Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

originally published September 22, 2014

“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans.

Bolton was a professor at U of C, extolling upon class after class the wonders of Sir Francis Drake’s journey, and describing the historical brass plate that was believed to have been planted when Drake’s party arrived at the west coast, somewhere north of Alta, California in 1579. Francis Petty, a member of Drake’s party, described the plate in a later retelling of the story, though it had never been uncovered. Bolton’s fellow “Clampers” (as they like to be called) knew that Bolton told all of his students to be on the lookout for the brass plate, and to contact him if they found it. To a group of pranksters, this is an easy invitation.

This is George Ezra Dane. Along with fellow Clamper Charles Wheat, Dane concocted the ultimate prank for Bolton. They enlisted George Barron, the curator of American History at the De Young Museum in San Francisco to design the plate and buy the brass. George Clark, a local appraiser and art critic, hammered the letters onto the plate. Using the historical account that Francis Petty had provided a few centuries earlier, the plate was made to look as authentic as possible. It had to look real in order to fool Bolton.

One last little gag was slipped onto the plate: the letters ECV (for E Clampus Vitus, of course) were painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. They dropped the plate in Marin in 1933, fairly close to the spot where it’s believed Drake had landed. It was soon located by chauffeur William Caldeira. Caldeira showed it to his employer (who was a member of the California Historical Society), and stashed it in the car to investigate later. A few weeks later Caldeira found it again, but not wanting to bother with the hassle he simply tossed it by the side of the road in San Rafael. There it remained lost.

For a while.

A shop clerk named Beryle Shinn found it three years later, and through a friend it found its way into Bolton’s possession. By now the conspirators had probably chalked up the prank to a failed endeavor, but for Bolton the fun was just beginning. It was the plate he’d been seeking for decades, the fulfillment of a lifetime of historical academia. He alerted Robert Gordon Sproul, the University’s president, as well as Allen Chickering, the president of the California Historical Society. They immediately made arrangements to purchase the plate for $2500.

Shinn was happy to sell, but he took the plate to “show his uncle” and disappeared for a few days. Chickering panicked, believing they were about to lose a huge find, so he upped the offer to $3500. The plate was purchased.

On April 6, 1937, Herbert Eugene Bolton announced to the California Historical Society that the plate had been found and authenticated by him. With Sproul’s and Chickering’s support, the University and the California Historical Society had just placed their reputations behind the authenticity of this totally bogus plate.

Sure, there were skeptics. Reginald B. Haselden, a specialist in Elizabethan literature, published a heap of criticism about the plate, including its wording and grammar. There was a way to counter each nitpick though, leaving a haze of confusion alongside the sole pillar of emphatic support: the “authentication” provided by Bolton and Chickering.

At this point, the practical jokers couldn’t step forward and confess – far beyond splattering some egg on Bolton’s face, the unveiling of the truth behind the plate would now seriously damage his career. They tried dropping a few hints. One fellow Clamper created a spoof of the plate. Another one published a small press book that actually picked apart every flaw in the plate, and even instructed the reader to check the back for some fluorescent paint.

Bolton didn’t budge. Instead he enlisted Professor Cohn Fink, head of the Division of Electrochemistry at Columbia University, to authenticate the plate. This would do it, thought the conspirators. This will end the prank.

Nope. Fink confirmed the plate’s authenticity. The plate became real, it found its way into textbooks, and copies of it were later given to Queen Elizabeth II in ceremonies when she visited America. The paint on the back was never found. For the records of history, the plate was fact.

Professor James D. Hart was the one who would finally unmask the truth. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen until the early 1970’s, some twenty years after Bolton had passed away, and about 40 years after the prank had been set into motion. He sent the plate for x-ray diffraction, stereo microscopy and metallurgical analysis at Oxford University, then for neutron activation analysis at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Tests showed the plate was too smooth, contained too much zinc and too few impurities to be Elizabethan English brass. At MIT they examined the edges and determined it had been cut by modern equipment. The jig was up.

After a decade of analyzing the timelines of the people involved, a group of historians announced in 2002 that they had conclusively traced the origins of the brass plate, and identified the pranksters involved (all of whom were long dead).

If nothing else, this story demonstrates how carefully we must pick over every detail of history – how we know it, why we know it, and who figured it out. Also, if ever the opportunity should arise for an amateur historian (such as myself) to be invited to join the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, one would be a fool to turn the offer down. They sound like a fun bunch of cats.

Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

originally published September 21, 2014

Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading.

These two factions weren’t fond of one another. When the white folks wandered on to the scene – and here it’s important to remember that most of Canada was founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a popular department store chain – they wanted to spread the joys of fur trading to all areas. The Blackfoot wanted none of this, and so Edmonton House became the HBC’s home base in the area. Calgary was founded as an RCMP post, and until the 1880’s it was barely a blip on the map. Then the train came rollin’ in.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was scheduled to swipe the first cross-country railroad through Edmonton, but at the last minute they opted to stick closer to the US border and run through Calgary instead. Immediately Calgary became the bigger city; English and Scottish immigrants poured in, and so did American ranching and farming influence. Edmonton might have drifted into relative irrelevancy were it not for the switch in federal leadership that would inadvertently come to define the political landscape of Alberta (which, it should be noted, still didn’t technically exist yet).

In 1896, Sir Wilfred Laurier bumped the Conservatives out of office, becoming the second Liberal Prime Minister in the nation’s short history. Under Laurier’s reign, two more cross-country railroads were built, both of which picked Edmonton as their primary stop in the area. At the same time, the Liberals altered the immigration laws, which meant that hordes of foreigners landed in Edmonton as their new home. The British folks who dominated Calgary’s populace tended to look down on this fact, seeing Edmonton as an example of the ‘mongrelization’ of the Dominion.

The immigrants tended to support the Liberals, while the stodgy white folks leaned more toward the Conservatives, a tilt that somewhat reflects the political leanings of both cities today. But under Laurier’s watch, another blow was struck against the city in the south.

Edmonton was the bigger city, and it also boasted a massive immigrant population who loved the Liberals. So when it came time to plant the Alberta flag in 1905, Laurier’s Liberal folks naturally picked our city as the capital. That’s okay – Calgary would be redeemed much like Saskatoon had been when Regina was chosen as the capital of Saskatchewan: one city gets the provincial pilot’s seat while the other gets the province’s official university. Right?

