Sunday, October 28, 2012

31. Of Spooks, Ghouls, Mummies, and Related Horrors, part 1

         It’s spook time, and I don't mean the election.  A candy store near my building features witches in orange and black in its window, and a pharmacy offers a host of eerie items: skulls, bones, skeletons, a severed arm (fake, of course; there are limits), a bat, huge spiders and their webs, a black cat, and a vulture that looks hungry.  (Not the best display for an outfit dispensing medicines meant to help and heal, but they like to be seasonal.)  So Halloween must be in the offing.

                  But I won't confine myself to the holiday.  This post's subject and the next will be our ambiguous attitude toward death and the dead, a vast subject that, given the many associations and scraps of history dancing in my head, will probably spill out in all directions.  But we'll start with Halloween.

         For most of us, Halloween means ghosts and witches and skeletons, trick-or-treating, costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and innocent or not-so-innocent pranks  – a completely secular event.  But the name “Halloween” is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, referring to the Christian feast of All Hallows on November 1, and Halloween, celebrated on October 31, has both pagan and Christian antecedents.  It has been traced all the way back to the late-autumn Celtic festival of Samhain, when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest; the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes, and bonfires were built to ward their spirits off.

         The Christian holy day of All Saints’ Day, November 1, was a time for honoring the saints and praying for the dead, who until this day were thought to still wander the earth prior to reaching heaven or the alternative.  But this was also the last chance for the dead to wreak vengeance on their enemies before entering the next world, so to avoid being recognized by them (hmm… they must have felt guilty about something), people disguised themselves by wearing masks and costumes: the beginning of Halloween costumes.  So are the dead to be welcomed and prayed for, or dreaded and avoided?  Both, it seems.  Which shows, I think, a profound ambivalence.

         As for jack-o’lanterns, they developed out of the custom in Scotland and Ireland of carving turnips into lanterns to ward off evil spirits.  Coming to this country, immigrants from those countries used the native pumpkin instead, whose size and softness made it much easier to carve.  The name itself probably comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack who outwitted the Devil but after his death, being barred from both heaven and hell, was doomed to wandering the earth with an ember to light his way.

         Children’s trick-or-treating came later, being first recorded in North America in a Canadian newspaper of 1911.  Wikipedia dates the first use of the term in the U.S. from 1934, but I can testify that by then all the kids in my middle-class Chicago suburb were ringing neighbors’ doorbells in hopes of goodies, though usually not in costume, without any thought of pioneering a new Halloween custom; as far as we were concerned, this is how it had always been, though we were much more into treats than tricks.  (Still, my father, fearing vandalism, always wired the gates to our backyard shut, to keep out devilish intruders of whatever species or persuasion.)  By then, too, the costumes that some people donned were not confined to the eerie stuff (ghosts, skeletons, witches, and such), but included just about anyone or anything you could think of.  All of which shows how a holiday once concerned with praying for departed souls and warding off evil spirits has become, in the U.S. today, a children’s fun fest spiced with just a touch of the eerie.

         South of the border things are just a bit different.  Related to Halloween in Mexico is the Day of the Dead (el Dia de los Muertos), celebrated on November 1, a national holiday when people gather to remember and pray for deceased friends and family.  Altars are built in homes and cemeteries, and offerings are made of sugar and chocolate skulls, and bread often in the shape of a skull and decorated with white frosting to resemble twisted bones.  Photos and memorabilia are also placed there, in hopes of encouraging visits by the dead, so they can hear the prayers and comments of the living. 

         Associated with the Day of the Dead is the la Catrina, the Grande Dame of Death, a skeleton presented as an elegant woman with a fancy hat.  This beloved figure of Mexican folk art first appeared in 1910 as an etching by the printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, but can be linked to Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the dead.  She satirizes high society, but also shows how Mexicans bring death close to them and celebrate the joy of life in the very face of its opposite.  During my two trips to Mexico long ago I never encountered her (wrong season), but photos of her are unforgettable, reminding us how tame our Halloween images are in comparison.  And in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City I saw many Aztec sculptures of gods adorned with human bones and skulls.  (They were a cheery bunch, those human-sacrificing Aztecs.)  Obviously, we mortals have many ways of facing – and facing down – death.

