2016 Year in Review

Here are my favorite Mental Floss stories from 2016, at least the ones from my watch. Producing well-researched, well-crafted stories on internet time isn’t always easy, and I’m hugely grateful to all my wonderful writers, not to mention the rest of the team over at MF. Working on stories that connect people to history and place continues to be the thing that gets me out of bed every day. (Well, that and coffee.)

Anonymous engraving of the Mademoiselle de Beaumont or The Chevalier D'Eon.  Orig. in the London Magazine, via Library of Congress, Public Domain
Anonymous engraving of the Mademoiselle de Beaumont, or The Chevalier D’Eon. Orig. in the London Magazine, via Library of Congress, Public Domain

The Chevalier d’Eon, a.k.a. Mademoiselle de Beaumont, was a big star in 18th century France and England who served as a diplomat, spy, pamphleteer, and fencer. D’Eon also lived the first half of life as a man, and the second half as a woman. By Stassa Edwards. (Part of our Show & Tell column highlighting interesting objects in museums and archives.)

Robert Peary has been celebrated as the first man to reach the North Pole, but it was probably Matthew Henson, his assistant, who deserves that distinction. Here’s a retrobituary, as we call them, in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. By Michele Debczak.

Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie, took advice from dead people, his dogs, and the patterns in his shaving cream. By Don Rauf, in celebration of Canada Day.

The dangerous and highly competitive world of Victorian orchid hunting included violent deaths, peeing on competitors’ specimens, and blooms growing out of human bones. By Claire Cock-Starkey.

Odontoglossum harryanum, Frederick Sander via Wikipedia, Public Domain
Odontoglossum harryanum, Frederick Sander via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Delano grape strike has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked. By Kyla Cathey.

On a kayak swamp tour near NOLA in June, I heard the legend of a voodoo priestess whose wrath supposedly destroyed a whole town. I dug into her tale (with the help of mental_floss researcher Jocelyn Sears) to find out the real story, which was just as dark as I imagined—although a little less supernatural.

Rasputin via Wikimedia, public domain
Rasputin via Wikimedia, Public Domain

100 years after Rasputin died, the story of how—and why—he died is still more myth than reality. At this point, I doubt we’ll ever know the whole truth. By Andrew Lenoir.

Le Karnice was the Victorian “safety coffin” designed by Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki to save lives at a time when fear of premature burial was at an all-time high. By Claire Voon.

This ancient 20-sided die looks like it could have been used for Egyptian D&D, but its possible function as an alphabet oracle might be even more interesting. By Erin Blakemore.

Tintype portrait of Olive Oatman. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library via Wikimedia, Public Domain
Tintype portrait of Olive Oatman. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Olive Oatman was a mid-19th-century Mormon teenager who lived with the Mohave tribe for several years before being “freed” by the federal government. She spent the rest of her life a marked woman. By Meg van Huygen.

The ravens at the Tower of London get a lullaby every night. That’s one of the 13 behind-the-scenes “secrets” Christine Colby gathered from the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.

Les Waas, writer of the Mister Softee jingle, was a perennial prankster. He died in 2016, but I’ll always remember the ice cream truck song as his longest-lasting joke. By Michele Debczak.

Operation Cone of Power, also known as the time British Witches tried to attack Adolf Hitler. By Tom Metcalfe.

The story behind a conman with multiple fake identities, and the Alabama tombstone that reads DAMN THE STATE DEPT. By Meg van Huygen.

One of the nutshell studies of unexplained death. Via the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
One of the nutshell studies of unexplained death. Via the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Despite not being allowed to attend college, Frances Glessner Lee was a forensic science pioneer whose intricate doll houses helped revolutionize police training. By Christine Colby.

Mount Everest, and summits like it, are home to a surprising number of spooky stories: mysterious figures, phantom radio transmissions, and more. Jane Rose rounded up some ghost stories from the world’s tallest peaks.

Here’s the delicious history of the nation’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant—in Butte, Montana. By Kirstin Fawcett.

In June 1945, a group of kids playing on a Liverpool street discovered a skeleton inside a metal cylinder. Some think the body belonged to a disgraced paint manufacturer, but the case has never been solved. By Luke Bather.

In the 1960s, Yetta Bronstein was an imaginary Jewish housewife who ran for president. One of her slogans: “Vote for Yetta and things will get Betta.” By Meg van Huygen.

 The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London. Colored engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753 via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London. Colored engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753 via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

This heart-breaking 18th-century rebus token was left for a child abandoned at London’s Foundling Hospital. By Erin Blakemore.

In 1863, a legless man washed up on a beach in Nova Scotia, unable to speak. The town adopted him, but no one ever figured out who he was. Meg van Huygen wrote about “Jerome” and other mysterious people without a past.

A few months after we published that story, a former nuclear physicist and forensic genealogist solved the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff, who was actually Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18. By Jake Rossen.