Wrong. The University of Alberta was placed in a city south of Edmonton, but it was the city of Strathcona who landed the honor, not Calgary. To give you an idea of the geography, Calgary is about 300 kilometers away. Strathcona was about 100 feet away, just across the North Saskatchewan River. The University was founded in 1908, and by 1912 Strathcona officially merged with Edmonton. Calgary was pissed. Sufficiently pissed to throw the entire province into the trash heap and start their own gig.

And that might have actually happened.

Arthur Sifton (a provincial Liberal) was elected as Alberta’s Premier in 1913, after a campaign filled with snippy political fighting and a case of unfathomable gerrymandering which gave Calgary minimal representation in government. This kicked off a campaign to demand that the federal government – which was now back in Calgary-friendly Conservative hands – to split the province in two and allow southern Alberta to become its own province, with Calgary at the helm.

The British North America Act was still woven into our national constitution at the time, and this Act would have allowed such a provincial split with federal approval, even if Edmonton and the northern contingent were against it. Then World War I happened, and everyone was focused on more important matters. After the war, the political tension softened, and the province turned its attention more toward its rural vs. urban split.

Also, Calgary had something else to focus on by then.

One thing newcomers to this province never need to ask is why Alberta is the most economically stable province in the country. Our economy is built on oil, and it has been for a century. Calgary lucked into the oil game in 1914, when deposits were found in Turner Valley, just 60 km away. The interwar period in Calgary was defined by economic prosperity (though the Great Depression put a bit of a dent in that), as corporate headquarters moved in and the city thrived. Oil was discovered in Leduc, just outside of Edmonton in 1947, but while we quickly climbed the ladder into the heavenly blimp of oil-based economic bliss, we never quite caught up to our rivals down south.

Nowadays, our provincial rivalry is based around sports. As a lifelong fan of the NFL, this rivalry doesn’t mean that much to me, though I have seen its furious teeth gnash at conversations with many of my friends and family. The Calgary Flames have beaten the Oilers 107 times to 98, but then they have never had quite the dynasty as we had in the 1980’s. Also, the Edmonton Eskimos have beaten the Calgary Stampeders 123 games to 93, so we have the edge on the football front.

But in the end, who cares? This province, which could have become the Nebraska of Canada, built on farming and agriculture, boasts two impressive cities with vibrant cultures, young, hip (and very liberal-leaning) mayors and the heart of our country’s negotiable income. Can we put away the antiquated swords and just all get along?

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

originally published September 20, 2014

I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans.

Milton started out as a draftsman and patent agent, serving the people of Springfield, Massachusetts during the recession of 1858. Not long afterward, he switched careers and opened up the first color lithography shop in town. With the impending presidential election of 1860 on the horizon, Milton was raking in a fortune selling lithographs of the forerunner, Abraham Lincoln. There was only one problem…

Honest Abe had grown a beard. Furious customers were returning the prints in droves, claiming them to be an obvious forgery. Hell, this Lincoln wasn’t even wearing that funky hat! Milton was distraught; he burned the remaining lithographs in his collection and took a huge financial loss – yet another kick to the groin in the Bradley legacy.

Before long, Milton had discovered a new project. A friend had given him a copy of a board game. We don’t know if it was Britain’s New Game of Human Life, Mansion of Bliss or Mansion of Happiness, but it was some sort of game in which one progressed through a pretend life, earning virtues for progress and avoiding the perils of on-board sins. These games were all similar, with the end goal being the ascension of one’s token into the promised land. Milton loved the concept, but he found the game to be too linear, and ultimately a bit too pushy with the morality lesson. So invented something better.

In Milton’s game, players use a teetotum (a six-sided spinning top – dice were seen as symbols of the evils of gambling back then) to move around, but there is an element of choice in almost every spin. There are potentially unavoidable bad-news squares (suicide is a grisly way for any board game to end), but if you steered yourself correctly, with a bit of luck you could be the first to acquire 100 points and win the game. Points are won through more modern (and American) means of success: wealth, getting elected to Congress, finding happiness, and so on.

Milton called it The Checkered Game of Life.

The ultimate goal (though it was possible to rack up 100 points without it) is to reach Happy Old Age at the top of the board. That’s it. Being good – or, landing on squares with positive virtues – brings rewards, which allowed Milton to pitch the game as a moral activity. But the optimum result had nothing to do with religious ascendance, giving the game more universal appeal. Milton took The Checkered Game of Life into a stationary store in New York in the winter of 1860 and pitched it. Within a year he had sold more than 40,000 copies.

Milton had found his calling. His company began releasing heaps of new games, even developing a way to package them, so that Union soldiers could use them to pass the time during the Civil War. Eventually, he drifted into other interests.

Milton had the opportunity to meet Edward Wiebe, the man who was trying to get educators to re-think how little kids were swept into the school system. Wiebe was a proponent of kindergarten, insisting that young ones might learn from play and creativity, instead of basic memorization and regurgitation. Milton, who had happily swum in the philosophical waters of pro-kindergartener Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, jumped on board. The Milton Bradley company began marketing books and materials for kindergarten, also beating out Crayola to become the first company to manufacture packages of standard-color crayons.

He was a busy guy. Somewhere along the way, Milton also found the time to invent this:

In addition to reinventing how humans cut paper, Milton Bradley was also the first American company to bring the game of croquet across the Atlantic and popularize it in the States. Toward the end of the century though, while The Checkered Game of Life, croquet sets and jigsaw puzzles were still bringing in the bucks, it was Milton’s educational supplies that were keeping the company afloat. When he died in 1911, he felt they were his greatest contribution to society.

The company lived on in his name, as we all know. After falling on some hard times in and around the Great Depression – at one point the company was manufacturing joints for aircraft landing gear for World War II planes – the new company operators revamped the product line. Like a phoenix they returned to their seat of glory in the game world with products like Candyland, Operation, Battleship, Stratego, Trouble and Twister. But it was the centennial re-design of Milton’s original game (now re-titled The Game of Life) by Reuben Klamer and Bill Markham that broke the bank.

While this new version of the game has earned a much longer tenure as the favorite child of the board game brood, there is something clearly lacking from Milton’s original, and that’s the aspect of choice. In truth, The Game of Life owes more to the linear journeys of The New Game of Human Life or Mansion of Bliss than to its predecessor, as once you have either gone through college or leapt into the workplace, your in-game future is left to chance.

Milton was a bit more of an optimist, I suppose. Either that or he felt his fellow humans possessed more control over their direction. Given how he steered his genetic ship toward a bright future when his ancestors had spent so many centuries suffering, I think there may be some merit in seeing things Milton’s way.

