Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Walpurgisnacht -- Halloween's Diabolical Cousin

Halloween’s Diabolical Cousin

According to occult tradition, there was once a single night of the year when evil women gathered on a demon-haunted mountain, with the denizens of Hell, and worshipped Satan, danced naked around a bonfire and engaged in a supernatural orgy – it was Walpurgisnacht, or the Eve of St. Walpurga, which occurs every year on April 30. According to pagan lore, it is the one night of the year when “evil has full sway over the world.”

The dark festival takes its name from Walpurga of Devon, England, a convent leader from the 700s who was canonized as the patron saint of rabies. Though far from as popular as its eerie cousin, Halloween, Walpurgisnacht has cast a shadow over many works of Gothic art, literature and music from the night Bram Stoker chose for Jonathan Harker to meet Dracula to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”

An old postcard of Walpurgisnacht 
To understand the significance of Walpurgisnacht, we also have to understand the druidic Samhain, known today as Halloween. Samhain was the solstice festival that celebrated the start of the darkest months of the year: winter. That meant that the days got shorter, food supplies dwindled and sickness and death lay ahead. This meant that the season’s conclusion called for a ritual festival to commemorate and end to that darkness, which the druids called Beltane – a spring ritual that took place six months after Samhain. Beltane spread with the druids across Europe and eventually found a home in Germany. However, around 800 A.D. Christianity also arrived in Germany with Charlemagne and many things that the pagans believed in from Wotan [a.k.a. Odin], the other gods, the burning of the dead and other things became forbidden under penalty of death. However, some of their celebrations survived, named the one held on April 30.

But – as with some many other festivals co-opted by the Church – Beltane was replaced with a day of veneration on the following morning: the Feast of St. Walpurga (an equivalent to All Saints Day). And just like with All Saints Day, the Feast of St. Walpurga proved to be much less interesting than Beltane. For this reason, Walpurgisnacht – the night before the Feast – haunted Germany long after its intended replacement was started and continued to symbolize the end of a long darkness for the people. But how dark was this final night?

A gathering of witches on Walpurgisnacht
 There are many different opinions about what took place on Walpurgisnacht, but most agree that it was some sort of witch’s Sabbath. It’s been said that witches dance naked around a bonfire before copulating with demons. Others stated that it was a Black Sabbath during which witches flew on broomsticks to a secret location where they were joined by the Devil to worship. Most of the folklore in Germany was situated around the tallest mountain in Northern Germany, known as the Brocken – “the father of mountains.” On the summit of the giant, craggy peak are two formations called the Witches’ Altar (Hexenaltar) and Devil’s Pulpit (Teufelskanzel). The region has inspired a number of horrific tales and even the surrounding plateau has stories of its own – so many that it’s known as the Witches’ Dance Floor (Hexentanzplatz). It’s said that the region is named after a fleet of witches on broomsticks scared off a battalion of Frankish soldiers who were occupying the area. Ancient ruins dot the landscape and many of them, like the Pagan Wall (Heidenwall – built between 750 and 450 B.C.) offer proof to many of occult activity in the region’s past.

Occultist Anton LaVey was inspired to found his Church of Satan on Walpurgisnacht
Goethe, who set the first act of his famous play Faust on the Brocken during Walpurgisnacht, wasn’t the only one inspired by it. Famed occultist Anton LaVey was so taken by the celebration that he established his Church of Satan on April 30, citing Walpurgisnacht as one of the most important satanic holidays. On the other side of the coin, the famous “Night on Bald Mountain” scene in Disney’s animated 1940 film Fantasia was based on a phenomenon called the Brocken Specters (Brockengespenster). The Brocken Specters are giant, diffracted shadows created by anyone going above the cloud line of the Brocken. These confusing shades were dangerous to mountain climbers, especially when mist encircled the mountain, sometimes causing men to fall to their deaths. The phenomenon makes it seem as if an enormous figure is stalking you, which gave rise to the belief that ghosts and demons were haunting the Brocken – and not just on Walpurgisnacht.

Today, Walpurgisnacht continues to be celebrated in Germany, in many other European countries and in America among Satanists, pagans and occult practitioners. Many still see it as a sacred holiday and the last night of evil before the months of warmth and light control the world. In many locations, towns are decorated with witch and devil dolls, people dress in costumes, bonfires are lit, a lot of beer is consumed and costumed enthusiast party late into the night. Don’t miss your chance to revel on this last night of darkness – and lift a glass or two for me while you’re at it! Happy Walpurgisnacht!

A modern Walpurgisnacht celebration

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Man who Murdered the Assassin

The Enigmatic Boston Corbett – killer of John Wilkes Booth

On this date, April 26, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was surrounded by federal troops in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia and shot to death. Legends persisted for decades – starting almost from the time the fatal shot was fired and continuing to this day --- that Booth was not the man who died in that barn. Allegedly, he lived on for many years, only to eventually die in Enid, Oklahoma… but that’s a story for another time (see my book INTO THE SHADOWS).

For this anniversary of Booth’s accepted death, we will be taking a closer look at the man who killed him – a very strange gentleman named Boston Corbett, who may have been part of a larger conspiracy himself.

Boston Corbett is largely considered to have been the Jack Ruby of his day – the man who killed the killer of the President of the United States. Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, in the basement of the Dallas, Texas jail was witnessed by reporters, police officers and a national television audience. But Boston Corbett’s shooting of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865, at a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia was hardly witnessed by anyone – and it attracted controversy from the beginning. While he was celebrated for a short time as Booth’s killer, his real place in the Lincoln assassination remains in question after all of these years.

Sergeant Boston Corbett had been assigned to Lieutenant Edward Doherty, one of the Federal officers that had been given the task of tracking down Lincoln’s assassin. The soldiers found several witnesses who recognized Booth and eventually discovered sympathizer Willie Jett, who had arranged lodging for Booth at the tobacco farm where he was later discovered.

