Fort Jefferson: A 19th-Century Prison Located in Paradise
Seventy miles west of Key West is a huge hexagonal fortress that seems to float on the water. This is Fort Jefferson, a palatial yet sinister place designed to guard the piracy-prone shipping routes of the Caribbean.
Construction on Fort Jefferson began on a reef known as Garden Key in 1846. At the time of the Civil War, the fort was home to over 1,700 military and a few hundred civilian people. Soldiers who disgraced themselves by deserting the Union were sent to the military prison on Fort Jefferson. A few civilians were locked up there, too — the most common crime being robbery.
In 1865, a man of particular infamy arrived at the prison. His name, quite literally, was Mudd: Samuel Mudd, a doctor convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln. (John Wilkes Booth stopped by Mudd's house at four in the morning after breaking his leg while fleeing Ford's Theater. The doctor set and bandaged Booth's leg, then allowed the injured assassin to hole up in his spare bedroom.)
When Mudd and three fellow convicted conspirators landed at Fort Jefferson, there were about 600 prisoners living in open-air casements. In 1867, an outbreak of yellow fever swept through the fort, killing inmates and the prison doctor. Mudd became the new physician in charge and was able to limit further spread of the disease. In recognition of his efforts, Mudd was pardoned by President Johnson and left Fort Jefferson in 1869.
By 1874, the fort had become too expensive to maintain and was no longer a vital part of the maritime defense strategy. The army packed up and left.
Fort Jefferson is now part of the Dry Tortugas National Park, which encompasses seven small islands and a whole lot of turquoise-tinted water. You can visit the fort, see Mudd's old cell, and snorkel around the moat walls of Garden Key.
Need a maritime location for an evil lair? Read Allison Meier's roundup of isolated sea fortresses.
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South Korea's Trick Eye Museum Makes Deception Fun
If you've ever posed for a photo in which you're pushing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tweaking the tip of an Egyptian pyramid, or letting the Statue of Liberty's torch pick your nose, the Trick Eye Museum is for you.
Located in the hopping Hangdae district of Seoul, the museum presents a series of trompe l'oeil paintings and optically illusive sculptures, all of which invite you to become part of the action. You can pose holding the head of John the Baptist, grimace as you get faux-stabbed by a medieval jouster, and even put your hands on an oar to give a bare-butted man a beating as he lies tied to a wooden cross in a gravel yard. Kids love it.
There are also less-violent options, such as posing in front of giant angel wings, pretending to lift a hefty barbell, and helping a sushi chef lift a massive piece of salmon nigiri.
The bronze sculpture of a boy defecating on the floor is a mystery, but attracts many a giggling amateur photographer.
Other quirky museums:
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The Real Fake Fertility Temple of Chucuito, Peru
Don't ask too many questions about the phalluses. That's the main thing to keep in mind when visiting the Inca Uyo, a Peruvian temple whose yard is full full of penis-shaped "ruins."
Local guides will tell you that Incan women once flocked to the site in order to engage in fertility-boosting rituals, such as sitting on one of the stones and being doused in corn beer by a priest. They are almost certainly pulling your leg.
The temple itself, located in Chucuito just south of Puno, is hundreds of years old. But the phalluses are a much more recent addition to its yard. The stones were found in storage sheds, yards, and houses around the town. Their origin and function are unknown, and though they are ancient, it's highly unlikely they were ever placed to resemble rows of phalluses in the temple. Similarly shaped cylindrical stones can be found at Machu Picchu, but they are not arranged vertically.
In 2006, local restaurateur Juan Luis Nuñez Geldres told the New York Times that he came up with the idea of moving the stones to the Inca Uyo to create a "fertility temple" as a joke while drunk one night. However, Enrique Morro, formerly of the National Institute of Culture, claims he himself transported them there and arranged them in an approximation of how the site might have once looked.
The residents of Chucuito may have created their own myth for the sake of tourism, but don't expect the tour guides to admit to it. The penis temple of Puno has taken on a life and alternate history of its own.
Further phallic findings:
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Lithuania's Remarkable Hill of Crosses
Should you ever feel the urge to be surrounded by Christianity's best-known symbol, head to the Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania.
Crosses have been accumulating on the mound of this former fort since the 14th century, when Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire occupied the nearby city of Šiauliai. New crosses tend to appear during periods of occupation or unrest as symbols for Lithuanian independence. This was particularly evident during a peasant uprising against Russian control in 1831, when people began placing crucifixes in remembrance of missing and dead rebels. By 1895, there were 150 large crosses on the site. In 1940, the number had grown to 400.
During the Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1944 to 1991, the Hill of Crosses was bulldozed three times. Each time, locals and pilgrims returned to put up more crosses. The site achieved worldwide fame among Catholics when Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 to thank Lithuanians for their enduring symbol of faith.
There are now approximately 100,000 crosses on the hill. The faithful are welcome to add their contribution, in whatever form they wish — a crucifix made of Lego recently joined the collection.
More crosses to bear:
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Modern Mummification for You and Your Pet
Does a stroll through a museum's Egyptian wing put a spring in your step? Are you seeking a more creative post-mortem procedure than cremation or boring old burial? Perhaps modern mummification is for you.
Inside an orange pyramid in Salt Lake City, right beside the Lincoln Highway, is a religious group willing to mummify your corpse. The religion, Summum, was founded in 1975 by Claude Nowell, who claimed to have been visited by advanced beings who revealed to him the nature of creation.
Transfixed by the encounter, Nowell, who came to be known as Corky Ra, felt the need to share his new knowledge in a new venue. In 1977, he and a group of volunteers built the pyramid. It has since served as a teaching space and production center for Summum's nectars — concoctions designed to induce spiritual awakening, inner peace, and sexual ecstasy.
But back to the mummies. According to Summum philosophy, death does not snuff out a person's awareness or ability to feel. Though bereft of a body, our consciousness, or essence, sticks around — and gets thoroughly confused by the change in circumstances.
"Most people are buried or cremated," the Summum website states, "and this places their essence in less than favorable circumstances leaving it to fend for itself."
The solution: mummification. By preserving your body, Summum provides a "home base" for your essence post-death. Secure in this wrapped-up, chemically preserved corpse, your essence can safely communicate and make plans to move on to its next destination.
Summum's mummification process begins with a bathing and cleansing of the body. The internal organs are removed via a neat incision, cleansed, and put back. Then the whole body is immersed in a baptismal font filled with a preservative liquid, the exact composition of which is a secret. After a nice long soak, the body is wrapped in cotton gauze, encased in a polyurethane membrane, and covered in layers of fiberglass and resin.
The final step is to be hermetically sealed in a sarcophagus, or "mummiform." Summum offers lots of customization options for your mummiform. You can go with a traditional golden Egyptian look featuring ankhs and scarabs, or you can choose a simple, streamlined capsule. Regardless of what design you choose, Summum is happy to incorporate symbols from your personal philosophies and religion, whether that be Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.
The entire mummification process takes four to eight months. As you might expect, it does not come cheap: Summum's quoted price for mummifying a human — excluding the cost of the mummiform, funeral, and transport of the body — is $67,000. For a cheaper option, you could always preserve the family pet. Cats and dogs under 15 pounds can be mummified for $4,000.
Corky Ra himself became the first Summum mummy following his death in 2008. His mummiform, and that of his cat, Oscar, is on display at the pyramid. If you'd like to see it you can attend one of Summum's publicly accessible Wednesday evening philosophy sessions.
More marvelous mummies:
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The Hidden Dinosaur of Ta Prohm Temple
Stegosaurs roamed Europe and North America during the late Jurassic period, roughly 150 million years ago. Judging from a small carving in an Angkor temple, one or two may have spent some time in Cambodia, too — in the 12th century AD.
A carving on the wall of the Ta Prohm temple, built in the late 1100s, bears more than a passing resemblance to the round-backed dinosaur. Since a 1997 guidebook first pointed out the strange carving, creationists have held up the Ta Prohm dinosaur as proof that humans and stegosauruses once co-existed in Cambodia. There is even a replica of the carving on display at the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas.
While the carved animal does seem to have a row of plates along its spine, it's not the most compelling argument for revising the prehistoric timeline. The bas relief could be a depiction of a rhino or chameleon, with the "plates" forming a stylized version of foliage. But the curious carving adds another element of intrigue to the gorgeously ruined Tomb Raider temple.
More dinos to discover:
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Opossum World, Where Cute But Threatening Critters are Hated to Death
The seaside city of Napier, on New Zealand's North Island, is the home of Art Deco architecture, some wonderful wineries, and Opossum World, an educational display about the common brushtail possum.
From a distance, the cuddly-looking animal on the Opossum World sign hints at a menagerie of adorable creatures therein. Get closer, however, and you'll see the words "Unique fur blend products." Opossum World is not a sanctuary. It is not a zoo. The proprieters hate possums, want them dead, and sell a wide range of products made from their skins.
The possum-loathing people of Napier are not alone in their ire. The common brushtail possum, native to Australia, was introduced to New Zealand in 1837 with the aim of creating a fur industry. In Australia, dingoes, bushfires, and limited edible vegetation keep the possum population under control. New Zealand, however, has far fewer dingoes, is less prone to bushfires, and is resplendent with delicious fruits, ferns, and fungi. It's paradise for possums.
Unbothered by predators and free to gorge themselves, the brushtail possums proliferated. There are now up to 60 million of them in New Zealand. The country's human population is 4.5 million.
Cute though they may be, possums pose a significant threat to New Zealand's forests and eco-systems. In addition to chowing down on native trees, the critters disturb the nests of native birds, eat their eggs and chicks, and are carriers of bovine tuberculosis. For the good of the country, the solution is simple: the possums need to die.
