Category: death

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

Waxworks

Waxworks

The macabre feelings stirred by waxwork figures go far beyond their use in horror films, back to the Terror of the French Revolution, and beyond to their use as funeral effigies and in magic rites of popular Italian Catholicism and Roman-Etruscan witchcraft.

We begin with  a brief look at wax museums in horror cinema (going back to 1907).  The most famous example, 1953’s House of Wax, not only created Vincent Price as a horror actor, but pioneered the use of 3D.  It happened to be a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, coincidentally another technological pioneer thanks to the film’s use of Technicolor’s early 2-color process.  Offering a few more comments on horror films in this genre, we note some common themes: wax figures created over human remains, waxworks as uncanny, liminal presences, neither living nor dead (though being alive enough to kill you), and madness or death awaiting one who accepts the challenge to overnight in a wax museum.  All of these have historic roots reaching far beyond their cinematic iterations.

A final commonality is the presence of waxworks murderers and representations of historic villains and villainy, with a particular emphasis on the French Revolution.  Naturally, this brings us to a central figure in our story, Madame (Marie) Tussaud, whose name has become synonymous with waxworks.

Her story begins, however, not in France, but in Switzerland, where as a child she began assisting the wax modeler Philippe Curtius, whom her mother served as housekeeper.  Her move to France came when the Prince of Conti invited Curtius, his assistant and domestic to join an artistic circle he sponsored in Paris.

Through the Prince’s connections, Curtius and Tussaud entered elite circles, including the court at Versailles, this thanks to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, who sought out Tussaud as a mentor to help her create religious figurines in wax. When the Revolution broke out, Tussaud and Curtius were called upon to demonstrate anti-royalist sympathies by documenting the Revolution’s victories.  This meant crafting likenesses of heads that tumbled from the guillotine, to be carried on pikes or displayed on trophies. This could be particularly gruesome work given the empathy Tussaud had developed with contacts at the court, as we hear in a grim passage from Tussaud’s Memoirs, read by Mrs. Karswell.

Wax heads?
When Revolutionaries don’t have real heads, wax will do.

In 1804, when Tussaud accepted an invitation to display waxworks in London (and was later prevented from returning to France by the Napoleonic Wars), she brought with her Curtius’ concept of a discrete room dedicated to the infamous. His “Den of Thieves” became the “Chamber of Horrors” central to Tussaud’s fame in London and later the world.  The Victorian’s fascination with murder and executions discussed in our “Gallows” and “Gibbet” episodes was enthusiastically exploited by Tussaud, and we hear some amusing details and contemporary criticism of all this from the magazine Punch.

Tussaud was by no means to the first to display waxworks or even waxwork horrors in England. We have a look at some earlier innovators, including a “Mrs. Salmon” whose work illustrating some rather bizarre legends was shown on Fleet Street, a popular 18th/19th-century location for waxworks exhibitors once they had graduated from installing traveling displays at Fairs.

Charles Dickens gives us a taste of the life of traveling waxworks exhibitors in his 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which features and impresario named Mrs. Jarel clearly inspired by Tussaud.  We hear a passage from that and several more from an obscure 1896 non-fiction work containing a trove of information on the waxwork business in 19th-century England: Joe Smith and his Waxworks.  In particular, we hear more about the public’s hunger for murderers and how that is best accommodated.

Old Curiosity Shop
Mrs. Jarel schooling her waxworks apprentice in The Old Curiosity Shop

Our association of waxworks with the macabre also would seem to have to do with their historical use as funeral effigies. We have a look at the practice (dating to 1377) of crafting wax and wood stand-ins for England’s royal funerals and how their post-funeral display in the crypts of Westminster Cathedral by the 1800s had evolved into what might be considered England’s oldest wax museum. Along the way, we hear a strange anecdote of these wax monarchs showing up in the Piccadilly tube station and of similar effigies in France being treated like living humans in quite surprising ways.

Another forerunner of the wax museum can be found in Italian Catholicism, in particular, with the creation of votive offerings left at shrines to represent prayers that have been answered. A common form of these, representing relief from medical afflictions, are small wax models of the afflicted body part miraculously healed.  But wax arms, hearts, feet, and hands are only the beginning.  Full figures — wood and paper mâché bodies with wax heads and hands, and dressed in the wardrobe of the person commissioning the figure — once populated certain churches.

