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Stephen Berkman : Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios : The Lost Years


It is one of the most amazing books I have seen in a long time.

Its title: Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The Lost Years.

Its author: Stephen Berkman. This is the extraordinary story of a Jewish photographer who opened in the 19th century a photography studio in the Jewish lower east side of New York!


Berkman’s photographs take us on a discursive journey through the nineteenth century into the world of Shimmel Zohar, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to America in the 1850’s. Already an accomplished silhouette artist, he became the proprietor of eponymous Zohar Studios, a storied photographic establishment located on Pearl Street in the predominately Jewish Lower East Side of New York. Traveling through the portal of this enigmatic studio into the past, we encounter a Balzacian cavalcade of characters, both winsome and whimsical. This immersive panorama of personages includes phrenologists, ventriloquists, painters, poets, spiritualists, artists, bon vivants, merchants, luddites, and many more, each tableau composed like a single cinematic frame from a long forgotten nitrate film. Berkman resurrects this vanished world in a tribute to Zohar Studios, working with the archaic glass plate process and photographing through period lenses, still coated with dust of the nineteenth century. He seeks to reclaim the lost world of the mid-nineteenth century even as our own world seems to be disappearing all around us.

Stephen Berkman (born in Syracuse, New York) has been working with historical photographic processes since the last century. His work is featured in private and public collections, including The Museum of Photographic Arts, and Portland Art Museum. His work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions at MOPA, Laband Art Gallery, USC Fisher Gallery, CEPA Gallery, and the Howard Greenberg Gallery, among others. He currently has a solo exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, California. Berkman’s book Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The LostYears made the short list for the Aperture Book Award featured at Paris Photo 2020. In addition to his fine-art work, Berkman has been commissioned to create historical photographs for major feature films and documentaries. He is on the film faculty at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he has taught since 1995.



What can be deduced from the siege of sidewalk sign-spinners at busy intersections, hawking mattress stores and sandwich shops, housing developments and used-car lots, eyebrow braiding, and in some states, marijuana dispensaries? The hyperbolic art of stealing a mere moment of attention from drivers and passersby is a time-tested tactic. All this dizzying spinning may be an un­welcome intrusion on the landscape, but it’s nothing new.

Throughout the nineteenth century, streets teemed with people stationed outside shops, wearing sandwich boards, holding signs, and passing out handbills. They exhorted and cajoled passing pedestrians in order to meet quotas of customers for their employers’ businesses. But rising above the din of these advertising gambits was the infinitely sublime “banner lady,” who could be found in almost any small town, but fine examples from larger cities abound as well.[1] Following the unspoken rules of the form, the banner lady would hold a handcrafted sign advertising the merchant’s business. Customarily, items were attached to her dress—as if she were the embodiment of a page torn from a catalog.

The majority of what we know about banner ladies today is gleaned from nineteenth-century cabinet cards, so called because these photographs are permanently mounted on thick card stock. Often the photographer’s studio label appeared below the image, printed on standard cabinet card stock measuring about 6.5 by 4 inches. In the taxonomy of cabinet cards, “banner ladies” stand apart. At one time they were bandied about like tchotchkes, given away for free—or sold by the more frugal shop owners eager to promote their business. Now their numbers are scarce, and they are highly sought-after by vernacular photo collectors. Naïvely humorous when viewed through a modern prism, these images provide a unique photographic record of an advertising genre.

Banner ladies were enticing exemplars of homespun marketing, spawning a trend that fanned out across the country. In one image, it appears that a hardware store emptied the contents of their shop and fastened it to the banner lady’s dress, which featured tools of all shapes and sizes—nails and hammers, mining pans, knives, ropes, chains, and saws, to name just a few items. In another example, a local farrier attached a surfeit of horseshoes to a banner lady’s dress (presumably to ensure that her luck wouldn’t run out). A curious cabinet card from a local barber boasts a bearded lady. Half her face is clean-shaven, and an array of straight razors festoons her day dress, along with shaving cups, straps, and brushes. And finally yet another pretty banner lady showcases a plethora of pocket watches and fob chains completely covering her black dress—but with her arrogant expression, it’s doubtful that she would even give you the time of day.

The banner ladies were featured at civic events and marched in parades at every “Merchants Carnival.” These celebratory public affairs were held in social Halls, Odd Fellows Halls, opera houses, theaters, and town squares. Besides wearing extravagant costumes, the women in the parade representing local businesses would proudly practice military style maneuvers: “The young ladies moved without a hitch through a great number of intricate evolutions and figures…Following the drills, a song was sung beautifully, with a clear and sympathetic voice.”[2]

An article from the Missoula Weekly Gazette provides a glimpse of the revelry at a Merchants Carnival in the 1890s.[3] “IT WAS A SUCCESS,” exclaimed the headline. The column continued:

Seldom is an auditorium so well filled with representative people of a city. The spectator was delighted, the merchant who had the good fortune to find representation was well repaid for the small expense he went to and the ladies were happy, and well should they be…The following business houses were represented, C. P Higgins bank, Bunny’s novelty store, Cornish and Co. Missoula Hardware and Implement Co. The above were represented through the following ladies to whom great credit is due for the excellent manner in which each took their perspective parts: Miss McFate, Miss Longstaff, Miss Florence Heath, Mamie Sloane, Miss Cornelia Douglas, Miss Sadie Stephens, Ellie Heath, Miss Minnie Spurgin, Della Harding, Miss Edwards, and others.

Zohar anticipated the fervor for banner ladies, seeking out the evocatively named skater Contessa of Vienna to embody the spirit of his establishment and entice new clients into his studio. The Contessa initially studied ice skating under the revered American ballet dancer and figure skater Jackson Haines. An American in exile, Haines moved to Austria in the 1860s, where he established the famed Viennese style of skating known as “Waltzing on Ice.” Combining balletic dance moves with the speed, grace, and fluidity of ice skating, this style was embraced in Vienna, the “Waltz Capital of the World,” where it became widely emulated and ultimately swept the Continent. Following the death of Haines, her beloved teacher, the Contessa emigrated to the United States. In New York she discovered roller skating, a public activity that was gaining momentum. She immediately applied her acrobatic acumen to this kindred art form. Her well-attended public exhibitions introduced roller skating to the immigrant population of New York.

Although relatively new to American audiences, roller skating has been in existence in one form or another since 1760. Patents were constantly refined over the decades. But it was finally a four-wheel skate invented by James Leonard Plimpton in 1863 that revolutionized roller skating and made it accessible and affordable to the general public. In 1866 Plimpton opened the first public skating rink in Newport, Rhode Island, and it soon caught on as a pastime recommended for the entire family.

The Contessa of Vienna was idolized, and her professional reputation elevated the public stature of roller skating among Victorian women and girls. When not skating on stage at the Bowery Theater, the Contessa was commissioned by Zohar to skate along busy New York City streets while brandishing the Zohar Studios banner. The unwieldly banner would have proved a detriment to a lesser skater, but the Contessa moved gracefully and effortlessly along the sidewalks and streets, skirting streetcars, dodging donkey carts, rattling rag-and-bone men, and bustling past horse-drawn omnibuses. But on quiet winter days she could be found indulging her love of ice skating on the frozen pond of Frederick Law Olmstead’s recently commissioned Central Park. Amateur poets besotted with her grace and agility dedicated volumes of verse to her artistry, bringing new meaning to the phrase “poetry in motion.”

The photograph of the Contessa of Vienna commemorates both her accomplishments as a dynamic skater and the public identity she assumed for Zohar Studios and its proprietor. While the portrait celebrates the Contessa as the emblem of the studio, the backdrop of the photograph may provide a more telling adumbration. Made for the studio by an octogenarian émigré from Russia, the painted backdrop reveals on close inspection a beguiling monkey-man, or man-monkey. Caught between evolutionary stages, this simian creature operates a magic lantern, an image projector first intended for scientific investigation but swiftly co-opted for magic. Perhaps, on deeper reflection, this obscure figure is an illuminating symbol for Zohar Studios, which some say balanced between science and magic.

[1] The vernacular term “banner lady” is a recent invention retroactively applied to this idiosyncratic genre of advertising.

[2]San Francisco Call, December 8, 1891.

[3]Missoula [Montana] Weekly Gazette, April 30, 1890.



The myth of the Wandering Jew, one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted parables about the Jews, has retained its derogatory depictions over many iterations, enduring for close to eight hundred years. Now widely regarded as anti-Semitic, it has defined and degraded Jews during centuries of dispersal in diasporas the world over. The myth of a people destined to wander in permanent exile had real staying power in the popular imagination, embedding itself in the art, music, and literature of countries across the globe. From broadsides to novels, symphonies to operas, poetry to painting, it was the viral video of its time (but at a plodding pre-media pace), mutating into many forms as it proliferated, heedless of the borders of sovereign states. Its persistence would have been admirable had it not been so egregious.

In the first recorded iteration of the myth from the year 1228,[1] Cartaphilus encounters Jesus as he is carrying the Cross and taunts him, “Go on quicker, Jesus, why does thou loiter.” Jesus is reputed to have responded with an enigmatic taunt of his own, “I shall stand and rest but thou shalt go on till the last day.”[2] As a result, Jews were sentenced to the fate of immortal wandering, endlessly traversing the face of the earth until the second coming of Jesus.

But the theme of Jewish wandering long predates the myth of the Wandering Jew, as it became known in popular culture. The Israelites depicted in the Hebrew Bible were nomadic, navigating by the celestial stars as the ground perpetually shifted beneath their feet. As a consequence of this unceasing transience, the destiny of wandering through the wilderness, or being lost in the desert in search of a homeland, became one of the prevailing motifs of the Jewish experience. This yearning has played out for over five millennia.

As told in the book of Exodus, the Israelites undertook an audacious escape from their servitude in Egypt and then had to wander the desert for forty years as they discarded the ways of slavery and began the journey toward their destiny as “the people of the book.” According to rabbinical tradition, the teachings of the Torah were given to Moses at Sinai,[3] a belief still shared by some observant Jews. But from that point forward, Jewish faith has placed an emphasis on scholarly pursuits and study of ancient texts.[4] The story of wandering in exile, either in the original story of Exodus or through the many diasporas and historical exiles that followed, is the true chronicle of Jewish wandering—in stark contrast to the disparaging allegory of futile wandering imposed as a form of punishment upon Jews by other cultures.

For the twentieth-century Jewish poet Edmond Jabès, his own first reading of the Torah was a bittersweet experience, in part because he came to it solely as a result of his expulsion from Egypt. Born in Cairo to a well-established family of secular Jews who had lived there for generations, Jabès was forced to emigrate after political upheaval in Egypt and moved to Paris at the age of forty-five.[5] As he stated in an interview published in Conjunctions: “I’d always lived in this country which was mine, and one fine day, when I wasn’t prepared for it, I was forced to leave because of being Jewish…We do not escape a certain Jewish condition. At the least expected moment, things explode and, without knowing why, you’re forced to abandon everything and to lead a life of exile, of wandering…The book [was the Jew’s] true home, his real territory. It’s there where he could speak and where he could hear his words. Elsewhere that was refused him.”[6] Colored by his personal experience of exile, the writings of Jabès reveal a profound longing and melancholy that mirror the Jewish condition. Yet he also viewed the metaphor of wandering the desert as a prerequisite for contemplation, even enlightenment: “The desert teaches you first of all to get rid of everything that’s useless. And that was fundamental for me, who was seeking…a world of truth…I’ve always had a great fascination with the desert. Because the desert is at once everything and nothing. So that, when you are between sky and sand, you are truly in infinity.”

Throughout history, Jews have reluctantly acknowledged the inevitability of their status as perennial wanderers, bearing the appellation “Wandering Jew” yet transmuting it, from the disparaging notion of enslavement and punishment to one of empowerment and spiritual transformation.

The subject of this photograph is not a Wandering Jew, but rather a Wandering Jewess—a regrettable distinction in this progressive era of fluid gender identity, when the “ess” suffix may be perceived as culturally pejorative, a diminutive feminine version of a prevailing masculine term. Feminine usages such as Nobel laureatess, presidentress, or ambassadoress are unheard of, though variations such as heiress, sorceress, actress, seamstress, and adulteress still linger in our vocabulary.

