Have a drink with: Sarah Winchester
40BR, 30BA; move-in ready!
Ask her about: Extreme Home Makeover, Spectral Edition
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the star of the recent suspense film Winchester is Helen Mirren. She is, after all, a certified badass; a superb actress; and well kitted out for the job in a dour stare and a dramatic swath of black Victorian lace.
In fact, though, the star of the film is a house, purportedly as haunted in reality as it is on film. The Winchester Mystery House, as it’s popularly known, is a 160-room Queen Anne-style mansion in modern-day Silicon Valley, created by the real-life version of Mirren’s character Sarah Winchester. And as a 1940s tourism brochure points out, “The World’s Largest, Oddest Dwelling” is not your typical real estate listing.
So why spend more than three decades building an ooky, nonsensical Queen Anne monstrosity, albeit one with very nice amenities? If you believe the legend, it’s because Sarah Winchester was trying to manage a tenant roster of very unhappy ghosts.
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: James O’Connell & Captain Costentenus
Over 7 million blood-producing punctures!
Ask them about: The many uses of coconut oil
The Greatest Showman, the recent Hugh Jackman movie musical about impresario (and frequent blog subject) P.T. Barnum, centers in large part on the “Oddities,” a troupe of human curiosities Barnum brings from social obscurity to delight crowds at his American Museum. Among these is a tattooed man – and, in this case, fact and fiction align: in the early 19th century, “tattooed person” officially became a career option for white Westerners. Many of them were sailors who, as Robert Bogdan points out in the book Freak Show, “rather than getting a small tattoo on their arm, had their bodies extensively decorated by native tattooers. When they discovered that people would pay to view such skin art, a new type of freak was created.”*
Barnum employed tattooed people in his shows throughout the 1800s, and the movie’s burly, bearded tattoo aficionado looks to be modeled on a real man named Djordgi Konstantinus – Captain Costentenus if you’re nasty.
Have a drink with: Jenny Lind
The one and only Swedish Nightingale
Ask her about: The hot concert tour of 1850
The Greatest Showman, a movie musical about the life and legend of P.T. Barnum, is a colorful, kinetic romp through the most recognizable part of Barnum’s entertainment oeuvre, with Hugh Jackman at the fore in ringmaster’s tails and gold-capped boots. And while the musical admirably captures Barnum’s unparalleled capacity for expansive joy and puckish innovation, it does so by taking some Jumbo-sized liberties with the real version of events (though, frankly, what’s more Barnum than taking a good story and embellishing the hell out of it?)
Insofar as the movie pivots on the suggestion that Barnum and his star, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, had the hots for each other, that one is right out: I’m over at Vanity Fair explaining why.
Have a drink with: The West Point Cadets of 1826
Cold cuts, eggnog, muskets.
Ask them about: really aggressive wassailing
“1408. No cadet shall drink, nor shall bring, or cause to be brought, into either barracks or camp, nor shall have in his rooms or otherwise in his possession, wine, porter, or any other spiritous or intoxicating liquor; nor shall go to any inn, public house, or place where any of those liquors are sold, without permission from the Superintendent, on pain of being dismissed the service of the United States.”
Article 78, General Regulations for the Army, 1825
No one was really looking forward to Christmas at West Point in 1826. While in past years there had been a blind eye towards a nip on Christmas or July Fourth, in 1826 everyone was painfully aware that superintendent Lt. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer intended to put a solid end to any holiday drinking, and had forbidden not only alcohol in the cadet corps but tobacco and cards as well. Staff were on sharp lookout for any smuggled wine or whiskey.
Just a couple days before Christmas, the cadets decided to celebrate the holiday in a warmer, more festive manner than Thayer had in mind: with an eggnog party in the wee hours of Christmas Day. Three cadets collected contributions from their dormitory mates and, with civilian overcoats over their uniforms, they quietly headed to Martin’s Tavern, across the river near present-day Peekskill. Bribing the cadet at the dock for use of a skiff, they returned with two gallons of alcohol and the firm resolution that “there’ll be a good Christmas at West Point this year.” Nor were they the only cadets to visit local taverns for supplies.
Have a drink with: Tom Petty
Into the great wide open…
Ask him about: Not backing down.
Tom Petty recently achieved the feat, as far as the press was concerned, of dying twice in a single day.
On Monday, October 2, news outlets began reporting in the afternoon that Petty had died following a cardiac incident at his California home, following a CBS News breaking news item declaring the singer dead. Only a few hours later, amidst a social media explosion of remorse and YouTube videos, did the news squeak out that announcements of Petty’s death may, in fact, have been premature. The Los Angeles Police Department, which had been CBS’ source in breaking the news, shortly clarified that it could not in fact confirm Mr. Petty’s death, noting on Twitter: “The LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”
It isn’t the first time death has seemed less than final in the realm of celebrity.
Modern media culture is full of conspiracy-laden, media friendly death theories: Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra died on the same day in 1945! Why do you think Paul McCartney’s barefoot on the Abbey Road cover? Elvis faked his death and is living under witness protection! Abe Vigoda didn’t just miss a wrap party during the 1980s, he opted out ENTIRELY. (Sorry, that’s during the 90s.) (Oughts?) (Check the website.)
Are celebrity death hoaxes an unpleasant, if inevitable, modern consequence of the Internet’s viral credibility problem?
Nope. The gleeful anticipation of celebrity deaths as mass mourning events is a particularly tawdry offshoot of modern mass media culture. But the phenomenon isn’t new. Since the 1800s, death hoaxes and premature obituaries have punctuated American history (and yes, American – we seem to specialize in both death obsession and gullibility).
Have a drink with: Daniel Sickles
Once I was the King of Spain…
Ask him about: What’s the name of his other leg?
Daniel Sickles sat weeping in a Washington, D.C. jail in 1859. The young, charismatic New York Congressman was an up-and-coming star in American politics – a favorite of President James Buchanan, in fact – and he was sitting in a dirty jail cell, heartbroken and awaiting trial for murdering his wife’s lover.
But before you feel too sorry for him, consider this: Daniel Sickles was a tool. How much of a tool?
He robbed the mail to take a political adversary’s advertisements out of circulation.
He was indicted for various financial schemes, including selling fake news subscriptions so he could drink the $1,000 profit at an upscale bar.
He took campaign contributions from his favorite prostitute, whom he also brought along as his companion and introduced to Queen Victoria while on assignment as James Buchanan’s secretary in London. While his pregnant wife was at home.
Whom he’d seduced, knocked up and married when she was sixteen.
After sleeping with her mother.
So his jailhouse blubbering is really a matter of the pot calling the kettle slutty, but you can thank Sickles for creating something we still use today: temporary insanity.
Have a drink with: Abdul Karim
The jewel in the Crown
Ask him about: Royal language lessons
The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a young Indian man assigned to her service in the late 1880s. Karim, originally a clerk from Agra, India, came to Victoria’s service during her Golden Jubilee in 1887. He became a favorite friend and confidante, acting as the Queen’s Urdu language teacher and Indian secretary, much to the frustrated jealousy of the royal household.
Victoria had a complicated relationship with India: on the one hand, she was fascinated with and fetishized all things Indian – learning Urdu, bringing curries onto the regular dining rotation at the palace, and decorating an entire lavish chamber at her Osborne House with Indian arts and architecture (including a lavish portrait of Karim himself, alongside paintings of Indian craftspeople). On the other hand, the allure doesn’t change the fact that she was the ruler of a forcibly and uncomfortably subdued nation of people whose welfare wasn’t permitted to muddle the interior decorating. It’s hard to know for sure whether Abdul Karim was a proxy for Victoria’s general fascination with exotic India; a genuine friend who provided the added benefit of making her stiff-necked family crazy; a subservient target for the Queen’s romantic or maternal impulses; or something else entirely.
Nor is the movie the first time Western voices have been the ones to comment on Abdul Karim’s story, or his status as what writer Bilal Qureshi called “Manic Pixie Dream Brownie.” Karim was no stranger to news media at the time, and American papers particularly covered the fact of his employment with condescending, starchy amusement – like, look at the Queen learning the funny Eastern language! She has an Indian tutor! Just a few of the winning clippings:
Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…