         All right, Mexico and la Catrina are pretty far removed from New York, the alleged subject of my blog, but I warned you that I might stray far and wide.  So to get back to the Apple, how about the doctors’ riot of 1788?  No, the doctors didn’t riot; in fact, they came close to being lynched. 

         Since the Renaissance medical science had been dissecting bodies so as to better understand anatomy, as evidenced by a Rembrandt painting of 1632.  But in England, Scotland, and the thirteen colonies that became the United States, there 
was strong popular feeling against the practice.  Fueling this feeling was the medical schools’ constant need for fresh bodies, which led them to snatch freshly buried 

bodies from graveyards.  During the Revolution, battlefields provided a good supply of unclaimed bodies, but with the coming of peace the need for more bodies intensified.  In New York the students at the city’s only medical school, Columbia College, raided the Negroes Burial Ground, where both slaves and freedmen were buried, but also the graves of paupers in Potters’ Field, while usually – but not always – respecting the graves of those “most entitled to respect.”  So great was the demand for bodies that a new occupation appeared, the professional body snatcher, or resurrectionist, whom the medical schools could hire.  Aware of the risks, grieving families often hired guards to watch over the grave of a loved one at night for two weeks following burial, since after that the bodies would be too decomposed for purposes of dissection.  The authorities were certainly aware of the activities of body snatchers, whether professional or amateur, but probably chose to look the other way, as long as it was all done discreetly and confined to the graves of the lowly, but by the late 1780s trouble was brewing.

         Then, in April 1788, the storm broke.  Accounts differ, but it seems that a group of boys playing outside the dissection room of City Hospital saw a severed human arm hung up to dry in a window, and rushed off to tell their elders.  An angry mob quickly gathered and surrounded the hospital, then broke in and, finding three fresh bodies there, one boiling in a kettle, destroyed everything in sight, including valuable specimens collected over many years, as well as surgical instruments.  Most of the doctors and students had escaped, but one doctor remained with three medical students, and only the sheriff’s removing them to the city jail for their own protection saved them from being lynched. 

         The mobs’ anger did not subside overnight, and many doctors found it convenient to take a sudden vacation out of town.  The governor called out the militia, but the mob disarmed some of them and attacked Columbia College, destroying more medical specimens and instruments.  Alexander Hamilton tried in vain to calm them, and John Jay (a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) was hit by a rock and knocked unconscious.  That evening the mob threatened the jail, where the doctor and students were still lodged.  When the rioters hurled bricks and rocks at the militia, the soldiers finally opened fire, killing eight and wounding many more.  Those doctors still in town treated the wounded, and the rioters dispersed the next morning, thus ending the new nation’s first recorded riot. 

         Some weeks later the New York legislature passed a law permitting the dissection of hanged criminals.  Unfortunately, there were never enough of them, so  resurrectionists and their opponents would persist well into the next century, often provoking (your choice) picturesque or grisly incidents, as my next post will show. 

         Of course body snatching is now a thing of the past, is it not?  Wrong!  In 2005 an ex-dentist in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was arrested for obtaining bodies from funeral homes in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with forged consent documents, and then selling bones, organs, skin, and other body parts to legitimate medical companies and tissue banks for resale to hospitals, which needed them for transplants.  They did six or seven extractions a day, a male nurse involved in the operation later confessed; it took 45 minutes for the bones, and another 15 for skin, arms, thighs, and belly.  But why get involved in such a gruesome business?  Because, the nurse explained, he went from earning $50,000 a year as a nurse to $185,000 as a "cutter."  Yes, this illegal business is flourishing throughout our fair land, as a quick search for "body snatching" on the Internet will quickly demonstrate.  I myself plan to be cremated, but this doesn't guarantee a thing; so did the people whose bodies were stolen by the dentist and his fellow ghouls.

         Happy Halloween!

Thoughts for the day:   With an election fast approaching, I can’t resist tapping the wisdom of presidents past and their spouses.  For instance:

“The business of America is business.”  Calvin Coolidge

“Good ballplayers make good citizens.”  Chester Alan Arthur

“America is the only idealistic nation in the world.”   Woodrow Wilson

“I have never advocated war except as a means of peace.”  Ulysses S. Grant

“The United States is the best and fairest and most decent nation on the face of the earth.”  George Herbert Walker Bush

“I don’t know much about Americanism, but it’s a damn good word with which to carry an election.”  Warren G. Harding

“We’re just folks.”  Mrs. Harding, upon her husband’s election

                                             © 2012  Clifford Browder

Sunday, October 21, 2012

30. The Bejeweled Elephant and the Balding Runt, part 2

         In the previous post I invited readers to imagine being on a jury addressed by defense attorney William Howe, the bejeweled elephant.  Now I invite readers to imagine being a respectable New York attorney of the 1870s who, through no fault of his own, is obliged to deal with Howe’s junior partner, Abraham Hummel, the balding runt. 

         So it is that you find yourself sitting in the outer office of Howe & Hummel at 89 Centre Street, just across from that gloomy Egyptian pile, the Tombs, surrounded by as raffish a set of characters as you have ever seen.  With quick, furtive glances you register shifty-eyed men in gaudy plaids and stripes – pickpockets and forgers, perhaps, plus one or two outright thugs.   Eyed by them with suspicion, for the first time in your life you feel conspicuous in sedate gray broadcloth adorned only by a small jeweled stickpin.  To your sensitive nostrils comes an aroma of unwashed bodies, liquor and tobacco, cheap cologne.  That older woman in a frilly bonnet just across from you, given her tawdry attempts at elegance (the parasol, the brooch), is probably the owner of a brothel, and that luscious little thing next to her, all curves and spangles, is no doubt a chorus girl or alleged aspiring actress – just the kind that is now suing your young client for breach of promise.  At any moment you half expect to see the waiting room invaded by some bloodstained ox of a rowdy, or a hulking fugitive in a wool skirt, bonnet, and veil with telltale man-sized shoes.  Even now the place seems menacing and dingy, clammy with vice and disorder.

         “Mr. Hummel will see you now, sir.”

Sequence 153 of 284
                   Harvard College Library
     Following the clerk down a corridor to an office in back, you at last encounter little Abe Hummel, his large egg-shaped head flashing a wry smile under 
a closely cropped dark mustache.  As always, Hummel’s puny body is neatly encased in black: a mortician.  You do not consider him a gentleman and are determined subtly to convey as much, but cannot avoid the usual proper greetings, after which he waves you into his office and suggests, in a soft, ingratiating voice, that you and he settle the matter promptly.  You agree and, as prearranged, hand him a thick envelope stuffed with greenbacks that he examines carefully bill by bill and counts briskly twice.  As he does so you notice on the wall dozens of portraits of attractive young women inscribed “Sincerely,” “In gratitude,” and even “Affectionately yours” – divorce cases, you assume, and shakedowns – what other word is there for it? -- like the one in progress.  The thought of all that feminine attention lavished on this balding little gnome annoys you.

        Pocketing the money, Hummel produces from his files the young woman’s sworn statement alleging seduction under promise of marriage, with a wealth of detail well calculated to titillate a scandal-loving public, and one or several letters from the alleged seducer written in a slipshod but rather vivid style – documents that you force yourself, with distaste, to scan carefully, before insisting that they be burned at once.  Initiating the familiar ritual, Hummel beckons you to an iron brazier in the corner of the office and blows on the warm gray coals until small pink flames lick upward.  Sheet by sheet, you immolate first the affidavit, then the letters.  When they are reduced to ash, you feel cleansed, relieved.

         Hummel now assures you that your client won’t be bothered again by the young lady in question, while adding that the settlement will lift her out of the mire of poverty so she can scale the lower heights of success.  What you think of this you keep to yourself, but Hummel may then offer a warning that your young client has accumulated gambling debts unknown to his august and affluent father and has been in scrapes before, perhaps arrested for cavorting in the buff on the Fifth Avenue, that most fashionable and exclusive of thoroughfares, or for urinating (he asks you to excuse his candor) under a grand piano or into a blue delft Chinese bowl, depending on the witness, in a house of scandalous repute – intelligence that, being new to you, falls heavy on your ears.  So they are true, you realize, those rumors that Howe & Hummel employ a network of spies, know everything. 

         Unsettled by this thought, you stand up quickly to leave.  But Hummel suggests that, to celebrate this happy dénouement, you join him in a nip and a puff.  Before you can decline, he produces two tumblers and a flask of your favorite whiskey, then a humidor with your preferred brand of first-rate Havanas.  (Is there anything this rascal doesn’t know?)  So you find yourself seated again, warmed with whiskey, a blue fragrance of tobacco in your nostrils, while your affable host chats casually about horses, theaters, and restaurants, revealing a veteran racetrack enthusiast, first nighter, and all-round bon vivant.  When he toasts you and wishes you success, it takes a fierce effort on your part not to wish him the same in return.

         Determined finally to escape, you rise quickly.  Hummel follows you to the office door and thrusts a bony hand, clasps yours.

         “Until next time, sir.  It has been a pleasure.”

         This suggestion of another such occasion grates on you.  You stare for a moment into his cold green gaze, then look down and notice a single charm dangling from his watch chain: a death’s head with bright mocking eyes.  Breaking away, you stride toward the entrance in front and leave quickly.  Unless, of course, word suddenly comes that Hummel's partner William Howe has worked his magic again and won an acquittal for some notorious murderer or crook, in which case the waiting room will explode in a tumult of joy, with thugs huzzaing, women capering, and dapper derbies tossed in the air: a raucous celebration of the overthrow of justice that you will fight your way savagely out of until at last, shaken and dismayed, you escape.  As for your small jeweled stickpin, it may or may not still adorn your shirtfront.

         So it went in the back office of Howe & Hummel, where Abe Hummel presided.  This account has been adapted from my fiction but adheres closely to historical fact.

         Twenty years younger than Howe and a confirmed bachelor, Abraham Hummel began as Howe’s clerk and in 1869 became his junior partner.  For decades to come, while Howe held forth grandiosely in courtrooms, Hummel sat quietly in his back office splitting legal hairs and sniffing out loopholes in the law to great effect.  On one occasion he is said to have discovered a procedural error that led to the release in a single day of 240 out of 300 prisoners confined on Blackwell’s Island.  When not bringing off such coups, he explored the complexities of fraud and gambling cases, handled divorce cases (considered scandalous at the time), and pursued to a successful conclusion (usually out of court) breach-of-promise suits that came perilously close to outright blackmail and transferred substantial sums from 
the bank accounts of prominent families with scapegrace sons to aspiring young actresses’ pockets and his own.

         Howe & Hummel attained a new level of notoriety in 1888 with their book 
In Danger, or Life in New York.  A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations.  Like a host of “sunshine and shadow books” published by journalists before it,  In Danger so exposed the city’s vices and sins as to render them irresistible.  It has even been suggested that the book’s description of criminal techniques made it an invaluable how-to guide for ambitious thieves flocking to the city.

         Prosecutors and judges longed to put an end to this scandalous but flourishing firm, but it even survived Howe’s death in 1902.  Then in 1907 Hummel was finally convicted of suborning perjury.  Disbarred, he served a year in jail, where he had ample opportunity to hobnob with some of his former clients.  Upon release he decamped, like so many disgraced New Yorkers, for the fleshpots of sophisticated Paris.  He died in London in 1926 at the age of seventy-five.

         Howe and Hummel were a rascally pair, but their skills were undeniable.  
They were early entries in a long roster of prominent and provocative U.S. defense attorneys that includes, on a higher level, such stellar names as Clarence Darrow, William Kunstler, and most recently Lynne Stewart, all of whom took the part of controversial and underprivileged defendants, and not without risk to themselves.  Darrow himself was once indicted for allegedly bribing a juror, but was subsequently acquitted, and Stewart is now serving a ten-year sentence for perjury.  I wouldn't put  William Howe in her class, but had he defended her, she might be free. 

Thought for the day:  Where there is no vision the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).  Vision is what I find totally lacking in the current campaign.   

                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder