and that the authority of a scholar is assessed on the basis of his results. But, as it goes for all human things, many unpredictable factors may intervene in the success of a theory or discovery — human factors, as well as social, political, commercial factors: which, in a word, have nothing to do with science.

There are good possibilities you never heard about Innocenzo Manzetti, even if he was one of the most fertile and dynamic italian geniuses. And if things had turned out differently for him, less than a month ago, on the 29th of June, we would have celebrated the 150th anniversary of his major invention, which had a profound impact on history and our own lives: the telephone.

But, on the account of a streak of unlucky events you’ll read about in a moment, the paternity of the first device for long-distance transmission of sound was attributed to others. This story takes place in a time of fertile change, in the midst of an international rush for technological innovation, a no-holds-barred struggle to the ultimate patent: in this kind of conflict, among inventors in good faith, spies, legal litigations and strategic moves, inevitably someone gets cut out. Maybe because he lives in a particularly secluded region, or because he is not wealthy like his opposers. Or simply because he, a hopeless idealist, is less interested in disputing than in research.

Innocenzo Manzetti’s figure belongs to the heterogeneous family of innovators, scientists and thinkers who, for these or other reasons, were confined to an undeserved oblivion, never to show up in history books. Yet his creativity and ingenuity were far from ordinary.

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Born in Aosta on March 17th 1826, Innocenzo was the fourth of eight siblings. Interested, since he was a kid, in physics ad mechanics, he got his diploma in surveying in Turin, and then settled back in his home town for good. Manzetti divided himself between his job at the civil engineering department, and his real passion: physics experiments on one hand, and on the other, designing and building mechanical devices.

The range of his interests was all-encompassing, and his fervid mind knew no repose. In 1849 he presented to the public his “flute player”: an iron and steel automaton, covered in suede, complete with porcelain eyes. The mechanical man was able to move his arms, take off his hat, talk, and perform up to twelve different melodies on his instrument. An astonishing result, which thanks to a municipal grant Manzetti was able to showcase at the London World’s Fair in 1851; but ultimately destined, like many of his inventions, to never achieve the hoped-for resonance.

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His love for mechanical gear pushed him to build a flying automated parakeet, and a music box featuring an animated puppet. But beyond these brilliant inventions, which were meant to amaze the audience and show off his exceptional mechanical expertise, Manzetti also devised very useful, practical solutions: he developed a new hydrated lime, built a water pump which was used to drain the floodings in the Ollomont mines, but also a machine for making pasta, a filtering system for public drinking water, a pantograph with which he was able to etch a medallion with the image of Pope Pious IX on a grain of rice.

Excerpt from Manzetti’s pasta machine patent.

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3D reconstruction of the pasta amchine.

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3D reconstruction of the 3-seat velocipede.

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3D reconstruction of the steam-powered automobile.

Over the years, his fellow citizens learned to be amazed by the inventions of this eccentric character.
But it wasn’t until 1865 that Manzetti presented the two prototypes which could have granted him, on paper at least, fame and fortune: an automobile with an internal-combustion engine, the first steam-powered car with a functional steering system; and above all the “vocal telegraph”, true precursor of the telephone – six years before Antonio Meucci registered his idea in 1871, and eleven years ahead of Alexander Graham Bell‘s patent (1876).

If the legal battle over the paternity of the telephone between these last two inventors is well known, then why is Manzetti’s name so very seldom mentioned? Why didn’t this forerunner gain a prominent status in the history of telecommunications? And just how reliable are the rumors depicting him as a victim of a complex case of international espionnage?

There may be various causes condemning a scientist, albeit brilliant, to oblivion.
We decided to talk about it with one of the major experts in Manzetti’s life and work, Mauro Caniggia Nicolotti, who authored together with Luca Poggianti a series of biographies on the inventor from the Aosta Valley. Following is a transcription of the interesting conversation we had with Mauro.

Between the ‘800 and the ‘900, a series of extraordinary technological innovations took place, which in turn produced spectacular patent litigations – featuring many hits below the belt – to secure the rights of these revolutionary inventions: from radio to cinema, from the automobile to the telephone.
In fact, several scientists, physicists, engineers and inventors in different parts of the globe came to similar conclusions at the same time, and what proved most successful in the long run was not the novelty of the project itself, but rather a small improvement in respect to the versions proposed by the adversaries.
What was the atmosphere like in those times of great change? How was this turmoil perceived in Italy? Did the economic and cultural conditions of the Aosta Valley at the time play a part in Manzetti’s marginalization and bad luck?

I think what you said is true for every context in which an “invention” occurs. It is as if there were a thousand ideas floating in the sky, and somebody turns out to be the only one capable of grabbing the right ones.
Aosta Valley was very isolated. Just consider that major roads were built barely a century ago. Aosta at the time was known as a cul-de-sac, a dead end. Manzetti operated in this out-of-the-way context, which was quite rich culturally but not very technologically advanced. The first local newspapers were arising right then, and they were re-publishing news appearing on international papers; Manzetti absorbed every details about the inventions he read about in the news. He was like some sort of Gyro Gearloose, you know… in a word, a genius. In every field, not just plain science: he was a fine engraver, he was requested as a callygrapher in Switzerland, his interests were wide.
In his “workshop of wonders” he tried first of all to solve the problems of his own town, as for instance public lighting, or water supplying from the Buthier creek, which was particularly muddy, so he built filters for that… he tried to refine some solutions he learned from the papers, or he came up with original ideas. He absorbed, perfected, created.
So even in this limited context, Manzetti was an explosion of creativity. The local papers kept saying that he should have been living elsewhere for his genius to shine through, and the muncipal administration paid for his trip to the Exposition in London, so really, his talent was acknowledged, but for his entire life he was forced to operate with the poorest means.

Manzetti had undoubtedly a prolific mind: would his career have been different, had he cultivated a more entrepreneurial attitude? Was he well-integrated in the social fabric of his time? What did his fellow citizens think of him?

Certainly Manzetti was no entrepreneur. I think he really was a dreamer: although poor, he never went for the money. Instead he preferred to help out, so much so that he was elected to a post that today we would call “Commissioner of public works”. So yes, in a sense he was socially integrated.
Recently I discovered a vintage article (we weren’t able to include it in our new book) in which a traveller, describing the inhabitants of the Aosta Valley, used a derogatory term: he called them “hillbillies”, and wrote that they were ignorant and badly dressed. In this very article the author pointed out that, apart from the bishop who came from Ivrea (as the episcopal seat was vacant) and must have looked like an alien, the only other elegantly dressed citizen was Manzetti. So the feeling is that he was seen, maybe not really as a foreign body, but nevertheless as a person well above the average.

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In 1865 Innocenzo Manzetti presented his “vocal telegraph”, after envisioning it at the end of 1843 and having spent more than fifteen years in experiments and development. Some years before (1860-62) Johann Philipp Reis had demonstrated the use of his experimental phone, probably based on Charles Bourseul‘s research: this device however was meant as a prototype, useful for further studies, and was not entirely functional. How was Manzetti’s version different? I read that his telegraph had some flaws, especially in the output of consonants: is that true?

It’s true, in Manzetti’s first experiments of sound transmission the voice was not clear. You have to keep in mind that carbon filters were not available, along with every improvement that came along later on. His first attempt was done with makeshift gears, or at least with low-quality materials. Actually even inside his much celebrated automaton there were some low-quality pieces, so much so that it stopped working now and then.
The true problem is that the man who experimented the vocal telegraph with Manzetti was his friend, the canon Édouard Bérard: and Bérard was a perfectionist, even a bit fastidious.
That’s why he didn’t report just the news of sound transmission but, instead of giving in to the excitement of having been the first human being to hear a long-distance call, he felt the need to specify that the sound performance was “not clear”. Looking at it today, it sounds a little bit like complaining that the first plane ever built was able to fly “only” for some hundred meters.

Why didn’t Manzetti patent his invention?

He didn’t patent it for a number of reasons. Firstly, patents were extremely expensive and Manzetti couldn’t afford it. The only things he patented were the ones that could hopefully bring in a little money: the pasta machine, which is still under his patent today, and the hydrated lime which looked promising.
His telephone was immediately torn to shreds.
Between July and August 1864 Minister Matteucci visited Aosta Valley, and saw Manzetti’s telephone: so there must have been an unofficial presentation, a year before the public one. The Minister however openly confronted Manzetti, and his disapproval was expressed along these lines: “Are you crazy? We just united Italy, we faced revolutionary movements… the telegraph operator today is able to send a message, but at the same time to check its contents. A telephone call between two persons, without any mediator, without any control, could be dangerous for the government”. Even some newspapers in Florence skeptically asked who in the world could find such an invention to be useful: maybe young mushy lovers wishing one another goodnight? There was widespread criticism about him and his device, which would be of absolutely no use whatsoever.

Then again we have to remember that Manzetti himself had not a clear idea of all the developments his invention could entail: he thought of it simply as a way to make his automaton talk. So much so, that the first newspapers called the device “the Mouth”, because it was designed to fit into the automaton’s face. I don’t think he immediately understood what he had invented. His friends slowly made him realize that his device could be useful in a number of other ways.

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Letter by Innocenzo’s brother, describing the first experiments in 1843.

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Alexander Graham Bell officially patented the telephone on February the 14th 1876. A year later, on March the 15th, Manzetti died in Aosta, forgotten and in poverty. And here the waters begin to get muddy, because the dispute between Bell and Meucci kicked off: did they both know Manzetti? According to your research, what are the elements suggesting a case of international espionnage? How reliable are they?

The battle over the paternity of the telephone consisted of two phases. The first one is all-Italian, in that Manzetti presented his “vocal telegraph” in 1865 (after his friends finally convinced him); the news travelled around the world, and in August it showed up in New York’s Italian-American newspaper L’eco d’Italia. Meucci was in NYC at the time, and he read the news. He replied with a series of articles in which he stated he invented something similar himself, and he described his device – which however was limited in respect to Manzetti’s, because instead of the handset it featured a conductor foil one had to keep between his teeth in order to transmit the words through vibrations. The articles ended with Meucci inviting Manzetti to collaborate. We don’t know whether Manzetti ever read this series of articles, so the question seemed closed until 1871, when Meucci deposited a caveat for his rudimental invention, which was not yet a proper telephone.

