Lore Report: “Something Blue” (Episode 116)

 

“For thousands of years, cultures around the world have used fasting as a toll of religious devotion, mental focus, political protest, and as a folk remedy for illness and disease. Some view it as  the reset button for the human body, while others see it as a chance to elevate their consciousness. Whatever the goal, though, the means are always the same: the absence or reduction of food for a period of time. But history is filled with proof that desperate people will go to extraordinary lengths in order to find peace and relief. And in the process, some people have even died for it.”

 

Opening with the line “They mummified themselves” (in reference to the persistent ingestion of resin by Buddhist monks) and closing with “Even killers need to be efficient,” Episode 116 of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast Lore serves up a morbid smorgasbord for listeners.

“Something Blue” takes the questionable practice of therapeutic fasting as its subject. The episode deals mainly with the now-infamous “Starvation Doctor” Linda Hazzard (who had no real medical training). Running the (appropriately-named) Hazzard Institute in Seattle in the early-20th Century, Linda blurred the line between asceticism and sadism. She would prescribe “broth diets and marathon enemas,” and draw scalding hot baths for her patients. Her concept of “therapeutic massage” involved slapping people on the stomach and repeatedly shouting “eliminate!” at them. But Linda’s dubious efforts didn’t just turn “health care” into an ominous oxymoron. Making Annie Wilkes look like Florence Nightingale, Linda was actually a mass murderess in illness-fighting disguise. She would rob her gullible clientele of their savings and personal belongings while methodically stealing their most valuable possession of all: their very lives.

Mahnke’s narrative briefly steps away from Linda Hazzard’s story to note a couple of historical instances of fasting. We learn that such form of abstinence was an attempted defense against evil for the ancient Greeks (who believed that “demons could only enter a person’s body through the mouth”). Mahnke also remarks on Cotton Mather proposition of fasting as a possible “solution to Salem’s witchcraft panic.” These details are fascinating, and my only critique of this relatively short episode is that I wish Mahnke had incorporated more of them.

The charismatic yet dissembling Linda Hazzard, who managed to charm people into a state of starvation, is a quintessential hero-villainess from a Gothic tale. Her pseudo-sanitarium formed a locus classicus of entrapment, an ostensible prison that people had to be ransomed out of by loved ones rather than simply released. The image of emaciated patients wandering like the walking dead through the woods surrounding the institute could have been spliced from a horror film. Concluding with an account of supporting player Edgar Butterworth (a bison-bone collector turned undertaker, who entered into strategic alliance with Linda Hazard by disposing of the many bodies she provided), “Something Borrowed” undoubtedly has all the makings of a terrific American Gothic biopic.

 

Lore Report: “Perspective” (Episode 115)

“People tend to view things through the lenses of personal experience and the folklore of their day. Today we have a lot more scientific knowledge at our disposal, and a better understanding of how our universe works. But history is long and deep; communities have encountered the unexplainable countless times over the centuries, and every time they have, they’ve done their best to frame it in a way their contemporaries would understand. But just because they happened long ago doesn’t make these events any less mysterious. In fact, some tales can be downright terrifying.”

In episode 115 of the Lore podcast, “Perspective,” Aaron Mahnke focuses on the colonial community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the time of King William’s War in the early 1690’s. He strikes a chilling note early on with the story of Ebenezer Babson, who returning home one day spies two mysterious figures stepping back outside (when Babson subsequently interrogates his family inside, they prove unaware of any intrusion). From here, matters escalate, and the Babsons are forced to take refuge inside the Gloucester garrison, which is continually harassed by an increasing number of odd-looking, musket-wielding strangers (at first assumed to be scouts, these antagonists clearly aren’t French or Indian soldiers). Skirmishes persist over the course of three weeks, during which the attackers display a knack for picking themselves back up after being shot. The garrison defenders are slow to catch on that this is no mortal foe, but eventually conclude that they are confronted by forces of the devil (who has perhaps recently migrated from Salem). All told, Mahnke’s extended narrative here doesn’t have a great payoff (the listener is way ahead of the Gloucester folk in recognizing the supernatural aspect of the attackers), and fails to form the “downright terrifying” tale that Mahnke teases in the intro.

