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How Thomas Edison Jr. Shamed the Family Name

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Consumption. Rheumatism. Kidney trouble. Lost manhood. Womb displacement. Nagging congestion. Lady troubles. No matter what the ailment, magazine and newspaper readers in 1903 saw they had the ability to obtain a device that was presented as a modern medical marvel. It was called the Magno-Electric Vitalizer, and it harnessed the power of electricity to stimulate the nerves, inciting the body’s own natural healing powers.

But that wasn’t all the Vitalizer could do. In rigorous "scientific" study, the device—which consisted of two copper plates that could be applied to the head or torso, with optional nose plugs—was found to improve mental function, allowing test subjects to respond to difficult questions five to 10 seconds faster than the control group. One ad in the Los Angeles Herald promised that the Vitalizer “enabled the wearer to think much more quicker.”

Like a lot of dubious-sounding health devices peddled at the turn of the 20th century, the Vitalizer was complete bunk. The United States Patent Office rejected an application for it on two separate occasions because it was “inoperable.” By 1904, the U.S. Postal Service charged its distributor with postal fraud.

Quackery was nothing new, of course. But the Vitalizer’s exploitation of the public desire to cure their ills was unique. It was sold by the Thomas A. Edison Jr. Chemical Company, an outfit ostensibly owned by the son of famed inventor Thomas Edison. The family name had become synonymous with innovation; most people found it easy to believe the so-called “Wizard” had offspring who could deliver similar life-altering technology to the masses. (One ad read that the elder Edison "could not accomplish everything, and he left one room in the House of Science in which Thomas A. Edison, Jr. has labored and experimented for years in perfecting the Magno-Electric Vitalizer.”)

In reality, Thomas Edison Jr. had very little in common with his famous father. Rather than hone his craftsmanship, he preferred to sell his last name to a series of unsavory and unprincipled businesses. The practice so bothered his father that he once told a friend that his son was “absolutely illiterate, scientifically and otherwise.”

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No mention of the senior Edison seems complete without crediting his most impressive contributions to the world. In 1877, he used his phonograph machine to record “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a piece of tinfoil, introducing the first voice recorder/player. He ushered in the era of modern electricity, perfecting the incandescent light bulb and championing a system that would wire homes to power grids. From his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, Edison developed more than half of the 1093 patents he was granted during his lifetime.

Edison was married twice, once to Mary Stilwell from 1871 to 1884 and again to Mina Miller in 1886. Edison loved Morse Code: He proposed to Mina by tapping out the words. Of his six children, he nicknamed daughter Marion “Dot” after the messaging system. Thomas Jr., who was born in 1876, was “Dash.”

Some accounts of Edison’s parenting approach are less than flattering. With daughter Madeline, he’d reportedly present impromptu quizzes at the breakfast table and apply a hot spoon to the back of her hand if she answered too slowly, or incorrectly. Edison's kids were issued a daily quota of encyclopedia-reading and other intellectual tasks.

It’s believed that Thomas Jr. found this environment to be oppressive, having neither the ambition nor the aptitude to sharpen his mind with formal education. He dropped out of an elite prep school at age 17 before earning his diploma, prompting his father to observe that his son desired fame more than a sense of actual accomplishment.

In 1898, Thomas Jr. settled in New York. He was the subject of a flattering newspaper profile that appeared to do little in the way of fact-checking, particularly over claims that the younger Edison had invented a better light bulb. (He had not.) The publicity led to a high-profile appearance at an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden that same year. Although he had no real responsibilities—he was put in charge of the decorating committee—Thomas Jr. held court with journalists and presented himself as an inventor on the cusp of major breakthroughs at the risk of his own life.

“I never expect to die a natural death,” he told reporters. “I feel confident I will be blown up some day.”

Despite his lack of laboratory experience, Thomas Jr. knew his last name held considerable value. Thanks to both the press he received in New York and the name on his birth certificate, Edison was able to entice individuals to invest in a series of ill-conceived ventures. In 1901, he peddled “Wizard Ink” tablets, a very deliberate way of invoking his father’s nickname. The globs of ink could be plopped in an ounce of water without “clot, lump, or sediment.” Ads claimed the ink had been tested in leading banks.

If the elder Edison fumed at his nickname being used to market unremarkable writing tools, the Vitalizer would soon send him over the edge. A totally useless fabrication, the device capitalized on the public’s fascination with electricity and was said to deliver mild impulses via the head or back. Thomas Jr. asserted that it had been tested on second graders to promote intellect, could provide relief from menstrual pain, and would clear clogged nasal passages. “There seems to be no limit to its sphere of action,” the ad copy read.

Once received, the Vitalizer’s instructions promised relief from virtually any disorder or complaint of which the user could conceive. Depending on the issue, the Vitalizer could be positioned over any major organ. For problems related to one's genitalia, it promised to be “the only sure and sensible cure.”

Anyone who ordered the $8 Vitalizer was only relieved of both their money and any hope of assistance. By 1904, at the behest of his father, the Post Office had successfully ordered Thomas Jr. to halt shipments of the product. Although the younger Edison was probably just selling a name and had nothing to do with the company itself, his father bemoaned to LIFE magazine that such use of his name was causing him terrible grief.

“I am thinking of a scheme to prevent persons from using the name I have striven honorably to protect," Edison said.

Fed up with Thomas Jr.’s ventures, Edison offered to pay his wayward son a $35 per week allowance if he would simply change his name. He agreed, and began calling himself Thomas Willard. The senior Edison then set him up on a mushroom farm with the hope that he would eventually become self-sufficient.

Instead, Thomas Jr. wound up in a sanitarium.

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It’s not known whether the pressure of being Thomas Edison’s namesake led to Thomas Jr.’s personal struggles. According to his second wife, he abused alcohol and was briefly admitted into a mental institution to address his depression. The mushroom farm provided only modest financial relief, so Edison raised his allowance to $50 a week.

At some point, Thomas Jr. decided he wanted to live up to the family name and spent seven years trying to perfect his Ecometer, an automobile addition that would help conserve fuel. At the same time, his father was toiling on efforts to perfect an electric car with Henry Ford; it’s believed Ford subjected the Ecometer to a battery of tests so that he wouldn’t risk offending Edison.

Thomas Jr. dreamed of his invention being installed in every car in the nation. It failed to pass basic performance tests.

When Thomas Edison died in 1931, he left his son a seat on his company’s board of directors. While it provided some measure of monetary relief, the success was short-lived: Thomas Jr. died in 1935, allegedly due in part to his substance abuse issues.

Despite his efforts, Thomas Jr. remains little more than a footnote in accounts of Edison’s life—the selfish, attention-seeking son who resented living in the shadow of his famous father and used any means available to him in order to escape it. Unless, of course, he could profit from it.

Before the Vitalizer was pulled from the market, Thomas Jr. asserted that he was putting the public’s health first and claimed he turned down a $750,000 offer to buy his company. “I am determined,” he said, “that this invention shall not fall into the hands of those who would regard it only as a money-making business.”

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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