In a following moment, there was the litigation between Meucci and Bell. Bell frequented the same company with which Meucci deposited his invention, and strangely enough he patented his telephone in 1876, in the exact moment Meucci’s caveat expired. Then in the 1880’s a whole series of lawsuits followed, because precursors and inventors, real or alleged, sprang up like mushrooms. Once the dust settled, only Bell and Meucci were left to stand.

And then there was the issue of the “American intrigue”. The Aosta newspaper reported in 1865 that some English “mechanics” (i.e., scientists) came to Aosta to attend Manzetti’s presentation of his telegraph, maybe to figure out his secrets: according to some sources, among them was a young Bell, not yet renowned at the time, and Manzetti himself later said he still had Bell’s business card.
I would like to stress that we are not 100% sure that it really was Bell who travelled to Aosta in ’65, but the unpublished documents seem to confirm this hypothesis (and being private notes, there would have been no reason to lie about that).

But the real “scandal” happened later. On December the 19th 1879, a certain Horace H. Eldred, director of the telegraph society in NYC, met up with Bell: he was nominated President of Missouri Bell Telephone Company, and immediately took off to Europe. He arrived in Aosta on February the 6th, went to a notary together with Manzetti’s widow, and he acquired all the rights to the vocal telegraph: the deal was that he would appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States to recognize Manzetti as the true inventor of the telephone. He obviously did not tell the  grieving woman that he was one of Bell’s emissaries.
Perhaps Bell calculated that by buying exclusive rights from Manzetti, who was already thought to be the first inventor, he could keep in check all the others who were battling him.

Eldred took all the projects and everything with him.
But at some point I believe Eldred realized what he had just bought. He understood he held in his hands an improvement of the telephone, and thus he immediately came back to America, on April the 14th. In spite of Bell, he patented the device under his own name. A predictable litigation ensued, between him and Bell: Eldred won, opened a nice big factory on Front Street, New York, ran ads about his product, became vice-president of Telephones in the US and delegate in Europe. Eventually, he parted with Bell but went on to have a stunning career.

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In your opinion, is Innocenzo Manzetti destined to remain in that crowded gallery of characters who showed prodigius talent – but were defeated right on the verge of glory – or will there be a late acknowledgement and a revival of his figure? Do you have some events planned for the anniversary?

We launched the “150th Forgotten Anniversary” with a small conference – but everyone here was busy with another recurrence, the first ascent on the Matterhorn (which was even celebrated with military aerobatics shows). Regarding Manzetti, there is no acknowledgement whatsoever; I intend to repeat the conference in July and August, but I already know the results will be even worse. Nobody cares, nor does the Administration. We had to fight for years just to have a tiny museum room, 6.5 by 7.5 meters wide, inside the sacristy of a church, where the automaton is on display along with some digital panels… nobody intends to believe in this.

Nemo propheta in patria, “nobody’s a prophet in his own country”: in the Aosta Valley, as long as there’s just me and Luca working on this, we will always be seen as visionaries. Maybe if some interest for Manzetti arose from the outside, then things could change — because when a voice comes from “outside the valley”, it is always taken more seriously. If only some English-speaking literature began to appear on the subject… but it takes time.
As far as I’m concerned, I count on being still present for the bicentenary, even if I will be almost a hundred years old. I will be a senile man, but I’ll be there!

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To further explore Manzetti’s life and inventions, and learn more details about the fascinating case of “American espionnage”, you can find a whole load of information at Manzetti’s Online Virtual Museum, curated by Mauro Caniggia Nicolotti e Luca Poggianti.

We also thank our reader Elena.

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“Savage” heads

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Enclosed in their display cases, unperturbed behind the glass, the heads attract yet another group of visitors.
They are watched, scrutinized, inspected in every smallest detail by a multitude of wide-open eyes. The children are in the front row, as usual, their noses pressed against the glass, their small faces suspended between a grimace of disgust and an excited, amazed look.
As for the adults, their wonder is somehow tarnished by judgment or, better, prejudice. “You have to understad that for these indigenous people it was a sacred practice”, sentences a nice gentleman, eager to prove his broad cultural views. “Still, it’s a horrible thing”, replies his wife, a little disgusted.
The scene repeats itself each and every day, for the heads sitting under the glass.
And few of the visitors understand they’re not actually looking at real objects from an ancient, distant culture. They are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture that Westerners have created and built.

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The two basic kinds of heads presented in anthropological sections of museums all around the world are tsantsas and mokomokai.

The most famous tsantsas are the ones hailing from South America and created by the Jivaro peoples; among these tribes, the most prolific in fabricating such trophies were undoubtedly the Shuar and the Achuar, who lived between Ecuador and Peru.

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The Shuar technique for shrinking heads was complex: an incision was made from the nape to the top of the head; once completely skinned, after paying specific attention as to keep all the hair intact, the skull was discarded. The facial skin was then boiled. Any trace of soft tissue had to be eliminated by rolling red-hot pebbles inside the skin, which was then further scraped with hot sand, roasted on flat stones, and so on. It was a delicate and meticulous procedure, until eventually the head was reduced to one fourth of the original size.

