April 24, 2008
My reasons for starting this blog were curiosity, and a sense of exploration and inspiration. After 239 entries those feelings are much diminished in relation to the project, and writing the next day's death is becoming a chore rather than a pleasure. I can always find people that interest me, but it has become harder and harder to find deaths that interest me.
Thus I'm going to let this go. It was originally intended as a one-year project, but I see no reason to carry through with that intention given my decreasing enthusiasm.
The success of the blog has surprised me. It gets more than 1,300 page loads by about 800 unique visitors a week. I think the secret to these numbers is this: I mention a lot of famous people. So I get a lot of one-time fly-by visits from people curious about Audrey Mestre, or Mao Tse-Tung, the Collyer brothers, etc. But there are regular visitors too; far fewer, a dozen or two come by each day.
The entries that are already here will stand indefinitely, unless I decide one day to delete the blog, so it will continue to get visitors. But to those of you who have been following the daily entries, or just dropping in from time to time, it's been nice feeling the mysterious connection of blogger and reader, so thanks for your interest. All the best for the future.
And here's my last word! Enjoy!
April 23, 2008
Rupert Brooke was a British poet famous for his sonnets about The Great War, and to a lesser extent for being a good-looking bisexual.
His most famous sonnet, The Soldier, is rather idealistic and contrasts with the bitter nature of the work of poets like Wilfred Owen. It is quoted a lot by people who want to celebrate the "supreme sacrifice" of a young man dying in combat. Weirdly enough, although Brooke died in 1915, it was not combat: like George Herbert, he died of an infected mosquito bite. He was on his way to a battle at Gallipoli. His friend William Brown was with him:
"...I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme."
He was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. The text of The Soldier is included below. It was part of a series of poems entitled 1914.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
April 22, 2008
Linda Boreman, a.k.a. Linda Lovelace, was the star of the most successful porn movie of all time. Deep Throat cost about $25,000 to make in 1972 (the $1,250 paid to Boreman was retained by her husband. The movie made an estimated $600 million at the box office. In her four (four?!?) autobiographies, Boreman maintained that she was forced into prostitution and porn movies by her sadistic and controlling husband. Although some of the facts are in dispute, much of her story has been backed up by the other people involved.
In April 2002 Boreman rolled her car, suffering trauma and internal injuries. She survived about 2.5 weeks but did not regain consciousness. She was taken off life support and died on April 22.
April 21, 2008
Sandy Denny was a British singer-songwriter with an extraordinary voice and performing presence. Her sound is an indelible part of my own memories, as it was through hearing her band in the 1970s that I learned to love non-mainstream recorded music. She was the lead singer of Fairport Convention, a British band that explored the possibilities of blending traditional British folk music with modern instruments.
She was actually only with the band for a short time, but the three albums she recorded with them are their best. Although her subsequent work was generally well-received, she had substance abuse problems and was uncertain about her musical direction. In March 1978 she was visiting her parents at their cottage and fell down a flight of stairs. About a month later she collapsed and, four days later, died in hospital of a brain hemorrhage, caused by the previous fall.
Her voice must be experienced, it cannot be described. Here is a YouTube clip, illustrated only with stills but it includes "Who knows where the time goes", a beautiful song.
April 20, 2008
Italian maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli was conducting Verdi's Aida at the Berlin Opera House when he collapsed during the third act. The performance was stopped and the audience, cast, and orchestra was sent home. Attempts to resuscitate him on the scene were unsuccessful, and he died. Ironically, Aida was the first work he conducted as well as his last: it was the work with which he made his debut in 1972.
Source: New York Times
April 19, 2008
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was one of England's most influential poets and one of her many famous bad boys. We met him briefly as the father of Ada Lovelace, the polymath who invented computers, but the two shared only two qualities: brilliance and beauty. As it happens hardly knew each other.
Byron inherited his titles and estates at the age of 10. His first published works, "Fugitive Pieces", included poems he'd written at the age of 14, but the edition was immediately recalled and burned because of its sexy content. Byron was bisexual, and fell in love frequently.
He continued to publish and by the time he was in his mid-20s people with eyes for such things could see he was a very, very important poet. People with eyes for other things were scandalized by the sexual and satirical content of his work. A series of sexual scandals, including adultery, homosexuality, and incest, forced him into marriage with Ada's mother, but he quickly tired of this and left England forever.
In 1823 he was invited, through the Greek acquaintances he met during his "grand tour" of Europe as a young man, to become involved in the Greek independence movement. He entered the fray with gusto, spending a huge sum of money on refitting the Greek naval fleet. While preparing for an attack on a Turkish-held fortress at the Gulf of Corinth, he fell ill, and when the customary treatment of bleeding was applied it made him worse. In early April he caught a nasty cold, which developed into fever. Weakened by continued medicinal bleeding, he died on April 19.
Ironically, it was medicinal bleeding that killed his daughter Ada as well 26 years later. Despite the fact they hardly knew each other, they are buried side by side in Nottingham.
April 18, 2008
Ernie Pyle was a successful American journalist who gave up a post as Managing Editor of The Washington Daily News to work freelance, on the road. He became a popular roving columnist, writing about unusual places and people.
When the US entered World War II, Pyle began to cover it, writing from Europe, Africa, United States, and the Pacific. On April 18, 1945 he was on an island off Okinawa, riding in a jeep four other men. As they reached a junction a machine gun next about 500 yards away started firing on them. They stopped the jeep and jumped into a ditch. When they raised their heads to look around, Pyle smiled and asked the man next to him, "Are you all right?" The gunner started shooting again and Pyle was hit in the left temple and died.
This photo was taken moments after his death by war photographer Alexander Roberts. "It was so peaceful a death ... that I felt its reproduction would not be in bad taste," he said, "but there probably would be another school of thought on this." In fact Roberts did not release the photo for many years, out of deference to Pyle's widow.
April 17, 2008
Dick Shawn is best known as the original Lorenzo St. Dubois/ Adolf Hitler in The Producers. An American comic, he was so over-the-top that, although he was well-known, his best work was on stage as his prime time TV and movie appearances had to be toned down.
In a stand-up routine in San Diego in April 1987 he was portraying a politician, saying "if elected, I will not lay down on the job." Then he fell face-down onto the stage. The audience thought it was part of the act and laughed, but after a few moments of silence, someone came onstage, checked him out, and called into the audience for a doctor. Shawn had suffered a massive heart attack. He was dead.
Even as he was receiving CPR on stage, the audience was not sure whether it was part of the act or not, but they began to leave after paramedics arrived. Most of them were unaware that he had died until they read the notices in the morning's paper.
Click here to see him as Lorenzo St. DuBois doing the worst audition possible for Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder The Producers (he was hired of course!). Here he is doing stand-up on the Tonight Show a couple of years before his death.
April 16, 2008
On February 11, 1858, three poor girls were gathering firewood near a cave in the south of France when one of them clearly say a small beautiful lady standing in a niche in a rock. Moreover, the lady spoke to her, telling her to come back to the cave every day for 15 days. The two other girls saw and heard nothing.
The girl obeyed the vision and returned again and again, having conversations with the lady that consisted mostly of sound common-sense advice on prayer and penance. Having also told her family about the visions, however, the future St. Bernadette soon had a crowd following her to the cave every day. On day nine, the lady told Bernadette to drink from the spring that flowed under the rock and eat the plants that grew freely there. There was no spring, but Bernadette tried digging a muddy patch and drinking the filthy droplets that collected, then eating some of the plants. When the audience saw that all she had to show for this was a muddy face, most concluded that she was either lying or insane, but when, within a few days, a little spring began to flow from the muddy patch, everything changed.
People began visiting the place and drinking and washing in the water, and reports of its healing properties began to circulate.
By visit number 13 the lady asked Bernadette to tell the local priest to build a chapel there. The local clergy was quite skeptical, asking Bernadette to find out the name of the apparition. After a few visits in which this request was met in silence, the lady finally replied, "I am the Immaculate Conception".
This statement changed everything. Had she simply said "I am Mary" or "I am the Virgin" things might have been different, but the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception had been officially defined as dogma by Pope Pius just four years earlier (this was a theological issue not well known to the public, and it is very unlikely that an illiterate country girl would have known anything about it). Suddenly Bernadette's visions were linked to a philosophical development in the official Catholic Church.
By the time she was 22 Bernadette had had enough of the attention her visions attracted. She was a genuinely devout woman who liked simple things and certainly did not aspire to fame or power. She entered a convent at Nevers, 700 kilometres from Lourdes, where she worked as an infirmary assistant and later as a sacristan. Although she did ask for water from the Lourdes spring once to help her asthma (it completely cured her), she didn't ask for it when she tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis commonly attacks the lungs, but can also attack other parts of the body, including the central nervous system, lymphatic system, bones, joints, and even the skin. In Bernadette's case, it affected her right knee. She eventually died of it at the age of 35.
Calls for her beatification immediately, and as part of the investigation her body was exhumed and placed in a new casket in September 1909. Those present, who included a Bishop and two doctors as well as several members of the religious community, found that although her crucifix and rosary showed signs of oxidation, her body was perfectly preserved and had no unpleasant smell. It was washed and reburied, but exhumed again in April 1919, when it was observed that there was some discoloration of the face: this was attributed to the washing after the first exhumation. It was exhumed a third time in 1925, and relics were taken and sent to Rome. The doctor who removed the relics (what they were is not stated in any of the sources I found) noted that the skeleton and muscles in the 46-year-old corpse were perfectly preserved, including the liver, and commented that "this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon."
The face and hands were covered with a light wax mask and, upon her official beatification in June of that year (full sainthood would follow eight years later), it was sealed in a reliquary made of crystal so that all could see the miraculous body. You can, too, below.
Sources: Wikipedia, Biography Online, Catholic Online
April 15, 2008
John Jacob Astor IV was born into one of the richest families in America, his great-grandfather being the first John Jacob Astor who made a fortune in furs and real estate. Once you've got that much money it's hard not to make more, and Astor himself made additional fortuntes in real estate. He also wrote science fiction (including a story set in 2000 about life on Saturn and Jupiter) and invented things (like a bicycle brake and a turbine engine).
He divorced his wife in 1909 after she had an affair, a scandal in itself. Society was further shocked and titillated when he announced, two years later, his married to a woman who, at 18, was two years younger than his own son. In order to wait out the maelstrom of gossip, Mr. and the new Mrs. Astor took an extended tour to Europe and Egypt. During this extended trip, Mrs. Astor became pregnant, and the couple made arrangements to return to America so that the child could be born there. They booked first-class passage on the RMS Titanic.
When the Titanic hit an iceberg and began sinking, Astor did not believe there was any serious danger, but helped his wife into a lifeboat as a precautionary measure. He gave his own place in the lifeboat to stranger, a woman, saying, “The ladies have to go first.” When his pregnant wife tried to get out too, he said, “Get in the lifeboat, to please me.” He lit a cigarette and said, “Good-bye dearie. I’ll see you later.” He stood back, lit a cigarette, and tossed his gloves to his wife. She survived; he, famously, did not.
When he body was recovered it was covered in soot and blood, leading to speculation that he was killed by the funnel when it collapsed as the ship went down. He was identified by his initials, sewn into his jacket. He was carrying $2,500 in American cash plus a further £225 in British currency, as well as his gold pocket watch. His son, Vincent, wore the watch for the rest of his life.
Source: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988.
April 14, 2008
Rachel Carson was the American biologist who raised hell when she published Silent Spring, a seminal criticism of the widespread use of synthetic pesticides and its effect on the environment and on public health. In doing so she came up against a number of very powerful corporate and government interests; but she also alerted a wider audience to issues that, until then, had been considered too scientific for the public to care about.
Today every schoolchild that I know here in Canada has "caring for the environment" as a very central, deeply cherished value. I know this, not because of what they say, but because of what they do. They campaign for energy savings, raise funds for environmental causes, put up posters of endangered animals, heckle their parents into turning off the lights for Earth Hour, and so forth. When Silent Spring was published, in the 1960s, I was a schoolchild. In those days, the simple idea of not throwing your trash out the car window was a concept original enough to be worthy of an entire ad campaign.
Carson's influence was a major catalyst for the banning of DDT as an agricultural pesticide. Her research also exposed the carcinogenic effects of synthetic pesticides; ironically her health began to fail and in 1960, while researching the book, she discovered cysts in her left breast. She had a precautionary mastectomy, but by December 1960 it was discovered the cysts were malignant and had metastasized.
The next two years were a race between the disease and her energy in finishing, publishing, and promoting the book. The corporate opponents, including DuPont and Cyanamid, attacked her research, her credentials, and even her personal character. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote to President Eisenhower that, because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was "probably a Communist". By April 1963, however, Silent Spring won the battle of public opinion: a TV special created a widespread public reaction and inspired a congressional review of the dangers of pesticides.