Boston Corbett

It was Corbett who fired the fatal bullet that killed Booth and it is at this point that many conspiracy theories about him begin. Among the theories is the idea that Corbett was under different orders than the other soldiers. Some believe he was actually told to silence Booth so that Edwin Stanton could not be implicated in a plot against the president. It is unlikely that this was the case, however, as Corbett is not believed to have had contact with Stanton before leaving Washington. He did act on orders to kill Booth, however, if not orders from government officials, then from a higher authority.

He shot Booth on direct orders from God.

He was born Thomas H. Corbett in London in 1832 and immigrated with his parents to Troy, New York seven years later. As a young man in the 1850s, Corbett went into the hat-making industry at a time when the dire occupational hazards of the trade had yet to be discovered. As he worked, he was exposed to large quantities of mercury, which often caused insanity (thus, the expression “mad as a hatter”). The inescapable inhaling of the vapors from the mercury affected the brain and caused hallucinatory episodes, twitches and tics and outright psychoses and his work as a hat-maker was certainly the root of Boston Corbett’s madness.

He worked in the trade in Troy and Albany, in Richmond, Virginia and in Boston and New York City for several years. He is said to have married during this period, losing his wife and a baby during childbirth. After this tragedy, he became homeless and began drinking. He eventually strayed into religion after attending a revival meeting in New York.

In 1857, while working in Boston, Corbett was baptized, apparently into the Methodist Church, and the experience so moved him that he adopted the name of the city where he found his faith as his own. He was by now a local eccentric. He wore his hair long because images of Jesus showed him with long locks and he preached to any passerby who paused in curiosity.

Corbett’s religious fanaticism, loud but harmless, took a violent turn in the summer of 1858. After a revival meeting at a Boston church, he was propositioned on the street by two prostitutes. The experience so disturbed him that he returned to the boarding house where he lived and castrated himself with a pair of scissors. He was treated at Massachusetts General Hospital from the middle of July to the first weeks in August for his self-inflicted wound.

What happened to Boston Corbett over the course of the next two years is unknown, but at some point, he returned to New York and in April 1861, enlisted as a private in Company I, Twelfth New York Militia. Behavioral problems marred his record from the start. They began when he heard Colonel Butterfield, commander of the militia regiment, using profanity toward his new recruits. Corbett reprimanded the Colonel for using the Lord’s name in vain and for this, was marched off to the guardhouse. A few days later, Butterfield offered to release him if he apologized, but Corbett refused.

Corbett later re-enlisted, this time in Company L, Sixteenth New York Cavalry, where he was promoted to corporal and later rose to the rank of sergeant. This was in spite of the numerous disciplinary problems that he had over his demand that officers not use profanity and his condemnation of fellow soldiers who drank. New York cavalrymen remembered their odd comrade for his periodic punishment tours where he carried a knapsack filled with bricks around the guardhouse but his commanders saw him as a fierce and resolute fighting man. He fought bravely in battle, although his odd and erratic behavior often made his superiors wary of using him for some assignments.

 In June 1864, Confederate raiders under John Singleton Mosby cornered a squad of Union troopers, including Corbett, at Culpepper Courthouse in Virginia. Corbett refused to surrender, found cover and opened fire on Mosby and his twenty-six raiders. He only gave up after his ammunition ran out. Mosby was impressed.

Corbett and his comrades were sent to the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia and endured five months of incarceration there, three of them in an outdoor compound. He was released during a prisoner exchange in November 1864 and was sent to an Army hospital in Maryland to recover from exposure, malnutrition and scurvy. By the early spring of 1865, Corbett had returned to his unit and in April was the first man to volunteer for service in the pursuit of President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth

Corbett was among the men who cornered Booth and David Herold at the Port Royal tobacco barn and he was stationed at a point on the building’s perimeter when it was set on fire. Through a gap in the barn’s siding, he saw a lone figure inside. He stated at the conspiracy trial one month later that he had never seen Booth before but the man in the barn had a broken leg and made “desperate replies” to the Federal officers who demanded his surrender. He gave a statement on May 1, 1865 that read:

I saw [Booth] in the act of stooping or springing, and concluded he was going to use his weapons. I immediately took steady aim upon him with my revolver and fired – shooting him through the neck and head. He was then carried out of the barn before the fire reached him; was taken to the Piazza of the house… Lt. Doherty, and the detective officers who were in front of the barn, did not seem to know that I had shot him, but supposed he had shot himself, until I informed Lt. Doherty of the fact – showing him my pistol which bore evidence of the truth of my statement, which also confirmed by the man placed at my right-hand who saw it.

 Corbett’s shot was an extraordinary one considering the distance, the weapon, the smoke and fire in the barn and the confusion that was occurring outside of it. The bullet struck the man inside in the back of the head – almost at the same place where Booth’s bullet struck Lincoln – and severed his spinal cord.

The assassin was dragged from the burning barn and placed on a mattress from the nearby Garrett house. He was scarcely recognizable as the handsome actor. The man was filthy, his hair in tangles, and eleven-day growth of beard on his emaciated face. He died a few minutes after being taken from the barn.

After the shooting at the farm, Corbett was placed under arrest by Colonel Conger, Doherty’s superior officer in the search party. The charge against him was a breach of military discipline “in firing without Doherty’s order and in defiance of Gen. Baker’s order” and Corbett was placed under guard along with David Herold and returned to Washington. When they arrived, Corbett was imprisoned, awaiting court martial. However, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, upon hearing the story of the incident, ordered Corbett to be released. He announced theatrically, “The rebel is dead, the patriot lives – the patriot is released!”

