Water towers and the skyline (photograph by Yoni Brook)
Scanning the night skyline of New York City, thousands of pointy silhouettes poke out from the rooftops. So essential are water towers to the visual landscape of the city that they often fade into the background, no longer seen by familiar eyes. This is a mistake.
For the last six weeks something truly amazing was taking place inside one of these water towers. Guests first climbed 12 flights of stairs through an abandoned building in midtown Manhattan. Once on the roof, disoriented attendees found themselves looking up at the bottom of a wooden water tower, a long ladder leading from the roof up to a small trapdoor. What was being proposed seemed all but impossible.
Climbing the ladder, which flexed somewhat disconcertingly under each guest's weight, one entered through the trapdoor into a space transformed. The inside of the cedar water tower was aglow in candlelight, with a bar and five small tables constructed from disassembled pianos, along with shelving for empty bottles (the number of which grew dramatically over time). A tiny stage was built halfway up the interior to hold the band. A bartender (the fantastic Lindsay Arden Cooper) took drink orders. The experience was less of gaining access to a secret speakeasy and more of finding the door to Narnia in the back of the wardrobe. Guests would swear it was bigger on the inside.
This was the Night Heron Speakeasy created by N.D. Austin, and Atlas Obscura was lucky enough to be able to take part in its incredible six week run. For one glorious evening, the Night Heron played host to a group of Atlas Obscura followers who took a leap of faith and followed us into the unknown, some with as little as a tweet to go on. (They would have plenty to go on now, as the Night Heron — now closed — has been featured in the New Yorker, New York Times, the Atlantic, and Laughing Squid.)
Inside the Night Heron (photograph by Yoni Brook)
While there was raucous music for many of the evenings, the Atlas Obscura version of the speakeasy was decidedly nerdier, though no less boozy, featuring talks on the history of prohibition, speakeasies, and water towers, given by the Night Heron's creator N. D. Austin, and his wonderful collaborators Myric Lehner and Mike "Dirby" Luongo. For Atlas Obscura and all who attended, it was a transformative journey, a wonderful adventure, and the best kind of night spent at the bar.
Music and dancing in the Night Heron (photograph by Yoni Brook)
Together, N.D. Austin and creative partner Ida Benedetto are Wanderlust, dedicated to "transgressive placemaking through adventure, intimacy, and exploration." We could not be prouder to have them in residency at Atlas Obscura. (Ida Benedetto also heroically co-ordinated the Brooklyn Field Trip Day event last September.)
Night Heron (photograph by Yoni Brook)
Beyond the magical events Wanderlust puts on — and they truly are magical (I had the the honor of helping with the Illicit Couple's Retreat held at an abandoned resort) — they have a larger vision of cultural excavation. In Ida's words, it's "spending time in a place and following our curiosity by listening to how the location makes us feel." Cultural excavation in this sense is about honoring a place, of finding its hidden stories, with the aim of, as Ida puts it "reanimating a space or getting it back into circulation."
Illicit Couple's Retreat (photograph by Tod Seelie)
This vision could not be closer to Atlas Obscura's mission. At the Atlas Obscura, we often describe what we do as finding hidden wonders. This is true, but a better, deeper, description of what we aim to do is find wonder in places where it was previously hidden. We do this through stories, photos, and the collaborative power of the internet. With Wanderlust, Ida Benedetto and N. D. Austin do this in beautiful, intimate ways, and we could not imagine a better fit for the Atlas residency.
Illicit Couple's Retreat (photograph by Tod Seelie)
With this in mind, we are thrilled to announce the "Wanderlust School of Transgressive Placemaking," an intellectual follow up to the Night Heron, presented by Atlas Obscura at Acme Studios (63 N. 3rd Street, Brooklyn):
June 4 - Broken Legs, Surveillance Cameras, and Black Mold: Safety & Security Off the Grid with speakers Mark Krawczuk & N.D. Austin & Myric Lehner
June 11 - Go Directly to Jail: Trespassing & the Law with legal tips from speakers and attorneys Wylie Stecklow & Patricia A. Wright
June 18 - Getting In Is the Easy Part: Site-Specific Experience Design with speakers Nick Fortugno & Jeff Stark
June 25 - "For The Little Old Lady In Japan": Documentation & Legacy with speakers Stephen Duncombe & Annie Correal
These events are all examinations of the practical questions, ideas, and execution of the beautiful transgressive experiences Wanderlust creates. Make sure to sign up for their mailing list to keep informed on Wanderlust, or just send them an email.
