Category Archives: 20th century

1905: An unfortunate sailor is flogged “up and under”

sailor birching

In 1891, English social reformer Henry Salt and several friends set up the Humanitarian League. Active for almost 30 years, the League waged energetic campaigns against animal cruelty, including vivisection, slaughterhouse practices, the fur trade, and blood sports like fox-hunting and deer-stalking.

Salt and his collaborators also lobbied for an end to inhuman practices and conditions like war and militarism, police brutality and corporal punishment in schools, prisons and the military.

In the first years of the 20th century, the League demanded an end to corporal punishment in the Royal Navy, particularly its use of “birchings” or “the cuts” (whippings with bundles of twigs). The Navy conducted hundreds of birchings every year, mostly on young cadets and junior sailors. It was a punishment that combined intense pain and blood letting with public humiliation and an awkward sexual undertone:

“The offender is strapped hand and foot… over the breech of a small gun, his trousers are allowed to fall below the knees. A broad canvas is passed around the middle of his body, and his clothing is strapped up, leaving thighs and buttocks perfectly nude… The strokes are deliberately delivered on the bare flesh, not in rapid succession but with a slight pause between each stroke, making the torture and agony of as lengthy a duration as possible. With each stroke the flesh is seen to turn red, blue and black with bruising. After six or eight strokes the skin usually breaks and copious streams of blood trickle down the unhappy victim’s legs… Splinters of broken birch, wet with blood, whizz and fly in all directions – and not infrequently the exuding excrement of the sufferer…”

Between 1900 and 1905, newspaper correspondents argued ad nauseum over the merits of corporal punishment. In a letter to The Times one flag officer, Vice Admiral Penrose Fitzgerald, described the anti-birching campaign as “nonsense”. “British youths have been birched and caned from time immemorial,” said the admiral, “and yet the race has not turned out badly on the whole”.

On the other hand, many middle-class readers were shocked by graphic accounts of naval birchings and canings. In January 1905 Salt’s journal, The Humanitarian, published an eye-witness account of a Royal Navy birching ‘gone wrong’. When one bircher failed to incite his victim to screams, he became overzealous, aimed ‘up and under’, and landed his birch on a particularly delicate part of the anatomy:

“Towards the completion of the number of strokes, the corporal [carrying out the birching] began to be anxious for his reputation, so he resorted to the unfair and terrible ‘upward’ stroke, but his aim was not true. The poor fellow gave a yell which I shall never forget and fainted at once… Until he had been surgically examined there was no anxiety, but when it was known that no permanent injury had been inflicted, the matter became one for jest among those sufficiently lost to all sense of decency.”

Fortunately, the Humanitarian League’s campaign did have some effect. In 1906 the Royal Navy outlawed the use of the birch, replacing it with a single cane. