Lore Report: “Sight Unseen” (Episode 107)

(Here’s the second installment of a new feature to this blog, which offers episode reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.)

“While everyone is busy looking for death from the most obvious places, history is full of individuals who took the more invisible approach. Their ingenuity and creativity allowed them to slip under the radar and deliver pain and suffering in a way that few would have suspected.”

Episode 107 highlights the terrors of the invisible world. The focus, though, isn’t on ghosts or microbes, as Mahnke’s narration addresses something more sinister than (super)natural forces: the deliberate poisoning of a fellow human being.

“Sight Unseen” takes an extended look back at a American true crime case that gained national attention in the early 20th Century. The murder mystery recounted here is no doubt a harrowing one, as several members of a single family curiously perish over a period of years. At first, the podcast episode appears to be presenting a howdunit more than a whodunit, but while Herman Billik, an occult herbalist and adviser to the plagued Vrzal family, forms an obvious prime suspect, there proves to be much more to this shocking case than meets the eye. (For a book-length study of the sensational crime, listeners are encouraged by Mahnke to seek out Steve Shukis’s Poisoned.)

Mahnke does an excellent job of tying together the various threads of Episode 107, which opens with a discussion of alchemy (and an intriguing tidbit about what modern-day lab testing of one of Sir Isaac Newton’s hairs revealed). The closing segment points out how the Herman Billik trial helped lead to a governmental push for food safety standards. For me one of the most unforgettable parts of the podcast is the revelation of how unscrupulous businesses used to doctor milk–the surreptitiously added ingredients (e.g. plaster of Paris) surely didn’t do any body good.

If I had one critique of “Sight Unseen,” it’s that I wish Mahnke would have devoted more time analyzing the “toxic element” of the poisoner psyche. However arresting the specific details of the Billik case might be, they broach a larger concern–the disturbingly devious mindset a person must possess to commit murder via such stealthy and methodical malevolence.

 

Lore Report: “The Collection” (Episode 106)

Today marks the debut of a new blog feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The “Lore Report” will provide reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.

 

“And sometimes, the very act of hiding darkness away, only makes it stronger.”

Episode 106 of the Lore podcast isn’t concerned with cursed artwork, or the hoarding of macabre bric-a-brac. “The Collection” references the stashing away of criminals, at a prison that has become the locus of dark lore. Mahnke’s narration focuses on the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia–a place that makes the worst hellhole imaginable seem like a penthouse by comparison. Built in the Gothic Revival style, the castle-like facility was riddled with lice, rats, and roaches, and plagued by disease; the stench of sewage permeated its passageways. Inhumane guards committed heinous acts of torture there, and the inmates were not to be outdone when it came to brutality. The poorly-guarded basement rec area (dubbed “The Sugar Shack,” a misnomer if there ever was one) furnished a den of assault (sexual and otherwise) and manslaughter.

With its violent inmates, sadistic guards, and scenes of state-sanctioned execution, Moundsville formed a site of concentrated suffering, and to no surprise, various ghost stories have been attached to the prison. There are reports of a “Shadow Man” glimpsed lurking in the offing; no less haunting is the three-word message (I won’t spoil the frisson by revealing it here) a visitor allegedly captured on an audio recording. Such ostensible supernatural occurrences require a certain suspension of listener disbelief, but Moundsville also sports an indisputably sinister history. Mahnke recounts hangings gone horribly awry, and the stabbing, dismemberment, and disposal of one inmate (who’d been pegged a stool pigeon) that sounds like a Poe tale come to terrible life. Perhaps most poignant of all is Mahnke’s pre-commercial-break anecdote about a notorious murderer (attracted by the prison’s dubious reputation) who actually petitioned to be transferred to Moundsville.

As a storehouse of evil misdeed, Moundsville suggests the prison equivalent of Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel. From its first construction to the present day (the prison closed down in 1995), Moundsville supplied a quintessential American Gothic setting. It also has continued to evoke the central theme of the impingement on the present by an ignominious past. Darkness inevitably comes to light, as the ever-illuminating Mahnke reveals in this shining example of his podcast’s Gothic sensibilities.