Posts Tagged newspapers and journalism

The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork

4 February 2012

Mrs. Hamlin's Family History Wreath

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity. 

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties. As a good 19th century woman, the domestic harmony she fostered was an expression of herself; her self-portrait in sacrifice. 

As Helen Sheumaker describes in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, hairwork in its myriad forms had not only established itself as longstanding tradition by the latter half of the 19th century, but had become an active fashion. Husbands went to work wearing watch fobs fashioned of their wives hair. Locks from the dearly departed were mounted into rings and brooches. Ladies filled their autograph books with snippets from their friends. At a time of rising commercialism, sentimental hairwork became a way both to signal one’s sincerity and, paradoxically, to stay in style. 

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Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 

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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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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

1 July 2011

On July 4th, 1885 Pall Mall Gazette editor W.T. Stead issued a “frank warning” to his readers. Due to public inattention, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill—an item of legislation drafted to suppress child prostitution and raise the age of consent in the United Kingdom from thirteen to sixteen—was once again languishing in the House of Commons. This could not be allowed to stand. The Gazette would be taking swift, decisive action to open the eyes of the public to the enormity of the crisis at hand, but it was not going to be pretty. “We have no desire to inflict upon unwilling eyes the ghastly story of the criminal developments of modern vice,” he wrote, “Therefore we say quite frankly to-day that all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”

What followed was the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon; a shocking, four-part exposé of child sex trafficking that sent London spiraling into moral panic. In spite of boycotts, harassment and threats of prosecution for obscenity, the Northumberland Street offices of the Gazette were literally besieged by eager newsboys and hungry runners desperate to obtain valuable new copies of the controversial paper. Meanwhile, Stead openly dared the authorities to press charges against him, threatening to subpoena almost half the Legislature to prove his allegations if such a case were brought to trial. The fiery reformer would not be silenced.

The report of a “secret commission,” the Maiden Tribute derived its title from the tribute that conquered Athens is said to have paid to King Minos: seven maidens and seven youths who were made to wander the Labyrinth of Daedalus, where they would inevitably encounter the deadly Minotaur. Truly, it was a terrible price to pay, and yet modern London was willingly offering up multitudes of its own maidens to meet their doom in the maze of brotheldom. “The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable,” Stead wrote, “and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.”

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Psychopathy as a “New Malady”

25 June 2011

The first popular use of the term “psychopath” is commonly traced to to an 1885 article in the Pall Mall Gazette, which has not heretofore been easily available online. It turns out to be a short piece in the “occasional notes” section of the newspaper’s issue for January 21st, which reports a perverse case in which psychopathy had actually served as a winning criminal defense:

The acquittal, at St. Petersburg, of Mdlle. Semenova, accused of being implicated in the murder of the child Sarah Becker, has been the cause of a scene closely resembling that witnessed at Paris when Mdme. Clovis Hugues was restored to her admiring friends. The reason, however, for the acquittal of the Russian lady differs greatly from that which saved Mdme. Hugues. The evidence all through the trial was dead against Mdlle. Semenova, and it would have fared badly with her but for the declaration of an expert M. Balinsky, a Russian mad-doctor, who, pointing out to the jury the hysterical bearing of the culprit, persuaded them that she was suffering from “psychopathy,” and therefore morally irresponsible. For the benefit of those who are as yet ignorant of the meaning of psychopathy—a term which before long will be naturalized in our courts—we give M. Balinsky’s explanation of the new malady. “The psychopath,” he says, “is a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science. It is an individual whose every moral faculty appears to be of the normal equilibrium. He thinks logically, he distinguishes good and evil, and he acts according to reason. But of all moral notions he is entirely devoid….Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath, &c., &c.” The short and long of it sees to be that if egotism is fully developed in a human being he becomes “morally irresponsible”—a very convenient doctrine, to which, however, mankind will have to add as a corollary that whenever a fully developed psychopath is discovered he shall be immediately hanged.

In less than four years after the publication of this article, London would meet Jack the Ripper.

 

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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