Spirits of the Road: The Cult of Animitas

The traveler who exits the Estación Central in Santiago, Chile and walks down San Francisco de Borja street, after less than twenty meters will stumble upon a sort of votive wall, right on the side of the train station on his left, a space choke-full of little engravings, offerings, perpetually lit candles, photographs and holy pictures. A simple sign says: “Romualdito”, the same name present on every thankful ex voto.

If our hypothetical traveler then takes a cab and heads down the Autopista del Sol towards the suburb of Maipù, he will see by the side of the opposite lane an altar quite similar to the first one, dedicated to a young girl called Astrid whose portrait is almost buried under dozens of toys and plush bears.

Should he cross the entirety of Chile’s narrow strip of land, encased between the mountains and the ocean, maybe crossing from time to time the border to the Argentinian pampas, he would notice that the landscape (both urban and rural) is studded with numerous of these strange little temples: places of devotion where veneration is not directed towards canonical saints, but to the spirits of people whose life ended in tragedy. This is the cult of the animitas.

An expression of popular piety, the animitas are votive boxes that are often built by the side of the road (animita de carretera) to remember some victims of the “mala muerte”, an awful death: even if the remains of these persons are buried at the cemetery, they cannot really rest in peace on the account of the violent circumstances of their demise. Their souls still haunt the places where life was taken from them.


The Romualdito at the train station, for instance, was a little boy who suffered from tubercolosis, assaulted and killed by some thugs who wanted to steal his poncho and the 15 pesos he had on him. But his story, dating back to the 1930s, is told in countless versions, more or less legendary, and it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happened: one thing is sure, the popular faith in Romualdito is so widespread in Santiago that when it was time to renew and rebuild the station, his wall was left untouched.

Young Astrid, the girl with the plush toys altar, died in 1998 in a motorcycle accident, when she was just 19-years-old. She is now known as the Niña Hermosa.

But these funeral altars can be found by the hundreds, mostly installed by the roadside, shaped like little houses or small churches with crosses sicking out of their tiny roofs.

At first they are built as an act of mercy and remembrance on the exact spot of the fatal accident (or, in the case of fishermen lost at sea, in specific sectors of the coast); but they become the center of a real cult whenevert the soul of the deceased proves to be miraculous (animita muy milagrosa). When, that is, the spirit starts answering to prayers and offerings with particular favors, by interceding bewteen the believer and the Holy Virgin or Christ himself.

 The cult of the animitas is an original mixture of the indigenous, pre-Hispanic cult of the dead (where the ancestor turned into a benign presence offering protection to his offspring) and the cult of the souls of Purgatory which arrived here with Catholicism.
For this reason it shows surprising analogies with another form of folk religiosity developed in Naples, at the Fontanelle Cemetery, a place to which I devoted my book
De profundis.
The two cults, not officially recognized by the Roman Church, have some fundamental aspects in common.

Animitas, built with recycled material, are folk art objects that closely resemble the carabattoli found in the Fontanelle Cemetery; not only for their shape but also for their function of making a dialectic, a dialogue with the Netherworld possible.
Secondly, the system of intercessions and favors, the offerings and the ex voto, are essentially the same in both cases.

But the crucial element is that the objects of veneration are not religious heroes, those saints who accomplished miraculous feats while they were alive, but rather victims of destiny. This allows for the identification between the believer and the invoked soul, the acknowledging of their reciprocal condition, a sharing of human misery – a feeling which is almost impossible when faced with “supernatural” figures like saints. Who of course have themselves an apotropaic function, but always maintain a higher position in respect to common mortals.
On the other hand the
animitas, just like the anime pezzentelle in Naples, are “democratic” symbols, offering a much easier relationship: they share with the believers the same social milieu, they know firsthand all the daily hardship and difficulties of survival. They are protective spirits which can be bothered even for more modest, trivial miracles, because they once were ordinary people, and they understand.

But while in Italy the cult developed exclusively in one town, in Chile it is quite ubiquitous. To have an idea of the tenacity and pervasiveness of this faith, there is one last, amazing example.
Ghost bikes (white-painted bicycles remembering a cyclist who was run over by a car) can be seen all around the world, and they are meant as a warning against accidents. When these installations began to appear in Chile, they immediately intertwined with popular devotion giving birth to hybrids called
bicianimitas. Boxes for the ritual offerings began to appear beside the white bicycles, and the funeral memorials turned into a bridge for communication between the living and the dead.
Those living and dead that, the
animitas seem to remind us, are never really separated but coexist on the city streets or along the side of dusty highways stretching out into the desert.