Day 993: Sexual Selection In Darwinian Theory, Or Why You Can’t Get Laid

originally published September 19, 2014

Herbert Spencer was the 19th century philosopher, scientist and all-around smart cookie who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” after having read Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. While some may argue each and every tenet of evolutionary theory (much to the exhaustion of everyone who actually knows a little something about science), we have come to realize that Spencer was only half-right in determining which genes get promoted into the next generation. It’s also a matter of Survival of the Sexiest.

Sexual selection extends beyond the boast-worthy ability to fend off predators, gather food and shoot zombies with a crossbow. Mate selection based on these factors certainly occurs, but the truth grabs many more hairs between its gnarled knuckles. So much of who we are plays into our subconscious exigency to be sexually selected.

So if you’re finding your Saturday nights have of late been more occupied by binge marathons of Murder, She Wrote than sweaty, carnal bodyslapping, perhaps you should turn to science to understand why. With a few tiny modifications to your being, you might just find yourself crotch-deep in sexual social butterflydom.

You need to word good. Humans – at least most humans – possess a far greater vocabulary than that which is needed for basic communication. It’s true – most of us know words like ‘dungarees’, ‘mellifluous’ and ‘woebegone’, but how often do we really need to use them? Evolutionary scientists suspect we throw down this excess of verbiage in an effort to show off our intelligence to potential mates. This has been tested; we tend to spew a more flowery and profound lexicon when we’re in a romantic mindset. Then again, some of us do it just to make a living.

You need to laugh more. Laughter is also sewn into the tapestry of sexual selection, and could also be seen as a sign of intelligence that your potential mate might find attractive. Laughing shows that you aren’t threatened by your surroundings (predators and natural dangers and such), so you’re having a chuckle. If you have any doubt as to the biological oomph behind one’s tendency to let loose with the ha-has, check out the story of the ‘Giggle Twins’ as told by researcher Robert Provine. These were two ladies who were separated at birth, both raised by somewhat dour parents, yet reunited 43 years later, both claiming to be the most laugh-happy people they knew. It’s all in the genes.

You need to be more creative. Creativity is an easy link to evolution. The proto-human who could outwit his or her rivals, snare the saber-toothed meat-beast, and concoct a device to keep the slobbering predators out of the cave was more likely to attract a mate. Some experts argue that the next rung on the human evolution stepladder is going to derive from our collective creativity, since we now work together as a society to design and build our new toys (no one human can build an iPhone from scratch). But it’s the colorful cogs of one’s internal machine that bumps our evolutionary groove into motion. Members of the opposite sex (or same sex, whichever you fancy) can pick up on that.

You need to be more artsy. Music, dance, acting, painting, sculpting, design, writing (especially writing, says the writer) are all droplets in the same stream whose source lies in intelligence and creativity. Those who display a proficiency in one or more of these disciplines has a better shot at winning the sexual jackpot and passing their genetic playbook to the next generation. This should be a given: start a band, get more sex.

Check your body hair situation. It should be no surprise that Charles Darwin, pictured above, favored the beard as an indicator of sexual selection. He felt that back in pre-wheel olden times, men had a greater selective power. He points to the evidence of women’s relative hairlessness; clearly men back then selected mates with as little hair as possible. That some men are considerably more hairless than women today is simply a runoff effect, as our cavemen’s hairy genes melded with those of cavewomen with less and less hair.

Somewhere in there lies Darwin’s assertion that a swarthy beard and plenty o’ man-hair makes a dude more worthy of being sexually selected. Go figure.

Look for a mate with a different size. Sure, picking a mate with the physical build to tear a predator (or prey) limb from limb is always an evolutionary checkmark. But it was also beneficial to seek a partner whose physical size is different from yours, whatever that may be. This enables a couple to fully exploit various food resources without competing with one another. Non-competitive foodstuff exploitation is always a great date idea.

Avoid having a long face. Apparently there is an evolutionary trend for men to have short upper faces. This might be because women want men who look masculine, but not aggressive. I’m not certain how this information will help anyone.

Show off your stuff. This is the most obvious. Full, rounded female breasts are a sign of fertility, despite the fact that they are filled with fatty tissue most of the time, and despite the fact that all other primate females are flat-chested when they aren’t in milk-giving mode. And yes, there is an argument that women crave humungo wangs for the benefit of swift sperm delivery. This is actually quite false; sperm competition favors large testicles and a small wand with which to deliver their contents, much like the equipment found on the male chimpanzee.

A large penis is actually more of a natural selection trait than one of sexual selection. A bigger dong means a greater ability to get all up in a woman’s bidness and displace any other male’s sperm from the premises. It is believed that human penis size has tended to evolve toward being larger, even in our post-cave, civilized existence, out of nothing more than female preference.

Then there’s the matter of the bone.

Try not to have an actual bone in your penis. Evolutionary biology is wild stuff. Other primates tend to possess a baculum, better known as a penis bone – even our next-door neighbors, the chimps, have ‘em. One thought as to why humans lost this bone is because of our mating habits; we tend to stick with our females in order to ensure the paternity of her children and the continuation of our genetic code, which allows for more frequent and shorter romps in the sack. Other primates don’t encounter members of the opposite sex as often, so the bone exists to ensure their “package” is delivered to its destination.

Richard Dawkins, who was a strong voice in evolutionary science before he became the poster-child for atheism, feels that we lost our schlong-bones in order to advertise our good health to potential mates. Since our ability to stiffen is based solely on blood-flow hydraulics, a limp noodle is a potential sign of poor health.

I should note that a 5-year-old boy received surgery in the early 1960’s for the removal of his baculum. He also possessed other physical abnormalities, like a cleft scrotum, the details of which I will not be researching because I just don’t want to know.

In the end, sexual selection is open to a deluge of interpretation and criticism. Some believe our evolutionary propensity for music and dance is merely an offshoot of our natural selection technique for scaring off predators, or that our creativity all stems from finding inventive ways to find and capture food. I’m siding with Darwin and Dawkins on this one. But let’s face it, if you’re really struggling to get some action, forget about evolutionary beacons and just make yourself a ton of money. And for the love of god, shower every once in a while. Natural pheromone musk is so last epoch.

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

originally published September 18, 2014

When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:

One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered.

In doing so, John did not recant his story. He explained that the man who was killed was a plantation overseer named Ruddy, who had been sent by Booth to retrieve some lost papers in that barn. Then there was the matter of the conspiracy.

Vice-President Andrew Johnson was behind it all, according to John St. Helen. It was an extensive plot that ran all the way to the top. Finis Bates later claimed he didn’t believe his friend, and when John moved to pursue a career in mining in Leadville, Colorado, he let the matter drop. Their friendship eroded through the natural course of time and distance.

