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.”

A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

Kentucky for Kentucky
Kentucky for Kentucky

Many devoted KFC fans love the chain's crispy fried chicken for its signature taste and mouthwatering aroma. If you just love the way the chicken looks, now you can keep it on your shelf to admire forever. As Food & Wine reports, Kentucky for Kentucky is selling whole KFC drumsticks encapsulated in resin for $100.

Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

KFC drumstick in a jar.
Kentucky for Kentucky

The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

Only 50 of the finger-licking artworks were created, and at $100 a piece, they're worth the price of several KFC family buckets. You can grab one while they're still available from the Kentucky for Kentucky online store.

[h/t Food & Wine]

This Is the Brain of the Man Who Shot James A. Garfield

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was about to board a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. when Charles Guiteau stepped behind him. The failed lawyer, newspaperman, and evangelist—enraged that the president’s advisors had refused him an ambassadorship he believed he deserved, and, as he had written the night before, to “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic”—had been stalking Garfield for months, intent on killing him. Now, here, finally, was his chance.

Guiteau raised his pistol, a British Bulldog he’d bought for $10, took aim, and pulled the trigger—not once, but twice. One bullet grazed the president’s arm; the other came to rest behind his pancreas. Guiteau was apprehended, and Garfield was whisked away to an upstairs room. “Doctor,” he told the city health official who was the first doctor on the scene, “I am a dead man.”

He was moved to suffer first in the sweltering White House, where 12 doctors probed his wounds with their unsterilized fingers, and then to Long Beach, New Jersey, where he died on September 19, 1881. Shortly after, Guiteau was charged with murder.

At his trial, which began in November, Guiteau appointed himself co-counsel; among his other lawyers was his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who normally handled land deeds. Scoville claimed that his brother was legally insane, and Guiteau said that yes, while he was legally insane—because God had removed his free will at the time of the assassination—he was not medically insane. Still, for someone who claimed he wasn't actually insane, his behavior during the trial was strange: He frequently interrupted his attorney, sang songs, insulted the jurors, and declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

(Guiteau may have had a point. Garfield ultimately died of an infection that may have been caused by doctors using their unwashed hands to look for the bullet. According to PBS, "In late 19th century America, such a grimy search was a common medical practice for treating gunshot wounds. A key principle behind the probing was to remove the bullet, because it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from 'morbid poisoning' to nerve and organ damage.")

Though the defense called experts to attest to Guiteau’s insanity, psychiatrists called by the prosecution noted that the defendant knew right from wrong and was not definitely insane. In the early days of January 1882, the jury sentenced him to die by hanging.

On June 30, 1882, Guiteau read a poem he'd penned himself (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) and fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold. An hour and a half after that, his autopsy began, and his brain was removed and examined to get to the bottom of the insanity question once and for all. According to Sam Kean in his book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, “Most scientists at the time believed that insanity, true insanity, always betrayed itself by clear brain damage—lesions, hemorrhages, putrid tissue, or something.” Guiteau’s brain weighed 50 ounces and looked, for the most part, normal—at least to the naked eye. But under a microscope was a different story:

"Guiteau’s brain looked awful. The outer rind on the surface, the 'gray matter' that controls higher thinking, had thinned to almost nothing in spots. Neurons had perished in droves, leaving tiny holes, as if someone had carbonated the tissue. Yellow-brown gunk, a remnant of dying blood vessels, was smeared everywhere as well. Overall the pathologists found 'decided chronic disease … pervad[ing] all portions of the brain' … Guiteau was surely insane."

Today, portions of Guiteau’s brain can be found at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

[h/t Biomedical Ephemera]

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