We are also thrilled to announce that our evening at the Night Heron was the first of what represents a new and very exciting series of events for us. We call them our "Black Box" events, where participants enter with no knowledge of where they are going and what will happen. A leap of faith for all involved. To hear about these events, sign up for our general Obscura Society event emails and for city specific emails in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
We can't wait to step into the unknown with you.Read More
Whittingham Hospital (via environmentalgraffiti.com)
Early psychiatric asylums were imposing structures. Hundreds to hundreds of thousands of patients were held in these buildings for everything from depression to criminal behavior, and then there were those who, medically speaking, suffered from no mental condition at all.
These were improvements, however, over no treatment or the condemnation to prisons, which had previously been the norm. Yet eventually many of these new psychiatric facilities saw an unmanageable increase in the number of patients. Staff and investigative journalistic reports indicated the overuse and unnecessary use of treatments in order to manage these growing populations. However, it was not until the 1990s when many of these expansive asylums were completely overhauled into modern medical centers or closed because of underuse, underfunding, or scandal.
Much was learned during that period in psychiatric history, but much remains to be done in terms of advancements and understanding of medical disorders globally. Stories of abuses, tragic deaths, and murders can be found in old newspaper archives for many of these buildings that remain as towering ghosts. Most of the structures have crumbled, but like the memories of their patients, they remain. Below are some of the most unsettling of these abandoned insane asylums:
TOPEKA STATE HOSPITAL
Topeka State Hospital in 2008 (via Wikimedia)
Topeka State Hospital opened in 1872, and by the early 1900s horror stories emerged regarding patient treatment. There were investigative news reports of patients being left in rocking chairs in the hallways for hours, reports of patients being raped, chained, kept nude, and one reporter claimed to have seen a patient who had likely been strapped to his bed for so long his skin had begun to grow over the straps.
Administrative disorganization led to commitment papers that could not be found, or verified, which made identifying some patients difficult. Relaxed legal and medical processes also made it so that evaluation of medical conditions sometimes was reported to not occur before a patient was admitted. Topeka was also notorious for the implementation of forced sterilizations for patients that were deemed habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles, and the insane. Hundreds of men in Kansa who entered Topeka State Hospital were said to have been castrated.
The hospital closed in 1997, and while some buildings remain, the cemetery is a bare landscape. The unmarked cemetery does not have any signs, paths, or major stonework for the reported 1,157 patients who died here.
Map of Topeka State Hospital (via Kansas Historical Society)
DANVERS STATE HOSPITAL
Danvers State Hospital (via Wikimedia)
This psychiatric asylum was opened in 1878 in Danvers, Massachusetts. Danvers State Hospital is rumored to be the birthplace of the pre-frontal lobotomy, a surgical procedure which cuts, or scraps away, tissue of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The procedure was widely popular in the early 1900s in treating psychiatric patients, since its serious effects included reduction in initiative and inhibition. The procedure is now banned in the United States.
A series of complicated underground tunnels connected to various buildings on the campus and were used to move patients to nearby buildings on campus, especially during winter months. The original design allowed for the treatment of 500 patients — by the 1920s, the hospital was serving more than 2,000. Staff reports of inhumane therapies, such as excessive shock treatments, lobotomies, overmedication, and straightjackets used to keep the growing population under control was common. The hospital saw a decline in patients in the 1960s and closed its doors in 1992.
In 2005, the property was sold to Avalon Bay Development, which began demolition with the intention of creating an apartment complex that would house 497 units. A mysterious fire at the site in 2007 consumed most of this construction. Today, about a third of the original structure of the hospital remains, as well as its cemeteries and underground tunnels, which are said to be blocked off. It's believed that the hospital was the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanatorium in his short story “The Thing on the Doorstep,” as well as the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman comic world.
