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Hieronymus Bosch (via Wikimedia Commons)

What is a Black Mass?

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Hieronymus Bosch (via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Monday, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club planned to hold a Black Mass on the Massachusetts school's campus as an educational example of the Satanic faith. Unsurprisingly, the largest city in the country’s most heavily Roman Catholic state wasn’t thrilled about the prospect. Cardinal Sean O’Malley called it “repugnant,” 60,000 people signed a petition in protest of the event, and the Archdiocese of Boston held a Eucharistic procession and its own mass Monday to “combat evil.”

Despite the fact that Harvard's higher-ups allowed the Black Mass to go on—while in most cases still voicing their personal opposition to it—the Cultural Studies Club eventually withdrew its support for the event after first moving it off campus. The off-campus Black Mass amounted to, according to an account from the Harvard Crimson, a gathering that included “about 50 people, mostly dressed in black and some wearing face makeup... [plus] Four individuals in hoods and one man in a white suit, a cape, and a horned mask were active in the proceedings, as well as a woman revealed to be wearing only lingerie.”

But is the Black Mass actually "evil"? Depends on who you ask.

“Our purpose is not to denigrate any religion or faith, which would be repugnant to our educational purposes, but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices,” the Club said at the beginning of the controversy.

The idea of a Black Mass draws from the tradition of parody masses that were practiced in the Middle Ages, which included the Drinker’s Mass, the Gambler’s Mass, and the Feast of Fools. These ceremonies, which were dramatic in nature and not intended to be sacrilegious, used the Catholic Mass as a basis for parody. Alas, they were ultimately condemned by the Church and discontinued.

This coincides historically with the spread of witch-hunting manuals like the Malleus Maleficarum, which often featured apocryphal tales of Witches' Sabbaths—ceremonies that involved absurdities like having sex with the Devil and eating babies.

These books were inventions of their authors and often banned by the Church, but they still contributed greatly to the popular imagination of how “witches” behaved, and they played a major role in the witch-hunts and executions of the Middle Ages. Later, in 1862, Jules Michelet wrote a history of witchcraft called Satanism and Witchcraft that conflated witchcraft with a scene from a Black Mass, which he described as a type of Sabbath involving invocations of feminine power and the spirit of populist rebellion.

A wax priestess on display at a 1956 Black Mass exhibit, via Getty Images

His descriptions are, like the ones in the Malleus Maleficarum, ahistorical at best and probably complete fabrications, but he casts the event with the sympathetic enthusiasm of an anthropologist. Along with accounts of the Affair of the Poisons (which allegedly involved love sorcery) and the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who was often accused of being a worshipper of Satan), the literature of Black Mass is mostly comprised of allegations made by the Church calling and loose depictions of nature-worship cast as theistic Satanism.

According to Satanic Temple leader Lucien Greaves, the Black Mass that was to be performed at Harvard was to be based on Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1891 novel La-bas, which translates to Down There or The Damned in English. (Here it is, if you’d like to read it.) The name “Satanic Temple” is misleading; its members don’t worship Satan as he exists in Christian tradition. Instead, as Greaves explained in an interview with Vice, the word “Satan” is a metaphor for supernaturalism and autocracy. These Satanists, as well as the most influential American branch of Satanism—Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan that began in the 1960s—are what’s known as atheistic Satanism.

Huysman’s La-bas claimed to paint a picture of occult worship in decadent French society, and it was a work of fiction, not documentary or history. The “mass” contained therein was a philosophical exercise, although it drew from this society of which Huysman was a part, one which rejected Christianity and Catholicism. And in the tradition of atheistic Satanism—the tradition that the Cultural Studies Club was attempting to pay homage to this week—the Black Mass is meant to represent a satirizing of what Satanists resist in theistic supernaturalism: the idea of “religious freedom” that actually prioritizes one faith over another.

Greaves has spoken at Harvard before without incident, and the history, such as it is, of the Black Mass confirms that the Harvard event would not have involved literal devil worship. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, Greaves described perceptions of the Black Mass as “fantasy promoted by the religious majority to demonize opposition,” which is more or less what came to pass in Boston as well.

But as an act of demonstration, the form of the ceremony parodies Catholicism’s central practice of faith. Although the Cultural Studies Club gave the sense that it believed itself to be accommodating a longstanding and developed tradition, the gulf between these two opinions remains as stark as it was in the Middle Ages.

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This Just In
A Connecticut Farm Purchased by Mark Twain for His Daughter, Jean Clemens, Is Up for Sale
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Mark Twain—whose wit was matched only by his wanderlust—had many homes throughout his life: a small frame house in Hannibal, Missouri; a Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut; and "Stormfield," a country estate in Redding, Connecticut, just to name a few. Now, the Connecticut Post reports that a farm adjacent to Stormfield, purchased in 1909 by Twain for his daughter, Jean Clemens, is up for sale.

“Jean’s Farm,” as Twain nicknamed the home, is priced at $1,850,000. In addition to a storied literary legacy, the refurbished five-bedroom estate has a saltwater swimming pool, a movie theater, and a children’s play area. It sits on nearly 19 acres of land, making the property “well-sized for a gentleman's farm, for horses, or as a hobby farm,” according to its real estate listing. There’s also a fish pond and a 19th-century barn with an extra apartment.

While scenic, Jean’s Farm has a bittersweet backstory: Jean Clemens, who had epilepsy, enjoyed the pastoral property for only a short time before passing away at the age of 29. She lived in a sanitarium before moving to Stormfield in April 1909, where she served as her father's secretary and housekeeper and made daily trips to her farm. On December 24, 1909, Jean died at Stormfield after suffering a seizure in a bathtub. Twain, himself, would die several months later, on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74.

Twain sold Jean’s Farm after his daughter’s death, and used the proceeds to fund a library in Redding, today called the Mark Twain Library. But despite losing a child, Twain’s years at Stormfield—his very last home—weren’t entirely colored by tragedy. “Although Twain only spent two years here [from 1908 to 1910], it was an important time in the writer’s life,” historian Brent Colely told The Wall Street Journal. “Twain was always having guests over, including his close friend Helen Keller, hosting almost 181 people for visits in the first six months alone, according to guestbooks and notations.”

Check out some photos of Jean’s Farm below, courtesy of

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

 Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

[h/t Connecticut Post]

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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.


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