Creepy history, Criminals, Museums, Pop Culture

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

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Original publish date:  July 12, 2018

Recently I was fortunate enough to take a tour of an American treasure housed within the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore, Maryland. What, you ask? An American treasure in a medical examiner’s office? Yes dear reader, let me share with you a story about the coolest display you’re ever likely to find in any government office, anywhere. This is the story of the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” On the fourth floor, room 417 is marked “Pathology Exhibit” and it holds 18 dollhouses of death. These meticulous teaching dioramas, dating from the World War II era, are an engineering marvel in dollhouse miniature and easily the most charmingly macabre tableau I’ve ever seen.

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Frances Glessner Lee

These dioramas were created by Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962) over the course of 5 years between 1943 and 1948. Glessner Lee was a pioneer in the burgeoning field of forensic science and a trailblazer for women’s rights. She used a sizable inheritance to establish a department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School in 1936. She donated the first of the Nutshell Studies in 1946 for use in lectures on the subject of crime scene investigation. Glessner Lee named her studies nutshells because they were designed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” She instructed her students to study each scene methodically by “moving the eyes in a clockwise spiral” before drawing conclusions based on visual evidence. Crime-scene investigators had 90 minutes to study each diorama.
I was fortunate to have Bruce Goldfarb, Special Assistant for the Office of the Chief M.E., as my personal tour guide. Bruce, a former EMT, newspaper writer and accomplished author many times over, knows more about the Nutshell Studies than any one else in the Clipper City. “There are 18 dioramas in our collection and another is housed in a museum in Littleton, New Hampshire.” Bruce says, “Glessner Lee was an heiress to the International Harvester fortune and a dedicated model-maker. Each diorama cost as much to make as a full sized house.” Each model cost about US$3,000–4,500 to create which, when calculated for inflation, translates to $ 40,000 to $ 60,000 today.

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

Each exquisitely detailed miniature diorama (1 inch equals 1 foot or a 1:12 scale) depicts a different true crime scene and are so well done that they are still used for forensic training today. Bruce explains, “These are not famous crime scenes. They are local scenes chosen by Frances to tell a story using composites of actual court cases. They are designed to teach young investigators how to examine and preserve a crime scene properly.”
11-11-28 Nutshell StudiesHoused in impressive looking wood and glass locked cases, they are not unlike the ancient penny arcade mechanical machines recalled by every baby boomer’s childhood. Except these scenes are populated by dead bodies, gruesome instruments of death and startling realistic blood spatter patterns. The scenes take place in attics, barns, bedrooms, log cabins, bathrooms, garages, kitchens, parsonages, saloons, jails, porches and even a woodman’s shack. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine the cause of death, but look closer and conclusions are tested. There is more than meets the eye in the Nutshell Studies and any object could be a clue. Every element of the dioramas-angles of minuscule bullet holes, placements of window latches, discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses-challenges the powers of observation and deduction.
99percent_5Bruce says, “Look at the miniature sewing machine (about the size of your thumbnail) it’s threaded. There is graffiti on the jail cell walls. The newspapers (less than the size of a postage stamp) are real. Each one had to be printed on a tiny press, the newsprint is immeasurably small. The Life magazine cover is accurate to the week of the crime. The ant-sized cigarettes are hand rolled and burnt on the end. Amazing!” Bruce, who came to the M.E.’s office in 2012, says that although he’s been over every inch of each diorama, he is still making new discoveries.

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Bruce Goldfarb and Alan E. Hunter

Bruce credits a recent exhibition of the Nutshell Studies at the Smithsonian for reinvigorating interest in the displays among the public. The dioramas were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC from October 20, 2017 to January 28, 2018. When I asked if they would ever be put on public display again, Bruce answers quickly, “Never. That is the last time they will be available to the general public. This is a classroom, not a gallery. The studies won’t leave this room again.” He continues, “The Smithsonian people really helped in our preservation efforts. They had expertise far beyond our knowledge.” Bruce especially credits Smithsonian conservator Ariel O’Connor for her expertise, “Ariel is the only woman to have entered the Apollo 11 capsule and only the 6th person overall. She was lowered Tom Cruise / Mission Impossible style into the capsule to retrieve a bag left under the seat by Neil Armstrong.”

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Frances Glessner Lee’s diploma.

As informative as Mr. Goldfarb is on the dioramas, his eyes really light up when it comes to the artist. He explains “Lee was the first female police captain in the U.S. and is considered the mother of forensic science.” Lee’s original commission as captain hangs nearby on the wall. Bruce delights in telling the story of how a woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance the male-dominated field of police investigation and to establish herself as one of the founders of “legal medicine”, what we now call forensic science. “These studies are not puzzles waiting to be solved. They are designed to teach police officers to handle, observe and assess crime scenes. Frances wanted the investigator to get a sense of who these people were by deciphering the residual clues found in the surroundings.”
primary_298The Nutshell Studies made their debut at the homicide seminar in Boston in 1945. It was the first of it’s kind. Bruce says, “Frances’ intention was for Harvard University to do for crime scene investigation what they had done for their famous business school. When Frances died in 1962, support evaporated and by 1966, the department of legal medicine at Harvard was dissolved.” When asked how the displays made the trip from Harvard yard to Baltimore, Bruce states, “That’s a good question. When Harvard planned to throw them away, longtime medical examiner Russell S. Fisher brought them here in 1968. Fisher was a legend and a former student of Frances Glessner Lee. Fisher was one of the doctors called in to examine John F. Kennedy’s head wounds.”
Each study includes a descriptive crime scene report placard (written by Lee to accompany each case) containing a general outline of the crime, parties involved and date. But the solutions remain a secret. One such placard reads: “Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, were discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor.”

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

One model shows farmer Eben Wallace hanged in a hay-filled barn. One depicts a man shot to death in a log cabin, another shows a charred body in a burnt home, another, a body splattered face-down on the sidewalk outside a three-story apartment complex and still another reveals the decomposing body of “Mrs. Rose Fishman,” found in a pink bathroom in 1942. The scenes are accurate to the tiniest of details, including the appropriate lighting. “Frances was very ingenious in her lighting choices. There were no LED lighting options available. She used turn signal bulbs, Christmas tree lights, flashlight bulbs, anything she could find. Sometimes it came down to the color of the bulb or a particular paint color to achieve appropriate mood lighting.” says Bruce. “The blood pools and spatter are actually finger nail polish, which took us forever to figure out.”
While perusing these fascinating dioramas, it’s easy to forget where you are. Researchers who work in the $43 million Forensic Medical Center call the state-of-the-art facility the “Bat Cave.” It is the largest free-standing medical examiner’s office in the country and home to some 80 full-time employees, many of them pathologists, who analyze death in minute scientific detail, much like the Nutshell Studies themselves. Here, the state of Maryland learns the facts behind thousands of deaths each year.

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Bruce Goldfarb

I inform Bruce that the last time I was in Baltimore was on April 15, 2015 during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It was 3 days after the tragic death of Freddie Gray that sparked Civil Rights protests in the city and all across the country. My visit this time came just 3 days after the Capital Gazette newspaper shootings in Annapolis. Bruce pauses, shakes his head slightly and says, “Yes, we were very involved in the Freddie Gray incident and we’re working on the Capital Gazette shootings downstairs right now.”
In a typical summer, the M.E.’s office receives 13 to 18 bodies each day (more than 8,000 per year). It is the sole medical examiner’s office for the entire state. Homicide accounts for about 14 % of deaths, suicide for 12 % and accidents for 27 %. The first floor of the building serves as a garage that can be transformed into a mass casualty center. A large classroom on the fourth floor, with banks of desks and communication connections, can become an emergency command center during disasters. It’s like a hospital where patients are getting a physical exam, one day too late.

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Each investigator is given a penlight to examine the diorama closer.

Bruce says the Nutshell Studies are an integral part of the M.E.’s popular 5-day homicide seminar every April. The seminars are limited to 90 people and are routinely filled to capacity. He reveals that the courses are likely to be expanded this October. “The seminars are not pass or fail, they are designed as a team exercise. Each team member is paired up with strangers. They are conducted the same way that Frances did them back in 1945. Each graduate receives a ‘Harvard Associates in Police Sciences’ diploma and a class photo. Historically, police officers and journalists do well.” Bruce says with a wry smile.

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Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

However, the Nutshell Studies are not the only visual aids created by Frances on display in the M.E.’s office. The walls of the entryway to room 417 are lined with 48 incredibly realistic looking bullet wound patterns and the conference room has 3 life-size heads with bullet wounds, slashed throats and a reconstructed face. Cases contain cremated remains, shoes worn by people struck by lightning, exploded oxygen tanks and even a motorcycle helmet from a crash victim who died in an accident. But wait, there’s more.
Bruce asks, “Would you like to see the Scarpetta House?” Accompanied by official tech advisers Kris & Roger Branch and my photographer wife Rhonda, I answered “Absolutely” even though I had no idea what lay in store for us. Bruce explains that the Scarpetta house is an enclosed space decorated like a typical model home complete with a swing set and wooden deck “outside”, a furnished living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and laundry room “inside.” It was donated by novelist Patricia Cornwell and the facility is named after Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell’s medical examiner heroine. Her books, including 24 novels in the Scarpetta series and 2 non-fiction books on Jack the Ripper, have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

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The Scarpetta House.

It should come as no surprise that the Scarpetta house is incredibly accurate in every detail. Cigarettes on the kitchen table, cereal boxes on the counter, trash in the trashcans: it looks like someone just stepped out to get the mail. Bruce notes that a few years ago, the M.E.’s office used bloody mannequins to recreate death scene scenarios for investigators to solve, but now they use live volunteers to portray the dead.
“We have local makeup artists with ‘Special FX’ experience from TV and movies come in to apply the Moulage make-up. And they look very realistic. We’ve even had some celebrities come in to portray dead people. It’s like a bucket list thing with them.” Bruce continues, “Last year my brother came in and portrayed a suicide victim. His family asked him not to take the makeup off when he was finished so they could see it. I drove him home (in the passenger seat) with a gunshot wound (complete with dripping blood) to the right temple. I even pulled in to the 7-Eleven and parked. Nobody even raised an eyebrow. He warned me that if I got pulled over for speeding, he was gonna play dead and let me explain it.”
I must admit that by this time in our visit, the investigation bug had bitten our little group. The four of us were now spread out in the Scarpetta house in search of our own clues. And although the facility had been cleaned up after last Spring’s class departed, upon closer examination, blood spatter evidence remained in those hard to reach places found in normal household scenarios. For example, the space between the toilet & sink, the bathtub grout and that pesky space between the fridge and the cabinet. Rhonda notes that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom but the empty roll remained on the holder. “That is a crime in itself,” she states. While in the kitchen, Bruce pauses before saying, “Oh yeah, don’t open the fridge” before walking out of the room. Although tempted, we took his advice and left it alone without ever knowing exactly what was inside of it.

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Photo Courtesy Forensic Medical Center State of Maryland. 

Viewing the Nutshell Studies in this information age of virtual reality, it becomes easy to appreciate them as works of art and popular culture over and above their importance as forensic tools. Lee’s hyper-real dioramas are designed to re-train people to see. It becomes obvious that Frances Glessner Lee’s genius for story telling by using simple materials was both exacting and highly creative in her pursuit of detail-knitting tiny stocking by hand with straight pins, writing minuscule letters with a single-hair paintbrush, and crafting working locks for tiny windows and doors. Exacting details, easily overlooked.
What may be most overlooked in her dioramas is the subtle social commentary found within these complex cases. Her subversive velvet touch challenges the mores of femininity, questions domestic bliss and upends the traditional ideals for dollhouse miniature modeling, sewing, and other crafts considered to be “women’s work” back in the day. Often, her models focus on society’s “invisible victims” and feature victims (women, the poor, and people living on the fringes of society) whose cases might be overlooked or tainted with prejudice on the part of the investigator. She wanted trainees to recognize and overcome any unconscious biases and to treat each case equally, regardless of the status of the victim.
So much of today’s culture is digital, and the Nutshell Studies are three-dimensional. You can’t really understand it from a flat page; you have to see it to believe it. And if that isn’t enough, Bruce Goldfarb is in the final stages of a book about Frances Glessner Lee. “Why not? I know her as well as anyone and it’s a story is worth telling. ” Bruce says. I’m sure that Bruce’s book will sum it up quite nicely…in a nutshell.

 

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Alan E. Hunter and Bruce Goldberg.  Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

 

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Creepy history, Ghosts, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

The first Irvington Halloween Festival and the law.

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Original 1946 Irvington Halloween Festival Ticket.