The Jewess was a captivating figure in the nineteenth-century imagination, an archetype widely familiar in the culture at large. She was an exotic figure of mystery and myth, beguiling and bewitching, enigmatic and esoteric, scheming and surreptitious, contemptuous and clandestine—the subject of both curiosity and disdain. Now, one might call this the “cult of the Jewess.” In the United States during the 1800s, many people outside major cities had never met a Jewess face-to-face, but her image was featured in plays, music, novels, and even street bills. A lithograph from 1862, “The Bill-Poster’s Dream,” depicts an advertisement for a performance titled “The Jewess For One Night Only.” In the illustration, a bill poster leans, half asleep, against a newly plastered wall on a busy New York City street. His apparent exhaustion is warranted by the swirling extravaganza of posters covering the wall behind him. But even in such a cartoonish characterization, the Jewess figures prominently in the larger scheme of nineteenth-century popular culture.

By the tail end of the nineteenth century, in response to the misconceptions surrounding the image of the Jewess, a group of women formed a magazine, the American Jewess, intended to reimagine the myth in their own likeness.[7] The magazine, which described itself as “the only magazine in the world devoted to the interests of Jewish women,” initiated open discussion about a new identity forged at the intersection of American and Jewish culture. Articles encompassed literature, art, philanthropy, and Judaism as well as issues such as women’s suffrage and equal rights.[8]

In a historical context, Jewish wandering may be seen as a virtue, especially with its emphasis on a life of contemplation rather than accumulation. “The wandering Jew can’t be a collector, except of postage stamps. There are few great collections that can be put on someone’s back,” writes Susan Sontag in The Volcano Lover.[9] In the novel, set in eighteenth-century Naples, the leading character is an avid collector of art and antiquities and an obsessive volcanologist, among many other pursuits. The imminent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius creates an existential dilemma for him because he has to weigh the potential loss of all his material wealth and his collections against the thrill of witnessing the illuminating power of nature firsthand. Sontag contrasts the false security derived from the accumulation of worldly possessions with the unpredictability and upheaval symbolized by the volcano. Perhaps this conflict explains the title character’s obsessive attraction to volcanos, his compulsion to risk his life of safety and material comfort to pursue primal forces and perilous exploration.

Defying convention, the Wandering Jewess dares to set out on her own quest, choosing to seek her own truth rather than remain a slave to the confining roles available to Victorian women. Espousing the spirit of the American Jewess magazine, she casts off the negative mold of the wandering Jew and reclaims the myth for herself, reshaping its contours to suit her own identity.

A Wandering Jewess depicts a woman of indeterminate origin, though the finery of her embroidered clothing and the guide commissioned to carry her hint at wealth. She travels in apparent comfort—that is, if one considers a chair strapped to someone’s back a luxurious mode of travel. But who can fault her for this ironic quest, seeking comfort while confronting a primordial landscape suffused with a sense of unease? A plume of ash rising in the distance casts an ominous shadow over the journey.

The volcano has been a visual trope of painters throughout the history of art, and of particular importance to the Hudson River school. Mid-nineteenth-century painters such as Frederick Church and his teacher Thomas Cole reverentially rendered the volcano and the menace of its erupting surface, reminding the viewer that their days are numbered, that any day molten lava and ash may overtake and envelop everything in its path—trees, boulders, vegetation, animals. People were spared in paintings by Church and Cole, not because they deserved to be but because they seldom appeared at all.

The figure of the Jewess in the photograph, moving along a well-defined path toward a portentous volcano, denotes a Jewish sense of foreboding, the apprehension of a difficult past and an even more difficult future. Regrettably, Jewish history bears out that pessimistic judgment once too often.

Yet even in the wilderness, a light illuminates the path of the wanderer. Paul Celan, a Jewish writer regarded as the poet of exile, used an undefinable Hebrew word (perhaps a coinage), ziv, to ­convey the experience of “a radiance, even in dark exile.”[10] Celan was exiled in Paris, where he wrote poetry in his native German and undertook study of the Kabbalah. According to Kabbalistic thought, in the beginning there was no space; vessels were created to contain it. When divine light poured into the vessels, they shattered. The shards of these vessels form the material world, and each shard is a like a husk that contains a spark of divine light. The task of humans is tikkun olam, to mend the world by finding the shards of these vessels and releasing the spark of divine light contained within them. According to the teachings of Isaac Luria, a sixteenth century Jewish mystic, tikkun olam is achieved by humans through contemplative action.

In Celan’s poem, “Because You Found the Need-Shard” (translated from the German Notscherben, “a necessity”), Jewish wandering becomes the essential search for these shards.


In a wilderness place,

The shadows-centuries relax beside you

And hear you think:

Perhaps it’s true

That peace conjured two peoples here

Out of clay vessels.

Perhaps, according to Celan, every Jew (and Jewess), by necessity, must undertake this journey of wandering in the wilderness to find the shards of divine creation that contain “ziv, that light,” and finally arrive at a place of understanding.


[1] Roger of Wendover, Flores historiarum.

[2] Names of “the Eternal Jew” include Joseph, Matathias, Buttadeus, Paul Marrane, Isaac Laquedem, and Le Juif Errant.

[3] The consensus of the rabbis was that the giving of the Torah at Sinai, “Z’man Matan Torateinu,” included both the oral and written Torah.

[4] Many Jews subscribe to the scholarly view that the written Torah did not appear as a codified text until the end of the sixth century BCE.

[5] Gamal Abdel Nasser led the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and was president of Egypt from 1954 until his death in 1970.

[6] Jason Weiss, “An Interview with Edmond Jabès,” Conjunctions, no. 9, 1986.

[7] The magazine was published monthly from April 1895 to August 1899, edited by Rosa Sonneschein.

[8] American Jewess had a circulation of 26,000 owing to its wide purview.

[9] Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (London, 1993).

[10] John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven, 1995).



The eighteenth-century European movement known as the Enlightenment awakened the rational mind from its superstitious slumber.[1] In prior centuries, preternatural powers were attributed to diviners, who claimed to see omens of the future in the world of commonplace objects and occurrences.

These auguries took many forms, ranging from the earthly pessomancers, who saw premonitions in random arrangements of pebbles, to the more ethereal capnomancers, who saw signs in smoke.

The notion of a pure and direct channel of communication with the divine dates back to ancient Greece and the Greek oracles, gatekeepers to the gods. By the fifteenth century, a profusion of forms and systems were in place to forecast the future, many flaunting arcane names impossible to pronounce and connotations even more difficult to decipher. Delving into the nomenclature of divination offers a spellbinding lexicon to enliven almost any word game. In the nineteenth century the art of divining became a cottage industry, especially in times of strife. The extraordinary business of predictions, however unreliable, was in the end surprisingly ordinary.

While many forms of divination may seem esoteric and arcane, there is by the same token a profusion of prognostication available to suit individuals of any predilection. Opportunities to anticipate the future through divination were everywhere in the Dark Ages,[2] if you knew where to look, or perhaps more importantly, how to look—though you may not have always wished to look, as in the reading of animal entrails, a stratagem first practiced in ancient Rome and performed by a village diviner known as a haruspex. Inspecting entrails was a messy, bloody business, but absolutely necessary to predict the future.

If all that sounds distasteful, there are far more palatable forms of prog­nostication on the menu. If you have a liking for the saliferous, there is alomancy (or halomancy), divination by analyzing grains of spilled salt. If you want eggs to go with it, consider oomancy—divination by eggs.

Tyromancers predict the future, although sometimes incompletely, by studying holes in pieces of cheese.

Arguably, bibliomancy and its attendant branches were the most literary form of divination.[3] Logophiles and their companion bibliophiles could undertake divination from a randomly selected word, passage, or page in a book. In a scene from the British film Career Girls, directed by Mike Leigh, three lovelorn and lustful characters attempt to foretell their next love interests by practicing bibliomancy with the text of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—not to be confused with the practice of brontoscopy, divination by interpreting thunder. If one prefers poetry to Brontë’s prose, or any other prose for that matter, rhapsodomancy is the method of choice; or one could remain exclusively focused on the poetic works of Virgil or Homer by practicing stoichemancy instead.

For those who like to read between the lines, metoposcopy, the study of lines and wrinkles of the forehead coupled with alignment of the planets, could foretell one’s destiny—of course, this was practiced by metopancers in the sixteenth century, long before the era of Botox. Moleoscophy studies patterns of moles on the face or body for purposes of divination. In fact, the average body provides endless possibilities: oculomancy is divination through examining the eye, and chiromancy reads the fingers and palms. Onychomancers claimed to see heavenly indications in the growth of fingernails. Omphalomancy is a form of divination based on the shape of the navel, and according to Indian Tantric lore, connects the past and future of the individual.

For the hoarder in your neighborhood, there is abacomancy, divination based on the patterns in dust. For the cat lady next door, ailuromancy is a form of divination based on feline behavior. Animals are often unwitting subjects of prophecy, but on the other hand (or paw), if a cat had divining powers it would practice alectormancy—prediction by observing birds. The divination bestiary includes everything from arachnomancy, studying patterns of spider webs, to zoomancy, based on observations of animal movements.

But before we venture too far afield, let us turn to the Absent-Minded Soothsayer, lest we forget the purported subject of this annotation. The evocative term “soothsayer” originally meant simply someone who speaks the truth. Later it referred to a unique hybrid: part oracle, part truth-teller, and part prognosticator—a linguistic upgrade that no one anticipated. Through this intriguing amalgamation of attributes, the soothsayer was able to speak freely without fear of consequence. Like a court jester minus the jest, seers could speak the truth without the inconvenience of having their head placed in a guillotine. They were afforded liberties and latitude not bestowed upon other mortal truth-tellers because their powers of prophecy ostensibly flowed from otherworldly sources.

Finding patterns, even when there are none, is a cognitive bias, as confirmed by the constantly evolving field of artificial intelligence. By the late twentieth century, the “art” of predictive science had evolved into a vast data-mining operation combined with number crunching. No need to wait for divine intervention, computing power has become oracular. The art of divination has been appropriated by computer scientists who write algorithms, sift data, and search for patterns to create models that forecast the future.

Endless means for divining the future may prove futile, as we are in all probability fated to live in a random universe—proving once again that any attempt to anticipate and organize the phenomena of the universe is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a matter of infinite jest.


[1] In the essay “What is Enlightenment,” published in 1784, Immanuel Kant declared that “the obstacles to general enlightenment—to [humankind’s] release from their self-imposed immaturity—are gradually diminishing. In this regard, this age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.”

[2] “Dark Ages” was first applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 to the tenth and eleventh centuries, and was in wide use in the eighteenth century and subsequently (though now out of favor) to refer to the Middle Ages (900–1400) as a time of intellectual darkness between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.

[3] Unless one considers divination by reading animal entrails a literary genre.



An early sign of the use of condoms appears in cave paintings dating to 11,000 BCE at Grotte des Combarelles in Dordogne, France. Further evidence from the twelfth Egyptian dynasty suggests that men of varying social status wore small sheaths made from oiled animal intestines, refined papyrus cloth, or bladders that covered only the top of the penis. Unfortunately, no hieroglyphic accounts survive on walls to clarify their purpose, and regardless, pictograms are not particularly adept at conveying sexual innuendo. But artifacts found in the tombs of Egyptian nobility include form-fitting penis sheaths, some brightly colored, made of soft animal skins and adorned with fur. Along with these decorative artifacts, tombs were equipped with strap-on penises made from tortoise shell and mother of pearl—ensuring that the tomb’s occupants were well prepared for a romp in the netherworld.

Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio published the first description of the condom in a book that appeared posthumously in 1564, recommending a piece of tincture-soaked linen, sewn to fit around the penis, to prevent the transmission of syphilis. The disease was pervasive across Europe at the time, and Fallopio was the first to devise this method to prevent contagion. By 1605, Leonardus Lessius mounted a theological argument against condoms, claiming in his tract De justitia et jure that using them was immoral—further proof that condoms have always been a touchy subject.