Mahnke admits that this Gloucester account is drawn from the writings of Cotton Mather, an integral figure in the then-recent Salem Witch Trials. The highlight of Episode 115 occurs when Mahnke shifts his perspective onto Mather in the concluding segment. According to Mahnke, another witch panic might easily have broken out in Boston (as Mather observed a seemingly demonically-possessed young girl, Margaret Rule). The podcast takes a mostly critical look at Mather; Mahnke invokes the reverend-rebutting Robert Calef, who denounced Mather as a “foolish instigator” who “contributed directly to the death toll in Salem.”

The stories in “Perspective” are set in a time and place not far removed from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and demonstrate how those unsettling events resonate beyond the infamous village. This episode thus makes a fine companion piece to another Mahnke podcast, Unobscured, which explored the Salem Witch Trials at length in its inaugural season.

Lore Report: “The Gateway” (Episode 114)

Episode 114: “The Gateway”

“Some stories leave no impression on the pages of history, and others do. And this tale, of the father and son who leap from the wall, is one of the latter stories. It’s powerful, and even disturbing, but beyond all of that, it’s significant. Not so much because of the contents of the tale, but because of where that wall is located. It’s in the American city of San Antonio, and the sight of a building and a battle that have both become legendary parts of out nation’s history. And in the process, it has transformed into a gathering place for tales of tragedy and loss: the Alamo.”

 

The latest episode of the Lore podcast is a bit of a slow-starter. Narrator Aaron Mahnke spends the first half of the “The Gateway'”s 40-minute runtime sketching a historical account of San Antonio. The area was a “powder-keg of tension and frustration,” marked by a long, tangled history of imperial rule and rebellion. “That’s why,” Mahnke tells his listeners, “you’re getting a deeper tour. Because some marks left on a city aren’t simple to explain; they’re complex and interwoven into a number of larger issues.” Nevertheless, the episode could have benefited from some condensing of this background material.

If the setup proves protracted, the ultimate payoff is a rich one. In the second half of “The Gateway,” Mahnke delves into the types of stories that captivate the Lore audience. As a site of much bloodshed and death, the Alamo unsurprisingly has accrued a haunted reputation. Mahnke recounts reports of the sightings of ghostly figures and of the lingering sounds of battle, but even more fascinating is the account of a supernatural, post-siege defense of the Alamo (an alleged stand-off that saved the subsequently historic landmark from demolition). From here, Mahnke expands the focus, and takes a look behind the origin of the name of the “Six Flags” amusement-park company. The episode concludes with a visit to the nearby Menger Hotel, possibly “the most haunted in Texas,” and whose resident spirits include an ex-President.

While more narrative space could have been devoted here to “haunted San Antonio” than “historic San Antonio,” “The Gateway” ultimately leads to a representative episode and a rewarding listen.

Lore Report: “Word of Mouth” (Episode 113)

“All of it adds up to a larger idea, though: the belief that the human body, however temporary and fragile it might be, also contains incredible power, and that this power can be transferred to others. And other than extinguishing that power, death can oftentimes be the key to unlocking its fullest potential. All you need is a human corpse, a pressing need, and a very strong stomach.”

 

Ever wonder why a person would consume ground-up human skull? Would rub his/her sore gums with the tooth of someone who died a violent death? Would drink warm blood from the slashed throat of a gladiator, or eagerly have a hanged man’s hand brushed over their own? If so, then this is the Lore episode for you.

“Word of Mouth,” the latest installment of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast, opens with a discussion of sympathetic magic (the belief that “objects could have power related to their appearance or origin story”) and the macabre artifact known as the “Hand of Glory.” Invoking the likes of Galen, Paracelsus, and Pliny the Elder, Mahnke sketches the development of the practice of “corpse medicine”: the seeking of the allegedly healing powers of the deceased, particularly the bodies of criminals who have just experienced a violent death. The episode provides wonderful insight into the way the masses used to relate to the capitally punished (I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the executioner, whose public service apparently extended beyond the hanging or axing of the convicted).

Mahnke’s narrative builds towards the topic of “medicinal cannibalism” (sufferers invest in a cure for their various ailments by ingesting human corpses!). Our host, though, does not allow us to dismiss all of this as the crazy lengths our less-enlightened ancestors once went to in order to feel better. No, Mahnke takes pain to show that the line between primitive superstition and modern medical science is a blurry one at best.

To its credit, “Word of Mouth” is filled with intriguing background information and limited in its resort to illustrating anecdote (save for one extended story concerning the 1861 beheading of a German murderer). As I listened to Mahnke treat the purported restorative result of drinking human blood, I kept waiting for him to bring vampire lore into the discussion. While this never happens, the closing segment does tie in another figure familiar to Universal Monster-lovers: the Egyptian mummy.

As an avowed van of this podcast, I often fret that at a certain point Mahnke will inevitably run out of interesting things to relate. But “Word of Mouth” proves that he still has plenty to relate. Luckily for us, after 113 episodes Lore remains the epitome of grimly fascinating.

 

Lore Report: “Inside Job” (Episode 111) and “Facets” (Episode 112)

Episode 111: “Inside Job”

“But just because [dreams] are powerful, doesn’t mean they are safe. Dreams are just too complex to nail down as purely good or entirely evil. And it’s that unpredictable aspect that gives dreams their mysterious aura. They can delight us with pure fantasy, or stab us with the knife of grief over a long-lost love done. They can reconnect us with sights and sounds from our youth, or they can paint a picture that is difficult to understand. And if you’ve ever had the sort of dream that stuck with you the entire day, like a ghost that was eager to haunt your mind, then you can understand how problematic they can be. A dream come true, it seems, might not be such a good thing.”

The subject of this Lore episode might be dreamy, but Aaron Mahnke makes a lucid exploration of it. He considers the function of dreams throughout history and across cultures, starting with the ancient Eqyptians (it’s interesting to learn that dream books–“collections of common dream images and their associated meanings”–aren’t just a New Age creation). Particular attention is given to the supposed power to heal through dreams; Mahnke recounts the story of the Greek physician Galen, who was visited in a dream by the god of medicine Asclepius and informed how to perform self-surgery to fix exactly what ailed him. From here, Mahnke moves on to the Mesmerism movement, and the claims of “clairvoyant physicians” to be able to use animal magnetism to draw disease out of the human body. A healthy portion of the podcast is focused on Vermont sensation “Sleeping” Lucy Ainsworth Cooke, who reportedly could diagnose, and recommend remedies for, illnesses while she was in a trance state. During her long career as a healer, Sleeping Lucy consulted over 200,000 people(!), and even numbered Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy among her followers.

The title of the episode stems from the fact that dreams can’t be put on display as external proof: when it comes to surreally-inspired healing, it’s a Ripleyesque case of “believe it, or not.” Here, though, is where Mahnke’s narrative itself falls short. Sleeping Lucy was either an incredible fraud or someone with a truly fantastic gift; I wish more documentation of her specific efforts had been provided, to help steer the listener toward one explanation or the other (Mahnke’s account, unfortunately, remains mired in the anecdotal). Also, the opening monologue (whose conclusion is quoted above) hints at a turn towards the darker, more nightmarish aspect of dreams that the ensuing episode never really takes. The coverage of some early cases of psychic investigators (whose dream visions help expose the secret sin of murderers) doesn’t prove terribly gripping because by this late date, such clairvoyant figures have become a pop cultural cliche. Overall, “Inside Job” tantalizes, but ultimately fails to satisfy.

 

Episode 112: “Facets”

“Death and grief are guaranteed parts of our life. Like taxes, they are something we can count on experiencing more than once. But despite that element of dependability, we never seem to be ready for it, do we? More often than not, we’re taken by surprise, and left gasping for relief. So it’s no wonder that cultures around the globe have put traditions and beliefs into practice that are meant to help–a balm for an aching soul, but also a grim reminder of the inevitable. Part of living is losing the ones we love, and we’ll take any help we can get to manage that–even if it fuels our nightmares.”