We discuss a few examples of this including the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation (the Annunziata) in Florence and The Shrine of Our Lady of Grace (Le Grazie) near the town of Mantua in Lombardy. The first no longer exhibits these figures but was described by a 16th century Dutch visitor as resembling “a field of cadavers.”  The second also features the taxidermied remains of a crocodile suspended over the sanctuary.

Le Grazie
Votive in Le Grazie: spared from execution! .

Scholars, including the art historian Aby Warburg, have commented on the similarity between these votive wax figures an figurines used in sympathetic magic. Illustrative of this: in Florence, when political tides changed, the removal of a disfavored person from the Annunziata would be referred to as a “killing.”

Connections with Etruscan magic, the source of magical practice and witchcraft belief in ancient Rome is also discussed in this context.  As are the Romans’ use of wax funeral masks representing the ancestors and a wax effigy created for the funeral for Julius Caesar, one which was partially mechanized and sported realistic wounds from his assassination. Perfect for a Chamber of Horrors!

We wrap up the show with a bit of later history on Madame Tussauds, a talking parrot, and a strange birthday party celebrated in 1969 by Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

 

 

The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains

The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains

Illustration from 1832 broadsheet “Execution of James Cook, and Hung in Chains at Le’ster for the Horrid Murder of Mr. Paas.”

The gibbet was a hanging iron cage used to display the corpses of criminals in 18th and early 19th-century England. To be thus “hanged in chains,” in the judicial jargon and thinking of the day, subjected the criminal to an extra measure of postmortem shaming and offered the general public a rather extravagant cautionary example. Naturally, this frightful spectacle also generated a fair measure of folklore, which we explore in this episode as a follow-up to our “Gallows Lore” show.

The gibbet was a relatively rare punishment reserved for the crime of murder, and only then used in particularly heinous or high-profile cases. Though it was sometimes employed before 1751, its use was more widespread thanks to The Murder Act instituted that year.  This bit of legislation offered this extra punitive measure in response to a sort of inflation of the penal code attaching the death penalty to increasingly minor crimes, such as acts of theft.

The Murder Act also designated anatomical dissection of the criminal body as an additional option for postmortem punishment, a fate actually much more common than the gibbet. Dissection may have been intended primarily to enhance physicians’ medical knowledge, but it also provided the surgeons with body parts and substances that could be sold off for other purposes. We make a grisly digression from gibbets to explore some of the ways the human byproducts of executions were made use of in folk-medicine, magic, and certain professions.

William Hogarth's "The Anatomy Lesson (The Reward of Cruelty)" 1751, satirizes a criminal dissection.
William Hogarth’s “The Anatomy Lesson (The Reward of Cruelty)” 1751, satirizes a criminal dissection.

Next, we get into the  details of the gibbetting process. Contrary to common understanding, the gibbet was not simply designed as a sort of narrowed human-sized birdcage.  It was an arrangement of customized form-fitting iron bands wrapping the limbs, trunk, and body, and connected with vertical cross-pieces.  The cage was suspended in a way that allowed it to rock freely in the wind, lending a sort of eerie animation to the corpse and thereby increasing the terrifying impact of these displays.

The horrific impression made by the gibbeted corpse is detailed in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, in a scene describing an encounter with a gibbet by the story’s protagonist as a child. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a few lavishly macabre paragraphs from the novel.

We follow this with another literary gibbet, one surprisingly found in a now-forgotten series of children’s books by Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family, published in three volumes between 1818 and 1847.

Then we hear a typical ghost story told of the gibbet, a tale set down in ballad form as “Old Grindrod’s Ghost,” which first appears in the 1872 collection Ballads, Romantic, Fantastical, and Humorous by the historical novelist William Ainsworth. The excerpt of the song heard is from the North-English band Pendlecheek.

actualgibbet
Jame Cook’s gibbet (see first illus) at the Leicester Guildhall museum.

