Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Jan. 31 2017 12:30 PM

This Historic Trading Room Was Taken Apart and Rebuilt Piece by Piece

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

The meticulously recreated Trading Room is one of the few extant remains of the historic Chicago Stock Exchange building, designed in the 1890s by famed architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler (the ones responsible for bringing the then very modern Art Nouveau style to the United States). The space was almost lost to the wrecking ball in a misguided 1970s urban redevelopment scheme.

The Trading Room is a double-story, 100-by-75-foot institution of Midwestern finance. The ornate hall was once the scene of commodity deals that set the price of vegetables and meat across the country. Its decorative flourishes include beautiful organic wall stenciling (a now-forgotten craft that once defined Chicago design) and intricate stained glass skylights.

tradingroom4
Restoring the glass skylights.

Historic American Building Survey/Public Domain

It’s a quiet and contemplative space today, but when it was in operation, the Trading Room was the scene of frenzied activity. A Chicago Tribune reporter in 1960 described how “the shouts of the white coated, gray coated, and tan coated men” imparted a “sense excitement and tension even tho [sic] you don’t understand precisely what they are doing.”

By the 1970s the old Stock Exchange building had fallen into disrepair and was deemed “economically unviable” by its owners. According to Chicago historian Richard Cahan, the preservation and relocation of the Trading Room was “the price paid for the demolition permit.”

Photographer Richard Nickel and architect John Vinci were instrumental in the salvage work. Cahan records the challenge they faced when work began on Nov. 8, 1971:

The ceiling was dirty and peeling. Many of the stenciled canvases had fallen off or been ripped off for souvenirs. Dirt from decades of neglect had piled up so high that mice or rats had carved paths through it. It took a great leap of the imagination to see the beauty here. Even the gilded capitals looked like cheap plaster. But Vinci and Nickel knew the true beauty of this huge and foreboding place. “I think of it sort of like a holy room,” said Nickel after the work had began. “The more you are in here the more you are in awe of it.”

Over the course of three months, they documented the room and then unscrewed, pried, and sawed off every bit they could carry. The entire thing was rebuilt inside the Art Institute’s new wing in 1976. Nickel was tragically killed in a 1972 accident inside the old Stock Exchange and never lived to see the completed Trading Room.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 30 2017 12:30 PM

This Russian City Was Built for Chess Fanatics According to Alien Specifications

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

In the steppes of southwestern Russia, there lies the largest Buddhist city in all of Europe, a town called Elista. In addition to giant monasteries and Buddhist sculptures, Elista is also home to kings and queens—but not in the royal sense.

Lying on the east side of Elista is Chess City, a culturally and architecturally distinct enclave in which, as the New York Times put it, “chess is king and the people are pawns.”

Chess City was built in 1998 by chess fanatic Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the megalomaniac leader of Russia’s Kalmykia province and president of the International Chess Federation, who claims to have been abducted by aliens with the wild, utopian mission of bringing chess to Elista.

Following the aliens’ suggestion, Ilyumzhinov built Chess City just in time to host the 33rd Chess Olympiad in grand fashion. Featuring a swimming pool, a chess museum, a large open-air chess board, and a museum of Buddhist art, Chess City hosted hundreds of elite grandmasters in 1998 and was home to several smaller chess championships in later years. Also found in Chess City is a statue of Ostap Bender, a fictional literary con man obsessed with chess.

But while Chess City brought temporary international attention to Elista, it was also highly controversial. In the impoverished steppes of Elista, cutting food subsidies to fund a giant, $50 million complex for the short-term use of foreigners wasn’t a popular idea with much of the region. Once the Chess Olympiad was over, Chess City became sparsely used and largely vacated, a symbol to the people of Elista of the local government’s misguided priorities.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 26 2017 2:00 PM

This Former Morgue for Titanic Victims Is Now a Restaurant

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

There is a seafood place near Halifax Harbour that was once home to the city’s oldest mortuary. It’s now the Five Fishermen Restaurant but was once Snow & Company Undertakers, who tended to the bodies of not one but two major tragedies of the early 20th century.