Weakened by the struggle with cancer and with opponents to her ideas, her last public appearance was in May 1963. In early 1964 she was laid low by a respiratory virus; in February she was diagnosed with anaemia caused by the radiation treatments, and in March cancer was discovered in her liver. She died of a heart attack on April 14, 1964.
April 13, 2008
Sasaki Kojiro was a famous swordsman in Japan, best known for duelling the even more famous Musashi Miyamoto. At the time, however, he was considered one of the finest swordsmen in the land, renowned for having fended off three enemies with nothing but a fan.
He and Musashi of course knew of each other, and Musashi was eager for a duel. It was arranged to take place on a remote island, probably because Kojiro had so many students that they would have killed Musashi if Kojiro were defeated.
The story goes that Musashi arrived more than three hours late, an unforgivable insult. Moreover, he used as a weapon a bokken (wooden sword) that he had fashioned from the spare oar of the boat he had rowed over. Kojiro, enraged, shouted abuse at Musashi, who simply smiled. Kojiro attacked, and struck so close that Musashi's topknot was severed. But that's as close as he got. Eventually Musashi overcame him, smashing the oar/bokken down on his head, then puncturing his lungs, killing him. It was Musashi's last fatal duel.
There are several versions of the story, and I have cobbled together a couple to make this narrative. Many conflicting details can never be proven one way or another: Kojiro's age is not known (anything from 20 to 50), some say that Musashi tricked Kojiro and assassinated him, and the whole notion of setting out for a duel with the intention of making one's weapon on the way is ridiculous. But the story has been told many times over and will continue to be told as long as we exist.
April 12, 2008
"I wish I could keep war from all Nations; but that is beyond my power. I can at least make certain that no act of the United States helps to produce or to promote war."
FDR was and is one of the best-loved presidents of the United States. He was elected for four terms in office (this was before the two-term limit was ratified in the twenty-second amendment), and took the country through two seminal events of the 20th century: the recovery from the Great Depression, and World War II. He and his wife, Eleanor, were two of the greatest American liberals of the last century.
Trained as a lawyer, Roosevelt grew up in a wealthy family. He married Eleanor against his mother's wishes. Overall, they were well matched, but Roosevelt was a philanderer, and Eleanor found this difficult to tolerate, especially when she discovered he had been having an affair with her own secretary. She proposed a divorce, but Roosevelt's mother — the same one who had opposed the match in the first place — threatened to disinherit him if he went through with it. The marriage settled into a reasonably amicable and successful partnership that left the other aspects of marriage in the past. As part of the arrangement, Roosevelt promised to break off the affair with Eleanor's secretary, and never to see her again.
In 1921 he contracted an illness that left his legs paralyzed. Although Roosevelt was the first US President to use broadcast media extensively to communicate with the public, its primitive nature and the dominance of radio meant that he was able to perpetuate the fiction that his paralysis was temporary and that he was on the road to recovery. He used a wheelchair, but never allowed himself to be seen with it in public, staging public appearances so that he was standing upright or using a cane. People simply didn't think much about it.
He took office in March 1933, when the world was in the depths of economic depression. Credited with turning the US economy around through his aggressively liberal policies, and was re-elected by a wide margin in 1937. When war erupted in Europe in 1939, he began to steer the country toward intervention, and a year after his re-election for an unprecedented third term, in December 1941, the US entered the war. In 1944 the US was in the midst of war on two fronts, and re-elected him for a fourth term.
Roosevelt's health was declining due to the strain of office, his paralysis, and years of chain-smoking, high blood pressure, and heart disease. When he addressed Congress in March many were surprised to see how ill and old he looked. On April 12 he was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a "terrific headache" and broke off the sitting to go to bed. A doctor's visit revealed that he had had a massive stroke. He died later that day, leaving Harry Truman, his Vice-President, to finish out the term. The portrait, seen right, was left unfinished.
With him on the day of his death was Lucy Mercer: the same woman who, years before, he had promised Eleanor he would never see again. He had not kept the promise, but continued to see Mercer discreetly over the years. In his latter years, his daughter Anna had even helped arrange visits between the two. Although the continued contact was apparently news to Eleanor, and must have been a shock, it is worth noting that the 1918 marital showdown was a very positive turning point in her life. From that point on she steered her own course in life, becoming an influential figure in politics, diplomacy, and civil rights: so much so that she was proposed as a running mate for Truman in the 1948 election (she declined). She had a close and loving relationship with another woman which, viewed through the lens of her now-public letters, was very likely a full partnership in every sense.
April 11, 2008
One of the defining experiences of Kurt Vonnegut's life had to be the bombing of Dresden. As a prisoner of war, he was put into a cell in an underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse that had been converted into a prison camp. After the city was destroyed by bombs, he and his fellow surviving prisoners were put to work burying the dead, "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes."
The experience is recounted, in fictionalized form, in his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse Five. If you have not read this book yet, run — don't walk, run — to the nearest bookstore to get your copy. It is necessary. And it is not what you think it might be. It's funny, sad, whimsical, strange, delightful...actually it's impossible to describe Vonnegut's writing. Go read it.
Vonnegut lived to a ripe old age, and worked right up to the end. In spring of 2007, he had a fall at his apartment, resulting in brain damage. He died several weeks later on April 11.
Here, for your pleasure, are his eight rules for writing a short story:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
April 10, 2008
Gabrielle d'Estrées was certainly one of the most beautiful women in the world when she became the lover of the King of France in 1591. In those days it was perfectly normal for a king to have an acknowledged mistress, even when married to someone else, as Henri was. Gabrielle followed the King everywhere, even in war, pregnant, living in his tent near the battlefield and making sure his creature comforts were in place. They adored each other.
The big issue of the century, of course, was the Reformation: most of the rich and powerful of Europe circled the issue like wolves looking for ways to use religious disputes to strengthen their fortunes. Henri was an exception: born Protestant, he converted to Catholicism when he became King of France, and worked for his whole life to bring about peace and religious tolerance for his kingdom. For a time, he succeeded.
His first marriage was unhappy and, mindful of the need for an heir, he tried to obtain an annulment, planning to marry Gabrielle, who had already produced three children for him. The plan came to nothing in 1599. Gabrielle, pregnant with their fourth child, suddenly developed eclampsia, a serious complication in which the mother suddenly begins convulsing. Today good prenatal care means the danger signs can be caught and the situation controlled long before it becomes life-threatening. Obstetrics in the 16th century were different. Gabrielle fell into convulsions, gave birth to a stillborn son, and died the next day, before the King (who was elsewhere) could reach her side. He was devastated, and wore mourning (unheard of for a mistress) and gave her a royal funeral.
No mention of this amazing woman would be complete without taking the opportunity to show Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs, which now hangs in the Louvre. That's her on the right, holding Henry's coronation ring, which he gave her. I guess this was the 16th century equivalent of a shoot for Playboy.
April 9, 2008
The cat wasn't the only thing curiosity killed: it killed Francis Bacon, too. Through his essays and activities, the brilliant and popular polymath framed and promoted the scientific method — that is, an inductive method of scientific inquiry. In other words, he recommended that scientists actually test their theories, even when the outcome seemed obvious. It was revolutionary.
During a cold winter in 1626, while driving through London with a friend, he was suddenly seized by the idea that snow could be used to preserve meat. The two friends jumped out of the carriage, bought a chicken, and stood outside stuffing it with snow. In doing so, he got a terrible chill and fell ill so quickly with pneumonia that he stopped at the house of a friendly earl nearby to lie down. The earl happened to be in jail at the time for pissing off the king, but his servants welcomed Bacon and his companion and showed them to the guest room. In those days there was no central heating and if things got damp in the winter, they stayed damp; the bed he repaired to was both cold and damp. Within three days Bacon was dead.
April 8, 2008
Per Yngve Ohlin was a Swedish vocalist for the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. He was known as "Dead", and liked to dress up as a corpse, sometimes burying his clothes weeks before a concert so that they could be rotting and worm-infested when he performed. While on one tour, he kept the corpse of a raven in a plastic bag, inhaling from it before performing in order to smell death. He would also cut himself with knives or broken bottles while performing, on one occasion even having to go to hospital to recover from the blood loss.
On April 8, 1991, a fellow band member found him dead -- actually dead. He had tried to slit his wrists, but the knife was too dull, so he had shot himself in the head using a shotgun, leaving a note that read "Excuse all the blood" and further apologizing for using a shotgun in the house. His friend jumped in the car and drove to buy a disposable camera so that he could record the tableau, which he later used as an album cover. For real. He also took fragments of the skull to make necklaces, or perhaps to mail out to worthy metal bands....all rumours which he later denied.
It's easy to Google the image of his actual corpse on the album cover, if you're interested; I won't put it here because it's pretty grisly and you may not want to look at it today.
Sources: Wikipedia, Fan Site
April 7, 2008
Alexander Bogdanov was a Russian physician and polymath who wrote science fiction books, philosophized, wrote about economics, and believed that blood transfusions could extend life and rejuvenate health.
His experiments seemed so successful that, upon Lenin's death, he was commissioned to resuscitate his body, however he was unsuccessful. He wrote, however, to Stalin of his dreams of rejunvenating the Boshevik party leadership.
In March of 1928, a group of students volunteered to take part in blood exchanges to help them study more energetically for exams. L. I. Koldomasiv, who had inactive tuberculosis and malaria, was ruled out for medical reasons, but Bogdanov contacted him and proposed a mutual blood exchange, with the idea that as a middle-aged doctor he would be immune to tuberculosis. Both hoped that Bogdanov's immunity could be transferred. They exchanged nearly one litre of blood.
Both had reactions; Koldomasov survived and his lung lesions cleared. He was reportedly still alive in 1983 at age 76. Bogdanov had chills and fever, intestinal distress, hemolysis and oliguria, then jaundice. He died on 7 April 1928.
Sources: Wikipedia, Science Fiction Studies (review 1987), The Struggle for Viability
April 6, 2008
Remember Thomas Becket? Richard I is the son of the guy who accidentally ordered him killed. He's also the same good King Richard who appears at the end of Robin Hood stories in his Crusader's outfit to save the day and restore order to England.
Although Richard the Lionheart, as he is known, enjoys great popularity in our imaginations today, the truth is he spent little time in England and could hardly speak English. He grew up in France and, a professional Crusader, used his English holdings to finance his very expensive armies in the Middle East.
He was indeed a great military leader and did wonderful things against Saladin. He also revolted against his own father on a regular basis, attempting on more than one occasion to seize his throne. When he was finally crowned King of England, after his father's death, he barred all Jews and women from the coronation ceremony. When some Jewish community leaders arrived with gifts, he had them stripped and flogged and then flung out into the street. A rumour then spread that Richard had ordered all Jews killed, and the people of London dutifully started a massacre. At this point Richard woke up to the fact that allowing leading Jewish citizens to be murdered and their property destroyed and stolen was a bad idea, had the perpetrators hung, and ordered that Jews be left alone.
He went on Crusade again a year later. When raising funds for this, he remarked "I would have sold London if I could find a buyer." He left the country in the hands of various family members and officials and divided his time over the next ten years between waging war in warmer, bloodier climes, and protecting his interests in France.
In March 1199 Richard was besieging a castle in the region of Limousin, suppressing a revolt in his holdings there. He was walking around the castle walls one evening, inspecting the progress of some sappers. Archers would shoot arrows from the castle from time to time but rarely hit anything important, and Richard felt confident enough to be making his inspection without armour. One archer in particular was standing on the walls holding a crossbow and a frying pan, which he had been using as a shield all day to ward off stones and other flying objects. When he aimed an arrow at Richard, the king laughed and applauded — until the arrow struck him on the left shoulder. Richard returned to his tent and tried to pull the arrow out, but could not, so he called a doctor. The doctor also had difficulty, removing the arrow but damaging Richard's arm.
The would became infected and it became clear he would die. Richard asked that the archer who shot him be found and brought before him. This was done, and the culprit turned out to be a mere boy, who announced that he had shot Richard in revenge as the king had killed his father and two brothers. With egotistic flair, Richard forgave the lad, giving him a sum of money and saying, "Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day".
Richard made his will, leaving his throne to his brother John, and died on April 6 in the arms of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. The young archer was recaptured, skinned alive, and hanged as soon as Richard died. So much for medieval chivalry.
April 5, 2008
George Herbert, or rather George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was the man who financed the excavation of King Tut's tomb by Howard Carter. He was present in February 1923 when the tomb was opened, and the greatest treasures of Egyptian archaeology were exposed to light and air for the first time in millennia.
He was still in Cairo several months later when he accidentally opened an infected mosquito bite while shaving. The resulting blood poisoning killed him at 1:55 a.m. on April 5, 1923. At the same moment, all the lights in Cairo went out. Back in England, Herbert's dog, Susie, let out a howl and died.
