Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lilian Harvey (1907–1968)

Actress Lillian Harvey was born Helene Lilian Muriel Pape in England to an English mother and a German father. She spoke 13 languages and made films in four of them, starting in 1924. The next year German producer Richard Eichberg discovered her and made her a leading lady. She was churning out about four films a year and became one of the most popular actresses in Germany. One Hungarian nobleman was so entranced by her that she offered her a castle. The castle later became a tractor factory.

She and popular leading man Willy Fritsch became the Brad and Angelina of Weimar Germany, their romance on and off screen milked for all the publicity it could produce. They starred in 11 films together, the most popular of which was Der Kongreß tanzt ("The Congress Dancers"), a lavish musical comedy released in three different languages. Frisch played Tsar Alexander I, who romances a humble glove seller played by Harvey. This public romance lasted until Frisch actress Dinah Grace in 1937.

In Tarintino's Inglorious Basterds, Gobbels happily sings a duet by Harvey and Fritsch from Glückskinder (a German version of It Happened One Night) called "Ich wollt' ich wär ein Huhn" ("I wish I were a chicken") but he snaps at the mention of Harvey's name. This is a good reflection of the Nazi's love hate relationship with Harvey, which became mostly hate towards the end of the 30s. She was pilloried for a brief attempt to make it in Hollywood but welcomed back with open arms in 1935. The Gestapo kept an eye on her because she consorted with Jews and grilled her choreographer Jens Keith, who was jailed under the Nazi anti-gay law Paragraph 175, promptly fled the country when she posted bail for him. She left the country again herself in 1939 and the Nazis revoked her citizenship in 1943. After making two movies in Vichy France in 1940, her film career was over.

At the end of her life, Harvey retired to the resort town of Antibes on the French Riviera, where she operated a souvenir shop and raised edible snails. She died there at age 61.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ed Gein (1906-1984)

Edward Theodore Gein was a shy child, shunned by peers who thought him effeminate. His mother Augusta was a religious fanatic who thought the world full of immoral, corrupting influences and dragged her family to a remote farm on the outskirts of Plainfield, Wisconsin, the better to keep that corrupting world away from her children. She held her husband in contempt and he died of a heart attack in 1940. When her older son Henry began to turn away from his mother and towards the outside world, he too died in 1944 during a fire on the Gein farm. Henry went missing during the fire and Ed brought the search party straight to Henry's body, which had no burns but plenty of bruises on the head. But no one suspected shy Ed Gein.

Augusta was felled by a series of strokes and died in 1945. And Ed was alone.

Ed boarded off most of the house, including the entire second floor, as a shrine to his mother. He began digging up the graves of dozens of women, collecting body parts and wearing their skin. He later insisted he never had sex with any of the bodies because "they smelled too bad".

Then the disappearances started:

In 1947, 8 year old Georgia Weckler disappeared coming home from school in Fort Atkinson. Hundreds searched but never found her.

In 1952, two deer hunters, Victor Travis and Ray Burgess, disappeared after drinking at a Plainfield bar.

In 1953, 15 year old babysitter disappeared in La Crosse. There were signs of a bloody struggle. Thousands of searchers and reporters from around the country descended on La Crosse, but no trace of her was found besides bloody clothing.

In 1954, Plainfield bar owner Mary Hogan disappeared. A blood trail lead from her bar into the parking lot.

A decade of kidnappings and grave robbings, and for some reason, no one thought of the weirdo who lived alone in a remote farmhouse with a collection of "shrunken heads" he claimed were sent from the Philippines by a cousin. Instead, to the folks in Plainfield, he was the harmless old handyman and babysitter.

Until 1957, when store owner Bernice Worden disappeared. The cash register was missing and there was blood on the floor. But her son Frank was a deputy sheriff, and he remembered that Ed had been by the store the previous day asking about antifreeze. So when he discovered that one of the only two transactions that day was for antifreeze, Ed was the logical suspect.

When the deputies arrived at the Gein farm, they found a charnel house. Collections of skulls and organs and body parts, clothing and household accessories made out of body parts including a lampshade made from a face, and the heads of Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden. Worden's headless body was hung upside down in a shed, dressed out like you would a dead deer.

And so, knowledge of Ed Gein was unleashed upon a word which preferred to pretend such things didn't exist. Sure, there were natural disasters and wars and the Holocaust, but one guy gutting people and making himself into a woman with their body parts? That's a level of homicidal strangeness that people were unprepared for. Ed Gein was a sort of pioneer in his field, inspiring Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs and paving the way for today's current fascination with serial killers. But with only two confirmed kills under his belt (Hogan and Worden), he doesn't fit the technical definition of a serial killer. His mingling of body parts of living and dead folks in a time before DNA meant that the other disappearances could not be definitively attributed to him, and some of them differ enough from his proclivities and modus operandi that they may be the work of some other unknown murderer, rapist, or pedophile.