This brings us to the late David E. George, who passed away via a self-inflicted dose of strychnine on January 13, 1903. George was a house painter in Enid, Oklahoma, with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and a colorful, theatrical personality. In 1900, George confessed to Jessie May Kuhn, the local reverend’s wife, that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. The utterance might have disappeared with David E. George into the earth, except for a  note that was found among his belongings, demanding that Finis L. Bates be summoned in case of his death.

Finis arrived in Oklahoma and confirmed that the body purportedly belonging to David E. George was in fact his old friend, John St. Helen. But with no relatives of either name to step forward and claim the body, it remained in the possession of Enid undertaker William Broadwell Penniman. Rather than bury him, Penniman embalmed the hell out of the body then tied it to a chair, opened its eyes and stuck a newspaper in its hand. Now Booth was a local tourist attraction.

George/St. Helen/Booth sat in his chair, creeping out the local and visiting populace for eight years. Had I been cruising through north-central Oklahoma back then, I don’t know which I would have gawked at more: the mummified corpse of a man who might have been Lincoln’s killer, or the Enid townsfolk who actually believed this was a good idea for a tourist attraction.

After the sensationalism balance had tilted heavily from “wow” to “skeevy”, the body was released to the custody of Finis L. Bates.

Finis had already written the War Department in an attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty that had been placed on Lincoln’s killer back in 1865. That didn’t work, so he did the next best thing: he sent Booth out on tour.

The Booth-mummy had made an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and once Finis Bates had taken possession of him, he began to tour the country on the circus side-show circuit. After World War I, Finis tried to encourage Henry Ford to purchase the mummy. Ford, who was in the midst of a libel lawsuit with the Chicago Daily Tribune, and who had been dodging all sorts of flak for having stated that “history is more or less bunk”, was intrigued. After all, corporeal evidence that the history books were completely wrong about the fate of John Wilkes Booth more than a half-century later would soundly back up his critique of history as a whole.

Ford enlisted Chicago journalist Fred L. Black to investigate Finis Bates’ claim to the mummy’s authenticity. In the end, Black advised Henry Ford to keep his $1000 and drop the notion of investing in this theory.

Meanwhile, the mummy soldiered on.

William Evans, the Carnival King of the Southwest, leased the mummy from Finis Bates and kept hauling in the money. After a circus train wreck near San Diego, the mummy was kidnapped; though for the $1000 reward, the kidnapper handed him back to Evans. In the interim, Finis Bates passed away, which enabled Evans to purchase the mummy outright from his widow.

This mummy was not welcome everywhere it went. A group of Union Army veterans threatened to lynch the body. Evans was frequently run out of towns by health officials or disgusted policemen. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair turned down the exhibit. When Evans died in 1933, the mummy’s timeline gets a little hazy. It was last spotted in a Midwestern carnival sometime in the late 1970’s.

The truth about the fate of John Wilkes Booth is that he probably took a bullet in the neck back in Richard Garrett’s tobacco farm in 1865. Booth’s body was identified by more than ten people who knew him, and the distinctive neck scar and “J.W.B.” tattoo on his left hand sealed it for the officials who performed the autopsy.

That said, there is a miniscule possibility that J.W.B. stands for James William Boyd, and that John St. Helen / David E. George actually was who he said he was. That’s where history gets fun… in the crazy, billowy haze of the maybe.

Day 991: The Subjective Science Of Getting Friendly With Your Water

originally published September 17, 2014

Good morning, water. You look lovely today. The way you have meticulously extracted the energizing essence of those crumbly brown nuggets of Sumatra in my coffee maker really brings out the glimmer in your droplets. Look, I’m a married man, but if I wasn’t, I would totally be gettin’ up in dat aqua, you feel me?

According to Dr. Masaru Emoto, I may have just created a more healthy and vibrant cup of coffee. Dr. Emoto is a revolutionary oracle of scientific knowledge, inasmuch as he has concocted his own definitions of the words “scientific” and “knowledge”. Dr. Emoto has “proven” (and it’s hard to find a source for his work that doesn’t nestle that word between the comforting pillows of quotation marks) that positive energy makes water better.

Not better-tasting, not more nutritious or refreshing… just better. Happier. More wholly fulfilled. Dr. Emoto unearthed that line where metaphysics and alternative medicine cross over into crazed Lynchian fiction, then leaped across it like a doped-up Olympian. He landed among the Technicolor bobbles of the absurd, cultivated his own particular brew of ludicrous reasoning and slapped a price tag on it.

And we bought in. Oh, how we bought in.

Masaru Emoto earned his doctorate at the Open University for Alternative Medicine in India, though I feel “earned” should be yet another resident of Quotes-Marks Manor, as I have unearthed a couple of sources which claim that such a degree can be bought for around $500. But Dr. Emoto’s doctorness is relatively moot, as he immediately set out to sail the vague ocean of alternative medicine, which contains far more fetid flotsam than it does navigable current.

His theories about water, which begin with the concept of water’s very structure being open to alteration by energy and bad vibes, and continue right through telling us that water “is a blueprint for a reality”, have not been embraced by the scientific community. They have, however, resulted in a series of best-selling books, which should serve as a reminder to all of us aspiring writers that the quality of one’s content sometimes takes a distant back seat to one’s adeptness at slinging bullshit. Perhaps you remember him from that infamously ridiculous pseudoscience flick, What The #$*! Do We Know?

Dr. Emoto deduced that by photographing the crystalline structure of water that has recently cooled to ice, we can best diagnose the water’s health. Water from a clear spring would produce symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing crystals. Water from a polluted source would result in jagged, unappealing crystal shapes. Well, no kidding – water with a bunch of crap in it is not going to look as pure and pretty as clean water. But Dr. Emoto plopped this notion on the airborne trolley to crazytown by screaming at one batch of water while praising and blessing another. He then claimed the difference was just as notable.

A few decades ago we were taught to talk to our houseplants in order to further their growth. There actually is a little sliver of truth there; our friends on Mythbusters performed an experiment to test it, and found that plants that were praised and plants that were scolded (using pre-recorded soundtracks) fared better than plants that were left in silence. So they weren’t picking up on intent, only the active presence of sound waves. But water? Water is all about the groove you’re laying down. In fact, the stuff can even read.