In the morning hours of April 15, 1912, 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the R.M.S Titanic went down. Rescue operations took place out of Halifax, the largest nearby port, and many of the recovered bodies were brought to Snow’s funeral home, including John Jacob Astor IV, the richest of the ship’s passengers.

Five years later on Dec. 6, 1917, the Halifax Explosion, at the time the largest manmade explosion in history, claimed nearly 2,000 lives when a French munitions ship struck another vessel in the Harbour. Again, Snow & Co. was overwhelmed with bodies, with a photo running in the newspaper showing the funeral home with coffins stacked high in the street.

The building was originally constructed as a schoolhouse in 1817, right across from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the oldest building in Halifax. In 1883 the building was sold to John Snow, and the family’s mortuary occupied the space until 1973. They are still a Halifax business today.

There are many claims that the Five Fishermen Restaurant is haunted, but don’t let this deter you. Its food is apparently to die for.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 25 2017 3:00 PM

The Architectural “Natural Disaster” That Is the Rayburn Building

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

This blocky monolith occupying an entire city square on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill is the Rayburn building, built in the 1960s as new office space for the House of Representatives. It’s design frequently evokes soliloquies on “monstrous,” “soul-deadening,” and “fascist” architecture.

The layout of the Rayburn building resembles a corrupted letter H, with tentacle stubs jutting outward off the center and inward on the ends.

The H shape has two unintended impacts on the building. First: Its windowless hallways are impossible to navigate. To get from one corner to the opposite you need to make a right, a left, another right and another left. Second, it occupies the maximum amount of real estate with the minimum amount of usable space. Less than 20 percent of the Rayburn’s floorspace is offices. The rest is taken up by corridors, garages, cafeterias, elevators, and so on.

screen_shot_20161224_at_9.00.32_pm
The view from above.

Map Data © 2016 Google

Rayburn has a five-acre footprint, and looming four stories over the Hill, it is larger than the nearby Capitol building. The height is even more pronounced at the southwestern corner of the building, where a drop in elevation exposes the subbasement level and gives the appearance of a six-story building.

The entire facade is clad in 7 million pounds of blank white marble. It can be difficult to appreciate the overbearing scale in photographs, but standing at its base it is impossible to ignore how Rayburn dwarfs its human inhabitants and much more restrained neighboring offices.

The sparse decorations come across as random, bizarre, and a little amusing. One one side of the building you can find an unidentified topless Art Deco statue with an enormous sword; another is adorned by horses with drinking horns rising out of their hindquarters. Don’t be embarrassed if you miss the symbolic meaning of these statues; there is none.

Architectural quirks abound on the inside of the Rayburn building. When it opened, the Washington Post called out the numerous “stairways that lead nowhere” and baffling designs that result in “hot and cold air blowing into offices at the same time.” The building also used to have an underground swimming pool and Capitol Police shooting range (recently abandoned because of bounce-back bullets.)

The building was designed by a congressional commission headed by powerful Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and it was built under the guidance of George Stewart. Stewart was a former congressman, and college dropout, lacking any formal training in architecture.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 24 2017 5:45 PM

Jacksonville’s Crumbling, Abandoned Elementary School

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

Built in 1915, this gigantic schoolhouse was originally christened as Public School No. 4, but was renamed Annie Lytle Elementary in 1957 in honor of a former principal. Unfortunately, the school only got to live under its new name for a few years before it was shuttered and abandoned.

When the highway system was constructed in Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1950s, I-95 and I-10 intersected a mere hundred feet from Annie Lytle Elementary. The school became isolated and inconvenient to get to, and the sound of traffic would drown out classes on the second floor.

8403290669_e9fbea37e2_k
A hallway in Annie Lytle Elementary.

Erin Murphy/CC by-SA 2.0

It closed for good in 1960 and was used as storage space for Duval County for some time before being officially condemned. A fire in 1995 caused part of the roof to cave in, and now nature has taken over the building. The school was almost demolished in 1999 and turned into condominiums, but multiple historic societies pressured the county to designate it a historic landmark. Annie Lytle Elementary received this honor in 2000, and dedicated volunteers have attempted to keep the grounds neat in the hopes that the property will someday be bought and repurposed. But nearly two decades later the school remains derelict and empty aside from the urban explorers who trespass there.

As with any abandoned place, the school has its fair share of ghost stories (everything from psychotic janitors to schoolkids who perished in a boiler room explosion). Jacksonville police assure that all crimes in the building occurred after its abandonment, in particular graffiti and squatting.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

 

Jan. 23 2017 1:30 PM

The Real Balancing Rocks on Every Zimbabwe Dollar

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

These three balancing rocks were once the main design motif of one of the highest of the high-denomination currencies in the world, the Zimbabwean dollar. Every note issued by Zimbabwe’s Central Bank—from the one-dollar note issued after independence in 1980 to the 100 trillion-dollar banknote (100,000,000,000,000) issued in the hyperinflationary zenith of 2008, has pictured these three stones.

The image of the stones was chosen as a conjoined metaphor for development and environmental protection following the country’s independence from white-ruled Rhodesia. The rocks themselves can be found in a national park with an abandoned feel in Epworth, a suburb in the thinly signposted outskirts of Harare. The stones pictured on the banknotes are the most iconic example of this peculiar geological feature found in many places throughout Zimbabwe: rocks formations naturally situated in perfect balance.

fullsizerender
Worthy of notes: Harare's balancing rocks and the inspiration for Zimbabwe's currency.

Atlas Obscura user gordonpeake

Matopos itself is well worth seeking out. Once inside, visitors can either walk or drive around the Stone Age rock formations with evocative names like the "Giant’s Playground" and "Flying Boat." Even rocks with no honorific convey a silent magnitude. Outside the park, some enterprising residents have built their homes among the giant boulders that pock all of Epworth.  

The Zimbabwean dollar, however, is no more. The government effectively abandoned its currency and was demonetised entirely in 2015. Now, the notes can be found on eBay, on the back of playing cards, in the hands of hawkers trying to sell the dead currency to tourists visiting Zimbabwe, or as props for cautionary tales of the dangers of runaway inflation, devaluations, and mercurial government economic policy.

Nowadays, Zimbabwe has a multicurrency system. Money from almost every continent in the world is legal tender: the Aussie dollar, the British pound, the Botswanan pula, the Chinese Yuan, the Euro, the Indian Rupee, the Japanese yen, the South African rand. However, the most predominant note in circulation is the U.S. dollar, in which prices are quoted in shops, restaurants, and, yes, even parks housing the iconic balancing stones. "Bond coins" of one-, two-, five-, 10-, 25-, and 50-cent dominations are given out as small change.

But the stones are making a making a comeback in the newest type of money in Zimbabwe’s bountiful currency basket. Last year, the Zimbabwean government introduced a "bond note" that is pegged to the U.S. dollar and is illustrated with those same rocks from the old Zimbabwean dollar. Only a two-dollar bond note is in circulation currently, but the government plans to incrementally introduce five, 10, 20, and 50 dollar values over the next few months.

Having a local currency bound to another is unusual but by no means unique. Bosnia-Herzegovina has convertible mark tied originally to the German deutschmark and now one to one with the euro. For 50 or so years, there was de facto parity between the pounds of Ireland and the United Kingdom. But there remains apprehensiveness among many Zimbabweans who remember the old Zimbabwe dollar days. They live in hope that their new money will be as solid, stable, and unwavering as these three majestic rocks themselves.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 19 2017 2:45 PM

Spain’s Empty, 47-Story “M”

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

This strangely shaped 47-floor building is the highest residential building in Spain and one of the few high rise buildings in the world in the shape of an arch.

The high rise is located just inland from Poniente Beach in Benidorm, Alicante, the city with, reputedly, more high rise buildings per capita than any other city in in the world.

