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. Read more…
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. Read more…
Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.
The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.
These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.
Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.
They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald. Read more…
Were it not for the six or so hours of procrastination that has siphoned away my productivity today, I might have ascribed a new disorder to myself, in that special way that we net-snooping nutjobs are prone to do. Anyone who has ever tried to diagnose themselves using WebMD or some other resource, only to find that their sore throat and unusually stiff elbow means they’re probably going to die within the next 20 minutes knows that this is not a wise choice.
Today my mysterious ailment is something called hypergraphia. The main symptom of this malady is an intense desire to write. Hey! That’s me! Well, except for today… never underestimate the power of distraction to cure what ails you.
No, hypergraphia is a more powerful compulsion to put pen to paper than this project could ever be blamed for. It’s not necessarily a desire for expression, or for achieving a finished product, but more of an irresistible drive to write. This symptom can appear alongside epilepsy, and it’s a big red flag for a personality disorder known as Geschwind Syndrome. If your non-stop writing only produces an endless string of erotic haikus, it might be a big red flag for something else.
All work and no play didn’t work out so well for Frank.
Some sufferers of hypergraphia (hypergraphics?) compose poetry, or vast creative works with some genuine literary merit. This is not a disorder that presupposes that the end result will be pages of scrawled gibberish; someone with a legitimate creative pitch to their mental whistle can produce some high-end text. It has been suggested that Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vincent van Gogh, Lewis Carroll and even Robert Burns were subject to this inescapable urge. Read more…
Does the name Ignaz Semmelweis mean anything to you?
My readers whose boot-prints lay along the medical mud-path (or in the frightening swamp of germophobia) will shout an esteemed “YES!”, probably with the reverence my musician friends would reserve for a Les Paul or a Robert Moog. Dr. Semmelweis’s work has probably saved millions upon millions of lives, which is particularly impressive considering he was virtually laughed out of the medical profession.
Many of history’s great geniuses have toiled in anonymity, but it’s a thing of spectacular bamboozlement when someone with the foresight to establish something that is accepted as a subconscious standard decades later was actually lambasted by his peers for thinking outside the box. Louis Pasteur is revered and regarded, with his name showing up on the sides of milk cartons, juice boxes, butter bars and syrup jars for his work in germ theory. But Dr. Semmelweis?
The poor guy doesn’t even pass the spell-check feature of Microsoft Word. And without him, Pasteur might never have uncovered all those secrets of the micro-universe between the filthy ridges of our fingertips.
Dr. Semmelweis (who, according to the photos I could find, may never have had a full head of hair) was born in the Buda part of Budapest, in what was then a part of the Austrian Empire. He earned his doctorate degree in 1844 and decided to specialize in obstetrics. He was assigned to the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, serving under Professor Johann Klein, a man whose contributions to the field of medicine appear to have been little more than squat. I mention this only because his dickishness plays into this story a little later. Read more…
Every so often I come across a topic so bereft of logic and reason, so astoundingly zapped with surrealism and unfathomable strangeness, I feel I may as well be writing a piece of fiction. And while any tall tale from the eighteenth century is certainly subject to hyperbole and the exaggerated and skull-warping lens of loosely-transcribed anecdotery, this tale appears to be rooted in fact. Actual sources, like the London Medical & Physical Journal are cited. This guy was real.
The veracity of the specific details may merit some scrutiny, but I’m going to pour these words all over the page like freshly-squeezed fact-juice, letting the weirdness dribble down the sides of my screen and collect in a Technicolor puddle between my toes because this is a story that I need to tell, dammit.
This is the tale of Tarrare: eating machine, freedom fighter, unbelievably crappy spy, and possible cannibal. Had he lived in the modern era, he would have quickly graduated beyond circus freak into an internet sensation. He might have even dated a Kardashian. Or eaten one. Either way, it’s a hell of a story.
Decide for yourself how much of this you choose to believe.
Tarrare – and we only know him by that one name – was born in rural France sometime around 1772. He was a normal child, except for his voracious appetite. The kid could eat and eat and never find that plateau of satisfaction. In his teens he could reportedly devour a quarter of a bullock (that’s a steer, not a British testicle or the Oscar-winning Sandra) in a single day. That was his entire weight. I can’t imagine where he found the time, let alone the physical space. Read more…