Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

July 27 2016 1:30 PM

The King of Lighthouses Covers Its Entire Island

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Miles off the coast of southwestern England lies an archipelago of islands called the Isles of Scilly, regarded as the southernmost point of the United Kingdom and the westernmost point of England. Comprised of 145 islands, only six of the isles have been inhabited at any one point in time, the smallest of which, Bishop Rock, is a mere 0.000736 square kilometers—under 8,000 square feet at low tide.

On this minuscule island stands a single lighthouse that covers nearly every inch of the island. It was the permanent home to a small team of lighthouse keepers from its construction in 1858 until the year it became automated in 1991. Nowadays, it serves as both a beacon of light for sailors and a miniature hotel for any group of four eccentric history buffs looking to live in complete isolation for a few weeks.


Why was this thing constructed in the first place? Shipwrecks. It all started in 1707, when the HMS Association and three other ships crashed into a rock nearby Bishop Rock, killing 1,550 people—the worst crash in the history of the British Isles. Over 100 years later, Bishop Rock itself was struck, twice. The wrecks prompted the construction of a lighthouse, on the westernmost rock, to warn incoming ships as early as possible.

The lighthouse on Bishop Rock must have been extremely difficult to build. At high tide, the base of the lighthouse covers practically every square inch of the island, giving no room for proper footing. After three years of construction, a storm in 1850 blew the lighthouse off the ground, destroying £12,500 (modern day $1.9 million) of work.

But after being completed in 1858 and renovated in 1887, the structure has been dubbed “King of the Lighthouses.” It is indeed a beauty, the second tallest in the U.K., at 167 feet. Its 10 floors hold a water tank, two oil rooms, a living room, a bedroom, and even a helipad on top.

The lighthouse has also collected world records. When inhabited, Bishop Rock can qualify as the the world's smallest island. And year-round it has the peculiar distinction of being the world’s smallest island with a building on it—that is until someone decides to build a structure on an even smaller isle.

This place submitted by Atlas user lewblank

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 26 2016 5:00 PM

The Taxidermy Treasures of the Pember Museum

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For nearly 50 years, from 1924 to 1971, the second floor of the Granville library was the stuff of local rumor and legend.

Occasionally a kindly librarian might let an inquisitive child tiptoe up the grand wooden staircase and through the mysterious second-floor door. He or she would find the room dusty, dark and smelling of mothballs. Within that gloom it was packed full to bursting with creatures from all around the world. Thousands of glass eyes reflected the little light that made it in. A portal to the past, the cobwebbed collection was almost exactly as it was when it was premiered in 1909.


Today the Pember Museum has been re-opened and is in active use, but thankfully it hasn't changed much in terms of aesthetics. It is still very much the Victorian natural history museum it's creator Franklin T. Pember intended. Pember was born in South Granville, New York, in 1841 the son of prosperous farmers. An early collector of natural specimens Pember began his collection when he was only 21. However much of Pember's personal and financial success would come after he met and married his wife Ellen Wood at age 27 in 1868.

Ellen and Franklin Pember were a kind of Victorian power couple and throughout their lives their partnership was remarked on for its closeness and love. Together they began to build a small empire based around the natural world. Franklin made much of his wealth not through farming—he wrote to Ellen that he thought it was too much damn work for the reward—but through the fur trade, establishing the "Pember and Prouty, Commision Dealer of Furs and Skins" in New York City. As the Pembers grew in wealth, they traveled the country and the world where Franklin continually hunted and collected an ever-increasing set of natural specimens.

The Pembers eventually funded the building of Granville library that the museum was to go into, and in 1909 Franklin's life's work was assembled and opened as the Pember Museum. It is displayed today much then as it was then, an incredible natural history collection displayed in wood and class cases. Victorian maximalism at its best. Unfortunately not long after the Pembers’ deaths (they died within a few weeks of each other) in 1924, the Pember Museum fell into neglect and disuse.

Today, revitalized by in the 1970s by the local community of Granville, the Pember is open and active. As one explores, Pember's presence can be felt throughout. Pember did much of the collecting, as well as the taxidermy in the museum himself, and his obvious love of natural history and his skillful hand at taxidermy are on beautiful display.

Place contributed by Dylan

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Sunken Church of Romà de Sau

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Sometimes old ruins just get in the way of modern progress. When that happens, there is apparently no other choice than to flood a 1,000-year-old city with breathtaking Romanesque ruins. Despite the deluge, after 50 years, the proud spire of the village's church won't go away so easily.

