A Colorful History of The Prison Mirror, America's Oldest Continuously Operated Prison Newspaper

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Newspaper clippings: Washington County Historical Society. Images: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Newspaper clippings: Washington County Historical Society. Images: iStock

J.S. Allen sensed trouble in the air. It was September 7, 1876, and the Northfield, Minnesota hardware store owner had noticed three mysterious men loitering in front of Lee & Hitchcock Dry Goods Store, right next door to the First National Bank—a strange mid-afternoon scene for the small town's main street.

Once the suspicious trio rose and entered the bank, Allen decided to investigate the scene for himself. Little did he know he'd soon be staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by a member of the infamous James-Younger Gang.

Clell Miller, along with Cole Younger, had been standing guard for the surprise heist. As Allen approached the bank, Miller grabbed his collar. "You son of a b****, don't you holler," Miller growled, pointing his revolver at Allen.

 
 

The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876.
The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
 

Allen managed to squirm free from the bandit's grasp. He raced around the corner, yelling, "Get your guns, boys; they're robbing the bank!" The people of Northfield heeded Allen's call to arms and grabbed their weapons. Amid a flurry of bullets, the James-Younger Gang was suddenly outnumbered. The incident would go down in history as the Wild West's most famous failed bank robbery, and would indirectly leave a much longer legacy: the founding of the longest-running penal newspaper run solely by inmates.

The James-Younger Gang was a hardscrabble band of Confederate guerillas-turned outlaws, led by brothers Jesse and Alexander Franklin "Frank" James and siblings Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger. During the latter half of the 19th century, the men became household names as they held up trains, robbed banks, and generally terrorized the West, from Texas to Kentucky to their native Missouri.

Of the eight gang members who took part in the Northfield robbery, three had ridden into town ahead of the others. Before their arrival, Cole Younger later recounted, these men had split a bottle of whiskey. The faction had been told to wait for backup before entering the bank, but they reportedly disregarded this command. As the trio saw the other five gang members approaching, they barged into the bank too early. "When these three saw us coming, instead of waiting for us to get up with them they slammed right on into the bank regardless, leaving the door open in their excitement," Cole wrote in his memoirs.

Inside the bank, the trio clumsily fumbled through the motions as they ordered acting cashier and town treasurer Joseph Heywood to open the safe. (Later, a bank teller would recall that he smelled liquor on the men.) Heywood told the robbers that the safe's door had a time lock, and could only be opened at a specific time.

But after Allen interrupted the robbery, the James-Younger Gang's days were numbered. As a gunfight erupted on the street, Cole rode to the bank and yelled for the three to hurry and get out. One member shot Heywood in the head, killing him, and both Miller (the one who'd assaulted Allen) and bandit Bill Chadwell died in the standoff outside. The rest of the gang were wounded, with the exception of the James brothers. Against the odds, the surviving bandits managed to flee town—but their freedom wouldn't last long.

A search party apprehended the three Younger brothers, along with a gang member named Charlie Pitts, close to the Iowa border. Pitts was killed in the ensuing standoff. Only Jesse and Frank James made it out.

Jesse James would go on to recruit new outlaws and continue his life of crime. He'd die six years later in 1882, at the hands of fellow gang member Robert Ford, and Frank James would turn himself in shortly after his brother's death, eventually living out the rest of his days performing odd jobs ranging from burlesque ticket taker to a berry picker before returning to his family farm in Missouri (though Frank spent some time in jail, he was acquitted on all charges and never served time in prison). But for all intents and purposes, the cabal of ruthless robbers was no more.

In November 1876, the Youngers pleaded guilty in court to escape a near-certain death penalty. They were sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor at the Minnesota State Prison. (The facility no longer exists; in 1914, it was replaced by the Minnesota Correctional Facility–Stillwater in neighboring Bayport [PDF].)