The blog Animitas Chilenas intends to create an archive of all animitas, recording for each one the name of the soul, her history and GPS coordinates.
Besides the links in the article, I highly recommend the essay by Lautaro Ojeda,
Animitas – Una expresión informal y democrática de derecho a la ciudad (in ARQ Santiago n. 81 agosto 2012) and the in-depth post El culto urbano de la muerte: el origen y la trascendencia de las animitas en Chile, by Criss Salazar.
Photographer Patricio Valenzuela Hohmann put up a
wonderful animitas photo gallery.
Lastly, you should check out the
Difunta Correa, Argentina’s most famous animita, dedicated to the legendary figure of a woman who died of thirst and fatigue in the Nineteenth Century while following her husband – who had been forced to enroll in the army; her body was found under a tree, still holding her newborn baby to her breast. The cult of the Difunta Correa is so widespread that it led to the construction of a real sanctuary in Vallecito, visited by one million pilgrims every year.

Four-legged Espionage

The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.
(William S. Burroughs, The Cat Inside, 1986)

Today, after Wikileaks and Snowden, we are used to think of espionage as cyberwarfare: communication hacking, trojans and metadata tracking, attacks to foreign routers, surveillance drones, advanced software, and so on.
In the Sixties, in the middle of the Cold War, the only way to intercept enemy conversations was to physically bug their headquarters.

The problem, of course, was that all factions listend, and knew they were listened to. No agent would talk top secret matters inside a state building hall. The safest method was still the one we’ve seen in many films — if you wanted to discuss in all tranquillity, you had to go outside.
It was therefore essential, for all intelligence systems, to find an appropriate countermeasure: but how could they eavesdrop a conversation out in the open, without arousing suspicion?

In 1961 someone at CIA Directorate of Science and Technology had a flash of inspiration.
There was only one thing the enemy spies would not pay attention to, in the midst of a classified conversation: a cat passing by.
In the hope of achieving the spying breakthrough of the century, CIA launched a secret program called “Acoustic Kitty”. Goal of the project: to build cybercats equipped with surveillance systems, train them to spy, and to infiltrate them inside the Kremlin.

After all, as Terry Pratchett put it, “it is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done“.

After the first years of theoretical studies, researchers proceeded to test them in vivo.
They implanted a microphone inside a cat’s earing canal, a transmitter with power supply, and an antenna extending towards the animal’s tail. According to the testimony of former CIA official Victor Marchetti, “they slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. They made a monstrosity“. A monstrosity which nonetheless could allow them to record everything the kitty was hearing.

But there was another, not-so-secondary issue to deal with. The furry incognito agent would have to reach the sensible target without getting distracted along its way — not even by an untimely, proverbial little mouse. And everybody knows training a cat is a tough endeavour.

Some experiments were conducted in order to guide the cat from a distance, basicially to operate it by remote control through electrical impulses (remember José Delgado?). This proved to be harder than expected, and tests followed one antoher with no substantial results. The felines could be “trained to move short distances“; hardly an extraordinary success, even if researchers tried to make it look like a “remarkable scientific achievement“.
Eventually, having lost their patience, or maybe hoping for some unexpected miracle, the agents decided to run some empirical field test. They sent the cat on its first true mission.

On a bright morning in 1966, two Soviet officials were sitting on a park bench on Wisconsin Avenue, right outside the Washington Embassy of Russia, unaware of being targeted for one of the most absurd espionage operations ever.
In a nearby street, history’s first 007 cat was released from an anonymous van.
Now imagine several CIA agents, inside the vehicle, all wearing headphone and receivers, anxiously waiting. After years of laboratory studies, the moment of truth had come at last: would it work? Would they succeed in piloting the cat towards the target? Would the kitty obediently eavesdrop the conversation between the two men?

Their excitement, alas, was short lived.

After less than 10 feet, the Acoustic Kitty was run over by a taxi.
RIP Acoustic Kitty.

With this inglorious accident, after six years of pioneering research which cost 20 million dollars, project Acoustic Kitten was declared a total failure and abandoned.
One March 1967 report, declassified in 2001, stated that “the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that […] it would not be practical“.

One last note: the story of the cat being hit by a taxi was told by the already mentioned Victor Marchetti; in 2013 Robert Wallace, former director of the Office of Technical Service, disputed the story, asserting that the animal simply did not do what the researchers wanted. “The equipment was taken out of the cat; the cat was re-sewn for a second time, and lived a long and happy life afterwards“.