Original publish date:  October 16 2011

Next week, once again, Irvington will celebrate “All Hallows Eve” better than anyplace else in the Hoosier state by hosting the 65th annual Halloween Festival. Trick-or-treating, window painting, house decorating, and a costume parade down the middle of Washington Street are all cherished traditions eagerly anticipated by the participants involved. But what about that first Halloween festival back in 1946? What was that like? And most importantly, were Irvingtonians breaking the law by hosting it?
Disney Trick or treatWe’ve all heard the stories, legends and rumors surrounding that now legendary first event. It was sponsored by the Walt Disney company featuring costumed characters with a Disney based theme. The Disney folks gave away potentially priceless hand painted film production cels right here on the streets of old Irvington town. Walt Disney himself was seen walking down Audubon with Mickey Mouse at his side. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction nowadays.
However, a good place to start would be the history books. What was going on in the world back in October of 1946? Mensa was founded in Great Britain and the United Nations held its first meeting on Long Island. World War II ended a year before, yet the Nuremberg War trials concluded with the execution of ten German war criminals just two weeks before the festival. Among the adolescent ghosts and goblins wandering the streets of Irvington 65 years ago was a spectral leftover from the second world war looming menacingly over the costumed treat seekers. The specter of Sugar rationing. Really? Sugar rationing on Halloween?
When the empire of Japan conquered the Philippine Islands in the early months of 1942 the United States lost a major source of it’s national sugar imports. Sugar shipments from Hawaii had already been curtailed by fifty percent when cargo vessels typically used for transporting sugar from the islands to the mainland were diverted for use by the military. Seemingly overnight, U.S. sugar supply fell by more than one-third. To ensure adequate supplies for manufacturers, the military, and civilians, sugar became the first food item to be rationed during the war. Manufacturers’ supplies were reduced to 80 percent of pre-war levels and that percentage was further reduced over time.
On April 27, 1942, Irvington families registered for ration books at the local elementary schools. One book was issued for each family member. To prove they were serious about wartime rationing, the US Government required that these books were to be surrendered upon death of the recipient. In a drastic move that harkens back to FDR’s closure of the banks and financial institutions during the Great Depression, the sale of sugar was halted for one week to prepare for the program. During that sugarless week, to discourage hoarding, each family was required to report how much sugar they had on hand and a corresponding number of stamps were removed from the ration book.
z WWII OPA Rationing BookletA week later on May 5, 1942, every United States citizen received their much anticipated “War Ration Book Number One”, good for a 56-week supply of sugar. Initially, each stamp was good for one pound of sugar and could be redeemed over a specified two-week period. Later on, as other items such as coffee and shoes were rationed, each stamp became good for two pounds of sugar over a four-week period. The ration book bore the recipient’s name and could only be used by household members. Stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer. If the book was lost, stolen, or destroyed, an application had to be submitted to the Ration Board for a new copy. If the ration book holder entered the hospital for greater than a 10-day stay, the ration book had to be brought along with them. Talk about your red tape!

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World War II War Sugar Ration Stamp.

Housewives learned to be creative, using saccharine, corn syrup, and even packets of Jell-O as sugar substitutes. Sugar beets became a staple of nearly every American dinner table. Women’s magazines featured recipes with reduced sugar or creative ingredient substitutes. “Victory Gardens” sprung up all over the cities and home canning was strongly encouraged during the war. However, canning requires sugar and to provide for this patriotic need, each person could apply for a one time only 25-pound allotment of lower grade canning sugar each year. Each local war ration board determined the quantity and season of availability based on the local harvest. A special canning sugar stamp was issued and included in the ration book. This special “spare canning sugar stamp 37” had to be attached to the government application. Problem was, that they looked exactly like the household sugar stamp and confusion reigned as many people mistakenly used the regular sugar stamp 37 in it’s place, invalidating it for normal household purchases. Did I mention the red tape?
z photo-1127-2013-conserve-sugar-posterTo make matters worse, just because you had a sugar stamp didn’t mean sugar was available for purchase. Shortages occurred often throughout the war, and in early 1945 sugar became nearly impossible to find in any quantity. As Europe was liberated from the grip of Nazi Germany, the United States took on the main responsibility for providing food to those war ravaged countries. On May 1, 1945, the sugar ration for American families was slashed to 15 pounds per year for household use and 15 pounds per year for canning – roughly eight ounces per week per household. Sugar supplies remained scarce and, just as sugar had the distinction of being the first product rationed at the start of the war, sugar was the last product to be rationed after the war. Sugar rationing continued until June of 1947, over six months after the first Irvington Halloween festival in October of 1946.
So, knowing this, can it be said that every sugary sweet handed out to euphoric trick-or-treaters in Irvington during that first festival was a violation of Federal law? Technically yes, but in reality, it might best be compared to ripping the tag off of your mattress today. Never fear, Irvington is not Australia and you are not descended from a colony of law breakers and felons. By the time of that first Irvington Halloween Festival, war time rationing was on the wane and most Americans were eager to celebrate after a long, hard fought war, too enraptured with the outcome, and their personal survival, to care much about wartime shortages. As evidence, one need look no further than the baby boomer generation, a direct bi-product of that euphoria.
z Halloween Festival (2)An argument can be made that it was events like the First Irvington Halloween Festival that kicked off the tradition of trick-or-treating as we know it today. Although the Halloween holiday was certainly well known in America before that first Irvington celebration, it was predominantly a holiday for adult costume parties and a chance to cut loose with friends playing party games while consuming hard cider. Early national attention to trick-or-treating in popular culture really began a year later in October of 1947. That’s when the custom of passing out the playful “candy bribes” began to appear in issues of children’s magazines like Jack and Jill and Children’s Activities, and in Halloween episodes of network radio programs like The Baby Snooks Show, The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Trick-or-treating was first depicted in a Peanuts comic strip in 1951, perhaps the image most identified with the children’s holiday in the hearts and minds of baby boomers today. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney debuted his Donald Duck movie “Trick or Treat”, and again when Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their popular television show. In 1953, less than a decade after that first festival in Irvington, the tradition of Halloween as a children’s holiday was fully accepted when UNICEF conducted it’s first national children’s charity fund raising campaign centered around trick-or-treaters.
z s-l640Most of this column’s readers are aware that part of my passion for history revolves around collecting, cataloging, displaying and observing antiques and collectibles. There exists in the collecting world a strong group of enthusiasts devoted to the pursuit and preservation of Halloween memorabilia of all types. Costumes, decorations, photographs, publications and postcards in particular. The origins of Halloween as we now know it might best be traced in the postcards issued to celebrate the tradition. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show costumed children, but do not depict trick-or-treating. It is believed that the pranks associated with early Halloween were perpetrated by unattended children left to their own devices while their parents caroused and partied without them. Some have characterized Halloween trick-or-treating as an adult invention to curtail vandalism previously associated with the holiday. Halloween was not widely accepted and many adults, as reported in newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger. Sometimes, even the children protested. As late as Halloween of 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg.” Times have certainly changed since that first Halloween festival 65 years ago.
z 58bdce96102ac.imageA 2005 study by the National Confectioners Association reported that 80 percent of American households gave out candy to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children, teenagers, and young adults planned to either venture out trick-or-treating or to participate in other Halloween associated activities. In 2008, Halloween candy, costumes and other related products accounted for $5.77 billion in revenue. An estimated $2 billion worth of candy will be passed out during this Halloween season and one study claims that “an average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting to about 9,000 calories and containing three pounds of sugar.” Yes, 65-years ago, Halloween looked quite different than it does today. Next week, doorbells all over Irvington will ring, doors will be opened and wide-eyed gaggles of eager children will unanimously cry out “Trick-or-Treat” from Oak Avenue to Pleasant Run Parkway.
z halloween festivalCostumed kids will be rewarded for their efforts with all sorts of tribute in the form of coins, nuts, popcorn balls, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys. As a casual observer born long after that first Irvington Halloween Festival and an active participant in the festivities that will begin next week, I’m glad that our Irvington forefathers skirted government regulations all those years ago. In fact, as a fan of all things Irvington, I’d go so far as to say that this community has played a big part in the Halloween holiday as we know it today. Because, grammar notwithstanding, nobody does Halloween like Irvington do.