 
 

The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater in 1885
The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater in 1885
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

At the Minnesota State Prison, inmates were leased as laborers for private businesses. They worked nine to 11 hours each day and were paid a daily salary of 30 to 45 cents. Prison seemed to have a sobering effect on both Cole and the other two Youngers, and they eventually received more prestigious jobs: Cole was made the prison's librarian; Jim became the "postmaster," who delivered and sent inmates' approved letters; and Bob worked as a clerk.

Then, nearly a decade into their sentence, the three became newspaper founders, thanks to another prisoner named Lew P. Shoonmaker (or Schoonmaker).

Many key facts about Shoonmaker have been lost over the years, although the Minnesota State Archives did recently re-discover his prison records. They note that Shoonmaker was a onetime bookkeeper from Wisconsin who was sentenced to a two-year term in 1886 for forgery. He was released in August of the following year for "good conduct," and a remark in an 1887 newspaper indicated that he went on to edit a paper in Waupun, Wisconsin. But earlier in 1887, while still incarcerated, the enterprising inmate approached Cole Younger and told him that he wanted to launch a prison publication.

The paper was to be the first in the nation to be funded, written, edited, and published entirely by inmates. And after several months of trying to convince the prison's skeptical warden, Halvur Stordock, to approve the publication, Shoonmaker had finally received the go-ahead. Now, all he needed were willing investors—and he wanted Cole to be one of them.

 
 

A mug shot of infamous bank robber and outlaw Cole Younger
A mug shot of Cole Younger.
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

The deal would benefit both men. Shoonmaker would sell more papers if a notorious name like Cole Younger's was attached to the project. And Younger was likely intrigued by the plan's business model, which would ultimately funnel money directly into the prison's library once the investors were paid back. The newspaper's investors would become shareholders and be reimbursed with 3 percent interest per month; once their investments were recouped, the library would own the paper and its profits would pay for new books and periodicals.

Shoonmaker and a handful of other inmates contributed to the cause, but the biggest investors ended up being the Younger brothers: Together, the three shelled out $50, one-fourth of the required start-up capital. Shoonmaker, who assumed the position of editor, also hired Cole, making him the associate editor and "printer's devil"—an old-fashioned term for a printer's assistant.

On August 10, 1887, The Prison Mirror was born. It cost 5 cents per issue, with yearly subscriptions going for $1, and issues were sold to prisoners and non-prisoners alike. Local merchants like wholesale grocers and various clothiers and tailors also purchased advertisements, which helped pad the editors' coffers.

Historians don't know how Shoonmaker became inspired to start the first prison newspaper west of the Mississippi, and the nation's only paper to be produced by inmates. But as James McGrath Morris, author of Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars, tells Mental Floss, the paper's founding fit with the idea of prison reform, a burgeoning national trend, while also pioneering a new form of penal journalism.

The first-known prison newspaper was technically founded in 1800, when a New York lawyer named William Keteltas fell upon hard financial times and was imprisoned in debtors' prison. The attorney made a case for his release by publishing Forlorn Hope, an advocacy newspaper that lambasted the criminalization of poverty and called for legal change. However, modern prison journalism's true roots can be traced back to the late 19th century, an era in which corrections officials "believed earnestly that prisons were intended to make better people of their inmates and release them into society," Morris tells Mental Floss.

Morris explains in Jailhouse Journalism that as imprisonment gradually replaced corporal and capital punishment, groups like the Quakers of Pennsylvania called for new jails that would shield inmates from corrupting influences, thus restoring their morality. These calls for change led to the first-ever American Prison Congress in 1870, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In attendance were officers and reformers from around the country, including a man named Joseph Chandler. He was a former congressman, and a member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. More importantly, Chandler had once been a newspaper publisher.

Chandler noted that inmates clamored for newspapers, viewing them as a means of social communication and a window to the outside world. But these publications were filled with salacious details of crimes, which could lead a prisoner's recovering conscience astray. Chandler proposed the idea of a sanitized newspaper written specifically for those in prison. That way, inmates could stay abreast with the changing times, allowing them to re-enter society as informed men.