Over the next 10 years, a dozen others who went inside the tomb met untimely deaths, leading to speculation about the Pharaoh's Curse. Herbert's own son was so frightened that when boxes of treasure arrived back in England, he hid them unopened in the gap between two rooms. Herbert's hotel room in Cairo has never since been made available to anyone else.
Over the course of his life, Herbert collected a vast trove of Egyptian antiquities. The terms of his will stated that, should his wife wish to dispose of his collection, it should be offered to the British Museum for 20,000 pounds, a fraction of their real value. Lady Carnarvon made the offer, but gave the Museum until 4pm the same day to pay in full. When they could not, she was free to sell the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a much higher price: $145,000.
Sources: Wikipedia, Top News
April 4, 2008
The plane was broken into two pieces, but otherwise in good shape. There was a working radio, food, and water on board. There was even a thermos of tea. What there wasn't, was any sign of a human being. Nor were there any parachutes. It seemed that the men had bailed out, but it was not clear why: the final log entry was written while the plane was still in Naples.
It wasn't until some of the bodies were recovered two years later, at the end of a trail of footwear, parachute scraps, and other discarded articles that the probable story became clear (although much is still mysterious).
The day of the raid presented severe winds all over the Mediterranean. As a result, the bomber was separated from the squadron and the crew uncertain as to their course. They probably flew very close to the base at around midnight: near this time, another base nearby received a voice call from the pilot of Lady Be Good requesting a position report and indicating that their direction finder had malfunctioned.
At about the same time, the staff at Soluch heard the engines, and sent up flares, but the crew missed them. They continued to fly — for two more hours. At that point, running out of fuel, they put on their parachutes and bailed. They were not aware how far inland they had flown: the winds had been heavy all day, there was no moon (April 4, 1943 was a new moon), and with a protocol of radio silence (for fear of drawing the attention of enemy planes). What happened next was recorded in the diaries of two crew members and pieced together from the wreckage and the bodies found.
The first to die was the bombardier: his parachute didn't open properly and he died on hitting the ground (his body was found miles from where they landed). The others, however, didn't know that, and spent some time calling out for him in the darkness. When they couldn't find him, they discarded what they didn't need and set out to the northwest, hoping to come across him on the way. It was 2 a.m. but they had little water and no food; they needed to travel as far as they could before the desert sun rose.
They didn't realize that they were fully 400 miles from the base. Had they known, they could have reached food, water, and a working radio in the wreckage, just a few miles southeast.
They moved northward for 5 days, sharing one canteen of water. At that point five of them gave up: they had walked 78 miles and could see tall dunes ahead. Three had enough strength to continue and, hoping that the base would be just beyond the dunes, promised to send help. It was futile: the base was still hundreds of miles away, and within three days all the crew members were dead.
Sources: ladybegood.com, Wikipedia
April 3, 2008
The single greatest political influence of Jesse James' youth was the Civil War. He grew up in Missouri, where the population was split, one side secessionists who wanted to join the South, and one side with the North. James' family were slaveholders and staunchly for the Confederates; his older brother Frank even joined a guerrilla operation and took part in various atrocities on behalf of the Confederate side. The state was a microcosm of the war itself, with citizens fighting one another and ratting each other out to the gangs of thugs and armies who roamed the state.
By the end of the war James was thoroughly inured to violence of all kinds, and in fact himself joined a bushwhacker gang that harassed authorities who disagreed with Confederate politics. It is likely that his gang committed the first peacetime armed robbery in the United States. When the leader was killed, surviving members continued to rob banks and, in the course of these activities, James killed a cashier whom he mistook for a wartime enemy; that was the first time his name got into the papers. He came to the attention of a journalist named John Edwards, who had a political agenda that was served by publishing stories about James' daring feats, giving his image a Robin Hood spin by de-emphasizing violence, emphasizing robberies of large institutions or payrolls, and above all emphasizing their affiliation with the Confederates and hostility toward the North. Jesse and his brother Frank formed the James-Younger gang and roamed the southern states, robbing banks with prominent Union or Republican shareholders, getting good notices in the papers, and often being helped and shielded by South-sympathizers along the way.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to deal with them, and founder Allan Pinkerton took the case on personally. He staged a raid on the James family home; it turned into a fiasco when they threw a bomb into the house, killing James' younger half-brother and blowing off his mother's arm. When the story made the papers, the James-Younger gang gained even more popularity with the public, and Jesse James was confirmed as a sympathetic figure in the public imagination.
Eventually James became paranoid. Most of his old guerrilla comrades were dead; he didn't trust the new recruits. He was right. One recruit, Bob Ford, was secretly negotiating with the Missouri governor to bring James in.
On the morning of April 3, 1882, Ford, his brother, and James were getting ready for another robbery. They had just eaten breakfast. It was a hot day, and James removed his coat and guns. He noticed a picture on the wall was dusty, and stood on a chair to clean it. Bob Ford pulled out a gun and shot him in the back of the head.
When the Ford brothers went to the authorities to collect their reward, they were shocked to find themselves charged with murder. They were tried and sentenced to death by hanging, but immediately given a full pardon by the Missouri governor. They did manage to collect part of their reward, but had to leave Missouri due to their great unpopularity. Charley Ford committed suicide two years later, and Bob Ford was killed by a gun ten years later.
Meanwhile Jesse James was buried under a tombstone that reads, In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.
Frank James surrendered to the Governor of Missouri five months later. He placed his holster in the Governor's hands, saying, "I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil." He then ended his statement by saying, "Governor, I haven't let another man touch my gun since 1861."
Frank was tried for two robberies and murders, and acquitted on both counts. The evidence was overwhelming, but his character witnesses included a Confederate General and no Missouri jury was going to sentence him. He lived another 30 years, working as a salesman, security guard, and telegraph operator, among other jobs. He also did public appearances, even giving tours of the James family farm for 25 cents. He died in 1915 at the age of 72.
April 2, 2008
When Arthur, Prince of Wales, was born a month early, he still seemed a healthy child. He was named after the legendary King Arthur of Britain, and he himself was heir to the British throne.
When he was two years old he was contracted to marry the youngest daughter of the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World. As he was growing up, he was heaped with honours and tutored by the finest minds in the kingdom. He and his bride-to-be wrote formal letters to one another in Latin. In November 1501, when he had turned 15 years old, the two met at a Palace in Hampshire, and were married ten days later.