But apart from the matter of morality, another question arises: how were condoms fabricated during their long history? In the 1400s, the Chinese used either lamb intestines or oiled silk paper to make condoms that fit over the glans. Concurrently, the Japanese made them from tortoise shell or animal horn—hard to picture but still preferable to a practice in Europe in the Middle Ages, when some women attempted to prevent conception by wearing an amulet around their thighs made of the testicles of a weasel.[1]

For the resourceful and well-motivated, a whole host of raw materials eventually became available for making condoms by hand. The intestines of most fish, excluding piranhas, proved to be an excellent source. Pig bladder was sensational—but could never penetrate the Jewish market. Objections to condoms were not strictly limited to the religious; one of Casanova’s many paramours moaned that she did not like “ce petit personage” when it was covered, claiming the condom was meant for the boring or overcautious.[2]

Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, pointed out that the food supply, which grows arithmetically, can never keep up with exponential population growth. This book became the basis of a social movement in England known as Malthusianism, which was dedicated to the cause of limiting reproduction. Among other initiatives, it inspired a grassroots effort to distribute instructions among the poor for making condoms from animal intestines. Limited literacy among the underclass meant that instructions were kept simple, with illustrations in some cases. Some saw the potential of starting a cottage business, taking it upon themselves to make and sell condoms to the public. Mrs. Phillips distributed the following handbill for her business in London, known as the “Machine Warehouse”:

She defies anyone to equal her Goods in England, or any other Country whatsoever; having lately had several large Orders from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and other foreign Places. Captains of Ships, and Gentlemen, &c. going abroad, may be supplied with any Quantity of the best Goods on the shortest Notice…She likewise has great choice of Skins and Bladders, that Apothecaries, Chemists, Druggists, &c. may be supplied with any Quantity, and of the best sort.[3]

The invention of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear in 1839 introduced an improved material suitable for condom manufacture. The first rubber condoms, sold a decade later, covered only the glans of the penis, but this was just the tip of manufacturing to come. Vulcanization, which made rubber more durable and flexible, became the basis for mass production of condoms—and of course, the origin of the term “rubber.” Condom manufacturing and advertising grew, along with the enterprise of mail order condoms. Later, Goodyear and B. F. Goodrich became major players in the manufacture and sale of condoms as well as diaphragms and dildos.

In spite of the availability of rubber condoms, many manufacturers continued the tradition of using animal intestines imported from European butchers. In America, where the subject was broached only reluctantly, those who preferred to make their own condoms from animal intestines gave their local butchers coded lists that only seemed to specify the ingredients for homemade sausages. In the 1840s, birth control advocates in Philadelphia circulated instructions for making condoms, information that was enthusiastically tested in small towns and rural communities along the eastern seaboard.

Throughout the nineteenth century, knitting was a practical and popular source of domestic entertainment. It was only to be expected that women who made their own garments would experiment with knitting as a way of fashioning condoms. Even wealthy women became expert at knitting in the Victorian era, as confirmed by many photographic portraits. One exemplar of this knitting culture can be found in the image of a Woman Hand-Knitting a Condom. In early and mid-nineteenth-century America, the homemade condom amplified an already lengthy list of “woman’s work” in rural areas. Women also tried out variations on these homespun versions, enhancing their experiments in sewing and knitting circles, and the hand-knitted condom gradually evolved from this shared knowledge. One could find homemade condoms for sale at ladies fairs and at wool growers markets throughout the countryside. Later, some conjectured that the wool condom’s effectiveness in the nineteenth century may have been due to greater sperm size. But knitted wool condoms, which ultimately proved ineffective as a form of contraception, continued in use for warmth on cold winter nights.

The popularity of skins and rubbers, both commercial and homemade, rose abruptly during the Civil War. By 1862, the Army of the Potomac, led by General Joseph Hooker, arrived en masse in the nation’s capital. Female camp followers, designated “Hooker’s Legions” by the Federal Army, plied their trade among them. The Union soldiers visited Lafayette Square to consort with these prostitutes so frequently and copiously that General Hooker made it an official meeting place. He added police to make the area safe and ordered all troops to use their “French Letters.” The prostitutes fondly named this red-light district “Hooker’s Row,” and the term “hooker” has remained popular slang ever since.[4]

Following the Civil War, Congress was pressured to pass an anti- obscenity bill addressing pornography and prostitution. Anthony Comstock, a disgruntled former Union soldier, took it upon himself to launch a personal morality crusade beginning in New York City, then known as the Gomorrah of the West. Comstock’s initial provocation occurred when his co-worker at a dry goods store in Manhattan contracted syphilis, which he blamed on an erotic book purchased at a nearby store. Comstock marched over to the shop and purchased a similar book, then returned with a police officer to arrest the proprietor, Charles Conroy. Comstock, called a hero by a local newspaper, basked in the success of his scheme and redoubled his efforts, this time taking a reporter and a police officer with him to St. Anne’s Street, where vendors openly sold such “illicit” books. Comstock attracted the attention of the leader of the local YMCA, who soon joined forces with him to save young people from obscenity. Together they founded a movement known as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Comstock understood personally the perils of obscenity for youth. A chronic masturbator well into adult life, he suffered tremendous guilt for submitting to the “Satanic Temptation,” as he confessed in his diary.[5] Taking the upper hand, Comstock sought to control in others what he could not control in himself, making a solemn vow to purge sin from the face of the earth. Comstock’s campaign attracted the attention of wealthy investors, including industrialists J. P. Morgan and Samuel Colgate. Using their money and influence to lobby Congress, Comstock launched a campaign to “Make America Moral Again.” Under pressure, Congress promptly enacted bills that would have lasting influence on all aspects of sexuality in America.

Congress intended the Comstock Act of 1873 to target mail order pornography specifically, and designated Comstock a special agent of the U.S. Post Office to enforce it. He used his newly vested authority to arrest anyone sending or receiving “indecent” material through the mail. As a founding member of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock didn’t have to answer to anyone, which gave him authority to implement censorship more broadly. The nation soon discovered that Comstock had been given free rein to define a wide swath of activity as indecent or obscene.

The Comstock Act was to condoms what the temperance movement was to liquor: the production, use, sale, or advertising of condoms or any form of birth control was made illegal. Sending or receiving condoms by mail was also illegal. The penalty for being caught talking, writing about, possessing, selling, or producing condoms, or any other form of birth control, could result in a long prison term and a hefty fine.

Comstock and his agents, who had wide discretion in enforcing the act, targeted small proprietors on the margins of society while overlooking more established business owners. In one egregious example, Comstock turned a blind eye to his staunch supporter Samuel Colgate, the millionaire heir of Colgate and Company, who conspicuously promoted Vaseline as a contraceptive and profited handsomely from its sale. Meanwhile, Colgate continued to serve as the president of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice—known for its vehement opposition to contraception. Colgate’s hypocrisy (and his immunity from prosecution) was called out publicly by one D. M. Bennett, a bookseller who had been arrested by Comstock for selling “obscene material.”

Blanket enforcement of the Comstock Act undermined a thriving mail order business and poked a hole in condom sales. But pioneering feminists defied Comstock. The right to vote was just one of their causes: birth control and disease prevention were also high on their agenda. On the frontlines of this campaign was Dr. Sarah Chase, a graduate of the Cleveland Homeopathic College, who moved to Manhattan in 1874 and lectured on physiology and sex education to men’s and women’s groups in churches and meeting halls. At the conclusion of her lectures, she openly sold birth control measures. By 1878 Comstock arranged her entrapment personally by visiting her house for a purchase. Although Chase was arrested at least five times by Comstock and his morality squad, no judge or jury would convict her. Despite laws enacted by Congress, those who sold birth control measures were often tolerated by the justice system.[6]

Widespread loathing of Comstock himself may have encouraged leniency toward birth control vendors. Scathing editorials and cartoons referred to him as “Comstock the Laughing Stock,” and his rotund belly, prominent white mustache, and overgrown muttonchops featured frequently in caricatures. One cartoon, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” showed the portly Comstock dressed in priestly robes, kneeling in trepidation and pointing an accusatory finger at a store window displaying corseted mannequins and ladies stockings. Referred to by liberals as “a peripatetic conservator of morals,” he scoured the streets of New York for violators of the Comstock Act.[7] The playwright George Bernard Shaw characterized Comstock’s crusade as the inability to distinguish between art and smut. This was, in Shaw’s opinion, a national trait: “Europe likes to hear of such things,” Shaw said. “It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the old world that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country town civilization after all.”[8]

By 1877, Comstock had largely shut down the obscenity trade, but he still made arrests as required by his financial backers, who supported the society’s annual $10,000 budget. He received monetary incentives directly for such arrests—he and his squad kept 50 percent of the fines assessed. Comstock widened his net to include medical books with images of the unclothed body as well as art books that contained nude figure studies or portraits or classical statues. One can only assume that he would have arrested Adam and Eve if their fig leaves were askew. He arrested his arch nemesis Bennett for possessing a scientific essay about the propagation of marsupials, as animal procreation could also be considered obscene. Had he convened a kangaroo court to bring charges against the marsupials directly, he would have succeeded in reinstating the medieval practice of prosecuting animals. Were the birds and the bees next on the docket?[9]

Ezra Heywood, an activist and advocate of equal rights for women, referred to Comstock’s tactics as “the spirit that lighted the fires of the Inquisition.”[10] Soon after, Heywood was arrested and sentenced to thirteen months of hard labor for flaccid puns in his essay “Cupid’s Yokes,” where he called Comstock a “religio-monomaniac.” Heywood also excoriated Comstock’s crusade against the press: “He is chiefly known through his efforts to suppress newspapers and imprison editors disposed to discuss the Social Question.” Indeed, Comstock boasted, “There were four publishers on the 2nd of last March; today three of these are in their graves, and it is charged by their friends that I worried them to death.”[11] Eventually Heywood received a pardon from President Hayes, who agreed with judges that Comstock had gone too far.

Comstock’s unfettered morality campaign actually had an inverse effect, stimulating a thriving underground economy for small rubber and skin condoms. The process of making condoms was relatively simple and highly profitable, requiring little investment. Outside of New York, small manufacturers continued to take the legal risk of producing and selling condoms and other contraceptives. Discreet ads, or referring to a condom by some other name—even using Civil War slang such as a cap, a pouch, a male shield, or simply a rubber good—served to avoid prosecution.

Europe was more open about marketing condoms, although they were not officially legal there until the next century. In fact, in the late 1890s Queen Victoria became an unwitting shill when her face was used to adorn the labels of rubber condom packages from many manufacturers.

Julius Schmidt, a German Jew born in 1865, came to New York at the age of seventeen. Impoverished, and hobbled by a severely deformed leg, he almost died of starvation until he found a job cleaning animal intestines at a sausage casing factory. Like sausage makers in Europe, he quickly found an alternate use for leftover casings, and started a business making condoms and peddling his wares in the Tenderloin district—so named by Police Department Captain Alexander S. Williams, who claimed he could eat a better cut of meat thanks to the bribes he received by ignoring crimes. He was reported to have boasted: “I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time, and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.” Prostitution was among the crimes he routinely overlooked.

Arrested by Comstock in 1890, Schmidt had to walk on crutches to the paddy wagon. Bailed out of jail, he paid a stiff fine but vowed to make a success of his business. He changed his name to Schmid, thinking it would shield him from anti-Semitism that the final “t” might attract. He branched out into condom manufacture, determined to make condoms of the finest quality that would also be affordable for poor Americans. Germany was the world leader in condom manufacture, and Schmid was the first in the U.S. to use the advanced methods that were developed there. The German technique, using glass molds dipped in liquid rubber, produced condoms that were thin, flexible, and seamless. Prior to 1914, Germany had been Europe’s number one supplier of condoms to the U.S., but the war put an end to German imports. Schmid stepped into the breach and became the leading American exporter of condoms to the Allies. In 1932 Schmid returned briefly to his native Germany and purchased a state-of-the-art rubber manufacturing plant that he then dismantled, shipping all of the equipment to New Jersey, where he reopened the business. His timing was opportune, because the persecution of Jewry that would culminate in the Holocaust was already underway. Schmid’s enterprise remained a profitable, global business. His leading brands, Sheiks and Ramses, were produced until the 1990s.

