Sant’Agostino, memorial to Cardinal Giuseppe Ranato Imperiali, by Paolo Posi (design) and Pietro Bracci (statuary), 1741 (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
The dead are everywhere in the churches of Rome. Their tombs line the walls and dominate whole side chapels. Visit enough of them and you’ll come to expect the loose wiggle and hollow thunk of the marble slabs shifting beneath your feet that signal you’ve walked over a grave. If you imagine what’s just beyond every surface, the churches become mega-necropoli, Tokyos made of tombs instead of hotel rooms.
Unlike the relics of the saints, the entombed bodies of clergy and parishioners are largely hidden from the public, but the Baroque skulls and life-sized marble skeletons won’t let you forget they’re there. They speak to you. But as David Sedaris noted in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the skeleton has a “limited vocabulary, and says only one thing: ‘You are going to die.”
Rome’s skeletons prefer to deliver the bad news in Latin, an appropriately dead language, but even so you can’t mistake the message or the fact they’re addressing you directly. An engraved skeleton on the façade of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Mort unfurls a banner that reads, “Hodie mihi. Cras tibi.” “Today me. Tomorrow you,” it shrugs.
Though their message is grim, the skeletons are surprisingly lively. At San Francesco d’Assisi a Ripa Grande, they climb out from behind the artwork. At Gesù e Maria, one appears frozen in the middle of a solo danse macabre, flailing so wildly it seems to be coming apart. Even in the more staid examples, it isn’t unusual for the skull’s empty sockets to convey more emotion than busts of the living. It’s this kinetic quality that’s so arresting; life seems to bursts supernaturally from these dark corners devoted to death.
The juxtaposition is intentional. Bernini popularized the use of these unusually active skeletons, and in doing so masterfully expressed a tenant of his Catholic faith. The feathered wings signal these aren’t your average corpses. They’re complex allegories for the inescapable passage of time, and the belief that death and decomposition of the body are the first stages in the transition to everlasting life (or damnation, as the case may be). Though the skeleton may only say, “You are going to die," for some that implies, “You haven’t lived yet.”
Sant’Eustachio (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)
San Lorenzo in Damaso, memorial to Allessandro Valtrini by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1639
Gesù e Maria, memorial to Camillo del Corno by Domenico Guidi (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)Read More
Delmonico's on Beaver St. in Manhattan (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
Are relics from Pompeii — that Roman city wrecked by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD — embedded in the façade of one of New York City's most iconic restaurants? The answer is a wavering "maybe," but the symbolism of the two marble columns framing the entrance to Delmonico's resonates both with that ancient destruction, and one of New York's greatest disasters.
I had never heard the story that the two corinthian columns bookending the gold Delmonico's name at 56 Beaver Street were from Pompeii until this past Sunday's historic Lower Manhattan tour from Dan Veksler of Other World Tours for the Obscura Society. Veksler was careful to state that "by all accounts" the columns were from Pompeii, meaning the proof is vague, but as I touched the obviously old stone and looked at the detailed capitals, I wondered how much was true.
Delmonico's on Beaver St. in 1893 (via British Library)
The history of Delmonico's, while far from the grandeur of Pompeii, is a significant one for the dining culture of Manhattan. Started as a pastry shop in 1831 by two Swiss brothers, it eventually expanded into several restaurants. Its culinary breakthroughs included having the first tablecloths in Manhattan, the first printed menus, the first private seating, and being the first to invite women to dine alone without judgement on their character. As such a successful and stately enterprise, Delmonico's built lavish dining halls, not least the one that opened in 1891 on Beaver Street. Designed by James Brown Lord in a Renaissance Revival style, it wedges into a triangle of land with orange terracotta and brick, along with those two curious columns lodged in the doorway, clashing with the earthy colors.Read More
Long before concrete, the highways of the globe were water, and the crafts that glided through them brought people and goods to new markets, new opportunities, and new worlds. The modern use of passenger and commercial ships swung open doors of transport, commerce, and tourism, but like any opportunity there was chance for catastrophe. Thus our maritime history is dotted with disasters and memorials to those lost, and now often forgotten. Here are five maritime disasters lost to time, and the obscure monuments preserving their memory.
P.S. GENERAL SLOCUM
The P.S. General Slocum Before the Disaster (via National Archives General Slocum Disaster)
Standing inside New York City’s Tompkins Square Park is a quiet nine-foot tall fountain in pink Tennessee marble carved with a relief of two children looking over the water, alongside an inscription reading "They were Earth's purest children, young and fair." Additional inscriptions of “In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum June XVMCMIV” and “Dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies the year of our Lord MCMVI” reveal that the monument is a memorial to over 1,000 lives lost on the East River. What should have been an afternoon excursion instead became a tragedy that up until the attacks of September 11, 2001, was the deadliest peacetime disaster in American history.