Their marriage was very short. Arthur and his new bride, living in Wales, became very ill and, just over four months after the wedding, Arthur died. It is thought that he may have had what they called "sweating sickness", which is now presumed to be a form of hantavirus, or he may have had consumption or diabetes. Suddenly his younger brother Henry, who was just nine years old and destined for a career in the Church, became heir to the throne.
Catherine, who recovered from the fever only to find herself a 16-year-old widow of uncertain status. Because their marriage had been so short and, according to her, unconsommated, the normal procedure would have been for her to return, with her dowry, to her parents, and find someone else to marry. But her father-in-law, a notorious miser, could not bring himself to part with the money. Instead he made vague promises about her marrying the new heir, but since he was only nine years old the whole thing would have to be put off until the young man was old enough to marry. For eight years Catherine was isolated, living on a tiny allowance, unable to pay her staff, and having no official status.
Everything turned up roses when the old king died in 1509. Young King Henry immediately announced his intention to go ahead with the marriage, and for 15 years the two enjoyed a famously loving and happy union. But then, we all know how that ended.
How different the history of England, Europe, and the world would be had Arthur not died so young.
April 1, 2008
Scott Joplin was an American composer and musician known as the "King of Ragtime". His mother cleaned houses so that he could practice on her clients' pianos while she cleaned. A German music teacher recognized his talent and gave him free lessons. He studied the classical forms in this way, but was a musical omnivore, forming bands and quartets, singing, and playing in concert bands.
Ragtime was the first truly American musican genre, and it originated with African Americans, who took traditional jigs, waltzes, and marches, and syncopated the rhythms. The genre became extremely popular in the late 19th century, with composers everywhere adopting or adapting its syncopated rhythms. Although it's associated with frivolous entertainment, and often performed in a fast, aggressive, and somewhat mechanical style, it is a mature classical genre and Joplin is its pre-eminent composer. I believe its full emotional potential is at least indicated by the award-winning score of The Sting, for which Marvin Hamlisch adapted Joplin's compositions. Ironically, the film is set in the 1930s, by which time ragtime was considered completely passé and probably rarely heard. Click here for a three-minute sample from the film score on YouTube; there are just still visuals so you can keep reading this while you listen (it will open in another window).
It's hard to imagine today the challenges of a black composer's professional and personal life at the turn of the previous century. He also had a full share of sorrow unrelated to colour, including the untimely death of his best-loved wife (he had several) just two months after their wedding. Worst of all for all of us, he had syphilis. His career started slowly — recognition came only in his 30s — and ended too soon, as the syphilis began to affect his neurology by his late 40s. During the 'teens he recorded several player-piano rolls, and two versions of "Maple Leaf Rag", one made in April 1916 and the other in June of the same year, clearly show the deterioration.
His symptoms included dementia, paralysis, and paranoia, and was hospitalized in mid-January. During periods of lucidity he would jot down lines of music. He died on April 1, 1917. His death was not widely noticed by the papers: there was a war on (the US entered the war a few days after his death) and ragtime was on its way "out" as a fashionable genre.
In additional to his many ragtime compositions, Joplin also composed two operas, only one of which survives. I'll leave you with a link to an aria from Treemonisha. This YouTube video is accompanied simply by still photographs from Louisiana, which really suit it, I think.
March 31, 2008
"Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless..." — Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, was working on the film set of The Crow when he died. Cast as the star, the scene called for him to enter his apartment to find a gang of baddies raping his girlfriend. One of the thugs was to shoot him.
Unknown to the crew, when the gun had been fired prior to the scene it had malfunctioned, and the cartridge had lodged in the barrel. Normally when firing a blank, nothing comes out of the barrel, but when the other actor fired at Lee the previous cartridge lodged in the barrel was propelled out with enough force to penetrate Lee's spine. He went down immediately and was rushed to hospital, but doctors were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead.
The Crow was finished with the encouragement of Lee's family, and was a huge hit with a loyal following. Had Lee lived, he would have been a very big star.
The quote at the top was recited by Lee in his last interview before his death; it is now on his tombstone.
March 30, 2008
Herod the Great, forever remembered for ordering the massacre of all male children in Bethlehem in order to avoid have to deal with a newborn "King of the Jews", probably didn't. In fact it probably didn't happen. It appears in the Gospel of Matthew and is believed by most modern scholars to be a product of creative mythmaking rather than actual fact.
Not that he wasn't cruel enough to do such a thing. Like most kings, he was looking out for number one and didn't get to where he was in life by being a nice guy. Where he was, was service as King of Judea, through the good offices of Rome, who needed somebody tame and local in there to keep good order. His father was a high-ranking official who was murdered in a power skirmish; Herod managed to get the backing of the Roman army to help him avenge the murder and, eventually, take the throne. Herod was officially a Jew, but most actual Jews didn't take him seriously as such.
He lived to what was a ripe old age for the day: 69. His suffering was intense; the historian Josephus, writing just a few decades later, reports:
His entrails were also ex-ulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, further, his privy-member was putrefied, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree.
The modern diagnosis is that he had chronic kidney disease as well as Fournier's gangrene, which is a type of necrotizing fasciitis that attacks the genitals.
He was buried in a tomb whose location was unknown until 2007, when an Israeli team of archaeologists discovered it (after 35 years of painstaking research) about 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem, on the side of the vast hill he had constructed for his palace.
March 29, 2008
Alkan was a French composer, teacher, and recluse. As a young man he played alongside such celebrated musicians as Liszt, Rubinstein, and Chopin. But in his 30s a couple of professional disappointments and his natural tendencies drew him out of the limelight, preferring to teach and compose in relative seclusion for the latter half of his life.
He also spent a lot of time studying the Bible and the Talmud, and himself translated both the Old and New Testament into French from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.
One story goes that in 1888 he was reaching to get a copy of the Talmud from a high shelf, and the bookcase fell on him, killing him. A catchy story (it caught me!) but untrue. A more believable and no less bizarre version, attested in a personal letter written by one of his students, was that he died when trapped beneath a falling coatrack. Those coats can get heavy, even in late March. Another myth that went around was that his obituary read, "Alkan is dead. He had to die in order to prove his existence." However this is also probably untrue.
If, like me, you've never heard of him before, here is a link to a YouTube of a virtuoso performing one of his compositions: proof that his relative obscurity is a function of his lack of personal promotion and the difficulty of his compositions. Nobody is going to try to play this piece for their Grade 8 exam!