You can choose your favorite ending.

An elephant on the gallows

The billboards for Sparks World Famous Shows, which appeared in small Southern American towns a couple of days before the circus’ arrival, seem quite anomalous to anyone who has a familiarity with this kind of poster design from the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Where one could expect to see emphatic titles and hyperbolic advertising claims, Sparks circus — in a much too unpretentious way — was defined as a “moral, entertaining and instructive” spectacle; instead of boasting unprecedented marvels, the only claim was that the show “never broke a promise” and publicized its “25 years of honest dealing with the public“.

The reason why owner Charlie Sparks limited himself to stress his show’s transparency and decency, was that he didn’t have much else to count on, in order to lure the crowd.
Despite Sparks’ excellent reputation (he was among the most respected impresarios in the business), his was ultimately a second-category circus. It consisted of a dozen cars, against the 42 cars of his main rival in the South, John Robinson’s Circus. Sparks had five elephants, Robinson had twelve. And both of them could never hope to compete with Barnum & Bailey’s number one circus, with its impressive 84-car railroad caravan.
Therefore Sparks World Famous Shows kept clear of big cities and made a living by serving those smaller towns, ignored by more famous circuses, where the residents would find his attractions worth paying for.

Although Sparks circus was “not spectacularly but slowly and surely” growing, in those years it didn’t offer much yet: some trained seals, some clowns, riders and gymnasts, the not-so-memorable “Man Who Walks on His Head“, and some living statues like the ones standing today on public squares, waiting for a coin.
The only real resource for Charlie Sparks, his pride and joy widely displayed on the banners, was Mary.

Advertides as being “3 inches taller than Jumbo” (Barnum’s famous elephant), Mary was a 5-ton indian pachyderm capable of playing different melodies by blowing horns, and of throwing a baseball as a pitcher in one of her most beloved routines. Mary represented the main source of income for Charlie Sparks, who loved her not just for economical but also for sentimental reasons: she was the only real superior element of his circus, and his excuse for dreaming of entering the history of entertainment.
And in a sense it is because of Mary if Sparks is still remembered today, even if not for the reason he might have suspected or wanted.

On September 11, 1916, Sparks pitched his Big Top in St. Paul, a mining town in Clinch River Valley, Virginia. On that very day Walter “Red” Eldridge, a janitor in a local hotel, decided that he had enough of sweeping floors, and joined the circus.
Altough Red was a former hobo, and clearly knew nothing about elephants, he was entrusted with leading the pachyderms during the parade Sparks ran through the city streets every afternoon before the show.
The next day the circus moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where Mary paraded quietly along the main street, until the elephants were brought over to a ditch to be watered. And here the accounts begin to vary: what we know for sure is that Red hit Mary with a stick, infuriating the beast.
The rogue elephant grabbed the inexperienced handler with its trunk, and threw him in the air. When the body fell back on the ground, Mary began to trample him and eventually crushed his head under her foot. “And blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street“, as one witness put it.

Charlie Sparks immediately found himself in the middle of the worst nightmare.
Aside from his employee’s death on a public street — not really a “moral” and “instructive” spectacle — the real problem was that the whole tour was now in jeopardy: what town would allow an out-of-control elephant near its limits?
The crowd demanded the animal to be suppressed and Sparks unwillingly understood that if he wanted to save what was left of his enterprise, Mary had to be sacrified and, with her, his personal dreams of grandeur.
But killing an elephant is no easy task.

The first, obvious attempt was to fire five 32-20 rounds at Mary. There’s a good reason however if elephants are called pachyderms: the thick skin barrier did not let the bullets go deep in the flesh and, despite the pain, Mary didn’t fall down. (When in 1994 Tyke, a 3.6-ton elephant, killed his handler running amok on the streets of Honolulu, it took 86 shots to stop him. Tyke became a symbol for the fights against animal cruelty in circuses, also because of the heartbreaking footage of his demise.)
Someone then suggested to try and eliminate Mary by electrocution, a method used more than a decade before in the killing of Topsy in Coney Island. But there was no nearby way of producing the electricity needed to carry out the execution.
Therefore it was decided that Mary would be hung.