Despite Comstock’s flagrant abuse of office, it took years for progressives to dismantle the Comstock Act, due primarily to his powerful connections in Washington. But judges and juries grew weary of his moralistic courtroom histrionics, typically directed against struggling business owners and manufacturers of condoms—most of them women, Jews, and immigrants. Finally, Supreme Court decisions holding that mail was private, and therefore protected under the First and Fourth Amendments, dealt Comstock a major blow.

Comstock spent his last years in futile pursuit of Margaret Sanger, a progressive advocate for women’s rights and birth control, eventually the founder of Planned Parenthood. She had begun her career as a birth control advocate while working as a nurse in New York City. Appalled by the terrible living conditions endured by the poor, she opened a clinic and dispensed birth control and educational advice to desperate women. Sanger, arrested twice for sending reproductive information through the mail, argued in her own defense that the Constitution did not authorize the post office to sit in judgment on the morality of the printed matter or parcel it was entrusted to deliver. In his final courtroom appearance, Comstock’s swan song struck a sour note, as he shouted in court that Sanger had violated the Criminal Code by giving away a copy of her book Family Limitation.[12] He died a week later from illness apparently brought on by overwork and overexcitement. He had wielded his tyrannical power from 1873 until his death in 1915, setting the clock back on medical advances and disease prevention by forcing a code of silence on the American sexual psyche.

Condoms, which were still contraband at the beginning of the twentieth century (along with all contraception), are now part of the social fabric. Instructions for making a handmade condom are no longer necessary—to the relief of many. Once wrapped in taboo, the modern condom is available for purchase almost everywhere, in a variety of sizes, textures, and colors. Following a tumultuous history, and a long hard road, the condom has finally met with a happy ending.


[1] Dittrick Museum of Medical History, Percy Skuy Collection. An early example of someone trying to “weasel” their way out of something?

[2]The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt (London, 1894).

[3] “Mrs. Phillips…Machine Warehouse” ([London, ca. 1785]), Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Mrs. Phillips sold her goods for over forty years in London, initially at the Machine Warehouse, the Sign of the Green Canister, then at new quarters, no. 5 Orange-Court, near Leicester-Fields, near Mews-Gate.

[4] The word “hooker” to mean prostitute originated in 1859, but was used only regionally, in upstate New York, until Hooker’s troops popularized it during the Civil War.

[5] Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (New York, 1927).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Comstock was known for beating the bush, walking the streets of New York daily in search of violators of his notion of morality.

[8] Shaw claimed he originated the term “Comstockery” in 1905 after Comstock sought to remove Shaw’s play Man and Superman from the New York Public Library, but the usage dates to at least the 1890s.

[9] E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906).

[10] Ezra Heywood, “Cupid’s Yokes, Or the Binding Forces of Conjugal Life” (New York, 1879).

[11] Anthony Comstock’s letter to Hon. C. L. Merriam, House of Representatives, January 18, 1873, quoted in “Obscene Literature,” a speech given by Clinton L. Merriam before the House, March 1, 1873, YMCA Archives.

[12] New York Times, September 22, 1915.



Conjoined twins have beguiled and bewitched the imagination as far back as antiquity. The Roman god Janus is depicted with two faces on a single head, looking in opposite directions, allowing him to see both past and future simultaneously. Janus lends his name to the rarest form of conjoinment, cephalothoracopagus janiceps disymmetros, a term derived from ancient Greek, which now designates a fused head with equally developed faces directed laterally.

In the nineteenth century, conjoined twins were seen as freaks of nature destined for public exhibition. The subjects of superstition and spectacle as well as scientific scrutiny, they endured physical prodding from medical doctors as well as the intrusive gaze of onlookers at traveling sideshows. Some, like the Carolina Twins, were purchased by showmen who profited from their public display. But apart from the interest they aroused, the true quandary surrounding conjoined twins was one that could not be unraveled by mere corporeal analysis. Philosophers and theologians alike wanted to know: Do they have separate identities? Do they think the same thoughts? Do they share the same soul?

These vexing questions eluded anatomical answers, and were instead relegated to literary inquiry, spawning what could be termed a literature of ligature. Anatomically inspired writings spanned genres from novels and short stories to poems and plays, advertising handbills, and circus broadsides. This somatic subset perpetuated the mystery of conjoined twins, bound and united by nature.

Two anatomical tomes published in the sixteenth century were among the first to ignite public interest in medical anomalies. First, Histoires prodigieuses (1560), by Pierre Boaistuau, provided a profusely illustrated compilation of natural wonders, preternatural oddities, and legends. The detailed engravings included in the volume—the first to illustrate medical mysteries—are exemplary among Renaissance books. Another important contribution was Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels, an illustrated encyclopedia of medical curiosities. Paré, born in France in 1510, was chief surgeon to both Charles IX and Henry III. He produced this compendium around 1571 to explain the unexplainable phenomenon of “monstrous” human and animal births.

Philosophy and literary speculation governed debate over whether conjoined twins were one or two people. The twins who inspired the most prolific prose by far were Chang and Eng Bunker, the eponymous “Siamese Twins,” born in what was called Siam in 1811. After they emigrated to the U.S. in 1829, the term “Siamese Twins” was adopted by the Oxford English Dictionary, and was often used to describe other conjoined twins until it was replaced by the more formal medical term, teratology. The notoriety and curiosity surrounding Chang and Eng inspired a farcical play, The Siamese Twins (1838) by Gilbert Abbott Beckett. The highlight of its romantic plot was a surgical separation of the twins, performed on stage with one simple swipe of an amputating knife. Following the separation, each twin is declared “free.” One of the twins turns to Sally, another character in the play, and asks her to form a new partnership with him. She blithely answers: “Well I thought I’d secured two husbands in one, but half a loaf is better than no bread.” The dismembered twin responds: “He’s all crust! What then, am I to be left all alone?” The play debuted in London, where it was a huge success, and it was later greeted by tremendous fanfare in New York. But for all this acclaim, the play was a facile flight of fancy, ignoring the fundamental fact that Chang and Eng were bound together for life. The twins themselves accepted this incontrovertible truth and devised a clever arrangement to ensure accord by alternating dominance. One would make all the decisions for a week, then the other would dominate the following week. In doing so, they sidestepped conflict, sharing equally in important decisions.

Unlike their fictive counterparts in Beckett’s play, Chang and Eng did not have to suffer surgical separation in order to marry, but they did need to find two women who would agree to form an uncommon quartet. After years cultivating success as farmers and owners of a prosperous general store in the hamlet of Traphill, North Carolina, they had endeared themselves to the local community and attained many of the necessary attributes to sustain a family. They set out to court two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates. Chang, the more charming of the twins, was first to sway the heart of Adelaide. Realizing that a single marriage to her would not work, Chang asked Adelaide to persuade her younger sister, Sarah, to marry Eng. The twins captivated the sisters with stories of world travel and fame while discreetly touting their wealth. Reportedly, the deal was clinched for the sisters during a visit to the home of the twins in Traphill. The house that Chang and Eng built was, in the words of Judge Jesse Graves, “uncommonly elegant,”[1] well equipped, and much larger than an ordinary farmhouse. Its handsomely appointed rooms contained fine upholstered furniture and other splendid details, such as fine silverware and brass candlesticks.

Though Chang and Eng were respected members of the community, they faced outrage from neighbors who considered such a nuptial arrangement improper and even immoral. Even close friends objected to this indecent marriage of two men to two women. The union somehow appeared polygamous to many, although it did not match the exact definition. But more significantly, the parents of Adelaide and Sarah raised objections—not because Chang and Eng were conjoined but because they were Chinese. Among the onerous obstacles they had to surmount were North Carolina’s laws forbidding interracial marriage.[2] But Chang and Eng were of one mind and they persevered, overcoming all obstacles and finally forming a communal marriage in 1843 that lasted thirty-one years and produced a total of twenty-one offspring. As their family grew, public knowledge of their lives spread, inspiring a biography published in 1853.[3]

Other literary ventures included odes celebrating the twins. One poem, published by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1831, pondered an enigma: what if Eng committed a crime of which Chang was innocent? In the poem, Eng has been charged with public flirtation with an attractive young woman, accepts responsibility, and pleads Chang’s case before a magistrate.


Such penance I consent to bear

As you may deem it worth bestowing;

But he—my brother—no offence

Committed; you must let him hence!

Take me to prison, if you please;

But first this gentleman release.


Whether the poem has any factual basis is unclear, but it does raise theological questions on the nature of free will, while taking a new stab at the age-old question; “am I my brother’s keeper?”

The elusive question of free will arose during the Civil War when Eng was drafted to fight for the Union Army and Chang was not. The draft pick was the result of a random lottery.[4] Eng objected to the notice, not because he was conjoined but because he was a Confederate. Eng, being a slave-owner, could not support the Union cause. In the border state of North Carolina, Cheng could have been of either persuasion, and it was indeed possible that the twins held conflicting allegiances. What if the twins had taken up arms on the battlefield, fighting for opposite sides?—a scene that could have been comical were it not so tragic. Perhaps there was no better metaphor of a nation divided than this “divided self.” The twins were emblematic of the state of the union—two heads, two wills, but one body, indivisible.

Some writers turned to the theme of conjoined twins to explore concepts of the self and identity. A poem by William Linn Keese, “The Siamese Twins,” speculated on the possibility of Cheng and Eng’s diverging religious beliefs:


…fancy that Eng was to church inclined,

And Chang preferred to stay behind––

Either Eng must relinquish his pious path,

Or Chang go with him in holy wrath!


Mark Twain, ever engaged and inquisitive, wrote at least two stories dedicated to the subject of conjoined twins. His satirical short essay “Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins,” penned in 1869, was included in Sketches New and Old, published in 1875. Still captivated by the subject, Twain later wrote a novel inspired by another famous pair of conjoined twins, the Tocci Brothers, Giovanni and Giacomo. Twain reportedly attended a show featuring the brothers and was mesmerized by them. Born in 1875 in Turin, Italy, they shared four arms, two legs, and one penis—an extreme example of joint custody. Giacomo was apparently a social extrovert while Giovanni was an introvert; Giovanni drank beer, while Giacomo was teetotal. Like the Tocci brothers, Twain’s fictionalized conjoined twins had opposing personalities that created a conflict of interest. After deciding that his novel was really two books in one, a farce and a tragedy, Twain performed what he called a “Siamese Twin” operation, separating it into two. The farcical part retained the original title, “Those Extraordinary Twins,” featuring the fictional Count Angelo and Count Luigi Capello. The rest became the well-known tragedy Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Nowhere was the conundrum of conjoined twins addressed more singularly than in the autobiography of Millie-Christine.[5] The term “autobiography” may be a stretch where one was actually two, but the book nonetheless offers a rare perspective and a valuable addition to the literature of conjoined twins. Although they had been given two names at birth, the twins considered themselves to be one person; when asked why they preferred the hyphenated appellation Millie-Christine, they explained: “Although we speak of ourselves in the plural we feel as but one person; in fact as such we have ever been regarded, although we bear the names Millie and Christine.”[6] Affirming their singularity, a railway official gave them a signed note to carry with them when traveling, instructing the conductor to allow “the dual woman” to travel on one ticket, settling the perplexing question once and for all.[7]

Born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851, they were sold at the age of ten months to a showman, Joseph Pearson Smith, who planned to exhibit them. Billed as “The Carolina Twins,” they were hired out to traveling road shows and by the age of three they were appearing in P. T. Barnum’s famed American Museum in New York City. Highly intelligent, with amiable dispositions, Millie-Christine learned to read and write and soon penned their own songs and poetry. Smith’s wife taught them to sing and play the piano, and they harmonized beautifully, danced, and recited poems in their stage act the “Two Headed Nightingale.” This excerpt is from a poem by Millie-Christine, used as the centerpiece of a broadside advertising their exhibition:



Two heads, four arms, four feet,

All in one perfect body meet;

I am most wonderfully made,

None like me since the days of Eve,

None such perhaps will ever live,

A marvel to myself am I

As well to all who passes by.[8]


Many imitations of their singing act sprang up in circus sideshows. One conspicuous counterfeit was the “Three-Headed Girl,” billed in mammoth posters as “The Nightingale of Triple Vocal Power—a little chorus in herself.”[9] Perhaps the act was intended to upstage the authentic singing nightingale duo with one additional head, but an audience member expressed disappointment in the show when he noticed the ruse. Artfully concealed mirrors created the illusion of three heads where there was only one.

