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The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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Julia Suits has assembled a book filled with ads for real prank machines used in fraternal lodges in the early part of the 20th century, complete with an introduction by David Copperfield. This volume is extremely appropriate for readers of mental_floss, as it's full of trivia on weird inventions, the history of pranks, and a very special form of Americana. The book is bizarre and hilariously perverse, packed with clippings from catalogs sent to the high muckety-mucks at the Modern Woodmen of America, Masons Shriners*, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and all manner of secret societies. And what did these catalogs contain? Crazy, dangerous, occasionally xenophobic pranks!! What could possibly go wrong? (Check the chapter "See You in Court!" for more on what actually went wrong.)

These catalogs were where a secret society leader turned to buy the machines used to haze AHEM, initiate new members of his order. It's an utterly fascinating glimpse into the minds of these men (and they were men, these being fraternal orders), and hints at a world that's vividly weird (lots of gags involving goats) and dangerous (many of the inventions involve gunpowder and/or electrical current). Here's a snippet from page 120, under the heading "Bang! Crash! Splat! The Mechanicals":

In the nineteenth century, DeMoulin catalog no. 11 offered a revolver for $1.50. A gun was a casual item back then; accidental shootings, especially among small children, were as common as the stubbing of a toe. A Kansas City newspaper bemoaned, "Another babe killed while playing. Guns are dangerous pieces of furniture and must never be allowed into the hands of children."

Citizens could shoot guns within the city limits, but they were encouraged to be careful and not fire when people were asleep...that was considered rude. Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show were at their peak of popularity, perhaps inspiring shooting matches, which were a ubiquitous sight at picnics, dances, and fairs.

Gunpowder was also a household item and dynamite sticks were literally a dime a dozen at the general store. How could a guy blast a stump or take out a pond full of fish without it?

And what was a town square without a cannon? A cannon without a sense of humor? To wit:

A cannon firing a salute, discharged early, sending the steel rammer hissing up Main Street, tearing two big holes through the hotel.

-The Oakland Independent,
Burt County, Nebraska, 1899

And here's a creepy Halloweeny video demonstrating "The Pledge Altar," a DeMoulin device circa 1914. The initiate kneels in front the altar, and then....

The book's subtitle is The Curious World of the DeMoulin Brothers and Their Fraternal Lodge Prank Machines--from Human Centipedes and Revolving Goats to Electric Carpets and Smoking Camels. It focuses on the DeMoulin Brothers & Co. (as well as a few competing companies); the DeMoulin Brothers produced the most elaborate hazing devices on the market, and their catalogs are works of art (indeed, the illustrations alone are worth the price of admission -- see below for some samples). There's an extensive section of the book devoted to "Factory Goats"; one example being The Ferris Wheel Goat: "This is one of the best Goats on the market, and is made so simple, that it is impossible for it to ever get out of order. It has a Goat body fastened securely in the center of two wheels. The harness is put on a candidate who is strapped on the Goat and wheel so he cannot fall. There are many tricks about this Goat. ..." Many tricks, indeed. I won't spoil them, but let's just say many of the tricks involve hazing some dude while he's riding the mecha-goat (ideally blindfolded).

Through her research for this book, Suits started Tweets of Old (which I starting digging back in 2009) -- a site and Twitter/Facebook/RSS feed of historical amusements found in newspapers. A sample:

There was lots of beer flowing at the Republican meeting, thus it was no use trying to keep away the Democrats. PA1878

-A news brevity from The Altoona Morning Tribune, Pennsylvania, 1878

An Interview With Julia Suits

I posed some questions to Suits, to learn a little more about this curious catalog.

Higgins: How do you go about researching a book like this?

Suits: First get ahold of original raw material and add more: DeMoulin catalogs, actual devices, accounts from folks with first-hand experience. Then sit at your computer and google away.

Higgins: Where do you get access to the catalogs?

Suits: The fabulous online book finder, Via Libri, led me to a mint-condition 1914 catalog; John Goldsmith, the DeMoulin Museum curator lent me a dozen to scan. eBay led me to another, though they are rarely listed there. Scans were made carefully at 1200 dpi. I made some, while the publisher scanned several catalogs.