Corbett mustered out of the Army on August 17, 1865 and moved to Danbury, Connecticut. There, he found work, again in the hat trade, and supplemented his income with occasional lectures, accompanied by lantern slides, on his exploits as “Lincoln’s Avenger.”

But, was he really? Even those who did not question the idea that the assassin died at the Garrett farm, they did wonder whether or not Corbett actually fired the fatal shot, or whether Booth committed suicide or escaped. Some believed that Colonel Conger fired the shot from the corner of the barn (he received a suspiciously high $15,000 of the combined $75,000 reward offered for Booth and Herold’s capture). Others believed that Lieutenant Doherty had done the shooting and pointed out that he received $5,250 of the reward money and was never questioned during the conspirator’s trial. Corbett’s shot was almost impossible and many believed that he simply could not have done it. In 1903, an early Lincoln assassination researcher, David M. DeWitt, wrote that Corbett was at least thirty feet from the barn when the shot was fired that killed Booth.

In the end, Corbett received $1,653.85 as part of the reward for bringing Booth to justice. His petition for a federal pension for his service in the Army, specifically for his work as a volunteer in the search for Lincoln’s assassin, came through in 1882. He was granted $7.50 a month in appreciation for his “service” to the United States.

Corbett eventually gave up work as a hat-maker and showed up in the late 1860s, in Camden, New Jersey, where he worked as a minister. He later went west and ended up in Kansas in the 1870s, showing signs of a deteriorating mental state. He lived as a reclusive farmer for years, occasionally working as a “fire and brimstone” evangelist. In November 1885, he was arrested after threatening some boys playing baseball on the Sabbath with a pistol. The case was dismissed by the county attorney.

A year after this incident, through the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic and a state legislator from Cloud County, where Corbett lived, he was hired as an assistant doorkeeper at the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. He reported for duty in January 1887, but only lasted a month before his insanity got the better of him.

Corbett, in his madness, believed that the other doorkeepers and the politicians were laughing at him behind his back. This led to him threatening a janitor with a knife and then pointing a revolver at the House sergeant-in-arms. He broke into the House gallery with his weapons, causing the lawmakers, staff and workers to flee for their lives. Corbett was quickly arrested and taken before a judge the next day. A quick verdict was pronounced and he was sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

He failed on his first attempt to escape but on May 26, 1888, he succeeded. Walking around the grounds of the asylum with other inmates that day, Corbett saw a pony that belonged to the young son of the superintendent tied up in front of the hospital office. He hurried over, stole the horse, and rode away.

A week later, with flyers posted about him around the state, Corbett surfaced in Neodesha in the southeastern part of the state. There, he met a local schoolmaster named Richard Thatcher and Irwin Ford, the son of a soldier who had been imprisoned with Corbett at Andersonville. The two men supplied Corbett with a fresh horse, food and money. They said that Corbett told them that he had been “shamefully treated” and intended to flee to Mexico.

He may have done just that, although we’ll never know for sure. He was in good health when he escaped from the hospital and Mexico was the perfect place for him to do just what he did – disappear.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

America's Forgotten Fire

The Rhythm Club Fire of Natchez, Mississippi

Much has been written over the years about the deadly fire at the Coconut Grove Club and other famous nightclubs but there has been little written about another devastating nightspot blaze, the Rhythm Nightclub Fire, which occurred in Natchez, Mississippi, in April 1940. It was a bit of mystery to us as to why no one has taken a closer look at this fire, but based on the time and place – the heavily segregated South – the answer became clear: All of the victims were African Americans.

I have never been of the belief that racism is behind every bad thing in American history, but when looking over the newspaper articles that pertained to the fire, the writing style in them made the situation pretty plain. The Rhythm had been a Negro club, staffed and owned by Negroes, patronized by Negroes (“imitating their white counterparts by dressing in evening clothes,” as one contemporary news report sneered) and the tragedy was not taken as seriously in 1940 as it would have been today. Mississippi was still a segregated state, plagued by the Jim Crow laws, and many white residents had little use for the blacks that lived among them, alive or dead, unless they cleaned their homes, mowed their lawns or proved themselves useful in some other way.

It was a devastating event when 216 African American music lovers lost their lives on the night of April 23, 1940, but far too few people seemed to care about the victims – or their ghosts.

The Rhythm Nightclub after the Fire in April 1940. 

The Rhythm Nightclub Fire occurred on St. Catherine Street in Natchez. It was an area referred to as the “Negro section” of town, on the edge of the downtown business district. The wooden, oblong structure was built in 1925 to serve as a church, which later closed. It was used as a garage for a time before being converted into a nightclub in 1938. The building was ramshackle and run down and had only one entrance, located at the back. A stage had been erected at the front, where the altar of the church had been. In an attempt to decorate the place, the club’s proprietor, Ed Frazier, had draped the walls and rafters with Spanish moss. It hung down above the customers, giving the place a moody, bayou-like atmosphere that must have appealed to the late night revelers. Tragically, it would prove to be the club’s undoing.

The Rhythm Club had numerous windows on both sides of the building, dating back to its construction as a church, but thanks to a problem with what the owners referred to as “gatecrashers,” shutters had been nailed over all of the windows to keep non-paying customers out. The shutters would also serve a more sinister purpose – they would keep everyone inside.

The evening of April 23 was an exciting night for the black community in Natchez. One of the biggest names in Negro entertainment, Walter Barnes, was playing at the Rhythm Club with his 15-piece orchestra. It was bound to be one of the big shows of the year and the club attracted the cream of the local African American society. Present that night were black attorneys, physicians, teachers, social workers and scores of other community leaders. They were packed into the place, elbow-to-elbow, with more than 300 other customers, some having come from as far away as Louisiana to hear the Chicago orchestra.

