Monthly Archives: April 2016

Houdini, Doyle, and dinosaurs

Perhaps you’ve heard of the new TV show Houdini and Doyle, in which history’s most famous magician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes team up to solve cases that may or may not involve supernatural forces.  The premise might sound outrageous, sort of like a steampunk version of The X-Files, but Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends.  And in true X-Files fashion, one member of the partnership was a skeptic, while the other was a true believer.  Doyle was a committed spiritualist who publicly vouched for the authenticity of mediums and psychics; in one case, he went so far as to pronounce a set of faked photos of fairies to be genuine.  While Houdini found the prospect of communicating with the dead intriguing, his experiences with fraudulent mediums who claimed they could put him in touch with his dead mother left him disillusioned, and he began a one-man crusade against them.

Now, twentieth-century debates over supernatural phenomena fall pretty far outside my historical wheelhouse, and when I go off on tangents like this it’s usually because there’s a dinosaur connection.  And hoo boy—is there ever a dinosaur connection to the story of Houdini and Doyle’s friendship.

It all goes back to a remarkable film Doyle presented at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians at New York’s Hotel McAlpin on June 2, 1922, during an American lecture tour on spiritualism.  After an introduction by Houdini, who was the society’s president, Doyle made a few remarks about his belief in mediums.  A decade’s worth of investigation, he said, had convinced him that one really could communicate with the dead, and he appreciated the efforts of magicians who debunked those fake mediums—”human hyenas,” he called them—that discredited honest spiritualists everywhere.  But “when a conjurer does occasionally attack spiritualism as a whole,” he claimed, “he deals in a subject which he does not understand.”

A front-page story in the next day’s New York Times described what happened next:

The author then asked permission of Mr. Houdini to give his strange exhibition.  He gave no idea in advance as to its character, but said nothing to discredit the suggestion that he considered the coming exhibition to be genuine.

“If I brought here in real existence what I show in these pictures, it would be a great catastrophe,” he said.

“These pictures are not occult,” he continued.  “In the second place, this is psychic because everything that emanates from the human spirit or human brain is psychic.  It is not supernatural.  Nothing is.  It is preternatural in the sense that it isnot [sic] known to our ordinary senses.

…”I would like to add, to save myself from getting up again, that, if permission is granted for me to show this, they will speak for themselves.  I will answer no questions regarding them either for the press or the others present.”

Doyle’s “strange exhibition” turned out to be a reel of motion picture footage.  And while it had nothing to do with spiritualism, it did involve bringing up the dead:

Monsters of several million years ago, mostly of the dinosaur species, made love and killed each other in Sir Arthur’s pictures.  Prehistoric brutes that resembled rhinoceroses magnified many times, equipped with enormous horns that pointed forward like those of the unicorn, drove dinosaurs away from feasts on one another.  One monster, like a horned toad of monumental proportions, presented an impenetrable surface of armor plate to attacking reptiles and moved along in safety.

…His monsters of the ancient world or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike.  If fakes, they were masterpieces.

While Doyle refused to answer questions about the film, he did tell the magicians, “It is the effect of the joining on the one hand of imagination and on the other other hand of some power of materialization.  The imagination, I may say, comes to me.  The materializing power comes from elsewhere.”

That “materializing power,” in fact, was stop motion animation.  The footage was a test reel of animator Willis O’Brien’s work for the film adaptation of Doyle’s own 1912 novel The Lost World, in which explorers find live prehistoric animals atop a South American plateau.  O’Brien had made short films with stop motion dinosaurs before, but the 1925 version of The Lost World was the first feature-length dinosaur movie.  (Incidentally, it was also the first in-flight movie shown to airline passengers, during an Imperial Airways flight out of London.)

Doyle’s 1922 visit to New York marked the dawn of the dinosaur movie craze, but it also marked the end of his relationship with Houdini.  That summer, the two men and their families visited Atlantic City together.  Doyle’s wife, who claimed to be a medium herself, offered Houdini an opportunity to communicate with his dead mother in a private séance.  Houdini accepted, but the results left him as unconvinced as ever.  When Houdini later admitted to Doyle that he did not think his mother had actually contacted him in Atlantic City, Doyle was offended.

A few years later, Houdini was a member of a committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate a medium Doyle had publicly vouched for named Mina Crandon.  When Houdini denounced Crandon as a fraud, it was the last straw; the two men’s already strained relationship ended.  Doyle never convinced Houdini that humans could summon the dead, at least not without the sort of trickery that allowed him to conjure up the terrible lizards that night at the Hotel McAlpin.

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Something to upset everybody

Here’s the thing: Andrew Jackson isn’t getting kicked off the $20 bill.  He’s just moving to the back.

In other words, the guy who hated paper currency still has to have his mug plastered on it, while Harriet Tubman has to spend the next few decades sitting .0043 inches from a slaveholder.

Was the Treasury Department trying to make them both roll over in their graves?

Come to think of it, this would make a great premise for one of those odd couple-type comedies where two totally different people have to cooperate to pull off some big heist.  Tubman and Jackson both get so infuriated that they show up to haunt the Treasury headquarters at the same time, then grudgingly decide to work together.  Hilariously awkward antics ensue.  Their efforts finally pay off when Tubman gets her own bill and Jackson scores a position on the front of a new $1 gold coin.  Anybody want to help me pitch this to Warner Bros.?

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Jean O’Brien will discuss memory and Massasoit at UTK

If you’re interested in colonial America, Native American history, or historical memory, you’ll want to attend the UTK History Department’s 2016 Milton M. Klein Lecture.  Jean O’Brien will be discussing the public memory of Massasoit, the seventeenth-century Wampanoag leader most commonly remembered today for his association with the Pilgrims.

O’Brien is Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.  Her publications include Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England and Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790.  She is a past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, and a recipient of the Western History Association’s American Indian Historian Lifetime Achievement Award.

The 2016 Klein Lecture will be at the McClung Museum on UT’s campus on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:00 P.M.  And it’s totally free!

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When the historical record is silent

Back when I was in the early stages of narrowing down a topic for my master’s thesis on King’s Mountain, my advisor said to me, “You might end up being more interested in who these guys are.”  In other words, there was a good possibility that I’d end up focusing less on the battle and more on the men who waged it.

As it turned out, I didn’t concentrate on “who these guys are,” at least not for that project.  Instead, I looked at the way contemporaries and later antiquarians interpreted the battle and the men who fought there.  It was more a study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there than anything else.  Actually, I owed that topic to my advisor as well; a scholar of war and memory himself, he made an offhand suggestion that I might look at the ways people remembered the battle.  That comment reminded me of a nasty nineteenth-century controversy involving some of the veterans, and off I went.

But since then, the question of “who these guys are” has preoccupied and vexed me.  Popular writing on the pioneers who settled the Appalachian frontier in the late eighteenth century tends to portray them more as stock characters than flesh-and-blood historical actors.  Here’s how East Tennessee writer Pat Alderman described them in one of his illustrated works of “history made interesting“:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.  They were courageous souls, daring and eager as they ventured along the unfamiliar trails leading westward.  The wide expanse of mountains, hills and valleys, covered with virgin forests and teeming with wild game, challenged their pioneer spirits.  This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.  They depended on the forest and streams for their sustenance.  They would pitch a fight, scalp an Indian or wrestle (“rassel”) a bear at the drop of a hat.

That’s laying the rugged individualism and buckskin on a bit thick.  It’s not so much a portrait of an actual group of people as it is a collection of frontier tropes.  The issue isn’t that descriptions like that are necessarily false, although I do doubt that any sane person who has ever lived has been eager to “rassel” a live bear.  The issue is that they don’t adequately address the question of who these guys really were, what they were doing west of the mountains, or why they got involved in the Revolution.

And those are the questions that have preoccupied me for a good, long while.  I distinctly remember the first visit I made to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, the place where “these guys” mustered to begin their march eastward that culminated in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I stood for a few minutes in front of Jon Mark Estep’s fine sculpture of a frontier militiaman at the park’s visitor center.

By Jon Mark Estep (sculptor), Brian Stansberry (photograph) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I looked at that figure, the question came back to me, along with a few related ones.  What the heck were you?  What were you doing out here?  What did you want out of the Revolution?  How did you go about trying to get it?

When I headed back to graduate school, I decided that I’d try to whittle these questions into a dissertation topic.  With my doctoral advisor’s help, I’ve been in the process of doing just that.  I’ve also been compiling primary sources to try to get at some answers.  While this process has been exciting, the prospect of a dissertation-length project has forced me to confront a disconcerting reality: there isn’t as much evidence about “these guys” as I’d like.

One issue is that a lot of the sources they left behind date from years—in many cases decades—after the events I’m interested in.  This is something I learned when I was doing research for my thesis on King’s Mountain.  Veterans of that battle wrote about their experiences, but much of what they wrote dates from the 1810s and 1820s, during a revival of interest in the Revolution that swept the whole country.  As I’ve tried to broaden out my research to examine their Revolutionary experiences as a whole, I’ve found the same pattern at work.  Instead of contemporary accounts, I keep running into memories set to paper long after the events themselves transpired.

What’s especially irksome is the fact that the end of the Revolution seems to have marked a real turning point in the proliferation of written documents concerning frontier Tennessee.  Once you hit 1784, primary sources suddenly become more abundant.  In other words, the end of the period in which I’m especially interested is precisely the point at which I’ve got more to work with.  Cue the Alanis Morissette, right?

Frustrating as it is to grapple with these post-Revolutionary sources, an even more frustrating problem is the absence of sources that I know once existed.  One of the greatest disasters to ever befall the study of early Tennessee history took place during the Civil War, when a Unionist set fire to J.G.M. Ramsey’s house in Knoxville.  Ramsey was a doctor by profession, but he was also a passionate antiquarian who had met many of Tennessee’s first generation of pioneers in his youth and spent a lifetime collecting material about them.  He was also a fervent secessionist who served as a Confederate treasury agent who fled Knoxville when the city fell to Union forces in 1863; in his absence, an arsonist put the Ramsey home and its priceless historical collection to the torch.  Thankfully, Ramsey set down some of the fruits of his research in a monumental book on early Tennessee history ten years before his house burned, but one wonders what insights into the state’s beginnings went up in smoke.  (Sometimes people ask me what historical event I’d like to witness if I had a time machine; if I had my choice, I’d probably go back to the hours preceding that fire and grab as many manuscripts as I could.)

Fire and time took their toll on other early frontier sources, too.  Perhaps the greatest collector of frontier sources who ever lived was Lyman Draper, a nineteenth-century antiquarian who devoted his life to compiling original manuscripts and transcriptions of early borderland records.  Many of the letters he received in response to requests for information repeat the same sad refrain over and over again: I can’t be of much help, since the family papers got lost in the war.  Likewise, while reading Rev War pension accounts, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found references to records lost, documents destroyed in house fires, and discharge papers long since misplaced and never accounted for again.

All this makes those contemporary sources I do have all the more precious.  Whenever I run across a Revolutionary document from Tennessee that I haven’t seen before—a settler’s petition to North Carolina authorities, say, or a John Sevier letter from 1781—I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a stash of Dead Sea Scrolls.  There are so relatively few material traces of Tennessee’s Revolutionary era left that I get giddy when I’m in their presence.  Those King’s Mountain weapons at the State Museum and Carter Mansion in Elizabethton are of incalculable value, just because they link us to those dramatic few years of the late eighteenth century.

I realize that I’m hardly the only researcher who has this problem.  And maybe it’s my own fault.  After all, I’m the one who decided to examine a population of only several thousand people living in a newly settled frontier society.  Of course, good historians figure out how to work around dearth of material; there are creative ways of getting at information on people who didn’t leave much of a paper trail.  I’ve been in grad school long enough to learn some of the tricks of the trade.  But I desperately wish these settlers had left more behind, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the fact that they left so little.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History