March 28, 2008
Virginia Woolf was an English writer whose novels and essays had a lasting impact on English literary style. She was a member of the very influential Bloomsbury group, a collection of writers, artists, and thinkers who explored and promoted radical ideas about feminism, sexuality, and pacifism.
Woolf suffered her first nervous breakdown as a teenager after her mother and her sister both died within two years of one another. Her father's death when she was just over 20 had the same effect. She was also sexually abused as a child by her half-brother. Throughout her life, her temperament was delicate and she endured regular, debilitating periods of depression.
In March 1941 she was living in the country, trying to avoid having another nervous breakdown. Not that she had much of a choice: her home in London had been destroyed in bombing raids. Feeling another breakdown was inevitable, and not wanting to endure it, she wrote a suicide note to her husband Leonard, weighted her pockets with stones, and walked into a river near her home. Her body wasn't found for nearly three weeks.
"I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."
March 27, 2008
When her father died suddenly in 1477, Mary of Burgundy became the Duchess of a huge and immensely rich slice of Europe. She was his only child.
Louis of France was beside himself with desire to acquire her estates, in particular the free county of Burgundy, which was not subject to direct French rule. He attempted to negotiate a marriage between her and his son, Charles. She declined, but since he was preparing to use an army to back up his wooing, she turned to her Netherlands subjects for help. They in turn extracted from her certain political rights, which she granted.
She decided to marry the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, a young man with enough power and money to help her oppose the French king's designs. They had three children, one of whom died the year he was born. The other two were still infants and Mary only 25 when she met her own end: she was falconing with her husband; her horse tripped and landed on top of her, breaking her back. She died several days later.
March 26, 2008
Jim Thompson was an American businessman who was a military intelligence officer during WWII. After the war, he was stationed in Thailand for a year, and there he saw lots of opportunity for development in Thai business. He moved permanently to Bangkok and founded the Thai Silk Company. The company revitalized the home-weaving industry of Thailand, bringing thousands of unemployed Thais back out of poverty and making millionaires of his core worker-shareholders.
During Easter 1967, he went on holiday at a resort in Malaysia. On Sunday afternoon we went for a short walking, leaving his cigarettes behind. He never returned, and despite intense searching by tracking experts, no traces of him were ever found. The most likely explanation is that he was accidentally murdered in a robbery or fell into an animal trap, and was buried by the local indigenous people for fear of reprisal.
Sources: Wikipedia, Cameron Highlands
March 25, 2008
Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California. Even though he spent the last five years of his life in San Francisco, we do not know his name because it was taboo among his people to say one's own name, and nobody else who knew it was alive. Nobody in the world could speak his language, or even say his name.
Most of his people had been killed by settlers and cattlemen. He lived most of his life in hiding with the few remaining Yahi, but when they had all died, he approached a group of butchers at their corral in August 1911. He was kept in jail, not because he was a threat (he very obviously wasn't) but to protect him from curious townspeople, who wouldn't leave him alone. Later he was taken to work and live at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in San Francisco. He helped anthropologists learn about the way of life of his people, and about his language. The name he used, "Ishi", simply means "man" in Yahi.
Unlike the tragic Ota Benga, Ishi was able to find some contentment in his new life. This was probably because Ishi was still in the land where he had grown up. He was close friends with his his doctor, Saxton Pope, with whom he went bow-and-arrow hunting in the mountains of California using bows and arrows Ishi made. In 1916 Ishi caught tuberculosis and died, to the great grief of his friends and all who had met him.
His brain was removed, out of anthropological interest, and only recently (in 2000) was finally reunited with the rest of his cremated remains, re-interred together at an unnamed location.
There have been a couple of TV movies about Ishi and, more recently, a documentary, the trailer for which can be viewed here on YouTube. Here is a link to the website about the doc.
Sources: Ishifacts.com, Wikipedia, Jed Riffe Films
March 24, 2008
Alex Mitchell was a bricklayer from King's Lynn. On March 24, 1975, at the age of 50, he died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing while watching a sketch in the episode "Kung Fu Kapers" in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a psychopathic black pudding in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of "Hoots-Toot-ochaye." After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and expired from heart failure.
And guess what! You can watch the very episode that killed Alex Mitchell, right now! It has been uploaded onto YouTube in three parts. Part 2 is the segment that contains the fatal sketch, but if you're a true Goodies fan, you'll want to start with Part 1 and watch all three segments in sequence (Parts 2 and 3 will be linked in the "related videos" column when you watch Part 1). Warning: I take no responsibility whatever for the consequences, fatal or otherwise, of watching it.
Bonus video: The Funniest Joke in the World by Monty Python. Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin went on the make Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen die laughing when he watched them in A Fish Called Wanda.
March 23, 2008
Valentin Bondarenko was a Ukrainian cosmonaut. On March 23, 1961, in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of a training simulator, he removed some biosensors from his body and used a cotton ball moistened with alcohol to wash the sticky stuff off his skin. He tossed the cotton ball aside and it landed on an electric hot plate, where it caught fire. The fire ignited Bondarenko's suit.
Because of the pressure difference between the simulator and outside, it took several minutes for an attending doctor to get in and help him. He suffered third-degree burns over nearly the whole of his body: only the soles of his feet were relatively unharmed, as his flight boots had protected them. He died of shock eight hours after the accident.
Because of the Soviet media style of the time, news of his death was hushed up; however he had already appeared in group photographs and his disappearance from subsequent photos fueled speculation about cosmonauts dying in failed launches. The real story was not released publicly for 20 years.
March 22, 2008
Giovanni Battista di Lulli was the son of a miller in Florence with no education, but a natural musical talent and good looks. One of these attracted the attention of a French duke, who took him to France at the age of 14 to work for a powerful French princess. Here he frenchified his name and cultivated his musical ability under the princess's patronage — until, that is, she discovered an insulting poem he wrote about her. Then he was fired.
He surfaces again at 20, getting a job as a dancer for Louis XIV. He began composing ballet music and that, combined with his looks and wit, secured him royal favour and an appointment as the composer of instrumental music to the king. Thus was launched a great career as courtier-composer that put all his talents to good use. These included a voracious (bi)sexual appetite as well as the canny wits of a former Italian street kid, who understood perfectly the need to defend his own turf against other rival composers, dancers, and musicians. In other words, much of his considerable energy was expended ensuring that other artists never got an even break. That said, his musical abilities were certainly at least as considerable as his sexual and political talents, and his instrumental music, operas, and ballets are still performed and enjoyed today.
