ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Days 1 & 2

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
(Steven Wright)

This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day.
Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line; I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much.
In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.

The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 1 – AND THERE WAS LIGHT

The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.

The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.

The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.

 

DAY 2 – THE FIRMAMENT

The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.

Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.

The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.

One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.

Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.

The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.

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.