Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

March 27 2015 9:15 AM

Fake Goats and Spanking Machines: The DeMoulin Museum of Fraternal Initiation Devices

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

While today the DeMoulin family is known as the largest maker of band uniforms in America, their museum in Greenville, Illinois is devoted to their company's origins as manufacturers of bizarre initiation devices for a once-booming number of secret societies.

The DeMoulin's odd business of fraternal machinery began in the late 1800s when Ed DeMoulin began working with his men's group, the Modern Woodsmen of America, to begin crafting goats that new members would have to ride as part of their initiation. Ed had previously patented a hilarious "trick camera" that would squirt water at the unknowing subject, so his move into the prank goat industry was a natural fit. The company's popularity soon grew and other fraternal orders such as the Odd Fellows began looking to the "goat factory" for their goofy initiation needs. Soon the DeMoulins were making spanking machines, lung tester gags, and of course, their rocking goats. 

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They also began to sell other lodge paraphernalia such as robes, caps, and uniforms. This new revenue stream boomed and soon began to eclipse the hand-crafted pranks. After a factory fire in 1955, the sillier side of the business was shuttered in favor of the more reliable sales of band uniforms and graduation gear.

However the DeMoulins never forgot the strange legacy that initiated their business into being, and today that history is on display at the DeMoulin Museum. Visitors can see an assortment of historic lodge robes, a number of the DeMoulin inventions, and yes, even ride the goat. Membership to any secret lodge is not guaranteed however.

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March 26 2015 9:15 AM

From Taxes to Ax Marks: The Story Behind the World’s Largest Wine Cask

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

Bringing new meaning to the term "drinking a ton," Heidelberg Castle's almost comically huge wine cask, known as the Heidelberg Tun, is a massive, one-of-a-kind booze barrel that has been inspiring dreams of world-shattering drunkenness for hundreds of years despite being empty for most of its life.

Built in 1751, the giant wooden barrel was the third such titanic wine holder to be constructed in the area but is the only one to remain. While it may seem as though it was designed to be a novelty, the tun served a much more mundane purpose. In the era when it was created, public taxes were paid in goods, and for an area that excelled in winemaking, that meant a lot of government vino. To hold all the donated drink, giant casks were created and all the tributes were collected into an undoubtedly vile slurry.

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Even though the barrel acted as a tax coffer, it was empty most of the time. It still bears hatchet marks from when French soldiers who had taken the castle tried to break into the barrel for some disgusting victory drinks, but gave up when they realized that it was tapped.

Today the barrel continues to draw crowds, who come to see the monumental drunk tank. Things have changed over the years and the tun caters to its tourist visitors more than to its bureaucratic past, with a dance floor built on top and constant wine tastings. Even with the modern changes, the filigreed grandeur still looks like something out of a pirate's fantasy.

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March 25 2015 11:15 AM

Treaties, Trees, and Lies: How a Falsified News Story Saved a Tree

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

There are a number of “treaty oaks” found around America, usually singled out as the location of an important agreement or truce. But the treaty oak in Jacksonville, Florida, is just called that so no one will tear it down.

Believed to be about 250 years old, the many-limbed oak tree located in what is now known as Jesse Ball duPont Park has grown into a lazily wide circumference with thick branches sprouting off at all angles like a massive wooden cephalopod. However, the mighty arbor (which was originally known as just the Giant Oak) was almost the victim of urban sprawl.

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As the city of Jacksonville grew in the 1930s, the large amount of land on which the tree sat began looking mighty appealing to developers. Fans of the ancient oak responded with somewhat shady action. Pat Moran, a local reporter, got together with a member of the Jacksonville Garden Club and devised a plan to save the tree involving him fabricating a news story about American Indians signing some kind of accord with white settlers beneath the tree, thereby making the oak a historic monument. The clever scheme worked, and the new Treaty Oak was saved.

Today the huge tree still stands and is kept in good health by regular preservation efforts, which are trying to ensure 400 more years of life for the oak.

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March 24 2015 11:00 AM

Floorboard Manifesto: The Controversial Etchings of Jeannot le Béarnais

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

Whether it is naive art, a strong message about mental illness, or the exploitation of a very sick man, the Jeannot Floor enshrined outside Paris’ Saint Anne Hospital Center has not failed to get people talking.  

The public installation consists of three sections from a 160-square-foot wooden floor covered in eerie, etched text from the troubled mind of one Jeannot le Béarnais.

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In life, le Béarnais was a farmer with a tragic story. Physically abused by his father, who went on to commit suicide in 1959, le Béarnais slowly unraveled while living in his family home. The first sign of trouble was when he fired some shots into his neighbors’ house on the command of unseen voices. Following this incident, le Béarnais refused to leave home.