In the 1960s, the Catalonian government made the choice to create a reservoir on the site of San Romà de Sau, a village that had been inhabited for a millennium. Forced to leave their town, the people made their best effort to take their valuables and even exhume their dead before the man-made flood. Leaving the skeleton of their town, they headed inland.


As predicted, the creation of the reservoir flooded San Romà de Sau and completely submerged the buildings. However, when water levels in the area drop, the ghost village eerily emerges from the water, highlighted by the three-story church of the town.

Although very small, the pointed spire of the church can still be seen from anywhere in the surrounding hills. When the reservoir is high, only the tip of the Romanesque spire can be seen, but during periods of drought, the entire church emerges on dry land. During one of the dry periods, an effort to fortify the remains took place, and the church was reinforced with concrete. Despite being reinforced, the church is off limits to visitors and has a fence surrounding it that sinks with the water level as well.

Along with the church, other ruins of the town including an empty cemetery and the foundations of other buildings come to the surface as well and are frequently visited by tourists.

This place was contributed by vturiserra

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 22 2016 6:00 PM

The Leaning Tower of Texas

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Despite a population of 574 residents and its location in the middle of nowhere, the town of Groom, Texas, has nearly as many unique attributes as it does people.

These include a small stretch of the original Route 66, the site of the plot of Cross Canadian Ragweed’s song “42 Miles,” the seventh-largest freestanding cross in the world (at 190 feet), and a strange leaning water tower slanted at an uncomfortable angle.


This water tower lies right alongside the former path of Route 66, which has since been paved over to create U.S. Interstate 40. During the early and mid-20th century, passersby on the Mother Road were intrigued by the severe tilt of the tower, asking themselves what on Earth could have caused it. A crashing plane? An earthquake? A giant tornado?

In reality, it was the work of a heavy-duty vehicle and a bulldozer. Ralph Britten, a man who wanted to start up a truck stop and restaurant off Route 66 in Groom, bought the water tower from the town of Lefors as an ingenious marketing technique to attract new visitors. He towed the enormous thing 34 miles to Groom, wrote “Britten USA” on top, and then, using a bulldozer, elevated two of its legs off the ground, dangling them in midair without support, so that the water tower made an 80-degree angle with the ground.

This helped his business immeasurably. It would catch the eye of every passing motorist on the route for years, many of them becoming terrified that the tower was in the process of collapsing. This played right into Britten’s hand. Worried route-takers often swerved off the road and into his truck stop, shouting “watch out! That tower’s about to fall!” Britten responded that it had been like that for years and then asked them to sit down and buy food and a drink.

Britten’s manipulation of the tower did, however, require sufficient knowledge of physics. If the water tower were completely empty or completely full, its center of mass would be directly in the middle of the can, making it topple when slanted. So Britten filled it only partially, so that the low level of water would place the can’s center of mass near its base, directly above the two supporting legs, keeping it aloft.

Unfortunately, after many years of success, Britten’s truck stop burned down in a devastating fire, closing down all sales. Despite this unfortunate event, the leaning water tower is still one of the most photographed oddities on the way out West.

Originally contributed by Atlas User lewblank

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places:Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 21 2016 12:30 PM

How Hardened Gangsters Got the Cute Name “Bugsy”

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“Bugsy” seems like a pretty adorable name for a ruthless mobster, so how did it become so widely associated with grim mafiosos?

From Murder, Inc. founder Bugsy Siegel to more recent criminals like Bugsy Noonan, the silly-sounding name has instilled intimidation and fear among those in the criminal underworld for decades. It's still a name that is mainly recognized as having criminal connotations in popular media. And it’s all thanks to crazy.


The exact origin of the term is unclear, but it seems to have become popular during the early 20th century. Rather than just having a playful cadence, “bugsy” came from comparisons to someone who’d been driven insane by bugs. To call someone “bugs” or refer to a person as “bugsy” was to call him crazy or unstable. Not a bad rap for a criminal looking to create a reputation for violence.

Before (and after) Bugsy Siegel got big in the '30s, there was George “Bugs” Moran, who got his nickname for the same reason his more famous criminal underclassman would get his: for being buggy. Moran started being called Bugs early in his crime career, having been thrown in jail at least three times before he was even 21. It stuck. Bugs Moran is the name by which he is remembered when people discuss his Chicago gang war with Al Capone.