The only gallows that could bear such a weight was to be found in the railyards in Erwin, where there was a derrick capable of lifting railcars to place them on the tracks.
Charlie Sparks, knowing he was about to lose an animal worth $20.000, was determined to make the most out of the desperate situation. In the brief time that took for Mary to be moved from Kingsport to Erwin, he had already turned his elephant’s execution into a public event.

On September 13, on a rainy and foggy afternoon, more than 2.500 people gathered at the railyards. Children stood in the front line to witness the extraordinary endeavour.
Mary was brought to the makeshift gallows, and her foot was chained to the tracks while men struggled to pass a chain around her neck. They then tied the chain to the derric, started the winch, and the hanging began.
In theory, the weight of her body would have had to quickly break her neck. But Mary’s agony was to be far from swift and painless; in the heat of the moment, someone forgot to untie the animal’s foot, which was still bound to the rails.

When they began to lift her up — a witness recalled — I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot“; the men hastily released the foot, but right then the chain around Mary’s neck broke with a metallic crack.

The elephant fell on the ground and sat there upright, unable to move because in falling she had broken her hip.

The crowd, unaware that Mary at this point was wounded and paralyzed, panicked upon seeing the “murderous” elephant free from any restraint. As everyone ran for cover, one of the roustabouts climbed on the animal’s back and applaied a heavier chain to her neck.
The derrick once more began to lift the elephant, and this time the chain held the weight.
After she was dead, Mary was left to hang for half an hour. Her huge body was then buried in a large grave which had been excavated further up the tracks.

Mary’s execution, and the photograph of her hanging, were widely reported in the press. But to search for an article where this strange story was recounted with special emotion or participation would be useless. Back then, Mary’s incident was little more than quintessential, small-town oddity piece of news.
After all, people were used to much worse. In Erwin, in those very years, a black man was burned alive on a pile of crosstiles.

Today the residents of this serene Tennessee town are understandably tired of being associated with a bizarre and sad page of the city history — a century-old one, at that.
And yet still today some passing foreigner asks the proverbial, unpleasand question.
Didn’t they hang an elephant here?

A well-researched book on Mary’s story is The Day They Hung the Elephant by Charles E. Price. On Youtube you can find a short documentary entitled Hanging Over Erwin: The Execution of Big Mary.

The misfortunes of Willie Dee

As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers.

(A. Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, 1871)

In the hypotetical Museum of Failure I proposed some time ago, the infamous destroyer USS William D. Porter (DD-579) would hold a place of honor.
The account of its war exploits is so tragicomic that it sounds like it’s scripted, but even if some anecdotes are probably no more than legends, the reputation the ship earned in its two years of service was sadly deserved.

The career of “Willie Dee“, as the Porter was nicknamed, started off with an exceptional task.
Soon after its launch, the ship was assigned to a top-secret, crucial mission: escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic ocean — infested by nazi submarines — to North Africa, where the President was to meet Stalin and Churchill for the first time. The summit of the Three Greats would later become known as the Tehran Conference, and together with the following meetings (the most famous one held in Yalta) contributed to change the European post-war layout.
Yet, on account of Willie Dee, the meeting almost failed to happen.

Destroyers are agile and fast ships, specifically designed to shield and protect bigger vessels. On November 12, 1943, the Porter was ordered to join the rest of the fleet escorting USS Iowa, a 14,000-tons battleship on which the President had already boarded, together with the Secretary of State and the executive top brass.

Willie Dee‘s crew at the time consisted of 125 sailors, under Captain Wilfred Walter’s command. But in times of war the Army needed a vast number of soldiers, and therefore enlisted boys who were still in high school, or had only worked in a family farm. A huge part of military accidents was caused by inexperienced rookies, who has had no proper training and were learning from their own mistakes, directly in the field. Nearly all of Willie Dee‘s crew had never boarded a ship before (including the 16 officials, of which only 4 had formerly been at sea), and this top-secret-mission baptism by fire surely increased the crew’s psychological pressure.

Anyway, right from the start Willie Dee made its debut under a bad sign. By forgetting to weigh anchor.
As Captain Walter was maneuvering to exit the Norfolk harbor, a terrible metal noise was heard. Looking out, the crew saw that the anchor had not been completely raised and, still hanging on the ship’s side, had tore out the railings of a nearby sister ship, destroying a life raft and ripping up other pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee had suffered just some scratches and, being already late, Captain Walter could only offer some quick apologies before setting sail towards the Iowa, leaving it to port authorities to fix the mess.
But it wasn’t over. During the next 48 hours, the Willie Dee was going to fall into a maelstrom of shameful incompetence.

