Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Oct. 6 2014 11:11 AM

Human Brains in Jars at Yale's Medical Library

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Sitting quietly in jars in a custom-built room at Yale's medical library are 550 human brains. The collection once belonged to pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, who preserved the brains from 1903 to 1932 as part of his tumor registry. When Cushing died in 1939, his undergraduate alma mater Yale inherited the brains.

Cushing was among a handful of doctors operating on the brain during the early 20th century. At the time, about a third of patients who underwent brain tumor surgery did not survive the operation. Cushing introduced practices that dramatically lowered the mortality rate, such as monitoring blood pressure during surgery and operating with a local anesthesic instead of ether. He was also the first to use x-rays to diagnose brain tumors.

Prior to being restored and placed in the medical library in 2010, the leaky jars holding Cushing's brain collection were locked in a basement under Yale's med student dorms. During the 1990s, students seeking a thrill would sneak into the dark, dusty storage room to find the fabled brains. Though these expeditions were unauthorized, students treated the specimens with care and never swiped any of the brains. When moving the brains in 2010, Yale employees found a poster with names scrawled on it bearing the phrase "Leave Only Your Name. Take Only Your Memories."

1200pxyale_medicalhistorical_library
Yale's Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.

Photo: Public domain

More places to see human brains:

Video Advertisement

Oct. 3 2014 9:22 AM

George Spencer Millet: The Boy Who Was Kissed to Death

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

"Stabbed to Death in Office Frolic," read the headline on the front page of the New York Times on February 16, 1909. "The Girls in His Department of Metropolitan Insurance Co. Were Trying to Kiss Him—One Arrested."

The unfortunate young man in question was George Spencer Millet, who worked in the insurance company's Department of Applications in New York's Madison Square. Though he had only been there a few months, Millet had already made an impression on his co-workers. "He seemed to those accustomed to the usual run of office boys as perfect," read the Times article. "His manners were good and his fair hair and fair complexion made him the pet of all the girl stenographers."

On February 15, 1909, Millet's 15th birthday, these "girl stenographers" promised that when the workday ended, they would kiss him once for every year of his age. At 4:30pm, they made good on their vow and descended on Millet to deliver the expected smooches. Millet tried to wriggle away, and in the ensuing rumpus was heard to exclaim, "I'm stabbed!"

Oct. 2 2014 10:42 AM

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

For 2,000 years, the Igorot people of Sagada in the Philippines have laid their dead to rest by jamming their bodies into compact wooden coffins and hoisting them up to rest on brackets driven into the side of a cliff. The practice protects the dead from floods and animals, and, according to Igorot beliefs, allows for easier passage to heaven.

Rows of pine caskets, some hundreds of years old, hang high from the bluffs of Echo Valley in Sagada. The Igorots embrace and actively prepare for death—elders, if physically able, carve their own coffins.

More tales of unusual coffins:

Oct. 1 2014 10:32 AM

The Corpse-Lined Hallways of the Capuchin Monastery Catacombs

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Eight thousand corpses in varied states of decay inhabit the musty, ill-lit Capuchin catacombs of Palermo in Sicily. Originally intended exclusively for monks, the passageways were expanded over time to make room for prominent locals, who paid to be buried in the holy vaults. Separated according to age, sex, occupation and social status, the mummified bodies are arranged in open coffins, hung from the walls in narrow corridors and piled on shelves.

In the Chapel of the Virgins, virginal girls—or at least, girls whose families declared them to be untainted by the horrors of sex—are displayed in faded and tattered white dresses under the inscription "We follow the lamb wherever he goes; we are virgins." They wear their best clothes, but their appearance is marred by caved-in noses, empty eye sockets and sunken cheeks. Many have wide-open mouths—due to a combination of decomposing facial ligaments and gravity—making them look as though they are screaming.

Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM

A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

At a National Police Remembrance Day ceremony in Australia on Monday, three murdered policemen were honored with the Victoria Police Star: an award for officers killed in the line of duty. For the families of those slain, it was a long-awaited recognition—the trio died 136 years ago.

Constables Michael Scanlan and Thomas Lonigan, and Sergeant Michael Kennedy, perished at the hands of the Kelly gang, a notorious group of bushrangers—bushrangers being the forest-dwelling marauding outlaws of 19th-century Australia.

The first bushrangers were convicts who had been transported to the country's penal colonies in the early 1800s, escaped, and gone on the run. The mid-century gold rush in southeastern Australia ushered in the bushrangers' heyday—over the next few decades, outlaws with names like Mad Dog Morgan and Captain Thunderbolt robbed coaches, bars, banks, and hotels, often shooting police officers in the process.

The most famous bushranger, and the man whose legacy maintains a firm hold over the collective cultural psyche of Australia, was Ned Kelly, the ringleader of the Kelly gang. He is remembered with fondness as an underdog and a maverick who fought laws that targeted the poor. He is regarded by fewer with abhorrence for being an unrepentant murderer.

