Here Be Monsters Podcast

The Podcast About the Unknown

HBM115: Bound in Walton et al.

A highway robber with many aliases lay on his deathbed after contracting a bad flu.  He dictated his life story to his captors before succumbing to his illness in July of 1837.  His captors published the highwayman’s story posthumously with the title: Narrative of the life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman. Being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.  

The story he tells details common robbery, horse theft, jewel trafficking, many jailbreaks, and several yellings of the phrase “Your money or your life!” with pistols drawn.

The book might have passed into obscurity if it weren’t for a dirty grey leatherbound copy that resides at The Boston Athenaeum. It bears a Latin inscription on its front cover: “HIC LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST” or (roughly), “This book is bound in Walton’s skin.”

As legend has it, the highwayman Allen (aka. Walton) requested that his memoirs be gifted to a man whom he once tried and failed to rob, Mr. John Fenno Jr.  Further, the highwayman requested that the book be bound in his own skin.

Books bound in human skin are rare, though not unheard of.  As of publish date, the Anthropodermic Book Project has confirmed 18 such books, and identified another 12 books previously thought to be human, but revealed to be of more customary leathers.  Narrative of the life of James Allen… resides in the former category, being confirmed as human skin via a test called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting.

Dawn Walus, Chief Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum told HBM host Jeff Emtman that when they sent a sample of the book’s binding off for PMF testing, she and other athenaeum staff hoped the results would come back negative.  Dawn considers the binding to be a bit of spectacle, and a distraction from the hundreds of thousands of other books in their collection, “I don’t think we want to be known as ‘the place that has the skin book.’…It seems out of place today.”

HBM115-01.jpg

Jeff Emtman produced this episode.  Jeff is doing a free lecture at Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Center on March 31st, 2019.  Also, Jeff will be in Copenhagen for Radiobiograf, where he’ll teach a class on sound design and host a radio cinema event about haunting sounds.


Music: The Black Spot | | | Phantom Fauna

HBM108: Witch of Saratoga

HBM108-03.gif

Angeline Tubbs may have been as old as 104 when she died alone in the woods, in a hut she made with her own hands.  She came to America with a British officer who fought in the Battle of Saratoga (see HBM074: Benedict Arnold Makes People Nervous).

GreyBox.png

Content Note:

- Language

It’s uncertain what happened to the officer, but soon after the battle, Angeline began living a hermit’s life, on the outskirts of society, alone in the forest with her cats. She foraged and hunted her food.  Only rarely did she venture into the newly forming town of Saratoga Springs, where she made money by telling fortunes.


On this episode, producer Alessandra Canario walks into the woods near where Angeline Tubbs lived and died. She builds her own shelter, makes a fire, and cooks her own food.  Alessandra wonders if she too might be a “witch,” due to a kinship she formed with trees as a child. But she also hears echoes of her mother’s warnings against being outside without a man for protection.

Only known photograph of Angeline Tubbs. Circa 1860. Republished in the January 30th, 1959 issue of The Saratogan.

Alessandra Canario camps in a homemade shelter in the woods near Saratoga Springs, New York. Photo by Alessandra Canario.

Episode produced by Alessandra Canario with help from Jeff Emtman. Bethany Denton assisted in editing.

Music: The Black Spot | | | Serocell

🐑 🥩 💀 Buy our new book! 💀 🥩 🐑

HBM090: Two Small Creatures with Human Eyes

Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus of Human Origins, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus of Human Origins, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

Natural history museums are art galleries.  Scientifically focussed art galleries, but art galleries nonetheless.  

Ian Tattersall, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is a paleontologist who sometimes oversees the construction of models for the museum.  Of personal interest to Here Be Monsters producer Jeff Emtman are reconstructions of very lifelike early humans, one with an arm draped over the other.  Ian calls these the “Laetoli Figures”—named for the place in modern-day Tanzania where some remarkable footprints of two hominids were found preserved in volcanic ash.  

As far as early humans go, Australopithecus Afarensis are well understood.  There are 300+ individuals in the fossil record, including the famous ~40% complete fossil of “Lucy”.

HBM090-01.jpg

Given the evidence, there’s a lot scientists can be pretty certain in declaring: they lived in the trees, but they could walk upright.  They had small brains and big jaws, but their canine teeth looked a lot like a modern human’s.  

There are other questions that are answerable through inference, through studies of modern animals and other fossils.  These techniques can yield a strong degree of certainty.

But if the artist were to stop constructing at the edge of certainty, the models would never be completed. There are certain things that are essentially unknowable about these early hominids, like: “What did their skin look like?” “What color was their hair?” “Did they have the dark sclera of an ape, or the whites-of-the-eye of a modern human?”

These uncertainties are ultimately up to the artist to answer.  “When you’re making a museum exhibit,” Ian (not an artist) points out, “you’re trying to create an illusion.  And to work at all, the illusion has to be complete.  And so you have to have all the details in there.”

But these details are a form of artistry used as evidence by biblical creationists to lambast hominid reconstructions.  They see it as part of an effort to deceive the public, to lead them to believe that these ancient hominids were more human-like than they actually were.  Of particular interest to them is that question of the light sclera vs. dark sclera.  One author writes:

Notice that a fossilized eyeball was not found.  So how would anyone know that the sclera was white, which would cause it to look more human. [sic] The reconstruction is pure speculation about how Lucy’s eye looked.

A replica of the specimen of Australopithecus Afarensis colloquially named “Lucy”.

A replica of the specimen of Australopithecus Afarensis colloquially named “Lucy”.

Natural history museums are faced with a decision: create full-flesh reconstructions that by necessity contain elements of artistic license, or, present the public with mere bones.  Most seem to opt for the former, and understandably so.  The museum serves the public, and, like HBM producer Jeff Emtman, they want to see something relatable and remarkable, a piece of scientifically-oriented art.  

And this question the artist must face, the question of the dark sclera (more ape-like eyes) and the light sclera (more human-like eyes) reveals something interesting about the artist and the process used to create the art.  The choices an artist makes can speak to their worldview, their biases, and their knowledge per their location in the world and the current moment in time.  

Ian recognizes this, saying,

You could not do a reliable reconstruction of an ancient human being or a dinosaur, or an extinct mammal without the science; and you certainly couldn’t do it without the art.  And this is where the two really intersect in a meaningful way.

And the AMNH itself houses exhibits related to the ways in which modern assumptions about the past have affected the way the past is present, such as:  Griffins in the Gobi Desert (protoceratops), Cyclops of the Mediterranean (dwarf elephants), and the infamous unicorn horns of Western Europe (narwhal).

Ian says that, in the quarter century since the construction of the Laetoli Figures, dominant scientific perception has changed to suggest that Australopithecus afarensis might have actually had dark sclera. As he puts it, “science is a work in progress.”

Jeff Emtman produced this episode.  
Voicemails from HBM listeners including Daniel Greene, Rachel Schapiro and Tony Baker.   

Music: The Black Spot | | | The Other Stars


We want your questions for an upcoming mailbag episode. Maybe you’ve got a question about how we make the show.  Maybe you have a question for someone we’ve talked to on an episode.  Maybe you want some relationship advice.  Maybe you can’t fix your damn microwave and you just need someone to tell you what to do.  

Give us a call: (765) 374 - 5263 or send us a voice memo: HBMpodcast@gmail.com.

Also, check out our new meat poster, designed by Adam Fein, of HBM circle shirt fame.  Get your HBM meat poster today!

Here Be Monsters Meat Poster
Signed:
Quantity:
Buy That Meat Poster!

HBM083: Sweet Like Snap Peas

Ryan Graves thinks that store-bought asparagus is as flavorless as potatoes.  But that's just because he's spoiled on the really good stuff. 

His preferred crop grows wild among the tombstones at Clinton Cemetery, hidden on an old gravel road between the towns of Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho.  Most who are buried there died over 100 years ago. 

That intervening century left the cemetery mostly forgotten and overgrown.  And Ryan thinks the deep-rooted asparagus taste so good because of the natural quality of their fertilizer.  

Ryan Graves thinks that store-bought asparagus is as flavorless as potatoes.  But that’s just because he’s spoiled on the really good stuff.

His preferred crop grows wild among the tombstones at Clinton Cemetery, hidden on an old gravel road between the towns of Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho.  Most who are buried there died over 100 years ago. 

Ryan Graves also appears on HBM042: Deers.  Jeff Emtman produced this episode.  

Music: The Black Spot


We have a question for you:

What will be unknowable to the archaeologists 3 million years from now?  What is understandable only to people of today?  

Send a voice memo to HBMpodcast@gmail.com.  Or leave a message on our voicemail: (765) 374-5263.  We may include your audio in an upcoming episode.

HBM074: Benedict Arnold Makes People Nervous (Rumble Strip)

There is an unusual piece of carved grey stone in the hills of upstate New York.  It depicts the boot of a notorious American villain who was shot in the leg during the Battle of Saratoga.  Major General Benedict Arnold’s name is nowhere to be found on the inscription.  Instead, it refers only to the "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army”.  The rest is implied.

Steve Sheinkin thinks that we can’t—and don’t—talk about Benedict Arnold’s actual history because it serves Americans an unpalatable contradiction.  Benedict Arnold won crucial battles for American independence, but he was also a turncoat.  

Steve was often asked to sterilize history during his career as a textbook writer.   Certain characters of the American Revolution enjoyed near godlike status.  Giving counterevidence to their omniciencense or foresight was practically blasphemy.  But that counterevidence exists, found in letters and personal journals of George Washington, Paul Revere and others.  And these records paint much more conflicted, funny, perverse and sometimes bumbling portraits of the country’s forefathers.  

But Steve’s bosses found it an issue of money.  His editors were especially risk-averse for fear of offending a seemingly all-powerful Texas State Board of Education, who, according to Steve, had no patience for course material that questioned manifest destiny, Protestant Christianity, or the free market. 

And that, Steve says, is why textbooks are boring.

Author Steve Sheinkin.
Image courtesy Erica Heilman/Rumblestrip

Steve Sheinkin is now the author of many children’s history books that tell the stories left on the cutting room floor of his former employer.   Recent releases are about the history of the atomic bomb, the permanently undefeated Carlisle Indian School football team, and, of course, Benedict Arnold.

We adapted this episode of Here Be Monsters from a brilliant piece by Erica Heilman that she made for her own podcast, Rumble Strip.  Rumble Strip is great, listen to it.  It’s part of The Heard.  Jeff Emtman re-edited this piece with help from Bethany Denton and Nick White.

Music: Swamp Dog | | | The Black Spot