After less than a day, just as the Iowa and the other ships were entering a zone notoriously infested by German U-boats, a heavy explosion shook the waters. All units, convinced they had fallen under attack, frantically began diversion maneuvers, as radar technicians in high alert scanned the ocean floor in search for enemy submarines.
Until the Iowa received an embarassed message from Captain Walter: the detonation had been caused by one of their depth charges, accidentally dropped into the water because the safe had not been correctly positioned. Luckily the explosion had not injured the ship.
As if accidentally dropping a bomb was not enough, things got even more desperate in the following hours. Soon after that a freak wave washed one of the sailors overboard, who was never found. Not one hour after that tragedy, the Willie Dee‘s boiler room suffered a mechanical failure and lost power, leaving the destroyer plodding along in a backward position behind the rest of the convoy.

At this point, aboard the Iowa the anxiety for Willie Dee‘s blunders was tangible. Under the scrutiny of all these high personalities, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, personally took the radio microphone to reprimand Captain Walter. The skipper, realizing that the opportunities of a high-profile mission were quickly turning into a catastrophe, humbly vowed to “improve the ship’s performance“. And in a sense he kept his word, by causing the ultimate disaster.

Even proceeding at full speed, it would have taken more than a week for the fleet to reach destination. It was therefore of crucial importance to carry out war drills, so that the (evidently inexperienced) crews could prepare for a potential surprise attack.
On November 14, east of Bermuda, the Iowa Captain decided to show Roosevelt and the other passengers how his ship was able to defend itself against an air attack. Some weather balloons were released as targets, as the President and other officials were invited to seat on the deck to enjoy the show of cannons taking them down one by one.
Captain Walter and his crew stood watching from 6,000 yards away, growing eager to participate in the drill and to redeem their ship’s name. When Iowa missed some balloons, which drifted into Willie Dee‘s fire range, Walter ordered his men to shoot them down. At the same time, he commanded a torpedo drill.

Belowdecks two members of the crew, Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio, made sure the primers were removed from the torpedos — otherwise they would have actually launched — and gave the OK signal to the deck. The bridge commander ordered fire, and the first “fake” torpedo was activated. Then the second, “fire!“. And the third.
At that point, the bridge commander heard the last sound he’d wanted to hear. The unmistakable hiss of a real torpedo trailing away.
To fully understand the horror the official must have felt in that moment, we must remember one detail. Usually in a drill one of the nearby ships was chosen as a practice target. The closest target was the Iowa.

The Porter had just fired a torpedo towards the President of the United States.


Aboard the Willie Dee, hell broke loose. One lieutenant ran up to Captain Walter, and asked him if he had given permission to fire a torpedo. His answer was certainly not a historic war dictum:  “Hell, No, I, I, aaa, iiiiii — WHAT?!“.
Only a couple of minutes were left before the torpedo hit Iowa‘s side, sinking it together with America’s most important personalities.
Walter immediately ordered to raise the alarm, but the strictest radio silence had been commanded to avoid the risk of interception, as the fleet sailed in a dangerous zone. So the signalman decided to use a flashing light instead.
But, falling prey to a justifiable panic, the young sailor who had to warn Iowa of the fatal mistake got quite confused. The mothership began receiving puzzling, uncomprehensible messages: “A torpedo is moving away from Iowa“, and shortly after “Our ship is going in reverse at full speed“.
Time was running out, and realizing that Morse code was not a viable option, Walter decided to break radio silence. “Lion, Lion, come right!” “Identify and say again. Where is submarine?” “Torpedo in the water! Lion, come right! Emergency! Come right, Lion! Come right!
At that point the torpedo had already been spotted from the Iowa. The ship made an emergency manoeuvre, increasing speed and turning right, as all cannons shot towards the incoming torpedo. President Roosevelt asked his Secret Service bodyguard to move his wheelchair to the railing, so he could better see the missile. According to the story, the bodyguard even took out his gun to shoot the torpedo, as if his bullets could stop its course.
Meanwhile, over the Willie Dee a ghastly silence had fallen, as everyone stood frozen, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.

Four minutes after being fired, the missile exploded in water, not far from Iowa, providentially without damaging it. The President later wrote in his diary: “On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it — missed it by 1,000 feet“.

