Atlas Obscura
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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.

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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 non-segregated 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.”

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Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Photo: 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. Senator 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 cataloguing 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.

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

Photo: 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.

Jan. 13 2017 12:25 PM

In 1918, California Drafted Children Into a War on Squirrels

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

In April 1918, as American doughboys faced down the Germans in France, California’s schoolchildren were enlisted to open a new Western front. “We have enemies here at home more destructive, perhaps, than some of the enemies our boys are fighting in the trenches,” state horticulture commissioner George H. Hecke warned in an impassioned call-up for “School Soldiers.” He exhorted children to do their part for Uncle Sam by organizing “a company of soldiers in your class or in your school” and marching out to destroy their foe: “the squirrel army.”

This children’s crusade was part of Squirrel Week, a seven-day frenzy in which California tried to kill off its ground squirrels. The state’s farmers and ranchers had long struggled to decimate the critters (also known as Otospermophilus beecheyi), which were seen as pests and a source of pestilence, particularly the bubonic plague. The burrowing foragers—not to be confused with tree squirrels—devoured an estimated $30 million worth of crops annually, about $480 million in current dollars.

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Squirrel Week was the state’s first attempt at mass eradication. The anti-rodent campaign was announced in March 1918 at a meeting of the state’s horticultural commissioners as they lunched on grain-fed gophers. (“Liberal portions of beef were served to those who did not like gopher meat,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.)

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“Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food”: a call for school children to help destroy squirrels.

Internet Archive/Public Domain

California set aside $40,000 from its emergency wartime funds for the campaign, which included an anti-squirrel publicity blitz: The state printed up 34,000 posters and distributed 500,000 leaflets.

What made Squirrel Week unique was its reliance on kids to succeed where adults had failed. Hecke’s call to arms appeared in a pamphlet titled “Kill the Squirrels,” which sought to stir patriotic youngsters to sprinkle rodenticide outside squirrel burrows. In the pamphlet’s opening illustration, a young woman holding a pail of poison barley invites eager kids to get to work.

“Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food,” she smiles. “But use poisons carefully.” The pamphlet included a recipe for strychnine-laced grain as well as suggestions for other extermination methods, such as shooting, drowning, and poison gas.

Just in case civic duty wasn’t motivation enough, there were also rewards: $50 ($800 today) to each of the elementary and high schools whose pupils killed the most squirrels, and $30 and $20 to the runners-up.

California’s war on squirrels was framed as an extension of United States’ declaration of war on Germany a year earlier. Part of this was practical: Future President Herbert Hoover, then the United States Food Administrator, offered his “hearty approval” of the effort to save “vast quantities of food which might otherwise be used for support of our armies abroad.”

But it also made for great propaganda. In the corners of the “Kill the Squirrels” cartoon, two members of the squirrel army stood at attention, wearing Pickelhauben—the distinctive spiked helmets of the German army. Another Squirrel Week poster showed a Teutonic squirrel family wearing spiked helmets and Iron Crosses. The father squirrel sported an oddly upturned mustache—just like Kaiser Wilhelm’s.

An article about Squirrel Week in the Lompoc Journal took the martial theme and ran with it, hailing the “growing army” amassing “casualties” in “initial engagements” against the enemy. “All the killing devices of modern warfare will be used in the effort to annihilate the squirrel army, including gas,” it continued. “Don’t wait to be drafted.”

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More squirrel notices from California’s State Commission of Horticulture.

Internet Archive/Public Domain

The campaign also enlisted the help of Four-Minute Men—volunteers who delivered short speeches to rally public support for the war effort. Anti-squirrel talking points were issued so they might convince farmers and ranchers to go out and kill the “little ally of the [K]aiser”:

  • The BEST squirrel is the dead squirrel.
  • The Hotel California board bill for ground squirrels in 1917 […] was $30,000,000—yet unpaid.
  • The squirrel does not recognize daylight saving. He uses it all.
  • He preys on our crops in countless hordes. He fills the ranks of the killed in true military fashion.
  • Why hesitate? We can get ‘em. How? Poison ‘em, gas ‘em, drown em’, shoot ‘em, trap ‘em, submarine ‘em.
  • Are you not willing then to give your whole-hearted support to this state-wide movement to KILL THE SQUIRREL?