I’m sure there’s a bunch of other fantastic stories I’m forgetting, too. Certain of it.

In non-mental_floss news, I wrote “What Do the Scary Clowns Want” for The New York Times, a brief history of medical cannibalism for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, and a long chapter about human remains in the world’s museums for a forthcoming book about Julia Pastrana, which is being spearheaded by the amazing artist and human Laura Anderson Barbata. (The book is called The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, and will arrive summer 2017). I appeared in a German TV show called “History” on the network ZDF; the episode retold several of the stories in Rest in Pieces, and did a great job.

I also edited, for Feral House, two books that I highly recommend: Al Ridenour’s The Krampus: And The Old, Dark Christmas (essential for understanding the fuss about Krampus) and the latest editions of Mel Gordon’s Theatre of Fear and Horror, The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 (essential for understanding, oh, the whole horror genre, probably).

Favorite book I read this year: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.


Favorite movie I watched: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders 

Favorite album (that’s actually from 2016): Ancient Youth by Double Echo. Yup, it’s 1986 goth all over again, you got a problem with that? Runner up is My Friends Bury Their Souls For The Devil To Find, by Ritual Howls.

I have Bad Feelings about 2017. Still, with courage and imagination, maybe we’ll get through it.

2014 Year in Review: Slightly Stygian

My laptop at the old Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn (not the magnificent new space)
My laptop at the old Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn (not the magnificent new space)

2014 was tumultuous but productive, marked by the the kind of brush fires that are essential for clearing out the old and propagating the new. And while it hasn’t always been an easy year, one of the things I most enjoyed was getting to write slightly longer pieces that combine my curious cross-section of interests: history, place, memory, mourning, and the failed ideas of science and medicine. I love discovering overlooked people and places that have something to say about the folly of the human condition, our attempts to cure and fix and master ourselves. People like Grandison Harris, the African-American man enslaved by the Georgia College of Medicine to steal bodies for the medical students, or Julia Pastrana, the 19th century Mexican bearded woman who became a sensation on stage even as doctors debated whether she was fully human. Places like Hart Island, New York City’s potters’ field, which feels like something out of Soviet Russia but is just a boat ride away from Manhattan, or like London’s Cross Bones graveyard, which a modern shaman has helped rescue from obscurity, revealing layers upon layers of that city’s darkest social and sexual histories.

Stygian as these stories may seem, there is usually some light along the way: reversals of fortune, friends who appear just when they’re needed most, criminals put behind bars, forgotten graves finally marked, promising lawsuits. Here are my favorite stories from 2014; I hope I’m lucky enough to find and produce more like them in 2015.

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World” The Public Domain Review

The London Graveyard That’s Become a Memorial for the City’s Seedier Past Smithsonian.com

The Doctor Who Starved Her Patients to Death Smithsonian.com

Meet Grandison Harris, the Grave Robber Enslaved (and then Employed) By the Georgia College of Medicine Smithsonian.com

The Graves of Forgotten New Yorkers New York Times

How the Ouija Board Got Its Name Atlas Obscura

Trap Streets: Copyrighting Cartography with Fictional Places Atlas Obscura

The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine Smithsonian.com

Maude Paris Review Daily

Of course, none of these articles would appear without the community of writers and editors who inspire me, edit me, and publish my stuff. If places like the Smithsonian Magazine’s website, Atlas Obscura, and Lapham’s Quarterly didn’t exist, I’d probably still just be a disgruntled teenager scribbling in her notebook. At least now I can write on a laptop!

An Overdue Update

New York City sunset
Times Square electronic sunset

I’ve recently been chastised for my absence from this blog (I won’t name names), and just when I thought no one was paying attention! I think all internet-enabled writers know the difficulty of juggling their paid work, creative projects, and social media efforts, which ideally overlap and cross-pollinate, but also distract from one another. Also, it’s hard to sit in a chair for more than ten hours a day. Nevertheless, I’ve been remiss in keeping all of you updated. Here’s a bit about what I’ve been up to:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears–whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.

  • I’ve been working on editing a few projects for the Port Townsend publishers Feral House, including a fantastic forthcoming encyclopedia of black metal by Dayal Patterson. It’s got everything you want to know about the controversial genre, from the origin of corpse paint to the 70s glam metal band that inspired most of the Norwegian second wave. Feral House, of course, are the same folks who previously published Lords of Chaos, which both disturbed and fascinated the 18-year-old me.
  • Last but not least, congratulations to the curious and wondrous Atlas Obscura, the world’s most awesome travel-related website, on their re-design! You can see my spotlight on Einstein’s brain in their “Objects of Intrigue” series.

If you made it to the end of that, you get a gold star. Or maybe a skull in a jar, like the beautiful one (made of netting?) I saw at ABC Carpet & Home during the trip. More news, and skulls, soon!

Skull from ABC Carpet & Home (artist unknown)
Skull from ABC Carpet & Home (artist unknown)