What was the purpose of such dedication?
The tsantsas were part of solemn celebrations which lasted several years, and were meant to capture the extraordinary power of the victim’s soul. They were not actually war trophies, in spite of what you can sometimes read, because the Shuar and Achuar usually lived quite peacefully: the occasional raids organized by the various tribes to hunt for tsantsas were a form of socially accepted violence, as there was no purpose in it other than obtaining these very powerful objects.
Great feasts welcomed the return of the headhunters, and these celebrations were the most important in the whole year. The intrinsic power the tsantsas was transferred to the women, assuring wealth and plenty of food to the families. After seven years of rituals, the shrunken heads lost their force. For the Shuar, at this point, the tsantsas had no pratical value: some kept the heads as a keepsake, but others got rid of them without giving it a second thought. The focus was not the material object in itself, but its spiritual power.

That was not at all the case with Western merchants. To them, a shrunken head perfectly summarized the idea of a “savage culture”. These indigenous people, in the collective imaginary of the Nineteenth Century, were still depicted as brutal and animal-like: there was a will to think them as “stuck in time”, as if they had been lingering in a prehistoric underdeveloped stage, without ever undergoing evolutions or social transformations.
Therefore, what object could be a clearer symbol of these tribes’ barbarity than a macabre and grotesque souvenir like tsantsas?

If at the beginning of European settlements, in the Andes region and the Amazon River basin, the colonists had traded various tipes of goods with the indigenous people, as time went by they became ever more autonomous. As they did not need the pig or deer meat any more, which until then the Shuar had bartered with clothes, knives and guns, the settlers began to request only two things in exchange for the precious firearms: the indios’ labor force, and their infamous shrunken heads.
Soon enough, the only way a Shuar could get hold of a rifle was to sell a head.

That’s when the situation got worse, along with the exponential growth of Western fascination with tsantsas. The shrunken heads became a must-have curiosity for collectors and museums alike. The need for arms pushed the Shuar people to hunt heads for purposes which were not ritual any more, but rather exclusively commercial, in an attempt to satisfy the European request. A tsantsa for a gun, was the usual bargain: that gun would then be used to hunt more heads, exchanged for new arms… the vicious cycle ended up in a massacre, carried out to comply with foreigners’ tastes in exoticism.
As Frances Larson writes, “when visitors come to see the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum, what they are really seeing is a story of the white man’s gun“.

The tsantsas lost their spiritual value, which had always been connected with the circulation of power inside the tribe, and became a tool for accumulating riches. Ironically, the settlers contributed to the creation of those cruel and unscrupulous headhunters they always expected to find.

The Shuar by then were killing indiscriminately, and without any ritual support, just to obtain new heads. They began making fake tsantsas, using the remains of women, children, even Westerners – confident that someone would surely fall for the scam.
In the second half of the ‘800, the commerce of tsantsas flourished so much that even peoples who had nothing to do with Jivaros and their traditions, began fabricating their own shrunken heads: in Colombia and Panama unclaimed bodies were stolen from the morgue, their heads given to helpful taxidermists. In other cases the heads of monkeys or sloths, and other animal skins, were used to produce convincing fakes.
Today nearly 80% of the tsantsas held in museums worldwide is estimated to be fake.

The history of New Zealand’s mokomokai followed an almost identical script.
Unlike tsantsas, for the Maori people these heads were actually war trophies, captured during inter-tribal battles. The heads were not shrunk, but preserved with their skull still inside. Brain, eyes and tongue were gouged, nostrils and orifices sealed with fibers and gum; then the heads were buried in hot stones, in order to steam-cook them and dry them out. The mokomokai were meant to be exposed around the chief’s house.

In the second half of ‘700, naturalist Joseph Banks, sailing with James Cook, was the first European to acquire a similar head, after convincing an elderly man at a village to part from it – thanks to his eloquence, and to a musket pointed at the old man’s face. In all the following trips, Cook’s company spotted only a pair of mokomokai, a clue suggesting that these objects were in fact pretty uncommon.

Yet, after just fifty years, the commerce of heads in New Zealand had reached such intensity that many believed the Maori would be totally annihilated. Here too, the heads were traded for guns, in a spiral of violence that seriously threatened the indigenous population, particularly during the so-called Musket Wars.

Collectors were mainly attracted by the intricate tā moko (carved tattoos) which adorned the chiefs’ faces with elegant and sinuous spirals. So, Maori chiefs began tattooing their slaves just before beheading them – in some cases giving the Western buyer the option to choose a favorite head, while the unlucky owner was still alive; they tattoed heads that had already been cut, just to raise their price. The tā moko, a decorative art form of ancient origin, ended up been emptied of all meaning related to courage, honor or social status.
In New Zealand, even Europeans began to get killed, to have their heads tattoed and sold to their unsuspecting fellow countrymen: a fraud not devoid of a certain amount of  black humor.

Trading mokomokai was outlawed in 1831; the import of tsantas from South America was only banned from 1940.

So, in displays of ethnic artifacts in museums around the globe, in those darkened exotic heads, one is able to contemplate not only an ancient ritual object, packed with symbols and meanings: it is almost possible to glimpse at the very moment in which those meanings and symbols vanished forever.