 

Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part II

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Measuring “Better Babies” at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds 1930.

Original publish date:  August 3, 2012

Last week, we discussed the Eugenics movement in America. The idea that by monitoring, charting and “tweaking” a person’s family tree through systematic genetic engineering in the form of sterilization, society could create a perfect race of people. It should come as no surprise that the movement, most prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, coincides with the birth of the “Superhero” culture so ingrained in the hearts and minds of the baby boomer and succeeding generations. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, the Hulk, and Thing; all genetically enhanced human beings imparted with “Superhuman” powers. The debate continues today in the medical community with genetic testing, “test tube babies”, In Vitro fertilization and stem cell research. Regardless of how you feel about the subject, can you imagine going to the state fair to witness state sponsored “Natural Selection” in person?
The program was called the “Better Babies” program and crowds flocked to the State Fairgrounds to participate, both as spectators and participants. Indiana was one of the leaders in the National Eugenics movement whose goal was the “improvement of the human race.” In those days, supporters of eugenics considered their work humanitarian, today we consider their methods radical, drastic, and even cruel. During the 1920s, Indiana launched a multifaceted program of “child saving” and maternal education, including radio talks, mother’s classes, the screening of hygiene films, statistical reports, and consultation clinics.

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Central State Hospital in Indianapolis.

Indiana’s most relevant participating institution was Central State Hospital, now the Indiana Medical History Museum but others included the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, now Richmond State Hospital, the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville, Indiana Village for Epileptics in New Castle and the School for Feebleminded Youth in Fort Wayne. The Medical and Law Enforcement associated institutional names somehow helped soften the shock of the experimental program. After all, a Eugenics program in the Indianapolis Public School system, area YMCAs and local churches would elicit an entirely different response, wouldn’t it? However, the state was seeking a vehicle to introduce the idea of Eugenics to the masses in a positive public forum.

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Better Babies contestants-Indiana State Fair 1930.

In 1920, the first Better Babies Contest, sponsored by the state’s “Division of Infant and Child Hygiene”, was “born” at the Indiana State Fair. For the next dozen years, these contests were the centerpiece of the state’s “dynamic infant and maternal welfare program” that was really Eugenics in disguise. More than just another exhibit for fairgoers, these contests brought public health, “race betterment,” and animal breeding together for public consumption. For the next twelve years, Better Baby Contests became the most popular expression of public health and race betterment in rural America. Almost a century after that first contest, the Better Babies Contest continues to spark debate about the connection between hereditarian and medical conceptions of human improvement in respect to child breeding and rearing.

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Fair visitors watching the “Better Babies” at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1930.

By 1928, the Better Babies Contest had become so popular with Hoosiers visiting the fair that the State Fair board built the program a brand new building all it’s own. The “Better Babies” pavilion was built in the style of a bungalow house and originally housed information and exhibits about infant health literally designed to create “better babies.” As the Eugenics project fell out of favor during the Great Depression, the State Board of Health used the building for exhibits. In 1966, it was remodeled into an old-fashioned drug store and now operates as the Hook’s Drug Store museum. Visitors to the fair have no idea of the building’s dark history as they browse the exhibits it now contains and sip blissfully on root beer floats within it’s walls.

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Better Babies building at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds 1930.

An early morning Labor Day Week trip to the State Fair during the “Roaring Twenties” would reveal the original building’s dark charter. When the gates opened at 8 AM, dozens of anxious mothers balancing fidgety babies on their hips rushed forward to line up in front of the doors (often the lines circling around the building) in hopes of entering their children in the Better Babies Contest. Within the walls of this unassuming little building, babies from nearly every county in the state were then weighed, measured, and tested by physicians and psychologists affiliated with the State Board of Health’s Division of Infant and Child Hygiene.

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Better Babies building (now the Hook’s Drugstore Museum) at the  Indiana State Fairgrounds as it appears today.

The contest was one of the most spectacular and beloved events at the fair, drawing hundreds of young entrants and thousands of curious onlookers to the state fair. Visitors watched nurses demonstrate proper infant feeding techniques, collected free pamphlets such as the Indiana Mother’s Baby Book, or perused displays about nutrition and the virtues of sterilized and sparkling bathrooms and kitchens. While individual girls and boys, twins, and triplets competed for blue ribbons, cash prizes and trophy cups. Tired, anxious mothers tried to relax at the rest tent as they fretted about the imagined fate and placement of their children. The families non-contestant children could romp in the playground or nap peacefully in the nursery.

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Dr. Ada Schweitzer (center in black) at the Better Babies Contest Day-September 9, 1931.

The program was supervised by Dr. Ada E. Schweitzer, the newly appointed director of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene. Before the division was disbanded in 1933, Dr. Schweitzer counted 4 physicians, 4 nurses, and 5 assistants on her state funded payroll. To her credit, Dr. Schweitzer worked tirelessly to lower infant and maternal death rates and convince Hoosiers of the importance of scientific motherhood and child rearing. She lectured to hundreds of neighborhood and civic associations, authored countless articles and poems, assessed the physical condition of babies in all 92 counties; all while she diligently managed the state’s newest public health division. Dr. Schweitzer’s efforts proved fruitful as Indiana’s infant mortality dropped by one third, from 8.2% in 1920 to 5.7% in 1930. (Compared to the rate of 4.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births today)
The State Fair’s newest building was the pride and joy of Indiana health reformers who were collectively frightened by what they perceived to be an escalating menace of the feeble-minded. The Better Babies Program was created by Indiana Progressives who sought to control procreation and promote the birth of only the “best” and healthiest babies. For many Hoosiers, born and raised as farmers, breeding superior children was a natural extension of producing heartier crops and livestock.
z eugenics-exhibitIf the criteria were based solely on demography and topography, Indiana was the perfect test case for the larger National Eugenics movement. In 1920, the state’s population approached 3 million residents, 95% of whom were native-born and 97% of whom were White. The bulk of Indiana’s African American and immigrant communities lived in segregated communities within the cities of Indianapolis, Gary, and East Chicago. Unlike other more racially diverse, multilingual states such as New York, Illinois, and California, Indiana’ Eugenics project did not have to translate their message into foreign languages or tailor their “Americanization” campaigns to foreign speaking populations. Instead, the Hoosier project targeted poor and working-class Whites, especially impoverished farm dwellers living in undeveloped rural communities. (Keep in mind that most rural Hoosier farms and homes did not have indoor plumbing or electricity until the 1940s.)
Despite the rural setting, the 1920s were an important time in Indiana history. The steel and iron industries enjoyed success. Despite stiff competition from Henry Ford’s Model T, Indiana car makers Marmon, Duesenberg, and Studebaker continued to pump out high-end vehicles. It is no mere coincidence that the Indiana Eugenics project’s Better Babies Contest coincides directly with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in state and local politics. Klan members espoused 100-percent Americanism by seeking to rid the state of immigrants, Catholics, Jews and African-Americans. The Eugenics theory fit right into the charter of the KKK. The Indiana Klan embraced eugenics as a vehicle for destroying crime, pauperism, and bad behavior.
z eugenicsMarker1As a Hoosier, although others may argue otherwise, the connection between Eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan cannot be denied. Implicit to be sure, both organizations shared undeniable common goals, the first being the assurance of racial purity and the second being the improved survival of the Anglo-Saxon race. Luckily for us, the fall from favor of the Eugenics movement in our state and nation coincides with the fall of the KKK.
Every good eastside historian knows how Irvington facilitated the death of the Klan with the sacrifice of one of her own back in 1925. But the death of the Better Babies Contest and the Indiana Eugenics project was much less spectacular. As the Depression droned on throughout the 1930s, the good citizens of Indiana figured out that putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads was far more important than breeding perfect Aryan babies. When the newly elected Democratic Governor Paul McNutt took office in 1933, he fired Dr. Schweitzer and replaced her with a male director. He then wrested control of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene and turned it over to the Indiana University School of Medicine, who ironically use the amphitheatre in the Medical History Museum on the grounds of the old Central State Hospital as a teaching facility today. The program faded from the public eye and the State Fair Better Babies Contest was discontinued. Adolph Hitler cinched the deal by taking Eugenics to horrific new heights in the gas chambers of rural Germany. So next time you visit the fair and amble through the old Hook’s museum at the State Fairgrounds, take a good look around and try to imagine that building full of perfect little babies, Eugenics style.