Sept. 29 2014 11:47 AM

Noisy Castle Gone Silent: The Remains of Chateau Miranda

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

When the French Revolution heated up, the politically active Liedekerke-Beaufort family were forced to abandon their castle in the Walloon region of southern Belgium.

After a few decades of lying low on a nearby farm, the Liedekerke-Beauforts were ready for a new chateau. In 1866 they turned to English architect Edward Milner, whose Gothic design came to life in the form of Miranda Castle.

Things were sedate and stately at Chateau Miranda until the last gasps of World War II, when German troops descended on the grounds during the Battle of the Bulge. Post-war, Belgium's national railway company used Miranda Castle as a summer home for children who could not be cared for by their parents. Known by the nickname Noisy Castle, the mansion remained a children's recreation site until 1980.

After becoming too expensive to maintain, Miranda Castle was abandoned in 1991. A fire in 1995 destroyed part of the roof, and dry rot has set into the wood. The building is still owned by Liedekerke-Beaufort family, who, following the fire, stripped the castle of its more valuable components.

Though rumors of impending demolition persist, Belgian publication La Meuse reported in August that the castle has been granted a reprieve until at least February 2015 due to its possible inclusion on a Walloon heritage conservation list. According to the article, developers have expressed interest in turning Noisy Castle into a hotel and restaurant. Regardless of the outcome, you may have just a few more months to see the chateau in its dilapidated state.

Sept. 24 2014 10:39 AM

What Rot: A Look at the Striking "Transi" Corpse Sculptures

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Ordinarily, the statues of heroes who die in battle are sculpted in grand style, depicting the valorous fighter with a fierce stance, formidable muscles, and a determined expression. Not so in the case of René de Chalon, the 25-year-old French prince who perished during the siege of Saint-Dizier in 1544.

When it came time to memorialize the prince in stone, Renaissance sculptor Ligier Richier carved a rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass. The exposed skull looks toward a raised left hand—originally, this hand held the prince’s actual dried heart. It is believed to have gone missing sometime around the French revolution, after which it was replaced by a smooth stone.

transipics
The Transi of Rene de Chalon at the Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc.

Photos: MOSSOT/Creative Commons

The statue, on display at Saint-Étienne church in the French city of Bar-le-Duc, is known as a "transi." Popular in western Europe during the Renaissance, the art form depicts a deceased person during the transition between life and death—the corporeal husk of a departed soul. It's a particularly impactful memento mori.

From the late 14th century onward, some tombs were also adorned with recumbent transi sculptures. In contrast to the usual serene depictions of eternally sleeping saints, these "cadaver tombs' showed the effects of death in stark detail. The effigy of French doctor Guillaume de Harsigny is emaciated and noseless, while Belgian sculptor Jacques du Broeucq's 16th-century "l'homme à moutons" ("man eaten by worms") shows a decaying body riddled with the wriggling creatures.

1200pxboussu_jpg00a
Jacques du Broeucq's 16th-century "l'homme à moutons" ("man eaten by worms").

Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/Creative Commons

1200pxgisant_guillaume_de_harcigny_musee_de_laon_280208_1
The transi on the tomb of Guillaume de Harcigny.

Photo: Vassil/Creative Commons

dijon
A transi by Ligier Richier at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Photos: Rama/Creative Commons

Sept. 23 2014 9:01 AM

Tristan da Cunha: Life on the World's Most Remote Island

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on FacebookTumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

A stay on Tristan da Cunha is not your typical island vacation. There are no restaurants. There are no hotels. Credit cards are not accepted, the beaches aren't safe for swimming, and every month brings between 17 and 26 days of rain. Smack-dab in the middle of the island lies a giant volcano. But Tristan Da Cunha is enticing because it offers something that no other island destination can: extreme isolation.

Sept. 22 2014 11:15 AM

Avenue of the Baobabs: Madagascar's Magical Upside-Down Trees

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Along a stretch of the dirt road that leads from Morondava to Belo Tsiribihina in Madagascar stand rows of baobab trees, their stout trunks glowing and fading as the sun passes overhead. This is the Avenue of the Baobabs, one of the more striking spots for appreciating the Adansonia grandidieri species endemic to the island nation.

Sept. 19 2014 1:10 PM

Ascension Island: Home of Lava Fields, a False Forest, and the World's Worst Golf Course

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Way out in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, 1000 miles from the nearest continent, is a small island with an extraordinary history. Measuring 34 square miles, Ascension Island boasts jagged lava fields, an artificial forest, a NASA tracking station, a graveyard full of yellow-fevered sailors, and beaches crawling with green sea turtles. And that's just a snippet of the story.

Ascension's documented history begins in the early 16th century, when an armada from Portugal encountered it on their annual supply run to India. There is some dispute as to which year this occurred—the prevailing view is that explorer João da Nova of the Third Armada first saw the island in 1501 and named it Conception Island. Two years later, on May 21, Alfonso de Albuquerque happened upon the land mass and renamed it Ascension Island in recognition of the date: Ascension Day.