The two towers are about 61 feet apart, and the cone at the top starts at floor 38. There is a commonly held view that the M shape is a tribute to the city of Madrid following a 2004 terrorist attack, but this has never been confirmed by the architects Pérez-Guerras Arquitectos & Ingeniero.

Construction was completed in 2014, yet as of 2016 the building remains unoccupied, after the 2008 financial crisis saddled the developers with monetary problems.

The towering M can be seen from most places in Benidorm, south of the old town, and from the Autovia del Mediterrano (AP-7), which bypasses the city, or the N-332, which runs parallel to it. Another great place to see the building and appreciate its scale is from Benidorm Island, about a mile offshore.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 18 2017 12:30 PM

The California Town That Was Famous for Eggs and Arm Wrestling

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

Is Petaluma, California, the world’s most divided city?

On the one hand it is renowned as a hub of fragility and fluffiness, on the other it is revered for solidity and screams. The reason for this split personality is that Petaluma holds the distinction of being not only the egg capital of the world but also the arm wrestling capital of the world.

The city’s divided self can be traced back to the mid-19th century when California proved a mecca to those seeking gold, adventure or, in the case of Lyman Byce, good health. Byce was a part-time inventor who had fled the inhospitable wastes of his homeland Canada in search of warmer climes. He had already invented a spring lancet, an acoustic telephone, and a potato digger by the time he wound up in Petaluma in 1878. However it took the sweet California airs to inspire him with his greatest invention, the one that would transform his fortunes as well as those of untold billions of chickens.

Inventing the perfect chicken egg incubator was an innovation race in the late 19th century—think of how companies are racing to perfect the driverless car now. Hundreds of inventors were working on ways to make an efficient machine to grow and hatch eggs without the mother hen being present, thus freeing her to lay even more.

There was one problem, though. Incubators had a nasty habit of bursting into flames, destroying buildings and chickens alike.

This was not a new pursuit: the ancient Egyptians constructed large mud brick buildings in which to incubate their eggs. Heated by burning straw and camel manure, egg turners lived inside the malodorous structures, constantly assessing their delicate charges’ temperature by balancing the eggs on their eyelids. Later attempts used fermentation, hot water, and steam to provide a constant heat to the eggs. However the inability to regulate the temperature accurately doomed them all to the inventor’s scrap pile.

It was a thorny problem and such backyard tinkering wasn’t always taken kindly. In 1881 the Petaluma Argus-Courier was aghast at a Petaluma chicken raiser using the heat from a hot spring to power his incubator. “If he succeeds,” worried the paper, “the devil will monopolize the chicken business. There are many things in this world that had better be done in the old way and hatching chickens is one of them.”

image
A photo from 1925 showing a giant egg basket, celebratingPetaluma as the world’s egg basket.

Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

It took the tremendously mustachioed Byce to create a respectable incubator. His invention looked like a Victorian sideboard but was capable of maintaining a temperature of 103 degrees for a period of three weeks, so that the embryos inside the eggs could develop and hatch. Byce’s design won a medal for best incubator at the California State Fair, and the Petaluma Incubator Company was born.

By 1883, Byce had sold 200 incubators, mainly to small, family-owned farms in the Petaluma area. Ten years later over 15,000 units had been purchased. When the highly productive Single Comb White Leghorn chicken was introduced to Petaluma’s chicken farmers—capable of popping out 200 eggs a year—there was no looking back. A park was named after the breed, as well as a baseball team, and a statue of a chicken was erected in the town with the inscription: “The Kingdom of 10,000,000 White Leghorns—Petaluma.” Chickens were everywhere. A chicken pharmacy was even constructed downtown, a place to take your hens if they were feeling poultry.

By 1915 the town was producing an estimated 10 million eggs a year (at $.30 a dozen). With Petaluma being located next to a river and a railroad, the fragile eggs could be easily and safely shipped across the country. By 1918 the town was proclaimed “egg basket of the world” and a National Egg Day was held, with a parade led by the egg queen and attendant chicks. For nearly two decades there was more money on deposit in Petaluma banks, per capita, than any other town on Earth.

image.jpg
The Petaluma Egg Day Parade, Aug. 20, 1921.

Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

But a crack formed in the business. Improvements in caging and artificial lighting meant the clement California weather was no longer a necessity in raising hens, added to which advances in truck suspension meant eggs no longer needed to be carried by slow-moving railways or boat. Anyone, anywhere could start their own chicken farm. But out of the broken dreams of Petaluma’s shattered egg empire came a new birth. Whether it was due to the excessive amounts of protein in the local diet, or the frustrations at the city’s decline, the city was about to undergo a transformation into something less foul.

It began in 1955 with an overheard conversation in “Diamond” Mike Gilardi’s bar. Bill Soberanes was a local newspaper reporter struggling for stories in the depressed town when he heard a visitor boasting that he had never lost an arm-wrestling match—or wrist-wrestling as it was then known. With the inspiration of a journalist faced with a deadline, he immediately saw a way to inject a little excitement back into Petaluma. The boastful visitor was Jack Homel, a trainer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, but Soberanes thought he knew just the guy to make him eat his words—Oliver Kulberg, a local rancher who was supposedly the strongest man in Sonoma County.

The match was set for Feb. 16, 1955, a crowd gathered to watch the two men heave and strain. The contest went on for three painful minutes when, with a final shudder, the table collapsed. A draw was declared, but from that day on an annual tradition was born.

Of course arm-wrestling was nothing new either. While the ancient Egyptians were incubating eggs in dung mounds, hieroglyphs show that they were also arm-wrestling with each other. Indeed the sport had been popular across the world for millennia since all that was needed of a competitor was one arm and a flat surface. What Petaluma did was transform this traditional sport into an organized competition.

By 1962 Petaluma’s annual bar event had ballooned into the World Wristwrestling Championship with the slogan, “Pure Strength and Raw Courage.” Fifty competitors with names like Earl “The Mighty Atom” Hagerman, and Duane “Tiny” Benedix wrestled it out in front of hundreds of cheering onlookers. The town was given an unexpected boost by Charles Schultz, the author of Peanuts, the most popular comic strip in the America at the time. Schultz lived near Petaluma and inserted the arm-wrestling competition into his strip. In the storyline Snoopy travels to the town to compete but is eventually disqualified for having no thumbs. Petaluma was soon proclaimed “wristwrestling capital of the world” and was a regular feature on ABC’s much-watched Wide World of Sports.

Behemoths such as Popeye-armed Jeff Dabe, and 385-pound Cleve “Arm Breaker” Dean, not to mention perennial champion John “The Perfect Storm” Brzenk, almost became household names. The success of Petaluma’s competition even saw Hollywood want to get in on the action with the creation of the classic 1980s movie Over the Top, starring Sylvester Stallone, although, ominously, its climactic match took place not in Petaluma but in Las Vegas.

For despite reaching its zenith in the 1980s, the sport of arm-wrestling was soon to abandon its spiritual home. The Annual World Wristwrestling Championship was held in Petaluma for the last time in 2002 before moving to Las Vegas. However a bronze statue still stands in downtown Petaluma, as the giant chicken statue did before it, depicting two men in a competitive grapple, grimacing, the veins on their arms bulging like giant caterpillars.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 17 2017 1:00 PM

What It’s Like to Be an Underwater Crime-Scene Investigator

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

For Mike Berry, a challenging workday might involve groping through the silt at the bottom of a lake in the pitch dark, hoping to stumble upon a gun while avoiding getting his hand chomped off by a snapping turtle.

Based in Virginia, Berry is an underwater criminal investigator. For the past 35 years, he has been diving to the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans in search of evidence that could send a murderer to prison or put a cold case to rest.

As with crime scenes on land, underwater investigations need to be conducted with the utmost consideration for protocol and evidence preservation. “The whole point of underwater criminal investigation is, just because the murder weapon was thrown off a bridge and went into the water, it still needs to be handled the same way, with the same rules, with the same requirements,” says Berry.

