Victorian Headless Portraits
The Victorian era has many photographs, most of which show the subject sitting or standing with a stern expression. Since photography was still in its infancy, photographers were experimenting with novel ways to create photos that differed from the norm. Animals acting human was one popular concept, and then came the headless portrait. Funny and entertaining, a new genre of photography was born.
The Ghost in the Courthouse Window
In November 1876, the Pickens County Courthouse in South Carolina burned to the ground. Suspecting arson, residents wanted to punish the person responsible. After more than a year a former slave, Henry Wells, was arrested in connection with a string of burglaries and taken to the newly rebuilt courthouse. Thinking Wells was also responsible for the arson, a mob gathered outside, ready to hang him.
From a garret room upstairs, Wells was reportedly peering down at the angry crowd when a bolt of lightning struck near the courthouse and somehow etched the anguished expression on Wells’ face onto the glass of the window. The ghostly face is said to appear often. As for the legend’s truth, an urban adventure to the courthouse might provide the answers.
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 - Life on the Moon
On Tuesday, 25 August 1835, the New York Sun began publishing, in serial form, a long account of stunning astronomical breakthroughs by the famous British astronomer, Sir John Herschel. They were made “by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle.” Herschel, the article declared, had discovered planets in other solar systems and had “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.” Then, almost as if it were an afterthought, the article revealed Herschel’s final, stunning achievement: he had discovered life on the moon!
But the newspaper article described more than just life, they discovered entire civilizations. The account told of fantastic animals, including bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers, and bat-like winged humanoids who built temples. There were even trees, oceans and beaches.
Eventually, the authors announced that the observations had been terminated by the destruction of the telescope, by means of the sun causing the lens to act as a ‘burning glass’, setting fire to the observatory.
The article was an elaborate hoax. Herschel hadn’t observed life on the moon, nor had he accomplished any of the other astronomical breakthroughs credited to him in the article. In fact, Herschel wasn’t even aware until much later that such discoveries had been attributed to him. However, the announcement caused enormous excitement throughout America and Europe. To this day, the moon hoax is remembered as one of the most sensational media hoaxes of all time.
Authorship of the article has been attributed to Richard A. Locke, a Cambridge-educated reporter who was working for the New York Sun at the time. Locke never publicly admitted to being the author and the newspaper never issued a retraction.
Buried Alive - Signals from the Grave
The New York Times printed two disturbing accounts of people that were buried alive. In 1885, one victim was a man from Buncombe County whose name was given as “Jenkins.” His body was found turned over onto its front inside the coffin, with much of his hair pulled out. Scratch marks were also visible on all sides of the coffin’s interior. Another Times article in 1886 described the victim simply as a girl named “Collins” from Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Her body was described as being found with the knees tucked up under the body, and her burial shroud “torn into shreds”. The fear of being buried alive prompted a surge of patents for specialized coffins for “detecting life in buried persons.”
The U.S. Patent Office was busy during the 19th century granting patents for these “safety coffins.” The patent illustrations above are just a few of many that were granted during that time. In case of premature burial, a person would be able to utilize whatever features the coffin offered to signal that they were still alive and trapped inside.
- 1882 (first illustration): John Krichbaum, of Youngstown, OH, created an odd device consisting of a bar placed in the hands of the corpse and extending to the surface and into a glass enclosure where a pointer and numbers apparently indicated any movement of the bar. Krichbaum mentions that the device is used for persons buried under doubt of being in a trance.
- 1885 (second illustration): Charles Sieber and Frederick Borntraeger, of Waterloo, IL, received a patent for a grave signal for people buried in a trance. Along with an electromagnetic bell alarm and pop-up flag activated by a string tied to the finger of the corpse, this patent includes a spring driven fan in a housing at the grave surface that is also activated by the finger string and a lamp and window at the bottom of a tube for viewing the face of the corpse from the surface.
- 1899 (third illustration): M.C.H. Nicolle, of France, patented a somewhat bizarre coffin signal, in which a hammer is released by movement of the corpse, swinging down and breaking a glass window directly over the head, allowing air to enter the previously sealed coffin. The alarm is simply the sound of the breaking glass, since the device is used only before burial. If anyone ever did wake from a trance in one of these coffins and lifted their head, the result would appear to be a face full of broken glass followed by a blow to the head from the falling hammer.
Although there were many specialized coffin patents granted, only a few were made, and of the one’s that were, there is no evidence that anyone’s life has been saved by their use.
The Zoopraxiscope - The World’s First Motion Pictures
Pioneering photographer, Eadweard James Muybridge (1830-1904), gave his most famous lecture in 1882 at the Royal Institution in London. It was in front of a sell out audience that included members of the Royal Family, notably the future King Edward VII. He displayed his photographs on screen and described his Zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures that pre-dated the flexible perforated film strip. This historic lecture was published under the title The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, Illustrated with the Zoopraxiscope, in 1882.
In 1887, Muybridge published his 100,000 plus photos in Animal Locomotion - An Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements. There were over seven hundred plates, all folio-sized, in eleven volumes. This work is today a reference source in motion study and is considered the most exhaustive analysis ever made of the subject. When seen through the Zoopraxiscope (as early as 1879), Muybridge’s photographs are without debate, the world’s first motion pictures. Men, women, children and animals are seen as in true motion, resembling nothing less in quality or appearance than the earliest works of the Lumiere’s in 1895.
Muybridge’s final accomplishment was without Celluloid, yet fluid, preceding the commercial films of the 1890’s by at least 16 years. When considering the fact that there are 172,800 + frames in a typical two hour film of today, Muybridge’s 20,000 pictures, if shown consecutively (impossible with the Zoopraxiscope) would provide a film of approximately 13 minutes in length.
Eaten by Mountain Rats
“In 1876, Pike’s Peak Signal Station attendant Private John O’Keefe told tall tales of life in the station to lawyer, newspaper man and drinking friend, Eliphat Price. O’Keefe recounted a story of large, man-eating rats that lived in caves on Pikes Peak.
“The story grew to include how these rats attacked him and his wife and daughter in the station itself – devouring a side of beef in less than five minutes. While Private O’Keefe tried to protect his family using a club to fend off the rats, it was actually Mrs. O’Keefe who saved the day by electrocuting the rats with a coil of wire connected to the signal station’s battery.
“According to the story, her efforts were too late. Before she could connect the wire to the battery terminals, hundreds of these killer rats had already devoured Erin, the O’Keefe’s only daughter.
“O’Keefe quickly erected a grave on the summit to support his story and to woo tourists. However, O’Keefe wasn’t married and he didn’t have a daughter. Despite this, the story hit the wires and ended up being published in many newspapers around the globe.”
Narcotics for Babies
To help the over-stressed 19th-century mother, a series of “soothing syrups,” lozenges and powders were created to ease the pain of teething and other painful maladies for infants. The most popular of these was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Children Teething. Labeled as “an invaluable medicine for children”, must have sounded great but during that era, people failed to recognize or were unaware of its highly dangerous ingredients. These “soothing syrups” were comprised entirely of narcotics in high doses.
The ingredients were a combination of morphine sulphate, chloroform, morphine hydrochloride, codeine, heroin, powdered opium, and cannabis indica.
On December 1, 1860, the New York Times ran an article touting the benefits of the medicine by featuring letters of endorsement from parents:
MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP FOR CHILDREN TEETHING. LETTER FROM A MOTHER IN LOWELL, MASS. A DOWN-TOWN MERCHANT.
DEAR SIR: I am happy to be able to certify to the efficiency of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP…Having a little boy suffering greatly from teething, who could not rest, and at night by his cries…its effect upon him was like magic; he soon went to sleep, and all pain and nervousness disappeared. We have had no trouble with him since…Every mother who regards the health and life of her children should possess it.
Of course babies would stop crying with all those narcotics pulsing through their tiny systems, anyone would. Unfortunately what the parents ended up with were drug addicted babies running the risk of death from overdose.
It wasn’t for another 50 years that the New York Times changed their position on the medicine. They published an article in 1910 (available here) listing the dangerous ingredients of the “soothing syrups” and urging all to stop the “systematic doping of the delicate organisms of infants with these subtle and powerful drugs…” and should only be obtained from a doctor because of their “habit-forming” effects. One generation’s salvation is another’s nightmare.
(Source: The New York Times)
Thomas Edison - 1894 Boxing Cats
Thomas Edison, who invented the first motion picture camera and made film both a mass communication medium and a creative craft — was also the first person to put cats in front of a camera and make them do something silly.
Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water
William Heath, British, 1795 - 1840
Colour etching on wove paper
26.2 x 37.5 cm
Gift of the Trier-Fodor Foundation, 1980
© 2013 Art Gallery of Ontario