Media obsession, even without the help of Nancy Grace, and the public's fascination with Gein were intense. His possessions were to be auctioned off, though some unknown arsonist or arsonists burned down the house before it could become a "museum for the morbid". Gein's 1949 Ford sedan survived the fire to become a carnival attraction.

Gein himself spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. Other than his tendency to creepily stare at female staff members, he was a model patient. Gein thrived in the structured life of a mental hospital. He never needed drugs or tranquilizers and developed a number of hobbies, including ham radio.

Gein died on July 26, 1984 at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin after a long bout with cancer. He was buried next to his mother in Plainfield. For years, his grave was vandalized by souvenir hunters until the gravestone was stolen in 2000. It was found in the possession of a rock promoter and recovered by Seattle police. It is now in a museum. In 2006 the owner of what was once the Gein farm offered it for sale on eBay for $250,000, but the auction site pulled the listing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Judith Barsi (1978-1988)

József and Maria Barsi fled the Soviet crackdown on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and settled in Los Angeles. He worked as a plumber. She wished to be an actress and transferred those dreams to her only child, Judith Eva Barsi. Judith was discovered at an ice skating rink at age five and went on to star in over 70 commercials, over a dozen television episodes, and ten films. Those movies include Jaws: The Revenge, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and the one she is best remembered for, The Land Before Time, where she provided the voice of the sweet and naive parasaurolophus Ducky and her trademark "Yep! Yep! Yep!"

One of Judith's roles was a miniseries called Fatal Vision, where her character is killed by her unhinged father. This would prove unfortunately ironic as József was rapidly becoming unhinged herself. He was usually drunk and often paranoid. He physically and mentally abused his family, once giving Judith a bloody nose by throwing a frying pan at her, another time putting a butcher knife to Judith's throat threatening to kill her if she did not return from filming Jaws in the Bahamas.

All of this was not unknown to the outside world. A child psychologist identified the abuse and Child Protective Services attempted to intervene, but Maria would not press charges. On July 25, 1988, József shot Judith and Maria, doused their bodies and their house in gasoline and set it on fire, then shot himself. The bodies were discovered two days later.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802)

A student of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, French portrait painter Joseph Ducreux became a favorite of Louis XVI, who made him a Baron. The king dispatched him to Vienna to paint Marie-Antoinette, a typical practice of royals so they could see their brides in advance (Hans Holbein was similarly dispatched by Henry VIII to paint his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, but when they met in the flesh, Henry thought her ugly and history has dubbed her the "Flanders Mare".), and was later made First Painter to the Queen. He also painted the last portrait of the king before his execution during the French Revolution.

Despite being securely in the mainstream of portraiture, the irascible Ducreux was excluded from the French Royal Academy, standard for any establishment painter and thus very unusual for a painter of such status in the royal court to not be a member. Ducreux was undeterred and exhibited in alternative salons, showing his unorthodox self-portraits to largely unenthusiastic audiences. He painted himself in a rather unpainterly manner, in a series of unusual facial expressions and poses. One of the more famous is of him stretched in an yawn, prompting a critic to call it a "yawn-inducing Ducreux". Self-portraits had always been a medium for exploration or unusual self-expression (perhaps most notoriously, Durer's self-portrait as Jesus), but Ducreux's self-portraits were more quirky and intimate than bold, or perhaps bold because of their quirky intimacy. In this he is ahead of his time, more suited for an age of confession and self-expression. In retrospect, it is no surprise that he was enthusiastically embraced by the Internet in 2009. His dandyish self-portrait, where he turns and points and laughs at the viewer, was turned into a meme where the painting was superimposed with rap lyrics translated into faux-archaic English.

Ducreux died on the road from St. Denis to Paris on July 24, 1802 at the age of 67.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Vic Morrow (1929-1982)

Vic Morrow became a household name thanks to his lead role as Sgt. Chip Saunders in the ABC World War II drama Combat!, which spent longer on television than the US spent in World War II. His film career was relatively undistinguished, however. There were a few choice roles here and there, like the antagonists in The Blackboard Jungle (his debut role) and The Bad News Bears, but there were a lot more clunkers like the Japanese Star Wars rip-off Message from Space. His penultimate role was in the dystopian biker gang flick 1990: The Bronx Warriors, so he jumped at the chance to star in Stephen Spielberg-produced Twilight Zone: The Movie.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: four noted directors taking the classic television series to the big screen. What actually happened was they produced four inferior versions of far superior television episodes. The first segment, "Time Out", was based on a tense World War II episode starring Leonard Nimoy and Dean Stockwell, "A Quality of Mercy". In the hands of director John Landis, it became a heavy handed tale of a bigot played by Vic Morrow who is forced to become a series of various historical victims of racial oppression.