Walter Barnes and the Royal Creolians
Walter Barnes was a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was born in 1905, and had moved to Chicago in 1923, where he began studying reed instruments with classical teacher Franz Schoepp. He took further studies at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music. He took over as the bandleader from the Detroit Shannon outfit in 1924 and re-named the band the Royal Creolians. He traveled across the country and recorded music with the band in 1928-1929 for the Brunswick label. Barnes made a name for himself by taking dance music to small Southern towns, where most other big name entertainers rarely performed. Barnes recruited musicians from several different states for his tours and was always popular in Mississippi.

When he arrived in Natchez in April 1940, he was on the last leg of his current tour. He brought with him a 15-piece band, including a female singer. After Natchez, they only had two more stops on the tour, Vicksburg and New Albany, Mississippi, before returning to Chicago.

The fire broke out around 11:35 p.m. According to Ernest Wright, an elevator operator who came to meet his wife at the club after getting off work, the fire was started by a careless cigarette. He told the police that he saw two girls come out of the women’s room near the front of the hall and heard one of them say: “Now you did it. You set the place on fire.”

Wright said that he didn’t see anything for a minute and then he saw blinding sheets of flame. “In a moment,” he said. “The whole place was on fire.”

Fire officials believed that a cigarette had inadvertently touched one of the streamers of Spanish moss, which were hanging from the rafters. The dry moss had been hanging there for nearly two years, and instantly burst into flames. A cry of “fire!” went up from the crowd. Someone managed to slip outside and contact the fire department, which arrived less than five minutes later. Even then, however, it was too late for scores of people trapped inside.
Once the people jammed into the club realized that the place was on fire, they immediately went into a panic. There were shouts, screams, cries and curses, and in moments, the crowd became a clawing, fighting mass as they tried to get out of the single door. Almost 150 people escaped before the thrashing, terrified victims became jammed into the doorway, unable to break loose and blocking all means of escape for everyone still trapped inside.

The fire department arrived at 11:40 p.m. Frightful screams came from the towering flames that now engulfed the building from wall to wall. A few moments later, the tin roof fell in and the crash sent a shower of sparks and flames soaring into the dark sky. The firemen immediately went to work, dousing the fire with water, and working frantically to try and pull the trapped people from the building.

Meanwhile, inside, it was a hellish scene. People fought, punched, kicked and scratched, struggling to get out of the door. There was simply no place for them to go. Many of those who were pushed away cowered near the stage at the front of the club, hoping that they could somehow avoid being burned to death. Unfortunately, an exhaust fan near the front of the club pulled the smoke and fire in the direction of the bandstand. It was there that Walter Barnes, and some of the members of the orchestra, was trapped. Two members of the band, plus Alton Barnes, the bandleader’s brother and the band’s manager, had escaped from the club. Walter was not so lucky, but in the aftermath of the fire, he was hailed as a hero. When the fire first broke out, he tried to calm the crowd while he and the band continued to play the song “Marie.” His body was later found, among dozens of others, at the front of the building.

The inferno was out within 10 minutes. It had reduced the club to a pile of smoldering ashes. Smoke rolled out from beneath the hot tin roof, which had collapsed onto the grisly scene. White men came running to the scene from the nearby business district and aided the blacks and the police in taking the injured to one of the nearby Negro hospitals. Men and women were found wandering in the street, practically naked and in a daze. Their clothing had been either burned off or torn off in the fight at the door. Officials believed that about 150 people escaped from the club and that between 50 and 100 of them were injured. The hospitals were soon filled to overflowing.

The Rhythm Club turned out to be a fiery deathtrap for scores of people who gathered there. This photo shows the burned-out interior of the club.

The bodies of the dead that could be easily reached were taken to the three Negro undertakers in the district, where police officers began counting them and laying them out for identification. The coroner suggested a plan of embalming the bodies and putting them on display so that friends and relatives could identify them later. The grim task continued for weeks after the fire.

The initial estimates of more than 150 dead were quickly upgraded. By the following day, many of the burned victims had died in the hospital, raising the death toll to 212. More would be added before it was all over. Coroner R.E. Smith visited the scene the next morning and blamed most of the deaths on the fact that the building only had one door, as well as the fact that the windows had been boarded over to keep people from sneaking into the shows. He described the horribly gruesome scene to the newspapers:

The bodies were piled up like cordwood. The skin was peeling from faces, blood oozed from mouths and flesh was broken. From my examination, it appeared that most of the people died from suffocation. A majority of the victims were 15 to 16 years old. There were about as many youths as girl victims.
The bodies were piled up in funeral parlors and no identifications have been made yet. The undertakers told me that they would embalm the bodies and line them up and let relatives file by to identify kinsmen.

Coroner Smith, who was also the managing editor of the Natchez Democrat, said that the paper’s janitor, Julius Hawkins, had been at the show that night, and had been standing near the rear. Hawkins had escaped but didn’t know what had started the blaze. Smith quoted him as saying, “All I thought about was getting away from there.”

V.H. Jeffries, a photographer who reached the scene a short time after the disaster, pointed out that the club had been completely gutted. He also spoke to reporters about what he saw:

Great quantities of dry moss had been hung on the walls for decoration. This caught fire in some way and the intense heat and fumes probably suffocated the victims. Men and women were sprawled grotesquely about on the floor like dead chickens, their clothing burned away and their flesh seared. The fire started near the entrance and it seemed that the crowd fled to the rear, where they could not escape.

By the following afternoon, the rest of the city was feeling the shock of what had occurred. It was estimated that very few of the African-American families in Natchez were unaffected by the fire. At that time, the population of the city was nearly 18,000 people – 60 percent of them were black.