The American Prison Congress led to the formation of the National Prison Association, which would later become the American Correctional Association. Two years later, in 1872, a similar international convention was held in London. In the meantime, officials around the world began putting these new, enlightened ideals into practice, creating new types of prisons called "reformatories." One such institution was the Elmira Reformatory in New York, run by influential reformist Zebulon Reed Brockway.

Brockway had been at the 1870 American Prison Congress. Influenced by Chandler, Brockway hired an Oxford-educated inmate—whose name today is only remembered as Macauley—to run a newspaper called the Summary. First published in November 1883, the Summary was a news digest filled with carefully culled news items, coverage of prison happenings, and submissions from inmates and reformers. It was uplifting, laudatory, and above all, free from controversy. Across America, advocates clamored for more.

Soon, other reformatories began producing their own imitations of the Summary. These newspapers printed prisoners' edited articles, but officials—not inmates—technically ran the show. This would change in 1887 with The Prison Mirror.

The Prison Mirror's maiden issue was four pages long, 14 by 17 inches. It contained introductions, a reprint of the shareholders' business plan, and florid declarations of intent. Written collaboratively by the paper's founders, the opening article began:

"It is with no little pride and pleasure [that] we present to you, kind reader, this our initiative number of THE PRISON MIRROR, believing as we do, that the introduction of the printing press into the great penal institutions of our land, is the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform."

 
 

The nameplate of The Prison Mirror's inaugural issue, published on August 10, 1887. The Prison Mirror is the longest continuously operated newspaper in the United States.

The nameplate of The Prison Mirror's inaugural issue, published on August 10, 1887. 

Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

The Mirror, they continued, would contain both humorous and literary submissions, and "a general budget of prison news, and possibilities, and realities, never before offered to the public." The authors promised to "encourage prison literary talent," "instruct, assist, encourage, and entertain," and "scatter words of warning to the outside world, whose reckless footsteps may be leading them hitherward."

Above all, the paper concluded, the Mirror would provide the prisoners with an independent voice, free from official interference: "This, we believe is the only printed sheet now in existence organized, published, edited, and sent forth to the world by prisoners confined within the walls of a penitentiary."

Also included in this first issue of the Mirror was a letter from the new warden, Halvur Stordock, who had been appointed by Governor Andrew R. McGill earlier that year. Stordock reassured outside readers that taxes didn't fund the Mirror and that the project had his full permission. "If it shall prove a failure, then the blame must all rest on me," he wrote. "If it shall be a success then all credit must be given to the boys who have done all the work."

It's unclear why, exactly, Stordock gave the prisoners such unprecedented free rein. Some critics later claimed that the warden used the Mirror as a publicity stunt; others said that he actually secretly edited the paper. The most likely explanation, however, is that unlike the reformers who founded the Summary, Stordock—a onetime farmer who had been appointed to his new position as a political favor after running for Minnesota Secretary of State—likely knew nothing about penology, or the complications or risks of running a prison.

The Mirror's first issues contained bits of prison news ("The stone steps leading into the new main cell building is a great improvement"), accounts of visitors, summaries of talks given at the prison, and letters from readers. Also included were vignettes from prison life. Some humorous ones featured printer's devil Cole Younger, whom the paper referred to as the staff's "Satanic member." In the inaugural issue, the Mirror published the below anecdote:

"A feat of activity occurred a few evenings since, in the prison cell room which is seldom ever equaled. The Satanic member of The Mirror force, carelessly laid upon the bench whereon he was sitting, a lighted cigar, officer A__n of the night force came up and with the dignity of a modern hero cooly seated himself upon the inoffensive little 'snipe'—a moment only, and the deed was done. Mr. A___ arose with the velocity of a Dakota cyclone, and it is needless to remark a sorer, if not a wiser man, but the fire was quenched. We do not wonder that the Warden is enabled to save the State seven or eight hundred dollars per year, on insurance, when he is provided with such an available fire extinguisher."

Soon after, however, both the paper's "Satanic member" and founding editor Shoonmaker would jump ship. In the Mirror's second issue, Shoonmaker resigned (presumably because he was due to be released on August 30) and handed over his responsibilities to a reluctant inmate named W.F. Mirick. ("I am afraid … that my fellow unfortunates, and the public outside have been led to expect at my hands more than they will receive," Mirick admitted in the paper's third edition, published on August 24, 1887.) Younger also resigned from the paper, perhaps because the job took his time and attention away from the prison library.