The nickname “Bugsy” really took off in the popular consciousness when it was unofficially given to famous criminal figure Benjamin Siegel. Known for his hair-trigger temper and casually violent enforcement tactics, Siegel got a reputation for being “crazy as a bedbug,” among his fellow gangsters, who were the ones to begin calling him “Bugsy” among themselves.

Unfortunately for his fellow gangsters, Siegel was none too fond of his dangerously playful nickname and was known to violently lash out at anyone with the gall to use it to his face. Unfortunately for Siegel, it is nearly the only name he is now remembered by, and thanks to him, has become synonymous with gangster toughs from then on. For a classic example, see the 1976 musical comedy Bugsy Malone, which turned a child cast into a singing and dancing version of a criminal underworld.

Outside of hardened criminals, the nickname “Bugs” worked its way into the larger cultural lexicon when a wascally wabbit was given the name Bugs Bunny. While it has been thought that his name was a riff on Bugsy Siegel, it was actually a reference to one of the early Looney Tunes animators, Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who came by the nickname the traditional way: being a bit crazy.

Even today the nickname “Bugsy” is being used by high-profile hard cases like Bugsy Noonan, son of Dominic Noonan, subject of the 2007 documentary, A Very British Gangster. Calling someone Bugsy still means that he’s crazy, but thanks to all the high-profile gangland nicknames, it’ll probably always imply a bit of underworld influence as well.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 20 2016 12:30 PM

The World’s Only Mounted Blue Whale

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In 1865, a young blue whale beached on the rocks of Askim Bay, not far from the city of Göteborg. In those heady days, beached whales were not generally rescued but slaughtered, and such was the fate of this one.

The fishermen who first discovered the poor stranded whale started the procedure by poking its eyes out, so that it would "not be able to see us." Over the next two days, the creature was methodically axed, speared and shot until it finally died in a sea of its own blood.


The next day, August Wilhelm Malm, taxidermist and curator of the Gothenburg Museum, showed up to the scene and purchased the beast from its killers for his museum collection. Not content to hack the creature apart to transport just major pieces to the museum, Malm decided that he had to have the whale whole and intact. It took three steamboats and two coal barges to tow the whale to the Göteborg shore. Greeted by a crowded of excited onlookers, Malm took the opportunity to climb up onto the head of the his prize and deliver a lecture on whales.

The whale's organs were preserved in barrels in the yard of the museum, its skin was treated over a number of weeks, the baleen was hung and salted, and the skeleton was boiled and cleaned. Meanwhile a great wooden frame was built in rough whale shape and completed with a hinged jaw. The skin was stretched over the frame, held together by brass tacks like a leather sofa.

The hinged jaw was made to be opened to allow visitors to descend into the belly of the beast, which was comfortably outfitted with benches, carpeting, and wall hangings. The Malm Whale spent many years traveling around Europe, inviting the curious in for a chance to experience Jonah's fate, before finally making its home at the Göteborg Natural History Museum, where it still sits today.

Originally the whale's jaw was open all of the time, and the attraction drew people far and wide. Sometime in the 1930s a couple was found "making love" inside the creature, and from then on, the museum decided to only open him up on special occasions, like Swedish election days. Of the amorous natural history enthusiasts, a chairman of the museum, commented, "We must be content with the fact that it was two citizens of our own city that enjoyed this privilege."

Originally contributed by Atlas User michelle

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 18 2016 12:30 PM

The Secret Brooklyn Bridge Fallout Shelter

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In 2006, a group of inspectors from the New York City Department of Transportation were on their standard rounds of bridge and tunnel inspections. The rounds were usual except for one discovery: Somewhere deep in the Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge the group stumbled into a hidden room filled with blankets, water, a shock-prevention drug called dextran, and 350,000 crackers.

Judging from the dates stamped on the supplies (1957 and 1962), what they discovered seemed to be a Cold War-era bunker or fallout shelter. Emergency survival shelters weren’t unusual back then—you can still see thousands of old “Fallout Shelter” signs and logos on buildings throughout the city. But one inside the Brooklyn Bridge? That no one knew about? That’s a different story.


The inventory of the bunker’s cache followed a typical shopping list for emergency preparedness during the arms race of the 1950s and '60s: barrels of potable water (which the labels say can double as commodes when empty, so there’s that), first aid supplies and blankets, boxes of high-calorie survival crackers (yum), and a healthy supply of the drug dextran, which is used to prevent and treat shock (probably a good idea if you’re stranded inside a Brooklyn Bridge bunker).