Angry white voices began to be heard in city government, incensed that the club had been allowed to operate with only one exit door. They demanded a city ordinance requiring dance venues to have at least two exits, which would effectively put most Negro clubs in the city out of business. This didn’t seem to bother anyone, especially after news spread that the police had arrested several black men who had been recruited to pull bodies out of the ruins of the club. They were allegedly stealing from the dead, or so sheriff’s deputies claimed.

Instead of bringing the city’s residents together, the fire had served to drive whites and blacks even farther apart. It would be decades before Mississippi ended segregation, and it was just as long before safety measures began to be required in what were referred to as “Negro dance halls.” Not surprisingly, with attention fading quickly about the tragedy, the Rhythm Nightclub Fire was soon forgotten by the press, Natchez officials, and by history.

But the families of the victims didn’t forget, nor did the generations of blues singers who told the story of the fire in their songs, or the group of aging women who make up the Watkins Street Cemetery’s preservation society. They care for the mass grave where the fire victims were buried. When the number of bodies overwhelmed city authorities, they buried them in trenches in the Watkins Street Cemetery. There was no way to identify many of them. A few markers have been placed over the years, but mostly, it’s just a large grave where the bodies have been placed side-by-side. Their names have been forgotten, as have their lives.

But the dead still remember.

In 2010, a small museum was erected in honor of the Rhythm Club Fire, and according to the stories, strange occurrences have been happening there “almost daily” ever since. Voices have been heard, as well as music, and the sounds of doors opening and closing. Photographs that are displayed on the walls sometimes fly off and can be found in odd positions across the room. The museum was set up on the concrete slab that once marked the foundation of the Rhythm Club. The rest of the slab serves as the museum’s parking lot.

To this day, stories persist of strange voices, cries for help and the wailing moans of people still heard around the site of the deadly fire. It continues to be considered one of the most haunted places in Natchez – a very haunted city in its own right.

The story of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire may be only a footnote in American history, but to the people of Natchez and those directly affected by this horrendous event, its legacy lives on. It is a story worth telling – and remembering – and maybe someday the victims of the fire will finally rest in peace.

The story of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire appears in the book, A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse – along with dozens of other stories about disasters, death and hauntings. Printcopies are available from the main website or in Kindle and Nook editions. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

American Sideshows: Tod Browning's "Freaks"


In 1932, Universal Studios in Hollywood was in the horror film business. It had just scored two huge hits with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” which had been directed by Tod Browning. Other studios wanted in on the act and MGM tasked Browning with putting together another terrifying film that would thrill audiences – but what Browning chose gave the studio a little more than they bargained for. His next film “Freaks,” used real-life sideshow performers from the silver era of the freak show circuit. It became a film that has remained controversial ever since.

Charles Browning, Jr. (who later went by Tod) was born on July 12, 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky and was in the circus before he ever got into film. In 1896, he ran away from home to join the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company and his first job was as a talker pitching a Wild Man of Borneo. He later moved his on act, a “Living Corpse” show, where he was buried alive. Browning thrived in the sideshow but eventually moved to Ringling Brothers as a clown. He then went on to vaudeville before trying his hand in moving pictures.

Director and former circus performer, Tod Browning
Browning produced several hit movies in the 1920s and early 1930s, including “The Unknown,” “The Unholy Three” and finally landing a director’s gig with “Dracula.” But with an adaption of Tod Robbins’ story “Spurs,” he created the most haunting film of his career. Thanks to our modern political correctness and the decrease in the human oddities of the past, its cast of real sideshow performers will never be matched. Browning assembled Harry, Daisy and Tiny Doll (little people), the Hilton Sisters (conjoined twins), Johnny Eck (half-man), Schlitzie, Jennie Lee and Elvira Snow (pinheads), Lady Olga (bearded lady), Josephine Joseph (half-man / half-woman), Prince Randian (human torso), Pete Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl) and a number of other curiosities. They were complimented by a number of “normal” actors – who largely played the villains in the film. The plot was a simple revenge story: the evil “normal” woman, Cleopatra, decides to marry the diminutive Hans, who she discovers has amassed a large fortune. Along with her lover, the circus strongman, she tries to poison Hans and steal his money. When the freaks catch on to the dastardly plan, they exact their revenge and turn Cleopatra into something more revolting than a naturally-born freak.

The cast of “Freaks”
When MGM released the movie in 1932, it was immediately banned in the United Kingdom and remained that way for the next thirty years. In the U.S., signs were posted in theaters that read: “Children positively not admitted. Adults not in normal health are advised not to see this picture.” Posters also assured audiences that what they saw on film was not the result of any kind of special effects or trick photography. One of the most terrifying scenes is undoubtedly the dark, rain swept sequence where the freaks cross the circus grounds, knives and weapons in hand, hunting for Cleopatra so that they could take their revenge on her. It's one of the most frightening sequences of 1930s' era horror films -- and audiences were appalled. 

The once-beautiful Cleopatra – after the freaks turned her into a monster that was worse than anything they could have been. It was meant to reflect that her outside was now as ugly as what she was inside, but audiences were shocked and angered by it. The final scene of her as a “bird woman” was cut from the film for many years. 
Although people flocked to sideshows to see freaks in person, they didn’t appreciate seeing them on the big screen. “Freaks” disgusted audiences and critics alike and for Browning, it was the end of his career. He made a film films afterwards, but eventually faded into obscurity. Decades later, on October 6, 1962, he was found dead on the bathroom floor of a friend’s apartment. Ironically, the next year, “Freaks” was brought back to life in theaters and by the 1970s, attained the cult status that it enjoys today.