That’s right, the water crystals produced the same results, even in jars that were labeled with positive and negative messages. Dr. Emoto concocted another experiment involving rice: he poured water on three jars of rice, offering praise to one, insults to another and ignoring the third completely. After a month of this, the happy-rice fermented, giving off a joyous smell. The yelled-at rice turned black, while the neglected rice began to rot. Science!

Actually, a savvy representative of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry named Carrie Poppy replicated the experiment herself, even adding a fourth jar to which she did nothing but recite quotations from Minnesota Congresswoman and noted insane person Michelle Bachman. The yelled-at rice was the only one to acquire a small patch of mold, though Ms. Poppy admits this was likely due to the jar being open for longer. Presumably yelling at this rice was cathartic for her. The other three jars appeared mostly unchanged.

One of Dr. Emoto’s students is working on a ‘hado’ machine that will beautify the crystals of your water, thus sparing you from having to chat with your bottle of Evian on the subway. He also sells a variety of valuable world-improvers on his website under the ‘EM’ label – that’s ‘effective microorganisms’, which is his way of monetizing this supposed brilliance for the masses. You can get EM mouthwash ($12), EM tooth powder ($12 for 2 oz.), and stickers that will improve whatever you place them on, whether it’s your water jug, your wallet, or if you’re really creative (and suffering from erectile dysfunction), your crotch ($10 for 28 stickers!).

If you’ve shot back all of Dr. Emoto’s Kool-Aid (which is undoubtedly a very contented beverage), you can even drop $3000 to become both an instructor in his methods, as well as $3000 poorer.

Naturally, Dr. Emoto has faced a smidgen of criticism from the scientific community, at least when they could force it out between their laughter. But his resolve is strong – photographing water crystals is, as he puts it, a subjective science. He also believes that the water crystals will change their form based on who is doing the observing, and whether they have appreciation or anger in their heart. So you see? Those cynical scientists can’t replicate his findings, because they don’t believe! It’s subjective science! Which is totally not an oxymoron!

Fortunately for Dr. Emoto, there are enough naïve and malleable people out there to support his insanity so that he never has to worry about his next meal. He delivers his message in strategically-sound new-age rhetoric, linking his water crystals to the pillars of serenity, tranquility and well-being that the magic-hungry are always chasing. He claims that if we were to all collectively pray for the water in the Sea of Galilee, the water that would flow down the River of Jordan would bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Except for those militaristic bastards on both sides who only drink Coke.

Stepping back a moment to Carrie Poppy’s experiment, I feel it’s important to point out that her affiliation with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is important; one of the folks at the head table for this organization is none other than debunker extraordinaire James Randi. Dr. Emoto was cordially invited to replicate his experiments (any of them) in 2003, under conditions agreed upon by both parties, with the purpose of awarding Randi’s $1 million prize if Dr. Emoto could truly prove that his psychokinetic hypothesis can yield actual results.

So far, Dr. Emoto has not stepped forward.

And why should he? The man is 71, he’s probably earning enough residuals off his books, his speaking engagements and his tooth powder sales to keep him comfortable for the rest of his days. Just like a happy glass of complimented water.

Day 990: The Wonderful Wizard Of Political Allegory

originally published September 16, 2014

When digging one’s mental spoon into the lumpy broth of film studies, there are three things one must remember:

  • A disturbing number of gender-based analyses will reveal that most cinematic conflict is based upon the male fear of castration.
  • With a little imagination, you can build a political or social allegory out of almost anything.
  • No, seriously, it’s all about castration. Whether it’s Woody from Toy Story, Andy Dufresne or Han Solo, it’s all about castration.

Turning our attention to point #2, it should come as no surprise that a humongous heap of thread-pulling has been devoted to perhaps the most widely-revered and universally beloved of 20th century fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz. Everyone knows it, and the characters within are so bold and unprecedented, drawing a line from them to some aspect of modern society is a natural academic pursuit.

It helps that the heart of the movie can be found in a series of books, written by a man who was very much aware and engaged with the politics of his era. This adds a measure of validity to any political dissections of the literary world of Oz – though it should be restated that, like most conjecture and analysis, this is a wide portal of interpretation. This isn’t fact, but it’s a friendly maybe.

L. Frank Baum has gone on the record as describing his Oz books as modern fairy tales in the style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, only without the romance and heavy-handed moralism. He was also seen as a political activist in his day. So who’s to say L. Frank wasn’t looking to poke a few of his own ideas about 1890’s politics into the flesh of his story?

Certainly not New York-based teacher Henry Littlefield, who in 1964 put together an extensive theory that links the characters of the 1900 book and 1939 film to the goings-on in Baum’s time. Littlefield also incorporated into his analysis some elements of the 1901 Broadway musical based on Baum’s first Oz novel, as Baum himself had written it. Of course, the stage version contained direct references to people like Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller by name, so that was an easy connection.

There have been many academic attempts to pick the nits of Baum’s masterpiece, though some of the interpretations are quite universal. Dorothy, the hero to which we are clearly meant to relate, is the ‘everyman’. She is the young and naïve innocent who is led astray and must find her way home. The Wizard quite often takes the form of the scheming politician who deceives the public into believing he has wisdom and power.

Oh, I suppose before I incite the demonic wrath of the internet that I should mention this article may contain spoilers. But if you haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz by now, how are you even alive?

The cyclone in the story has a solid basis in political analogy; in the 1890s it was used – often in political cartoons – as a metaphor for the sort of political revolution or political upheaval that would change the country completely. The optimists depicted the after-effects as a land of color and prosperity.

In The Wizard of Oz, you’ve got a road of gold which leads to the Emerald City – the color of money. Or in the case of the story, money that only pretends to have value. In the 1890s there was a political movement called the Silverite movement, which aimed to have silver accepted as a monetary standard alongside gold. This becomes particularly eyebrow-raising when you recall that Dorothy’s magical ruby slippers were in fact silver slippers in the original novel.

The Wicked Witch of the East represents the calculating industrial complex (all headquartered in the eastern United States) that controls and manipulates the people (Munchkins). The Wicked Witch of the West might represent the American West, and by extension the flying monkeys could be seen as Native Americans – once a free people (as the King tells Dorothy) and now enslaved.

L. Frank Baum had made his opinion known about America’s native population in a pair of essays he’d written as a journalist back in 1890. In those pieces he promoted the outright genocidal annihilation of all Indian peoples. Most historians believe he was using satire to make his point. At least we hope so.

How about the Scarecrow as a representation of troubled American farmers? The Tin Man signifying the steel industry’s struggles to keep up with international competition? The Cowardly Lion representing either America’s military in the Spanish-American war or Populist presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan (who strongly supported the silver movement)? In the 1896 election, Bryan had triumphed in northern and southern states, while William McKinley won the presidency based on his uncontestable victory along the east and west coasts. Could this be the basis for the wicked witches claiming the lateral points of the compass while the good witch hails from the north?