Children were asked to verify their kills by bringing in squirrel tails to their schools. Some impatient exterminators delivered their trophies directly to Commissioner Hecke even before Squirrel Week kicked off, causing a “pronounced odor” in his office. He requested that children not send him any more tails, and instructed his county commissioners to bury all tails after tallying them.

By the time Squirrel Week ended on May 4, children across the state had turned in 104,509 tails, though this was thought to represent a fraction of the total casualties. Even after the contest ended, the Commission of Horticulture reported that kids’ enthusiasm for killing squirrels continued for “an indefinite period.” During an anti-squirrel campaign in Lassen County later in the year, one girl brought in 3,780 tails; a boy brought in 3,770.

The state considered Squirrel Week a great success: Crop yields reportedly bounced back in areas cleared of ground squirrels. But total victory remained elusive. Nearly a century later, ground squirrels and are still considered prolific, expensive pests.

The militaristic edge of the squirrel war of 1918 hasn’t entirely faded: A contemporary University of California web page about the damage caused by ground squirrels features an image of a squirrel wearing a helmet and taking aim with a bazooka. All is not quiet on this Western front.

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. 12 2017 12:30 PM

The Federally Funded Laboratory Conducting Experiments on All Things Wooden

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

Who would you call if you had a wood-related question? The Forest Products Laboratory, of course. But, did you even know of its existence?

The Forest Products Laboratory was created in 1910 and was moved to its current building atop a knoll overlooking the University of WisconsinMadison in 1932. There, research is conducted on all things wood-related. The lab's xylarium, or research wood collection, is the largest in the world, with over 103,000 samples. Its herbarium contains one of the largest collections of wood-decay fungi in existence.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, FPL is the only federally funded wood utilization research laboratory in the United States, and as such it answers to the public as a government resource. Operating under the Forest Service, the laboratory dispenses timely advice on wood through its hotline—just call 608-231-9200.

When it's not answering the public’s burning questions, FPL is a repository of oddities. In its xylarium they have a piece of Leadwood, which is the heaviest and hardest wood in existence, weighing 85 pounds per cubic foot. Another sample, a piece of African Crossfire Mahogany, was the veneer used on the interior of Pontiac automobiles in 1973. It’s a beautiful specimen with brown waves rippling through its golden grain, like caramel cascading down a candied apple.

Within the walls of this curious laboratory, innovative research is conducted on a daily basis for society’s benefit. And resting in cabinets sit artifacts accrued over a century, waiting to tell a story about our past and the potential future of wood technology.

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. 11 2017 12:30 PM

Behind Michelangelo’s Hidden Wall Drawings

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

In 1530, to escape the wrath of the Pope, Michelangelo holed up in a tiny secret room under the Medici Chapel of the Basilica di San Lorenzo. The artist had been working on the lavish tomb when all hell broke loose in Florence, Italy, and he was forced into hiding. With nothing but time and a little charcoal on his hands, he covered the bare walls with some prisoner graffiti.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni designed the Medici Chapel as an elaborate domed mausoleum for his patron family, but for three months he hid underneath it and filled the walls with drawings—of himself, of Christ, and even, some experts believe, sketched reproductions of images from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he had completed in 1512.

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Michelangelo owed his career to the Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe. In 1529 he joined ranks with other Florentines who had grown weary of their rule, hoping for a more democratic system of governance. Defying the formidable family, let alone the Pope (Clement VII, who was a Medici), was more than a little counterintuitive for the artist, whose livelihood depended on them. But defy he did, working to help fortify the city walls against Medici-friendly forces led by the Pope himself.

After 10 months of struggle the Pope and his family won, and the republican sympathizers were swiftly punished. This would have included Michelangelo, had he not retreated for those three months to his subterranean hideaway to wait it out.

In November of 1530, after the Pope let it be known that Michelangelo could go back to work—unpunished—to complete the Chapel, he reemerged. All was forgiven between the artist and his patrons, eager to finally have their finished tomb. Michelangelo never let on where he had been, and for almost 500 years his whereabouts remained a secret. During this time, some believed he had been staying with a friend or in a church bell tower.

The room and the drawings weren’t discovered until 1976, when they were stumbled upon by the director of the Museum of the Medici Chapel. Since then, given its fragility, the tiny, dark, and unvented space has been alternately opened and closed to the public. Imagine spending three months down there with nothing but doodling to keep you occupied.

As it turns out, it’s not healthy for the drawings to have too many tourists breathing on them, so the secret room is currently officially closed to the public. They do make occasional exceptions, so it's worth a try to ask around if you're there—you may get lucky.

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. 10 2017 2:00 PM

The Liberating Corsets of the Warner Brothers Corset Factory

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

It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that doctors began to notice the injuries women received by wearing corsets made of steel and whalebone. Their lungs were crushed and their organs squeezed to the point of failure. At this factory, two doctors pioneered a corset that, along with burgeoning women’s liberation, allowed women to do more.

Though they were associated with delicate femininity, corsets were actually heavy-duty objects structured to literally force a woman's body into a given period's beauty standards. But toward the end of the 19th century, two things were happening to change the public feeling about corsets.

First, women were gaining more independence, and social mores about clothing were loosening. Ladies displayed their shoulders and ankles in public when taking part in activities like swimming and bicycling— not to mention during the long working hours of lower-class women—and needed to be able to move better. Second, in the wake of a prolific era in medicine, there was a trend in health cures. People had the sense that we, as a public, could become our best selves by improving our health through health tonics, health tinctures, health seltzers, health soaps, and of course, health underwear.

After unsuccessfully lecturing against the deleterious effects of tightly cinched corsets, Drs. Ira and Lucien Warner pioneered a “health corset.” It was made of flexible fabric, and instantly became the most popular model available on the market. They later introduced several practical inventions to women's undergarments, such as garter clips to connect one's hose to the corset. They stayed up with the times too; in 1915 they bought the patent for the first bra, invented by the 19-year-old Mary Phelps Jacob.

Jan. 6 2017 1:30 PM

100 Years Ago, American Women Competed in Venus de Milo Look-Alike Contests

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

In February 1916, two prestigious northeast American liberal arts colleges engaged in a spirited war of words, goaded by the media. The conflict, between Wellesley in Massachusetts and Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, did not pertain to academics, admissions, suffrage or sporting teams. They were fighting over which college’s female students most closely resembled the Venus de Milo.

At the time, American women were still getting used to breathing easily, having wrestled free from the tightly laced corsets and bulky bustles of the Victorian silhouette. But in the absence of these strictures they faced a new kind of aesthetically minded pressure: the need to make their measurements correspond to those of a Greco-Roman goddess. The soft curves of Venus—Aphrodite to the Ancient Greeks—were being exalted once again as the paragon of female beauty.

Accordingly, the nation embarked on a quest to find a living, breathing woman whose body was of exact Venusian proportions.

The Wellesley-Swarthmore tiff began on February 10, 1916, when Wellesley released the composite data of its students' measurements. They seemed close enough to Venus' proportions to invite goddess comparisons—the average young woman at Wellesley apparently had a waist circumference within half-an-inch of the hallowed Venus de Milo trunk circumference.

But on February 15, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Wellesley’s “composite Venus” was “outdone by Miss Margaret Willett, the beauty of Swarthmore college and leader in women’s athletics, according to measurements of Miss Willett made public today by her friends.” Willett’s supporters insisted that her figure trumped the collective beauty of Wellesley women since her measurements varied from those of the Venus de Milo by mere fractions of an inch. Her bust, in particular, was “practically the same.”

Jan. 5 2017 12:30 PM

Did a Silent Film About a Train Really Cause Audiences to Stampede?