There are strict rules concerning child actors limiting the number of hours and the times of day they can work, but Landis had two child actors in Twilight Zone, seven year old Myca Dinh Le and six year old Renee Shin-Yi Chen, filming a scene with Morrow at 2:30 am. It turns out they were being paid under the table to avoid these rules. In this scene set during the Vietnam War, Morrow has to carry the two children across a pond away from a village engulfed in flames while a helicopter flew overhead. However, on this early morning shoot the pyrotechnics went off too close to the helicopter, sending it spinning out of control. It crashed into the pond right on top of the actors, decapitating Vic Morrow and Myca Dinh Le and impaling Renee Shin-Yi Chen.

Landis and a number of the crew were hit by manslaughter charges as well as civil lawsuits from the families of the actors, including Morrow's daughter actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Landis avoided a criminal conviction, the other directors rushed through their segments, and Twilight Zone: The Movie was released to lukewarm reviews.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Napoleon II (1811-1832)

Francis II was the last of the Holy Roman Emperors. Four times he fought against France, and it didn't go well the first three times. Each of those times he was defeated by Napoleon. The first time he was forced to cede lands. The second time he was forced to cede the Holy Roman Empire itself, which dissolved after 400 years, and Francis II became Francis I, Emperor of Austria. The third time, he was forced to cede his daughter, Marie Louise, and Francis I became a forced and unwilling ally of Napoleon.

Napoleon was looking for an heir and divorced Josephine because she did not produce one. He went wife shopping amongst the royal families of Europe and found himself a Hapsburg princess courtesy of his new ally. Napoleon and Marie Louise were married by proxy in Vienna and did not meet until two weeks later, upon which she told him "You are much better-looking than your portrait." She settled into the role of Empress of France quite well and the marriage bought a great deal of good will from the people of Austria, who had been quite annoyed with Napoleon for his invasions and such.

Napoleon II was born almost exactly a year later. But that fourth time was soon to come, and Napoleon's ally and the rest of Europe teamed up against him and forced him to abdicate. Marie Louise and her son returned to Austria, never to see Napoleon again. After Napoleon's brief return to power in the Hundred Days, he was defeated at Waterloo and abdicated again, this time naming his four year old son Emperor of France. Napoleon II never took the throne, instead receiving the far lesser title of Duke of Reichstadt in Austria.

The treaties following the Napoleonic Wars made Marie Louise the Duchess of Parma, and all accounts she ruled the small state well. She married again twice and had three more children. Napoleon II's life was cut short by tuberculosis on July 22, 1832, though there is speculation that he was assassinated with poison by Metternich. There Napoleon's direct male line ended. Emperor Napoleon III was Napoleon's nephew.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (c. 550 BCE-356 BCE)

The Seven Wonders of the World are an an ancient concept. As the Mediterranean opened up to the Greeks, they complied lists of the monuments they saw in the lands surrounding that sea. The earliest surviving one is from around 140 BC by Antipater of Sidon:
I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus, I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.
One wonders if this is what he actually saw, however. We know about earlier lists that no longer exist, so perhaps later writers copied from their predecessors. Antipater could not have seen the Colossus of Rhodes intact (unless he saw it as a boy and lived into his 80s or 90s) as it had topped almost a century earlier due to an earthquake. And the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus that Antipater could have seen was not the original, but one rebuilt after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and destroyed by the Goths around 268 CE.

It's not strictly correct to say that the "original" temple was the first. Archaeology tells us that the site in Ephesus (in modern day Turkey) was occupied as early as the Bronze Age and that a temple there was destroyed by flood in the 7th century BCE. But the first one we think of as a "wonder" was built around 550 BCE in the reign of Croesus, the king of Lydia who was renowned for his fabulous wealth. Constructed by the father and son team of architects Chersiphron and Metagenes, it was about 377 by 180 feet and had double rows of 40 foot columns covered in relief sculptures. At its center was a statue of dark wood of the goddess by the sculptor Endoios.

The temple became an important center of worship of Artemis, drawing travelers from all around the Mediterranean. It became part of legend as well, as mythology tells us that the Amazons fled there twice seeking sanctuary. But on July 21, 356 BCE, a man named Herostratus set fire to the wooden roof beams and the resulting blaze destroyed the temple. He was motivated by desire to achieve a bizarre kind of fame, setting an example for the Lee Harvey Oswalds and Mark David Chapmans of the future. In the words of Latin historian Valerius Maximus:
A man was found to plan the burning of the temple of Ephesian Diana so that through the destruction of this most beautiful building his name might be spread through the whole world.
Not only did the Ephesians sentence Herostratus to death, after a no doubt extensive bout of torture, they sentenced to death anyone who would repeat his name to deter future attempts at such fame seeking. The Greek historian Theopompus did not get that particular memo and preserved the arsonist's name for posterity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vince Foster (1945-1993)