As much as my eyes would strain from over-rolling throughout some of my film classes as people plucked their interpretive guesswork from some remote corners of a film’s frames and backed them up with essentially nothing, I can see the validity in these claims. If Baum truly took his inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, then why wouldn’t there be a message behind the story? Surely he couldn’t have intended everything to add up to the “home is downright awesome” message the MGM movie crams down our throat. Why wouldn’t each character represent something more grand and elaborate?

Some folks have crammed their shovels deep into their imaginations until the truly weird came spurting up. A theosophical approach suggests that Glinda, the supposed “good witch” simply used Dorothy as a patsy to overthrow both her rival witches of the east and west and the Wizard, leaving her as the supreme ruler of all of Oz. Think about it – she could have simply told Dorothy to use the damn slippers from the start, but why send away a naïve Kansas bumpkin who might be able to take down her rivals?

And so we are left with a series of books and a film (we’ll leave 1985’s Return To Oz and most definitely The Wiz out of it) that practically beg for insight and interpretation. Or, for most of us, they are works of child-friendly art that stand solidly upon good storytelling and quirky, fantastic characters to deliver some fun. It’s all a question of how deeply you want to dig for a good grade.

Day 989: The Medicinal Repast Of History’s Maddest Mad-Man

originally published September 15, 2014

There’s a tiny voice inside my head, that interminable squawk of the ever-shrinking crimson-lensed optimist, who wants to believe that Dr. Theodor Morell was doing his best to assassinate Adolph Hitler from the inside out. Morell was the Fuhrer’s personal physician, and as the world began to warp around the consequences of his patient’s actions, his freewheeling approach to the prescription pen increased. Was he doing his ill-informed best to keep Germany’s leader in good health? Or was he subversively hoping to kill him?

Okay, that’s an easy one; Dr. Morell was an incompetent putz who appeared to have forged his medical path through a garbled jungle of whim and outlandish guess-work. Had he truly been looking to snuff out Hitler’s flame he would have been just a bit more thorough in his boobery. Also, he would have likely been facing a swift execution by the other Third Reich brass.

The truth behind Hitler’s health is a curious stew of horrors and weirdness. The man deserves none of our pity of course, but in looking over what we have learned about his bizarre journey through Germany’s medical industry, I have to wonder if some of his unmitigated evil might have been a result of the strange goings-on within his innards.

In November 2008 a curious story wormed its way into the news cycle. The story can be traced through Polish priest and amateur historian Franciszek Pawlar, who claims to have once spoken with a man named Johan Jambor (pictured above). Jambor had been a medic for Germany during the first World War, and it was he who treated a wounded Adolf Hitler at the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916. Hitler had received a wound to the “groin” – a more specific account I’m afraid I can’t offer.

According to Blassius Hanczuch, an old friend of Johan Jambor who confirmed the story when it leaked in 2008, the medics referred to the future Fuhrer as Schreihals, or “Screamer”. As they were hauling him to safety, the group fell under French fire, and the wounded had to be abandoned as the others leapt for cover. Hitler shrieked threats of court martials if the medics didn’t return to pick him up at once.

I know – they should have just let the prick die. But how could they know? One thing was most certainly evident from this story however, and it was the savory morsel that sold the item to the press: Hitler did, in actual fact, only have one testicle.

The rumor of Hitler’s monoballism first appeared in the hit song, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” which Brits used to chant with a gleeful fervor throughout the grisly days of WWII. A 1970 Soviet Autopsy report appeared to back the rumor with evidence, though the veracity of such claims has been called into question; most of Hitler’s remains were ashes by the time the Allies got hold of his body, as per his final wishes. Whether this half-scrotectomy psychologically affected the man is certainly a ripe plum for juicy debate, but something or other eventually led Adolph into contact with Dr. Theodor Morell in 1936.

Morell had been a card-carrying Nazi since 1933, and had sufficient connections to land him at a party at the Berghof – Hitler’s mountain party pad – so he could meet the man. He assured Hitler he could “cure” him within a year, though what he promised to cure remains somewhat vague. It has been said by historians that Hitler suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, skin lesions, coronary sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and syphilis. So take your pick.

Dr. Morell began treating Hitler with his own special brew of vitamins and hydrolyzed E. coli bacteria, a little cocktail he called Mutaflor. I should point out that most E. coli bacteria is harmless; Hitler wasn’t receiving doses of the stuff that caused people to become seriously ill from eating at Jack-In-The-Box; this was a more benign type of critter. The Mutaflor successfully cured whatever had been ailing Hitler, which ensured Dr. Morell a permanent seat at the table of Reich insiders. He had made it inside.

Naturally when your country’s all-powerful dictator insists you’ve just got to see his guy for your medical needs, people are going to go. And Hitler recommended Morell to all his evil buddies. But most of them – in particular Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler – found Morell to be a quack. Albert Speer (Hitler’s chief architect) was recommended to Morell for a stomach ailment, which another doctor had told him was nothing more than work-related stress. Speer eased up on work and found it went away on its own. Still, he told Hitler that he’d gotten better because of Morell’s advice. You don’t want to piss off the big guy.

When Hitler would feel groggy, Morell would shoot him up with a mixture of water and something called Vitamulin, which he carried around in unmarked gold packets. A member of the SS tested the stuff and found that it contained a noteworthy amount of methamphetamine. Before long, the Fuhrer was addicted.

So here we have a one-balled meth-head, fuelled by fears of syphilis (which was, of course, a disease of the Jews, according to Hitler) and willing to listen to a quack physician who cared more about scooping up the deutschmarks than dispensing quality care. This man is leading a nation of economically depressed yet fully obedient, loyal, and nationalist fighters into a world war. It’s really no wonder the world was in such bat-shit condition; as much as Hitler may have been a strategist, an orator and a motivator of the desperate, he was also tweaked to the nuts on crank.

Sorry… to the nut.

As the clock was ticking toward Hitler’s eventual demise, his health began to worsen. Newsreel footage exists of tremors in his hand and a strained, shuffling walk that might suggest that Parkinson’s disease was throttling his system. But we should also note the generous diet of medications that Morell was feeding into Hitler, which included at least 28 pills per day, a stream of amphetamines for his energy, numerous injections (including several of glucose) and intravenous injections of methamphetamine. Hitler was likely getting as worn-down from the inside as his army was by the Allies’ continued advances in 1945.