Illustration of Danvers State Hospital (via rootsofmyroots)
Remains of Danvers State Hospital (via Opacity)
Danvers State Hospital in 2008 (via Wikimedia)
DENBIGH MENTAL ASYLUM
Denbigh, North Wales
Also known as North Wales Hospital, Denbigh Mental Asylum was built for 60 but treated over 200 patients. The hospital opened in 1848 and began its series of closures in 1991, with it completely closing in 2001. Paranormal investigators now frequent the grounds, to the dismay of locals.
In 2008, plans to renovate the building to apartments were thwarted when a fire broke out. Arson was suspected in the damage that destroyed the main hall. People who have made their way through the abandoned property have left garbage, smashed windows, and covered many remaining walls with graffiti. Some of the floors are rotting away due to excessive water damage.
Denbigh Instane Asylum (Public Domain)
Denbigh Insane Asylum (Public Domain)Read More
Wheel chairs and peeling paint (all photograph by Jeremy Harris)
Across the East Coast of the United States are crumbling ruins of failures to treat mental illness, with peeling interiors once intended to be cheery encouragement and forgotten treatment devices from bowling alleys to hydrotherapy tubs. Photographer Jeremy Harris has documented many of these institutions in a project called American Asylums: Moral Architecture of the 19th Century. We asked Harris a few questions about his work:
What is your background as a photographer and how did you start documenting the asylums?
I began photographing abandoned farm houses and factories in the 1980s while in high school. I moved to San Francisco in 1990 to finish college. There I started my career as a pro portrait/rock and roll photographer. In 2004, I discovered the abandoned asylums through various internet sites and decided that I needed to see them for myself. So I would fly to the East Coast every couple of months and meet up with friends. We'd take exploring trips lasting from a day to two weeks.
Beds in an asylum
Abandoned insane asylums are arguably some of the most unsettling places on earth. What drew you to want to spend so much time inside of them with this photography project?
Since my teens, I've been interested in history and abandoned structures, as well as abnormal psychology and insanity. When I visited my first asylum, the Lunatic Asylum in Buffalo, New York, I was able to roam the massive ward hallways, sit in actual patient rooms, and explore dark passages beneath the buildings. The experience was one of fascination and excitement — a feeling of stepping back into time and treading where few others have been in years.
Once inside the buildings (after slipping past security and mental health police), I found the experiences to be quite calming and peaceful, as I was able to shut out the outside world and concentrate solely on photographing these beautifully designed buildings, the way the light shines in at all hours of the day and the ever-changing look of places that are slowly decaying and being reclaimed by nature. It was addicting and has become an obsession.Read More
Soyuz Tree Planting Ceremony on May 22, 2013 (photograph by Victor Zelentsov/NASA)
Yesterday in preparation for their May 29 departure for the International Space Station, the crew members of Soyuz TMA-09M each planted saplings as part of a tradition of cosmonauts going back to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
These plantings were in a grove located on the Avenue of the Cosmonauts behind the Cosmonaut Hotel in Kazakhstan, which was built for space travelers who were departing the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Two long rows of trees are all marked with the name and year of the crew member who planted them, from Gagarin's tree which looms the tallest to that of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. While it started out as a ceremony for Soviet cosmonauts, now that missions for the International Space Station depart from the Cosmodrome, NASA astronauts and space travelers from around the world plant trees.
The ceremony always takes place very shortly before take off, leaving a simple, living tribute in the earth to those intrepid voyagers who are about to shoot beyond our atmosphere. Below are more images from this cosmonaut grove:
Jogging on the Avenue of the Cosmonauts (via European Space Agency)
Tree planted by Yuri Gagarin (via nox-am-ruit/Flickr)
NASA astronaut Joe Acaba plants a tree on May 10, 2012 with Expedition 31/32 (photograph by Victor Zelentsov/NASA)
Wallace Hartley's violin (via the Bournemouth News)
As passengers frantically piled into the lifeboats or gazed down at their doom in the icy waters, the Titanic band continued to play on the tilting deck. Bandleader Wallace Hartley led the string group on his rosewood violin until the last moment and then packed it cafeully into his luggage that he strapped to himself, hoping for the best. His body was found floating 10 days later, the violin still clutched to his body.
Dedication to Wallace Hartley from his fiance Maria (photograph via the Bournemouth News)
The instrument had been a gift to Hartley from his fiance, and it was to her that it returned after the Titanic sank. After her death in 1939, it disappeared, turning up in 2006 in an attic in England. It took seven years to confirm its authenticity, according to the Telegraph, and now it's finally on display to the public.
Wallace Hartley (via Daily Record)
Despite some warping from the water, the instrument is in remarkable shape, although unplayable. It was first exhibited in Belfast, the Titanic's point of departure, for the anniversary last year, and it's arrived this month in the United States. Its first stop is the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge Tennessee, a museum contained in a half-scale recreation of the Titanic in the Smoky Mountains. Then it will travel to its sister museum in Branson, which, incredibly, is also shaped like a giant replica of the ocean liner. Finally, this October it will be auctioned by Henry Aldrige & Son in England, but no matter where the well-traveled instrument finally ends up, it will be a haunting reminder of that last harrowing serenade.Read More
Relic Chapel in the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in New York (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
As an eight-year-old Catholic, I was already disillusioned with my faith. My perverse interest in the many lepers of the Bible sustained my attention in religion class for a while, but my request for more information resulted in a well-intentioned, but crushingly disappointing, book on leopards. In the days before Wikipedia, that was a dead end. The boredom returned. I felt doomed to a lifetime of sunny parables and chirpy gospels until the day Father Don walked into church with a piece of decomposing human liver in a filigree box.
The liver was a relic: a piece of the corpse of a saint. Our parish was a stop on the liver’s world tour to give more parishioners the opportunity to venerate. According to the Catholic process of veneration, praying to a saint's body part might stir the saint to intercede on your behalf with God. While I may not have venerated in the most orthodox way, I studied it intently. For me, the liver was the best thing since lepers.
From that time on I was fascinated with the lives of saints and the pieces of their bodies strewn about in shrines all over the world. Their biographies matched the macabre beauty of their bones in these wildly ornate boxes. They were princes and queens, warriors and beggars in disguise. It wasn’t uncommon for the hero or heroine saint to be beheaded, burnt at the stake, or flayed alive at the end of their story. In fact, if you looked closely, some of their bones still bore the marks of martyrdom.
There is no complete list of saints, nor for that matter, their relics (at least that’s available to the public; who knows what lurks in the Vatican Library). Saints are sometimes taken off the official calendar of feast days if their legends become too suspect, but they cannot be “un-sainted” and their relics, if they exist, often remain on display even under the most suspicious circumstances (like the four skulls all claiming to be St. John the Baptist). As an adult, I began seeking out churches all over the world to document saint’s relics and legends myself because the disorder and relative lack of information on relics lent itself to a sort of treasure hunt.
As I loaded my laptop with photos of crypts and cadavers, I became hesitant to share these vacation photos. Frankly, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for centuries-old disembodied limbs and skulls wearing crowns. I started my blog All the Saints You Should Know last year as a way to organize and share the photos and stories I collected with like-minded people. Recently, I’ve started adding some of my favorites to the Atlas in the hopes of getting more people interested in and documenting relics. Here are a few of my favorites that I’ve highlighted so far:
SANTA FRANCESCA ROMANA
St. Francesca Romana (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
One of the best side effects of viewing relics is the quiet serenity of crypts. The day I went to see the relics of St. Francesca Romana it was almost 100 degrees in Rome. The basilica her relics are kept in is in the middle of the loudest, most touristy part of the city. I had to slip past a bunch of guys in plastic gladiator costumes waiting in line for porta-potties just to get in. But then… silence. Cool marble. Incense. It was an oasis within some circle of hell reserved for badly behaved tourists in fannypacks. And of course, there was a full skeleton dressed in a white nun's habit, boney fingers still clutching her prayer book.