In addition to his job as the commander of Virginia State Police’s search-and-rescue team, Berry trains public safety officers on how to approach aquatic crime scenes with the level of meticulousness required to ensure the evidence found can be admissible in court. His organization, Underwater Criminal Investigators, prepares police and fire-department divers for all aspects of the job, from marking evidence to making courtroom testimonies.

Underwater criminal investigators are called upon for three main types of recovery operations: bodies, vehicles, and evidence. “Body recovery could be a person that drowned, it could be a murder, it could be a cold case where the person was murdered 10 years ago and tied up and thrown off a bridge,” says Berry.

In cold cases like these, “you’re not searching for a body anymore, you’re searching for bones and clothing and jewelry and maybe cinder blocks and rope that they used to tie them up.”

The vehicles dredged up from waterways might be stolen, or part of an insurance fraud scheme. They may also have ended up in the water following an accident in which the driver loses control and spins off a road.

The “evidence” category is broad; guns and knives are common items on the search list, but divers also go looking for personal effects that relate to a crime, such as purses and suitcases.

The search process is methodical, physically demanding, and mentally taxing. It can also get pretty disgusting. “Most of the places we’re diving, unfortunately, are gross—they’re black, and the bottom is all mucky," says Berry. “The only way to find that gun is to get down into the muck.”

Scuba divers scour the bottom of a body of water by hand, moving back and forth in straight lines—like mowing a lawn. Working in pairs, they hold onto a rope while sifting through a foot of silt, mud, trash, and foliage. As soon as the lead diver completes a section, the backup diver re-searches that area. It’s a thorough approach and one that requires a lot of patience and concentration. It can take days or weeks to find that crucial object that can provide the missing piece in a puzzling crime.

For a body or a car, side-scan sonar, which creates an image of the lakebed or ocean floor, is often used to find the target object before sending divers down to retrieve it.

Regardless of the methods employed, the search is high-stakes. “You have police departments that are depending on you,” says Berry. “The case many times hinges on these divers and their ability to not only scuba dive but to search in these very harsh conditions and find it.”

The taxing conditions don’t just involve muck and pitch blackness. “The water that we dive in, a lot of it is contaminated,” Berry says, “so just ingesting some of that water could kill you.” Divers can step on broken glass or injure their hands on nails. And then there are the creatures of the deep, some of whom make their presence known at highly inconvenient moments. Depending on the location of the investigation, divers may have to contend with turtles, poisonous snakes, alligators, or inquisitive fish.

“The worst I’ve been bit was from a snapping turtle,” says Berry. “You know, you can’t see them, so as your hand is moving along the bottom, feeling, you hope you get the rear end of the turtle instead of the front end. I got the front end one day ... it went right through my hand, from one side to the other.” The pain, he says, was “like a lightning strike.”

Fish, while seemingly harmless, can also impede an investigation. “I’ve had fish take a chunk out of my lips before,” says Berry. A diver may also encounter what they think is a body, then discover it is a man-sized catfish. “You put your hand on something on the bottom and you’re thinking, ‘What’s this?’ ” says Berry. “And all of a sudden it swims.”

In the event that a diver does find a real human body, or part thereof, the usual approach is to place it in a body bag while underwater, then bring it to the surface. This helps preserve any physical or trace evidence on it, while preventing news media and family members of the deceased from seeing the body emerge from the water. In toxic or otherwise dangerous waters, investigators opt for what’s called the “grab-and-go” approach, forgoing the body bag until they reach the surface.

Though underwater criminal investigations can be hard, dangerous work, for Berry, nothing beats the thrill of finding that missing gun that can bring resolution to a case and justice to the bereaved.