Hitler dismissed Morell about a week before his suicide by gunshot on April 30, 1945. Morell left behind a supply of medications, but because Hitler’s final wishes involved the immolation of his and Eva Braun’s bodies after their deaths, a true and accurate autopsy was probably never done – in spite of the 1970 claims by the Soviet press. British historian Ian Kershaw insists that only Hitler’s lower jaw (which provided dental remains for identification) could be recovered.

So we’ll never know the truth about Hitler’s one testicle (apart from Johan Jambor’s account), and we’ll never know the extent to which the medications prescribed by Morell were ravaging his body and mind. Morell himself died of a stroke in 1948 before his side of the story could be fully explored.

Perhaps we should simply accept the moral of this story being that world leaders with large armies at their disposal should stay the hell away from meth. Or maybe we should simply find solace in the hope that Hitler spent most of his adult life in some level of suffering.

Day 988: That’s No Moon…

originally published September 14, 2014

With only a dozen days remaining of my self-imposed sentence in this asylum of perpetual prose, I am scootching toward the realization that there are some topics I will never get to. The hidden subtext within the dialogue of each Misfits of Science episode will remain unexplored, and I’m afraid the sacred ghost notes that elevate the percussive harrumph of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Toto’s “Rosanna” will fail to make the kilograph cut.

Instead I must devote these dog-yawn final days to loftier, more resonant subjects – yesterday’s investigation into Mozart’s poop jokes notwithstanding. And so I look to the moon – that luminous gob of celestial spittle, that pearlesque voyeur who knows all of our funkiest sins, the swiveling muse of the incurable drunkard. The moon pours elbow grease on our tides and provides an alibi when we need one for our meandering sanity. And before we had the cognitive wherewithal to stack our chips on science, the moon provided the palette for some of our strangest superstitions.

The moon puts on a nightly spectacle; what earth-bound broadcast can compare to the thrill of a clump of rock bigger than our entire continent dangling in the air over our heads? And even with Neil Armstrong’s size 9½ prints on her cheeks, she still retains an exotic air of mystery.

Before Georges Méliès stabbed it with a wayward rocket ship, the man in the moon had a starring role in olde-timey mythology. In the biblical Book of Numbers, one of the more cynical stories tells of a man who was sentenced by God to death by stoning for the heinous crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Early Christian lore suggested that the man in the moon was that very man. Another tradition claims the man is Abel’s blood-bro Cain, forever doomed to circle the Earth.

Though it’s not explicitly scribed in the Torah, there exists a Jewish tale that Mr. Moon is Jacob, the third patriarch of the Hebrew folk, who glares at us from the lunar surface. In the mythology of the Pacific Northwest indigenous Haida tribe, the man in the moon is in fact a boy who mocked the moon to get out of the chore of gathering sticks. The boy was subsequently banished up there, leaving us to wonder why so many lunar myths involve stick-gathering.

If you tickle the fringes of your imagination, you can actually discern a legitimate face in the bulbous full moon, its features chiseled by the geography of the lunar seas. These ‘seas’ are the lunar maria – wide basaltic plains made up of chilled lava from ancient volcanic eruptions, but to the untrained eyes of old they looked like gigantic bodies of moon-water, which subsequently looked like face parts. The Sea of Showers (Mare Imbrium) and Sea of Serenity (Mare Serenitatis) make up the eyes, the Bay of Billows (Sinus Aestuum) is the nose, while the Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium) and the Sea That Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum) create the mouth.

As you can no doubt deduce from the above photograph, plucking these lunar features into a facial context fails to deliver a thunderous boom of eureka. The moon-man’s face is as vague and unimpressive as anyone’s interpretations of cloud clusters or toast-borne Jesus faces. But it’s precisely this wispy bag of squint-induced reasoning that earned the moon the title of God of Drunkards throughout the English Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Then there’s the Moon Rabbit. If we’re locking our gaze upon the charcoal craters and chalky pockmarks of the moon’s surface, we’ve got to pay some attention to the Moon Rabbit.

Pareidolia is the catch-all word for the phenomenon of deducing shapes and patterns that aren’t there, whether you’re looking at inkblots, wall stains or the lunar surface. In East Asian folklore, as well as in Aztec mythology, pareidolia has invited forth the perception of a lunar rabbit. In Japan and Korea, the moon-bunny is pounding the ingredients to a rice cake, using a mortar and pestle. The Chinese believed the rabbit to be formulating the elixir of life.

Mexican legend explains the space-bunny as a result of the god Quetzalcoatl, who was wandering about all hungry and tired when a kindly rabbit offered itself as a meal to keep the god rolling onward. Quetzalcoatl was so grateful, he raised the rabbit to the moon then lowered it back to earth, leaving the rabbit image for all to see. Then, presumably, he ate the thing, because dammit, a dude’s gotta eat.

Of course we all know the moon’s surface is just a series of rock formations and crater footprints. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The moon, as I’m sure you are aware, is not hollow. Actually, I’m not sure you are aware of this. The concept of a hollow moon is not based upon an antiquated adherence to some obvious piece of campfire folklore, but an actual belief that some people still cling to. The moon’s density is a paltry 3.34 g/cm3, compared to the robust 5.5 of Earth. Also, some of those craters are too shallow to make sense – the wide ones should be considerably deeper. Or so say the true believers.

It may make for a great prelude to a sci-fi spectacular, but the truth is that the moon is most definitely not hollow. We have taken seismic readings of the thing, and we know with a fair amount of scientific chest-thumpery that the moon is a thin crust, a big-ass mantle, with a tiny molten core keeping it toasty on the inside. It’s highly unlikely that any mass of space-rock would develop naturally hollow innards, like some cheap drug store chocolate Easter bunny. Unless…

Two members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences demonstrated just how far behind the USSR really fell in the Space Race by 1970. Michael Vasin and Alexander Shcherbakov legitimately proposed that a race of hyper-advanced aliens concocted this planetoid device, then plopped it into an orbit around our little planet. They also point to the relatively shallow craters, insisting it could be a strong hull preventing them from being any deeper. They estimate the hull to be about 20 miles thick, with a hollowed out living quarters inside.

Of all the crappy assignments in the universe, I think a post on the Lunar Observ-o-Station would be the most mundane for these poor aliens, at least until humans started planting our boot-heels upon its surface. The Soviet authors have also brought forward the ‘evidence’ that the moon’s surface is composed of different chemicals than Earth’s, and that some of the moon rocks are older than the oldest rocks on our planet.

