“A Magic-Ridden People”

Excerpts from “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” a paper published by Horace Miner in the June 1956 edition of American Anthropologist:

  • “They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east.”
  • “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose.”
  • “In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client.”
  • “There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.”

It’s a satire. What’s Nacirema spelled backward?

Season’s Greetings

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Apparently bored in December 1936, the eccentric Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, placed an advertisement in the personals column of the London Times:

“Lord Berners wishes to dispose of two elephants and one small rhinoceros (latter house-trained). Would make delightful Christmas presents.”

When a newspaperman telephoned, Berners took the call himself, pretending to be the butler. “Actually, I haven’t seen the rhino, myself, sir,” he said, “but it’s often about the house. It’s quite gentle, I’m told. The weather was getting too cold for the elephants, so I’m glad they’ve gone. They went on Saturday. I understand Mr. Harold Nicolson has bought one and Lady Colefax the other. I hope they have good homes.”

A bewildered Nicolson found himself insisting, “I have NOT bought an elephant! I do not intend to buy one! I do not want an elephant, and I have nowhere to put an elephant! This looks like a joke. I have known Lord Berners for twenty-five years, but I don’t feel friendly to him this morning. I do not want an elephant, have never wanted one, and I have not bought one.”

More Berners mischief.

Man Bites Dog

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The New York Times carried an alarming item on July 28, 1874: “A Dog and Man Fight in England,” about a dwarf named Brummy who had undertaken to fight a bulldog on a wager, “without weapons and without clothes, except his trousers.” The fight took place in “a quiet house,” where the combatants were chained to opposite walls, and Brummy agreed to assume all fours throughout. The first to knock out the other for 60 seconds was to be declared the victor:

The man was on all fours when the words ‘Let go’ were uttered, and, making accurate allowance for the length of the dog’s chain, he arched his back, cat wise, so as just to escape its fangs, and fetched it a blow on the crown of its head that brought it almost to its knees. The dog’s recovery, however, was instantaneous; and before the dwarf could draw back, Physic made a second dart forward, and this time its teeth grazed, the biped’s arm, causing a slight red trickling. He grinned scornfully, and sucked the place; but there was tremendous excitement among the bull-dog’s backers, who clapped their hands with delight, rejoicing in the honour of first blood.

After 10 rounds of this “the bull-dog’s head was swelled much beyond its accustomed size; it had lost two teeth, and one of its eyes was entirely shut up; while as for the dwarf, his fists, as well as his arms, were reeking, and his hideous face was ghastly pale with rage and despair of victory.” But then “the dwarf dealt him a tremendous blow under the chin, and with such effect that the dog was dashed against the wall, where, despite all its master could do to revive it it continued to lie, and being unable to respond when ‘time’ was called, Brummy was declared to be victorious.”

The Times, which had picked up the story from the London Telegraph, noted that in the ensuing outrage the Home Secretary had directed the mayor of Hanley to investigate, and as no confirmation could be found, “there is a strong hope that, after all, the whole thing is a canard.” The Telegraph, however, “stands by its correspondent, and insists upon the truth of the report.”

Fish Story

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Here’s an imaginative newspaper hoax from the American West — James Wickham, a “scientific English gentleman,” was said to have released two 35-foot whales in the Great Salt Lake in 1873:

Mr. Wickham came from London in person to superintend the ‘planting’ of his leviathan pets. He selected a small bay near the mouth of Bear River connected with the main water by a shallow strait half a mile wide. Across this strait he built a wide fence, and inside the pen so formed he turned the whales loose. After a few minutes inactivity they disported themselves in a lively manner, spouting water as in mid-ocean, but as if taking in by instinct or intention the cramped character of their new home, they suddenly made a bee line for deep water and shot through the wire fence as if it had been made of threads. In twenty minutes they were out of sight, and the chagrined Mr. Wickham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water.

If Great Salt lake were in Asia it would be called a sea. It is seventy-five miles long and from thirty to forty wide, so it is easy to perceive how readily the whales could vanish from sight. Though the enterprising owner was of course, disappointed and doubtful of the results, he left an agent behind him to look after his floating property.

Six months later Mr. Wickham’s representative came upon the whales fifty miles from the bay where they had broken away, and from that time to the present they have been observed at intervals by him and the watermen who ply the lake, spouting and playing.

Within the last few days, however, Mr. Wickham cabled directions to make careful inspection and report the developments, and the agent followed the whales for five successive days and nights, discovering that the original pair are now sixty feet in length, and followed about by a school of several hundred young, varying in length from three to fifteen feet. The scheme is a surprising and complete success, and Mr. Wickham has earned the thanks of mankind.

I’m not sure when it first appeared. The earliest publication I can find is in the Salt Lake Herald of June 27, 1890, which noted that the article was “again going the rounds” and reprinted it “merely to show that while great interest is taken by the country generally in that wonderful body of water known as the Great Salt lake, there is also great ignorance shown by outside people who endeavor to explain its beauties and advantages.”

Keepsake

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In 1881, as the nation was mourning James Garfield’s assassination, the following advertisement appeared in 200 newspapers:

I have secured the authorized steel engravings of the late President Garfield, executed by the United States Government, approved by the President of the United States, by Congress and by every member of the President’s family as the most faithful of all portraits of the President. It was executed by the Government’s most expert steel engravers, and I will send a copy from the original plate, in full colors approved by the Government, postpaid, for one dollar each.

Each reader who sent in a dollar received the promised engraving — on a 5¢ postage stamp.

The “Polish Schindler”

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Physician Eugene Lazowski was practicing medicine in the Polish town of Rozwadów when he discovered that injecting healthy patients with dead bacteria could cause them to test positive for epidemic typhus without experiencing any symptoms.

Working secretly with his friend Stanislaw Matulewicz, Lazowski began injecting thousands of Poles in the surrounding villages, deliberately creating the appearance of an epidemic. Fearful of a contagious illness, the Nazis quarantined the affected villages rather than sending their residents on to concentration camps.

Lazowski’s efforts saved an estimated 8,000 men, women, and children who would otherwise have been sent to prisons, slave labor camps, or death camps. He survived the war and moved to the United States in 1958, where he taught medicine in Illinois.

“He’s why I became a doctor,” one of the spared villagers, Jan Hryniewiezki, told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. “He was a patriotic hero because he wasn’t afraid to do what he did during very bad times.”

“The basic duty of a physician is to preserve life,” Lazowski explained, “and this was a way of saving lives.”

Shhhh!

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To amuse themselves in 1907, librarians Edmund Lester Pearson and John Cotton Dana published The Old Librarian’s Almanack, a pamphlet they alleged to have been written originally in 1773 by Jared Bean, “curator or librarian of the Connecticut Society of Antiquarians,” and evidently a man of strong opinions:

So far as your Authority will permit of it, exercise great Discrimination as to which Persons shall be admitted to the use of the Library. For the Treasure House of Literature is no more to be thrown open to the ravages of the unreasoning Mob, than is a fair Garden to be laid unprotected at the Mercy of a Swarm of Beasts.

Question each Applicant closely. See that he be a Person of good Reputation, scholarly habits, sober and courteous Demeanour. Any mere Trifler, a Person that would Dally with Books, or seek in them shallow Amusement, may be Dismiss’d without delay.

The book was reviewed seriously in the New York Sun, the New York Times, the Hartford Courant, Publisher’s Weekly, the Newburyport Daily News, the Providence Sunday Journal, and even the Library Association Record, which asked “what librarian would not at times in his secret soul sympathize” with Bean’s irritation with patrons who disturbed his reading time.

Finally Helen E. Haines of the Library Journal discerned the hoax, and the library community realized it had been had. Public Libraries wrote, “We congratulate the author of the book on being so clever to project himself into the past, as to deceive even the very elect. The book is well worth owning and reading. Let us be thankful that one with humor, imagination and sympathy has created for us dear old Jared with his gentle comradeship and his ardent love of books.”

Patron Ain’t

Franz Bibfeldt is unusual among theologians — he doesn’t exist. In 1947, divinity student Robert Clausen invented the name for a fictitious footnote in a term paper at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and his classmate Martin Marty then wrote a review of Bibfeldt’s book The Relieved Paradox in the seminary magazine. The book was imaginary, but the conspirators arranged for it to be cataloged at the school library and always checked out.

When the hoax was discovered, the perpetrators were reprimanded and Marty was sent to Chicago, where he eventually rose to become a dean at the University of Chicago divinity school. So, Marty said, “Bibfeldt had more influence on me than any other theologian.”

Under Marty’s influence, Bibfeldt grew into an invisible mainstay at the school. A display case in the entry hall was filled with signed photographs of mayor Richard Daley, Spiro Agnew, Illinois senator Charles Percy, former Georgia governor Lester Maddox, and the 1971 Playmate of the Year, all inscribed to Bibfeldt, and an annual symposium featuring bratwurst and beer was held each year on the Wednesday closest to April Fool’s Day. Graduates eventually spread Bibfeldt’s gospel elsewhere — he’s noted in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation; a session at the American Association of Religions meeting in 1988 was devoted to Bibfeldt; and in 1994 the evangelical satire magazine The Wittenberg Door named him theologian of the year.

