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Broken on the Wheel

March 13, 2015 | by

A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.

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The death of John Calas, depicted in an English chapbook.

This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.

A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”

Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.

Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »

The Great Bottle Conjurer Hoax

March 13, 2015 | by

A representation of the Bottle Conjurer from an English broadside dated 1748-49.

From William S. Walsh’s Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, a 1909 compendium of “bibelots and curios” from the world of letters. The critic Barbara M. Benedict has written that the Bottle Conjurer “promised to bring literature to life; to reverse power relations; to incarnate onanism; to make monstrosity—the transgression of physical boundaries—humorous. Instead, he made the audience fools of their own desire ... The explosive result revealed the danger of unmonitored curiosity.”

Perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated was that known to history as the Great Bottle Hoax.

Early in the year 1749, a distinguished company of Englishmen were discussing the question of human gullibility. Among them were the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. “I will wager,” said the duke, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”

“Surely,” returned the earl, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that.”

At first the duke was staggered. But having made the wager he held to it. The jest pleased the rest of the company. They put their heads together and evolved the following advertisement, which appeared in the London papers of the first week in January: Read More »

Kings Have Adorned Her

November 7, 2013 | by

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah), and Sassoon David.

A fortune teller greeted David Sassoon on his way home from synagogue one night in Baghdad and told him to leave at once for India. He would be blessed with immense riches, she said. He was the son of Sheikh Sassoon, chief banker for the Ottoman pasha and nasi, or leader, of Baghdad’s Jewish community. Fleeing the despotic Daud Pasha, who had it out for the wealthy merchant, Sassoon settled in Bombay in 1833, eager to trade under British protection.

Back in the 1830s, Bombay was a port city of seven islands, a relative backwater, but a place where Sassoon could live and conduct business in peace, thanks to the East India Company and in large part to its president, Gerald Aungier. Back in 1668, England, eager to pawn off the Portuguese territory, rented the company the worthless, swampy islands for £10 of gold a year. Aungier saw promise. He moved the company’s Surat operation 165 miles south to Bombay, established courts and added judges, guaranteed religious freedom and individual rights (and loans) to traders and artisans, encouraged racial and religious communities to have spokesmen, and built causeways, docks, and a mint. Aungier created the ethic of equal opportunity that Bombayites would cherish for centuries by urging justice to all “without fear or favor,” says Naresh Fernandes in his smart new biography of Bombay, City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay.

November is the fifth anniversary of the bombings at the Taj and Oberoi, two luxury hotels in South Bombay. The much-loved Taj was built by the industrialist Jamshed Tata in 1903, after another hotel turned him away because of his skin color. It’s a hotel that well-off locals grew up in, wandering the halls to admire its magnificent art collection, and lunching at the Sea Lounge, which overlooks the Gateway of India. (It was famously a watering hole for gambler and derbyman Victor Sassoon, David’s great-grandson, who lived at a suite at the Taj in the 1920s and 1940s.)

The targeted murders of Chabad Jews at Nariman House during the 2008 attacks were an odd turn of events. New Jews, known by few, they were not a part of Bombay’s historic landscape. They existed largely to house Israeli travelers, famously fond of long Indian sojourns. (Goa and the Himalayas are Israeli hubs.) The murders signaled not the arrival of anti-Semitism in India proper as much as it underscored the truth that anyone and everyone has always been welcome in Bombay. Though targeting Jews is no fluke anywhere, the real story is the story of Bombay’s Jews, which for all purposes started with David Sassoon. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 7

September 30, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past seven weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This is the final installment.

You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure. —Colette, Les Vrilles de la Vigne

In 1927, before Charles Lindbergh set off across the Atlantic Ocean, newspapers described the flight as a guaranteed “rendez-vous with death.” While the Spirit of St. Louis hummed toward France, human-formed phantoms and vapor-like spirits materialized before Lindbergh’s eyes. These “inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men” spoke to him, reassuring him and helping him find his way. This inner experience, he wrote, seemed to penetrate beyond the finite. It was an epiphany that guided the rest of his life.