 

Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Indiana Eugenics: Better Babies project. Part I

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Nurses examining :Better Babies” at the State Fair in 1931.

Original publish date:  July 27, 2012

Eugenics: The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding. Most Americans think of eugenics as something that happened a long time ago in Nazi Germany. What many are not aware of is that eugenics was a very real part of our countries past, and for awhile, Indiana was the national test study. In fact, ours was the very first state to pass a “sterilization statute,” which authorized surgical sterilization of citizens seen as a threat to the nation’s gene pool, whether they were deemed criminally insane, “feeble-minded,” afflicted with “pauperism,” or otherwise undesirable. Yikes! Enough to send shivers up your spine isn’t it?
z p2eugenics-copyThe sad truth is that 2,424 people were medically sterilized in Indiana institutions. There was near parity between males and females in that number: 1,167 males and 1,257 females were sterilized. 1,751 of these people were considered mentally deficient and 667 mentally ill. That figure does not reflect the number of sterilizations performed in the years before the law was passed. As many as 800 of those sterilizations were carried out in the Indiana State Reformatory by one man, Dr. Harry Sharp. It was Dr. Sharp who is credited with performing the very first vasectomy in the United States and the procedure has changed little since he created it in 1899.
The idea of Eugenics as the sterilization of prisoners somehow softens the practice to the ears of most people. After all, these guys weren’t in jail for singing too loud in the choir. However, consider that the public face of the Eugenics movement in Indiana was known as the “Better Babies” program and the stage set for the Hoosier experiment was none other than the Indiana State Fair.

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Eugenics Medical Certificate from the late-1920s.

The eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Sir Francis Galton, dating from the 1880s. Galton studied the upper classes of Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that their social positions were due to a superior genetic makeup. Early proponents of eugenics believed that, through selective breeding, the human species could direct its own evolution. Eugenicists tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples; supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation (race mixing) laws; and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral”. The American eugenics movement received extensive funding from various corporate foundations including the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, cereal magnate J.H. Kellogg , and the Harriman railroad fortune.
By the turn-of-the-century, Eugenics was quickly accepted by the U.S. academic community and by 1928 there were 376 separate university Eugenics study courses in many of the nation’s leading schools, enrolling over 20,000 students. By 1910, there was a large network of scientists and educators engaged in national eugenics projects while actively promoting eugenic legislation. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was “epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded” from marrying. The state of California led the way in the eugenics movement in America by performing an estimated 20,000 sterilizations, or one third of the 60,000 nationwide from 1909 up until the 1960s.

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

In 1906, the American Breeder’s Association became the first official eugenic body in the U.S. The “ABA”, as it was known, was formed specifically to “investigate and report on heredity in the human race, and emphasize the value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood.” Membership included Alexander Graham Bell, California pioneer Luther Burbank and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, a former Irvington resident and graduate of Butler College who would ascend to the Presidency of Indiana University (1884-1891) before moving on to become the first President of California’s Stanford University (1891-1913). When Jordan assumed his post at I.U., he became the nation’s youngest university President at age 34. The California connection cannot be understated for it was at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that Eugenics was formally introduced to the world.
better_baby contest KentuckyOver 19 million people attended this “West Coast World’s Fair Exposition” during 10 months from February 20 to December 4, 1915. The fair was devoted to extolling the virtues of a rapidly progressing nation, with particular emphasis devoted to new developments in science, agriculture, manufacturing and technology. The display generating the most interest among fairgoers was devoted to medical developments concerning health and disease, particularly theories on race betterment or, the promotion of eugenic studies. Expo promoters noted the interest of excited visitors and soon, Eugenics, billed as the advancement of civilization, became the main theme of the fair.
The “Immigration Restriction League” was the first American entity associated officially with eugenics. Founded in 1894 by three Harvard University graduates, the League sought to bar what it considered inferior races from entering America and diluting what it saw as the superior American racial stock (upper class Northerners of Anglo-Saxon heritage). They felt that social and sexual involvement with these less-evolved and less-civilized races would pose a biological threat to the American population. The League lobbied for a literacy test for immigrants, based on the belief that literacy rates were low among “inferior races”.

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

The League allied themselves with the American Breeder’s Association to gain influence and soon were using their money to find immigrants from specific ethnic groups and deport, confine, or forcibly sterilize them. In 1907 Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty U.S. states would soon follow their lead. Although the law was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921, some states continued to sterilize those deemed to be “imbeciles” for much of the 20th century. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case that the state of Virginia could sterilize those it thought unfit. The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. A 1927 Fortune magazine poll found that two thirds of respondents supported eugenic sterilization of “mental defectives”, 63% supported sterilization of criminals, and only 15% opposed both.
Although looking back on it, the notion of engineering a superior race seems misplaced when applied to the image most identified with the United States today, in the decades between the world wars America seemed to be obsessed with the idea. One of the most commonly suggested methods to get rid of “inferior” populations was euthanasia. A 1911 Carnegie Institute report mentioned euthanasia as one of its recommended “solutions” to the problem of cleansing society of unfit genetic attributes. The most commonly suggested method was to set up local gas chambers. Yes, gas chambers. However, calmer heads in the eugenics field realized that Americans were not ready for a large-scale euthanasia program, so many doctors found more subtle methods of implementing eugenic euthanasia inside the walls of state run medical institutions. For example, a mental institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk infected with tuberculosis (reasoning that genetically fit individuals would survive), resulting in 30-40% annual death rates. However, the most common form of medical assisted eugenicide was simple, lethal neglect.
Eugenics for the populace was introduced on a large scale when Mary deGormo, a former teacher, married ideas about health and intelligence standards with competitions at state fairs, in what she called “better baby” contests. She developed her first “Scientific Baby Contest” for the 1908 Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport. She billed these contests as a contribution to the “social efficiency” movement, which was advocating for the standardization of all aspects of American life as a means of increasing efficiency. deGarmo was assisted by the pediatrician Dr. Jacob Bodenheimer, who helped her develop grading sheets for contestants; combining physical measurements with standardized measurements of intelligence. Scoring was based on a deduction system (think golf scoring), in that every child started at 1000 points with points deducted for every physical measurement that fell below a designated average. The child with the least defections was awarded the most points, resulting in the most ideal, or perfect, baby. Ah, Lord of the Flies at the State Fair!