In his autobiography My Life, Bill Clinton wrote of his childhood friend Vince Foster:
And I used to play in the backyard with a boy whose yard adjoined mine. He lived with two beautiful sisters in a bigger, nicer house than ours. We used to sit on the grass for hours, throwing his knife in the ground and learning to make it stick. His name was Vince Foster. He was kind to me and never lorded it over me the way so many older boys did with younger ones. He grew up to be a tall, handsome, wise, good man. He became a great lawyer, a strong supporter early in my career, and Hillary's best friend at the Rose Law Firm. Our families socialized in Little Rock, mostly at his house, where his wife, Lisa, taught Chelsea to swim. He came to the White House with us, and was a voice of calm and reason in those crazy early months.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jack Warden (1920-2006)

Jack Warden made a long career out of playing gruff police officers, gruff sports coaches, gruff military men, gruff newspaper men... well, you get the idea. A character actor who was probably one of the reasons they invented the phrase, he appeared in over 100 films.

Warden was a welterweight boxer and a merchant sailor before joining the Army during World War II. He smashed his leg landing on a fence during a nighttime practice paratrooper jump, just before D-Day. He recovered in time for the Battle of the Bulge, but not before reading a play by Clifford Odets and deciding to become an actor.

Warden appeared in many great films: The Asphalt Jungle, From Here to Eternity, 12 Angry Men, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Sound and the Fury, All the President's Men, The Great Muppet Caper, Mighty Aphrodite, Bulworth. And many not so great: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, Problem Child 1 and 2. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for two films (both starring Warren Beatty), Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. He did plenty of television work too. He earned an Emmy playing a gruff football coach in the TV movie Brian's Song and was nominated twice for his starring role as a gruff private detective in Crazy Like a Fox. Interestingly, he appeared in two episodes of The Twlight Zone, both prominently featuring robots, though in very different settings: in one he played a convicted criminal exiled on an asteroid with only a female robot for company, in another he played a gruff baseball manager who acquires a robot pitcher.

Jack Warden died on July 19, 2006.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Sorry about the unintentional hiatus. Got sidetracked by a short story deadline this weekend and was only able to get back on track today. Tomorrow's entry is already in the queue. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Quentin Roosevelt (1897-1918)

Quentin Roosevelt was the youngest of six children of US President Theodore Roosevelt. His father became president when Quentin was three and he was quite a rambunctious child. He ran with a multi-racial group of the sons of government workers and officials dubbed "The White House Gang". These Little Rascals terrorized the White House by spitballing presidential portraits, snowballing the Secret Service, and carving a baseball diamond into the White House lawn. At one point, Quentin snuck a pony into the elevator and brought him to visit his brother Archie's bedroom.

Quentin was intelligent and mechanically gifted. He attended Harvard University, but with World War I raging in Europe, he did what many sons of the elite did, he became a fighter pilot. There was even a famed group of Yale flyers dubbed "The Millionaire's Unit". Quentin was a popular but reckless pilot, even by the standards of a profession where life was often cheap and short. On July 14, 1918, Quentin's Nieuport 28 was shot down over France. The Germans buried him under a makeshift cross. They tried to make his death a propaganda victory, but it backfired because his father was still quite popular in Germany.

Six months after the death of his son, President Roosevelt died. Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt's body was later reburied in the World War II American Cemetery next to his brother Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died serving in WWII. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.'s son and Quentin Roosevelt's namesake, Quentin Roosevelt II, also died in a plane crash, near Hong Kong in 1948.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Aisha (612-678)

Aisha bint Abu Bakr was the second wife of the prophet Muhammad. She was the daughter of Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the prophet and the first convert to Islam outside Muhammad's family. Muhammad spent 25 years in a happy marriage with Khadijah, a wealthy older woman. After Khadijah's death, Muhammad was in his fifties. Aisha was quite a bit younger. Many sources say she was as young as nine years old.

Needless to say, this is a controversial part of Muhammad's biography. If you do a Google image search for Aisha, as I did and I recommend you do not, you will see all kinds of vile anti-Muslim propaganda highlighting this and calling the prophet a pedophile. (So at right is a picture of actress Aisha Taylor instead.) Islamic lore even has a story of Muhammad and Aisha playing together with her toys, which perhaps was considered charming but to modern ears sounds as creepy as a child predator driving around in an ice cream van.

The important thing to know about Aisha's age is that it may not be literal or accurate, as it played a role in the power struggle following the death of Muhammad. In broad, overly simplistic terms, following this Islam split into Sunni and Shia camps. The former traces the succession of Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the latter through Ali, Muhammad's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatimah. To stress Abu Bakr's case, advocates played up the virtuousness of his daughter Aisha. Many of Muhammad's wives were war widows, but Aisha was the only wife who was a virgin when she married him. Emphasizing (and possibly lowering) her age was to emphasize her virginity and thus virtuousness. Scholars note that child brides were common at that time and place (and unfortunately linger in some primitive pockets), but others think that Aisha's real age was anywhere from 15 to 24.