After his mother died in 1971, le Béarnais insisted she be buried beneath the stairs, and moved his bed to the dining room to be closer to her. At this point, he began etching messages into the wooden floorboards. His cryptic screeds referenced a vast church conspiracy including Hitler and the popes. The crudely written manifesto was a window into le Béarnais’ schizophrenia. 

The work was discovered after his death in 1993, and the floor was removed from the home to be preserved. For a time it traveled around various art exhibitions as an unvarnished work of accidental art, before finally finding a permanent home outside this hospital in Paris. 

The installation caused nearly instant outrage from opponents who found it to be exploitative or in bad taste, but the floor remains just off the sidewalk to this day. It is a powerful and disturbing look into the face of mental illness.

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Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

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March 23 2015 11:14 AM

Toys Are Us: The Japanese Village Where Dolls Outnumber People

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

While the tiny Japanese village of Nagoro continues to shrink in the face of aging and industry, its population has managed to stay nearly constant thanks to one local artist who has set about creating life-size doll replicas of the residents as they move away or die.

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Tsukimi Ayano arranges a scarecrow at a bus stop in Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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A general view of the mountain village of Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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A woman pushes a wheelbarrow past scarecrows in Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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A vehicle drives past scarecrows sitting outside a closed-down shop in the village of Nagoro on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

When Japanese artist Tsukimi Ayano moved back to the little village where she was born, she found that many of her neighbors were moving out to bigger cities and the ones who were staying were often not long for the world. Faced with the slow death of the village she so loved, Ayano had an epiphany one day after creating a garden scarecrow (or kakashi) that was meant to look like her late father: Why stop there? Ayano began crafting other life-size dolls modeled on former locals, placing them all around the village in various states of action as their human counterparts would die or move off.

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Tsukimi Ayano arranges a scarecrow, which represents her father, Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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A scarecrow sits on a tree along a roadside in Nagoro, on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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After continuously crafting these cloth doppelgangers for over a decade, she now has about 350 of the toy citizens. From random utility workers posed in the middle of a road repair to leisurely fishermen forever waiting for their catch on a riverbank to an entire classroom filled with lifeless pupils silently attending to their cotton-faced teachers, the village has become a fascinating (if slightly unsettling) toyland.

Ayano continues to tend to her creations, repairing damaged figures and always crafting new ones. With fewer than 40 breathing humans left in the residential community, Nagoro has become a strange fairyland inspired by loss, progress, and mainly, dolls.

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Ayano steps out of her house in the village of Nagoro, on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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Ayano sows an ear onto a scarecrow in her home on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

JAPAN-DOLLS/WIDERIMAGE
A scarecrow in Tsukimi Ayano’s house, Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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Tsukimi Ayano serves tea in her house on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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Scarecrows survey the sunset on Feb. 23, 2015.

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

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March 20 2015 11:15 AM

The Ramree Island Massacre: History’s Deadliest Crocodile Attack

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

During World War II, Ramree Island off the coast of Myanmar was the site of a number of military battles, but the truly terrifying action began after the military maneuvers ended. 

On Jan. 26, 1945, British troops made their way to Ramree Island so they could establish an airbase. However, first they had to drive off the Japanese invasion force that had already claimed the island. After a bloody but successful campaign against the Japanese, the British soldiers managed to drive nearly 1,000 enemy combatants into the dense mangrove swamp that covered some 10 miles of Ramree. While this may have seemed like a fine opportunity to slip into the wilderness and regroup, most of the Japanese soldiers would never be heard from again.

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Unfortunately for the fleeing men, the mangrove jungle on Ramree Island is home to an unknown number of the largest reptilian predator in the world—the saltwater crocodile. These prehistoric holdovers can grow to more than 20 feet and 2,000 pounds in some cases, and although examples that size are rare, even a midsize crocodile of the species could easily kill a full-grown adult human.

In addition, saltwater crocodiles are far from a misunderstood monster. The crocodiles have a long history of attacking humans who wander into their habitats, seeing them as little more than taller, more awkward prey. So when nearly 1,000 panicked soldiers came dripping blood and sweat into the cramped confines of the Ramree mangrove swamp, the toothy monsters likely had the feast of their lives.

About 400 Japanese soldiers escaped those mangrove swamps, and 20 of them were eventually recaptured by the British forces who had set up a perimeter around the thick wilderness. However, the survivors told horrific tales of dozens of crocodiles attacking the soldiers en masse, and appearing seemingly out of nowhere to drag off some poor soul. The nights were said to have been filled with dire screams, gunfire, and the sounds of animal attacks.

The story of the Ramree massacre was reported in a number of papers, but the tale is still largely apocryphal. However, this has not stopped the Guinness Book of World Records from crediting the incident with the “Most Number of Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack.” A dubious distinction for a horrible event, no matter the real numbers.

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March 19 2015 8:45 AM

“Wreck the Hoose Juice”: The Monks’ Wine That Fuels Hooliganism

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

The lovely, historic Buckfast Abbey in Buckfastleigh, England has been around since the late 1800s and is home to a traditional order of monks who would not look out of place in a Friar Tuck casting call. However, they are also the creators of a popular brand of fortified wine with an astronomical caffeine content which has become the favorite drink of rowdy drunks across the country.

 

March 18 2015 8:45 AM

Nicolas Cage’s Pyramid Tomb: The Actor’s Eccentric Burial Plans

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

Acclaimed, derided, and meme'd actor Nicolas Cage has long been known for his eccentric behavior both in front of the camera and in the real world. Cage looks to continue this legacy into death as well thanks to the odd pyramid mausoleum he purchased in a famed New Orleans graveyard. Although the locals don't seem to be as impressed by his curious behavior.

Cage has a history with the city of New Orleans, having purchased both the infamously haunted LaLaurie Mansion and the historic Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel. Both properties were foreclosed on in 2009 after a tax debacle. Subsequently, Cage purchased his unnamed tomb in the city's beloved St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, home to the grave of another of New Orleans' supernatural heavies, Marie Laveau.

March 13 2015 10:12 AM

Vertical Earth Kilometer: An Amazing Hidden Art Installation

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

On the patch of ground in Friedrichsplatz Park, within the German city of Kassel, is an unassuming gold circle. Measuring 2 inches in diameter and lying flush with the pavement, it looks like a coin that’s been dropped, forgotten, and trodden on over several decades. But this is no coin—it’s the top of a brass cylindrical rod that extends 1 kilometer into the ground in the name of art.

The Vertical Earth Kilometer is a permanent Earth sculpture, installed by Walter De Maria in 1977. An artist with a penchant for minimalism and land art, De Maria is also known for The New York Earth Room (a SoHo studio packed 22 inches high with dirt) and The Lightning Field, an expansive grid of silver poles in the New Mexican desert. The Friedrichsplatz Park installation is a companion piece to The Broken Kilometer (1979), for which De Maria took an identical kilometer-long brass rod, divided it into 500 equal segments, and placed the sections in neat piles in a New York gallery. It is still on view.

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With nothing to mark its significance beyond a surrounding sandstone square, The Vertical Earth Kilometer offers a subtle message to passersby: Question what you see, for much may lie beneath.

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March 12 2015 10:51 AM

Imprisoned in Ash: The Plaster Citizens of Pompeii

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

Those that did not flee the city of Pompeii in August of 79 AD were doomed. Buried for 1,700 years under 30 feet of mud and ash and reduced by the centuries to skeletons, they remained entombed until excavations took place in the early 19th century.

As excavators continued to uncover human remains, they noticed that the skeletons were surrounded by voids in the compacted ash. By carefully pouring plaster of Paris into the spaces, the final poses, clothing, and faces of the last residents of Pompeii came to life.

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Their last days began on Aug. 24, 79 AD, the day after the Roman holiday of Volcanalia, dedicated to the god of fire. At noon Mount Vesuvius roared to life, spewing ash hundreds of feet into the air for 18 hours straight. The choking ash rained down on the cities in the surrounding countryside, filling courtyards, blocking doors, and collapsing roofs. In the only known eyewitness account to the eruption, Pliny the Younger reported on his uncle’s ill-fated foray into the thick of the ash from Misenum, on the north end of the bay:

... the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle’s case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

And then: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”

The next morning the cone of the volcano collapsed, triggering a hundred-mile-an-hour avalanche of mud and ash that flooded Pompeii, just a little over 5 miles away, destroying everything in its path. Pompeii and its smaller neighboring village of Herculaneum disappeared, and were only discovered by accident during the construction of Charles of Bourbon’s palace in 1738. Miraculously, the two cities were nearly perfectly preserved under layers of ash.

About three-quarters of Pompeii’s 165 acres have been excavated, and some 1,150 bodies have been discovered out of about 2,000 thought to have died in the city when it was destroyed. This means that the vast majority of the city of 20,000 fled at the first signs of the volcanic activity. The plaster casts of the men, women, children, and animals of Pompeii were primarily made in the mid-1800s. The building they were originally housed in suffered extensive damage in World War II, and they are now located in several places around the city.

The Antiquarium, near the Forum, once held most of the plaster casts. It was damaged during Allied bombing in 1943, and has been closed since 1978 for restoration.

The Garden of the Fugitives holds the largest number of victims found in one place, where 13 people sought refuge in a fruit orchard. Nine sets of remains were found at the House of Mysteries, where the roof collapsed, trapping them inside. One plaster cast can be seen inside the Caupona Pherusa tavern.

The Stabian Thermal baths and the Macellum (fish market) both house two plaster casts, and the Horrea (granary) and Olitorium (market) holds several more, including a pig, and what may be the most famous cast of all, of a small dog in a collar, writhing on its back.

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