Posts Tagged New York

The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

29 October 2011

Imagine that you wake up one morning, sit at your computer, and you are bombarded with links to a developing story from a major news outlet: Stephen Hawking, by making novel use of Cambridge University’s new quantum supercomputer to analyze data from SETI’s telescope array, has discerned that the universe is awash with signals from intelligent life. It reads like a regular science story, at first, but soon it is revealed that Hawking and his colleagues have tapped into an extra-terrestrial television transmission, and are even now watching, breathless, as the first, dream-like images of alien civilizations display themselves on the Q-computer’s tiny monitor.

You and your friends refresh your browsers compulsively, talking over each new description that emerges of strange alien races and the exotic landscapes they inhabit, as gleaned from upon the wacky sitcoms and low-budget reality shows that they are indiscriminately beaming into space. Then, questions are raised, skepticism emerges. You begin to have doubts. Eventually, you realize that you have been taken in by a clever hoax—you ought to have known better than to trust Fox News, after all—but despite the deception, you find that you cannot help but appreciate how, for one shining moment, people everywhere had set aside their petty rivalries and believed in marvels from above.

Such is how the people of New York City must have felt during the summer of 1835 when the New York Sun published a series of articles describing the startling lunar discoveries that had recently been made by the famous astronomer John Herschel from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Using cutting-edge “hydro-oxygen magnifiers,” Herschel had developed a powerful new telescope that could achieve an astounding magnification of 42,000x—enough to resolve objects on the lunar surface as small as 18 inches in diameter—and project the images onto the wall of his observatory. Purporting to be a reprint from a supplement to the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science penned by Herschel’s assistant, Dr. Andrew Grant, it contained just the right mixture popular science buzzwords and technical minutia to render itself plausible.

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Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

Click to Enlarge

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 Witches of New York

21 May 2011

In the 1850’s the humorist Mortimer Thomson, writing as Q. K. Philander Doesticks, set his sights on the fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and astrologers of New York City. Under the pretense of wanting their services, he visited a cross-section of his local oracles and documented his experiences in a series of newspaper articles that became the 1856 book The Witches of New York; a volume that is one part humor, one part skepticism, and one part anthropology.

Thomson was a colorful figure whose obituary credits him with having been expelled from Michigan University for “too much enterprise in securing subjects for the dissecting room.” His prose is highly comedic. In one chapter he impersonated a woman in order to obtain an interview at a ladies-only establishment; a “Crinolinic Stratagem,” as he put it, that afforded him the opportunity to glimpse an image of his future husband.

Much of the humor in The Witches of New York plays upon the contrast between expectations and reality. One by one, the mysterious oracles advertising themselves in local newspapers are revealed to be unassuming alcoholics and former prostitutes who recite vague, boilerplate fortunes, employ cheap parlor tricks and make poor attempts at cold reading. Here is typical example in which a well-established sorceress named Madame Prewster attempts to divine the name of Thomson’s true love:

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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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