CHURCH OF THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER
New York City, New York
Relics of St. Datian (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
But of course, you don’t have to go to Europe just to see relics. For a similar experience sans-jetlag, you can head to the East Village in New York City and view the complete relics of St. Datian, an obscure Roman martyr. St. Datian was the first complete body of a saint to be brought to America and he rests here along with smaller relics from over 150 other saints. The relics are encased in a lifelike (or rather, deathlike) wax sculpture of the martyr’s body in repose. The art of wax sculpting is employed all over the world to give relics a less frightening, more peaceful look. Today some contemporary saints like Padre Pio have perfectly lifelike silicone faces and hands to shield their corpses from direct view.Read More
Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Most New Yorkers only view Bayside Cemetery in a glimpse from the A train on the way to JFK or the Rockaways, the overgrowth of trees and other plants shrouding the whole place in an urban forest. Yet the cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens, is one of the city's significant cornerstones of the history of Judaism in New York in the 19th century. However, for years, almost since it was first opened in 1865, the cemetery has been a victim of neglect and vandalism. Volunteers are working to return peace to the burial ground, including Anthony Pisciotta who has dedicated himself to preserving and repairing the cemetery. Earlier this month, Pisciotta led the Obscura Society on an exploration of Bayside and shared his extensive knowledge of its history.
Bayside Cemetery, with a view to the A train tracks (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Around 35,000 people are buried in Bayside Cemetery, representing a strong Jewish community from all walks of New York life, from religious leaders to veterans going back to the Civil War to a Titanic victim to a woman lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Their diversity is reflected in their memorials, which often reflect their identifications with being German or a citizen of the Victorian era, with elaborate mausoleums and ornate markers, rather than just their religion.
Andy Schultz of CAJAC and tour guide Anthony Pisciotta with the Obscura Society visitors (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Joining our visit was Andy Schultz, the executive director of the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries (CAJAC), which has also been organizing volunteers to clear the layers of dead leaves, fix up broken mausoleums, and generally help get the cemetery on its way to being a welcoming place for those who come here to remember and to honor those who rest in its earth.
The land where Bayside Cemetery is located actually has three cemeteries, with Acacia Cemetery on the east and Mokom Sholom on the west. You know when you enter Bayside as you're suddenly the shadows of slender rising trees that cast dappled light on dirt paths. It was once as orderly as the better-preserved Acacia, yet incidents including the opening of mausoleums and revealing of remains, even the setting on fire of corpses and mausoleums, left Bayside in a horrific state of disarray. It may still look like it's in a bad state, but just compare the photos here to these Citynoise photos from 2008 and you'll see the vast improvements made by Pisciotta and CAJAC. A group of volunteer undertakers also replaced remains in simple coffins before wrecked mausoleums were sealed with layers of cinderblocks. Graffiti tags have been cleaned off the marble and granite tombstones, and just recently Pisciotta pieced together a delicate statue of an angel that marked a child's grave.
Allison Meier from Atlas Obscura with our tour guide Anthony Pisciotta (photograph by Randall Tilson)
As Pisciotta explained, he's not Jewish, nor does he have family buried in Bayside, yet we should all feel a universal need to give respect to the dead. Below are some more photographs from the Obscura Society's afternoon in Bayside Cemetery:
Cassius celebrates his birthday (photograph by Jemma Craig, courtesy Marineland Melanesia)
On the small teardrop of a landmass called Green Island on the Barrier Reef of Queensland, Australia, the population of crocodiles rivals that of humans. And among the 50 reptilian residents who dwell at the Marineland Melanesia crocodile habitat is a colossus known as Cassius, who holds the hefty title of the world's biggest crocodile.
This month, the 17-foot-long Cassius celebrated his 110th birthday with a celebration capped by a giant cake of chicken necks, the Herald Sun reported. "He destroyed it in about 30 seconds," Billy Craig, Marineland Melanesia crocodile wrangler, noted to AAP.