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Tsantsas and mokomokai are difficult, controversial, problematic objects.
Among the visitors, it is easy to find someone who feels outraged by an indigenous practice which by today’s standards seems cruel; after reading this article, maybe some reader will be disgusted by the hypocrisy of Westerners, who were condemning the savage headhunters while coveting the heads, and looking forward to put them on display in their homes.
Either way, one feels indignant: as if this peculiar fascination did not really affect us… as if our entire western culture did not come from a very long tradition of heads cut off and exposed on poles, on city walls and in public places.
But the beheadings never stopped existing, just as the human head never ceased to be a very powerful and magnetic symbol, both shocking and irresistibly hypnotizing.

Most of the information in this article, as well as the inspiration for it, comes from the brilliant Severed by Frances Larson, a book on the cultural and antrhopological significance of severed heads.

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Impostors: two animal fictions

Picture a mythological beast, a half-snake, half-spider hybrid, likely to make both arachnophobics and herpetophobics sleepless. Imagine its tail, from which eight mutant legs stick out, and where several small, black and shiny eyes open up to scrutinize their prey. It could well be a lovecraftian horror fantasy, or a new incarnation of the alien from The Thing.
And yet, such an animal exists. Even if reality is, of course, not so dramatic.

In 1968, William and Janice Street were exploring Iran. It was their second naturalistic expedition on behalf of the Field Museum of Chicago (in the following decade they would carry out three more, in Afghanistan, Peru and Australia), with the aim of expanding the Museum’s collection with new specimens. Their mission was mainly focused on mammals, but during their trip the Streets were also collecting several reptiles.
One day they noticed a snake which seemed to have a solifugid — a type of arachnid living in arid and sandy regions — attached to its tail. Once brought back to the Museum, the specimen was examined by researcher Steven Anderson, who realized the alleged spider was in reality a part of the viper’s own morphology: since only one specimen was known, he speculated that either a tumor, a congenital defect or a parasite could be responsible for that strange appendage. The snake was identified as Pseudocerastes persicus, the persian horned viper, and almost forgotten in the shelves of the Museum for nearly fourty years.

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Then, in 2003, researcher Hamid Bostanchi came in possesion of a second specimen, identical to the one previously classified. He thus began suspecting the mutation was more than a physical defect, given that 35 years had passed from the first finding. He was therefore the first to speculate that this was an unknown species.
A third specimen was found in the poisonous animals section of the Razi Institute in Karaj, Iran: it had been mistakenly classified as a horned desert viper.
At this point Bostanchi, together with the first discoverer Steven Anderson and other collegues, published his findings and baptized the new snake Pseudocerastes urarachnoides (“with a spider-like tail”) in a 2006 essay.

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X-rays showed the caudal vertebrae, bearing no sign of malformation, extending well into this anomalous structure, which was evidently formed by modified scales. As many vipers move their tails to lure preys, Bostanchi hypotesized that this bizarre spider-shaped protuberance was nothing else than an elaborate hunt bait.
In 2008 a live P. urarachnoides was captured and the animal, held in captivity, seemed to actually use its tail to lure sparrows and baby chickens near him; then, with a sudden twitch, it bit them and poisoned them in less than a half second. In its stomach fowl remains were found, indicating that this bait could have evolved specifically to catch birds.

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To clear any doubt and verify the hypothesis, other observations followed, also in a natural environment. Here is a recent and wonderful video of the spider-tailed viper using its caudal bait to deceive and catch a bird.

If a viper imitating a small arachnid might seem an exceptional case of mimicry, what’s really astonishing is that in nature a perfectly specular example can be found: an insect, that is, mimicking a snake.
It’s the Dynastor darius, a butterfly which during its pupa stage locks itself inside a chrysalis that would definitely look far from tempting to a possible predator: in fact, it resembles a reptile’s head.

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The pupa is still aware of the world outside the chrysalis, and if it feels threatened it can shake its “mask” from side to side, to make it even more convincingly realistic.

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Sometimes it is asserted that man is the only animal capable of lying.
Yet, from crypsis to mimicry, it’s clear that fiction and deceit are extremely widespread behaviors among the rest of living creatures: they are weapons of attack and self-defense, sharpened in time. The predator has to disguise its presence, the prey has to dupe the senses of its enemy, and so on, in a constant game of mirrors in which nothing is really as it seems.

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Monstrous pedagogy

Article written by our guestblogger Dario Carere

The search for wonder is far more complex than simple entertainment or superstition, and it grows along with collective spirituality. Every era has its own monsters; but the modern use of monstrosity in the horror genre or in similar contexts, makes it hard for us to understand that the monster, in the past, was meant to educate, to establish a reference in the mind of the end-user of the bizarre. Dragons, Chimeras, demons or simply animals, even if they originated from the primordial repulsion for ugliness, have been functional to spirituality (in the sense of searching for the “right way to live”), especially in Catholicism. Teratology populated every possible space, not unlike advertising does nowadays.

We are not referring here to the figure of monsters in fairy tales, where popular tradition used the scare value to set moral standards; the image of the monster has a much older and richer history than the folk tale, as it was found in books and architecture alike, originating from the ancient fear of the unknown. The fact that today we use the expressions “fantastic!” or “wonderful!” almost exclusively in a positive sense, probably comes from the monster’s transition from an iconographic, artistic element to a simple legacy of a magical, child-like world. Those monsters devouring men and women on capitals and bas-reliefs, or vomiting water in monumental fountains, do not have a strong effect on us anymore, if not as a striking heritage of a time in which fantasy was powerful and morality pretty anxious. But the monster was much more than this.

The Middle Ages, on the account of a symbolic interpretation of reality (the collective imagination was not meant to entertain, but was a fundamental part of life), established an extremely inspired creative ground out of monstrous figures, as these magical creatures crowded not only tales and beliefs (those we find for instance in Boccaccio and his salacious short stories about gullible characters) but also the spaces, the objects, the walls. The monster had to admonish about powers, duties, responibilities and, of course, provide a picture of the torments of Hell.

Capital, Chauvigny, XII century.

Chimeras, gryphons, unicorns, sirens, they all come from the iconographic and classical literary heritage (one of the principal sources was the Physiologus, a compendium of animals and plants, both actual and fantastic, written in the first centuries AD and widespread in the Middle Ages) and start to appear in sculptures, frescos, and medieval bas-reliefs. This polychrome teratological repertoire of ancient times was then filtered and elaborated through the christian ethics, so that each monster, each wonder would coincide with an allegory of sin, a christological metaphore, or a diabolical form. The monkey, for instance, which was already considered the ugliest of all animals by the Greeks, became the most faithful depiction of evil and falsehood, being a (failed) image of the human being, an awkward caricature devised by the Devil; centaurs, on the other hand, were shown on the Partenone friezes as violent and belligerous barbarians — an antithesis of civil human beings — but later became a symbol of the double nature of Christ, both human and divine. Nature became a mirror for the biblical truth.

Unicorn in a bestiary.

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Capital, Church of Sant’Eufemia, Piacenza, XII century.

Bestiaries are maybe the most interesting example of the medieval transfiguration of reality through a christian perspective; the fact that, in the same book, real animals are examined together with imaginary beasts (even in the XVI century the great naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi included in his wonderful Monstrorum historia a catalogue of bizarre humanoid monsters) clearly shows the medieval viewpoint, according to which everything is instilled with the same absolute truth, the ultimate good to which the faithful must aim.

Fear and horror were certainly among the principal vectors used by the Church to impress the believers (doctrine was no dialogue, but rather a passive fruition of iconographic knowledge according to the intents of commissioners and artistis), but probably in the sculptors’ and architects’ educational project were also included irony, wonder, laughter. The Devil, for instance, besides being horrible, often shows hilarious and vulgar behaviors, which could come from Carnival festivities of the time. The dense decorations and monstrous incisions encapsulate all the fervid life of the Middle Ages, with its anguish, its fear of death, the mortification of the flesh through which the idea of a second life was maintained and strenghtened; but in these images we also find some giggly outbursts, some jokes, some vicious humor. It’s hard to imagine how Bosch‘s works were perceived at the time; but his thick mass of rat-demons, winged toads and insectoid buffoons was the result of an inconographic tradition that predated him by centuries. The monsters, in the work of this great painter, already show some elements of caricature, exaggeration, mannerism; they are no longer scary.

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Ulisse Aldrovandi, page form the Monstorum Historia.

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Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic in the San Giovanni Baptistery (Firenze), XII century.

A splendid example of the “monstrous pedagogy” which adorned not only vast and imposing interiors but even the objects themselves, are the stalls, the seats used by cardinals during official functions. In her essay Anima e forma – studi sulle rappresentazioni dell’invisibile, professor Ave Appiani examines the stalls of the collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta, work of an anonymous sculptor under the priorate of Giorgio di Chillant (end of XV century). The seatbacks, the arms, the handrests and the misericordie (little shelves one could lean against while standing up during long ceremonies) are all finely engraved in the shape of monsters, animals, grotesque faces. Demons, turtles, snails, dragons, cloaked monks and basilisks offered a great and educated bestiary to the viewer of this symbolic pedagogy, perfectly and organically fused with the human environment. Similar decorations could also be admired, some decades earlier, inside the Aosta Cathedral.

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Stalls, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

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The dragon, “misericordia”, 1469, Aosta Cathedral.

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Handrest, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

Who knows what kind of reaction this vast and ancient teratology could arouse in the believers — if only one of horror, or also curiosity and amusement; who knows if the approach of the cultivated man who sculpted this stalls — without doubt an expert of the symbolic traditions filtered through texts and legends — was serious or humorous, as he carved these eternal shapes in the wood. What did the people think before all the gargoyles, the insects, the animals living in faraway and almost mythical lands? The lion, king of the animals, was Christ, king of mankind; the boar, dwelling in the woods, was associated with the spiritual coarseness of pagans, and thus was often hunted down in the iconography; the mouse was a voracious inhabitant of the night, symbol of diabolical greed; the unicorn, attracted by chastity, after showing up in Oriental and European legends alike, came to be depicted by the side of the Virgin Mary.

Every human being finds himself tangled up in a multitude of symbols, because Death is lurking and before him man will end his earthly existence, and right there will he measure his past and evaluate his own actions. […] These are all metaphorical scenes, little tales, and just like Aesop’s fables, profusely illustrated between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for that matter, they always show a moral which can be transcribed in terms of human actions. 

(A. Appiani, Op. cit., pag. 226)

So, today, how do we feel about monsters? What instruments do we have to consider the “right way to live”, since we are ever more illiterate and anonymous in giving meaning to the shape of things? It may well be that, even if we consider ourselves free from the superstitious terror of committing sin, we still have something to learn from those distant, imaginative times, when the folk tale encountered the cultivated milieu in the effort to give fear a shape – and thus, at least temporarily, dominate it.

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Sourtoe Cocktail Club

“PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION.
I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB
THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”.

(Groucho Marx‘s telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills)

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Every respectable club, college fraternity, or student group has its specific initiation, a trial the aspiring members have to overcome in order to boast the title of belonging to that community. But of all the bizarre rituals necessary to enter these elites around the globe, none is more unlikely than the one at Sourtoe Cocktail Club in Dawson City, Canada.

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Dawson City is a town with a population of little more than 1.300 souls in Yukon Territory, and was once the center of the Klondike Gold Rush; so much so that wirter Jack London chose it as the environment for several short stories and novels, including The Call of the Wild (1903). Today, it’s mainly a touristic and naturalistic destination, where you can explore old mines, go trekking, visit some historical museum and, if you brought your pan, try to find some gold nuggets at Bonanza Creek.

And then, of course, you could head to the Downtown Hotel, at Second Avenue and Queen Street, and try to become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Actually, the club is not as exclusive as it may seem: in the course of the last decades, it earned from 60.000 to 100.000 members. The club’s admission trial has in fact become one of the most renowned city attractions.

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So, what is this ordeal all about? How do you become a member?
It’s easy:

Step 1 – Come down to the Sourdough Saloon and ask for Captain River Rat
Step 2 – Purchase a shot (most club members prefer Yukon Jack)
Step 3 – Pledge the ‘Sourtoe Oath’
Step 4 – Watch as a genuine human toe is dropped in your drink
Step 5 – Drink your Sourtoe Cocktail

You read that right, step 4 says “human toe”. But no worry, it’s mummified.

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There is only one additional rule, the most important of all:

You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow,
but your lips have gotta touch the toe!

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After carefully following the instructions, and guzzling down the cocktail with the unusual human toe garnish, you will be awarded a membership card and an official certificate that proves you are “capable of almost anything“.

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The legend behind this strange tradition begins in the 1920’s. It is said that two rum runners, Louie Linken and his brother Otto, were crossing the border with a load of liquor, when they ran into a terrible storm. Trying to direct his dog team, Louie stepped off of the sledge, and right into an icy overflow. His feet got soaked with icy water, but the pair didn’t stop as they feared police was on their trail. The prolonged exposure to the cold made the unlucky smuggler’s big toe freeze completely. To prevent gangrene, after administering his brother a good dose of rum Otto amputated the toe with a woodaxe. To commemorate the event, the borthers then preserved it in a jar of alcohol.

In 1973, while cleaning a cabin, Captain Dick Stevenson found the jar and the toe.
But what use could a dehydrated and already mummified toe have?
Captain Stevenson extensively analyzed the matter with his friends, until they agreed that there was only one solution: a Sourtoe Cocktail Club had to be established. The original rules were pretty much the same as today, with the exception of the mandatory use of champagne in a beer glass for the infamous drink.

Unfortunately, the first toe lasted only for seven years. In July 1980, a miner called Garry Younger was trying to establish the Sourtoe record. At his thirteenth shot of champagne, his chair tripped backwards, and Garry accidentally swallowed the toe.

Someone could have thought that was the end of the Club.
Instead, since then the hotel has acquired around a dozen new toes, all given by generous donors so thath the tradition wouldn’t die out. The first non-original toe had been amputated because of an inoperable corn.; the second one was give by a frostbite victim (once again the toe was accidentally gulped down).
And then: an anonymous toe, which was later stolen; a pair of toes from a Yukon veteran, donated in exchange for free drinks for his nurses; a toe wich was amputated because of diabetes; and another anonymous toe which came in a jar of alcohol with a note that read: “Never wear open-toe sandals while mowing the lawn“.

Until not long ago, the fine for those who mistakenly ingested the toe was $500.
But in August 2013 a certain Josh from New Orleans entered the bar together with a couple of friends, ordered the Sourtoe Cocktail, and guzzled it down, toe included. Then he handled over the $500, before the dismayed staff had even had a cheance to say a word. It was clearly a bet with his friend, on his last day on a summer job in Dawson.
Luckily the staff already had a replacement toe. But from that day on, the fine has been raised to $2.500.

Today, only one toe is left. The Club staff therefore published an ad on the paper, and — as reported by ABC — is seems they already received some offers.

In conclusion, if you think you don’t have the stomach to become a member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, we suggest this clever workaround: you can always become a donor… and have your name immortalized in the Sourtoe Hall of Fame.

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Skeletons and young girls

Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)

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She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.

But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.

For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.

The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.

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But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.

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If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.

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Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.

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Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.

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The elephants’ graveyard

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In The Lion King (1994), the famous Disney animated film, young lion Simba is tricked by the villain, Scar, and finds himself with his friend Nala in the unsettling elephants’ graveyard: hundreds of immense pachyderm skeletons reach the horizon. In this evocative location, the little cub will endure the ambush of three ravenous hyenas.

The setting of this action-packed scene, in fact, does not come from the screenwriters’ imagination. An elephants’ graveyard had already been shown in Trader Horn (1931), and in some Tarzan flicks, featuring the iconic Johnny Weissmuller.
And the most curious fact is that the existence of a mysterious and gigantic collective cemetery, where for thousands of years the elephants have been retiring to die, had been debated since the middle of XIX Century.