On June 15, 1904, over 1,300 excited passengers boarded the excursion ferry boat P.S. General Slocum that was docked at a pier on Third Street for the purpose of spending the day on Long Island's North Shore. The boat had been chartered by the St. Mark's Lutheran Church in the East Village, and the passengers, all members of the tightly knit community of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), were looking forward to spending the day on their annual picnic. As the boat departed the dock, flags waved in the breeze and bands played as everyone on board, including nearly 300 children under the age of ten, waved their goodbyes, and Captain William Van Schaick, a captain with a perfect safety record, began to guide the boat and its passengers into the East River.
This idyllic atmosphere was shattered as the boat approached 97th Street. Members of the crew noticed smoke rising from under the wooden deck and upon running below to investigate, found themselves confronted with what one crew member described as “a blaze that could not be conquered.” Prior to the excursion, the boat had been cleared by the fire inspector as being in good condition. However, no fire drills were ever conducted and the fire hoses and life jackets had fallen into disrepair. Van Schaick attempted to speed the boat to North Brother Island, hoping to beach the boat sideways, allowing passengers to escape, but the winds only fanned the flames.
Soon the entire boat was engulfed in an uncontrollable burn. Mothers and children flew into panic and hurled themselves overboard, with some becoming trapped in the massive paddle wheel, while others clustered together hoping for rescue, only to be overcome by the fire.
The P.S. General Slocum burning (via Wikimedia)
North Brother Island was the site of Riverside Hospital, used for the care of typhoid among other diseases, and the staff watched as the burning vessel approached their shores and prepared their fire systems for the inevitable. Approximately 25 feet from the island, Van Schaick beached the Slocum on its side, and the staff of Riverside Hospital dashed into the water to save those still trapped on board.
However, the fire was too intense, and they were only able to throw debris into the water for people to cling on to. Within an hour, 150 bodies were laid across North Brother Island, and by time the horrific incident came to a close, 1,021 people were dead. The boat was carried away by the current before hitting land at Hunts Point in the Bronx, where it would remain for several weeks. The crew and safety precautions were scandalized in the press, and Van Schaick, escaping the boat blinded and burned, was sentenced to ten years in prison (he would be pardoned four years later).
Victims of the P.S. General Slocum disaster washing up onto the shores of North Brother Island (via Wikimedia)
The wreck of the P.S. General Slocum (via Wikimedia)
The Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park was dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and installed in 1906. Now faded from exposure to the elements, this monument stands as a reminder of a greatly forgotten disaster that shook New York City, and devastated an entire population of German immigrants which would never recover from their loss.
Slocum Memorial Fountain (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
The S.S. Eastland in the days before the disaster (via Detroit Publishing Company)
Standing along the Chicago River where West Wacker Drive and North LaSalle Street connect is a black plaque, approximately five feet tall, lost amid the bustling city around it. Although it does not announce itself to those passing by, the plaque tells those who stop of a horrific accident on the river that was big enough to be coined by some as “Chicago’s own Titanic,” and happened while the passenger ship S.S. Eastland was only feet from dry land.
On the morning of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (present-day Cicero) were boarding the S.S. Eastland for a Lake Michigan cruise to Michigan City, Indiana, for their fifth annual employee picnic. The ship docked at the Clark Street Bridge that morning was modified in previous years, fitted with additional lifeboats and life rafts following changes in maritime law after the sinking of the Titanic, but maintained its slender design for speed. Its nickname was “The Greyhound of the Lakes.”Read More
Clootie Well, Munlochy, Scotland (photograph by Davie Conner)
In scattered sites around Scotland, England, Ireland, and other places where the pagan roots still show through the modern landscape, you may catch a glimpse of a spooky sight: trees weighed down with rotting clothing and rags clustered around a spring. Known as clootie wells, the ritual dates back to Celtic belief in the cures of water spirits, and continues as a source of spiritual healing.
While the ritual varies around the different clootie wells — named for the Scottish word "clootie" referring to cloth — the principle is that by leaving a rag on the tree, before or after cleansing a tortured part of your body with it using water from the spring, you will receive some relief from illness or pain as it disintegrates in the forest. The sites were historically visited before sunrise, and on sacred festival days. As Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan explain in Scottish Fairy Belief: A History: "The efficacy of such curing processes varied but might not be complete until the rags had completely deteriorated."
In some places, human hair, coins, whole items of children's clothing, and other offerings join the ripped bits of fabric, sometimes marked with written messages. It's considered very bad luck to take any of the offerings, although there's been concern that the quantity of rags is hurting the trees.
The clootie wells are not as numerous as they once were, but several survive, many now dedicated to Christian figures like St. Boniface. For example, in Scotland there's one near Munlochy and another on the Black Isle, while in Cornwall there's Madron Well, Alsia Well, and Sancreed Well, and in Ireland one at Loughcrew. And they still have a draw in troubled times, as in the summer of 1940 when the clootie well in Culloden, Scotland, was draped with colorful rags during the loss of the 51st Highland Division to the Germans on the beaches of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.
Below is a video from the Black Isle of Scotland clootie well, as well as some images. Even if you're not superstitious, it is haunting to know that each of the mouldering rags represents some scrap of hope left behind to rot away a pain.
The Black Isle Clootie Well (photograph by Amanda Slater)
The Honecker Bunker (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)
Buried under sand and rubble in a nondescript forest north of Berlin lies a massive Cold War treasure with its secrets sealed shut, locked up and destined to stay hidden forevermore.
Bunker 17/5001 was the most sophisticated facility of its kind among members of the Warsaw Pact outside the Soviet Union. It was built some 24 meters (79 feet) underground to harbor East German leaders and top military staff even in the event of nuclear annihilation.
At a time when the maxim was, “Whoever shoots first, dies second,” the threat of catastrophe was very real and tension was understandably high. The Cold War adversaries were eying each other suspiciously over the precipice, and Berlin, divided between the superpowers, was on the battlefront in the line of fire.
East Germany’s top brass had plans drawn up for what was to become known colloquially as the Honecker Bunker, after the country’s leader Erich Honecker.
It was to be built near the motorway, making it easily accessible from Berlin. Honecker would have shared the facility with other members of his National Defense Council (Nationaler Verteidigungsrat der DDR, or NVR). If necessary, the bunker could have operated entirely independent of the outside world to keep some 400 people alive for up to two weeks. After that, they’d have to take their chances.
The three-story administration building (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)
Inside the dilapidated gym (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)
Panorama of the Honecker during construction (courtesy Bunker 5001)
Construction began in 1978 and was completed just five years later. It was an astounding achievement considering its scale and the secrecy needed to ensure its security. More than 85,000 tons of reinforced concrete was used to construct the three-story facility, which has a ground floor area of 48.9 by 66.3 meters. Altogether it had (and still has) a usable floor area of just over 7,750 square meters. It’s covered by a 4.2-meter thick protective shield of reinforced concrete. That’s now covered by another six meters of sand. The structure itself is two meters below the protective shield. Its outer walls are 1.65 meters thick. The bottom plate is 2.4 meters thick. Concrete, reinforced concrete, and all covered with 8 mm steel plates to neutralize the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear weapon.
Inside, its suspended ceilings are 60 cm thick while the fortified structure’s ceiling is 70 cm thick. The protective shield extends up to 20 meters beyond the outer walls. Even if it took a direct hit from a conventional weapon, a layer of sand beneath would have cushioned the impact and theoretically saved the structure below.
In short, it was designed to withstand atomic, chemical, and biological weapons in the event the Cold War escalated to boiling point. It was deemed capable of surviving an atomic bomb 80 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima, at a range of 750 meters. (Any closer and there would have been trouble, but missiles were not as accurate at the time as they are now.)
What's left of the ancillary canteen (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)Read More
There’s a figure of an unusual woman on the cathedral in Worms, Germany. She’s just above the south portal on the right hand side.
The front of the statue at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)
She’s beautiful and there’s something about the luxurious folds in her dress and the crown sitting on top of her perfectly coifed hair that instantly tell you she’s rich, too. She smiles serenely into distance while a tiny knight clings to the hem of her dress. He gazes at her adoringly. She doesn’t seem to notice. He’s hierarchically scaled so his small stature lets you know this piece isn’t about him. It’s all about her. She doesn’t have any religious attributes, the symbols shown with saints that clue you in to their identity. So who is she?
She’s Ms. World, Frau Welt.
The back of Frau Welt at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)
Take a look at her back and you’ll find her identifying feature — she’s covered in toads, an allusion to Revelation 16:13.