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Topeka, Kansas Eugenics Building Circa 1930. 

Soon, these “better babies” contests were expanded to include the entire family in “Fitter Family competitions” combining the ideas behind positive eugenics for babies with a determinist concept of biology to come up with fitter family competitions. There were several different categories that families were judged in: Size of the family, overall attractiveness, and health of the family, all of which helped to determine the likelihood of having healthy children. At the time, it was believed that certain behavioral qualities were inherited from your parents. This led to the addition of several judging categories including: generosity, self-sacrificing, and quality of familial bonds. Additionally, there were negative features that were judged: selfishness, jealousy, suspiciousness, high temperedness, and cruelty. Feeblemindedness, alcoholism, deformities and paralysis in the family tree were “Zonks” sure to result in low scores.
Doctors and specialists from the community would offer their time to judge these competitions, which were originally sponsored by the Red Cross. The winners of these competitions were given Bronze Medals and trophies. The perks of entering into the contests were that the competitions provided a way for families to get a free health check up by a doctor as well as some of the pride and prestige that came from winning the competitions.

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German Eugenics poster. Translation: “the right choice spouses”

After the eugenics movement was well established in the United States, it spread to Germany. By 1933, California had subjected more people to forceful sterilization than all other U.S. states combined. Some historians surmise that the forced sterilization program engineered by the Nazis was partly inspired by California’s. Of course, in the hands of a mad man like Adolph Hitler, the Eugenics program was easily twisted into persecution of religion, and ultimately, the attempted genocide of an entire people. Who would ever believe that Eugenics could take root in the Hoosier heartland, and worse, at the State Fair?

 

Next week: Part II-Better Babies at the Indiana State Fair.

Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Pop Culture

Raggedy Ann and the Anti-Vaxxers.

raggedy syringe

Original Publish date: August 16, 2015

The Tribeca Film Festival in New York City opens this weekend. Recently, news that Robert De Niro, co-founder of the festival, announced he was pulling an anti-vaxxer film came as a shocker to the medical and science community as much as it did for fans of the festival. The documentary, titled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Conspiracy, is directed by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who published a study in 1998 linking the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to autism.
De Niro, who himself has a child with autism, first zealously defended the choice of the film for the festival. The decision to pull the film has restarted the anti-vaxxer movement in a big way. What does anti-vaxxer mean, you ask? Strictly defined, an Anti-vaxxer is any person who is opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who does not wish to vaccinate their child. Some believe, myself included, that the anti-vaxxer argument started right here in Irvington. And what’s more, that the first symbol for the anti-vaxxer movement is a beloved little doll that is as American as apple-pie: Raggedy Ann.

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Johnny Gruelle.

Everyone is familiar with the cute little rag doll known as Raggedy Ann but most don’t know the real story about her creator or his inspiration. John Barton Gruelle was born on Christmas eve 1880 in Arcola, Illinois. A the age of two, he moved with his family to Indianapolis, where his painter father, Richard Gruelle, became associated with the Hoosier Group of painters, many of whom lived in Irvington. Undoubtedly, the elder Gruelle introduced his son Johnny to Irvington at an early age and he never forgot it.
Johnny married Myrtle J. Swann on March 23, 1901 and a little over a year later, 18-year-old Myrtle gave birth to a daughter, Marcella Delight Gruelle on August 18, 1902. Gruelle was working as an illustrator for the Indianapolis People newspaper and would soon leave to join the Indianapolis News. Around 1903, the couple had saved up enough money to buy a lot at 5630 Lowell Ave (early records show the address variously as “5606” and “5696”). The family would eventually build a 3-story home on the lot.
Johnny spent long hours at the drawing board, hurrying home each night to play with baby Marcella, whom he called Muggins. Popular legend claims that Raggedy Ann was born in suburban Indianapolis (Irvington perhaps?) when Marcella brought from her grandmother’s attic a long forgotten faceless rag doll upon which her father drew a face. The myth further states that Gruelle suggested that Marcella’s grandmother sew a shoe button for a missing eye. He then suggested naming the doll Raggedy Ann by combing the names of two James Whitcomb Riley poems, “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie”. The legend is further bolstered by the the knowledge that Poet Riley had been a close friend of the Gruelle family.

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The Original Raggedy Ann Doll from 1915.

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to Raggedy Ann is made all the more difficult because Gruelle was a prankster with a puckish sense of humor who was known for initiating many of these legends himself. What is known for sure is that Johnny Gruelle received US Patent D47789 for his Raggedy Ann doll on September 7, 1915. The character was introduced to the public in the 1918 book Raggedy Ann Stories based on tales that Gruelle drew from playtime episodes and stories shared with daughter Marcella. By this time, Gruelle had left Indianapolis for good and his beloved daughter Marcella was not there to share the stories she had inspired.
The year is 1915. America is marching towards World War I and smallpox is hot on its heels. Mass inoculation was the public response. It seemed that the easiest solution to the epidemic was to inoculate all public school children against the dreaded disease. Perhaps unbelievably nowadays, obtaining consent from the parents prior to inoculation was not necessary back then. Children were routinely inoculated at school, sometimes several times for the same disease without parents even knowing it.

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Marcella Gruelle and Raggedy Ann.

Marcella Gruelle was one of those young schoolchildren receiving a hypodermic smallpox inoculation at school. Almost immediately, she loses her appetite, becomes feverish and fatigued. Instead of notifying her parents, the school nurse administers another round of shots to little Miss Gruelle. Marcella’s health continues to decline and she quickly becomes bedridden. She loses her muscle control, “becoming listless and lifeless like a rag doll.”
Marcella dies a slow and painful death, every moment of which witnessed by her loving parents. After her death in November of 1915, seven leading physicians were called upon to opine about the cause of her death. Six of them determined that death was caused as the result of vaccine induced poisoning and call it malpractice. The seventh, being the head of the school board and a supporter of vaccination, declined to comment.
In spite of this, Marcella’s death certificate cited vascular heart disease of several years duration as the cause of death. The secondary (or contributory) cause was listed as oedema with a duration of about 90 days. Oedema is defined as a condition characterized by an excess of watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body. Nowhere on the certificate was a vaccination, or infected vaccination for that matter, listed as a cause of death. For the rest of their lives, Myrtle and Johnny Gruelle staunchly maintained that either a bad vaccination or a dirty needle had killed their daughter.

