Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘bizarre’

01 DECEMBER, 2011

The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini

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A glimpse of early-20th-century spiritualism, or how the supernatural became a conduit for the deeply human.

As far as unlikely friendships go, it hardly gets any unlikelier than that between Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Born fifteen years apart into dramatically different families, one the educated product of a proper Scottish upbringing and the other the self-made son of a Hungarian immigrant, the two even stood in stark physical contrast, once likened by a journalist to Pooh and Piglet.

But when they met in 1920, something extraordinary began. In Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, acclaimed pop culture biographer Christopher Sandford tells the story of the pair’s unique friendship, sometimes macabre, sometimes comic, and fundamentally human, underpinned by their shared longing for lost loved ones and their adventures in the world of Spiritualism — at the time, a world with unmatched popular allure.

From Queen Victoria to W. B. Yeats to Charles Dickens to Abraham Lincoln, even the era’s political, scientific, and artistic elite engaged in efforts to reach departed loved ones in worlds unseen. By the time Houdini arrived in America in 1878, more than 11 million people admitted to being Spiritualists. Spiritualism, of course, wasn’t a new idea at the time. The notion that the soul survives intact after physical death and lives on on another plane, Sandford reminds us, could be traced back at least as far back as the writings of Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg in the mid-18th century. His Arcana Coelestia (“Heavenly Secrets”) made an eight-volume case for the supernatural and provoked a published retort from Immanuel Kant, who pronounced Swedenborg’s opinions “nothing but illusions.”

This notion of illusion as a central part of Spiritualism turned out to be a central binding element for Houdini and Conan Doyle — one bringing to it the skepticism of a man making a living out of illusions and the other finding in it a saving grace of sorts.

Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind.” ~ Harry Houdini

Houdini even called for a law that would “prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims.” Still, when his father died, the 18-year-old Houdini sold his own watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with the departed. In 1920, Houdini went on a six-month tour in Europe, attending more than a hundred séances. He wanted, desperately, to believe — but, himself professional skeptic in the business of fooling people, he never quite managed to suspend his disbelief. In fact, he became the Penn & Teller of his day, seeing it as his duty to myth-bust psychics and other prophets of Spiritualism.

Conan Doyle, at first, seemed only interested in Spiritualism for its narrative potential, rather than “to change people’s hearts and minds,” as Sandford puts it. But after his father died when the author was only 34 and, mere months later, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, Conan Doyle fell into a deep depression. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, he applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, a committee of academics aiming to study Spiritualism “without prejudice or prepossession.” Eventually, he gave up his lucrative literary career, killed off Sherlock Holmes, and dedicated himself wholly to his obsession with Spiritualism with, as we’ve already seen in this rare footage from 1930, reached a manically obsessive proportion by his old age.

Yet, despite their passionate and diametrically opposed views on Spiritualism, the Conan Doyle and Houdini had something intangible but powerful in common. Walter Prince, an ordained minister and a member of the SPR in the 1920s, put it this way:

The more I reflect on Houdini [and] Doyle, the more it seems that the two men resembled each other. Each was a fascinating companion, each big-hearted and generous, yet each was capable of bitter and emotional denunciation, each was devoted to his home and family, each felt himself an apostle of good to men, the one to rid them of certain beliefs, the other to inculcate in them those beliefs.”

Lively, engrossing, and rigorously researched, Masters of Mystery is as much a fascinating glimpse of an uncommon friendship as it is a riveting study of the early-20th-century culture of the supernatural and the universal, timeless, profoundly human longings that fuel irrational beliefs of any kind.

HT Boing Boing

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10 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: Vintage Arsenal of Masonic Pranksters

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What Elks, Moose, and Shriners have to do with a fake guillotine and a goat on wheels.