While gibbettings drew huge crowd, the morbid fascination they popularly exerted lingered on in relics obtained from the gibbets as they fell to pieces over the years — in bits of bone, fragments of iron and wood that were carried off as mementoes. We examine cases of gibbet iron and wood recycled as novelty products, or even as structural elements in buildings, such as an old gibbet post serving as a ceiling beam in The Hare and Hound on the Isle of Wight.  There are a few ghost stories, and gibbet rhymes and riddles along the way.

Though the gibbet was relatively exclusive to England, the practice was inherited by its colonial states. From America, we hear of  a very demanding pirate gibbetted on a small island in Boston Harbor, and from Canada, a unique case of a gibbetted woman, Marie-Josephte Corriveau, hanged in chains in Québec City for murdering her husband in 1733.  Though her case was sensational enough for its time, her fame was greatly increased in 1851, when her gibbet was accidentally dug up and then acquired by P.T. Barnum for exhibition. In the wake of this, a body of folk tales sprung up, in which “La Corriveau” became a sort of witch or spirit — or beautiful femme fatal.

We close with a nod to the predatory birds that famously tear at the bodies hanged in chains. From Germany, we offer a bit of folklore on magic eggs produced by ravens who have thus dined, and from Scotland we hear a bit of the ballad, “Twa Corbies,” (two ravens or crows), which tells of the birds feeding not on a convicted criminal, but a slain knight. Included is a snippet of an excellent rendition of the song by The Cories.

La Corriveau by Henri Julien, illustration for “Les Anciens Canadiens” by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, 1861.
Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Quite distinct from their Western equivalent, Slavic mermaids might better be described as water ghosts, as they are almost always the spirits of departed females, while their male equivalent takes the form of a water goblin or water sprite.  The Russian word for mermaid is rusalka (rusalki pl.) and male creature is a vodyanoy.  Similar words are used in other slavic languages, though the Czech water goblin is known as a vodnik.

The rusalki are found not only found in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.  And they’re honored with their own holiday, Rusalka Week, just now coming up in early June.

While they are usually active only at night, during Rusalka Week, they emerge in the daylight when they may be seen dancing, singing, or playing usually in groups.  As they lack the fish tail of Western mermaids, they may also venture into forests and fields for such activities, but while in the water, they may also  pull swimmers, fishermen or others near the water to watery deaths. We open the show with a clip from Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, a 2018 Russian horror film about a rusalka, which depicts the creature in this malevolent aspect.

Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879
Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879

Not just any woman who dies will become a rusalka.  Typically, she would have died by violence, suicide, or sudden accident, particularly drowning.  Often these deaths are related to misfortunes in love, rejection by lovers, or suicides due to unwanted pregnancies.  Because of this, the rusalka is particularly focused on capturing men with no interest in attacking adult females.  Men who fall prey to them are either believed drowned or may live with them in a sort of underwater spirit limbo in their richly appointed palaces of crystal, gold, and silver.  Occasionally, their would-be victims may overcome them by the power of the cross, or in rare cases, they may even be domesticated into mortal life (with varying success).  Mrs. Karswell reads several typical and atypical tales describing the interactions of rusalki and men, ones collected from informants in turn-of-the-century studies by Russian ethnographers

While rusalki are most interested in men, they may sometimes capture girls and boys to be kept as the children they failed to have in life. Infants may also become rusalki if they die unbaptized, and will wander the earth in that form for seven years seeking someone who might free them by performing a christening. After that, like other rusalki, they remain in that undying form until the end of the world.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s not clear the rusalki were always regarded as the ghosts of unfortunate females. Instead, they seemed to play some role in connection to fertility.  This is particularly clear in Ukraine, where the rusalki (or creatures nearly the same) are called mavka and a figure called Kostromo is both the center of early spring fertility rites and known the first female to become a mavka. “Mavka” is also the name of under which a contemporary Ukranian musiican performs songs composed, in what she calls “the language of mermaids.”  We hear a clip from one of her performances.

Rusalia Week, or Rusalia, is tied to the date of Pentecost or Whitsunday. It’s also known as “Green Christmas” or “Green Holiday” as  homes and churches are decorated in greenery, and celebrations take place in birch forests where young women and girls wear crowns woven from flowers and plants.  It takes place either 40 or 50 days after Easter, and the biggest celebrations take place on Semik (from the Russian word for “seven,”) the seventh Thursday after Easter, which is June 4 this year.  We describe some rather curious rituals around birch trees involving symbolic dolls used to represent the rusalka, and how these are understood to symbolically free the restive spirits from their existence as rusalki.