Stripped of its famous staffer, the paper now had to make its own name. This turned out to be a rather easy exercise, as its writers took on the unprecedented task of criticizing prison life, politicians, and even other newspapers.

Articles elicited compliments and condemnation from the outside world, and the Mirror printed them with relish. Newsmen debated among themselves whether inmates should be entrusted with the privilege of producing their own paper.

"The editor of the Taylors Falls Journal is having a controversy with THE PRISON MIRROR, a new paper printed inside the state penitentiary," the Rush City Post wrote in 1887. "We haven't seen THE MIRROR, but from the way the Journal squirms, we should judge it to be a lively paper."

And holding to the Mirror's promise to "speak the truth, whatever we conceive it to be," reform-minded journalists viewed the publication as a rare window into the depravities of prison life. In 1887, the Chicago Herald wrote:

"If the Minnesota project is to succeed, it must have a little life in it, and instead of praising the warden, guards, and keepers, it must show them in their hideous deformity. A journal published by jail-birds should be candid, sincere, bold, and even defiant … The reader should hear, or at least he should imagine that he hears, the clank of a ball and chain or the rude swoop of a manacled fist."

In the fall of 1887, The Prison Mirror became entangled in a highly political feud. The permissive Warden Stordock had replaced a warden named John A. Reed, who'd held the position for nearly 13 years. He was well respected but ousted on charges of allegedly mismanaging prison funds. When Stordock took over, "two of the three prison inspectors resigned because of Stordock's appointment, which they correctly thought was [Governor] McGill trying to make place for some of his political friends," according to a historical account provided by Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.

 
 

Warden Halvur G. Stordock allowed prisoners at the Stillwater Jail to found the nation's very first prison newspaper that was independently operated by inmates.
Warden Halvur G. Stordock

Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

Several months after Warden Reed was dismissed, Stordock and new prison inspectors opened an investigation into his administrations. No one quite knows what sparked the scrutiny, but rumors swirled as the governor assembled an oversight committee.

"There were rumors about [Reed] using materials from the prison for his personal use," Peterson tells Mental Floss. "Then, there was even more of a bombshell: He was doing inappropriate things with female convicts and the matron. All of this was played out in the newspapers, and it turned out to be just wrong. False." (During this period in history, a handful of women were housed in the Stillwater Prison, in their own separate quarters.)

The rumors allegedly drove Reed to attempt suicide, according to Peterson. Meanwhile, the Mirror sided with their ally Stordock, and reprinted the accusations. This invoked the wrath of one of the state's most influential papers: The Minneapolis Tribune.

In a Sunday editorial published in October 1887, the Tribune went on the offensive: "A careful examination of the recent issues of the Prison Mirror … compels the frank opinion that it ought to be summarily suppressed or else reformed in all its departments," the Tribune wrote. They lambasted the Mirror for printing "the most offensive and adverse comments upon ex-Warden Reed's pending investigation," and for also commenting "freely and in shockingly bad taste upon inside prison matters."

"Men in the penitentiary are not as men at liberty," the Tribune concluded. "Among the other things denied them should certainly be the privilege of running a newspaper without restriction or responsible control."

Warden Stordock and other officials considered this advice. But before they could make moves to shut down the Mirror, another local paper—the St. Paul Daily Globe—chimed with an editorial titled "Don't Do It":

"It is said that Warden Stordock intends to suppress further publication of the Prison Mirror because a paragraph slipped into the columns of a recent issue alluding to the Reed-Stordock squabble … [the Mirror] has been the means of furnishing the convicts with a great deal of reading matter that they would not otherwise have had, and has in many ways been a source of light and comfort to lives, which, God knows, are cheerless enough at best. It is in the interest of humanity that the Globe appeals to the authorities of the Stillwater prison not to suppress the publication of this little paper."