With the best will in the world, such an accident could not be overlooked — also because at that point there was a strong suspicion that the Willie Dee crew might have been infiltrated, and that the claimed clumsy error was in fact an actual assassination plot. So the Iowa ordered the Porter out of the convoy and sent it back to a US base in Bermuda; Walter and his crew shamefully made a u-turn and, once they entered the harbor, were greeted by fully armed Marines who placed them all under arrest. Days of interrogations and investigations followed, and Dawson, the 22-tear-old sailor who forgot to remove the primer from the torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour. When he heard of the sentence, Roosevelt himself intervened to pardon the poor boy.

The rest of the convoy in the meantime reached Africa unharmed, and Roosevelt (despite another, but this time real, attempted assassination) went on to sign with Churchill and Stalin those deals which, once the war was over, would radically change Europe.
The Willie Dee was sent off Alaskan shores, where it could not cause much trouble, and in time it became some sort of a sailor’s myth. Other unverified rumors began circulating around the “black sheep” of the US Navy, such as one about a drunk sailor who one night allegedly shot a 5-inch shell towards a military base on the coast, destroying a commander’s front yard. Humorous, exaggerated legends that made it a perfect scapegoat, the farcical anti-heroine into which the anxiety of failure could be sublimated.
The resonance of Willie Dee’s infamous deeds preceded it in every harbor, where invariably the ship was saluted by radioing the ironic greeting “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!“.


The ship eventually sank during the Battle of Okinawa — ingloriously taken down by an already-crashed plane which exploded under its hull.
On that day, more than a seaman probably heaved a sigh of relief. The unluckiest ship in American history was finally resting at the bottom of the ocean.


(Thanks, Andrea!)

Two underwater graveyards

Along the cove named Mallows Bay, the Potomac River flows placid and undisturbed. It’s been doing that for more than two million years, you’ll have to forgive if the river doesn’t seem much impressed.
Its fresh and rich waters glide along the banks, caressing the hulls of hundreds of submerged ships. Yes, because in this underwater graveyard at least 230 sunken ships lay on the bottom of the river — a surreal tribute, here in Maryland, 30 miles south of Washington DC, a memento of a war among “featherless bipeds”, and of a military strategy that proved disastrous.

On April the 2nd, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called Americans to arms against imperial Germany. This meant carrying dietary, human and military resources across the Atlantic Ocean, which was infested by German submarines. And supporting an army overseas meant to build the most majestic fleet in the history of mankind. In february 1917, engineer Frederic Eustis proposed an apparently irreproachable plan to lower costs and solve the problem: the construction of wooden ships, cheaper and faster to assemble than iron ships; a fleet so vast as to outnumber the inevitable losses due to submarines, thus able to bring food and weapons to European shores.
But, amidst beaurocratic and engineering delays, the project ironically did not hold water right from the start. Deadlines were not met, and in October 1918 only 134 wooden ships were completed; 263 were half-finished. When Germany surrendered on November 11th, not a single one of these ships had left port.

A legal battle to assert responsibilities ensued, as only 98 of the 731 commissioned ship had been delivered; and even these showed a weak and badly built structure, proving too small and costly to carry long-distance cargo. The maintenance costs for this fleet soon became excessive, and it was decided to cut out the entire operation, sinking the ships where they stood, one by one.

Today Mallows Bay harbours hundreds of fallen ships, which in time turned into a sort of natural reef, where a florid ecosystem thrives. As they were made of wood, these ships are by now part of the river’s habitat, and host algae and microorganisms that will in time erase this wartime folly, by turning it into a part of Potomac itself.
Mallows Bay is the largest ship graveyard in Western Hemisphere. As for the Eastern one, we should look for Truk (or Chuuk) Lagoon in Micronesia.

Here, during the course of another bloody war, WWII, hundreds of airplanes and other Japanese outposts were taken down during the so-called Hailstone operation.

On February 17, 1944, hell broke loose over this peaceful tropical lagoon, when US airforce sunk 50 Japanese ships and aorund 250 airplanes. At least 400 Japanese soldiers met their end here. Most of the fleet still remains in the place where it went down, under the enemy fire.

Foating on the surface of the lagoon’s clear waters, it is still possible to see the impressive structures of these wrecks; and several daredevils dive to explore the eerie panorama, where plane carcasses and battleship keels cover the ocean floor.

Rusted and sharp metal sheets, fluctuating cables and oil spills make the dive extremely dangerous. Yet this graveyard, the largest of its kind in the world, seems to offer an experience that is worth the risk. Among the bended metal of a by now ancient battle are still trapped the remains of those fighters Japan never managed to retrieve. Broken lives, terrible memories of a momentous conflict that claimed more victims than any other massacre.
And here, life flourished back again, covering the wrecks with luxurious corals and sea animals. As if to remind us that the world goes on anyway, never worrying about our fights, nor about the heroic victories we like to brag about.

(Thanks, Stefano Emilio!)

Grief and sacrifice: abscence carved into flesh

Some of you probably know about sati (or suttee), the hindu self-immolation ritual according to which a widow was expected to climb on her husband’s funeral pire to be burned alive, along his body. Officially forbidden by the English in 1829, the practice declined over time – not without some opposition on behalf of traditionalists – until it almost entirely disappeared: if in the XIX Century around 600 sati took place every year, from 1943 to 1987 the registered cases were around 30, and only 4 in the new millennium.

The sacrifice of widows was not limited to India, in fact it appeared in several cultures. In his Histories, Herodotus wrote about a people living “above the Krestons”, in Thracia: within this community, the favorite among the widows of a great man was killed over his grave and buried with him, while the other wives considered it a disgrace to keep on living.

Among the Heruli in III Century a.D., it was common for widows to hang themselves over their husband’s burial ground; in the XVIII Century, on the other side of the ocean, when a Natchez chief died his wives (often accompanied by other volunteers) followed him by committing ritual suicide. At times, some mothers from the tribe would even sacrify their own newborn children, in an act of love so strong that women who performed it were treated with great honor and entered a higher social level. Similar funeral practices existed in other native peoples along the southern part of Mississippi River.

Also in the Pacific area, for instance in Fiji, there were traditions involving the strangling of the village chief’s widows. Usually the suffocation was carried out or supervised by the widow’s brother (see Fison’s Notes on Fijian Burial Customs, 1881).

The idea underlying these practices was that it was deemed unconcievable (or improper) for a woman to remain alive after her husband’s death. In more general terms, a leader’s death opened an unbridgeable void, so much so that the survivors’ social existence was erased.
If female self-immolation (and, less commonly, male self-immolation) can be found in various time periods and latitudes, the Dani tribe developed a one-of-a-kind funeral sacrifice.

The Dani people live mainly in Baliem Valley, the indonesian side of New Guinea‘s central highlands. They are now a well-known tribe, on the account of increased tourism in the area; the warriors dress with symbolic accessories – a feather headgear, fur bands, a sort of tie made of seashells specifying the rank of the man wearing it, a pig’s fangs fixed to the nostrils and the koteka, a penis sheath made from a dried-out gourd.
The women’s clothing is simpler, consisting in a skirt made from bark and grass, and a headgear made from multicolored bird feathers.

Among this people, according to tradition when a man died the women who were close or related to him (wife, mother, sister, etc.) used to amputate one or more parts of their fingers. Today this custom no longer exists, but the elder women in the tribe still carry the marks of the ritual.

Allow me now a brief digression.

In Dino Buzzati‘s wonderful tale The Humps in the Garden (published in 1968 in La boutique del mistero), the protagonist loves to take long, late-night walks in the park surrounding his home. One evening, while he’s promenading, he stumbles on a sort of hump in the ground, and the following day he asks his gardener about it:

«What did you do in the garden, on the lawn there is some kind of hump, yesterday evening I stumbled on it and this morning as soon as the sun came up I saw it. It is a narrow and oblong hump, it looks like a burial mound. Will you tell me what’s happening?». «It doesn’t look like it, sir» said Giacomo the gardener «it really is a burial mound. Because yesterday, sir, a friend of yours has died».
It was true. My dearest friend Sandro Bartoli, who was twenty-one-years-old, had died in the mountains with his skull smashed.
«Are you trying to tell me» I said to Giacomo «that my friend was buried here?»
«No» he replied «your friend, Mr. Bartoli […] was buried at the foot of that mountain, as you know. But here in the garden the lawn bulged all by itself, because this is your garden, sir, and everything that happens in your life, sir, will have its consequences right here.»

Years go by, and the narrator’s park slowly fills with new humps, as his loved ones die one by one. Some bulges are small, other enormous; the garden, once flat and regular, at this point is completely packed with mounds appearing with every new loss.

Because this problem of humps in the garden happens to everybody, and every one of us […] owns a garden where these painful phenomenons take place. It is an ancient story repeating itself since the beginning of centuries, it will repeat for you too. And this isn’t a literary joke, this is how things really are.