It’s a funny little theory, but once again we are pricking the goofiness with the big ol’ pin of science. In addition to the seismic evidence, we have proven the moon is solid through moment of inertia parameters (way too sciencey for me to figure out right now) and by studying the moon’s gravitational field. There are no little green dudes and dudettes hiding inside our little celestial companion.

That’s okay – it’s fun to speculate about the moon. “If you want to write a song about the moon,” Paul Simon once told us, “you want to write a spiritual tune.” Why not? If there is magic in the universe, why not believe its inertia can be kicked into motion by the humble glory of the moon?

Day 987: Wolfgang Mozart’s Love Of Poop

originally published September 13, 2014

The deeper I claw through the muck-pit of history, the more perverse and bizarre clumps of trivia get crammed beneath my fingernails. And just when I think I’ve scraped the scabby floorboards of curiosity, I stumble across the intensive breadth of study that academics have placed on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s apparent obsession with poop.

I’m not judging, mind you; it’s not like Mozart was passing off his digested lunch as foie gras at cocktail parties, and he certainly never pooped in a janitor’s mop bucket or anything – he simply had a penchant for scatological humor, that’s all. And don’t we all? Isn’t there an inherent absurdity in the most gastronomically magnificent entrée becoming the same wretched stink-pile you would have made had you snarfed a box of Pop Tarts? Just as a well-timed emission of flatulence can crumble even the most stoic of facades, every soul on the planet can share in a clever poop joke.

Not according to some historians and psychologists though; it’s not acceptable to assume that Mozart simply hit a few grounders for his fellow aficionados of the low-brow. No, a man who has crafted some of the greatest melodies in the history of sound must also possess a ribald wit and sophisticated gauge of appropriate merriment, right?

Guess again.

What some have interpreted as a slight defecatory obsession on Mozart’s part has been the subject of much debate and even some concealment by historians and scholars. In 1798, when a batch of his letters were posthumously sent to publishers Breitkopf & Härtel for a biography they were compiling, his wife Constanze expressed in her accompanying letter that while Mozart’s letters to his cousin were chock full of wit and wackiness, perhaps they should be somewhat downplayed in the finished book. You know – focus more on the music and less on the turd-gags.

The gags, such as they were, wafted into numerous letters – a total of 39 that have been released for scholarly consumption – as well as into snippets of his immensely respected musical oeuvre. To those who consider his masterful Classical-era pieces to be Serious (yes, with a capital ‘S’) music, in stark contrast to the crude and unaffected piffle of the 20th and 21st centuries, this is blasphemous drivel of little import. But to the rest of us, it’s something worth celebrating. The superlative fingers that first plunked the sacred Requiem into the world had a knack for the grotesque, just like we lesser people!

Perhaps we can blame this guy:

18th-century European theatre was heavily influenced by the Italian school of commedia dell’arte, a style which is packed to the wings with identifiable stock characters who represent the early tropes of mid-millennial European life. In Germany, one of the popular characters in theatre was Hanswurst, a merry doofus developed by Joseph Anton Stranitzky to play the low-brow buffoon for cheap laughs. Hanswurst’s gags were sexual or scatological in nature – the Steve Stifler of the 18th century. One of Hanswurst’s bits was demonstrating his insatiable appetite by devouring something massive, like a whole calf. Then he’d struggle with the other end of the digestive journey, much to the merriment and delight of the tasteless masses.

There is no specific link between Mozart and Hanswurst, though undoubtedly as a patron of the Viennese arts scene he would have been familiar with the character. And the political ramifications of this revered cretin probably did not escape Mozart’s anti-authoritarian tendencies. One of his letters pokes particular fun at the snobbish uppity-ups in his world, identifying a group of aristocratic audience members at one of his shows thusly: “the Duchess Smackarse, the Countess Pleasurepisser, the Princess Stinkmess and the two Princes Potbelly von Pigtail.”

I’m starting to like this guy.

His cousin, Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, was the fortunate recipient of many of Mozart’s finer scatological musings, as was his dad, his mom and his sister. This little verse, which will probably never end up in an anthology of great works, was forwarded to Maria on November 5, 1777:

Well I wish you good night

But first shit into your bed and make it burst.

Sleep soundly, my love

Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove.

The man knew how to touch the soul. His mother, Anna Maria Mozart, sent a similar slice of poetry to her husband about a month earlier, and even his straight-laced dad got in on the action in at least one letter, suggesting this was a family shtick. The Mozarts were regular Aristocrats, if you catch my (rather grotesque) meaning.

“…you demand, you desire, you wish, you want, you like, you command that I too, should could send you my Portrait. Eh bien, I shall mail fail it for sure. Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin.”

That’s another excerpt from one of Mozart’s letters to Maria Anna, his beloved little cousin. Those who are familiar with the pretzel-prose of John Lennon in the mid-60’s may see a resemblance. But Mozart also stretched his love of sphincter sphunnies into his music.

He penned a number of rounds – songs where voices sing the same lyrics one bar apart, like that insipidly happy song about boat-rowing – with a scatological nature. Also, there’s the famous canon in B-flat major known as “Leck mich im Arsch”, which literally translates as “Like me in the ass.” Mozart’s posthumous publishers changed the title to “Let us be glad”, but the historical record clearly notes that yes, Mozart wrote this piece as an apparent invitation for analingus.

Well, sort of. The phrase translates colloquially as similar to “kiss my ass”, meaning that Mozart comes off as a little less creepy, and a little more like an R-rated version of Flo from the sitcom Alice.

Which makes it all the more hilarious that subsequent generations have attempted to pin some sort of psychological ailment upon Mozart, strictly based on this line of jokes. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig sent Mozart’s letters to Sigmund Freud for analysis. Freud was not particularly intrigued by suggestions of coprophilia in the great composer. But this still merits a discussion in some circles. At least four authors in the last 30 or so years have suggested that Mozart may have suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome.

Does the frequency of Mozart’s poopisms suggest a psychiatric condition in the composer? Or was he just the type who gardened for giggles among the unclean and vulgar? I’m leaning so heavily toward the latter I may fall out of my chair. These letters are clearly written by a man with a sense of humor, with a willingness to allow shock and potential offense to dance upon the page like some pre-modern Seth McFarlane. The fact that he also composed Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute just shows that even the most brilliant among us can get our kicks on the ground floor.

Plop Stephen Hawking down in front of some Three Stooges and see if he doesn’t emit a few robotic chuckles. Mozart was human; we should stop trying to psychoanalyze him and just be happy we have evidence of his inner goof.