Somehow, The Prison Mirror weathered the storm and stayed afloat. Later, the inmates admitted (but didn't apologize for the fact) that the Reed gossip had been inappropriate for their pages. After reaffirming their commitment to free speech, they resolved to forge on as normal. All this occurred within the first four or so months of the paper's existence—a time span that would ultimately prove to be the most vibrant in their history.

The Mirror continued printing monthly, but by 1890, it had lost the majority of its lifeblood: the original founders who first brought it to life. Just five members out of the original 15 remained in prison. Mirick, a convicted murderer, had been pardoned and released, and in 1901, Cole and Jim Younger were paroled after 25 years in prison. (Bob Younger had died in prison from tuberculosis.)

The Mirror also changed once Stordock retired and a new warden took over the position. Authorities now reviewed proofs of the paper, and over the years its tone, subject, and length shifted along with staff turnover and the current political climate. "Life is not static, it is dynamic," Martin Hawthorne, a vocational instructor at the prison who is also The Prison Mirror's supervisor, tells Mental Floss. "So too must be The Prison Mirror."

The Mirror—which recently celebrated its 130th anniversary—is still a vital cornerstone of prison life. In addition to the occasional hard-hitting investigation, each 16-page issue of the monthly publication offers a variety of features and recurring columns, like "Ask a Lawyer." Currently, 2225 copies are printed per month, with most going to inmates. Around 200 copies are regularly sent to prison advocacy groups, law schools, and other organizations and institutions.

"Since we publish events that touch or feature offenders that are incarcerated here," Hawthorne says, "they feel that it is their newspaper. It is almost like a small neighborhood paper. There is never an issue where someone doesn't know someone featured in the paper."

But unlike the 19th century Mirror, today’s product is heavily censored—both by authorities and the inmates themselves. To avoid retribution from sources or rebuke from authorities, contributors are forced to walk a delicate line between intrepid reporter and circumspect prisoner. They're unlikely to print anything that could place themselves in danger's way, or result in an issue being pulled. Then, the final product is reviewed by a host of critical eyes, including Hawthorne, the prison's education director, the associate wardens, the Office of Special Investigation, and finally, by the warden himself.

"In a correctional environment, we are always sensitive to any subversive illegal activities or gang references, so if any of these are noticed they are asked to remove them," Hawthorne explains. "We are also sensitive to victims’ rights. So if there is anything mentioned that may have an impact or reference on that, they are asked to remove it. Outside of those considerations, they are free to write about whatever they feel needs to be addressed at the time."

While limited by these constraints, the Mirror still manages to perform important journalism: In 2012, for example, an investigation conducted by paper editor Matt Gretz discovered that Minnesota lawmakers had taken $1.2 million in profits from the Stillwater prison canteen to balance out budget cuts in 2011. Typically, this money is used for inmate programs and recreational materials [PDF].

While not the freewheeling pioneer of free press it once was, the Mirror continues to serve as a vehicle for prisoners to let their voices be heard, just as it did in 1887. "Ours isn't a pretty history," reflected editor Gretz in 2012, in a commemorative issue celebrating the paper's 125th anniversary. "But we sure do have stories to tell."

 
 
This piece was updated on January 4, 2018 with new information from the Minnesota State Archives.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Discovered by accident in 1994, the cave paintings adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France are among the oldest and most beautiful figurative art in human history. About 36,000 years ago, the ancient artists drew lifelike beasts that seem to gallop, crawl, and frolic through the cave’s chambers. In one stunning triptych, 50 drawings of horses, lions, and reindeer cavort across 49 feet of limestone wall. The cave paintings even impressed filmmaker Werner Herzog enough to make a documentary (available on Netflix). Here are a few more facts about the Chauvet Cave paintings.

1. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered by three local explorers.

It was December 18, 1994. French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire had spent the day exploring the Pont d’Arc caves in the Ardèche region in southern France. They came upon an array of fallen rocks and noticed a gentle woosh of air from beneath the rock pile. Prying aside the stones, they found an aperture and dropped down into a large chamber with a high ceiling that appeared to branch off into other chambers. Their headlamps illuminated several handprints and a red ochre painting of a mammoth on the wall of one chamber. At that moment, they knew they had stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery.