The supplies were marked as coming from the Office of Civil Defense, the Cold War precursor to what eventually became Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since the DOT had no idea the stash was there—or why it would be there—explanations are really only guesses. And, as with all the rooms and tunnels inside the anchorages of the bridge, the public isn’t allowed inside. So the question of where, exactly, in the Manhattan-side anchorage they found the room, the DOT is keeping under wraps for security reasons.

They found one other stockpile alongside the survival supplies—a bunch of Mad Men–looking New York City promotional posters. The bunker may have been closed to the public but not to a little old-fashioned public relations.

Originally contributed by Atlas User Claude Chappe

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 15 2016 12:30 PM

Meet the Association Upholding the Integrity of Instant Noodles

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For anyone who has gotten through a frugal time by eating instant ramen noodles, you have have one man to thank for your continued survival: Momofuku Ando.

In the 1970s, the father of the instant noodle—and the namesake of the New York restaurant chain Momofuku—helped turn what was a distinctly Asian staple food into a cornerstone of the global food industry. He then went on to establish the World Instant Noodles Association, or WINA, an organization that makes sure the quality of instant noodles around the world is maintained and that when someone peels back the lid of a Cup Noodle, or opens a packet of Top Ramen, they know what they’re in for.


“Instant noodles’ unique adoptability and versatility helped the product grow to a global food,” says Norio Sakurai, the current deputy chief executive of WINA. But the instant noodle as we recognize it today was first invented by Ando in the 1950s.

After World War II, Japan was facing a national food shortage and received aid from the United States in the form of wheat flour, a grain that was theretofore not popularly used by the Japanese. The Japanese government encouraged the people to use the flour to make bread for meals, but after seeing a long line of hungry people at a fresh ramen stand, the pragmatic Ando had a better idea. He suggested that the wheat flour be used to make noodles, which the populace was much more familiar with, but his idea was initially criticized because the noodle industry was not robust enough to keep the entire country fed.

So he revolutionized it.

After a year of trying to develop his own system, the story goes that he stumbled upon his method of flash-frying the noodles when, on a whim, he added some to the tempura oil his wife was using to make their dinner.  Ando released the first pre-cooked instant noodle, Chikin Ramen, in 1958. Containing a noodle block with the flavoring already held within the noodles, the product became, pun so very intended, an almost instant hit. While Chikin Ramen was initially seen as a luxury item, costing more than a bowl of prepared soup at the time, it quickly became a staple in Japan thanks to its ease of preparation.

As the popularity of Ando’s instant ramen soared, he created a truly historic industry with his invention of Cup Noodles in 1971. By containing the noodles and seasoning in their own waterproof container, Ando was more easily able to get instant noodles to appeal to international markets. Now, the noodles didn’t even really need to be cooked, making the product much more universal. With Cup Noodles, Ando’s dream of a global instant noodle empire quickly became a reality.

As the market exploded, countless other manufacturers in addition to Ando’s company, Nissin, got in on the action, making instant noodles available in nearly every country in the world. “The point is that with this core method each country was able to develop its own local flavors reflecting the food culture of the country,” says Sakurai. By the mid-1990s, the people of Earth were consuming around 40 billion instant noodle units a year, and Ando, still caring about the future of his invention, saw the need for a regulatory body that would make sure the instant noodle business didn’t fall victim to poor quality and lack of oversight. Consequently, International Ramen Manufacturers Association, or IRMA, the forerunner of WINA, was formed in 1997.

Ando passed away in 2007 at the age of 96, but not before he got to see his famous food even make it to space when Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi brought some instant noodles with him on the Discovery spacecraft.

Even after Ando's death, the industry has only continued to grow and is now estimated to sell a staggering 100 billion units globally each year, with over half of them being sold in China alone. In his stead, WINA continues to work toward Ando’s dream of bringing delicious instant noodles to the world, by uniting companies across the globe to maintain the quality of the product, no matter where it is. “WINA has a total of 67 instant noodle manufacturers from 21 different countries/regions as its regular members,” says Sakurai. “Besides noodle manufacturers, WINA has approximately 100 associate members, who are engaged in the businesses related to instant noodles such as suppliers of materials.”

