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Hannah Keyser

11 Awesome Things You Can See At The Explorers Club

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Hannah Keyser

The Explorers Club headquarters on East 70th Street might be New York's best kept secret. In spirit and purpose, it is the meeting place and physical center for an international association of scientists and explorers. In aesthetics, it resembles a Jacobean manor house crossed with a natural history museum, complete with wood paneled walls, elaborate molding, and a terrace marked by a colonnade from a monastery in France that matches the one in the Cloisters.

The Club first met in 1904 as an unofficial gathering of like-minded men (women weren't allowed until 1981). By the following year, the Explorers Club was incorporated, though it bounced around several locations—first on the Lower East Side and then up by Columbia University—before ending up at its current location in 1965. The house was originally built in 1910 for Stephen Clark, heir of the Singer Sewing machine fortune, with the intention of mimicking a historical style. Clark lived there with his family until he passed away in 1960. Five years later, the entire multistory townhouse was purchased for the Club with the help of member Lowell Thomas.

These days, the Club serves as a fellowship that awards grants and provides a social and professional network for continuing generations of explorers. Entry into that network, which includes dozens of chapters around the world, requires a background of extensive travel and a number of recommendations from current members. The house retains certain functions of its own: Members give lectures on their research and travel; relevant films are shown; and independent organizations from charities to documentary filmmakers make use of the stunning setting. The Club invites passersby, perhaps intrigued by the heavy iron doors or the personalized flag, to pop in and get a feel for the place. But those interested in getting a closer look, either at any of the objects mentioned here or the vast research collection of exploration documents, should make an appointment with the Club's curator, Lacey Flint.

1. USS Explorer Table

One of the first remarkable artifacts in the Club is hidden in plain sight. A sumptuous sitting room centers around a heavy wooden coffee table with a rich history. It's built from a hatch cover for the USS Explorer, an unarmed research vessel that was one of only seven ships in the area to survive the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of the bombing, the Explorer was out to sea—in fact, it was the nearest American ship to the Japanese fleet responsible—which was how it was spared a violent end.

2. Dowager Empress Chair

In the same room as the table above is a chair with royal origins. Not much is known about the intricately-carved wooden seat, but it is rumored to have belonged to Empress Wanrong, the wife of Puyi, last Emperor of China.

3. Matthew Henson's Mittens

Matthew Henson, who became the first African American admitted to the Club in 1937, was Robert Peary's first mate on a number of arctic explorations, including the one recognized as the first to reach the geographic North Pole. The Club displays sealskin mittens with polar bear cuffs made for Henson by an Inuit woman who accompanied them on their voyage. On the gloves is inscribed: Matthew A Henson, May 5, 1934… To -- Explorers Club … worn by me from Cape Sheridan to it -- North Pole, April 6, 1909.

4. Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Globe

In 1947, Club member Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove that early South Americans could have originally settled the islands of the South Pacific as far back as 500 AD. Heyerdahl set sail with a 5-man crew from Peru aboard a raft, called the Kon-Tiki, made of balsa logs and other indigenous materials and techniques consistent with what would have been available at that time. One hundred and one days and 4300 miles later, the team landed in Polynesia. The expedition was first proposed and partially planned using this globe, which was at the time located in the Explorers Club headquarters on West 72nd Street.

5. Albert Operti's Rescue at Camp Clay

In 1881, Adolphus W. Greely—a decorated Civil War veteran who would become the Explorers Club's first president in 1905—set off with a crew of 24 men to explore the arctic reaches of Canada. The so-called Lady Franklin Bay Expedition made numerous scientific contributions and observations, reaching farther north than anyone before them. However, during the expedition, heavy ice stranded the explorers and prevented relief vessels from reaching them for several years. By the time a rescue ship found the crew on June 22, 1884 at Cape Sabine on Ellesmere Island, two-thirds had succumbed to starvation, exposure, scurvy, drowning, suicide, and even execution. And, in the aftermath, the survivors were plagued by rumors of cannibalism.

The painting, commissioned by the U.S. government to hang in the Capitol Building, depicts a scene of the rescue. Artist Albert Operti did extensive research, interviewing the survivors as well as those who were part of the rescue team for details about the tents and other materials. He even studied pre-expedition portraits of the deceased crew members. The Club purchased the painting in 1946 for $105.00.

6. Bell from the Bear

The Bear was a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter that was part of a three-ship mini fleet responsible for finding and rescuing Greely's surviving crew. The bell was presented to the Club in 1933 and since then has traditionally been rung to mark the start of Club functions.

7. Mariana Trench/Mount Everest Flag

The Club's flag is an iconic part of its tradition. Each flag produced is assigned a number, and members must apply for the honor of carrying one on their expeditions, submitting a thesis-style report to be included in the flag's file upon return. A database tracks all of the flags' voyages; often, explorers who have been granted the privilege seek one that has been to similar locations or was carried by an idol. On the occasion of some particularly admirable voyage, or because of damage sustained, flags are retired to be part of the rotating collection on display in the Club. The Flag Room provides a sense of the Club's wide-ranging purview in the world of exploration and notable historical events—the Apollo 13 Flag was returned unopened in the non-flammable plastic casing in which it was packed, with a note explaining that since "plans were disrupted" it was never planted on the moon's surface.

Not all explorers opt for flags that have been to similar locations—in fact, an instance of just the opposite created a unique artifact. Flag 161 accompanied 19 voyages during its active tenure from 1955 to 2012. Among those was a trip to the top of Mount Everest, and the last one was a descent with James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. Along with a host of other accomplishments, this means that Flag 161 is the only object in the world to have traveled to both the highest and lowest points on the planet.

8. Yeti Scalp

Or, more accurately put, "yeti scalp." Tales of an abominable snowman called the Yeti inspired Explorers Club members Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins to travel to Nepal in 1960. Among the evidence for this mythical monster cited by locals was a supposed scalp, which had been housed at a temple in Khumjung for over 200 years. Unfortunately for Yeti enthusiasts everywhere, Perkins, a zoologist, concluded that the "scalp" was made from the hide of a Himalayan serow—a goat antelope. To substantiate this claim, he had a local villager help to create an exact replica using goat hide, which is what you see here.

9. Description de l'Égypte


Despite suffering an ignominious military defeat in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign up the Nile in 1798-99 provided the world with one of the most important documents in Egyptology. Along with his army, Napoleon brought nearly 200 scholars and scientists known as savants to compile ethnographic information about ancient and modern Egypt. The result was 22 volumes called Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française. Or in English: Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army. The texts are, of course, written in French, but the oversized volumes that include hand-colored pictures are stunning and worth a few more pictures. Definitely call or email ahead if you're hoping for a peek—these first editions require white gloves and supervision for handling.

10. Double Elephant Tusk

These four tusks all belonged to the same elephant, a fearsome looking rare genetic mutation. The tusks were collected by Club member Armand Denis, an adventurer and filmmaker who led a famous expedition across Africa in 1934, but they were donated by the estate of Sally H. Clark, wife of James L. Clark, who served as Director for Preparations at the American Museum of Natural History.

11. Stuffed Whale Penis

Not much is know about this stuffed whale penis, which was given to the Club in 1977 by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick S. Schauffler, but it is a favorite among visitors. Worth checking out, if only for a better sense of scale.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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Food
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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