After his pioneering flight, he received millions of letters, thousands of poems, countless gleaming accolades. Whole cities attended parades in his honor. Wing-walking skywriters spelled HAIL LINDY high in the air. Former secretary of state and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes gave a speech in New York heralding “science victorious.”

In the euphoria’s wake, having managed one impossibility, Lindbergh wondered if he mightn’t help solve another. Working alongside Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist Alexis Carrel (who claimed, erroneously, that cells divide endlessly and are therefore naturally immortal), Lindbergh came to question whether death is “an inevitable portion of life’s cycle,” musing that perhaps scientific methods could hasten the arrival of bodily immortality.

Lindbergh had been raised to believe that “the key to all mystery is science.” The idea that science will allow men to become gods was instilled in him by his grandfather, a well-known surgical dentist. For postflight Lindbergh, solving the basic mystery of death seemed only as challenging as flying across the sea. It just meant doing what people said couldn’t be done. Yet as he aged, and as his experiments didn’t yield the hoped-for results, he began questioning his desire for immortality. He became an environmentalist, spending time in the wilderness and observing cycles of life and death in nature. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 6

September 23, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past six weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This week explores the nineteenth century. The final installment will run next Monday.

The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.

—Emily Dickinson, poem number 1748

Last week, Google launched Calico, a new company dedicated to fighting “aging and associated diseases.” The idea of aging as a curable disease (rather than a fact of life) can be traced back to the work of Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–94), the first medical scientist to make the idea of comprehending—if not controlling—aging a respectable aim.

Not much remembered today, Brown-Séquard was the chair of physiology at the Collége de France, one of the most prestigious appointments in nineteenth-century medicine. He is still known for successfully describing Brown-Séquard syndrome, a paralysis caused by severed spinal cords. His late-period research, however, occupies one of the more bizarre footnotes in medical history: toward the end of a distinguished career, he stunned the scientific community by announcing that he’d found a glandular elixir of eternal youth.

His speech on June 1, 1889, at the assembly of Paris’s Société de Biologie, is widely considered to mark the commencement of gerontology. (Gerontology, from geron, meaning “old man” in Greek, is the systematic study of aging.) Most members of the society were in their seventies, as was the swarthy, six-foot-four, bushy-bearded gentleman onstage. In unscheduled introductory remarks, Brown-Séquard confessed that his natural vigor had declined considerably over the last decade.

At that time, many scientists felt that old age was not a natural phenomenon, so a murmur of commiseration rippled through the room. Those graying authorities knew full well what it meant to grow elderly and infirm, nodding as Brown-Séquard lamented his own chronic pain—the lassitude, the insomnia, and, most delicate of all, the decline of his manliness. He had a pretty young wife, he was rich, successful, accomplished—et quand même. Read More »

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Little Syria

September 17, 2013 | by

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“The Foreign Element in New York—The Syrian Colony,” c. 1895

“When one leaves the hurry and roar of lower Broadway and walks southward through narrow Washington-st., the average New-Yorker of Caucasian descent might easily believe he was in the Orient. A block to the east roar the trains of the elevated. A little further eastward are the rushing throngs of Broadway. In the midst of all this tumult and confusion is situated the quiet village of Ahl-esh-Shemal.”

And so, in 1903, the New-York Tribune endeavors to take its readers into Little Syria. Concentrated on Rector and Washington Streets in the lower parts of Manhattan, Little Syria in 1895 was home to an estimated three-thousand residents from modern-day Syria and Lebanon (nearly all Middle Eastern New Yorkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would be referred to as Syrian or Arab, regardless of religion), most of whom had fled persecution under increasingly harsh Ottoman rule. Missionaries, dispatched to the Holy Lands to spread the Christian gospel, told tales of a city made of opportunity, ready and waiting to receive immigrants dedicated to hard work and moral living.

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