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

If you’re at all interested in the history of cinema, you’ve probably heard some version of the story about the train film that sent an audience running. According to the tale, as the silent black-and-white image of a moving locomotive filled a movie screen in Paris, the people in the cinema thought it was going to drive right into them. They panicked and bolted for the back of the theater.

While this story is often taken as fact, it turns out that this theatrical panic is likely no more than a sturdy urban legend—and probably already was even when the film was still in the theater.

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The myth of the runaway movie train surrounds a short 1896 film called L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. The 50-second-long silent film was created by Auguste and Louis Lumière, a pioneering set of brothers who were among the very first people to create moving pictures.

Many of the brothers' early works were barely classifiable as movies even at the time, mostly being short snippets of a scene. “This film is memorable among all the other 1,400 one-minute films (they were called ‘views’ at that time, like ‘living’ picture post cards—single-shot films without any editing), which are listed in the Lumière film catalogue,” says Martin Loiperdinger, a film scholar at the University of Trier, Germany. Loiperdinger is the author of maybe the pre-eminent piece of writing regarding the myth of La Ciotat, calling the film and its attendant popularity “Cinema’s Founding Myth.” In the piece he points out that there is no hard evidence that the famed audience stampede ever occurred.

The film itself is a scene on a train platform. Riders mill about the station, while a black steam train pulls in toward the camera, which has been set up close to the edge of the tracks. But even as it was presented as just snapshot of natural action at a train station, the scene was staged by the Lumière Brothers, with the extras being told not to look at the camera.

The movie is often credited as the first documentary film, but this is also untrue. “This film clearly shows a perfect mies-en-scène of a train entering the station, from the perspective of somebody waiting on the platform, standing close to the tracks—thus the locomotive enters the frame from right rear and runs to the left bottom corner of the frame and leaves the frame while the trains stops: a perfect diagonal composition,” says Loiperdinger. The film was beautiful in its simplicity and ability to bring viewers right up and into the action on-screen, even if the scene was a portrait of daily tedium.

It’s almost hard to imagine a black-and-white short creating much of a splash, but it seems like it was a hit. According to Loiperdinger, there are no accounts of how the audience reacted at the time, but journalists who wrote about their experiences at the showings of the Cinématographe Lumière, the program of short films in which La Ciotat first began appearing in 1896, seemed reasonably amazed. Even without color or sound, the film’s clear portrayal of three-dimensional movement was a sensation.

Since there are no surviving contemporary accounts of the audience reaction to those 1896 showings, there is no concrete proof that audiences ever went scurrying for the back of theater as the train pulled in on screen, and Loiperdinger thinks that such a reaction is unlikely.

“There is no evidence at all about any crowd panic in Paris or elsewhere during screenings of L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat—neither police reports nor newspaper reporting,” he says. The screen the film was shown on was small (around 7 feet wide), and the picture quality was not only lacking color, but it was full of grain. The image flickered noticeably, and of course, there was no sound. In other words, there was no way anyone was confusing the film for reality.

So if it never happened, where did the story of the panicked audience come from?

“The anecdote of train films and panicking audiences was already in the air before 1900,” says Loiperdinger. According to Loiperdinger, tales of panicked audiences began to surface mainly as a way for people to try to describe the emotional power inherent in the then-new medium of film. Writers reporting on Cinématographe Lumière would talk about the train nearly crashing into the audience but just as a rhetorical method of invoking the convincing 3-D effect of the moving picture.

There was also a component of class commentary in the story that spoke to film’s power and effect on the unwashed masses. The erudite, newspaper-reading, educated elites of the day took solace in the idea of rubes getting spooked by a moving image that they would never let affect them in such a way. This can be seen clearly in the 1901 silent film, The Countryman and the Cinematograph, which shows a bumpkin reacting outrageously to a series of short films. There is even a bit where he runs from the image of an oncoming train.

For the same reasons the urban legend of the train and the audience panic first arose around the release of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, it continues to survive today. The story still makes for a great shorthand for the power of film, and the elitists still like to giggle at the effect popcorn movies have on the masses. “The anecdote about naïve early film audiences who confuse moving pictures with reality means balm for the souls of self-conscious media consumers in later decades up to today,” says Loiperdinger.