“I’ve had a number of murderers that have told me, ‘You’ll never find it,’ ” he says. “And that just gets you excited, when they tell you that. It’s like, ‘OK. We’ll see.’ ”

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

Jan. 16 2017 2:30 PM

The Persistent Racism of America’s Cemeteries

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

In 2016, the city of Waco, Texas, issued an order to remove a fence in the city’s public burial ground, Greenwood Cemetery. But it wasn’t just a cosmetic change: Using a forklift and power tools, City of Waco Parks & Recreation staff cut apart the chain-link fence that had been used to divide the white section of the cemetery from the black section.

The cemetery had been racially segregated since it opened in the late 1800s. It was operated by two sets of caretakers, white and black, until the city took over the cemetery about 10 years ago.

Waco is not the only Texas community to struggle with the surprisingly robust ghost of Jim Crow: This spring, the cemetery association of Normanna, Texas, about an hour outside Corpus Christi, was sued by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund for barring a white woman from burying the ashes of her Hispanic husband there. Although the cemetery association later relented, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating. No Hispanic people are buried within the Normanna cemetery—there is one sole tombstone with a Spanish surname, located just outside the cemetery’s chain-link fence.

Until the 1950s, about 90 percent of all public cemeteries in the U.S. employed a variety of racial restrictions. Until recently, to enter a cemetery was to experience, as a University of Pennsylvania geography professor put it, the “spatial segregation of the American dead.” Even when a religious cemetery was not entirely race restricted, different races were buried in separate parts of the cemetery, with whites usually getting the more attractive plots.

Some white Americans did fight against this policy. Abolitionists, such as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War, insisted on being buried in a nonsegregated burial ground. Stevens chose to be buried in an interracial cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after his death in 1868. The issue of interracial eternal repose was so important to him that he wrote it into his own epitaph. His tombstone read: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude; but, finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I may illustrate in my death, the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator.”

3b11075r
Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-63460

From the 1920s through the 1950s, courts did not consider cemeteries to be “public accommodations,” so cemeteries did not qualify for special civil rights protections. But in May 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in land deeds violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This had a major impact on the ability of blacks to buy houses in white neighborhoods, but it also affected the de-segregation of cemeteries. Whites-only restrictions on cemetery plots could no longer hold up in court. As a sign of the slowly changing times, several interracial cemeteries appeared in the 1950s. Charles Diggs Sr., a black undertaker and florist in Detroit, bought land to create an interracial cemetery just outside the city in 1953. Mount Holiness Cemetery in Butler, New Jersey, also promoted itself as an interracial cemetery in black newspapers like the New York Age in the 1950s.

But since blacks and whites continued to live and worship separately, such initiatives were few and far between.

Just a few weeks after SCOTUS ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which officially desegregated the military. Although it took years to desegregate battlefield units, the order went into immediate effect at Arlington National Cemetery. One of the first black veterans to be buried in a formerly white section of Arlington was Spottswood Poles, a star of Negro League baseball who enlisted with the infamous Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black unit that fought in the trenches of France during World War I. Poles earned five battle field star decorations as well as the Purple Heart for his military service. He was interred at Arlington with full military honors in 1962.

As the racial composition of communities changed over time, many black cemeteries became neglected and forgotten, and the resting places of countless unsung heroes of America’s black past quietly disappeared. In 2014, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey called on the Veterans’ Administration to establish a public database listing where all black Civil War veterans were buried, because few such cemetery records exist. Since many black graves are unmarked, recording and cataloging their locations requires ground-penetrating radar and high-precision GPS. Several months ago, over 800 unmarked graves were uncovered using this technology at a black cemetery in Atlanta, demonstrating the potential for similar discoveries in cemeteries and forgotten burial grounds across the country.

1913_spot_poles
Spottswood Poles in 1913. After serving in World War I, Poleswas buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1962 with full military honors.

Library of Congress

Like the city councilors of Waco, many community groups and civic associations are currently engaged in the difficult, lengthy, and expensive tasks involved in unearthing black history. In the process, they are discovering that addressing the wrongs of the past is often more complicated than simply removing the physical reminders of Jim Crow that haunt our landscape. The traces of the past are sunk deep into the earth, but with the right tools, it’s possible to make them visible.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling 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.

READ MORE STORIES