Acknowledging the inevitability of death and the universality of grief, this episode traces the practices (and resultant narratives) that have arisen from the attempt to cope with heartbreaking loss. “Facets” is studded with nuggets of intriguing information: noting that funerary traditions are nearly as old as civilization itself, Mahnke points to the Neanderthals as the “first culture to practice intentional burial.” Prior to listening to this podcast, I was not aware of the existence–from the time of ancient Egypt to modern China–of “professional mourners” (or, more technically, “moirologists”): actors hired by grieving decedents to perform ostentatious acts of lamentation. Mahnke also delves into the Gaelic “keening woman,” an actual bardic figure with a “vast collection of songs of lament” in her repertoire, who later mutates into a more sinister and supernatural entity: the banshee. The most extensive focus is on another hair-raising wailer, La Llorona, whom Mahnke dubs “one of the finest examples of global folklore.”

The various tales (with connecting traits) of the weeping-woman myth are compared here to the different facets of a gemstone. This episode-organizing analogy is an appropriate one, since “Facets” provides a treasure trove of dark stories. Starting with discussion of the sineater and closing with the Indonesian legend of the Pontianak (horrifically voracious vampiric ghosts of women who died while pregnant), Mahnke enriches the imagination of anyone invested with a fondness for the macabre and offbeat. Without a doubt, “Facets” is one of the most insightful and fright-fulled episodes of Lore ever produced, and the quintessence of what makes this podcast so utterly fascinating.

 

Lore Report: “Crooked” (Episode 110)

“Our cities, like the Tower of Pisa, are places that are built on some type of foundation. And in the chaos of building a community and all the infrastructure that will need to grow and thrive, mistakes can happen. Issues can be woven into the fabric of a location, and problems can become part of the DNA there, setting it up for a future of pain and misfortune. And while the United States is full of example of this idea in practice, we’d be hard pressed to find a city in our country with a more flawed beginning than its own epicenter of power and authority: our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.”

In “Crooked,” the 110th episode of the hit podcast Lore, Aaron Mahnke takes listeners straight to the geographical heart of American politics. Fear not, though, because our host does not address anything as prosaic as presidential underhandedness or congressional chicanery.

Admittedly, Mahnke does have a tendency to torture a metaphor, and his narrative here proves no exception. Starting with the idea of a literally faulty foundation (causing the famous lean of the Tower of Pisa), Mahnke broadens the discussion of crookedness to encompass aberrant/unexpected development and historical instances of skewing from the putative norm. Figurative turns such as these oftentimes feel forced (in the interest of creating a thematic tread), but Mahnke can be forgiven his flourishes, especially after he delivers these lines capturing the essence of American Gothic: “But the beautiful, elegant appearance [of the nation’s capital] is often little more than a facade. Just like the people who lived there, Washington, D.C., was a pretty shell with a rotten core.”

From here, Mahnke leads his audience on a ghost tour of notable residences around the Potomac. We visit the reputedly haunted Octagon House (whose staircase is said to have been the site of two separate, fatal falls by a pair of sisters) and the uncanny Halcyon House, an East Coast analogue of the Winchester House (the focus, incidentally, of episode 79, “Locked Away”). The tour is sure to stop at the White House, where a grieving (over the death of her child) Mary Todd Lincoln once hosted seances and was preyed upon by a spurious spiritualist (who, ironically, would also forewarn President Lincoln about a legitimately dire threat).

Following the sponsor break, Mahnke shares an engrossing story about Henry Adams, his suicidal wife Clover, and an illegal copy of the statue overlooking her grave. This memorial knockoff, dubbed “Black Aggie” (pictured above), has served as the locus of various college hazing rituals over the years, and has spawned a slew of legends (my personal favorite: anyone who dares to sleep in the figure’s lap overnight will be found dead there the next morning). The episode-concluding tale of Black Aggie is pure Lore: a soaring toward the ostensibly supernatural that is nonetheless grounded in historical detail.

All told, “Crooked” is a highly entertaining episode; my only real complaint is that I wish it had been longer. Given the scope of the subject here, Mahnke could have elected to extend the tour and furnished further examples of Washington, D.C.’s Gothic leanings.

 

Lore Report: “Assumption” (Episode 109)

[A review of the latest episode of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore]

When we assume, we write off all other possibilities, and throw ourselves completely behind an idea that we believe to be the full and complete truth. But assumption can lead us toward tragedy. And the sooner we catch it, the sooner the real truth can be pursued. And as history has shown us time and time again, innocent lives may depend upon it.

