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10 Surprising Secrets From St. Louis History

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Founded a quarter millennia ago, St. Louis, Missouri, is today known for its iconic and mysteriously futuristic arch. Here are 10 things you may not know about the city's history.

1. ST. LOUIS IS RIDDLED WITH CAVES SAID TO HAVE BEEN USED BY ESCAPED SLAVES, BOOTLEGGERS, AND MORE.

The caves below St. Louis were widely used for at least 10,000 years. A local tradition says that these caves played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, providing shelter for those fleeing the slave state of Missouri. During Prohibition, the caves made natural bootlegger vaults. Even after the repeal, many city residents found refuge in these underground spaces, which were cool in summer and warm in winter. Over the 20th century, hidden warrens that had once provided secret taverns and beer cellars metamorphosed into underground churches, warehouses, nightclubs, roller rinks, and even a 300-seat theater. One enterprising brewing family even used an underground stream below their manor as a family pool (where, rumor has it, blind fish would occasionally make an appearance).

2. ICE CREAM CONES REPORTEDLY DEBUTED IN ST. LOUIS. 

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The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair has few modern precedents. The city celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase with grand edifices, concourses, lagoons, and palaces. According to tradition, in the midst of all the hubbub, a concessionaire named Ernest A. Hamwi found himself selling small waffle-like pastries next to an overwhelmed ice cream vendor. When his neighbor ran out of dishes, Hamwi rolled his confection into a tiny cone, and the rest is conical history. But like all great inventions, several people came to the same idea independently; other claimants include Antonio Valvona, who in 1902 patented an “Apparatus for baking biscuit-cups for ice-cream,” and Frank and Charlie Menches, whose descendants claim they wrapped dough around a sailor’s tool for the Medina County Fair in Ohio a few months before St. Louis’s Fair. (For food historians, the debate about what counts as the "first" ice cream cone lives on.)

3. ST. LOUIS WAS ONCE A MAJOR AMERICAN COFFEE HUB. 

Back when the Mississippi River was the closest thing to an information superhighway, St. Louis was well-positioned to receive exotic shipments. In the 18th century, coffee arrived from French traders, and in the 19th century it came up from New Orleans. By the early 20th century, St. Louis was the largest inland distributor of coffee in the world, although demographic changes had dethroned the city by the time of the Great Depression. 

4. ONE OF ITS MOST FAMOUS STATUES HAD TO BE MOVED BECAUSE IT WAS FREQUENTLY SUBMERGED IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER. 

In 2006, St. Louis erected The Captains’ Return, a mighty bronze statue celebrating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s arrival back in civilization. Depicting a boat landing, the sculpture made its home on the St. Louis Wharf. But the Mississippi River is subject to water level swings of up to 50 feet; at half that depth, Lewis was completely submerged, and Clark’s triumphant wave transformed into a frantic cry for help. Eight years after installation, the sculpture was removed and relocated to higher ground. Bronze being porous, it took a year to dry out.

5. ST. LOUIS HAD THE NATION’S LAST PNEUMATIC TUBE SYSTEM. 

Tube delivery is now relegated to drive-through windows at banks and pharmacies. But in the 19th century, pneumatic mail dispatch was all the rage. New York City had the largest such system, at 55 miles. St. Louis’s tube network was the smallest, with only four miles, and it was the last such system built by a major American city. By the early 20th century, a futuristic new technology known as “the car” put a swift end to tube networks everywhere. 

6. A SECRET SOCIETY FOUNDED IN THE 1870S CREATED AN ANNUAL DEBUTANTES BALL THAT STILL RUNS TODAY.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 unleashed several political aftershocks, perhaps none so strange as the Veiled Prophet Ball. This annual event, created by a secret society of "Veiled Prophets" (really St. Louis elite), gave a nod to Mardi Gras, but did so with a Byzantine level of pomp and ritual that bordered on menacing—the first “prophets” sported Klan-like hoods and shotguns. In the 1990s, the event was renamed the Fair Saint Louis and moved to the waterfront; these days, the annual celebration shows few signs of its symbolic roots (although the city still acknowledges the Fair’s early role in “reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite”).

7. A JAZZ AGE BALLROOM HAS BEEN WALLED OFF FOR SIX DECADES.

Built for the 1904 exposition, the Hotel Jefferson was extensively overhauled in the 1920s. Included in this remodel was an exquisite, two-story art deco ballroom with rippling balconies, a massive chandelier, and a 1200-person capacity dance floor. The space closed in the 1950s, and when the building reopened as affordable senior living two decades later, the ballroom was walled off. But the room itself is still intact, if a bit dusty (and closed off to the public). Adding to the creepy factor is the venue’s name, The Gold Room, which was also the name of the haunted ballroom that eventually seduced Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

8. ONE OF THE WORLD’S FIRST SKYSCRAPERS WAS BUILT IN ST. LOUIS IN THE 1890S.

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The Wainwright Building wasn’t the tallest building in 1890s America (Chicago and New York had taller). But it was the first skyscraper to look the part, embracing its height with a sheer wall of windows instead of tiered floors or overhanging ledges. Built by a Chicago firm for a wealthy local brewer, the building was designed with the visual language of Roman columns—including an ornamented base and crown—and was eventually awarded City Landmark, National Historic Landmark, and National Register of Historic Places. Frank Lloyd Wright called it "the very first human expression of a tall steel office-building as architecture." These days, its ten floors seem a bit more meager, dwarfed by the futuristic Gateway Arch just six blocks away.  

9. DURING CONSTRUCTION OF THE ST. LOUIS ARCH, THE TWO SIDES NEEDED TO BE ACCURATE WITHIN 1/64TH OF AN INCH. 

The Gateway Arch is the nation’s tallest national monument, an honor that does little to convey its actual immensity. The Arch is four times taller than the Statue of Liberty (not including the statue's pedestal). It weighs more than 200 space shuttles. Yet the site surveying—done at night, lest the sun’s rays cause measurement distortions—had to match both legs with only 1/64th of an inch worth of wiggle room (that’s smaller than a mechanical pencil lead). A variance that was any wider would have kept the legs from connecting properly and doomed the structural load. If that seems like an impressive feat, here’s another: It was constructed in the mid-'60s, meaning without the assistance of personal computers.

10. DIRECTOR JOHN CARPENTER ONCE PURCHASED A ST. LOUIS BRIDGE FOR $1 WHILE FILMING ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

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Manhattan was too expensive for Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi dystopia. It also wasn’t nearly dystopian enough. A series of fires had ravaged parts of St. Louis in 1976, so the director decided to use the desolate streets as one huge backlot. For the film’s climax—a car chase across the “69th Street Bridge”—he arranged to buy the abandoned Chain of Rocks bridge, on the north edge of St. Louis, for $1 (the purchase removed local governments from any liability). As soon as filming wrapped, the director was refunded his money.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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