Cassius the crocodile (via ABC)
Cassius was caught back in 1984 when he was creating a nuisance by chomping on some motorboats. No one wanted the massive crocodile, so the family-owned Marineland Melanesia took him in. According to his Guiness World Record tribute, he's "thought to be a man-eater," but no evidence is presented.
He's held the title of biggest crocodile in captivity since 2011, but was briefly dethroned by a proven man-eater: Lolong in the Philippines. Lolong was captured in 2011 after a schoolgirl's head was bitten off and a fisherman was devoured, the Telegraph reported. Yet that scaly behemoth died of an unexplained illness earlier this year, leaving Cassius, who is indeed named for the famed boxer, to again stand victorious.
George Craig feeding Cassius (via AFP)
Of course, this is likely all the same to Cassius as long as he gets his next meal, and while there was grand celebrating with the raw meat cake and a hearty singing of happy birthday, no one can be quite sure how old the crocodile is. But his caring keepers thought it was about time for the aging crocodile, who is definitely over the century, to have a birthday. And he's in great shape for his age with all of his teeth. As Craig said to the Cairns Post earlier this year: He might outlive us all."
One of the Anatomical Machines in Naples (photograph by Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy)
For numerous travelers, Naples is the darkest gem of the Old Continent, concealing in its streets countless artifacts of a macabre nature. With skulls, bones, petrified saints, and holy blood, the iconography of death seems to have spread everywhere. Moreover, Naples is paved with obscure legends. Behind every door, under each alcove, vivid tales linger on, tangling together the Italian aristocracy, exalted quests for knowledge, and, of course, cold blooded murders. Included in these is the story of the Anatomical Machines.
Located in the basement of the Sansevero Chapel in the historic district of Naples, the bodies of two people, a man and a woman, stand in an elaborate display. Their skin and their muscles are gone, leaving them open and naked. Yet they proudly present their vascular systems, their skeletons, and some of them inner organs.
It's evident that our couple is not an object of devotion, so their dramatic internal nudity in one of the most sumptuous chapels in town is paradoxical. Who are these two people and why is their anatomy displayed in this sacred place?
Werner Herzog's "Death for Five Voices" (1995) (The gate keeper scene and the visit to the chapel are at the beginning of the extract.)
I remember encountering the Anatomical Machines for the first time in Death for Five Voices, Werner Herzog's documentary on Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, a late Renaissance composer famous for his haunting madrigals and the gruesome murder he committed on his wife and her lover. Caught in flagrante delicto, the unfaithful Donna Maria d'Avalos and her paramour were hacked in bed by several sword hits in the Palazzo Sensevero. In Herzog’s film, a gate keeper of this very palace described Gesualdo as "a demon and an alchemist" who, after the murder, embalmed the guilty couple. His "original sin" tableau was then installed in the Sansevero Chapel.
This same myth also appears in a painting by American visionary artist Joe Coleman that retraces the epic life of Gesualdo. The Macchine Anatomiche are visible in the center, on the left side of the iconic murderer portrait:
Joe Coleman, "Tebebrae for Gesualdo" (2004) (via JoeColeman.com)
But digging a bit into the historical realities of Naples' past cuts short the Gesualdo myth. Notary deeds enabled researchers to trace the origin of the Anatomical Machines to 1763, more than a century after Gesualdo’s death. In fact, the embalmed bodies were commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, Prince de Sansevero, the same nobleman who also sponsored the reconstruction of the Sansevero Chapel. This reconstruction gave the sanctuary a new layout and the glorious appeal it has today. And also, the two anatomical preparations.
The goal of these "anatomical machines" (Macchine Anatomiche) made in the Enlightenment was to unveil the mechanics of the body, highlighting how organs function in interaction with each other. Therefore the "machines" were meant to show how the heart, as the center of the vascular system, distributed blood everywhere in the body through a network of veins and arteries. Something which, at the time, was invisible unless you attended an actual autopsy.