The Department of Conservation drops the poison sodium fluoroacetate (also known as 1080) from helicopters to kill the brushtails. On an individual level, farmers gladly shoot or poison possums with no remorse. Kids even get in on the action: in 2010 a school in Manawatu came under fire from the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after it held a dead possum-throwing contest during a fundraiser.
Opossum World promotes the possums-are-evil message with dioramas depicting taxidermied possums in deranged poses. Alongside the educational displays is a gift shop where you can purchase luxury rugs, slippers, scarves, and pill box hats, all made from possum fur.
Furred and feathered friends:
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Skellig Michael: Treacherous Rocks, Hardcore Monks, and Adorable Puffins
The dozen monks who sequestered themselves on this rocky island in the seventh century were a hardy lot. Skellig Michael — "skellig," derived from the Irish word sceillic, means "steep rock" — lies eight miles from the coast of County Kerry. It is beset by wind and rain, which make the ascent to its 714-foot-high peak extra treacherous.
Despite these conditions, a group of determined Irish Christians established a monastic outpost on the island that remains largely intact 1,400 years later. Using stones, the monks built hundreds of stairs leading up to Skellig Michael's summit, where they erected six beehive-shaped stone huts and a small chapel.
Surviving on a diet of fish, seabirds, and vegetables grown in the monastery garden, monks occupied Skellig Michael continuously until the late 12th century, when a worsening climate and more frequent storms sent them back to the mainland. The settlement survived multiple Viking raids during the ninth century.
Climbing the 670 steep, uneven steps to the top presents both a physical and mental challenge, but crowds of puffins and other seabirds are there to cheer you on. At the summit you can enter the monastic huts and imagine the grueling life of a seventh-century ascetic.
Rocky island highs:
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Cash Caskets and Crab Coffins at the National Museum of Funeral History
"Any day above ground is a good one." So reads the slogan of Houston's National Museum of Funeral History, which celebrates life by showing how we honor the loss of it.
Founded in 1992 by undertaker Robert Waltrip, the museum displays the country's largest collection of funeral artifacts, ranging from 19th-century horse-drawn hearses to memorabilia from Michael Jackson's memorial service.
The exhibit on 19th-century mourning customs provides a fascinating look at the Victorian response to death. Among the items are a wooden clock that reminded family members to mourn on the hour, a quilt made from ribbons that bound the flowers at a funeral service, and jewelry made from the hair of the deceased.
Other exhibits cover the history of embalming, papal and presidential funerals, and Ghanan "fantasy coffins" — body boxes made in the shape of fish, chickens, and racecars. There is much to catch your eye, but look out for the Snow White-inspired glass casket and the coffin built for three.
Fun with funerals:
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The Places that Protect Knowledge, Gold, and Nukes
In today's global tour of carefully guarded collections, we focus on knowledge, nukes, and gold. Here's where to find all three under lock and key.
In the Middle Ages, before the invention of the printing press, a collection of 150 books constituted a major library. Each hand-transcribed volumes on law and religion was unique, irreplaceable and highly valuable. To prevent against theft, librarians would chain books to their shelves. The chained library at Hereford Cathedral, established in 1611, contains 1,500 rare books, including 229 medieval manuscripts.
Cold War nukes
Among the indelible, Hollywood-enhanced images of the Cold War era is that of two tense officers locking eyes as each turns the ignition key that launches the world-ending nuke.
At the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona, you can participate in a version of this two-person apocalypse-inducing process. The museum is a former subterranean missile site, decommissioned in 1982. Its silo still contains a Titan II missile, but with the lethal bits removed.
The Titan II launch process began with a 35-character alphanumeric message from the President. The commander and officer at the launch center each copied down the message, then conferred with one another to make sure the codes were identical.
It was then time to open the Emergency War Order (EWO) safe, which contained authenticator cards used to confirm that the message did indeed come from the President. Also in the safe: two launch keys, which the commander and officer would insert simultaneously at separate control stations.
Once the keys had been turned, there was no going back: 58 seconds later, the missile would be on its way to the pre-programmed target. Launch crews never knew the targets — it's easier to fire a nuclear missile when you don't know who it will kill.
At 33 Liberty Street in Manhattan, 80 feet underground, is the gold vault of New York's Federal Reserve Bank. Inside the vault's 122 compartments are over 500,000 gold bars, none of which belong to the New York Fed. The bank acts as a gold custodian for its account holders, which include the U.S. government, foreign governments, and international banks. (No individual customers, if you please — you must be a big-shot financial entity or government to store your bullion here.)
The entrance to the gold vault is secured by a 90-ton, nine-foot-tall steel cylinder. When closed, the vault is airtight, watertight, and protected by time locks which prevent entry until the next business day.
You can see the gold vault during a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Want to know more about time locks and antique bank vault security mechanisms? Join Atlas Obscura at the John M. Mossman Lock Collection, located in the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in midtown New York. On the evening of Friday, March 28, we'll be hosting a cocktails-and-lockpicking party, featuring an open bar, live music, and lockpick kits for all.
Also under lock and key: