Have a drink with: Your Local Mountebank
Healthcare! Fireworks! Toads!
Ask him about: What ails you
We’re all getting a lot of weird healthcare advice lately, and I admit that it’s hard to stomach the idea that our country, which vanquished polio and smallpox with scientific elbow grease, is entertaining the medical expertise of a presidential toady who thinks endometriosis happens when you have a demon boyfriend. But history has long tolerated – and even encouraged – the side hustle of non-traditional medical practitioners, and we continue to use some of their lingo even today.
Have a drink with: Single Ladies (Halloween Edition)
Burning hair, apples, chicken guts, lead poisoning.
Ask her about: Do you know the Heimlich maneuver?
For most of American history, Halloween was not a holiday for children. Quite the opposite: to the extent Halloween was celebrated at all, by the 19th century it was known as an occasion for creepy seances or playful mischief-making by the adolescent set, where “playful” is mostly a euphemism for “requiring the assistance of the fire department.” (So intense was the prankster habit that one local fire chief sighed that, while he had no problem with teens celebrating the holiday with some reasonable pranking, “when droves of youngsters march through the streets pelting citizens and houses with vegetables he will make somebody answer for it.”)
People at the turn of the century would have had no concept of Halloween as the sort of holiday with small children playing charming dress-up, adults playing unnecessarily sexualized dress-up (seriously: WHY?), and everybody just doing it all for the Snickers bars.
They were too busy looking for their future spouse in the basement mirror.
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: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry
Ask her about: Levitating pianos
George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.
Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.
Have a drink with: Spirit Photographers
Ray? When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.
Ask them about: Selfies with your dead relatives
In 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York spread word that they heard mysterious rapping noises on the walls and furniture of their home, and could speak with spirits through tapped code. An enthralled public declared the girls spirit mediums, and over the years household seances, lectures, even Spiritualist “churches” formed a movement – one that survived and grew even after one of the Fox sisters admitted that their spiritual “conversations” were total fluff, the noises no more than dropped apples and cracking their toes under the table.
Just in time for Halloween I’ve been reading David Jaher’s new book The Witch of Lime Street, a detailed romp through the spiritualist revival of the 1920’s, starring Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and a real-life parade of mediums, journalists and hucksters. Jaher talks about the movement’s surge in the post-WWI years, due in no small part to the inescapable impact of war and influenza on the populations of the Western world. With so many suddenly dead from violence or virus, the grieving were understandably receptive to the idea that they might contact their friends and family in the hereafter. Would the spirits speak to you? Could they?
That’s all well and good, but Jaher ignores a more pressing question: would they hold still for a selfie?
Have a drink with: Leonardo da Vinci
Polymath, painter, engineer, left-handed gay underdog genius
Ask him about: flying psychic unicorn voyages of the mind
The surgeon and writer Leonard Shlain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and died less than a year later, just a week after finishing the manuscript for his book “Leonardo’s Brain.” Released late last year with the help of Shlain’s surviving family, the book purports to use what we know of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work to tell us about the capability, potential and future evolution of the human brain.
Shlain starts with the premise, hardly arguable, that da Vinci stands alone in artistic accomplishment and diversity of skill. It is no exaggeration to claim that few if any humans throughout history have even begun to approach Leonardo’s explosively creative, integrative mode of thinking, and to execute on it so well and so beautifully. To suggest candidates – he tosses out Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Goethe, Freud – is only to drive home the achievement gap.
It’s one thing to say that every artist, ever, was influenced by da Vinci, to suggest that he presaged the discoveries of Newton and Bernoulli, or even to claim he discovered arteriosclerosis (all of which Shlain does).
But that’s small potatoes once you bring up the psychic flying.
Maybe we should back up a little.
Have a drink with: St. Teresa of Avila
Reformer, mystic, dreamer, smart lady.
Ask her about: that time she told the devil to piss off.
I grew up thinking saints were terribly stodgy, righteous people who had somehow gotten themselves onto life’s “Do Not Call” list for doubt and temptation. It wasn’t until later in life, when I learned that hagiography is basically a template for fictionalizing the lives of remarkable yet messy people, that I realized many of them would probably have made excellent drinking buddies.
My personal favorite is Saint Teresa of Avila, the first woman doctor of the Catholic Church and a stone-cold sixteenth-century bad-ass. I own a St. Teresa coloring book. You can’t but be awesome if someone made a coloring book about you.
Teresa grew up in sixteenth-century Spain, smack in the middle of what we’d now call the early modern period in Europe and the Spanish (Counter-) Reformation. This is to say: Lots Going On. Europe had suddenly gone pro in hair-splitting points of church doctrine; academic humanism was on the way up; there was explosive growth in art, writing and theater; hybridization and tension thanks to Jewish and north African cultural influences in Spain; and also there’s the disturbing effect of inbreeding on the Hapsburg family jaw. Plus, iconoclasm and poop jokes.