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Johnny Gruelle’s original Anti-Vaxxer letter and sketch from 1921.

Not long after his daughter’s death, the still grieving Gruelle was commissioned to create an illustration for an article in Physical Culture magazine titled “Vaccines Killed My Two Sisters.” The cartoon is a clever and effective work, reflective of Johnny’s style which is familiar to the readers of the magazine. Mr. Gruelle enclosed the following handwritten note along with his submitted illustration: “Feb. 28, 1921. Dear Mrs. Williams, Having recently lost our only daughter through Vaccination (in public school, without our consent) you may realize how terribly HUMOROUS the subject of vaccination appears to Mrs. Gruelle and myself. Of the seven physicians called in on the case, six pronounced it in emphatic terms MALPRACTICE. The seventh did not commit himself, being the head of the school board and a firm advocate of vaccination. Sincerely, Johnny Gruelle.”
The tragic vaccine-induced death of Marcella propelled Johnny to become a staunch member of the anti-vaccination movement of the time. Shortly after Marcella’s death, Johnny puts the finishing touches on a doll much different than the more popular, rigid, ceramic and composite dolls of the time. Rather than create a rigid doll that stands up straight with a healthy and happy glow, in a fitting tribute to his only daughter, he designs a soft cloth rag doll to represent her limp and dying body. Raggedy Ann is a stark contrast to the Era’s Kewpie doll’s erect posture and healthy demeanor.

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Modern day Raggedy Ann doll.

In 1920, Chicago department store giant, Marshall Field, markets the Raggedy Ann doll. It becomes an instant best seller and customers have no clue about the tragic inspiration behind it. To generations of consumers, Raggedy Ann is their colorful little friend with a candy heart. To the anti-vaxxers, Raggedy Ann symbolizes a century of childhood vaccine injuries and deaths.

Abe Lincoln, Creepy history, Pop Culture

Abraham Lincoln Parenting Skills. Part II.

ln0106_family_i52457_0946dfb2a7Original publish date:  June 10, 2013

Last week, I pondered the parenting skills of our sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln. Coming to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t want to sit next to Abe and Mary’s kids on an airplane. Witnesses, acquaintances and close friends often remarked, sometimes frankly, other times temperately, that the Lincoln boys were “active.” I ended part one with a great quote from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy about parenting: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
Like many a late stage baby-boomer, I realize that I have a fascination with historical celebrity nurtured by mass media that began at a young age. Part of that fascination revolves around the children of famous or noteworthy people, especially when it goes bad. I suppose there is comfort in knowing that rain also falls on the child of privilege as equally as it falls in our own lives. Regardless, there is a morbid fascination with parenting gone bad.
As a kid in Indianapolis, the Vietnam war was very real to me. I had neighbors, family members and school chums touched by the rigors brought on during that useless Southeast Asia debacle. Of course there were the outlandish rumors that passed through the school halls (Leave it to Beaver star Jerry Mathers dying in Vietnam prominent among them) but one rumor I can vividly recall was that Sean Flynn was missing. The son of famous swashbuckling actor and legendary playboy, Erroll Flynn, Sean was an actor turned freelance photojournalist who disappeared on April 16, 1970 while on assignment for Time magazine in Vietnam.
316310_506868396047614_471481590_nSean Leslie Flynn, born May 31, 1971, made some forgettable films during his short movie career including the regrettable remake of his father’s classic “Captain Blood” featuring the predictable title “Son of Captain Blood”. When he “retired” from acting, Flynn signed a contract with Time Magazine. In a search for exceptional images, he attached himself to Special Forces units and even irregulars operating in remote areas.
On April 6, 1970, while traveling by motorcycle in Cambodia, Flynn and Dana Stone (on assignment for Time magazine and CBS News respectively) were captured by communist guerrillas at a roadblock on Highway One. They were never seen again and their bodies have never been found. Although it is known that they were captured by Vietnamese Communist forces, it is believed that they died in the hands of rogue “hostile” forces. Citing various government sources, the current consensus is that he (or they) were held captive for over a year before they were killed by Khmer Rouge in June 1971.
Sean Flynn’s plight has often been sited as the inspiration for the “Russian Roulette” sequences in the 1978 film, “The Deer Hunter” with Christopher Walken winning an Oscar for portraying the character based on Flynn. Flynn’s mother, actress Lili Damita, spent an enormous amount of money searching for her son, with no success. In 1984 she had him declared legally dead. By this time, Sean’s dad, Erroll Flynn, had been dead for 25 years. Erroll Flynn’s life was the stuff of legend and his son’s mysterious disappearance brought the war home to young men all over the country in a way that olive clad casualty statistics just couldn’t convey.
One other disappearance that I wasn’t around to hear about firsthand, but do remember hearing about for years afterward, was the strange case of Michael Rockefeller. The youngest son of New York Governor, U.S. Vice-President & multi-time Republican Presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, Michael Clark Rockefeller, was a fourth generation member of the Rockefeller family who had only recently graduated from college. After attending The Buckley School in New York, Rockefeller graduated from Harvard University cum laude in 1960, served for six months as a private in the U.S. Army, then went on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of western New Guinea.
The expedition produced Dead Birds, a documentary film, 3,500 photographs, and many anthropological artifacts that are now part of the Michael C. Rockefeller collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Peabody Museum exhibits the pictures taken by Rockefeller during that first New Guinea expedition. After returning home with the Peabody expedition, Rockefeller returned to New Guinea to study the Asmat tribe and collect primitive art. “It’s the desire to do something adventurous,” he explained, “at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.” There was one tiny detail that Michael should have taken into consideration though. The Asmats were known headhunters.
untitled-9On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing were in a 40-foot dugout canoe about three miles from shore when their double pontoon boat was swamped and overturned into the Arafura Sea. Their two local guides swam for help and told the Anglos to stay put, for obvious reasons. After drifting for some time in the rolling waters off the coast of New Guinea, Rockefeller said to Wassing “I think I can make it”. Michael estimated that the catamaran boat was five miles from the shore. The current was against him, and he risked a confrontation with a shark or crocodile, but perhaps because he was a Rockefeller, the fabled family of industrialists, philanthropists and politicians, he decided to swim for it. Later it was determined that the capsized boat was closer to twelve miles off shore when Michael pushed off.
Wassing, a poor swimmer, had decided to stay with the overturned boat, and he tried to persuade the stubborn Rockefeller against his plan. Rockefeller “Jerry-rigged” a life preserver by lashing together two empty gas cans. He stripped down to his underwear and tied his eyeglasses to his head with twine. He took a few deep breaths before paddling toward the forbidding mangrove swamps that lined the southwest coast of the world’s second-largest island. Wassing watched the swimming figure slowly disappear into the watery horizon. The Dutchman was rescued just nine hours later.
Michael Rockefeller was never seen or heard from again. The news that the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co., was big news around the world. Upon hearing the news, Governor Rockefeller and Michael’s twin sister Mary rushed to New Guinea followed closely by a hoard of over 100 journalists. They searched frantically for 10 days at what the press called “the end of the earth, where Stone Age cultures had survived”. Finally, Nelson Rockefeller held a press conference to say that he had reached the conclusion that his son had died at sea before reaching shore.
In time, news of the disappearance of the youngest Rockefeller faded from the newspaper headlines and Michael joined the pantheon of missing persons that included Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and D.B. Cooper. As with each of the other lost luminaries, various theories about Michael Rockefeller’s fate have surfaced over the years. Did he die from exposure, exhaustion or drowning? Did he decide to go native and lose himself in the jungles of New Guinea? Was he eaten by a shark or a saltwater crocodile? Or, in the most sensational speculative twist, was he a pale human trophy for New Guinean headhunters?
Headhunting and cannibalism were still present in some areas of Asmat in 1961. The Asmats MOA included stripping their trophy heads to the bone, bleaching them in the sun, and covering the skulls with painted depictions of the battle at which the victim fell. The size and climate of the huge island, slightly larger than Texas, did not aid Michael’s rescue efforts. A tropical rain forest, it has relentless heat and humidity and swarming insects. The coast is lined with swamps that are nearly impossible to navigate, and the interior jungles are dark and largely impassable. The island, due north of Australia and known as Dutch New Guinea, got its name from a Spanish explorer who saw a resemblance between the natives there and those of the Guinea, West Africa.
To support the death by cannibalism theory, researchers note that several leaders of Otsjanep village, where Rockefeller likely would have arrived had he made it to shore, were killed by a Dutch patrol in 1958, and thus would have been seeking revenge against someone from the “white tribe.” Cannibalism and headhunting in Asmat culture was viewed as an eye-for-an-eye revenge cycle, and it is possible that Rockefeller found himself the unlucky victim of such a cycle started by the Dutch patrol. The Rockefeller family believes that Michael either drowned or was attacked by a shark or crocodile. Rockefeller’s body was never found. He was declared legally dead in 1964.
Regardless, the Michael Rockefeller and Sean Flynn sagas are just a couple examples of the many tragic aspects of parenting that all parents must consider at the end of the day. The internet is full of accounts of missing children and adults. The news of these tragedies often gets lost in the headlines of the day. The best that we can hope for is to never be visited by such an unanswerable parental dilemma in our lifetimes. But for most of us, stories like this are always in the back of our minds. Regardless of our level of parental aptitude.

Creepy history, Ghosts, Witches

Witch Marks.

w1Original publish date:  July 14, 2010

In the spirit of the approaching Halloween season, I’d like to share a story with you that combines many of the elements that peak my curiosity and fuel my passion for history and folklore. Recently, transplanted British antique dealer and collector Rick McMullen traveled back to his motherland in search of merchandise to sell in his shop or add to his home, which he describes as “virtually architecturally antique.”

Rick journeyed to an antique fair near Lincolnshire County in the Midlands of Great Britain where he found a curious large hand-carved oak panel. The 200 pound panel stood over 7 feet tall and was over 4 feet wide and was made in the “Carolean” style dating to sometime in the 1600’s. He had the panel shipped back to the states along with a Gothic-Victorian Era staircase and a 16th century oak timber frame with the intentions of incorporating all of them into his Virginia home.

However, it was that panel that made Rick’s mind race. What was it? What would he do with it? Where did it come from? When Rick’s wife saw the panel, she thought it might make a good headboard for a bed, but Rick quickly nixed that idea. Instead, the panel was set aside for future consideration while ongoing remodeling projects took precedence. There it would rest in peace until one fateful October evening when Rick was watching the history Channel and he saw something that seemed “hauntingly” familiar.

w2He was watching a documentary about witches and soon a segment flashed across the screen that told about the superstitious markings made by ancient people used to ward off witchcraft. The program talked about an English estate called “Kew Palace”, built in 1631. The owners were particularly superstitious, and believed that evil influences or witches could enter the house disguised as cats or frogs and cast spells on people while they slept. To ward this off, the original carpenters who made the roof carved special secret signs near windows, doors, fireplaces and other vulnerable places, to protect themselves from evil. ( Other ways of protecting a house included hiding old shoes, mummified cats and kittens under the floorboards, or ‘urine bottles’ filled with hair and nail-clippings in special, secret cavities.)

Rick immediately realized that he’d seen these very same markings before but couldn’t remember where. He searched his home and inventory looking for something that might jog his memory. He was about to give up when it came to him. It was the panel.

He turned the panel around and discovered about 40 hand carved figures and markings. These hand-cut marks varied in design and structure from interlaced V’s that more closely resemble fancy old English W’s to numerour carved daisy wheels. McMullen learned that these marks were called “ritual marks” or “apotropais”, a Greek word meaning “Intended to ward off evil” and were an important part of the folklore of Great Britain from the 15th to the 17th centuries. They were designed to keep witches, evil spirits and things that go bump in the night out of the home.

Among the Ancient Greeks the doorways and windows of buildings were felt to be particularly vulnerable to evil. On churches and castles, gargoyles or other grotesque faces and figures would be carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences. Those other openings, fireplaces or chimneys, may also have been carved. Rather than figural carvings, these seem to have been random simple geometric or letter carvings.

Contrary to what you may think, these ritual marks were not displayed prominently in the British Isles. It might make sense to put them over doors and above windows, but they were most often secreted away in hidden places to prevent a witch seeing and combating them. There is evidence of these “witches signs” appearing in churches, homes and other stone buildings all over the British Isles dating back to the late Medieval, Jacobean and Carolean Eras.

w3Rick has no idea where the panel originally came from but he suspects that the symbols were cut into the item by the resident family before being affixed as a softening decoration to an ancient stone wall. That way the marks would be unseen by the casual observer, presumed witch or evil spirit, but still provide protection for the family at the same time. Rick quickly discovered that there has been little formal study of these “witches signs” and historians have offered little support to his theories, choosing instead to dismiss them as silly superstitions.

Rick McMullen surmises that the two sets of deeply carved double V’s invoke the protection of holy Mary, “Virgin os Virgins” and mother of Jesus Christ. He believes that the carved daisy wheels, one of which is 18 inches in diameter, represent the “circle of life” with the petals overlapping each other to effectively become one.

McMullen admits that his theories are based on the scant available research and conjecture on the subject. “It’s quite bizarre,” he says. “But I believe it’s the only one in America…to my knowledge, these ritual marks predate Jamestown (1607, the first English settlement in the United States) and by the 17th century, it’s believed the marks were no longer used.”

However, the tradition can still be found in the often grotesque exaggerated faces carved into pumpkin jack-o-lanterns displayed each Halloween on porches and in windows of houses all over central Indiana. These cute childish symbols of Halloween were originally designed to avert evil and ward off the souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walking the earth at that time.  Today, carved pumpkins are considered to be a wholesome part of the Halloween season shared by children and their parents in kitchens all over the state. A far cry from the origin of the mysterious ancient cravings known as “witch marks.”