Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Infernal Hole and the Unsettled Dead

The Cursed Project to Build America's First Subway System

The Boston commute has always been a nightmare, but by the later 19th century it had reached its high mark. The city was experiencing a massive population surge that pushed it's transportation infrastructure to the very limits of sustainability. Hundreds of new immigrants were arriving daily and settling in the already over-populated inner neighborhoods. Tremont Street, the main thoroughfare, was a near-constant gridlock of foot traffic, horse carts and electric streetcars. The surrounding maze of narrow, winding streets became impassable. And the various steam-powered train lines that carried suburban commuters into the city each day created a tangled web of crosstown and inner city routes that added to the chaos.1

The breaking point would be The Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the most severe snowstorms to ever hit the United States
.2 The massive storm wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast and completely paralyzed the city of Boston. Trains and street cars were immobilized by massive 50-foot snow drifts, telegraph lines went down, and hundreds of people were stranded for days without food, water or heat. Passengers trapped in the railroad cars burned the seats to stay warm. Others attempted to brave the freezing temperatures and 80mph wind gusts and tried walking home on foot but were quickly disoriented, or else stuck in the drifts. Some froze to death. In the aftermath of this catastrophe it became clear that the city needed to modernize its public transit.

The city responded by forming the Boston Transit Commission, which tasked a team of engineers to
design an inter-connected transit system that would include both elevated rail lines and an underground subway network.3 The Tremont Street Subway line would be the first phase of this network, and include three stations – Park Street, Boylston and Public Garden (now Arlington Street). When the construction was finally completed, it would be celebrated as an engineering first in the United States.

But there is a dark side to this project that seldom gets mentioned in the history books.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

He Who Walks Among Us On Cloven Hooves

The Goatman in Legend and Lore

Imagine this – a young couple drives out to some deserted road. It is a spot that people call “lover's lane”. They park the car and turn out the lights. Then suddenly, without any warning, a great hairy thing rushes out of the woods and begins beating on the windows and doors of the car. For a moment the couple are too surprised and terrified to do anything. Then the driver starts the car, and drives away as fast as he can. Over the roar of the motor the couple can hear the monster screaming in rage.”  – Daniel Cohen, Monsters You Never Heard Of

For generations, teenagers have been frightened by cautionary tales of the shadowy beings that haunt the secluded wooded areas on the outskirts of town. An intimate evening spent parked along an old country road could very well attract the unwelcomed company of restless ghosts, hook-handed madmen, or strange and unknown creatures. Or so the legends go.

Among the most timeless and terrifying of these abstinence-inducing creatures of the night is The Goatman – a large, hairy, hoofed and horned monster that has been ruining the romance all across North America since at least the 1950s, and throughout history going back to ancient times.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Throwing the Babies Out with the Bathwater

The Skeletal Remains of Ashkelon

Every so often an archaeological dig will turn up something mysterious that leaves scholars scratching their heads in wonder and amazement. And then there's excavations, like that of an ancient sewer in Ashkelon, that leave them downright horrified...

Ashkelon was a port city on what is now the shores of Israel's southern Mediterranean coast. The first known inhabitants were the Canaanites, who settled the area during the Bronze Age. Due to it's natural harbor and strategic position along trade routes it became one of the most important cities of the ancient world and, as a result, changed hands between various conquering forces over the years. It was eventually destroyed during the Crusades in 1191.

In 1988, archeologists from Harvard University were digging through one of the city's Roman-era sewers when they stumbled across hundreds of tiny bones. At first these were thought to be the bones of small animals. But upon closer inspection they turned out to be human. Human, infant bones. What they discovered was the remains of 97 babies, the largest infant mass grave ever unearthed.

The bodies had been discarded along with animal bones, pottery fragments, coins and scattered trash. There were no signs of funerary practices or associated items, contrasting sharply with the infant burial jars from the same period discovered a few hundred yards away. And when the remains were brought to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for further study it was determined that none of the babies had lived more than a week and all were healthy at the time of death (showing no signs of disease, deformities or illness). So why were they dumped here?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mors Medicina

Cannibalistic Healing Practices in the Civilized World

As British colonialist expansion brought traders, whalers and missionaries to the South Pacific, gruesome tales of cannibalism among the savage natives they encountered began to trickle back to a horrified public at home. 

To the civilized sensibilities of the British, the thought of 'godless men' consuming the flesh of their slain enemies was an abomination, the high mark of immorality. Captain James Cook – explorer, cartographer, and eventual main course at a Hawaiian warriors' banquet – wrote of the New Zealand Maori: “Few consider what a savage man [is] in his original state. […] This custom of eating their enemies slain in battle has undoubtedly been handed down to them from the earliest times. It is not an easy matter to break a nation of its ancient customs [that] let them be so inhuman and savage, especially if that nation is void of all religious principles.”1

The horror generated by these cannibalistic practices was used to justify the suppression or elimination of native populations on the basis of racial, cultural, and moral superiority over “primeval savagery”. The colonial project was not only about expanding whaling and trade routes, but also of civilizing a 'godless and savage' world.

The great irony in all this Eurocentric 'Age of Empire' arrogance is that a popular culture of cannibalism existed simultaneously among the British people, as it did in other civilized European countries at the time. They drank human blood, ate human flesh, made ointments from human fat, and manufactured drugs from powdered human skulls. Nearly every part of the human body was used to treat the ailments and afflictions of the day: hair, brain, heart, skin, liver, urine, menstrual blood, placenta, earwax, saliva, and feces.2

For hundreds of years, Europeans – rich and poor, educated and illiterate – routinely participated in acts of cannibalism. When acknowledged at all, corpse medicine is thought of as a few bizarre, but isolated, folk remedies relegated to the ancient and medieval periods. But in reality these cannibalistic healing practices were widely used, and the peak in their popularity coincided with the social and scientific revolutions of the Renaissance and the Early Modern Era... and in Britain they remained popular right up through the Victorian Age.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Haunted Trees of New England

New England is steeped in ghostly legends and folklore, with an unusually high number of haunted sites reported throughout the region: houses, bars or inns that played host to tragic events where tortured souls still reside; desolate roads or old cemeteries where lonely spirits walk the night; and whole areas where cursed villages were abandoned or great battles were fought, charged with the residual energy of the past. There are also haunted trees.

The belief in haunted trees goes back through history and across cultural boundaries. In the folk religion of the ancient Celts, trees were considered a link with the supernatural world. Tribal societies indigenous to the New England region, like the Abenaki and Wampanoag, had similar beliefs regarding tree-dwelling spirits and divinities. And the superstitious Puritans who settled here lived in constant fear of the dark forces that haunted the wooded areas just beyond their village walls...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rebellion of the Damned

Diabolical Witchcraft as Social Revolt in Early Modern France

The Age of Enlightenment had yet to begin and it would be well over a century until revolution touched off in France. Ruled by a traditionalist monarchy and a corrupt state church, the country was still very much stuck in the dark ages throughout the Early Modern period. The Catholic Church dominated nearly all areas of social, political and economic life, and nowhere was the iron grip of "divine authority" felt stronger than by the rural peasantry.

As the largest single property owner in France, the Church controlled nearly 40% of the country's wealth much of which accrued through a heavy taxation on the peasantry and the confiscation of lands. Upper Church officials mostly came from old nobility provincial and royal court families, and they maintained a lavish and decadent lifestyle (“by the will of God”) while the poorest segments of rural society struggled daily against debt, eviction, poverty, malnutrition and premature death.

In the face of such a bleak and unjust state of affairs, what’s a downtrodden peasant to do?