Posts Tagged biography

The True Story of the Lowood Institution

17 September 2011

Like most writers, the Brontë sisters drew upon their own life experiences in composing their novels and particularly, it is sad to say, in their more tragic elements thereof. The most striking example is the story of Jane Eyre’s experiences at the Lowood Institution, and the heart-breaking death of Helen Burns. 

“Lowood” was Cowan Bridge, a Clergy Daughters’ School that was attended by the Brontë sisters, where they were referred to as “charity children,” fed burnt porridge, and made to wash in freezing water. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst was inspired by William Carus Wilson, a Calvinist reverend and moral tyrant who operated the school. Something of his doctrines can be gleaned from a magazine he published, The Children’s Friend, which has been described as “part of a wholesale attempt to christianize fairy stories,” filled with tales of punishment, deathbed conversion and evangelism. 

The character of Helen Burns was based upon Charlotte’s older sister Maria Brontë, who, like her other sibling Elizabeth, was not fortunate enough to survive the “cold, implacable cruelty of Mr. Brocklehurst.” Something of their story is related in James Parton’s 1886 book Daughters of Genius:

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La Loïe Fuller – The Serpentine Dance

20 August 2011

This 1896 Lumière Brothers film captures a performance of Loïe Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance.” No, there was no LSD in the 1890’s, but yes, there were colorized films. In the technique used above, each frame was individually hand-tinted using stencils and colored dyes. It was a laborious, manual process, and it was first employed to recreate Loïe Fuller’s stage magic; acclaimed for its early use of chromatic theatrical lights that illuminated the dancer’s flowing white silk.
On a visit to Notre Dame, Fuller became enthralled by the kaleidoscopic light that shone through the cathedral’s stained glass windows. She lost herself in a bedazzled reverie, catching the colors upon a white handkerchief that she waved through the air…and was promptly taken for crazy and escorted out of the building. For Fuller, color possessed a natural harmony that could be honed into new art form, in the same way that sound had been transformed sound into music. “Colour,” she wrote, “so pervades everything that the whole universe is busy producing it, everywhere and in everything…The day will come when man will know how to employ them so delightfully that it will be hard to conceive how he could have lived so long in the darkness in which he dwells to-day.” 
To this end, she developed new compounds and techniques for stage lighting for which she held numerous patents. She was a member of the French Astronomical Society, and a friend to Marie Curie, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and countless other French artists, scientists and intellectuals. Some of the most well-respected members of the French creative class featured her in their work, and through her performances she became a prominent figure in the Art Nouveau movement. 

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Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

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The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?

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The Life and Madness of Edward H. Rulloff

7 May 2011
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The brain of Ithaca genius / murderer Edward Rulloff on display in the Uris Hall brain collection.

Edward H. Rulloff's Brain, on Display at Uris Hall, Cornell University

Visitors to Cornell University’s psychology department would be hard pressed to overlook the eight pickled brains, preserved in heavy glass jars, which are proudly showcased on the second floor of Uris Hall. A small sample of the 122 specimens in the university’s Wilder Brain Collection, each belongs to a notable scholar or learned individual whose think-meat was once deemed worthy of anatomical examination. One of these brains, however, is not like the others. If the brain of Edward H. Rulloff, a.k.a. Professor Leurio, were able to come alive, glowing and pulsating as it issued angry, murderous commands to you from inside your head, it would.

Rulloff was a criminal genius who left no question of how he should like to be remembered. One week prior his execution in May of 1871, he had this to say:

…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of the night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing away at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.

Rulloff was a murderer and a thief whose savant-like intelligence and erudition have invited comparison to Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. He committed robberies throughout his life in order to fund his grandiose research into the science of philology; an obsession that may have had unrecognized origins in a deep-seated sense of remorse.

Binghamton journalist E. H. Freeman was Rulloff’s jail-house confessor. His 1871 biography, The Veil of Secrecy Removed, recounts much of Rulloff’s story in his own words. It is the story of a long and ignominious criminal career that begins in Dryden, NY, where Rulloff established himself as a botanical physician, and married a seventeen year old pupil named Harriet Schutt.

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