While it seems ubiquitous, WINA still uses its global reach to increase awareness of instant noodles and focus on maintaining food safety standards. Every two years, the organization hosts a World Instant Noodles Summit where manufacturers trade news and innovations. They provide instant noodles to disaster relief efforts. (Instant noodles are terrific in emergency situations due to their long shelf life and lightweight poundage.) Ultimately, WINA makes sure that those packages of ramen maintain their reliable, inexpensive, uniform taste and function, no matter where you are.

Much like Ando, WINA is also constantly looking to the future of instant noodles. According to Sakurai, it could lie in something he calls a nutri-noodle. “Instant noodles have great potential to be a vehicle to supply customized micro-nutrients and functional substances,” he says. In theory, instant noodles could have the ability to be tailored to the specific dietary needs of just about anyone.

Ramen noodles are often taken for granted as a cheap food option, but to people like Momofuku Ando, the gatekeepers at WINA, and the billions of people around the world who eat them regularly, they are the most important meal of the day.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 14 2016 4:00 PM

New York’s First Female Crime Boss Started Her Own Crime School

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Organized crime in New York is often portrayed as a boy’s game, but one of the first and most influential crime bosses in the history of the city was a Prussian immigrant known as “Mother” or “Marm” Mandelbaum.

Also called “the Queen of Fences,” this imperious and powerful woman became one of the most well-connected criminal figures of her day, buying stolen goods and reselling them, financing criminal endeavors, and even creating a school for young criminals.


Fredericka Mandelbaum came to America with her husband Wolfe in 1848, landing in New York and opening a general store. In the beginning, Mandelbaum and her husband worked as flamboyant street peddlers, building relationships with both the hordes of aimless children and the petty thieves looking to get rid of their stolen loot. By 1865, Mandelbaum had opened a shop on Clinton Street to act as the front for her burgeoning criminal operation. Her husband, described by Sophie Lyons—a woman who would later become Mandelbaum’s star student and protégé—as “rather weak-willed for his calling, lazy, and afflicted with chronic dyspepsia,” took a back seat while Marm built a criminal empire.

Fencing stolen items became Mandelbaum’s main hustle. A criminal would steal anything from jewelry to furniture and sell it to Mandelbaum, who would turn around and sell it to another buyer. Mandelbaum’s favorite items were bolts of silk and diamonds, both of which she could buy on the cheap and sell at a huge markup. But she would take anything. “Following the Great Chicago Fire, someone showed up at her haberdashery shop with a herd of goats they’d stolen during the fire, and she took them,” says J. North Conway, author of Queen of Thieves: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and Her Gangs of New York. As Mandlebaum's power grew, she branched out into financing bank robberies and supporting all manner of criminal enterprise ranging from blackmail to theft to burglary.

Mandelbaum was 6 feet tall and said to be between 200 and 300 pounds, giving her an imposing physical presence. But it was her formidable network that allowed her criminal power to grow. She was known to fastidiously bribe and pay off police, local politicians, and judges, who allowed her operation to become a criminal ring worth millions. “At some point, she came to understand the American system," says Conway. “The American is system is, ‘You get what you pay for.' "

Mandelbaum never got her hands dirty, instead building an inner circle of burglars, pickpockets, and robbers. To grow and support this network, Mandelbaum is said to have created a school that would train the many children living on the streets to be criminals. “The city was inundated at the time, with orphaned children. ‘Street rats,’ they called them,” says Conway. While no official transcripts of the curriculum seems to exist, Mandelbaum’s Grand Street School became maybe the first and most successful training center for crooks in the city, according to Conway.

The school was opened around 1870 behind a storefront on Clinton and Grand Street. Mandelbaum invited both young men and women to come and learn the criminal trades from professional thieves, pickpockets, and conmen. When young ne’er-do-wells enrolled in the school they started off learning about smaller crimes like pickpocketing and petty theft. They would be taught about things like misdirection and the finer points of thieving, then, if they had a knack for it, their training would advance. “If you were doing very well, you graduated up into other, more important things, which would include outright robberies and scams,” says Conway. Other higher level subjects included safe-cracking, blackmail, and burglary.

The star pupils would eventually move on to work directly for Mandelbaum. Her enterprise had a symbiotic relationship with the criminal community in that she needed a constant flow of thieves bringing her merchandise, and they needed a quick and reliable place to sell their ill-gotten gain.

One of Mandelbaum’s greatest students was Lyons, a master blackmailer and thief who, after working for Mandelbaum, went on to have her own impressive criminal career, becoming known as the “Princess of Crime.” Conway says that one of her scams involved luring men to a hotel room, letting them get naked, then stealing their clothes and extorting them for their cash to get them back.

