Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM

The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-Era New York

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

September 16 marks the anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack on Manhattan's Financial District. The perpetrators targeted a prominent building that also served as a symbol of American capitalism. But their method of attack was unusual. They did not hijack a plane or use suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their chests. They used a horse-drawn wagon.

The Wall Street bombing, as the event is now known, occured just after noon on Thursday, September 16, 1920. A wagon loaded with a bomb containing dynamite and 500 pounds of small iron weights parked in front of 23 Wall Street. The corner building was then the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co., the nation's most powerful bank. At 12:01 pm, the timer on the bomb reached zero and a terrific explosion rocked the street.

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Thirty people—and one horse—died instantly from the blast. Another eight died later from the injuries they sustained. Hundreds were injured, some by shrapnel on the street, others by the glass that rained down from the broken windows of the J.P. Morgan building. The blast was so forceful that, according to a bystander quoted in the New York Times the next day, a trolley carrying passengers two blocks away was "thrown from the tracks by the shock."   

No-one claimed responsibility in the aftermath of the attack, leading many on the scene to conclude that the perpetrators were communist agitators fresh from the Bolshevik Revolution. On September 17, 1920, the Times reported that "both the police and the government investigators were inclined to the theory that Reds had placed a time bomb in the wagon." Russians were the prime suspect in the eyes of John Markle, a wealthy anthracite coal field operator who happened to be at the J.P. Morgan building when the blast occurred. "[T]here is no question in my mind," he told the Times, "that the explosion was caused by Bolsheviki."

Not everyone, however, thought red was the color of guilt. Department of Justice agent Frank Francisco was reluctant to believe J.P. Morgan had been targeted and figured the explosion may have been an accident. The Times quoted him thusly: "If an attempt had been made on the Morgan offices, I believe it would have been made at night, or some radical would have secured a position in the institution and planted an infernal machine inside."

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People standing in front of 23 Wall Street in the aftermath of the explosion.

Photo: Bain News Service (Library of Congress)/Public domain

In their haste to reopen the New York Stock Exchange the day after the blast, city officials swept away evidence that may have led to identification of the perpetrators. Despite a three-year investigation, those responsible for the attack have never been officially identified. In 1944, however, the FBI revisited the case and concluded that Italian anarchists were likely behind the plot—the group had conducted a series of bombings across the United States in 1919, which fueled the nation's first Red Scare.

Today, the limestone acade of 23 Wall Street still bears the scars from the shrapnel that blasted into it 94 years ago. These little marks are the only on-site hint of the attack—no signs or plaques commemorate the bombing.

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The scarred wall of 23 Wall Street today.

Photo: Ella Morton

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Hand-sized pock marks still mar the facade.

Photo: Ella Morton

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Sept. 9 2014 9:03 AM

A Fiery Farewell to Spreepark, Berlin's Beloved Abandoned Theme Park

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

Much to the dismay of urban explorers, forest ravers, and kings of carousels with dreams to build German Disneylands, the abandoned Berlin amusement park Spreepark is at the end of its era. Not only does 2014 mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with it the fall of one of Berlin's most beloved former GDR pleasure palaces.

Sept. 8 2014 12:18 PM

Solving the Great Stink: London's Gorgeous Victorian Sewage Cathedrals

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

The night men of Victorian London had it rough. Tasked with hauling away "night soil"—human waste—under the cover of darkness, night men ventured into the city's 200,000 cesspits armed with only buckets, rope, and the desire to make money at any cost.

Between midnight and 5 a.m., night men climbed down into the pits of human effluvia, filled their buckets, and hauled the waste into carts. It was dangerous, disgusting work: beyond the appalling stench and hard physical labor, night men risked death by asphyxiation due to the overpowering gases and fumes.

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A cartoon by John Leech addressing the Great Stink in the July 3, 1858 issue of the London satire magazine Punch. The three figures emerging from the river represent diphtheria, scropula (a condition involving enlargement of the lymph nodes on the neck), and cholera.
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Prior to the installation of the sewer system, London was a city of overflowing cesspits that drained into a putrid Thames. Cholera ran rampant and the air was a miasma of human waste smells, slaughterhouse run-off, and factory emissions.

Conditions were particularly noxious during the summer of 1858, a time known as The Great Stink. The smell of the sewage-filled Thames was so horrid that it affected operations at the Houses of Parliament. A transcript from parliamentary proceedings on June 11, 1858 notes that "Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river." In an attempt to mask the smell, the parliamentary curtains were soaked in chloride of lime. But the distracting odor remained.