The question of exactly how and why twins are conjoined in the womb is still a medical mystery, but the phenomenon has drawn superstitious speculations throughout history. In the sixteenth century, one theorist explained that women caused conjoinment by crossing their legs during gestation. Seventeenth-century Puritans suggested that these twins were “products of unwed mothers.” Even more perplexing are the theories propagated by mothers of conjoined twins themselves. The mother of the nineteenth-century Jones twins “was convinced that their condition was a result of her having seen two female aerial­ists fall, twisted together, while she was pregnant.” However odd, her account did follow a well-­established precedent, the quasi-medical theory of maternal impression that prevailed prior to the nineteenth century. It postulated that the mere sight of conjoinment, whether human or animal, “put pregnant woman at risk of giving birth to such a child.” Even after this theory was scientifically refuted in the early twentieth century, signs posted outside sideshow tents still cautioned pregnant women, “for fear that the very glimpse of a freak might…deform the gestating fetus.”[10]

The body of knowledge accumulated on the subject of diploteratology, to employ an early medical term, reveals a surprisingly wide array of classifications. As more medical cases were documented, the lexicon of conjoinment grew and was finally codified in a medical specialty, teratology, in 1967. Myriad categories include cephalopagus twins, joined at the head; thoracopagus twins, fused at the upper thorax to lower belly; craniopagus twins, one body with two heads; ischlopagus twins, joined dorsally at the sacrum; and epholothoracopagus, meaning joined at the upper chest with a shared heart and two faces on a single head, like the Roman god Janus. Perhaps the most unusual form is heteropagus—also known as parasitic—twins, where a vestige, or trace, of an incompletely formed twin remains as an appendage of the dominant twin.

Pygopagus twins, fused side by side at the pelvis, were equipped with all appendages, each having a head, two arms and two legs, but sharing a single body. The Pygopagi Twins, so named for their medical classification, were billed as the most astonishing and extraordinary conjoined twins. At the age of three, the two little girls charmed the public with ongoing appearances at the Egyptian Hall in Picca­dilly, London. They soon became the talk of the town, described as having “fair hair and pretty faces…two heads, four arms, four legs, but only one body.”[11] They were considered “a most curious and interesting freak of nature, in the shape of female twins joined together in a wonderful manner.”[12] A report in the Times confirmed, “sometimes they quarrel; but their physical union is intimate, and to all appearance can never be dissolved.”[13]

Sibling rivalry aside, the brothers depicted in the photograph Conjoined Twins were inseparable, representing a unique medical case that falls outside of any easy medical classification. Many questions about the brothers persist, but few facts remain. They hailed from upstate New York and were known by the name of the Bliss Brothers, bestowed by the town of Bliss, where they were born. They were known to make their living by performing as a one-man band, although many were skeptical, claiming this was a cheat. In a memorable trick, one twin would inhale the smoke from a long clay pipe while the other would exhale it. Unlike other conjoined twins, they all but vanished from history. No edifice in a music hall was constructed, no public statues were erected; nor is their plaster cast sitting in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum beside the cast of the famed Siamese twins Chad and Eng Bunker. But perhaps they are best remembered for this ditty that also served as their epitaph.


The Bliss Brothers

Joined not at the hip

But above the lip

which nobody could zip

or even take a nip.


[1] Jesse Franklin Graves, “The Siamese Twins as Told by Judge Jesse Franklin Graves, 1829–1894,” unpublished manuscript, North Carolina State Archives.

[2] Miscegenation laws remained in effect in North Carolina, and all of the southern states until they were overturned in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.

[3] Thomas W. Strong, An Account of Chang and Eng, the World Renowned Siamese Twins (New York, 1853).

[4] Chris Hartley, Stoneman’s Raid, 1865 (Winston-Salem, No. Carolina, 2010).

[5] Millie-Christine, The History of the Carolina Twins: Told in “Their Own Peculiar Way” by “One of Them.”

[6] Biographical Sketch of Millie Christine, the Carolina Twin, Surnamed the Two-Headed Nightingale and the Eighth Wonder of the World (Cincinnati, 1902–12).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Millie-Christine, The History of the Carolina Twins.

[9] Detroit Free Press, March 10, 1883.

[10] Christine Quigley, Conjoined Twins: An Historical, Biological, and Ethical Issues Encyclopedia (Jefferson, No. Carolina, 2003).

[11] W. S. Johnson, oversize ephemera Egyptian Hall (London, 1880), with six press reviews.

[12]London Times, November 14, 1880.

[13] London Times, November 12, 1880.



To lose one’s self in reverie, one must be either very happy, or very unhappy. Reverie is the child of extremes.

—Antoine Rivarol

During the nineteenth century, a moody, melancholic disposition was increasingly viewed as an illness. Cures were obsessively sought for common states known as reverie, melancholia, or even excessive pondering. Health reform institutes, later knows as sanatoriums, offered a regimen of vigorous exercise and engagement with the exterior world as a panacea.

Physicians, however, were perplexed. They found melancholia and reverie difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat because these states did not fit easily into any known medical category. Reverie was defined as a wild state of joy or delight, a fit of fury, or the state of being lost in thought or daydreaming. Described as “disordered emotion” by physiologists, melancholy and its counterpart, reverie, were thought to develop when the brain was subjected to “repeated irritation.” Through the establishment of the Lunacy Commission in 1845, the symptoms of melancholy were finally standardized, making it one of the first recognized psychological diagnoses.

While nineteenth-century medical practitioners and clinics hawked cures for melancholic reverie, artists and writers were compelled to revel in it. Some deliberately sought to induce altered states of mind with absinthe, opium, and hashish, which they described as opening “doors of perception”—enabling them to bring more powerful expression to their work. The phrase was taken from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

The American writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow indulged his penchant for drug-induced reveries, later recounting them in his autobiography The Hasheesh Eater.[1]

I, whose disease it was to meditate too much and to observe too little, and who, upon my first entrance at college, was falling into a deep melancholy, from brooding too much on what I had seen in London…often fell into these reveries upon taking opium; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I could overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of Liverpool, at about the same distance, that I have sat, from sunrise to sunset, motionless, and without wishing to move. I shall be charged with mysticism, Behmenism, quietism, etc. but that shall not alarm me.[2]

Capturing emotions such as reverie in facial expression was considered an important part of artistic training. Beginning in 1759, the academic exercise Le Concours de la tête d’expression was given to students at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture to teach them to “express passions” in their subjects. The Count of Caylus set up a competition in 1760 to determine who could best reveal the inner workings of the subject’s mind in their portraiture. Students actively prepared for the competition by sketching portraits that expressed a range of human emotions: contemplation, satisfaction, meditation, and melancholy. This genre, known as tête d’expression, remained a standard academic exercise well into the nineteenth century and inspired artists to depict intense emotional states, including melancholy. The expressive style of painting drew acclaim from artists and critics and inspired experimental works by Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.[3]

Limited understanding of cognitive function left nineteenth-century scientists perplexed about the causes and functions of emotions. Finally in 1878, William Kingdon Clifford attempted to breach the brain and body gap with the term “mind-stuff” to refer to the unknown catalyst between thought and physiology.[4] When science could not provide answers, popular culture stepped in to fill the void. Newspapers were stuffed with advertisements offering cures for emotional distress. With no scientific basis, and no regulation, any benefit would have been the result of a placebo effect. The photograph Remedy for Reverie depicts a woman up to her neck in a vapor bath, a common treatment to cure bouts of uncontrolled musing. During the nineteenth century, hydro cures, vapors, and baths were administered as a remedy for practically any ailment.

Ironically, a breakthrough did not originate with case studies of patients. Instead, it came from two brothers who took different approaches to thinking and writing about mental states and human emotions. William and Henry James were equally brilliant in their own fields. Henry James, the better known of the two, was an innovative writer of fiction. William James was a psychologist and philosopher whose first book, The Principles of Psychology, became one of the most influential works on the subject. Henry James is considered one of the first American writers to make full use of psychological realism in fiction. The Portrait of a Lady, published in 1881, takes the reader on a journey through the thoughts and moods of the heroine, Isabel Archer. The James brothers were so widely admired that each was sometimes taken for the other; it was often said that Henry wrote novels like a psychologist while William wrote psychology texts like a novelist.

William James was one of the first researchers to explore the murky realm of the unconscious. He argued that waking consciousness was but one mental state of many, and that other realms of human experience existed alongside it. In his clinical practice, William discovered that fatigue, traumatic shock, or intrapsychic conflict could alter perception in ways that standard scientific explanations could not account for.

William also hypothesized that higher level emotions, beyond basic instincts, were sensed, felt, and expressed differently by artistic geniuses—intuitive types, prone to emotional outbursts, who produce great works of art and literature. He speculated that because their minds are in constant ferment, they are able to see analogies that others miss. But the counterpart of such ferment is a keenly focused attention, leading to “possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”[5] Such original thinkers have access to a broad field of awareness, comprising a spectrum of possibilities. From a combination of vast breadth and preternaturally pointed focus, artists hone and give form to ideas, releasing them into the public sphere, where they become accessible to the rest of us.

The cross-pollination of ideas between siblings, Henry and William, provided the impetus for new interpretation of human emotion. Bridging the divide between the realm of science and the world of art, they introduced insights that shifted the debate over the mind-body connection to the forefront of scientific investigation. In the subsequent century, many scientists became more attuned to the permeable boundary between mind and brain, as they followed the lead of the James brothers, who pointed toward an understanding of the human mind that would integrate cognitive, physiological, pharmacological, and moral perspectives.

While nineteenth-century scientists and physicians struggled to understand melancholy, they could have simply turned to the wisdom of poets, who valued the experience of melancholy as a counterpoint to pleasure. Baudelaire conceded, “I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.”[6]


[1] Fitz Hugh Ludlow, The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean (New York, 1857).

[2] “Quietism” was used by seventeenth-century theologians to refer to devotional contemplation. It was later adopted by a group of nineteenth-century hashish eaters to describe the contem­plative practice of navel gazing.

[3] Thomas Couture’s painting Reverie (1840–41) has been described as an artistic study intended to analyze the emotional state of melancholy.

[4] Clifford proposed a connection between thought, brain, physical manifestation, and outward appearance of emotion in his paper “On the Nature of Things in Themselves,” published in 1878 in the journal Mind. Though “mind-stuff” may sound preposterously vague, comparable cases litter the current lexicon—for example, the term “dark matter” to describe what is not known about the composition of space.

[5] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1 (New York, 1918).

[6] Charles Baudelaire, My Heart Laid Bare (Paris, 1887).



Max Müller, an eminent professor of linguistics at Oxford, was one of the few academics who publicly challenged Darwin’s Origin of Species. Wielding the full weight of his lofty post, Müller attacked Darwin’s theory of evolution with what he was certain would be the last word on the attribute of language in humans:

Language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast, and no animal will ever cross it…The science of language will yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of the Darwinians, and to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute.[1]

In response to this admonishment from his imperious adversary, Darwin succinctly fired back, “everyone knows parrots can talk.”

Darwin’s Descent of Man, published in 1871, dedicated an entire chapter to the evolution of language. In ten densely packed pages, he mapped out his theory, predicting that the faculty for language would be found in the brain, not the peripheral vocal tract. He acknowledged that articulated speech controlled by movement of the lips and tongue was “peculiar to man,” but insisted that this power of articulation did not define language. Instead, Darwin argued that language was a “large power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas.”[2] Darwin suggested that birdsong was the “nearest analogy to language”: Like humans, birds have instinctive calls as well as an instinct to sing. In both birds and humans, song and language are learned through transmission, and like human infants, young birds “babble” before they achieve fluency. But Darwin was also persuaded of the complexity of articulate human language, that it evolved gradually, owing “its origins to the imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries.”

Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Darwin based most of his theories on personal observations and extensive field studies. His opponents claimed that he spent too much time in the hinterlands and not enough time interacting with his academic colleagues. But Darwin was a new breed of scientist. He made the world at large into his laboratory, and faithfully recorded observations he made with his own eyes. Darwin later attributed his success as a scientist to reading Alexander von Humboldt’s empirical accounts: “I shall never forget that my whole course of life is due to having read and re-read as a youth [his] Personal Narrative.”[3] When the young Darwin set out aboard the HMS Beagle to observe bird species in the Canary Islands, he kept a copy of Humboldt’s book in his cabin and studied the accounts of his ambitious journey into the depths of the Orinoco rainforest.

In the jungles of South America, Humboldt had encountered a primeval world teeming with life, where a chorus of animals including birds, jaguars, and monkeys sang out, “proclaiming to us that all nature breathes.” The Prussian naturalist was the originator of a new form of scientific expedition and adventure: not satisfied with academic learning, he wanted to experience everything for himself. He felt an intense curiosity about nature and recorded every observation in exquisite detail, yet also conveyed his findings with scientific objectivity.

What attracted me about the torrid zone was no longer the promise of a wandering life full of adventures, but a desire to see with my own eyes a grand, wild nature rich in every conceivable natural product, and the prospect of collecting facts that might contribute to the progress of science.[4]

After eighteen months exploring the depths of the Amazon, Humboldt returned to Europe without gold or antiquities or artifacts—plunder that attracted his predecessors to the New World centuries before. He returned instead with a wealth of intellectual treasure, which he spread garrulously throughout scientific circles in Europe. Tall in stature and pleasant in demeanor, he was a popular guest at the homes of leading intellectuals, and his reputation as a walking encyclopedia won him the highest praise. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe marveled that it would take eight days to learn from books what Humboldt imparted in an hour.[5] The meticulous notebooks and journals that were the basis of A Personal Narrative offered a new lens through which to view the New World. Humboldt’s accounts of the vast region below the equator, known as the torrid zone, attracted young researchers to the field of natural history and motivated scientists to embark on further expeditions.

Early European explorers of the New World included mapmakers who charted new territories, bestowing names and claims for their country. Any encounters they had with flora and fauna were incidental to their mission. However, many noted the density of the bird population below the equator, such that they designated vast swaths of the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia, Cuba, and Latin America, as “Terra Psittacorum,” the land of the free parrot. Spanish navigators captured parrots and brandished them as exotic tokens to convey the allure of the islands. Columbus, in search of spices, instead encountered a species of parrot in Cuba that delighted him. He considered the great red parrot a magnificent bird—it is now nearly extinct.[6]

Italian Jesuit missionary Filipe Salvatore Gili embarked for South America about 1740, on one of the first European expeditions to traverse the Orinoco River. He worked and lived among indigenous tribes in the inner sanctum of the rainforest for eighteen years. In his notebooks he described the staggering abundance of parrots and songbirds. Overwhelmed by the cacophony of sound when he heard them all at once, he also listened attentively to the resonant clarity of their individual voices. Visual cues may have played a role; covering their cages at night quieted them. Songbirds kept in cages as pets could flawlessly imitate the sounds they heard around them, and it seemed to some observers that they sang just for pleasure—or even to show off their skill:

The Maipuri call this bird Rau Rau, and I know why. By imitating the Itotochi and copying their voices, it forces the Maipuri to listen to it more conscientiously. It is also famous in the Orinoco regions, and also great numbers live in the Itotoce, and the Vaccava. It barks with dogs, meows with cats, peeps with pigeons and as such imitates the voices of all, which is easily understood in return. He emulates all the birds, the cardellos, the canary, but he adds to them so much grace, that he elevates them, and in the insight of his voice, the bird exceeds all infinitely. When the bird says “barco va” in Spanish; that means “the boat goes.” Those inhabitants are of the opinion, that the bird announces with their voice the coming of a stranger by water, or on the ground. In fact, sometimes when no one arrives, we guess that the bird is singing for fun, or because they want to show off to people because they believe themselves brilliant.[7]

Gili’s book Saggio di Storia Americana (1780–84), completed when he returned home, provides a valuable description of indigenous peoples on the verge of extinction, specifically the Ature:

Already in my times there did not exist above a score of Atures in the raudal (a river region near the torrents of water). We thought this nation almost extinct, there being no longer any of these Indians in the forest. Since this period, the military of the expedition of the boundaries assert that they discovered a tribe of Atures on the east of Esmeralda, between the rivers Padamo and Ocamu.[8]

In an expedition to the depths of the Orinoco region in 1800, Alexander von Humboldt found a clue to the Ature tribe’s disappearance—and perhaps the only remnant of their existence, though the story may be apocryphal. The Ature had been driven by the Caribs, their enemies, into the rocky river rapids nearby, where the last of them had died in total isolation. Their entire culture was gone—except for one talking parrot. The Caribs then took under their wing a bird whose language they could not understand. Humboldt recorded the Caribs’ account of the “old parrot”:

The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767, in the time of the missionary Gili. At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said, and the fact is worthy of observation, that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.[9]

Humboldt reportedly transcribed phonetically forty words of the parrot’s vocabulary in his notebook. Acutely conscious of the impending biological extinctions he witnessed in the Amazon, he may also have anticipated the importance of cultural preservation. Although the story of Humboldt’s transcription of the old parrot’s vocabulary remains ambiguous, it was a clear harbinger of the extinction of languages.[10] The loss of linguistic diversity is a threat to our future, anthropologists warn, because each time a language dies it takes a culture to the grave along with it.

The uncanny ability of parrots to mimic the exact sound of a human voice has endeared them to humans. Stories of parrots mimicking their owners or trainers echo among avian enthusiasts. Terry Ryan has told the story of her mother’s pet parrot, her constant companion for over twenty years. They spent every day together, chatting almost nonstop, and the parrot learned to imitate her rich gravelly voice. Terry inherited the parrot when her mother died, and continues to hear her mother’s disembodied voice echoing in her apartment daily. When she returns home from work, the parrot asks empathetically, “are you tired?”…“are you hungry?” And sometimes when Terry is sitting quietly, she hears: “You’re so quiet, are you feeling okay?”[11]

Beyond just mimicking what humans say, researchers are finding that parrots are capable of forming new words and demonstrating an understanding of syntax. Alex, the African gray parrot, was not just a talking bird but a witty conversationalist. When avian researcher and psychologist Irene Pepperberg started working with Alex, “Bird cognition was an oxymoron,” she recalls. But she was determined to show that birds, especially those with social networks such as parrots, were intelligent. Through systematic work over four decades with Alex, she helped him develop a vocabulary of over 150 words. He was able to demonstrate understanding of colors, numbers. and abstract shapes. He independently used the word “none” to signify the idea of zero, an ability that does not arise in humans before age four. When an accountant visited Pepperberg’s lab and sat down to work without taking the effort to interact with Alex, he started the conversation: “Want a nut?” “No,” said the accountant dismissively. Alex tried again: “Want a cracker?” he asked. “No,” she responded, without looking up from her work. Finally, exasperated, Alex asked. “Well what do you want?” When he died in 2007, Alex received an honorary obituary in the The New York Times, one of the few non-humans to earn such a distinction.[12]

Birds preceded humans by 300 million years; our last common ancestor was the dinosaur. In this evolutionary bifurcation, birds developed a lightweight body in order to fly, and accordingly, they required a smaller, more efficient brain. Just as modern microprocessors evolved according to Moore’s law, which predicted smaller, faster, better microchips, the bird species could have won an evolutionary award for remarkably capable brains, with the requisite efficiency dictated by size. Their walnut-size brains contain a greater density of neurons than the human brain, certainly denser than our closest genetic relative, the chimp. Song nuclei in the brains of parrots, which scientists believe evolved more than twenty-nine million years ago, are clusters of densely packed neurons; parrots developed a unique core and shell system that sets them apart from mere mimicking birds.[13] As a result of their evolution, parrots have the capacity for vocal learning, which allows them to teach songs to new generations as well as to form new vocalizations. They develop regional dialects in the wild, helping them to identify enemies and form strong social bonds with their flock. So perhaps the expression “bird-brained” is not an insult; at the very least, it’s a phrase that doesn’t fly with ornithologists.

The provocative possibility of musical protolanguage fueled the research of Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, the older brother of Alexander. Wilhelm postulated that the earliest humans were, like birds, singing creatures, who learned to associate thoughts with tones, gradually leading to language.[14] The crucial question remains: how did emotionally expressive protolanguage evolve into meaningful language?

The photograph Humboldt’s Parrot is an idyllic nineteenth-century vision of a world where flora and fauna and humans maintain a symbiotic balance. But the story of Humboldt’s parrot orchestrates two cautionary tales into one. Humboldt thought of nature as a complex web of life, but he bore witness to environmental devastation caused by colonialism and human encroachment into the forest. He reported these signs with despair in his journals—for example, the declining population of turtles caused by over-harvesting their eggs for lamp oil, and the flooding of rivers and subsequent soil erosion caused by deforestation. He witnessed the starvation of indigenous people when their food crops were converted to sugar and indigo dye for export. This was not the extinction driven by “natural selection” later described by Darwin. It was in Humboldt’s time, as it is now, an artificial extinction in a world out of balance, where humans assert their authority through brute force, and animals are left without a voice.


[1] Friederich Max Müller, Lectures on the Science of Language (Oxford, 1861).

[2] Darwin, Descent of Man (London, 1871).

[3]Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: The Evolution (London, 1887). Darwin refers to Humboldt’s book, A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (London, 1814–25).

[4] Humboldt, A Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, During the Years 1799–1804, vol. 2 (London, 1814).

[5] Johann Goethe, Peter Eckermann, Jacob Soret, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret (London, 1850).

[6] Guillermo Cabrena Infante, Mea Cuba (London, 1999).

[7] Filipe Salvatore Gili, Saggio di Storia Americana (1780–84).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Humboldt, Personal Narrative, vol. 2.

[10] Of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, more than half are predicted to be extinct by the end of the twenty-first century.

[11] National Public Radio, “All Things Considered,” air date May 11, 2003.

[12]Alex, A Parrot Who Had a Way with Words, Dies,” The New York Times, September 10, 2007.

[13] M. Chakraborty et al., “Core and Shell Song Systems Unique to the Parrot Brain,” PLoS One, June 24, 2015.

[14] Wilhelm von Humboldt, Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development (Berlin, 1836). Alexander von Humboldt published his brother’s book posthumously.



A duel was, indeed, considered a necessary part of a young man’s education, but by no means a ground for future animosity with his opponent.

—Benjamin Cummings Truman, The Field of Honor

The mastery of pistols and firearms was an integral part of college curriculums in nineteenth-century America and a favored collegiate sport. But defending one’s honor with firearms was a dead-serious matter. The rules of chivalry required a gentleman of means to own a pair of large-caliber smoothbore flintlock pistols, and from the middle of the eighteenth century many men were called upon to use them.

Ivy League colleges boasted twenty-two varsity sports but no less than ten competitive rifle and pistol clubs. Duel teams trained in sharpshooting skills and pistol and rifle etiquette while freely exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Precision shooting requires much thought, concentration, and practice, commensurate with the rigors of a chess club, but with a bigger bang. Yet public displays of collegiate sharpshooting actually enhanced the spirit of camaraderie between schools and ranked high on the social register, often drawing large crowds of onlookers.

Because teams practiced with live ammunition, accidents were inevitable. When the campus pastor was nearly killed on the Yale campus, a seemingly antiquated statute regulating firearms had to be resurrected:

It has been given us to understand that the law referring to the use of firearms on the campus is by no means a dead letter and in the view of the recent narrow escape of our worthy pastor we are glad that it is not. If a man cannot sit in his room studying without a pistol ball’s piercing his window and whizzing by his head, we think it high time that the law was resurrected in earnest. Before this case of Professor Barbour’s we had received complaints of promiscuous use of powder and shot in some of the dormitories and had become satisfied that affairs had already come to a sad pass. This accident then, imperiling as it did the life of one we could ill afford to lose, should serve as a warning, for the lives of none of us, instructors, pastors, or pupils, should be thus put into danger.[1]

Accidents caused by stray bullets or misfire were common, and ironically were attributed to the hand of God—eliminating any possibility of litigation by the offended parties. Accidents were largely taken in stride, considered an occupational hazard by those who indulged in weaponry. Hence, in the photograph Precision Dueling Team, the sign of crossed pistols formed by flower petals quietly understates their tragic mishap, when a teammate was killed in a duel.

Statistically, compared to the mortal outcomes of unfortunate accidents, the chance of dying in a choreographed pistol duel was relatively slim. But even in the hands of a trained sharpshooter, flintlocks often misfired and the rules of engagement made an accurate shot particularly difficult. Pistols had to be discharged within three seconds of the signal; to take deliberate aim for a longer time was considered unsportsmanlike and was in any case disqualifying.

In many cases, fatalities in duels were caused through accidental discharge, stray bullets, or misfire. Outside the arena of official duels, “melancholy accidents” were regularly reported in newspapers and became a staple of American journalism beginning in the Colonial period. For most readers, these stories confirmed the belief that the choice to use guns and engage in duels exposed one to danger, preempting any claim for damages owing to unintended consequences. In 1837, one particularly egregious duel took place in Paris between two law professors. A matter of words—or punctuation—the duel was fought with swords. But the reporting was as swift as a shot fired around the world, appearing in distant newspapers the next day. The London Herald reported:

A duel with small swords took place in Paris, between two well-known jurisconsults of the Law School, on account of a passage of the Pandects. The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm. His adversary maintained that it should be a colon, and quoted, in support of his opinion, the text of Trebonius.[2]

In 1842 a series of newspaper reports played a major role in triggering a famous duel. A young Illinois state legislator lampooned his political rival, James Shields, by publishing anonymous letters in the Sangamo Journal. Among other wild schemes, Shields had proposed abolishing the use of paper money to pay bills, and his wider reputation as a pompous fool made him an easy target. Appearing daily, the anonymous letters were crowd-pleasing parodies, but Shields was not amused and demanded that the newspaper editor reveal the identity of the writer—who was disclosed to be none other than Abraham Lincoln. Shields challenged him to a duel. Although Lincoln, known as a prankster, found the circumstances absurd he knew that accepting the duel was the only honorable course. He devised a plan to make the terms as preposterous as possible. Lincoln chose his weapons with much foresight, knowing that his challenger was the better shot with a pistol. He was also aware that previous political duels had ended badly, including one involving the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, and Charles Dickenson, which left Dickenson dead and Jackson in perpetual pain.[3] Wanting neither to kill or be killed, Lincoln made an unconventional decision—his weapon of choice was the Cavalry broadsword, a sword of great length. The long sword increased the span of his lanky six-foot-four-inch frame, giving him an advantage over the much shorter Shields. Lincoln hoped this choice of weapon would intimidate Shields into backing out of the duel. The location Lincoln chose was Bloody Island, a popular dueling ground adjacent to St. Louis in the Mississippi River. But on the day of the duel, as both parties prepared to face off, a party of concerned mutual friends arrived in a rowboat and intervened, convincing the two opponents to bury the hatchet. Lincoln may have abandoned his saber, but his razor-sharp wit served him for the rest of his life, proving that the pen—and the pun—is mightier than the sword.

Perhaps the most unusual duel in history took place in hot air balloons above Paris, as reported in the Northampton Mercury News on July 23, 1808:

NOVEL DUEL — A very rare species of duel has lately taken place at Paris. M. Granpree and M. Le Pique having quarreled about Mademoiselle Tirevit, a celebrated opera dancer, who was kept by the former, but had been discovered in an intrigue with the latter, a challenge ensued. Being both men of elevated minds, they agreed to fight in balloons, and in order to give time for their preparation, it was determined that the duel should take place on that day month. Accordingly, on the 3d of May the parties met in a field adjoining the Tuilleries, where their respective balloons were ready to receive them. Each, attended by his second, ascended his car, loaded with blunderbusses, as pistols could not be expected to be efficient in their probable situations. A multitude attended, hearing of the balloons, but little dreaming of the purpose: the Parisians merely looked for the novelty of a balloon race. At nine o’clock the cords were cut, and the balloons ascended majestically amidst the shouts of the spectators. The wind was moderate, blowing from the north north-west, and then kept, as far as could be judged, within the 80 yards of each other.

Newspapers often reported on prominent duelists and unusual duels, but Judge Dooley of Georgia’s renown came chiefly from avoiding them. A man of honor with a good measure of buffoonery, he famously deployed his quick wit to remove himself from the field:

Once on a time he had the misfortune to offend Judge White, who wore one cork leg, and challenged Judge Dooley to mortal combat. The two judges met on the field at the hour appointed, but Dooley was alone. White sent to ask where his second was. To this Judge Dooley replied: “He has gone to the woods for a bit of a hollow tree to put one of my legs in, that we may be even.” The answer was too much for his opponent; he turned on the only heel he had, and left the field.[4]

On another occasion Dooley was to fight with a man stricken by a disease then referred to as St. Vitus’s dance for the uncontrolled movements it caused in the afflicted. His opponent approached, holding the pistol cocked and primed, his hand shaking nervously and his whole body jerking. Judge Dooley called for a break, then walked to a nearby clearing and found a forked stick. Returning, he stuck it in the ground in front of his quivering opponent. “What’s that for?” asked the man. Dooley replied, “I want you to rest your pistol in that fork, so that you can steady your aim. If you shoot at me with that hand shaking so, you’ll pepper me full of holes at the first fire.” The duel was postponed indefinitely.[5] Judge Dooley “joked and laughed his way out of duels with an audacious wit that compelled even the admiration of his enemies,” as an Atlanta paper summed it up. On one occasion his adversaries threatened that if he didn’t fight, his name would fill the columns of a newspaper; he replied that he would rather fill ten columns than one coffin.[6] His longevity proves that the most underrated duels may be those that were not fought.

[1]Yale Daily News, October 30, 1882.

[2]The Champion and Weekly Herald, Greater London Times, February 13, 1887.

[3] The seconds reported that when Jackson pulled the trigger his gun did not fire. According to the rules, this should have ended the duel. But Jackson cheated—re-cocking his gun, he aimed and fired at Dickenson, striking him dead.

[4] L. J. Bigelow, Bench and Bar: A Complete Digest of the Wit, Humor, Asperities, and Amenities of the Law (New York, 1867).

[5] Henry Woodfin Grady, The Speeches of Henry W. Grady (Atlanta, 1895).

[6] Report of the thirteenth annual session of the Georgia Bar Association held at Warm Springs, Georgia, 1896.



The canine breed Feist descended from an ancient line of British hunting dogs. The word “feisty” is derived from their temperament: they are forceful, fast, and full of determination despite their diminutive size. Terrier breeds such as Fox terrier, Manchester terrier, Yorkshire terrier, and Staffordshire terrier contributed to Feist ancestry. Through generations, various terrier breeds became expert at catching and killing vermin, both above and below ground, making them a valuable asset on any farm or estate, and inevitably in cities, where they were recruited to patrol the vermin-infested streets of nineteenth-century industrial London.

Ratting terriers offered not only a boon to public health but an opportunity for sporting events and gambling. At rat-baiting competitions, the dogs were released into a pit measuring about four-by-eight feet that held dozens of live rats. Spectators placed bets on how many rats the dogs could kill in a given interval, or how long it would take to kill a very large number of them—at least a hundred. An official timekeeper and referee kept everyone honest. Tavern owners saw a business opportunity in these not-yet-illegal competitions, and many added rat pits or rings to their establishments. When the sport was at its peak, London had as many as seventy rat pits.[1] The popularity of these events was even commemorated in a painting, Rat-Catching at the Blue Anchor Tavern (1850). The painting depicts a romanticized view of the owner rooting for his terrier, Tiny the Wonder, with bets laid that he could kill two hundred rats in under an hour. Described as “five and a half pounds of black and tan fury,” Tiny drew a crowd of well-dressed gentry, including the Count d’Orsay, to this pub in Finsbury, a tony district of London.

As news of British rat-baiting sport spread across the Atlantic, feisty terrier dogs were imported to America and rat pits were introduced in New York City’s vice-filled streets and taverns. Keen to make a fortune in America, Kit Burns, an immigrant from Ireland, and formerly a member of the Irish street gang known as the Dead Rabbits, opened one of the first rat pits in New York City in 1860 in a tavern known as Sportsman’s Hall. It was located at 273 Water Street, along the East River, one of the most crime-infested districts of the city. Sportsman’s Hall was reportedly dedicated to “every variety of vice,” including prostitution, blood sports, and gambling. Burns promoted illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches and dog fighting, but he became renowned for “ratting”: releasing a terrier dog into a pit containing dozens of rats in front of a crowd of wagering spectators.

Burns’ amphitheater on the first floor could accommodate “250 decent people and 400 indecent ones” during a match, paying between $1.50 and $5.00 per head depending on a dog’s reputation. In addition to hosting the spectacles, Burns had his own prize dog in the fight, a black and tan terrier named Jack, a champion able to exterminate a hundred rats in five minutes.

James Dabney McCabe, a well-known contemporaneous chronicler of urban vice, visited the rat pit and offered a description of Burns’ enterprise:

Rats are plentiful along the East River, and Burns has no difficulty in procuring as many as he desires. These and his dogs furnish the entertainment, in which he delights. The principal room of the house is arranged as an amphitheatre. The seats are rough wooden benches, and in the centre is ring or pit, enclosed by a circular wooden fence, several feet high. A number of rats are turned into this pit, and a dog of the best ferret stock is thrown in amongst them. The little creature at once falls to work to kill the rats, bets are made that she will destroy so many rats in a given time. The time is generally “made” by the little animal, who is well known to, and a great favorite with, the yelling blasphemous wretches who line the benches.[2]

McCabe went on to describe the spectators as “more inhuman in appearance” than the dogs:

Notice is given that at such time there will be a dog fight at “sportsman’s hall,” and when that time arrives the roughs and bullies of the neighborhood crowd the benches of the amphitheater. A more brutal, villainous-looking set it would be hard to find…The performance is greeted with shouts, oaths, and other frantic demonstrations of delight. Some of the men will catch up the dog in their arms and press it to their bosom in a frenzy of joy, or kiss it, forgetting that the animal is smeared with the blood of its victims. The scene is disgusting beyond description.[3]

Despite McCabe’s condemnation, Burns grew rich from his gambling exploits at Sportsman’s Hall. But New York City was rapidly expanding from a lawless port to a civilized metropolis, and the state legislature enacted a measure governing the treatment of animals in 1866. Within three days of its passage, Henry Bergh, an activist for human and animal rights, formed the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.[4] On November 31, 1870, Bergh filed an official complaint against Burns, and Sportsman’s Hall was raided by police. A story in The New York Times gave details:

The Fourth Ward Police appeared at the Tombs yesterday morning, in full force, having in their custody the thirty-four men arrested in Kit Burns’ rat pit, at No. 338 Water Street, on the complaint of Mr. Henry Bergh, President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as already published in the Times…Mr. Burgh stated that the proprietor of the rat-pit, Christopher Keybourne, alias Kit Burns, was well known as a man who delighted in such sports and made his living in the cruel torture of animals. He demanded that the accused and those arrested with him be punished to the full extent of the law, in order that these brutal sports might be stopped in the City.[5]

Nearly all of Kit’s gang were released on bail, but after their trial the rat pits of New York were effectively shut down. Kit Burns himself never made it to his trial. He died at home on December 20, 1870, less than three weeks after his arrest.

With Burns dead, and New York’s rat pits permanently closed, the ratting terrier dogs were released from the ring to roam the streets. Some found gainful employment with New York City’s professional rat catchers. Others appeared at kitchen doors of taverns, where they received food in exchange for services. In a city overrun by rats, they found sustenance, but they began to seek out humans as more than a food source.