In the early 20th century, however, Lyons reformed, denouncing her criminal career and her association with Mandelbaum’s training. “[In her autobiography] she basically decried the tutoring that Mandelbaum had given her, saying that she was taking advantage of her youth and innocence, leading her down a path of crime and so forth,” says Conway.

Whether or not Mandelbaum’s school was luring impressionable youth into a life of crime, her willingness to train and employ women in her crime ring created opportunities that were simply not available elsewhere. "Despite the fact that it was in the arena of crime, Mandelbaum was credited with being one of the first feminists, because she was able to get women jobs in which they made more money and were able to use their skills in better ways than they did working in factories or as maids," says Conway.

The Grand Street School operated for only about six years, closing down around 1876. Mandelbaum shut down the school when she found out that the son of a police official had enrolled. Rather than let this suspicious new student learn the ropes, risking her entire empire, she shuttered the school.

Even after the closing of the school, Mandelbaum’s criminal empire continued to grow and thrive. In addition to the apartments above her Clinton Street shop where she conducted most of her business, Mandelbaum eventually had to keep a pair of warehouses in the city to hold all of her dirty merchandise. Finally in 1884, members of the Pinkerton detective agency managed to bring her criminal reign to an end. “The silk was her undoing,” says Conway. “The Pinkertons had tagged a bolt that they knew was stolen. She bought it, and at that point they closed in on her.” Rather than face trial, Mandelbaum managed to escape to Canada, re-establishing herself with over a million dollars worth of cash and diamonds.

Mandelbaum died in 1894, while still living in criminal exile. Her body was returned to New York to be buried, and a number of the mourners at her funeral reported being pickpocketed. Mandelbaum and her school may not have been on the right side of the law, but in her role empowering the women she trained and employed, she was on the right side of history.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

July 13 2016 12:30 PM

The Historic Hues of the Forbes Pigment Collection

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Begun in the early 20th century by Edward Waldo Forbes, director of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum from 1909 to 1944, the Forbes Pigment Collection is housed under the greater umbrella of the Harvard Art Museums—the United States' oldest fine arts research, training, and conservation facility.

Stored behind glass on the fourth floor of the Museums facility in a "staff only" area, the specimens belong to the Straus Center for Conservation and Preservation, which has amassed over 3,600 catalogued pigment samples, binding media, and historical scientific equipment in total. Scientists and art historians tap into the collection in order to verify the origins of questionable paintings up for auction or work to identify the key compounds of ancient colors in order to better preserve cultural masterpieces for generations to come.


Though growing all the time, today's Forbes Pigment Collection comprises a technicolor array of 2,500 samples, arranged most pleasingly by color. Displayed in little jars of sorts, the pigments mimic artists' color wheels in 3-D, morphing from purple to red to yellow to blue and back to purple again along the cases' shelves.

Picking highlights from the collection is a nigh impossible task, as generations of evolving taste and fashion appear side by side within the collection. A few perennially fascinating favorites include the vial of bona fide "Royal Purple," whose insanely expensive and vibrant color comes from a sea snail. The difficulty of obtaining the snails prohibited anyone outside the Byzantine court from donning this finery (first for fiscal reasons, then later due to social stratification). Similarly prized for its rarity is the "Ultra Marine" used in medieval paintings, whose brilliant blue hues were wrought from a precise extraction process of Afghan lapis lazuli.

Then there's the doom contingent of pigments, which hold their own unique appeal. This includes the likes of "Mummy Brown," popular in European painting in the 18th and 19th centuries, that was literally made of "ground-up ancient Egyptians and their pets." If actual dead things don't spark an appreciation for the ephemerality of beauty, perhaps an "emerald green" favored by household painters for centuries and once employed by van Gogh is more appealing; though cheap to produce and purchase, its colorless fumes could prove deadly to those using it. Similarly, the highly toxic "Realgar," whose jar is scrawled with "POISON," gets its bright yellowish-green hue from arsenic sulfide reminiscent of the roiling landscape at Ethiopia's uninhabitable Dallol Valley.

If it hasn't become apparent already, the thousands of shades on display at the Forbes Pigment collection are a library of more than just color—though for their beauty alone, that would be enough. Rather, each item on display, carefully curated and preserved by a team of the world's premier conservators, holds its own fascinating story without which the history of the world's art would not exist.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.