Unimpressed by the barren environs, the Portuguese dropped off a few goats to serve as future food for passing ships and continued on to India to load up on spices. Ascension saw little action until 1725, when a Dutch East India Company ship returning from the East Indies dropped off its resident bookkeeper, Leendert Hasenbosch. The former soldier had engaged in sodomy during the voyage, a sin the captain chose to punish using the "abandon the offender on an uninhabited barren island in the middle of the Atlantic" method.

Hasenbosch survived for approximately six months. British sailors making a pit stop at Ascension in 1726 discovered the deceased Dutchman's diary, which revealed the extent of his suffering. Three months into his exile, having run out of water, Hasenbosch wrote that he drank turtle's blood and "some boiled piss mixed with tea; which, though it was so very nauseous, revived me much."

In 1815, the British established a precautionary presence on Ascension. The freshly defeated Napoleon had just been exiled to nearby St. Helena, and the British were concerned that the French might descend upon Ascension as part of an effort to rescue the general. The island was claimed in the name of King George III and outfitted with a garrison of naval officers.

Ascension became a pit stop and supply store for travelers on long sea voyages, particularly the those involved in the West Africa Squadron—the Royal Navy's anti-slavery patrol. Sailors who arrived bearing the tell-tale signs of yellow fever were quarantined at the alarmingly named Comfortless Cove. Some never left the island—the remains of those who succumbed to the disease still lie in small cemeteries surrounding the cove.

In 1836, a 27-year-old Charles Darwin landed at Ascension near the end of his five-year exploratory voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. The volcanic topography made quite the impression on him. "[I]magine smooth conical hills of a bright red color, with their summits generally truncated, rising separately out of a level surface of black rugged lava," Darwin wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle. "To complete the desolate scene, the black rocks on the coast are lashed by a wild and turbulent sea."

3324222108_93b921ba0f_b
Prickly pear, introduced to the island in the mid-19th century.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

Darwin's descriptions of Ascension's stark terrain enraptured the English botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker. Eager to see the landscape for himself, Hooker embarked on his own voyage to the island in 1843 and thereafter hatched an ambitious plan: to transform Ascension into a greener, gentler place by shipping in trees from around the world and planting them on the jagged, brown hills.

To procure the plants he needed for his artificial forest, Hooker turned to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, where his father was the director. Between 1847 and 1850, over 300 trees were dispatched from Kew to Ascension Island and planted on the highest peak—optimistically named Green Mountain—with the aim of improving soil and increasing rainfall. Over the next few decades, plants from Kew and the botanic gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, continued to arrive at Ascension. The result was an altered ecosystem. Today, Green Mountain's vegetation is a verdant mish-mash of ginger, pines, bamboo, aloe, banana bushes, and prickly pears. (The rest of the island is still dominated by browns and grays.)   

3163921410_b82a4dd89f_b
Barren lava-field terrain in the island's north.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

During the 20th century, Ascension functioned primarily as a military outpost. The Americans arrived during World War II to build an airbase, which they used as a stop-off point for planes heading to Europe. Post-war, when the US' focus shifted to the Cold War and the Space Race, NASA established a tracking station on the island that kept tabs on spacecraft and missiles. For an insight into what life was like on the island at that time, have a read of Joe Frasketi's Range Rat page, where former Ascension workers share memories. ("I am confused about the name of the donkey called Rebel," reads one contribution. "He sounds like the same one we called JJ. In addition to hanging around the theater, he used to hang around the NASA site and we would feed him brandy-soaked sweet rolls. He would get drunk and stagger down the road toward the base.")

3124871213_e88e24e6d2_b
A young feral donkey, one of many animal species introduced to the island.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

NASA's station is no longer operational, but the European Space Agency maintains a tracking station on the island, and the US and British air force bases remain. Around 800 people now live on the British-administered island, but none are permanent residents. In September 2013 the Guardian reported that privatization of government and military services has resulted in fewer jobs, shorter contracts, and a crackdown on the number of family members who can accompany employees to the island.

1200pxascension_island_cat_hill
Cat Hill, the location of the U.S. military base and NASA tracking station.

Photo:JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD/Creative Commons

Despite its remoteness and small population, Ascension does have a tourism industry. The main activities on offer for visitors are fishing, hiking, and golf—the settlement of One Boat boasts a golf course that the Ascension government's own website dubs the worst in the world. The website of Ascension's Obsidian Hotel explains why: "The 'Greens' are called 'browns' and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil."

To visit Ascension, you need to request permission from the government a month in advance and make sure you have comprehensive travel and medical insurance, including medical evacuation coverage. Then it's just a matter of hopping aboard a nine-hour military charter flight from the Brize Norton airforce base northwest of London. Bon voyage.

1200pxascension_island_wideawake_airfield_1
Passengers disembark at Wideawake Airfield.

Photo:Vincent van Zeijst/Creative Commons

READ MORE STORIES