In early January, 1687, he was conducting a Te Deum, beating time on the floor with a long staff. He struck his toe. The wound abscessed and eventually turned gangrenous. He refused to have his toe amputated and, with the spread of the gangrene, he died on March 22.
This entry is dedicated to my cousin George Lloyd, a professional classical musician. Like many of his colleagues, he frequently entertains a not-so-secret desire that all conductors should suffer the same fate.
March 21, 2008
Homer and Langley Collyer were well-to-do New Yorkers who grew up in a fashionable brownstone in Harlem with their mother and father. They both had degrees, one in engineering and one in law, but preferred music and inventing, respectively. The family's relatively comfortable finances meant they didn't have to make any serious effort to make a living, and when their parents died in the 1920s they simply stayed on at the family home.
By this time, the neighbourhood had changed. With the explosive growth of the suburbs, Harlem had many vacant homes, which were rapidly filling up with Manhatten's African Americans displaced from other areas of the city. Although the neighbourhood had already been racially mixed, the sudden increase of blacks and decrease of whites left it almost entirely black by the 1920s. The Collyer brothers, now in their 40s, stayed where they were, simply cutting themselves off from the world.
Rumours of their wealth encouraged people to try to burgle the house, and the young people in the neighbourhood spread stories about the inhabitants and enjoyed throwing rocks at the windows. The brothers became more fearful and paranoid, boarding up their windows and creating complex booby traps to discourage intruders. They stopped paying their bills, and when their gas, water, and electricity were turned off they started warming the house with a small kerosene heater. One of the brothers, Langley, would walk about at night, fetching water from a fountain in the park nearby, and in the process dragging home any junk he found along the way.
By 1933 Homer had severe rheumatism, and went blind. Langley prescribed a diet of 100 oranges a week, plus black bread and peanut butter. He began saving newspapers, and when the brothers drew public attention in a kerfuffle over their mortgage, he told newspapers that he was saving the papers so that his brother could catch up on the news when he regained his sight.
The kerfuffle was this: they stopped paying the mortgage, but when the bank began eviction procedures they insulted and threatened the cleanup crew who was sent over. Police were called, but unable to enter the house. They tried to smash down the front door by were foiled by the mountain of junk piled on the other side. Suddenly Langley appeared and made out a check for $6,700, the balance of the mortgage, and ordered everyone off the premises.
On March 21, 1947, police received a tip that there was a dead body in the house. Eventually a team of seven men were able to gain access by slowly taking out the junk in the front hall, piece by piece, to make their way into the interior of the house: a wall of old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes, parts of a wine press, and more. The presence of a dead body was made clear by the smell, but where was it? One patrolman broke in through a second-floor window where he found more boxes and newspaper bundles, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, and old umbrellas tied together. After a two-hour crawl through the junk he found Homer Collyer dead, his head resting on his knees.
The medical examiner confirmed that it was Homer, but indications were he had not been dead more than ten hours. There was no sign of Langley, or rather there were too many signs to be able to figure out where Langley was.
They began searching the house, systematically removing the junk: books, guns and ammunition, an x-ray machine, a horse's jawbone, a piano, and always more newspapers. More than 19 tons of junk was removed from the ground floor alone; there were two other floors above. In the end, the total was more than 100 tons of rubbish.
Finally, on April 8, a workman came across Langley's dead body, just ten feet from where Homer had died. His body was partially decomposed and was being consumed by rats. He had been crawling through a tunnel of newspapers to bring food to Homer when one of his own booby traps had fallen down and crushed him. Homer, blind and paralyzed, died several days later of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest.
More items from the house, as posted on Wikipedia:
Items removed from the house included rope, baby carriages, a doll carriage, rakes, umbrellas, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer's hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a checkerboard, a child's chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands of books about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, a beaded lampshade, the chassis of the old Model T Langley had been tinkering with, one British and six American flags, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and, of course, countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks with a total of $3,007.18.
I trust you are appropriate inspired to commence spring cleaning.
March 20, 2008
During the late nineteenth century, the Congo was viewed by Europeans as the private property of King Léopold II of Belgium. He "managed" his property through a force of Belgian soldiers and white mercenaries, who in turn commanded an ethnically-mixed army. The official role of this army, known as the "Force Publique", was to defend the area from Arab slavers, but their real role was to ensure that rubber quotas were met. This meant managing and supplying a large force of slaves.
In the course of this, a detachment of the Force Publique raided and massacred the village of Ota Benga, a pygmy of the Batwa people living in the forest. His wife and two children were killed, but Benga was captured and sold to an American businessman Samuel Verner, along with eight others. Verner was working under contract from the St. Louis World's Fair, with the mandate to bring back pygmies for the exhibition.
Of course, slavery had been illegal in all US states for about 40 years, so theoretically Benga was free to do what he liked once he was there. After several months of travel in the US, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in New York to live, at the suggestion of the then-Director of the American Museum of Natural History. At the zoo, Benga was encouraged to hang his hammock in the Monkey House exhibit and to shoot arrows at the target. A sign on the exhibit read:
The African Pigmy, 'Ota Benga'. Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.
The zoo director and other scientifically-minded men saw the exhibit as a valuable demonstration of how man evolved from the apes. This incurred controversy, most notably drawing protests from African-Americans and clergymen, who pointed out that the exhibit was racist and anti-Christian in that it promoted Darwinism. From a New York Times article of September 1906:
The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African," said Rev. Dr. R. MacArthur of Calvary Baptist Church. "Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, he should be put in school for the development of such powers as God gave to him. It is too bad that there is not some society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people, and then we bring one here to brutalize him.
In response to the outcry, the zoo management allowed Benga to roam the zoo grounds as a sort of interactive exhibit. Zoo visitors, however, tended to administer verbal and physical prods to try to get Benga to "do something". His behaviour began to show signs of frustration.
By the end of September 1906 Benga came under the protection of Rev. James Gordon, and African-American pastor, who placed him in a "coloured" orphan asylum. Later he was relocated to Virginia, where his teeth, which had been filed to points in the Congo, were capped, and he dressed in American-style clothes. He learned about reading and writing from a tutor and attended classes at a Theological Seminary, however he seemed to find more happiness discarding his clothes and roaming the nearby woods with his bow and arrow. Later he quit school and got a job at a nearby tobacco factory. He was popular, telling stories to his fellow employees in exchange for sandwiches and root beer, and he could climb up the poles to get the dried tobacco leaves without a ladder. They called him "Bingo".
On March 20, 1916, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped the caps off his teeth, performed final tribal dance, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the coloured section of the cemetery.