Episode 109 takes listeners back to 19th Century New England, and reminds us that the dark history of Salem, Massachusetts, did not conclude with the Witch Trials of the 1690’s. Mahnke’s narrative focuses on the sensational 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White, a retired shipmaster/trader and “insanely wealthy widower.” White’s grisly killing (while asleep in his bed, the 82-year-old had his skull cracked by a brutal bludgeoning, and he was also stabbed thirteen times in the torso) left the townspeople of Salem haunted with fear of the depraved killer(s) at large. The public panic following White’s murder is something I wished Mahnke had delved further into; he passingly mentions the local populace’s sudden demand for daggers and pistols.

“Assumption” traces out all the strange twists and turns of the White murder case. The exploration of the historic crime–which proves to have been motivated by the greedy desire to secure the victim’s immense fortune–exposes plentiful family intrigue. In keeping with the episode theme, various erroneous assumptions (made by the prosecutors and the perpetrators of the crime alike) are highlighted. With appropriately Gothic flair, Mahnke even likens assumptions to “a locked house in the dead of night…lull[ing] us into a false sense of security.”

In the midst of his narrative, Mahnke acknowledges that “on the surface, there’s nothing particularly special” about the murder of Joseph White. I have to admit, as I sat listening I found myself wondering what really made this case (its macabre violence notwithstanding) worthy of a Lore episode. Had the podcast played itself out after 100+ episodes? Just as I was beginning to doubt, though, Mahnke proceeded to draw the intriguing connections that Lore is noted for. First, he recounts how renowned attorney/orator Daniel Webster got involved in the murder trial. An impassioned speech by Webster in turn inspired “a particular [fiction] writer to spin his own tale of murder, guilt, and our inability to hide from our own shame” (somewhat surprisingly, Mahnke–unlike one of the sources he seems to borrow from–fails to cite a second writer influenced by the White case: Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne). I won’t spoil the surprise hear, but rest assured, this American writer identified is an exemplar of Gothic fiction, and his tale one of the most popular of all-time.

This closing connection (which Mahnke skillfully establishes through the reciting of parallel passages by Webster and the short-storyteller) alone makes for a remarkable episode. So as I have thankfully realized, thinking that Lore has somehow lost its podcasting knack is the most incorrect assumption of all.

 

Lore Report: “Debris” (Episode 108)

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

“From the illustrations on ancient maps to Hollywood blockbusters, humans have always been obsessed with monsters of the deep. And while science has given us more clarity over the centuries, we still wrestle with the possibility that we might have missed something–something that’s still there beneath the cold black waves of the sea.”

Episode 108 delves into the ocean deeps, and the ostensible mysteries that have risen to the surface over the years. First enlightening listeners with established myths (e.g., the giant Japanese catfish Namazu; the Kraken), Mahnke then swims out into murkier waters. He traces various historical sightings of floating curiosities–the eponymous “debris” that blurs the line between dead matter and living, serpentine legend.

Mahnke’s assertion that “we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the depths of our own oceans” is arresting, and his recounted tales of maritime uncanniness are intriguing in and of themselves. Ultimately, though, the episode disappoints. The dearth of factual evidence accompanying the reported sightings renders them to fish stories. And when an attempt is made to resolve such longstanding mystery, the explanation proves somewhat prosaic, if grotesque (I did find it quite interesting, though, to learn what a “globster” was–not the phosphorescent crustacean the strange coinage might suggest).

I have to admit, the summarizing generalization here failed to grab me: “Even now in 2019,” Mahnke intones, “the existence of sea serpents is still lurking in the backs of the collective consciousness like debris floating on the sea. And some of us can’t help but wonder if it will eventually raise its head. And if it does, will any of us be ready?” As an unabashed landlubber, I can’t say I consider beasties from the deep any real cause for Lovecraftian concern.

“Debris” is by no means podcast garbage; Mahnke provides an entertaining listening experience, as always. Nevertheless, the overarching story told here isn’t the most impressive one in the vast Lore repertoire.

 

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.