Oddities and Curiosities
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What is it about black and white photos of yesteryear’s homemade Halloween costumes that makes them so creepy? Do the rough masks edge the rim of the Uncanny Valley? Has the camera captured a little bit of that special magic of All Hallow’s Eve, when the threshold between this world and the next is just a little bit thinner? Do the images feel “off” because these people are likely all dead? Can’t say… the only thing I do know is that these photos are a thousand times more unsettling than anything that comes trick or treating these days.
The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.
It might sound like the province of H.P. Lovecraft and his notoriously apocryphal tome, The Necronomicon, but the practice of binding books with human skin is a historical reality. Many ivy league university libraries contain at least one example, including the treatise on Spanish law (Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae) at Harvard that bears the inscription quoted above. Brown University has three, including a rare copy of De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Vesalius (which contains the lovely image copied here). Other morbid examples include court proceedings bound in the skin of the murderer convicted, and erotica bound with skin from human breasts.
Beginning in August of 2007, detached human feet began washing up on the coasts of the Salish Sea in British Columbia and Washington state. As many as fourteen have been found, and as recently as January of 2012. As of this writing, only four of the people to whom they belonged have been identified (two of the feet came from the same person). All but two of the feet have been found in boots or running shoes. Coroners, eager to dispel any rumors of a serial killer or some other nefarious cause, suggest that the buoyancy of modern shoes causes the feet of undiscovered suicide or accident victims to disarticulate and float away, but if that were true, why just recently, and why just there? Shouldn’t feet be bobbing in coastal waters all over the world?
For hundreds of years, a mystery surrounded the cathedral of Venzone, a small city in the province of Udine, Italy. Instead of decomposing normally, bodies buried in the tombs beneath the cathedral were perfectly preserved and still recognizable decades later, a fact which led the townspeople to periodically retrieve and commune with their dead loved ones. In modern times, scientists finally traced the source of this wonder to Hypha tombicina, a microscopic, parasitic fungus that rapidly dehydrates the bodies before decomposition can even begin. More photos available here.
Georg Karl Tänzler was a German-born doctor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1926. During his youth, he claimed to have received visitations from a dead ancestor, who revealed to him a vision of his one true love: exotic, dark- haired, beautiful. In 1930, while practicing at a Florida hospital under the name of Carl von Cosel, Tänzler met a young Cuban-American woman named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos who required treatment for tuberculosis. Despite already having a wife, Tänzler immediately recognized Hoyos as his promised soulmate and did everything he could to save her, but Elena ultimately died in October, 1931. Devastated, Tänzler built a lavish mausoleum in her honor and visited it almost every night. In 1933, he went several insane steps further by secretly removing her remains. He restored her “skin” with wax and plaster of Paris, gave her glass eyes, wired her bones together with coat hangers, and stuffed rags into her chest cavity to maintain its shape. He gave her some finishing touches–stockings, jewelry, gloves, a paper tube to enable intercourse– and kept her in his bed for the next seven years, until Elena’s sister caught wind of Tänzler’s activity and had him arrested. The case was widely publicized at the time and Elena’s reconstructed body was put on public display before being re-interred in a secret location. Tänzler was ultimately acquitted when the statute of limitations ran out. Deprived of the body, Tänzler used a death mask to fashion a life-sized effigy of Hoyos and lived with it until his own death on July 3, 1952.
Rosalia Lombardo died of pneumonia in Palermo, Siciliy on December 6, 1920, at the tender age of 2. Her heartbroken father, a well-to-do general, enlisted the services of Alfredo Salafia, the country’s best embalmer. General Lombardo also secured Rosalia the honor of one of the last spots in the Capuchin Catacombs. To this day, Rosalia resides in a small chapel, within a glass covered coffin, and is considered the best-preserved child corpse in the world. Salafia’s embalming techniques and recipes are studied the world over, but it seems he might have done his job too well. Numerous visitors, lingering overlong in her burial chamber, have sworn that every once in a while little Rosalia opens her eyes. Skeptics are quick to pass off these claims as nothing more than the illusory products of morbid imaginations, but that position is not as easy to maintain after having a look at this.
Man’s ingenuity knows no bounds, but he seems especially clever at devising ways to inflict pain and suffering. This device, also known as the Bronze Bull or Sicilian Bull, was invented by a Greek metal worker named Perillos in the first century A.D. Criminals were placed inside and a large fire was built underneath which cooked them alive. Later refinements added a system of acoustical tubes and stops inside the bull’s head that turned the screams of its victims into musical bellowing. The story goes that Phalaris, the Tyrant of Akragas, rewarded its creator with the honor of the first test run. Phalaris himself was later killed inside the bull by Telamachus, his usurper. Other famous victims include Saint Eustace (allegedly roasted with his wife and child by the Emperor Hadrian) and Saint Antipas, the Bishop of Pergamum.
In 1902, workers on the island of Malta were digging a cistern for a new housing development when they accidentally cut through the ceiling of this unique structure. Reputed to be the only prehistoric subterranean temple in the world, the Hypogeum (a Latin spelling of a Greek term for “under the ground”) extends downward for three distinct levels, and most of the rooms are covered with an eerie red ochre. Discovered at the deepest level were the scattered bones of nearly 7,000 people, which has led some to posit a long history of human sacrifice. To whom or what they were sacrificed is unknown, but a National Geographic article published in August, 1940 only deepened the mystery, as it reported of a tunnel leading off from the lowest chamber that connected with an underground labyrinth spanning the entire island. Even then, the tunnels had been sealed off after a teacher led some of her students into the labyrinth on a field trip and never returned.