And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
Her body is being eaten alive by snakes and worms. She’s an allegory for vanity, a symbol for all that’s evil and sinful in the world hidden behind a seductive façade. She was a favorite character in German morality tales and sermons around 1300, just after the cathedral was constructed.Read More
Clay McLeod Chapman reading at the Pierrepont monument in Green-Wood Cemetery (photograph by Mitch Waxman)
Robert Suydam sleeps beside his bride in Greenwood Cemetery. No funeral was held over the strangely released bones, and relatives are grateful for the swift oblivion which overtook the case as a whole. The scholar’s connexion with the Red Hook horrors, indeed, was never emblazoned by legal proof; since his death forestalled the inquiry he would otherwise have faced.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook
It was with those strange words in mind from the the late H. P. Lovecraft's lexicon of unfathomable horror that Atlas Obscura staged a candlelit reading in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery. Lovecraft lived in Brooklyn Heights near Red Hook at 169 Clinton Street from 1925 to 1926, rather unhappily, and is said to have roamed the lush grounds of Green-Wood. It's during this time that he wrote "The Horror at Red Hook," which, while heavy on his outright xenophobia, tapped into an unsettling urban anxiety.
This Monday we invited an intimate group of Atlas Obscura followers to Green-Wood Cemetery to hear the story read in its entirety, responding to the real presence of the Suydam family interred in the 19th century burial space. Respecting the grounds as a place of memorial, we visited the Whitney mausoleum, paused beneath a weeping beech tree, stopped amongst relocated 18th century tombs, and ended at the Pierrepont memorial, a monument to one of the prominent Brooklynites who helped establish the cemetery in 1838. Readers Clay McLeod Chapman, Bess Lovejoy, and Mitch Waxman each gave the stages of the sinister narrative of occult mysteries a distinct and resonant horror.
Our final destination was the Suydam mausoleum (usually closed to the public), where the eerie notes of the Saw Lady, aka Natalia Paruz, accompanied the serving of drinks along the cemetery road from the Lovecraft Bar (opening next week in the East Village).
Below are some photographs from the evening by Kathryn Yu and Mitch Waxman. Many thanks to all who joined us for the adventure, to readers Clay McLeod Chapman, Bess Lovejoy, and Mitch Waxman, as well as the Saw Lady and Lovecraft Bar for making it a success. And of course, thanks to the Green-Wood Historic Fund for collaborating with us on an event that was able to showcase the beauty of the cemetery and link in this literary history. To join us on our next event, sign up for the NYC Obscura Society mailing list.
Clay McLeod Chapman reading in the Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)
Departing the candlelit Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)
With more than 1,500km (932 miles) of underground tunnels hidden beneath its streets, it’s no wonder Melbourne has grown into something of a mecca for urban explorers. Its complex network of storm water drains is often cited as one of the most elaborate in the world, and the labyrinth has drawn its own string of admirers.
In 1986, three teenagers from Melbourne banded together to form the Cave Clan, a clandestine group dedicated to recreational trespassing in the city’s hidden underworld. Today, the Cave Clan is still going strong, and larger than ever with local chapters in each of Australia’s main cities.
Drain explorers beneath Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)
A subterranean waterfall in the Melbourne storm drain network (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)
Naturally, exploring urban storm drains comes with some obvious risks attached: flash floods, bad air, steep shafts and reservoirs, and of course, the hefty fines that you’ll be served should the authorities catch you in the act. And don’t forget, this is Australia, which means these tunnels often serve as prime nesting or hibernation spots for some of the world’s most deadly creepy-crawlies.
Danger aside, the complex systems of tunnels, waterfalls, gates, ladders, and reservoirs beneath Melbourne combine to create a fascinating — albeit challenging — urban assault course, which draws in visitors from all around the world.
Here’s a quick introduction to five of the Cave Clan’s favorite hang-outs in the Melbourne drain network:
Entrance to the ANZAC Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)
The ANZAC Drain was first charted by the Cave Clan on April 25, 1987, or as it’s known here, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day. Since then this relief drain has served as a kind of local headquarters for the Clan, and it’s one of the easiest drains in the city to access.
Entering from the river outflow, a wide, red brick passage curves gently into the dark recesses — an arched tunnel which rumbles and rings with the sound of traffic passing overhead. The aliases of Cave Clan members appear on the walls like sentries, painted high in block white capitals.
At low tide, this is one of the least challenging drains in Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)Read More
When it first opened its doors last year, this crowd-funded Paris café – based on a Japanese concept Frenchified in the heart of the trendy Marais — was rumored to have a four-week waiting list for Saturday brunch. But that had nothing to do with the food, or the coffee. Ailurophiles and Francophiles can get a double shot of sheer pleasure at the Café des Chats, where the twelve adorable live-in cats are the star attraction.
Inside the Paris cat cafe (all photographs by the author)
Carefully chosen from shelters for their sociable personalities among both humans and other cats, the feline residents spend their days in the lap of luxury — or indeed in the lap of anyone they choose — imparting ronronthérapie ("purr therapy," that’s the scientific term) and relaxed vibes while you sip your café crème.
There are strict rules in place to maintain all-round hygiene and the well-being of the animals, but they basically roam free over two levels, curling up atop the piano or in plush leather seats and comfy corners of this charming rock-den; the Aristocats could have done worse.
I used reverse psychology and a dangling toy to distract the inquisitive black-and-white Orea from my tuna tarte — feeding is forbidden — while the regal Khalessi lolled like a Manet nude on a nearby canapé as an artist sketched her from life. (The names are helpfully etched on the tables and listed on a photo chart so you can try to summon your favorite.)
I'm not sure the ronronthérapie really worked wonders on me this visit. A little cat-challenged, perhaps? Rather than swooning in a state of warm, fluffy bliss, I was a little perturbed by the fact that none of my advances were met with outright enthusiasm; that the cats seemed to prefer the company and caresses of my date, and that he, at that moment, preferred theirs. I eventually sank into a velvet armchair and looked on as a group of elegantly dressed elderly American ladies and two French bearded hipsters suddenly found themselves on the same social plane, speaking the same language: cutesy-wootsey.Read More
We aspire to climb to the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington, as well as Charles Mound, at the top of a family’s driveway in northwest Illinois. We wish to ascend to the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains — Colorado’s Mount Elbert — as well as Panorama Point, a low rise on a bison ranch in Nebraska. We want to climb the very pinnacle of the continent — Denali in Alaska at over 20,000 feet above sea level — as well as Britton Hill, at 345 feet above sea level in a park in the Florida Panhandle. We are highpointers.
Highpointer convention on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, in 2006
As a kid, I would read my father's Rand McNally Road Atlas. Mountaintops were designated by a hollow triangle with the name and elevation. One mountaintop, however, was filled in and had some extra text to it, saying it was the highest point in the state.
Some time later, I needed to hit the road, and bought a road atlas. Looking for a destination, I found Pennsylvania's highest point, Mount Davis, and then found directions. It was an easy drive up, with a tall observation tower, a surrounding forest, and unique geology. Then, I was hooked. I discovered there were guidebooks for the highest points of the 50 American states, and a club for those interested in this quest.
The Highpointers Club
In October 1986, climber Jakk Longacre wrote to Outside magazine to see if anyone else was as interested in climbing the state highpoints as he was, after seeing familiar names in summit registers. Thirty climbers wrote back, and the Highpointers Club was born. The club now has grown to over 2,000 members, holds a yearly convention in a city near a selected state highpoint, and sponsors a foundation to make improvements to highpoints.
View from Mount Mansfield, highest point in Vermont
Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas
The Journey Through, and Up, the United States
With most highpoints away from well-known tourist destinations, the journey brings travelers to parts of the country few tend to visit. Not many people I know would put southwest North Dakota or the Oklahoma Panhandle on their itineraries. Through going to the highpoints, one sees the whole variety of landscapes the country offers: the desert and salt flats of west Texas; forests and hilltops in the South and East; the suburbia of Wilmington, Delaware; Midwestern prairie and badlands; and remote mountains of New England and the West.
To take part in the journey, one does not have to be an expert mountain climber or outdoorsman. Of the 50 state highpoints, 30 are simple drive-ups and/or require a hike of less than two miles. However, since most of the points are “off the beaten path,” a guidebook or article and a good sense of direction are necessary.
Reaching the loftier and more remote highpoints, though, requires longer hikes. However, most of them can be done in one day by someone in good shape. For people getting fit, these hikes make great goals to measure one’s progress. While climbing Mount Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks, I nearly gave up at mile 6 of the 7.2 mile hike, but I saw the summit just one mile away and 500 feet up. I did say to myself, “You should have eaten more vegetables.” Now 30 pounds lighter from that day, I wish to conquer even more challenging peaks.
The hikes clamber through badlands, wilderness, and alpine terrain, allowing for great photography of pristine landscapes and maybe even wildlife. Moss-covered trees surround the summit of Mount Rogers, Virginia. A tree grows on a rock on the Van Hoevenberg Trail up Mount Marcy, New York. Lucky hikers might see mountain goats on Mount Elbert, Colorado. Incredible sunsets are de rigueur on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Views from the top over the surrounding land give a personal sense to how vast the country really is.
Here are some of the intriguing and beautiful highpoints of the United States, and you can find even more on the map below:
5,343 feet above sea level; Keene Valley, New York
Climbed by then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt just before he found out President McKinley wasn't likely to survive his assassination attempt