Raimondo di Sangro, Prince de Sansevero, Artist Unknown (via Atlas Obscura)
Raimondo di Sangro, Prince de Sansevero, is an iconic figure of Naples wrapped in an aura of mysteries. Described as “the Napolitaen incarnation of Doctor Faustus,” the prince was an indefatigable inventor and scientist obsessed by mechanics, physics, chemistry, and anatomy. But his hermetic mind also turned him to alchemy and Freemasonry, which explains some of the symbolic elements adorning the chapel today. He's acknowledged for a plethora of inventive devices like an "Eternal Flame" of colored fireworks, and an amphibian coach that could travel over both land and sea.
The anatomical machines are at the crossroads of all his interests. As an 18th century guide stated, Di Sangro is said to have worked hand-in-hand with anatomist Giuseppe Salerno. In his laboratory, the Prince is said to have found an alchemic process to materialize the vascular system by injecting a mercury-based substance that would allow a “metallization” of blood vessels. The stupendous technique could be celebrated as a predecessor of Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds plastination if the “black legend” of Di Sangro didn’t complicate this tale a bit ...
One of the Anatomical Machines (photograph by Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy)
What is this black legend? Well, according to popular story, Di Sangro allegedly got a pregnant servant and her lover murdered so that he could experiment with his metallization process on vivisected bodies. He then kept his models in his personal Apartment of the Phoenix in the palace, until being relocated to Sansevero Chapel. Other stories assert that he killed no less than seven cardinals in order to use their bones and skin to make seven chairs, and that he arranged his own resurrection through a post-mortem alchemic process in which he had to be sliced in pieces and placed in a chest.
The Anatomical Machines, as they are presented in the Sansevero Chapel (via Atlas Obscura)
Nowadays, several contemporary scholars consider the possibility that the Di Sangro himself was the origin of theses rumors, building his own mythology to gain eternal notoriety. In 2008, UCL-London researchers Renata Peters and Lucia Dacome analyzed samples of the Anatomical Machines from the artery networks. What they found was stunning: the veins were manufactured out of beeswax, pigments, and silk fibers, all articulated on iron wire. No mercury was found, and nothing organic remained. Nothing expect the skeletons belonged to a real human.
The Anatomical Machines were artificially fabricated by Salerno. If it tames their incredible story, it still shows the incredible craftsmanship that went into copying nature’s complex engineering. If our modern science has deciphered a trick of history, it has also shifted the Anatomical Machines from the realm of myth to the realm of the sublime.
All the secrets of human consciousness may be embedded somewhere in the squishy brains nestled in our skulls. This drive to find out what's hidden in our mental anatomy has resulted in medical specimen collections of brains all over the world. The Wilder Brain Collection in Ithaca, New York, has around 70 brains; the Cushing Brain Collection in New Haven, Connecticut, has around 550. But this is nothing compared to the around 3,300 brains kept at the Brain Museum in Lima.
Wilder Brain Collection in the 1950s (via hastinggraham/Flickr user)
The Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University was actually once much larger, with more than 600 brains having been amassed from corpse craniums between the 19th and 20th centuries by Dr. Burt Green Wilder, whose own brain even became part of the collection after his passing. Unfortunately, brains are fragile things, and years of neglect and poor storage resulted in only about 70 surviving.
Cushing Brain Collection (courtesy Cushing/Whitney Medical Library)
A grid of about 400 delicately-lit jars line the walls of the Cushing Brain Collection at Yale's medical school library, with another 150 in storage in states of conservation. The collection was created by Harvey Cushing at the beginning of the 20th century, an impressive brainiac himself who was both a groundbreaking neurosurgeon and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. While it spent the time between its donation in 1939 and 2010 hidden away, and also suffered from disrepair like the Wilder Collection, renewed interest driven by student enthusiasm brought it to its new home.
Brain Collection in Lima (via unboundedmedicine.com)
While the Wilder and Cushing collections have some staggering mental mass, the Brain Museum in Lima has an unrivaled holding of about 3,300 brains. The collection started in 1947 and under the current direction of Neuropathologist Diana Rivas it continues its growing focus on diseases of the brain. From the impact of strokes to tumors to the human strain of mad cow disease, the accumulated brains show just how delicate our neural center is to our stability and sense.Read More