At the time the movie was released, people didn’t understand what Browning was trying to accomplish with it. He had great respect and affection for the “freaks” that he had worked with in the circus sideshows and attempted to show them as normal, albeit unusual, people. By showing that they lived, loved and experienced heartbreak and anger like so-called “normal” people, he cast them as the sympathetic characters in the film. But perhaps their method of revenge was simply too much for audiences to handle at the time and the film didn’t work in the 1930s in quite the way he planned. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

American Sideshows: Johnny Eck


Today marks the start of a new feature on the page – an introduction for modern readers to some of the great sideshow performers of yesterday. Please remember that each entry is designed with the utmost respect for these performers. They are not presented to gawk or have fun. These performers were good, enterprising often ingenious people who, for the most part, made a great living in the only way that they could during the era in which they lived. To the close community of sideshow performers, it was the rest of us who were the “freaks.”


Johnny Eck
Born John Eckhardt, Jr. on August 27, 1911, in Baltimore, he entered the world without the lower portion of his abdomen, without legs. At the same time, his mother gave birth to his twin, Robert, who was fully formed. Johnny learned to walk on his hands at one-year-old and using special gloves as shoes, he was able to run around and keep up with other children. He eventually reached a full height of about eighteen inches and a weight of fifty-seven pounds.

Johnny’s sideshow career had its beginnings, oddly enough, in a church. Johnny was with a group of other children, watching a magician and the performer turned a large piece of paper into a tablecloth and invited anyone in the audience to come up on the stage and take it. Johnny, probably the most agile in the group, swooped up to claim it. The magician was amazed and immediately saw Johnny’s potential. He was able to talk the Eckhardt family into signing a contract and Johnny went on the road. What was supposed to be a one-year contract turned into ten – the sneaky magician added a “0” behind the “1” after the contract had already been signed.

Johnny with his twin brother, Robert, in the 1930s
Shay at first, Johnny grew to love the stage. By age fourteen, he was performing regularly, often with his twin brother. Together, they carried out a bizarre act. An illusionist, Rajah Raboid, would call for a volunteer from the audience to be cut in half. The volunteer would walk up to the stage and climb inside of the magic box, where he would be sawed in half, much to the audience’s delight. Raboid then put the two halves of the box back together and the volunteer would stand up and go back to his seat. After he was walking however, he would suddenly split in two at the waist, his torso going one direction and his legs going the other. The audience would, of course, scream in terror! Some fainted, some walked out but no on suspected that the “volunteer” had a twin brother like Johnny Eck, which made the stunt possible. Johnny took Robert’s place in the box, to become the head and torso, while the legs were a dwarf with his pants pulled up over his head.

Johnny performed on the stage and also had a role in the 1932 film Freaks by Tod Browning. He also appeared at Ripley’s Believe it Or Not! Odditoriums around the country. Ripley (never one to beat around the bush) called Johnny “The Most Remarkable Man in the World” and those who saw him agreed. By the time he had reached the age of four, he was an accomplished artist, typist and letter writer and went on to achieve more in his lifetime than most people who have legs. Everywhere he went, he was the center of attraction.

Johnny died on January 5, 1991, at the age of seventy-nine, a performer until the end. It would have been easy for him to have cursed his lot in life, but he always made the best of it. As he once explained, “To ask me if I’m sorry that I have no legs is like asking an Eskimo if he’s sorry he never tasted an artichoke.”

Monday, April 8, 2013

The "27 Club"

Weird Tales of Strange Days

On this date, April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain, singer and guitarist for the groundbreaking grunge band Nirvana, was found dead in Seattle from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Cobain, at the height of his popularity, was 27 years old. For his followers and fan, Cobain’s death was a tragedy, but one that was not totally unexpected. He had battled both depression and drug addiction for years.

Kurt Cobain, who died on April 8, 1994
But was this the only reason why many were not surprised to hear that Kurt Cobain died at 27? Unfortunately, when it comes to rock-n-roll, and the cult of celebrity, there is a “club” that few of them want to join. Entry in this “club” is simple – you only have to die at 27.

In ancient Greek history, it was said that Alexander the Great made a pact with the god Zeus that allowed him to choose between living to old age and never achieving glory or gaining everlasting fame and glory but dying as a young man. Alexander chose a short life and he conquered the entire known world before dying at the age of 33. His body was encased in solid gold and carried through the provinces so that his subjects could pay homage to their fallen leader. The Egyptians worshipped Alexander as a living god in the same manner as they did the ancient pharaohs. He was buried in secret and to this day, his tomb has not been discovered. Did he make the right choice? In the words of James Dean, Alexander planned to “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Sadly, throughout literary history a great number of the most creative writers may as well have entered into Alexander’s pact. The English Romantic poets are a prime example: John Keats died at age 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley died at 29, Lord Byron met his death at 36, each dying at the height of his poetic powers.
In the world of rock-n-roll, there have been a number of musical giants who died in the full bloom of youth and have now become legends. They are considered members of a sort of “club,” to which entry is simple – you only have to die at the age of 27.

The founder of this club was bluesman Robert Johnson. He became the catalyst for the mixing of spirituals, country and blues that would someday become rock-n-roll. Legend has it that Johnson made a deal with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads. Like Alexander, he was granted fame and fortune, but his life ended far too soon. Johnson died at the age of only 27, setting the stage for other musicians to come.

Bluesman Robert Johnson – legend has it that he made a pact with the Devil at the crossroads and achieved fame and glory, only to die at 27
The largest number of premature deaths occurred during the two-year period between July 3, 1969 and July 3, 1971, when a total of five major rock icons died tragically. All of them were 27 years old.

Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones
The first to follow in Johnson’s footsteps was Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones. He had recently been replaced in the band, but according to friends was never happier and planned to start a new band. Unfortunately, Jones drowned in the swimming pool at his home after a long night of drinking and drugs. Jones’ death remains mysterious today. Although deemed accidental, rumors have suggested suicide or even murder.

Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson
The next to die was Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson on September 3, 1970. Wilson was said to have suffered severe bouts of depression, and on the night of his death was camping out behind Canned Heat singer Bob Hite’s house. The band was leaving on a European tour the next day. Wilson’s body was found in his sleeping bag the next morning. The official version of his death was an accidental drug overdose, but many of his closest friends believed that his premature death was a suicide.

Jimi Hendrix – one of the great guitarists of all time, also lost at 27
Later that same month, the rock world was stunned to learn that Jimi Hendrix had died in a girlfriend’s apartment in London. Hendrix became known as a legendary guitar player in the late 1960s and some of his friends believed that he may have sensed his impending death. That July, before his death, he told some reporters, “I don’t think I will live to see 28.” The official version of Hendrix’s death states that he was unable to sleep on the night of September 17, 1970 and took nine sleeping pills. His usual dosage was two. While his girlfriend was away from the apartment buying cigarettes, Hendrix vomited in his sleep, inhaled it, and died. Rumors swirled that he may have committed suicide or may have been murdered.

Janis Joplin
Two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood. Joplin escaped a lifetime of pain through music, alcohol and drugs and became one of the greatest blues singers of all time. On October 4, her body was discovered in her hotel room after she failed to show up for a recording session. Her friends had often begged her to stop using drugs, but Joplin had a bitter answer for them, “Let’s face it, I’ll never see 30.”

Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, allegedly died at age 27 in a Paris bathtub. 
Then, on July 3, 1971, the body of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, was discovered in a bathtub in his Paris apartment. He had died from a heroin overdose – a drug he supposedly never used – and his death certificate was quickly signed by a French doctor who apparently never existed. A funeral was held five days later and Morrison, like so many other musicians of the day, was inducted into the club of those who died at age 27. Of course, I don’t think he did… but that’s another story for another time.

When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, many believed that the “27 club” was alive and well and still claiming the lives of famous artists. Up and coming singer Amy Winehouse, who perhaps not in the same league as singers like Cobain and Janis Joplin was starting to make a name for herself in the music world, died in 2011 – she was also 27.

Is the curse still going? That remains to be seen, but there certainly will be plenty of opportunities to see as new performers come along every day. How many of them will “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse?”

If you’re interested in Troy’s theories about the death (or actually FAKED death) of Jim Morrison, you can read about it in his book, INTO THE SHADOWS. Available in print, Kindle and Nook editions!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Latter-Day Saints

The Mormon Battle for the American West

On this date, April 6, 1830, the Mormon Church – which became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints – was founded by prophet Joseph Smith. Over the years, the church has been violently opposed by many people, but embraced by millions of others. There is no denying that the Mormons have a strange history, which is steeped in occult traditions and lore, tainted by violence and bloodshed, tied to its polygamist past and of course, still considered mysterious and unforgiving to outsiders. But there is no denying that the Mormons also have a unique place in our history. They were the first truly American religious faith, they withstood all manner of persecution and hatred, they heroically conquered the American West and carved a “promised land” out of the Utah desert.

Founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith
The founder of the Mormon religious movement was Joseph Smith, who was born in Vermont in 1805, but moved to western New York with his parents and eight siblings when he was 15. His father was a farmer and Smith grew up in an area that was rife with religious zealotry. Things were so bad that it had been given the derogatory nickname of “the Burned-Over District” because so many evangelists, revival meetings and religious renewals had hit the common folks that the religion had been “burnt out of them.” But religion had not been burned out of Joseph Smith…

One day, while praying in his upstairs bedroom, the 17-year-old Smith claimed that he was visited by a figure that was bathed in light that was “as bright as the midday sun.” The figure, an angel named Moroni, told Smith that God had work for him to do. The angel returned to visit Smith several more times in the years that followed and eventually led him to discover the golden tablets upon which were engraved the words that would become the basis of the Mormon Church. Smith was the only person to ever see these tablets (which could only be read with a pair of “magic spectacles”) but by 1832, he had translated what became known as The Book of Mormon, which held that two tribes of Israelites had been guided by God to North America 600 years before the birth of Christ. These people had built a powerful civilization but then had turned away from God and had fallen from grace, regressing into the Native American tribes that the Europeans found living on the continent centuries later. The angel Moroni was the last of God’s true prophets in North America and he had hidden the golden tablets until Smith could reveal the Mormon story to the world.

Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni, who he claimed guided him to the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in an era of bizarre religious movements, these fantastical tales met a receptive audience and the ranks of the religion that Smith was calling the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints began to swell. Just as unsurprisingly, Smith and his followers began to meet resistance and persecution for their unorthodox beliefs.

Smith and his followers were driven out of western New York by mainstream Christians who felt they were blasphemous. They moved to Kirtland, Ohio, on the southern shores of Lake Erie where they made plans to start a new Mormon community. The Saints believed that it was essential that a new Zion be built in the American wilderness so that they could create a Mormon paradise on Earth that would be duplicated in Heaven.

At first, the 2,000 Mormons were met with open arms by the people of Kirtland, but it wasn’t long before they wore out their welcome. Smith, a handsome, charismatic man, began to spread a philosophy of polygamy (he would eventually take on 49 wives of his own), although he called it “celestial marriage” and justified it by pointing to the great characters of the Bible who all had many wives. Polygamy became a source of conflict both in and out of the Mormon Church, especially in a frontier community where the men greatly outnumbered the women. The general public was horrified and fascinated with the practice and it would plague the church for many decades to come. Even today, fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy are seen as radical zealots, even by other Mormons.