Higgins: How do you organize all the information relevant to the book?

Suits: A fabulous software program called Writers Blocks and of course, a looong table, three or four large empty walls, lots of copied pages, colored magic markers, and two rolls of Scotch tape.

Higgins: How'd you manage to get David Copperfield to write the intro?

Suits: Once I found his contact person, I was able to discuss the project with him. He is an avid collector of odd and wonderful Americana related to illusion: automata, mechanical fool-the-eye stuff. He might well have the largest collection of DeMoulin prank items. Bruce Webb Gallery, in Waxahatchie, Texas and the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, Illinois have splendid collections. DeMoulin Museum has documents, photos, and many other things not found anywhere else.

Higgins: What are the collectors of these catalogs like? Are they all men?

Suits: From my limited experience, I'd say most and perhaps all are men. Though I have a very modest collection myself, I am not a serious collector.

Higgins: Do the collectors feel a proprietary interest in how you depict the catalogs and the fraternal organizations involved?

Suits: Intriguing question! I have no idea. The book might spur more interest in these items, increasing their value, adding heat to eBay bidding wars.

Higgins: How did Tweets of Old come about?

Suits: While exploring newspaper archives for fraternal lodge news relevant to the book, I found lots of unrelated, odd bits that were too good to leave behind. Twitter's format was an easy and convenient place to stock pile and back up these bits. Eventually, I decided to put them out there.

Higgins: Are there plans for more stuff along the lines of Tweets of Old, like a book?

Suits: A book proposal is in the works.

Higgins: When did you first decide that the DeMoulin Catalogs were a great notion for a book?

Suits: Sitting in my studio, poring over a 100-year old catalog. "What treasure!" I thought, "This has to be shared!"

Higgins: There's a rich history of men hazing each other, and this book clearly covers a major part of it. Have you looked into any other organizations that have hazing rituals (like college fraternities)?

Suits: A bit. I contacted Norm Pollard, a nationally recognized hazing expert at Alfred University, who helped me understand contemporary hazing and the initiations depicted in the DeMoulin catalogs. Another scholar, Darius Rejali, an expert in torture, steered me to some fascinating information, including the use of an electric carpet (similar to DeMoulin's electric carpet, or made by the company, we might never know) by Seattle police department in the early 1900's in the interrogation of prisoners.

Higgins: Have you personally experienced any of these devices?

Suits: Yes. The spankers (which don't hurt) and I've have seen others demonstrated: The Pledge Altar, the Lung Tester, etc.

Higgins: This is a book about fraternal organizations: groups of men gathering behind closed doors. As a woman, do you feel that you're any better- or worse-equipped to talk about these organizations, simply because you're, by definition, an outsider?

Suits: Gender has no role here, but being an outsider automatically makes you free to disclose the information. A fraternal lodge man might be reluctant to share the information. Google search does not withhold info from me because I'm female.

Higgins: Do you own any of these devices, or catalogs?

Suits: I own a few masks, two spankers, a goat, some robes, a skeleton, et al.

Higgins: Are you doing any author events? If so, where can we follow you to find out more?

Suits: A few radio interviews are planned, and two book signing events in the St. Louis area on Nov 20, 21.

You can follow Suits (who is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker) at juliasuits.net.

Some Images from the Book

The book is full of images from the DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, along with commentary and historical context. I felt this review wouldn't be complete without some of the original catalog images. Have a peek:

The Hornet's Nest

Electric Branding Iron

If images aren't your thing, you'll likely appreciate the ultra-spooky video Fun in the Lodge Room: Human Centipede ca. 1928 demonstrating one of these devices. Oy.

To Buy the Book

Head on over to the extraordinary website of Julia Suits for more information. If you're ready to pre-order a copy (it comes out tomorrow), try Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or your local bookseller.

* Update, 31 Oct 2011, 2pm PST: Suits emailed me to note that the Masons did not engage in this sort of silliness. But the Shriners did, hence the update near the top of this post.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to do this review; I'm a huge fan of Tweets of Old and heard that Suits had a book coming out -- and I couldn't pass up a chance to check it out!

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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