The story of the audience panic and the train film might be bogus, but with advances in 3-D making movies come alive like never before, maybe it won’t be long before people finally bring this myth to life.

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. 4 2017 12:30 PM

How Civil War Soldiers Gave Themselves Syphilis While Trying to Avoid Smallpox

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

Bullets fly, the cold creeps in, and your body is so malnourished that you can barely walk. You know that if smallpox gets hold of you, you don't stand a chance. You look at your fellow soldier's pus-filled lesion and realize there is only one way to survive the smallpox outbreak in your unit. You breathe in deeply, cut your arm open with your rusty pocket knife, and fill the wound with the liquid coming out of your comrade's pustule.

Strange as it may sound, this was the reality for many Union and Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War. In the 1860s, before germ theory had taken hold in the field of medicine, medical facilities often lacked the necessary hygiene to prevent infections. Because of this, thousands of soldiers were killed by simple infections and diseases we now consider nonthreatening or obsolete. Of these, smallpox was perhaps the deadliest and most feared.

Plaguing the world since ancient times, smallpox brought down powerful rulers like Pharaoh Ramses V and has been credited with aiding the fall of Rome and the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It also led us to discover vaccination.

By 1861, the year in which the Civil War broke out, the Western world had been vaccinating against smallpox for over half a century. This feat is accredited to Edward Jenner, an English scientist who demonstrated that infecting people with the less threatening cowpox disease would result in immunity to smallpox. Injections were yet to come, so doctors' preferred vaccination method was to gather fluid from an active pustule of an infected cow or person and introduce it into the patient's bloodstream by making a cut in the skin. While prone to certain complications, this method proved effective enough to be exported from Europe to the rest of the world.

Jan. 3 2017 12:30 PM

The Bottomless Mystery of D.B. Cooper

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

The appeal of the mystery of D.B. Cooper, who jumped out of a plane with $200,000 in cash and two parachutes in 1971 and was never found, is that it may as well be a myth.

Cooper knew enough to jump at 10,000 feet, high enough to obscure his landing spot but low enough so that he could survive. He knew that the Boeing 727 plane he had hijacked had a rear exit, unlike similar planes and similar models. He apparently knew how to use a parachute but only asked for"front" and "back" parachutes, suggesting to some at least that he wasn't exactly a professional. He also knew, high in the sky, that that might be Tacoma, Washington, down below.

He knew enough, in other words, to get the job done, but not enough to suggest he had any kind of special skills. He was a man in a suit who smoked and drank bourbon and, theoretically, could have been any man in America who wore a suit and smoked and drank bourbon. His only principles were stacks of bills and swagger, and his only political cause was escaping. Was Don Draper D.B. Cooper? (Spoiler alert.) No. But he could've been.

This summer, the FBI announced that it was officially closing the case on D.B. Cooper. A 44-year investigation into his disappearance had come to an end, after dozens of suspects, and hundreds of tips, and, in 1980, the only concrete proof that D.B. Cooper might have in fact made it to the ground and not simply vanished into thin air: some money, found by an 8-year-old boy along the Columbia River, not far from where Cooper might have landed.

Dec. 26 2016 12:30 PM

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Lied to You as a Child

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

Think of the best scene from your favorite children's book. Easy, right? The Very Hungry Caterpillar emerges from his cocoon, now a beautiful butterfly that takes up two whole pages. Sal and the Mama Bear run into each other in the blueberry patch. The rascally mouse gets yet another cookie.

There's a reason this particular page stuck in your mind. Maybe it surprised you, or taught you a lesson, or made you laugh. But have you ever wondered if it's accurate?

Yes, children's books are bastions of fantasy, the rightful homes of dragons and magic crayons and talking cheese. But as kids spend less time outdoors and more time learning about nature through screens, some experts are taking a closer look at how well the lessons translate. The answer is often a resounding "needs improvement." And fixing up picture books—those colorful gateway drugs to further education—might be a good first step.

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