Bibfeldt himself is characteristically modest — reportedly he has given only one interview, and that to Howard Hughes — but his acts are famous:

  • He adapted the Sermon on the Mount for American audiences, writing, “Blessed are the happy who have everything, because they won’t need to be comforted” and “Blessed are the impeccably dressed, because they will look nice when they see God.”
  • He responded sharply to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or with a treatise titled Both/And, followed by the conciliatory Either/Or and/or Both/And.
  • Other publications include A Pragmatist’s Paraphrase of Selected Sayings of Jesus, The Boys of Sumer: Akkadian Origins of the National Pastime, I Hear What You’re Saying, But I Just Don’t Care: Thoughts on Pastoral Counseling, Luther on Vacation: From Worms to Cancun, and The Wealth of King Solomon: A Hebrew Scripture Prefigurement of Sports Contracts.
  • “It is more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” he wrote. “Yet, with genetic engineering, we can now breed very small camels.”

“We use him very mildly, gently, to satirize the whole theological system,” Marty said. “There’s really no malice in it.”

Princess Caraboo

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In April 1817 a strange young woman appeared in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. She was 5 foot 2, with black hair and eyes, and wore a black shawl twisted like a turban around her head and a black dress with a muslin frill. She presented herself at a cottage in the village and pointed to the couch. The cottager, struck that she did not seem to understand him, summoned help, and she was sent to the county magistrate.

The woman spoke an unfamiliar tongue and looked blankly at those who spoke English. At first she sought to sleep on the floor, apparently not understanding what beds were for. The next morning the parish clergyman showed her a series of books and divined that she had come from China aboard a ship. She seemed to call herself Caraboo.

In the weeks that followed she taught her new friends the strange language that she spoke and wrote, and through it gave her story: She was a princess from an island named Javasu, and had been captured by pirates while walking in her garden. The pirates had sold her to the captain of a brig in exchange for a sack of gold dust. After some ill treatment, she jumped overboard and swam to the nearest shore, which happened to be England.

Throughout this time Caraboo exhibited strange behavior, wandering abroad with a gong, a tambourine, and a bow and arrow. She climbed trees dextrously and swam like a fish; she fenced capably and danced a peculiar sort of waltz.

Eventually a local scientist named Wilkinson published several letters in the Bath Chronicle hoping that someone might recognize a description of the strange woman. A woman named Mrs. Neale responded, and the truth came out. Princess Caraboo was Mary Baker, the daughter of a cobbler in Devonshire. She had wanted five pounds to pay passage to Philadephia on an emigrant ship, and had decided to beg for it while posing as a foreigner.

The magistrate’s wife forgave her and paid for her passage. She returned seven years later and tried to earn a living by exhibiting herself in her old guise, but few people came. She ended her days selling leeches in Bristol drugstores.

The Hook Hoax

Desperate to fill a hole on the front page of Truth one Friday afternoon in 1954, Australian journalist Phillip Knightley invented a story about a sex criminal known as the Hook who haunted the Sydney train network raising women’s skirts with a length of wire fashioned from an old coat hanger. “The wire ran over his right shoulder and down his coat sleeve where it stopped in a hook just short of the cuff. The Hook, while pretending to read a newspaper, would sidle alongside an attractive and unsuspecting girl as they stood in a crowded train, drop his shoulder to extend the hook which he would then slip under the girl’s skirt and surreptitiously raise it to look at her stocking tops.”

Knightley quoted an anonymous officer saying that suburban police had been inundated with complaints; an anonymous victim spoke of her resolution to avoid the trains until the pervert was caught; and a staff artist drew his impression of the Hook at work. Knightley’s editor approved the story, and it ran with the headline HOOK SEX PERVERT STRIKES AGAIN.

On Monday morning Knightley’s phone rang.

“Sergeant Williamson here. Did you write that stuff about the Hook?”

“Yes.”

“Right. Well, I just want to thank you and let you know that we go the bastard this morning.”

“Got him?”

“Yeah. Arrested him at Punchbowl station. Caught him in the act. You might want to write about it.”

“Thinking about it, as I still do from time to time, I came up with several explanations,” Knightley wrote in his 1997 memoir A Hack’s Progress. Possibly a copycat had read the story, emulated the Hook, and got caught. Possibly a Hook had really existed who coincidentally matched Knightley’s story. Or possibly the Sydney police had nominated a minor sex offender as the Hook in order to polish its record. “I decided that the last explanation was the most likely and, filled with guilt, I swore that would be the first and last time I would ever make up a story,” Knightley wrote. “This turned out to be a vow that was not easy to keep, because I soon fell in with the Fleet Street Royal press corps, which made up stories all the time.”