Fred Clark, the Slacktivist, has written a bunch of times before about the "Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition". Long story short, probably no one is burning kittens or hunting shelter animals for sport; claiming such (and in many cases, convincing yourself you believe it too) is a way to make yourself feel like a hero for opposing something evil (Without having to do much work, since you can't actually go out there and fight the kitten-burners as said burners do not exist), and get other people to sign on to support your side because otherwise they're siding with the kitten-burners.
Halloween might be over, but it's never too late to celebrate an awesome costume, even if it's going on a paper turkey rather than a human. Forget tracing your hand and turning it into a turkey, that's so 20th century: kids these days (or their parents or teachers) have gotten more creative with their Thanksgiving crafting, and the hottest craft for these rainy November days is the turkey in disguise.
Starting the morning with eggs and coffee is a timeless approach to breakfast. But the ways in which these two ingredients successfully combine is far more variable than scrambled and black, inhabiting respective plate and cup. Egg coffee, for example, takes on multiple forms. While the Vietnamese rendition incorporates hot, sugary, frothed egg into a Robusta brew, Scandinavian egg coffee uses the egg as a clarifying agent to enhance a less-than-optimal cuppa joe.
Swedes and Norwegians invented this brewing method, which requires cracking a whole egg into coffee grounds with a bit of water, then mixing everything into a slimy mush. After bringing a pot of water to a rolling boil, drinkers then add the coffee mixture and let it steep. The result? Cup after cup of clean, sienna-tinted brew. The egg absorbs the tannins and impurities that typically impart bitterness and unpleasantry to low-quality cups of boiled java.
In the mid-1800s, Scandinavian immigrants brought the method to the United States' Midwest, which improved upon the suboptimal coffee available. The brew earned the nickname "church basement coffee" because it was ideal for boiling massive quantities of joe. It became a staple of social gatherings, and even now, many recipes for egg coffee make at least 10 cups. Eventually, the drip coffeemaker took over, but not even the most efficient machines can compete with the sheer volume afforded by the egg-reliant stovetop technique.
My dad used to sometimes make coffee in a pot on the stovetop. He'd drop an egg in near the end of brewing on the principle that the poaching egg would solidify around the grounds to filter them out. Possibly a simplification/corruption of the Scandinavian method?
As All Hallow's Eve grows nigh, skies darken early, leaves fall from the trees, and the soul harkens to feel a little closer to the world of the dead. That might mean seeking out a house with a history of hauntings, paying respect to a departed hero, or remembering the horrors of history.
At this time of year, it's easier to remember that New York has a long past layered below its modern facades. Here are a few places in the city that might evoke the haunting holiday spirit, and that we visited for a recent segment with New York Live on NBC 4.
When Eliza Jumel moved into this mansion in 1810, she told everyone it was haunted. Built in 1765, it's now the oldest house in Manhattan, and some visitors have claimed to encounter her ghost there. Stephen Jumel was a wealthy merchant, and after his death, his wife Eliza was briefly married to Aaron Burr, the former vice president. Though she quickly sued for divorce—a very unusual choice at the time—Burr died just before their split was finalized. Eliza herself lived for decades and died in the mansion in 1865, when she was in her 90s.
Once, the house would have been in the country, and now it's hidden among residential buildings, on a hill close to the water. It serves a museum filled with period furniture, much of which once belonged to the Jumels.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion offers visitors regular "paranormal investigations" that share the history of the house, while offering a chance to attempt to measure the presence of unusual electrical signals and other potentially ghostly activity.
In 1991, the ashes of the poet Langston Hughes were interred beneath this public art installation at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In the Langston Hughes Lobby, just beyond the museum's entrance, tiled rivers flow through the cosmogram, created by artist Houston Conwill. It includes "lifelines" for both the poet and Arturo Schomburg, the museum's namesake, which intersect in Harlem.
Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) was buried in a family plot in Queens. He died on Halloween, after letting a fan punch him in the stomach—meant to be a feat of strength. Houdini was skeptical of mediums, but he believed in the possibility of the afterlife and left his wife certain code phrases so she could identify messages from his spirit after his death.
For many years, his widow held a seance there each year. Now, fans of the magician and escape artist leave rocks on his grave (a Jewish tradition), along with playing cards and other possibly magical objects.
Three days after Titanic sank, the boat that rescued survivors brought them here. No information had been released about which passengers had survived, and the area was crowded with families, newspaper reporters, and people eager to hear what had happened out in the ocean. Today, the only remains of the gate are still standing, a reminder of the eerie history of this spot.
What if your last breath was only a poor assumption, a supposition? What if your family, the doctor, the coroner were all wrong, and you found yourself buried alive? You’d scratch and claw, scream and shout, and no one—no one—would hear you. There’s a name for this feeling: taphophobia, the overwhelming fear of being buried alive.
For centuries there have been stories, many of them myths, about people who met this panic-inducing fate. And real mistakes have indeed happened. According to Christine Quigley in her book The Corpse: A History, “in the early 1900s, a case of premature burial was discovered an average of once a week.” Once a week! That’s not just something to worry about—it’s something to get to work on preventing. So, how to make sure that the dead are really dead?
There’s always the ancient Roman method where mourners waited eight days to bury a body, giving the supposed deceased ample time to snap out of it. But maybe this seems far too passive. Enterprising taphophobes throughout history, and especially in the 19th century, have deployed a wide array of methods to ensure that dead means dead.
Fearing a premature burial, Hannah Beswick, an 18th-century English woman, left her entire estate to her doctor, Charles White, with just one stipulation: Her body could never be buried. Never. Instead, White was required to check on her corpse every day until he could be sure, really sure, that she was dead. This was a lot to ask, and at some point, White embalmed her body. He kept her mummified remains in his collection of anatomical specimens, and every day, for several years, the good doctor and two witnesses unveiled Beswick and made sure she was still dead. He later moved her body into an old clock case, and as Jan Bondeson writes in his book A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, the doctor opened the case “once a year to see how his favorite patient was doing.”
The Security Coffin
U.S. patent number 81,437 was issued in 1868. This particular invention was for a security coffin, which came with all the bells and whistles the not-quite-dead-yet could ever need. The design includes a rope, ladder, and bell. Wake up in the coffin? Ring the bell that has helpfully been attached to the rope you’re holding. Nobody around to hear that bell? Try the ladder, which inventor Franz Vester imagined would allow a person to “ascend from the grave.”
The Grave Window
Like Hannah Beswick, Timothy Clark Smith, a Vermont taphophobia sufferer, decided to rely on others to make sure his death wasn’t announced too early. Smith asked to have a window installed on his grave, “six feet above him and centered squarely on his face,” when he died. Today the glass has clouded with age and it’s impossible to get a look at Smith, but imagine a breathy fog covering the glass, and Smith waiting for someone to notice. Of course, by all accounts Smith never had to have the assistance of a helpful passerby, and he died without incident in 1893.
How, exactly, would the newly awakened lift those heavy coffin lids? Johan Jacob Toolen had it covered. His 1907 patent understood that the prematurely buried might be a little tired and incorporated easy-open lids so that the presumed dead wouldn’t have to struggle for freedom. His design was tailor-made for the self-reliant not-dead person. “With very slight exertion on his part,” Toolen explained, the apparently, but not really, dead “can immediately obtain a supply of fresh air and may afterwards leave the coffin.”
The Emergency Airway
Forward-thinking safety-coffin designers thought of everything. Gael Bedl’s 1887 design came equipped with an air pipe that would be opened if there were movement in the coffin. It also featured an “electric alarm apparatus,” which emitted an audible sound when the air pipe engaged. Bedl’s patent application noted that the air pipe could be made of any decorative material. The day’s been tough enough, being buried alive and all, so no need to sacrifice style.
The Completist Approach
William Tebb was a busy man in 1896. The businessman had devoted much of his life to his various pet causes (animal rights, anti-war, anti-vaccines), but one meeting in particular gave Tebb a chance to step into a role as advocate for the prematurely buried.
Tebb met Roger S. Chew, a doctor who, through the eagle-eyed observations of a family member, narrowly avoided an early grave himself, in the early 1890s. After surviving his brush with burial, Chew devoted himself to medicine and to saving others from his almost-fate. Meeting Chew sparked something in Tebb, and in 1896 he founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. Tebb, along with Edward Vollman (himself a survivor of a near-burial), eventually published the book Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented in 1905.
The book outlined the various ways one might be mistaken for dead (trance, catatonic state, “human hibernation”), and provided case studies of humans and animals who, although thought dead, were revived. The book also included various techniques that had been used in the past (with varying success) to prevent this from happening. The authors explored every option, from using fire to blister the hand of the presumed dead person (which, they admitted, might not be effective because the person may be so out of it that they may not respond “even to the application of red hot irons”) to injecting the presumed dead with morphine or strychnine, which, well, if they weren’t dead before ...
Premature Burial also explored artificial respiration and electric shock, which were both new ideas at the time. Ultimately, the authors admitted that all of their work might not actually be that effective. Dead would always be dead to the unimaginative and, as they wrote, “the appearance of death is generally taken for its reality.” When Tebb died, he didn’t take any chances. He was cremated one week later.
Our fear of being trapped in an untimely burial plot isn’t just a lingering 19th-century fascination. As recently as 2013, designs for coffins and instruments that claim to prevent premature burial have been submitted. Somewhere deep inside all of us is a lingering worry that what was supposed to be a final resting place might actually be what kills you.
“in the early 1900s, a case of premature burial was discovered an average of once a week." The incidence of premature burial was probably also overstated, due to people mistaking some signs of decay (The appearance of fingernail growth and certain facial contortions as the soft tissue shrank and dessicated) for evidence that the departed had revived and struggled.
“I read a lot on the subject. I studied the texts. And I decided it was permissible to take it off, so that’s what I did. My mom was terrified of what people would think. She asked me to delete all our mutual friends on Facebook. She said if I didn’t wear the hijab, then I couldn’t live at home. So I packed four big bags and went to live with a friend. It was the first time I’d ever slept out of my house. Over the next few weeks, I sent my parents messages every single day. I always told them where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with. I wanted to show that I forgave them, and that I was still their girl, and that one day things would be normal again. They didn’t respond for three months. Until one holiday my uncle called and invited me home for dinner. My parents started crying as soon as I walked in the door. They’d prepared a huge meal. They said that they didn’t mean it, and that they love me a lot, and that they’re proud of me. Things are very good now. We get along even better than when I obeyed. They see I’m doing great things with my freedom. I have a great job and I travel. They’re very proud. I’ve learned to do what you want in life. Because if you do, the world will change to match you.” (Alexandria, Egypt)