Semi Celebration, 19th cent, unknown artist

Rusalia celebrations embrace both aspects of the rusalki — their post 19th-century incarnation as dangerous ghosts, and an older pagan understanding of these beings as bringers of regenerative moisture and fertility of crops.  We also hear a few accounts describing tried and true methods for evading rusalki attacks particularly common during this period.

The rusalka folklore has been adapted into a number of Slavic productions over the years.  We hear of a rusalka in Russian novelist, poet, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol’s 1831 collection of stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which served as the basis of a loopy but fun Russian TV series, Gogol, from which we hear a clip.  ( A rusalka briefly appears also in Gogol’s Viy, adapted into a cult classic film of 1967, Viy Spirit of Evil, from which we hear a clip.

Rusalka folklore has been a popular subject for opera. Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, which premiered in 1856 was based on a nearly finished verse drama by Alexander Pushkin.  Its tragic tale involves not only a a vengeful adult rusalka, but also a dangerous child rusalka, and a madman who believes he is a raven.

The better known Rusalka opera, which premiered in 1900, is by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.  Best known for its lovesick aria “Song to the Moon” in the first act, its story draws partly on Slavic folklore and partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to tell its equally tragic tale.  A vodnik or “water goblin” is cast as the father of the character given the name Rusalka, and the opera also features the witch Jezibaba, the Czech equivalent to Baba Yaga.

Dvořák liked to say the opera was inspired by fairy tales of popular 19th-century poet Karel Erben, namely his 1853 collection Kytice, which means “bouquet”. (The book was given a particularly sumptuous treatment int the 2000 adaptation known in English as Wild Flowers.)  While in fact the opera borrows nothing directly from Erben’s stories, Dvořák did more explicitly embrace one of Erben’s pieces in his symphonic poem known in English as “The Water Goblin.”  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the climactic scenes of this tale, which is gruesome even by Bone and Sickle standards.

Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin
Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin

After a bit of further discussion of the vodnik and its Russian near-equivalent, the vodyanoy, we address the elephant in the room — the fact that the rusalki are said to tickle men to death.  I share a few comments on reference to historic tickle torture, as well as some anecdotes from the much more amusing history of death by laughter.

 

The Plague Doctor Unmasked

The Plague Doctor Unmasked

The figure of the masked plague doctor is an object of intense fascination but also the subject of much misinformation. This episode sorts things out while seeking particular evidence for such handsomely dressed character in the historical record.

We begin with a few clips from horror films in which plague doctors figure, including the 2008 film The Sick House in which the spirit of a plague doctor menaces an archeologist, and the 2019 film The Cleansing in which a malevolent bird-masked “Cleanser” stalks through 14th-century Wales.

As most listeners are somewhat familiar with the plague mask and its presumed function, we get that out of the way first, noting the mask’s connection to the antique belief in miasma, or disease-carrying air as the cause of the plague and other ailments. We also clear up the misunderstanding that the plague doctor is a medieval character (since he only appears in the 17th century).

His first appearance is in a German broadsheet from 1655, in which the crow-like character identified as “Dr. Beak” and lampooned (along with doctors in general) for being greedy as carrion crows.  As this image was copied and recopied for centuries, it raises the question as to whether the birdlike mask was in fact drawn from life or created strictly in the service of this original broadsheet’s metaphor.

"Dr Schnabel/Beak of Rome, Paul Fürst, 1656
“Dr Schnabel/Beak of Rome, Paul Fürst, 1656

Next we look at other evidence for the character in the form of actual artifacts, including two masks exhibited in museums in Berlin and Ingolstadt, Germany.

v
Mask in Berlin Museum of German History

As there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of these, we next look at evidence of plague masks associated with the island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon.  Along the way, we learn a bit more about early measures the city took against the plague (including the invention of the concept of shipping quarantines along with coinage of the word).

We also review a bit of general information about the islands in the Venetian lagoon (including others besides Poveglia) used for the clinical isolation of victims of plague, leprosy, and the mental illness.  A photo taken on Poveglia in 1899 is discussed as it may show an actual plague mask in use in the late 19th century.  We also hear some snippets from the TV Show Ghost Adventures, which popularized a number of legends associated with Poveglia, including tales of asylum torture and suicide.

1899 Photo from Poveglia
1899 Photo from Poveglia

Next, we look at the first textual evidence for this plague mask and suit, in a 1682 volume attributing its invention to Charles de Lorme, royal physician to Louis XIV and the Medici Family, among others.

While the design of the mask seems to be a first with de Lorme, we also hear of some other uses of protective plague garments are documented in France and Italy around this time.

A surprising example from Basel, Switzerland provides rare evidence of particular doctor known to have worn a plague suit and mask.  It’s 17th century painting of the family arms of the Zwinger family of Basel, painted for the doctor and theologian Theodor Zwinger the Younger, and depicting him in a plague mask and suit.

Theodor Zwinger Family Crest
Theodor Zwinger Family Crest

We also have a look at the symbolic use of special historic plague garments, special colors worn in France and Italy for medics working with plague victims, and the symbolic and practical function of the stick or baton held by the the plague doctor in most every historical illustration.

The Great Plague of Marseille (1721 to 1722) provides us one more name of a doctor known to have worn a plague suit and mask.  His name was François Chicoyneau, and his efforts were not well received by the citizens he was assigned to serve in Marseille, as we hear.

Along the way, Mrs. Karswell provides us some contemporary accounts documenting other aspects of the Marseilles plague, the last bubonic pandemic of Europe, including novel means of disposing of plague corpses considered by the town council, a curiously relevant form of social distancing, and the basis of the legend of “Four Thieves Vinegar.”

Finally, we discuss those plague doctor masks worn in the Venetian Carnival, learning that they are a strictly modern creation not associated with the 16th-18th century commedia della’arte tradition that gives us the other masks.

We end with a strange parallel between an opera about performers in the commedia della’arte and a 1928 film starring silent horror great Lon Chaney, Sr.  Included is a bit of music used to promote the film in question, Laugh Clown, Laugh.”

Lon Chaney, Sr. "Laugh Clown, Laugh"
Lon Chaney, Sr. “Laugh Clown, Laugh”
Murdered Sweetheart Songs

Murdered Sweetheart Songs

As a special Valentine’s episode, we present collection of folk songs known as “sweetheart murder ballads.”  We begin with two newer songs dating to the 19th century, “On the Banks of the Ohio” and “Down in the Willow Garden.”  While considered American songs and first documented in Appalachia, these ballads appear to borrow elements from older European songs.

One of the most widely known murder ballads, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” like most of songs in this program, was first recorded in America in the 1920s.  We hear a snippet of that early (1927) recording by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers and a longer cut narrating the murder itself from a 1969 recording by Porter Waggoner.

While “Banks of the Ohio” has the murderer stabbing his love and disposing of her body in the river, “Down in the Willow Garden,” throws in some poisoning to boot. One of the versions of this song we hear excerpted is from an excellent 1956 album by the Kossoy Sisters, Bowling Green, one we’ve previously sampled in our Butcher Lore episode for which the Kossoys sang about the butchering of a giant ram (“The Darby Ram”).  We hear a snippet of the first recording of this song (also from 1927) by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter.  This early version takes as its title, the victim’s name  “Rose Conley,” an Irish family name, suggesting that the song has obscure roots in that country.

The Scottish song “The Banks of Red Roses” shares a similarity with  “Willow Garden” in its garden setting.  Both highlighting the role a beautiful but remote environment can play in a deadly seduction.  We hear a 1962 version by the Scottish singer Jean Redpath, along with snippets by other artists.

Our next song, “The Lone Green Valley” or “The Jealous Lover” takes us back to America with an early recording from 1926 by Vernon Dalhart.  Following a similar narrative to our other songs, this song was the subject of a painting by American muralist Thomas Hart Benton.  We also hear a strange bit of gossip related to Benton’s interest in folk music involving Jackson Pollack, of all people.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Ballad of the Jealous Lover"
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Ballad of the Jealous Lover”

Our next song, “Knoxville Girl,” is an American update of a British and Irish song with roots going back to around 1700.  We begin with a version by The Louvin Brothers from 1956 and work our way to earlier songs from Great Britain where the song goes by “The Oxford Girl,” or in Ireland, “The Wexford Girl,” along with other names and localities, including “Ickfield Town,” the title of a 2005 version we hear from John Kirkpatrick.  The story in these is similar to “Banks of the Ohio” and “Willow Garden,” but with a bludgeoning substituting for a stabbing.  The song also adds a scene depicting the murderer returning home after his crime to night of guilt-ridden tossing in bed surrounded by imaginary hellfire.  The killer is also confronted upon his return by his mother, who notices blood on his clothing, which the killer excuses as the result of a nosebleed.

This odd details of the nosebleed can be traced, along with other elements of the song, to a 1685 broadsheet entitled “The Bloody Miller,” which makes the killer a miller’s apprentice (while other songs employ him as a butcher’s apprentice.)  In the broadsheet, the nosebleed does not occur upon the killer’s return home, but in court as his guilty verdict is handed down, and is presented as a supernatural omen confirming his guilt.

This notion of a supernatural disclosure of the guilty killer brings us to another group of lesser known murder songs, including the 19th-century Irish ballad “The Old Oak Tree,” a particularly gory tale, which includes not only a murder but the graphically described disinterment of a corpse and a suicide.

Our next song, a 19th-century Scottish ballad “Young Benjie,” gives us a different kind of murder (being thrown into a waterfall) and has the ghost of the murdered lover appearing at her own wake to demand a very particular and gruesome form of punishment for her killer.  We hear a bit of 2012 version of the song by Rosaleen Gregory.

Our last song was popularized by a 1996 version by Nick Cave with P.J. Harvery: “Henry Lee.” Older versions of the song go by other names including “Love Henry,” “Earl Richard,” “Young Hunting,” and “The False Lady.” This one is also from Scotland of the early 19th century.  The Appalachian adaptation (the version sung by Nick Cave) omits a more detailed opening describing Henry Lee (or Richard) as an early come in from hunting as well as a more elaborate role played by the bird witness — one which involves the recovery of the victim’s body and identification of the killer by supernatural means.  There is also a final verse about the cruel justice served upon the killer. Along the way we learn of a quite peculiar superstition related to the bodies of the drowned and hear a snippet of an unusual 2008 cover of the song by Jodie Holland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of Them Witches

All of Them Witches

This Halloween we have five stories of witches from all the way back to around 1125AD to the 1960s. Some of them are actual historic personage, some seem more purely folkloric.

It’s a somewhat longer episode for which I”ll provide somewhat shorter show notes here.  So, I won’t going into the details of each story, but just give a sketch of who we’ll be talking about.  Aside from all being witches, you’ll see another common thread; four of the five kept avian familiars: roosters, blackbirds, and jackdaws.

The first a 19th-century witch who’s become a part of Connecticut folklore — Hannah Cranna.  Though there are stories of her cursing neighbors from her life, the most interesting part of her tale begins with the details of her burial details, with which she was particularly obsessed.  The segment begins with a snippet of Mark Fry’s bit of folk-psychedelia “The Witch” — only because it happens to dovetail nicely with a story of Hannah told on an urban legends web page.

Our second witch was also very particular about her burial, but with a more clear-cut rationale: she wanted to prevent the Devil from claiming her soul (and body, it seems) upon her death. This is the so-called “Witch of Berkeley,” who story was first told by English chronicler William of Malmesbury all the way back in 1125.  It’s in his Chronicle of the Kings of England (as a sort of digression).

Our third witch, Molly Leigh, is also from England — North Staffordshire, where she died in 1746. Though she fit the witchy archetype of having both a quarrelsome personality and undesirable physiognomy, she was never tried or executed for witchcraft, despite some rumors of minor mischief, such as bewitching beers down at the pub.  Her story, like Hannah Cranna’s, focuses more on her afterlife exploits.  We play a snippet of a recent horror movie Molly Crows, which uses Leigh’s story as a springboard.