Aisha survived for some fifty years after the death of Muhammad. She became a respected figure and authority on Islam. She led forces against Ali at the Battle of the Camel, but Ali triumphed and her influence gone. As a result, she is revered by Sunni Muslims, not so much by the Shia.

Aisha died on July 13, 678. She was buried at the Al-Baqi' Cemetery in Medina, the final resting place of many of Muhammad's wives and companions. The mausoleums of Al-Baqi' and other holy sites were destroyed in the early 20th century by King Ibn Saud, under the influence of Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrine, which decries the practice of "grave worship".

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The crew of the battleship Kawachi (1918)

Long isolationist, Japan began muscling its way on to the world stage around the turn of the 20th century. Their ambitious and costly Eight-Eight Fleet Program envisioned a fleet of eight battleships and eight cruisers to be on par with other world powers operating in the Pacific.

The Kawachi was the first of a class of 20,000 ton battleships. It was armed with six turrets with twelve 12-inch guns, backed up with thirty 40 caliber guns and 4 25 caliber guns. The larger guns were purchased from the UK and the engines were constructed by Kawasaki. (Yes, that Kawasaki.)

Built at Yokosuka Naval Arsenal on Tokyo Bay, it went to sea in 1912. During World War I, as part of Japan's alliance with Allied powers, it patrolled the sea lanes of the South China and Yellow Seas and participated in the Japanese/UK siege of the German-controlled Chinese city of Tsingtao.

The career of the Kawachi was cut short on July 12, 1918 at Tokuyama Bay. Cordite ignited in its ammo magazine, and the ship exploded and sank, taking 621 of its crew of 1059 with her.

Only one other Kawachi class battleship was built, the Settsu. The Settsu was also at Tsingtao and went on to have a much longer career, and even hosted Emperor Taishō during a 1918 naval review. In 1924, it became a target ship for weapons practice. It was sunk by a US air raid in 1945, three weeks before VJ Day.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Yagan (1795-1833)

Yagan was a member of the Noongar people of Western Australia. After the Swan River Colony was founded in 1829, Yagan became an inadvertent symbol of aboriginal resistance to white settlers.

Initially, relations between the Noongar and the settlers were harmonious. However, differing conceptions of property, land use, and food acquisition inevitably led to conflict between the two groups. In 1831, a farmer's servant killed a member of Yagan's family who was raiding a potato patch. Yagan and some other Noongar raided the farm and killed a different servant. To the Noongar, honor was satisfied, but to the settlers, it was an unprovoked murder. Yagan eluded arrest and after another attack the next year which killed a laborer, a reward of £20 was posted for his capture. In October, he was finally captured after being tricked into a boat by some fishermen. Though sentenced to death, through the efforts of Robert Lyon, an early advocate for aboriginal people, Yagan was treated as a prisoner of war and not as a murderer.

Yagan and his band were exiled to Carnac Island. Lyon learned about the Noongar language and customs and thought that, given enough time, an accord could be reached between the Noongar and the settlers. But after only a little over a month on the island, Yagan and his group escaped in a stolen boat. The settler government did not pursue them and they returned to raiding supplies from the settlers. This kept up until Yagan's brother was shot and killed during a flour theft. In retaliation, Yagan led a group of Noongar in an ambush which killed two settlers. A reward was again posted for his capture, this time £30.

On July 11, 1833, two teenage brothers, William and James Keates, attacked a group of Noongar in an effort to claim that reward. William Keates shot Yagan but was speared to death and James Keates escaped. When he brought back reinforcements, Yagan was found dead. The settlers decapitated Yagan and skinned his tattooed back for a trophy. James Keates claimed his reward, but fled the colony the next month, probably fearing retribution.

Yagan's head was preserved by smoking it. It ended up in the hands of explorer Lieutenant Robert Dale, who brought it to England. After failing to find a buyer for it at £20, he loaned it to antiquarian Thomas Pettigrew. Pettigrew put it on display adorned with fresh feathers of the Australian red-tailed black cockatoos and published a pamphlet with a drawing of the head (pictured above) by the artist George Cruikshank, who would later gain fame by illustrating the works of Charles Dickens.

Back in Dale's hands, he gave the head to the Liverpool Royal Institution, and at the end of the century, it was inherited by the Liverpool Museum. In 1964, the Museum disposed of the deteriorating head and other unwanted human artifacts, a Māori head and a Peruvian mummy. They were buried in a cemetery and a few years later a hospital buried 22 dead babies on top of them.