In the tale’s final part, we discover that the protagonist is not a fictional character at all, and that the sorrowful metaphore refers to the author himself:

Naturally I also wonder if in someone else’s garden will one day appear a hump that has to do with me, maybe a second or third-rate little hump, just a slight pleating in the lawn, not even noticeable in broad daylight, when the sun shines from up high. However, one person in the world, at least one, will stumble on it. Perhaps, on the account of my bad temper, I will die alone like a dog at the end of an old and deserted hallway. And yet one person that evening will stub his toe on the little hump in the garden, and will stumble on it the following night too, and each time that person will think with a shred of regret, forgive my hopefulness, of a certain fellow whose name was Dino Buzzati.

Now, if I may risk the analogy, the humps in Buzzati’s garden seem to be poetically akin to the Dani women’s missing fingers. The latter represent a touching and powerful image: each time a loved one leaves us, “we lose a bit of ourselves”, as is often said – but here the loss is not just emotional, the absence becomes concrete. On the account of this physical expression of grief, fingerless women undoubtedly have a hard time carrying out daily tasks; and further bereavements lead to the impossibility of using their hands. The oldest women, who have seen many loved ones die, need help and assistance from the community. Death becomes a wound which makes them disabled for life.

Of course, at least from a contemporary perspective, there is still a huge stumbling block: the metaphore would be perfect if such a tradition concerned also men, who instead were never expected to carry out such extreme sacrifices. It’s the female body which, more or less voluntarily, bears this visible evidence of pain.
But from a more universal perspective, it seems to me that these symbols hold the certainty that we all will leave a mark, a hump in someone else’s garden. The pride with which Dani women show their mutilated hands suggests that one person’s passage inevitably changes the reality around him, conditioning the community, even “sculpting” the flesh of his kindreds. The creation of meaning in displays of grief also lies in reciprocity – the very tradition that makes me weep for the dead today, will ensure that tomorrow others will lament my own departure.

Regardless of the historical variety of ways in which this concept was put forth, in this awareness of reciprocity human beings seem to have always found some comfort, because it eventually means that we can never be alone.

The premature babies of Coney Island

Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.

This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.

Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.

Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.

Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.

This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.

L'edificio costruito per gli incubatori a Buffalo.

The incubators building in Buffalo.

The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.

But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.

If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.



Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.


In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.

Madame Louise Recht con uno dei neonati.

Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.

Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.

Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.

Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.

Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.

After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.

Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).

The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).

(Thanks, Claudia!)

“Savage” heads


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.


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.


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.


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.

Morti sfrattati


Le tombe, in Guatemala, sono spesso colorate con vivaci colori: entrare in un camposanto può perfino sembrare un momento gioioso. Eppure il cimitero municipale della Città del Guatemala è diventato tristemente celebre per la severa politica di gestione dei loculi che vi viene applicata.

Nella foto qui sopra, un incaricato cammina nella zona del cimitero conosciuta come “La Verbena”. Le tombe marcate in rosso sono quelle per le quali i parenti del defunto non hanno saldato la tassa dovuta. Secondo le regole del cimitero, infatti, passati sei anni dall’inumazione i parenti – avvertiti tramite telegramma – sono tenuti a versare 180 Quetzales (all’incirca 16 €) per rinnovare il permesso per altri quattro anni.

Se non lo fanno, il loculo viene aperto, la bara distrutta e il cadavere esumato.



Queste esumazioni si risolvono spesso in uno spettacolo, visto che vengono talvolta effettuate anche durante gli orari di apertura del cimitero. In sei anni, poi, può capitare che il corpo del defunto non sia ancora ridotto alle ossa: ecco quindi che gli operatori si aggirano per i vialetti con il loro carico di mummie.








Le spoglie vengono, molto poco cerimoniosamente, gettate in un pozzo che funge da fossa comune.


La legge italiana stabilisce un tempo minimo di sepoltura, prima di un’eventuale esumazione, di almeno dieci anni. In seguito i resti vengono tumulati in una celletta, cremati oppure consegnati alle famiglie per essere sepolti privatamente.
La prassi adottata dal cimitero di Guatemala City ai nostri occhi potrebbe risultare insensibile e troppo sbrigativa; ma considerando che la città è la più grande metropoli dell’America Centrale e conta una popolazione urbana che è quasi cinque volte quella di Milano, diviene comprensibile quanto ogni spazio sia assolutamente prezioso. Se non si paga l’affitto, è inevitabile venire sfrattati – anche da morti.