2. Chauvet Cave was formed by an underground river.

Replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc, also known as the Chauvet Cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, which is located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Subterranean rivers flowing through the area's limestone hills created Chauvet Cave, along with hundreds of other gorges and caverns in the Ardèche. Chauvet Cave is about 1300 feet (roughly a quarter-mile) long with 14 chambers branching off the largest room, the Chamber of the Bear Hollows—the first one discovered by Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, and Hillaire. This chamber, closest to the entrance, features no cave paintings; flooding is thought to have washed away any artwork. The most decorated vestibules are farthest from the entrance and include the Hillaire Chamber, Red Panels Gallery, Skull Chamber, the Megaloceros Gallery, and the End Chamber.

3. The Chauvet Cave painters were Aurignacians.

Aurignacians, the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, lived during the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, between 46,000 and 26,000 years ago. (Aurignacian also refers to this time period.) Aurignacian culture is characterized by the first figurative drawings and carvings, the invention of a flaked stone tool called a burin used for engraving, bone and antler tools, jewelry, and the oldest-known musical instruments.

In addition to the Chauvet Cave paintings, Aurignacian animal and human figurines have been found in other parts of Europe. At the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered the oldest known Venus statuette, dating from 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, and some of the oldest known bone flutes from the same time period. In Southeast Asia, a cave in Borneo bears the oldest known figurative painting, created at least 40,000 years ago.

4. Ancient humans visited Chauvet Cave during two separate millennia.

A reproduction of a hand stencil found in Chauvet Cave
Picture taken on October 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

According to paleontologist Michel-Alain Garcia in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, radiocarbon dating of organic materials in Chauvet Cave suggest people used the cave during two different time periods. In the first, about 36,500 years ago during the Aurignacian, artists drew the majority of the Chauvet Cave paintings. They brought wood into the cave and burned it to create light and charcoal for drawing. Then, for an unknown reason, the Aurignacians abandoned the cave for about five or six thousand years, and it was taken over by cave bears. In the second instance of human use, about 31,000 to 30,000 years ago in the Gravettian period, humans left behind footprints, scorch marks from torches, and charcoal, but no artwork.

5. Fourteen animal species are represented in the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The most common animals in the Chauvet Cave paintings are cave lions, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses; all coexisted with the Aurignacians in Europe, but are now extinct. Along with depictions of cave bears, the four species make up 65 percent of the species in the paintings. The other are bison, horses, reindeer, red deer, ibex, aurochs (an extinct wild ancestor of domesticated cattle), the extinct Megaloceros deer (also called the Irish elk or giant deer), musk ox, panthers, and an owl. The paintings are notable for depicting not just figurative representations of the animals, but actual scenes that reveal the animals’ real behavior—like two woolly rhinoceroses butting horns, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison.

6. Non-animal themes also pop up in Chauvet Cave paintings.

Palm prints in red paint found in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

In the middle chambers of Chauvet Cave, several walls and overhanging rocks are decorated with red dots made by human palms and stencils of human hands. In the farthest galleries of the cave, five triangular representations of a woman’s pubic area are scratched on to the walls, and one picture of a woman’s lower body similar in profile to Paleolithic Venus figurines is drawn on a stalactite-like rock pendant. Anthropologists are not sure what they’re meant to symbolize.

7. A prehistoric child’s footprints were discovered in Chauvet Cave.

A single track of footprints measuring 230 feet long was found in the soft clay floor of the cave’s Gallery of the Crosshatching. Researchers analyzed modern European feet that were estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of European Early Modern Humans and determined that the track was probably made by a young boy about 4.5 feet tall. Scientists were able to date the prints based on the marks left by a burning torch on the roof of the gallery. “The child regularly wiped his torch on [the vault] above his path. These charcoal marks, dated to 26,000 years ago, seem to have been placed contrary to the direction of progress on purpose, as if to mark the way back,” Garcia writes. Two bits of charcoal were retrieved from the substrate and dated to a period between 31,430 years and 25,440 years ago.

8. The child might have had a pet dog.

The adolescent boy’s footprints are near those of a large canid—possibly a wolf. When Garcia took a closer look, he noticed the length of the middle digit was shorter than a wolf’s, a trait more typical of a domesticated dog. But in the 1990s, when Garcia made the find, the oldest undisputed fossil evidence of a domesticated dog dated back only 14,200 years before present.

A 2017 study that built on previous research, however, compared genomes of three Neolithic dogs with those of more than 5000 canines, including modern wolves and dogs. The researchers concluded that dogs and wolves split genetically sometime between 41,500 and 36,900 years ago, and a second divergence of eastern and western dogs occurred between 23,900 and 17,500 years ago. That puts the window of domestication between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago—the same time as the Aurignacian child and his very good boy were walking through Chauvet Cave.

9. Chauvet cave provided shelter for bears.

Outline of a cave bear head in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Larger than modern grizzlies, cave bears spent winters in Chauvet Cave for thousands of years before humans began painting in it. They left claw scratches on the walls and dozens of tracks and footprints in the floor. In the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, researchers have found more than 300 hollows (sleeping spots that bears wore into the cave floor) and dozens of bear tracks and paw prints, made after humans stopped visiting the cave. About 2500 cave bear bones and 170 skulls were scattered throughout the cave’s main chambers. When scientists first investigated the cave in the mid-1990s, they found a cave bear skull carefully placed on a large stone in the middle of a deep chamber, in a way that only humans could have done.

10. The cave also provided shelter for a lot of wolves.

The floor of the Brunel Chamber, directly south of the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, showed multiple wolf prints that indicated a large number of “fissipeds” (pad-footed carnivores) had trampled the ground. Bear prints were superimposed on the wolf prints, suggesting that the bears came in after the wolves.

Not only large carnivores occupied the cave—judging from the variety of bones, it was practically a prehistoric zoo. In addition to the wolf, ibex, and bear bones, prehistorian Jean Clottes reported finding those of foxes, martens (a kind of weasel), roe deer, horses, birds, rodents, bats, and reptiles. And, yes, he also found fossilized wolf poop, indicating the wolves probably went into the cave in search of carrion.

11. No one knows why the Chauvet Cave paintings were created.

Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc also known as the Chauvet cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

The purpose behind the Chauvet Cave paintings is a mystery, but some characteristics of the artwork may offer clues. Researchers have noted that the primary species depicted—cave bear, lion, mammoth, and rhinoceros—were not prey species that Aurignacians pursued for food, possibly suggesting that the paintings weren’t meant to ensure bountiful hunting.

A 2016 study hinted that the Chauvet Cave artists may have been recording contemporary events. Jean-Michel Geneste and colleagues proposed that a spray-like design in the Megaloceros Gallery was a faithful depiction of a volcanic eruption that occurred in the nearby Bas-Vivaris region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. If that is true, Chauvet Cave boasts the oldest known painting of volcanic activity, smoking the previous record holder—a 9000-year-old mural in central Turkey—by 28,000 years.

12. When Werner Herzog entered Chauvet Cave, he was overwhelmed.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog accompanied researchers into the depths of the cave system to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (available to stream on Netflix). Herzog’s grandfather was an archaeologist, and Herzog himself once earned money as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy a book about cave art. “Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe,” Herzog told The A.V. Club in 2011. “The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance.”

13. You can visit a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The world-famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, not far from Pont d’Arc, were damaged by the exhalations of thousands of visitors after the cave was opened to the public in 1948. So, immediately after Chauvet Cave was discovered, scientists moved to protect the fragile paintings and closed it to the public; now, only scholars are allowed in during brief windows of time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see a simulation of the artwork up close. In 2015, a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings, dubbed the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, opened near the site of the actual cave. Engineers and artists faithfully recreated not just the dazzling paintings, but also the temperature, dampness, murk, and funky smell of the original.

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