The fourth witch is our most modern: Sibyl Leek, who appeared on the scene in the 1960s during a wave of pop-culture.  While she claimed to be a descendant of Molly Leigh, her life seems to have been much more pleasant, centering primarily upon how to best position herself in the media spotlight.

Our final story is is quite an oddity.  The story of the self-confessed 17th-century witch, Major Thomas Weir, who became a fixture in legends of old Edinburgh.  This is our longest segment, and I’ll leave the rest for you to enjoy as Mrs. Karswell’s reads from our sources, ad the details as are suitably shocking.

From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

Hear how notions of Purgatory influenced medieval ghost stories, the tradition of All Souls’ Day, and a Neapolitan “cult of skulls.”

We set the scene with a clip from “The Lyke Wake Dirge,” a 14th–century British song sung or chanted as a sort of charm over the body of the deceased in the night before burial. It describes the perils confronted by the soul during its journey into the afterlife, describing a “thorny moor,” and “Bridge of Doom,” which must be traversed to arrive in a none-too-friendly Purgatory.

We take a moment to review the historical Catholic concept of Purgatory, one usually associated with fire and torment, albeit of a temporary rather than everlasting nature and geared toward the further purification of the soul bound for Heaven.

Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript
Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript

Gregory the Great, the 6th-century pope, is one of the earliest influences on the notion of Purgatory offering as evidence a  ghost story of a wicked bishop condemmed to haunt the baths. We also hear of a grisly apparition of Gregory’s dead mother that supposedly appeared in a church where, legend has it, Gregory was saying mass.

From the 8th-century English chronicler Bede, we hear of a man named Drythelm who is granted a vision of Hell, that is “not the Hell you imagine,” (i.e., Purgatory instead) and of the Irish saint. Fursey, who was flown by an angel over purgatorial fires, where a surprising encounter with a demon provides him a curious souvenir.

St. Patrick went one better than ghost stories, at least according to legend. With a tap of his bishop’s crook, he’s said to have cracked open the earth to reveal a gateway to Purgatory itself, all in an effort to convert those stubborn pagans who wanted something a bit more concrete to validate the gospel.  A variety of medieval legends chronicle adventures through this underworld, and the site (though not the cave itself) is still open to visitors to a tiny Irish island in Loch Dergh (“the lake of the cave.”)

Though it’s not specifically Purgatory, descriptions of hellish torments identical to those that might be experienced there are particularly plentiful in the 12th-century Irish text The Vision of Tondal. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the best passages.

Detail from the Getty Tondal
Detail from the Getty Tondal

Following a snippet of a late medieval ballad from Norway, Draumkvedet* or “The Dream Poem,” which relates its own story of a visionary journey into the afterlife, we discuss the relationship between All Souls’ Day, prayers for the dead, the cult of the Anima Sola (“lonely soul” suffering in purgatory), and the strange Neapolitans “cult of skulls,” including that of “Princess Lucia,” a legendary lovesick suicide.

Next we hear some stories of frustrated demons and a graveyard full of grumbling corpses from Jacobus da Varagine,1260 compilation of saint stories,  Legende Aurea, or The Golden Legend, followed by the utterly bizarre ghost stories written on some spare pages of a manuscript collection by a 13th-century  Cisterian monk from the abbey of Byland in Yorkshire, or “The Byland Ghost Stories.”

From 14th-century France, we hear a story known in modern English as The Ghost of Guy, describing a series of ghostly visitations by a soul condemned to Purgatory —  and the surprisingly colorful reason they were necessary!

Our last ghost story comes from The Adventures of Arthur, a story from northern England, probably set down in the late 14thcentury.  It tells of a particularly loathsome manifestation of Queen Guinevere’s mother that rises from within a lake with some pious advice for her daughter.

Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples
Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples

We end with two more modern efforts to provide evidence of souls suffering in the afterlife: Rome’s very small, and very odd Museum of the Souls in Purgatory created by a particularly obsessive 19th-century priest and a classic urban legend in audio form captured from late-night airwaves of a few decades ago.

* Norwegian listeners: my apologies for any errors in pronunciation of “Draumkvedet.”

 

 

 

 

#25 Death by Mother

#25 Death by Mother

For Mother’s Day this year we examine murderous mothers and maternal instincts gone very, very wrong in folklore, legends, and ballads.

We begin with a look at the Latin American legend of La Llorona (“the weeping woman”). We begin with a snippet of the trailer from the recently released film The Curse of La Llorona and also hear a clip from a 1961 Mexican film released in the US as The Curse of the Crying Woman. We also here an alleged recording of La Llorona herself captured in one of many such user videos uploaded to YouTube.

Still from "The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961
Still from “The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961

La Llorona’s story is that of a mortal woman who drowns her two children to avenge herself on faithless husband. In the afterlife she becomes a remorseful ghost and fearsome child-snatching bugaboo. We learn that this form of the legend is relatively modern, with the name “La Llorona” earlier attaching itself to a variety of tales that ascribe rather different motives and actions to the figure. Wilkinson reads for us a few of these earlier descriptions.

Next we have a look at some possible antecedents to the figure including the Aztec Cihuateteo (deified women who die during childbirth later becoming child-snatching spirits) as well as a water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, a figure sometimes associated with drownings.  Somewhat less credibly, a connection to tales brought by 19th-century German settlers in Mexico has even been suggested, namely that of the Weisse Frau (“White Lady”) who haunts the Hohenzollern Castle of Baden-Württemberg.  She also does away with children in the context of a thwarted love relationship (in a particularly gruesome way).

Cihuateteo sculpture
Cihuateteo sculpture

Whatever the source of the Llorana legend, it is not difficult to find parallels.  Our next example is the Greek myth of Medea, who kills the children she’s had with Jason to punish him for taking a new lover. Her revenge on her rival, Princess Glauke of Corinth, is also dreadful, and dreadfully interesting in the description Euripides provides in his play.  We hear Wilkinson read this passage and also hear a snippet of dialogue and the startlingly original soundtrack from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea.

"Medea" by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.
“Medea” by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.

Our next segment looks at some legends and songs about unwed mothers who kill their unwanted newborns.  We hear a bit about the numerous “Cry Baby Bridges” of North America.  This modern urban legend associates certain bridges, usually in rural areas, with the ghosts of infants drowned in the rivers the bridges span.  Often, particularly in older stories, the infants are illegitimate newborns.

In the Scottish or English ballad “The Cruel Mother” (also known as “The Greenwood Side”), we encounter a mother who has murdered her illegitimate children and later meets their spirits, learning from them the fate that awaits her on the other side. We hear a mix of various renderings of this folk song including: The Owl Service,  Anna & Elizabeth, Fiona Hunter, Rubus, 10,000 Maniacs,Lothlórien, and Addie Graham. We also hear a bit from the nearly identical song “The Lady Dressed in Green” which serves as the basis of a macabre childrens’ song-game.

In the song, “The Well Below the Valley” (also known as ‘The Maid and the Palmer”) describes a meeting between a mother who has given birth to and killed a number of illegitimate babies and a mysterious holy man who visits her at the well and displays supernatural knowledge of her deeds.  The song seems to originate with the biblical story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and likewise displaying supernatural knowledge of her checkered past.  This story is also the basis of the gospel song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” from which we hear brief snippets by The Fairfield Four and Nick Cave.  The version of “The Well Below the Valley” we hear is by Shanachie.

La Llorona’s child-snatching aspect is anticipated by the Greek myth of Lamia, a woman with whom Zeus was said to have fallen in love, who was then punished by Zeus’ wife Hera.   who either kills Lamia’s children or causes her to do so.  Thereafter Lamia becomes a monstrous creature devoted to stealing or killing the children of mothers everywhere.  We hear how this story later merges with medieval witchcraft beliefs.

The show ends with two stories involving cannibalism and murderous mothers.  The first is that of Gudrun (or Kriemhild) from the Germanic Völsung saga upon which Wagner based his Ring Cycle (we hear a bit of Wagner here, music from The Twilight of the Gods. The second story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, involving a grisly vengeance exacted by Procne on the Thracian king Terseus, an act of vengeance for the rape of her sister Philomela. Wilkinson here again provides a dramatic reading from Ovid.

Peter Paul Rubens "Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys," 1637
Peter Paul Rubens “Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys,” 1637

The show also includes a short bit from Henry Burr’s 1916 song “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)”