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The Prince of Wales and a gaggle of gentlemen start the sewer pumps at Crossness Pumping Station in 1865.

Clearly, something had to be done. The solution came in the form of a sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Construction on six intercepting sewers—which diverted waste from the city to a Thames estuary downstream—began in 1859.

Among the most beautiful components of the new sewer system were the pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills. Designed in Byzantine style with hints of Moorish influence, these ornate cathedrals of waste held steam pumps surrounded by red-brick arches, octagonal cupolas, shiny brass handrails, wrought-iron detailing, and elegant "MBW" monograms—for the Metropolitan Board of Works. At Crossness, the steam pumps were named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward, and Alexandra, after members of the British royal family.

The Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations have been superseded by more advanced systems, but the ornate Victorian buildings remain. Crossness station, located on the south bank in the borough of Bexley, has been restored and is available for hire—the official website recommends you consider it as a location for product launches, viral videos, and Shakespearean theater productions. The Abbey Mills pumping station, situated on the north bank near West Ham, is generally closed to the public, but Thames Water occasionally conducts tours as part of city open house programs.   

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations.

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Abbey Mills Pumping Station, completed in 1868.

Photo: Ian Wright/Creative Commons

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The "Prince Consort" steam engine, named after Queen Victoria's husband Albert.

Photo: Steve Cadman/Creative Commons

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The octagonal domed ceiling of Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

Photo: Matt Brown/Creative Commons

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The C Station Pump House at Abbey Mills.

Photo: Msemmett/Creative Commons

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A section of the London sewer at Fleet River near Farringdon.

Photo: sub-urban.com/Creative Commons

Sept. 5 2014 9:15 AM

The Magnificent Mud Mosque of Mali

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

Last year, the UNESCO-heritage-listed Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali sustained damage to its walls and had to be repaired by members of the community. But that wasn’t cause for concern—it happens every year.

Like hundreds of other buildings in Djenne, the Great Mosque is made of mud. It was built in 1907, but the town's mud architecture dates back to at least the 14th century. To create the buildings, masons pack mud and straw into bricks, allow them to dry in the sun, and stack them to form walls. A layer of mud plastered on top provides a smooth surface and better stability.

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Though the buildings are sturdy and often sprawling—the Great Mosque can hold 3,000 worshippers—they are still vulnerable to the elements. Rain, humidity, and temperature changes cause cracks and erosion in the walls. Djenne's mud masons regularly band together and repair the mosque to keep it from falling apart.

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Great Mosque of Djenne and Mali's mud architecture.

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Photo: FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/Getty Images

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A man walks among the mud buildings of Djenne.

Photo: Juan Manuel Garcia/Creative Commons

Aug. 29 2014 8:55 AM

Nubians on the Nile: The Other Ancient Pyramids of Northern Africa

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

Egypt isn't the only African country with ancient pyramids rising from its sands. In fact, there are more pyramids in one small section of the northern Sudanese desert than there are in the whole of Egypt.

During Egypt's 25th dynasty (760 BC until 656 BC), Meroe, now located in Sudan, was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, ruled by Nubian kings who had conquered Egypt. Often overlooked in the history books, these black pharoahs presided over an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to present-day Khartoum. 

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Meroe, a city nestled against the Nile 200 miles north of Khartoum, contained a necropolis for royal burials. As in Egypt, Nubian kings and queens were buried with gold, jewelry, pottery, and, occasionally, pets. Some royals were mummified, while others had their remains burned or buried whole. A sandstone pyramid, steeper and more narrow than the Egyptian variety, was built over each tomb.

In all, about 220 pyramids were built in Meroe, spread across three sites. They remained relatively intact until the 1830s, when Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini smashed the tops off 40 pyramids while searching for gold and jewels. In recent years, a few pyramids have been reconstructed to give travelers a sense of what they used to look like.

You can visit the Meroe pyramids via car ride and camel from Khartoum, but due to ongoing violence in Sudan, the Department of State currently advises against traveling to the country.


View Pyramids of Meroe in a larger map

Aug. 27 2014 1:03 PM

The Battle of the Oranges: Fighting Tyranny With Citrus

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

Bad news: you've just missed La Tomatina, the Spanish tomato-throwing festival that takes place on the last Wednesday in August. Good news: there's plenty of time to plan for the Historical Carnival of Ivrea, an Italian festival in February that culminates in three days of relentless citrus-based combat.

During the Battle of the Oranges, the townspeople of Ivrea divide into nine squads, each with its own distinctive uniform. Supplied with crates of oranges, the teams stand in the main square and await the arrival of the enemy: carts full of orange throwers poised to strike. Then, the fruit flies.

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An important detail: the people on the carts are decked out in armor, including face-protecting helmets. Those on the street squads are not. It is not uncommon to see people stumbling out of the square with orange-induced injuries, such as black eyes, cuts, and the sting of citric acid in a wound.

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Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

The origins of this food fight are a little murky, but the most popular explanation begins with an attempted rape, a vengeful decapitation, and a torched castle. In the Middle Ages—so the story goes—local vile tyrant Marquis Raineri di Biandrate visited a young woman named Violetta on the eve of her wedding, intending to cash in his droit du seigneur.

But Violetta fought back, producing a dagger and lopping off the tyrant's head. When the villagers saw her holding the head aloft toward them in triumph, they took the opportunity to unleash the anger wrought from years of oppression. They stormed the castle, burned it to the ground, and vowed to never submit to tyranny again.

A few centuries pass, yadda yadda yadda, and the throwing of oranges to simulate the defeat of the tyrant becomes a yearly tradition, complete with rules for participants and guidelines for spectators. (Don't throw an orange at a horse; wear a red floppy cap if you don't want to get hit; no strollers.)

The next Battle of the Oranges takes place on the three days preceding Mardi Gras (February 15-17) in Ivrea, just north of Turin.

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Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

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Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 25 2014 12:14 PM

Attack on Kiska: Untouched Relics from a Baffling WWII Battle

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

Kiska Island, in the Aleutians far west of Alaska, is not a hospitable place. It's cold. It's topped with a volcano. It's 1,000 miles from medical assistance. No one lives there, and if you are bold enough to visit, you'll be greeted by a shipwreck in its harbor.

Kiska is also the site of a deadly World War II battle in which only one side fought. Here's the story.

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In the early hours of June 7, 1942, 1,200 Japanese soldiers stormed the island. They didn't have a lot of overpowering to do: Just 10 Americans were living on the island, operating a weather station. After killing two of the Americans and sending the other eight to Japan as prisoners of war, the Japanese settled into Kiska and stayed for more than a year, carving out tunnels, building machine gun bunkers, and even planting gardens.

With no Americans left on the island, the U.S. Army was not concerned about civilian casualties. Within two weeks of Japanese occupation, the United States launched a series of bombing campaigns on Kiska. A few ships and submarines were destroyed, and Japan lost hundreds of soldiers, but the big attack on the island did not come until Aug. 15, 1943.

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The ruins of the Borneo Maru, a Japanese army transport ship damaged by U.S. bombing.

Photo: Brendan Coyle

On that day, almost 35,000 Allied soldiers landed at Kiska ready to overpower the Japanese. As they stormed the beaches, braced for heavy casualties, they noticed something unexpected: No one was fighting back.

After learning that the United States had attacked the Japanese base on nearby Attu Island, Japan ordered its soldiers—which now numbered 5,400—off Kiska. All departed on July 28, 1943—more than two weeks before the Allied soldiers arrived.

Suspicious of the silent plains and abandoned artillery, Allied troops scoured the 107-square-mile island for more than a week. Kiska was beset by heavy fog, and the on-edge soldiers occasionally fired at one another accidentally. Booby traps left by the Japanese caused more casualties. About 100 Allied soldiers ended up dying, either at the hands of a comrade or in encounters with unexploded mines.

The island is still littered with items left by the Japanese as they fled in haste  that day in 1943. But due to its remote location and harsh conditions, Kiska is not a popular stop on World War II relic tours. You're not supposed to set foot on the island unless you are conducting research, and for that you will need permission from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the authorities determine that your research is valid, it's just a matter of flying to Anchorage, then getting one of the twice-a-week fights to the island of Adak, then hitching a ride to Kiska on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel. You'll need to bring your own food, water, and anything else you require to while away a summer on a barren island among rare war relics.

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Photo: Brendan Coyle

Brendan Coyle, author of the upcoming book Kiska: The Japanese Occupation of an Alaska Island, recently spent a summer on Kiska as a field assistant to a biology professor. The pair was tasked with researching the effects of the Norway rat on the island's indigenous bird populations. (Rats were introduced to Kiska in the 18th century when fishing vessels landed there.)

Though not entirely unexcited by rats and their destructive effects on an island eco-system, Coyle's main aim was to document the mostly untouched relics left by the Japanese. (For that reason, Coyle notes that the biology professor he assisted wishes to remain anonymous. "The national science council partly funds this research," he said, "so he doesn't want to give them the impression he's out there looking for World War II items when he should be looking at birds.")

During his 51 days on Kiska, Coyle photographed rusting guns, crumbling tunnels, gas masks whose tubes coiled like sea snakes in murky puddles, abandoned pairs of split-toe tabi shoes, and bombed-out submarines half-submerged in grass. Between photography and research expeditions, he and the professor spent time in their beachside tent, cooking meals on a propane stove, updating their journals, and being frustrated by frequent storms. (House M.D., screened on a laptop powered by a generator, was the entertainment of choice on bad weather days. There was no Internet.)

Some of Coyle's stunning photos are below. Many more images, and the story of his summer on Kiska, are found in Kiska: The Japanese Occupation of an Alaska Island, to be published in October.

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Photo: Brendan Coyle

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Split-toe jika-tabi footwear left by Japanese soldiers.

Photo: Brendan Coyle

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Photo: Brendan Coyle

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Photo: Brendan Coyle

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Photo: Brendan Coyle

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Japanese ships burning in Kiska Harbor following a U.S. Army bombing in 1942 or 1943.

Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force/Public Domain


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Aug. 21 2014 9:43 AM

Big Stinky Blooms: The Putrid Beauty of Corpse Flowers

Something rare and magnificent is taking place at LA's Huntington Gardens this week. For the first time in four years, a Titan Arum flower in the Conservatory will bloom, reaching around six feet in height and perfuming the air with the scent of rotting meat.

Aug. 18 2014 12:32 PM

Nabokov's Butterflies: The Lolita Author's First, Fluttering Love

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

Fifty-six years ago today, Lolita was first published in the USA by G.P. Putnam's Sons. But Vladimir Nabokov might never have unleashed Lo-lee-ta, fire of Humbert's loins and subject of many an impassioned seduction-versus-child-abuse debate, if he had devoted himself entirely to his first great love: chasing butterflies.

After catching his first butterfly at the age of six and collecting insects throughout childhood, Nabokov became a lifelong lepidopterist. During an interview in the Summer-Fall 1967 edition of the Paris Review, he made his enthusiasm for butterfly hunting clear:

INTERVIEWER
Besides writing novels, what do you, or would you, like most to do?

NABOKOV
Oh, hunting butterflies, of course, and studying them. The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.

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After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution forced his family to flee from St. Petersburg to Crimea, Nabokov studied butterflies to ward off homesickness. When he emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis in 1940, Nabokov, whose Russian publications had not yet made him famous in America, got a job as Curator of Lepidoptera at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. For seven years he spent up to 14 hours a day sorting and mounting butterflies.

In 1945, Nabokov developed a theory of butterfly evolution based on his examination of the Polyommatus blues group: he proposed that the butterflies journeyed in five waves from Asia to Chile before going north to the New World. Although lepidopterists dismissed the theory at the time, he was later vindicated—in 2011, the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London journal announced that scientists had confirmed Nabokov's theory using gene-sequencing technology.

This posthumous achievement joins the 20 species of butterfly named after the author’s fictional characters. And Lolita itself is littered with butterfly-inspired language that reflects Nabokov's lepidoptery-heavy lifestyle: as the fragile and beautiful nymphet undergoes her metamorphosis, she is described as frail, silky, and fairy-like. Humbert presses his mouth to Lolita's "fluttering" eyelid, and then there's this moment as he watches her play tennis:

Did I ever mention that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly? That she was only fourteen?

An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.

The remains of Nabokov's butterfly collections are shared between the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the museums of Harvard and Cornell universities, the Zoological Museum in Lausanne, and the Nabokov Museum, established in the St. Petersburg house where he was born.

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AMelissa Blue (Lycaeides melissa) butterfly, one of the groups Nabokov used for wing-scale analysis.

Photo: Five Acre Geographic/Creative Commons

Aug. 14 2014 10:50 AM

Budapest's Abandoned Art Deco Power Station

Hidden in Budapest's XI District, on the banks of the Danube in the unfashionable side of Buda, lies an iconic monument symbolizing the dawn of the electrical age. Once Europe's most advanced power station, the semi-abandoned, and now privately owned site, in Kelenföld celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

Kelenföld Power Station is not only a technological marvel, having supplied a large chunk of the city with electricity as far back as 1914, but it's also one of the masterpieces in industrial design.

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