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This legendary place, described as some sort of secret sanctuary, hidden in the deepest recesses of Black Africa, is one of the most enduring myths of the golden age of explorations and big-game hunting. It was a true African Eldorado, where the courageous adventurer could find an unspeakable treasure: besides the elephants’ skeletons, the cave (or the inaccessible valley) would hold such an immense quantity of ivory that anyone finding it would have become insanely rich.

But finding a similar place, as every respectable legend demands, was no easy task. Those who saw it, either never came back from it… or were not able to locate the entrance anymore. Tales were told about searchers who found the tracks of an old and sick elephant, who had departed from the herd, and followed them for days in hope that the animal would bring them to the hidden graveyard; but they then realized they had been led in a huge circle by the deceptive elephant, and found themselves right where they started.

According to other versions, the elusive ossuary was regarded as a sacred place by indigenous people. Anyone who approached it, even accidentally, would have been attacked by the dreadful guardians of the cemetery, a pack of warriors lead by a shaman who protected the entrance to the sanctuary.

The elephants’ graveyard legend, which was mentioned even by Livingstone and circulated in Europe until the first decades of the XX Century, is indeed a legend. But where does it come from? Is it possible that this myth is somewhat grounded in reality?

First of all, there really are some places where high concentrations of elephant bones can be found, as if several animals had traveled there, to a single, precise spot to let themselves die.

The most plausible explanation can be found, surprisingly enough, in dentition. Elephants actually have only two sets of teeth: molars and incisors. Tusks are nothing more than modified incisors, slowly and incessantly growing, whose length is regulated by constant wear. On the contrary, molars are cyclically replaced: during the animal’s lifespan, reaching fifty or sixty years of age in a natural environment, new teeth grow on the back of the mandible and push forward the older ones.

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An elephant can have up to a maximum of six molar cycles during its whole existence.
But if the animal lives long enough, which is to say several years after the last cycle occurred, there is no replacement and its wore-down dentition ceases to be functional. These old elephants then find it difficult to feed on shrubs and harder plants, and therefore move to areas where the presence of a water spring guarantees softer and more nutrient herbs. The weariness of old age brings them to prefer regions featuring higher vegetation density, where they need less to struggle to find food. According to some researchers, the muddy waters of a spring could bring relief to the suffering and dental decay of these aging pachyderms; the malnourished animals would then begin to drink more and more water, and this could actually lead to a worsening of their health by diluting the glucose in their blood.
Anyways, the search for water and a more suitable vegetation could draw several sick elephants towards the same spring. This hypothesis could explain the findings of bone stacks in relatively circumscribed areas.

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A second explanation for the legend, if a sadder one, could be connected to ivory commerce and smuggling. It’s not rare, still nowadays, for some “elephants’ graveyards” to be found — except they turn out to be massacre sites, where the animals were hunted and mutilated of their precious tusks by poachers. Similar findings, back in the days, could have suggested the idea that the herd had collected there on purpose, to wait for the end to come.

But the stories about a hidden cemetery could also have risen from the observation of elephants’ behavior when facing the death of a counterpart.
These animals are in fact thought to be among the most “intelligent” mammals, in that they show quite complex social relations within the group, elaborate behavioral characteristics, and often display surprising altruistic conduct even towards other species. An emblematic example is that of one domestic indian elephant, employed in following a truck which was carrying logs; at the master’s sign, the animal lifted one of the logs from the trailer and placed it in the appropriate hole, excavated earlier on. When the elephant came to a specific hole, it refused to follow the order; the master came down to investigate, and he found a dog sleeping at the bottom of the hole. Only when the dog was taken out of the hole did the elephant drive the log into it (reported by C. Holdrege in Elephantine Intelligence).

When an elephant dies — especially if it’s the matriarch — the other members of the herd remain around the carcass, standing in silence for days. They gently touch it with their trunks, as if staging an actual mourning ritual; they take turns to leave the body to find water and food, then get back to the place, always keeping guard of the body. They sometimes carry out a sort of rudimentary burial practice, hiding and covering the carcass with dry twigs and torn branches. Even when encountering the bones of an unknown deceased elephant, they can spend hours touching and scattering the remains.

Ethologists obviously debate over these behaviors: the animals could be attracted and confused by the ivory in the remains, as ivory is used as a socially fundamental communication device; according to some researches, they show sometimes the same “stupor” for birds’ remains or even simple pieces of wood. But they seem to be undoubtedly fascinated by their counterparts, wounded or dead.

Being the only animals, other than men and some primate species, who show this kind of participation in death and dying, elephants have always been associated with human emotions — particularly by those indigenous people who live in strict contact with them. There has always been an important symbolic bond between man and elephant: thus unfolds the last, and deepest level of the story.

The hidden graveyard legend, besides its undeniable charm, is also a powerful allegory of voluntary death, the path the elder takes in order to die in solitude and dignity. Releasing his community from the weight of old age, and leaving behind a courageous and strong image, he proceeds towards the sacred place where he will be in contact with his ancestors’ spirits, who are now ready to honorably welcome him as one of their own.70

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