But it would be money that would drive the Mormons from Ohio. As the bank panic of 1837 hit the United States, a bank that Smith had opened spread useless paper currency around the area. Facing criminal charges, he fled Kirtland in the middle of the night, first for Missouri and then for Illinois and the remote community of Nauvoo. The story was the same everywhere. As the ranks of the Mormons grew larger and larger, people began to resent them and violence broke out. The lieutenant governor of Missouri stated publicly that “Mormons are the common enemies of mankind and ought to be destroyed.”

There were those who followed his suggestion. A band of vigilantes attacked a Mormon settlement at Haun’s Mill, Missouri, in 1838 and gunned down an entire family, including a 10-year-old boy, in cold blood. “Nits grow lice,” one of the men reportedly said before he put a bullet into the boy’s head.

After real threats like these – as well as many imagined ones – Smith created an armed militia that he called the Army of God. The 2,000 troops were a quarter of the size of the standing U.S. Army at the time. Smith made himself a general and wore a uniform of his own design. He also selected a top-secret group of men to surround him called the Sons of Dan, or the Danites. These men were essentially Smith’s personal assassins. Taking their name from the biblical prophet Daniel, they dealt out vengeance in the form of “blood atonement” to people inside and outside of the church who had crossed Smith in some way.

In 1843, Smith made his policies on plural marriage public and more and more people began to speak out against him and his church. In addition, people were complaining about being cheated by Smith’s shady business dealings and word leaked out about the Danites. Eventually, Smith was arrested and killed by an angry mob while locked up in the Nauvoo jail. Once again, the Latter-day Saints were on the move, this time to Utah under the leadership of their new prophet, Brigham Young.

Brigham Young
Brigham Young was a dynamic speaker and natural leader who had made numerous successful recruiting missions to England on behalf of the church. He began to rule the church with absolute authority and an iron hand. But even as fiery as Young was, he knew the Mormons could not remain in Illinois and prosper. He still needed to create the new Zion that Smith has espoused and he knew it needed to be far to the west in an unpopulated territory.  With that decision made, Young led his people on a terrible journey in 1847 and settled them in the arid country around the Great Salt Lake in present-day Utah. It was not the biblical paradise that Smith had envisioned, but Young insisted that they begin irrigating the country on the day they arrived and gradually, Salt Lake City began to grow.

Early Salt Lake City, a gateway to the west coast for emigrant settlers and the Mormon “promised land.”
Two years later, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, Brigham Young controlled land that became a crucial link between California and the rest of the country. The Mormons were in control of every route into and out of Utah – every river, trail and mountain pass. By the early 1850s, he had created his own kingdom, apart from and beyond the control of the federal government. Finally, President Millard Fillmore was forced to surrender to the inevitable and make the Mormon leader Utah’s territorial governor.
But even then, the Mormons acted as if the laws of the U.S. did not apply to them. In 1853, a federal surveying party was attacked and massacred because the Mormons did not want the government measuring their land. Federal judges were murdered. A settler who foolishly courted one of Young’s daughters was butchered. But was it the Mormons who carried out these crimes? Not according to church members. In every case, the murders were carried out by Native Americans – or so it seemed. The victims were scalped and mutilated in what was presumed to be methods perpetrated by Indians and witnesses even stated that they had seen painted warriors fleeing the scenes of the crimes.

The Mormons may have thought they had thrown suspicion off the Danites, but not everyone was fooled. As the bloody incidents increased, outrage grew among the population back East, and the federal government, under President James Buchanan, decided to send soldiers to quell what Buchanan and others believed was a rebellion in the Utah Territory. The relatively peaceful Utah War ensued from 1857 to 1858, in which the most notable instance of violence was the Mountain Meadows massacre, when leaders of a local Mormon militia ordered the killing of a civilian emigrant party that was traveling through Utah during the escalating tensions. (See my book A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH for details). In 1858 Young agreed to step down from his position as governor and was replaced by a non-Mormon, Alfred Cumming. Nevertheless, the Mormon church still wielded significant political power in the Utah Territory.

A scene from the largely bloodless Utah War, which saw American troops sent to the wilds of Utah to put down a Mormon rebellion. It was eventually settled when Brigham Young stepped down as the territorial governor. 
After Young's death in 1877, he was followed by other Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Presidents, who resisted efforts by the United States Congress to outlaw Mormon polygamous marriages. In 1878, the Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States that religious duty was not a suitable defense for practicing polygamy, and many Mormons went into hiding; later, Congress began seizing church assets. In September 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially suspended the practice of polygamy.  Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890 and Utah officially became a state. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a "Second Manifesto" calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease. Eventually, the church adopted a policy of excommunicating members found practicing polygamy, and today seeks actively to distance itself from "fundamentalist" groups that continue the practice.

A Utah polygamist of the late 1800s with his wives, children and grandchildren
During the early twentieth century, Mormons began to become part of the American mainstream. In 1929 the Mormon Tabernacle Choir began broadcasting a weekly performance on national radio, becoming an asset for public relations. Mormons emphasized patriotism and industry, rising in economic status from the bottom among American religious denominations to middle-class. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mormons began migrating out of Utah, a trend hurried by the Great Depression, as Mormons looked for work wherever they could find it. As Mormons spread out, church leaders created programs that would help preserve the tight-knit community feel of Mormon culture. During the Great Depression the church started a welfare program to meet the needs of poor members, which has since grown to include a humanitarian branch that provides relief to disaster victims.

The LDS Church grew rapidly after World War II and became a world-wide organization as missionaries were sent across the globe. The church doubled in size every 15–20 years, and by 1996, there were more Mormons outside the United States than inside. As the ranks have grown over the years, so has the Church’s wealth. Today, the LDS church is regarded as the wealthiest on earth, surpassing even the wealth and power of the Catholic Church.

It’s been a long, strange trip from a handful of believers in golden tablets to the size and strength that the Mormon church wields today.