Freemasonry was born out of medieval craft guilds — working men distinguished by their freedom, not bonded into serfdom, indenture, or slavery. Their ceremonies and regalia were legendary, and their initiations mimicked harsh entries into religious order, initiations which might involve ritual humiliation, pain, or fear. Masons were primarily aristocratic, and if not wealthy, then at least refined. The fraternal lodges of the Elks, the Shriners, the Woodsmen, and the Moose, to name a few, offered a more casual form of brotherhood. Developed with masonic screeds in mind, they populated small towns and suburbs and its provided its members with a reason to get together once or twice a week. What they did each week was up to the members, sometimes they provided food and drink, more often they would debate bylaws and initiation fees (the lodges were originally developed to provide insurance for injured workers). Things could get a little sleepy.

Enter the DeMoulin brothers and their wonderfully strange DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, collected by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits in her new book, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. In 1892, a Woodsman lodge member asked his friend Ed DeMoulin to make him something that would really shake up dull lodge meetings. DeMoulin owned a local factory that manufactured uniforms, flags, patches, hats, seating, upholstery, and regalia of all kinds, and he was also at heart a trickster. When the Woodmen asked him to come up with a set piece that would really impress and scare the newly initiated, he delivered something darkly delightful: The Molten Lead Test, a flaming pot of seemingly boiling metal that turned out to be nothing more than mecurine powder dissolved in water (an element still not without its hazards). The pledge was convinced he was being burnt with hot lead, and the lodge would laugh uproariously at his misfortune.

The Wireless Trick Telephone

As a gag, the trick telephone was potentially quite dangerous. A 32-calibre blank cartridge was designed to go off in the face of anyone who tried to use the phone.

The Fuzzy Wonder

It was a lodge tradition to have a goat present at initiations, and the introduction of a mechanical goat meant that a live goat would be spared the experience. The wheeled goat was also ridden by lodge members in local parades.

The Ferris Wheel Goat

This version of the mechanical goat was supposed to stimulate a thrilling goat ride. The candidate is strapped in and wheeled upside down, all while remaining astride the goat.

The Electric Branding Iron

The magneto was an electric hand cranked battery that created a spark that could actually be quite painful. Similar batteries were actually used a New York state prison as a form of torture.

The catalogs were only published for thirty years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, but in that time the DeMoulins developed hundreds of patents for some of the most popular and bizarre lodge gags. With membership of nearly 35 million at its peak, almost every fraternal lodge in America, from the Elks to the Shriners to the Moose, ordered from the DeMoulin catalog. Members kept their activities a secret, especially when it came to the two rowdiest forms of lodge fun: initiations and side-work, which were pranks carried out for no reason in particular.

The Throne of Honor

After the candidate was blindfolded, led up and stairs and seated, he was expected to confess his 'moral transgressions.' When finished, the chair and the stairs would collapse and the candidate would slide down to the floor.

The Guillotine

Perhaps the most frightening of the lodge gags, the guillotine blade was designed to stop a few inches from the neck. The catalog suggested spattering it with blood and human hair for a greater effect.

The Saw Mill

Similar to the guillotine, the blade of the saw mill also stops just inches from its intended victim. 'This machine looks real and very dangerous but it is also absolutely harmless.'

The motives were the same as any college fraternity hazing: to scare, humiliate, and confuse the pledge. A lodge could order any number of devices to humiliate, including spanking machines, trick telephones, wobbly floors, and something called Throne of Honor, in which a pledge is led up a set of stairs transformed into an embarrassing slide. Lodges also enjoyed scaring the initiated half to death with trick coffins, fake guillotines, and dangerous-looking saw mills, as well as inflicting some real pain by zapping him with all manner of electric devices: the electric cane, the electric tunnel, the electric bench, or the electric shovel. Some of the offerings were just plain weird, including several variations on a wheeled goat, a lodge favorite that would be ridden in parades.

Electric Carpets

'There are no normal carpets in the DeMoulin fraternal world. As soon as the candidate's feet touch it he wishes he were standing on the hottest sands of the desert.'

Human Centipede

This four person costume was also wired with a jump spark battery which was controlled by the rider at the front, making the other three members of the centipede very unhappy.

Hulu Hula Bull Dance

This costume is for several candidates to perform at once and consists of bells for the wrists, waits, and feet, along with an inexplicable grass skirt. 'There are ten bells representing ten notes including F sharp and B Flat, making it possible to play simple airs.'