In the 1980s, aboriginal groups began demanding the return of Yagan's head, but by then, no one knew where it was. A researcher finally tracked it down in 1993, but the British government wouldn't allow exhumation because it would disturb the babies in the way. Finally, after an extensive geophysical survey, in 1997 the head was retrieved by digging down an adjacent plot, then tunneling over horizontally. Legal squabbles over who was allowed to claim the head ensued, but it was finally handed over to an aboriginal delegation on the day of Princess Diana's death. One of them, the outspoken activist Ken Colbung, started a media firestorm with comments that were thought to link the two events, but Colbung insisted he was misinterpreted. The squabbles continued in Australia and Yagan's head languished in a bank vault while arguments about where and how to bury him continued and attempts were made to find the rest of his remains. The body was never found, but the head was finally buried in a private ceremony on July 10, 2010.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

John Fell (1625-1686)

John Fell was Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He was an active scholar, author, and translator, at one point publishing at Oxford a translation of the Bible into Malay. He was not the most scrupulous translator if his Latin translation of Anthony Wood's History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford is any indication. He removed all positive references to philosopher Thomas Hobbes and replaced them with disparaging remarks.

At Oxford, he presided over the completion and construction of many new buildings, most notably the entrance gate and bell tower Tom Tower, designed by Christopher Wren. He was a strict disciplinarian, even visiting local taverns to round up the students. One of the students called up on his carpet was Tom Brown, a future satirist facing expulsion by Fell. Fell said he would pardon Brown if he could translate, on the spot, an epigram from the Latin author Martial. The 32nd epigram reads Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere - quare; Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te. Brown translated it like so, swapping out the name Sabidi for someone closer at hand:
I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.
And thus, Brown was spared and Fell became a victim of mistranslation himself. Not everyone got off this easy; Acton Cremer had to translate the whole History of Lapland.

Though he was not expelled, or so the story goes, Brown never graduated Oxford. The satirist spurned authority, and patronage, the rest of his life. Immediate posterity was not kind to Brown's reputation, likely because Brown was not kind to the reputations of many who were the victims of his wit. But his work was championed by Jonathan Swift and it was likely a significant influence on him.

Fell died on July 10, 1686. Both Fell and Brown are forgotten today, except for four short lines and one of the more amusing anecdotes from British literary history.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850)

Zachary Taylor was 12th President of the United States. The last Whig president, "Old Rough and Ready" spent 40 years in the US Army, racking up significant military victories in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War. Outwardly apolitical, he was essentially recruited to be a presidential candidate, much like the modern day efforts to draft military men like Colin Powell or David Petraeus, despite the fact that no one was really sure of what their politics are. Taylor ran as a Whig, but ignored much of the Whig agenda.

A mere sixteen months into his presidency, Taylor attended Independence Day celebrations and a groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument. Fatigued by the oppressive July heat, he consumed a bowl of raw cherries and a pitcher of ice cold milk. He became increasingly ill, perhaps with gastroenteritis, and the medical science of the day was unable to diagnose him properly or treat him with anything beyond generic medicines and bleeding. Only July 9, 1850, he was vomiting green and died that evening. He had served the third shortest term as president.

That is the official story. Dissenters claim that Taylor's unknown illness was actually poisoning. The case is laid out by Michael Parenti in his book History as Mystery. The culprits were likely pro-slavery Southerners. Though a slave holder, Taylor was a moderate on the issue and wanted to allow new states in the southwest to outlaw slavery, which angered the South. His successor, Millard Fillmore, signed the Compromise of 1850, which punted the slavery issue to his successors and included the odious Fugitive Slave Act. There were no witnesses to exactly what Taylor consumed and none of it was ever tested.

A retired University of Florida professor named Clara Rising pushed Taylor's heirs to allow an exhumation, which was conducted in 1991. The Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner concluded that Taylor was not poisoned by arsenic, which was about the only thing they could test for since it is preserved in hair. Officially, the cherries and milk were still the culprit. But Parenti and others take issue with how the tests were performed and assert the levels of antimony found could possibly indicate poisoning as well. There is so far, however, no historical evidence of any plot to kill Taylor.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Today Percy Shelley is known for being one of the key figures in Romantic poetry, author of "Ozymandias", "Ode to the West Wind", "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "To a Skylark", "Adonaïs", and Prometheus Unbound. In his day, he was as much known for his tumultuous and controversial life as for his written works.

Son of an MP, he was tormented at Eton and returned the favor to polite society as an adult. Legend says that at Oxford he attended only one lecture but spent sixteen hours a day reading. He was also writing just as furiously, publishing two novels, two poetry collections, and a pamphlet on atheism. It was the later that got him kicked out of Oxford.

Four months later, the nineteen year old Shelley eloped with sixteen year old Harriet Westbrook. Three years later he left his pregnant wife for another sixteen year old, the daughter of philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the future author of Frankenstein. Harriet committed suicide a few weeks before they married.

After 1818, the Shelleys lived in Italy. They found it freer, politically and intellectually, and it attracted a lot of fellow travelers like their friend, the poet Lord Byron. In 1822, he had built a "perfect plaything for the summer", a small sailing boat. Initially dubbed the Don Juan, after one of Byron's poems, Shelley rechristened it the Ariel. A defiant Byron painted "Don Juan" on the mast; the Shelleys thought it made the boat look like a coal barge.