The luckiest dogs of the litter would find employment in another sort of ring—P. T. Barnum’s three-ring circus. Following the loss of his American Museum to a tragic fire, Barnum accepted an offer from William Cameron Coup to start a traveling circus, and he scrambled to put a show together in record time. On April 10, 1871, P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus opened in Brooklyn. In the European tradition, dog trainers incorporated feisty terrier breeds into acrobatic performances, and clowns began working with dogs to enliven their acts. Intelligent, easily trained, small and sturdy, terriers were perfectly suited to circus life.

The dog and clown acts were perennial favorites, providing comic relief between the roaring lions and the stately elephants. Terriers, once famed as brutal rat killers, took readily to training, proving to be equally skilled at leaping through hoops and balancing on balls. Footballer dogs competed to dribble a ball across the ring and into a net. To the delight of children, Pinky, a diminutive terrier, balanced on a clown’s finger, and the slightly larger Trixie pedaled a tricycle. A canine dance troupe called the Foxy Terriers, known for dancing on two legs shoulder to shoulder, formed a chorus line and swayed in unison to French cabaret music. Many clowns developed dog acts, discovering that their companionship made life on the road more bearable. In addition to their performing prowess, the circus dogs were also loyal, devoted friends.

In the photograph Posthumorous, a small terrier named Rufus patiently watches over his master, Ruffles, in memoriam, displaying yet another trait of the Feist temperament: fidelis ad finem—faithful to the end.


[1] Although Parliament outlawed the baiting of large animals for sport in 1835, the rules did not yet extend to ratting dogs or vermin. Queen Victoria’s influence led to greatly improved treatment of canines.

[2] James Dabney McCabe, The Secrets of the Great City (Philadelphia, 1868).

[3] Ibid.

[4] The ASPCA was founded on April 10, 1866.

[5]New York Times, November 23, 1870.



The light is everything to a good manipulator—not the quantity, but the quality—when he has the skill and good taste to manage it.

—From the Philadelphia Photographer, 1864

A skylight studio was the aspiration of every photographer in the nineteenth century. Not only was the abundant sunlight indispensable for the slow photographic processes of the time, but the classic northern exposure created the soft, shadow-less light that complimented most sitters. A skylight studio qualified the photographer in an artistic milieu, enhancing his reputation as well as bringing out the best disposition of his subjects. Photographers paid a price for exquisite light: skylights notoriously leaked during the rainy season, demanding constant repair from a local tinman. But clients would be satisfied only by the most flattering lighting for their portraits, so the expense was worth it, if the business was to succeed.

A photographic studio (or atelier, if one is in Europe) is much more than a workspace; it is a living entity, growing and evolving in order to thrive. The interior space of the studio is in a state of perpetual motion, with an abundance of props and sets constantly shifting to create the illusory backgrounds for the photographs. The most celebrated photographers of their day were conjurers, illusionists who manipulated sets and backdrops and costumes.

For those who were just starting out, the Philadelphia Photographer journal recommended keeping decor to a minimum, instead designing a shooting space that would achieve the best result:

The erection of a studio is a matter that should command the very best attention of the interested. It is in the studio that the photographer makes his money, and therefore on the studio is where the expense should be devoted to make it perfect, rather than on a gorgeous front or a tawdry reception room.[1]

An example of a bare-bones, almost makeshift operation was William McIntrye’s building in the city of Lexington, Michigan. Sticks of two-by-fours leveraged the exterior walls, but he boasted a skylight of impressive dimensions. Despite its ramshackle exterior, McIntyre named his studio the “Star Gallery,” and advertised that he did “fine work at reasonable prices.”[2]

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some studios were embellished to the point of absurdity. Louis Thors spared no expense in the design and accoutrements of his studio. Thors began drawing up his own conception of the perfect studio, and in summer of 1898 moved into his dream accommodation, built to specification in the Phelan Building. Newspaper reporters enthused upon its opening: “On the lower or main floor of the new gallery are situated the reception room, directly connected with the street below by a special elevator erected for the purpose; five dressing rooms, each provided with every facility for which it has been designed; two dark rooms, an office, an artist’s room, a finishing room, a fire proof negative vault in which are stored over 120,000 negatives, and a retouching room. All of these apartments are spacious…The reception room is probably the most elaborate of its kind ever designed. It is over a hundred feet square, twenty feet high, with an art-stained glass dome directly in the center over twenty feet in diameter. The decorations consist of a magnificent contrast of Egyptian red and black, the wall frescoing being of the former tint, and the heavy woodwork of the latter.” Once installed in his palace, Louis Thors enjoyed recognition as preeminent in his craft.[3]

This degree of opulence proved unsustainable, and within a few short years Thors’ business was shuttered. Before its demise, however, he boasted that he was the only photographer west of the Rockies to practice the “Nadar Style” of photography. The source of his inspiration, Nadar, was of course the influential French portraitist who immortalized the great artists and writers of the nineteenth century, such as Édouard Manet, Charles Baudelaire, and Sarah Bernhardt.[4] Felix Nadar had founded a grand Parisian photographic workshop in 1855, and he quickly became known as a “celebrity photographer” in Paris and around the world.[5]

In his legendary studio, he used natural light to artistic advantage, creating what became known as the “Rembrandt portrait”:

Of the earliest photographic establishments in Paris, that which Nadar occupies shows an entirely new departure, and an eminently original personality. Nadar worked generally in full sunlight, or at least by lighting the subject in such a way that one side of the face was very light, and the other very dark. This resembled very much what is now called the Rembrandt portrait…He opened a studio on the Blvd des Capucines near the Madeleine. He had there in the second story a glass-room and ateliers, which differed only from those of his co-workers by their large dimensions and their style of ornamentation.[6]

The façade of Nadar’s studio on Boulevard des Capucines was an intriguing tribute to both classicism and modernism. The Three Graces, classical female busts sculpted in marble by his friend Émile Blavier, topped the pediment of the third floor. Nadar’s immense red signature, in gas-lit tubing made by Antoine Lumière (father of Auguste and Louis Lumière), glowed on the front of the building.

To be photographed by Nadar was to become complicit in a rare adventure. The client’s entrance to the studio amounted to an initiation into his mind and sensibilities. The interior of the studio was a veritable carnival of red—his favorite color. The walls of the outer rooms, painted red, were lined with portraits of famous artists and writers. Decorated with valuable art and porcelain and a collection of oddities, these rooms can only be described as a bizarre cabinet of curiosities. In a surprising nod to a natural history museum, one side of the room contained a waterfall dripping into a stone grotto with a vertical garden of tropical plants. Hovering above this miniature Eden, a taxidermy alligator was suspended from the ceiling.

Nadar himself, a large man with pale complexion and flaming red hair and mustache, greeted visitors wearing a red velvet robe. With his deliberately dramatic self-presentation, he looked to them like a stage devil from a lavish theatrical spectacle.

When the hour of sitting arrives, the customer ascends to the second story, on which are the operating-rooms and the laboratories. The ladies, who may have something to change, may stop on the first ground floor where there is a large cabinet boudoir for their use…In the first story is the main operating-room which is fourteen metres long by twelve wide and three metres in average height. The skylight, which is straight and not inclined as is generally the case, is hung with three rows of curtains (made of muslin and cretonne, both of grayish tint) which move in all directions. A small rolling chamber, which is also furnished with a double row of curtains, and which can be moved in any direction, allows the operator, according to the season, the hour, and type of the sitters, to light them under all their aspects, and at all angles, from a front-light to the divers glancing lights of that known by the name of “the illumination of the foot-lights.”[7]

Large, elaborate backgrounds, commissioned from some of the best scene painters in Paris, offered a variety of landscapes and subjects. A rare photograph of Nadar and his wife in their studio depicts them in front of a trompe l’oeil painted backdrop with fluffy clouds. Nestled inside the basket of a hot air balloon, Nadar is fashionably turned out in his top hat and curling mustache, and his wife wears a bonnet and cape. Air blowing from a studio fan wafts through her hair and ruffles Nadar’s bow tie. He gazes into the distance, as though looking out over the city of Paris from his perch aloft in the clouds.

Before his rise to fame as a photographer, Nadar, who was obsessed with aerostatics, had ascended into the sky above Paris in a hot air balloon of his own design. He made numerous ascents, invariably witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. On his first successful attempt, he was said to have exclaimed,“J’ai le soleil dans ma pêche” (literally, I have the sun in my catch). But one of his flights was a catastrophe, from which he and his wife barely escaped with their lives.[8] Following the mishap, Nadar decided to devote himself to the art of photography, settling on the third floor of his studio on Boulevard des Capucines. Buoyed by the potential of his new skylight studios, with three stories of north-facing glass walls and a rooftop terrace, the former aerialist may have been grounded, but his feet were not quite touching the ground. Here, the sun was truly “in his catch” as he embarked on a celestial career in portraiture.

A variant photograph from the series of Nadar in a hot air balloon reveals a glimpse of two figures off the edge of the set, the two other Nadars: Felix’s brother Adrien, a promising artist who studied with the great photographer Gustave Le Gray, and Paul, Felix’s son. Although Felix was long recognized as the only Nadar, both Adrien and Paul were an integral part of daily operations in the studio.[9] Adrien, whose photographs were mostly attributed to Felix, was known as the “young Nadar.” Paul, like his father, photographed well-known artists and high-society figures of the Belle Époque.

The photograph Zohar Studios, Unexpurgated renders the full dimensions of Zohar’s overhead skylight and tall, north-facing wall of glass. The muslin drape below the skylight unfurls to produce his signature soft, even light—a reminder of how integral sunlight was to early photographic processes. Before the invention of electricity—and before flash powder and artificial light—studio photographers relied entirely on abundant sunlight to expose their plates, and strategically placed windows and skylights were essential.[10]

Among the many nineteenth-century studio photographers, a few became famous, like Nadar, and are still well known, while a few others are better known now than in their own time. Anonymity in varying degrees continues to be the fate of most of them. Collectively, however, these studio photographers comprise a composite portrait of the grand era of skylight studios.

Zohar’s studio was a shrine to sunlight in an era when photographers still conformed to circadian rhythms, working from sunup to sundown. But the epoch marked by a dependency on natural light was coming to a close, with innovations in electricity literally around the corner. In 1882 the Edison Electric Company constructed the first commercial power station in the country, located at 257 Pearl Street, just a block away from Zohar’s studio. An early beneficiary of electric illumination, The New York Times, reported on its advantages: “The 25 electric lamps in the editorial rooms and the 25 lamps in the counting-rooms made those departments as bright as day, but without any unpleasant glare. It was a light that a [person] could sit down under and write for hours without the consciousness of having an artificial light.”[11] On September 4, 1882, Edison’s electric power station lit up the lower district of Manhattan for the first time, signaling the dawn of artificial illumination.


[1]Philadelphia Photographer, 1864.

[2] This name and location were printed on the reverse of some card photographs.

[3]San Francisco Call, August 1896.

[4] For more about Nadar, see annotations in this book, Lessons Lost and History of Dread: A Guide for the Perplexed.

[5] Gaspard-Felix Tournachon was Nadar’s birth name. In 1839 he changed the last syllable of Tournachon to “dar” (also a popular pun), and dropping the “Tour” he became Nadar. He later sued his brother Adrien for using the name Nadar for his own photography business.

[6] Excerpts from Photography in France by Ernest Lacan; reprinted in the Philadelphia Photographer, 1864.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nadar’s other innovations in balloon flight included the design of the world’s largest hot air balloon, Le Géant, which was equipped with a photographic laboratory and could accommodate forty-five passengers.

[9] In addition to his brother and his son, Nadar employed a full staff in his studio: “two aides and a boy complete the service in the making of the negatives; four printers and toners; six retouchers of negatives, three artists for retouching the positive prints; three women for mounting, two ladies for the reception of customers and the keeping of the books; and finally, four male and female servants. Such is the ensemble of the working force at the command of the celebrated artist, to defy competition and overcome the difficulties of the art.” From Photography in France by Ernest Lacan, reprinted in the Philadelphia Photographer, 1864.

[10] Nadar, an early experimenter with artificial lighting, photographed cavernous underground scenes in the catacombs in Paris using large Bunsen batteries to power lights.

[11]New York Times, September 5, 1882.


Stephen Berkman : Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios : The Lost Years

Stephen Berkman





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