As good-natured as most of the pranks were, sometimes they went too far, injuring the initiated. The New York Times reported a prank gone wrong at a 1898 Woodmen meeting:

Plaintiff was blindfolded and subjected to several slight electric shocks. He was thrown off balance and fell hands down upon the magneto battery itself, receiving a shock which rendered him unconscious.”

A treasure chest of curiosity and a history lesson in dark humor, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is equal parts bizarre and delightfully bemusing, an essential piece of pop culture’s ritualistic paradigm and a rare glimpse of twentieth-century Americana.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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04 NOVEMBER, 2011

Science Ink: Carl Zimmer Catalogs the Tattoos of Science Nerds

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An anthropology of the geek-rebel, or what astrophysics has to do with the delicacies of the dermis.

Brain Pickings is all about cross-disciplinary curiosity and the unexpected pollination of ideas across different fields. Nowhere does that cross-pollination get more unexpected than between popular science and tattoo culture. That’s exactly what celebrated curiosity monger Carl Zimmer explores in Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed — a weird and wonderful almanac of the lovable geek who immortalized passion for science on their living flesh. Zimmer divides the book into sections around each of the major sciences — math , chemistry, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, astronomy, and even an entire chapter on DNA — and uses each tattoo as a meditation pillow from whence to reflect on the science in question with his unmistakeable essay style of intelligent wit.

A foreword by Mary Roach adds the ultimate cherry on top.

The concept for the project was born in 2007, when Zimmer asked his blog readers whether scientists were hiding tattoos of their science. A surprising number stepped up, and Zimmer began posting images of their ink on his blog for Discover Magazine. The rest was history.

Without intending it, I became a curator of tattoos, a scholar of science ink. I began giving people advice about how to best photograph a tattoo. Rule one: don’t take a picture right after you get the tattoo. Shiny, puffy skin does not please the eye. Tattoo enthusiast magazines called to interview me. All in all, it was a strange experience; I have no tattoos of my own and no intention of getting any. But the open question I posed brought a river of pleasures.” ~ Carl Zimmer

Images courtesy of Sterling Publishing

Tasteful, thoughtful, and tantalizing, Science Ink will make you reconcile your inner geek and rebel, then dust off your old science textbooks for mischievous inspiration.

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13 OCTOBER, 2011

Complaints Choir: The World’s Mundane Grievances Set to Song

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Rent is too damn high, the global musical.

One cold winter night in 2005, while strolling through Helsinki, Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen had an epiphany — what if they could transform the daily grievances people complain about en masse into a source of surprise and joy? In Finnish, there’s an actual word for those mass complaints — “Valituskuoro,” which translates roughly to “complaints choir.” So the duo set out capture the world’s everyday rants in actual choirs and Complaints Choir was born — a traveling record of the world’s grievances, crowdsourced from citizens and set to song.

We defined complaining as “dissatisfaction without action,” nevertheless behind most of the complaints there is an idea or a belief or a value that a person is committed to. Complaints have therefore inbuilt the potential of being a transformative power. The truth about the revolution in East Germany is, that it only happened because a critical mass of people was dissatisfied with and complained about everyday life issues.

There is another fundamental aspect to the culture of complaining. Why do people complain about things they have not the slightest influence upon, for example the weather? Here complaining is not at all about changing things, but rather to build a communal feeling: I am not alone with my little problems, we share the same burden – of an total in-acceptable climate for example.”

From Birmingham to Budapest, Helsinki to Hamburg, Jerusalem to Chicago, the choirs cover everything from the petty and mudane (job resentment, traffic, bureaucracy, the weather) to the amusingly specific and offbeat (neighbor holding Hungarian folk dance classes above bedroom, being ignored by friend’s cat, racist grandmother)

Got the itch for communal ranting? Here’s the DIY guide to orchestrating one in your city. (Did someone say Occupy Wall Street Choir?)

via Deafening Silence HT GMSV

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