On July 8, 1822, Shelley, retired British Navy lieutenant Edward Ellerker Williams, and boat boy Charles Vivien were sailing from Livorno to Lerici when they were caught in a severe storm. What happened that night has been much speculated upon. Mary Shelley later wrote that the boat was never seaworthy. It's generally thought the seamanship of the three men was not equal to the task of riding out the storm. More fanciful theories include a politically motivated assassination or an attack by pirates. Whatever happened, ten days later, three bodies washed ashore at Viareggio. In Shelley's pocket was a volume of poems by John Keats, the fellow Romantic poet whose early death at 25 Shelley celebrated in "Adonaïs", still open to the page he had been reading. Shelley had been one month away from 30.

Byron and others in their circle cremated Shelley's body on the beach. The ashes were buried in a cemetery in Rome. A crass Tory newspaper crowed: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no." Accounts differ on what exactly became of his heart, but many say that it was plucked from the flames intact and kept by Mary Shelley for the rest of her life.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Syd Barrett (1946-2006)

Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett was at art school studying to be a painter when he moved into a flat with his childhood friend Roger Waters. He joined Waters' band The Tea Set, which inexplicably ended up playing a concert with another band of the same name. On the spot, Barrett came up with the name The Pink Floyd Sound. It came from two American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, appropriate because back then Pink Floyd was an R&B cover band, like many young British bands of that day. Barrett became lead singer, lead guitarist, and primary songwriter for the band, and under his influence, they became a leading psychedelic band. Barrett's exuberant stage presence was on display at the hip underground UFO club where Pink Floyd became the house band.

As Pink Floyd became more successful, Barrett's behavior deteriorated. What happened has been speculated to have been caused by the heavy use of LSD and other drugs, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or Asperger's. In interviews and on stage he became terse and unresponsive, sometimes not speaking or playing at all. Behind the scenes, he played bizarre pranks on the rest of the band, who grew more and more exasperated until, on the way to a concert, they refused to pick him up and played the show without him. David Gilmour was brought in to replace Barrett on guitar and by April 1968, Barrett was out of the band.

An abortive attempt at a solo career followed. In 1975, he visited Abbey Road studios and watched the band record "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", a song the band wrote about Barrett. Initially they didn't recognize him as he'd shaven his head and eyebrows, an image that would reappear in their movie The Wall. In 1978, he permanently retreated to his mother's house in Cambridge and would live there in as much seclusion as possible for the rest of his life, painting and expressing no interest in music, Pink Floyd, or his fans. He died of complications from diabetes on July 7, 2006.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Our image of Renaissance humanist Thomas More owes much to his depiction by actor Paul Scofield in the adaptation of Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons. That More is pious yet forward thinking, slavishly loyal to his faith and ideals, a steadfast adherent to oaths and laws. Much of this is no doubt true, but our image of More as a fully modern man is battered by his enthusiastic participation in rooting out the Protestant Reformation in England. While More was Lord Chancellor, six Protestant heretics were burned at the stake, and of one he declared he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy."

As we know from A Man For All Seasons, More, loyal to the authority of the Pope, refused to swear an oath declaring King Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the English Church. He was convicted of false charges of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but Henry commuted this to decapitation. He declared "I die the king's good servant, and God's first" and was decapitated by axe on July 6, 1535. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the Tower of London. His head was stuck on a pike on London Bridge for a month until rescued (likely through bribery) by his daughter Meg Roper. More was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ted Williams (1918-2002)

I don't think there'd be many who would dispute the fact that Ted Williams is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Wikipedia sums it up:
Williams was a two-time American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) winner, led the league in batting six times, and won the Triple Crown twice. A nineteen-time All-Star, he had a career batting average of .344, with 521 home runs, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.

Williams was the last player in Major League Baseball to bat over .400 in a single season (.406 in 1941). Williams holds the highest career batting average of anyone with 500 or more home runs. His career year was 1941, when he hit .406 with 37 HR, 120 RBI, and 135 runs scored. His .551 on base percentage set a record that stood for 61 years.
Williams' records would have been even higher had his baseball career not been interrupted by service in World War II and the Korean War as a fighter pilot. In training he broke even more records and in combat he was awarded the Air Medal. Later in life he became an avid sports fisherman, hosted a fishing television show, and was inducted into his second hall of fame, the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame.

At the end of his life, Williams struggled with heart problems and had a pacemaker implanted. He died of a heart attack at 83 on July 5, 2002. His will stated that he wanted to have his ashes scattered in the Florida Keys. Instead, his son had Williams cryogenically frozen by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. This prompted a lawsuit from Williams' eldest daughter, during which his son and youngest daughter produced an ink-stained napkin with Williams' signature attesting to his supposed change of mind. His son died of leukemia two years later and was also frozen by Alcor. A former Alcor executive claims that Alcor employees drilled holes in Williams' head to insert microphones so they could listen to the sound of his brain cracking while it froze. They then reportedly balanced it on an empty tuna can and tried to dislodge it from the can by whacking it repeatedly with a monkey wrench while bits of frozen head sprayed the room.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Louis Wain (1860-1939)

Louis Wain was the man who drew cats. Thousands upon thousands of them, usually anthropomorphized and engaged in human activities. He was over a century ahead of his time, as he would have been right at home in this age of lolcats. Initially he stared drawing them to amuse his wife when she was dying of cancer. He turned this into a career, and his cats appeared in hundreds of magazines, on greeting cards and postcards, in comic strips and children's books.

After a few decades of this, his popularity waned. He began to develop behavior that is typically described as schizophrenia: delusions, paranoia, violence. (Some theorize that his schizophrenia was a result of toxoplasmosis, a cat disease.) He rearranged the furniture, wandered the nighttime streets, and claimed that watching movies stole the electricity from his sisters' brains. He was institutionalized in 1924. Celebrity admirers like H.G. Wells ("English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.") insured that he was placed in a better hospital, where he could live and draw and paint the next decade and a half in comfort, surrounded by gardens and cats. His increasingly bizarre work during these years is often cited as an example of artistic evidence of a schizophrenic decline. Dissenters point out that there's no solid evidence that Wain didn't suffer from something other than schizophrenia and that his later work, whose chronological order isn't definitively established, may be artistic exploration or simply show the influence of fancy wallpaper patters. Wain died on July 4, 1939.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Trigger (1932-1965)

Golden Cloud was a palomino born on a San Diego ranch and sold at age three to a company that supplied animals to film makers. Olivia de Havilland rode side saddle on him in as Maid Marion in the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Golden Cloud soon crossed paths with cowboy star Roy Rogers. Noting how quick he was, both in terms of speed and intelligence, he renamed him Trigger and purchased him for the princely sum of $2,500. Together they fought bad guys in over 80 movies and 100 television episodes.

When Trigger died at age 33, Rogers couldn't bear the thought of burying his friend. Thanks to taxidermy, Trigger was preserved in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum. Two fiberglass replicas were made of Trigger, one for the top of the museum, one for the Denver Broncos scoreboard. When the museum closed its doors, Trigger was auctioned off by Christie's in 2010 for $266,500 to television station RFD, which plans a Western-themed museum.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ray Combs (1956-1996)

Raymond Neil Combs, Jr. was a practicing Mormon who married his childhood sweetheart and had six children with her. He also moved to Los Angeles to make it as a comedian. After a series of bit roles and a successful Tonight Show appearance where he received a standing ovation, in 1988 Combs was tapped to host a revival of the game show Family Feud. He was a sharp, straight-laced contrast with the original host, licentious British rake Richard Dawson. After six years, Combs was unceremoniously dumped and Dawson returned.

Combs' life went downhill. A back injury in a car accident left him in constant pain, his marriage ended, two comedy clubs he owned failed, and the bank foreclosed on his Ohio home. One day he wrecked his California home and the police found him bloody from repeatedly banging his head against the wall. He was admitted to a mental hospital and placed on suicide watch. Despite this, he hung himself with his bedsheets in his hospital room on July 2, 1996 at the age of 40.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951)

Polish author Tadeusz Borowski was born in Zhytomyr in the Ukraine. His parents were victims of the Soviet Gulag and forced resettlement until the family was repatriated to Poland and settled in Warsaw. When the Nazis occupied Poland, Borowski was part of the educational and literary underground, studying literature in secret schools, writing for underground newspapers, and secretly publishing his first poetry collection, Gdziekolwiek Ziemia (Wherever the Earth).

In 1943, he and his fiancee were arrested by the Gestapo in the apartment of a close friend. and eventually ended up in Auschwitz. They were spared the gas chamber because at that point the Nazis were (for the most part) only gassing Jews. Borowski worked at the railway ramp where arriving Jews were relived of their belongings and herded to the gas chambers. Once, on a work detail to Birkenau, he was able to see his fiancee again briefly and at the sight of her shaven head told her "Don't worry, our children won't be bald."

After the war, he and his fiancee were resettled in different countries, but he persuaded her to leave Sweden and return to Poland, now a communist country, and they married. He worked as journalist and wrote his masterpiece, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria, translated into English as This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), a collection of dark and darkly comic stories about his experience at Auschwitz. His talent was obvious, but his work was denounced for "amorality, decadence, and nihilism". Initially enthusiastic about communism, he became disillusioned. The close friend who was arrested by the Gestapo was now arrested and tortured by the communists.

On July 1, 1951, three days after the birth of his daughter, Borowski committed suicide using a gas stove. It was his third suicide attempt. He was 28.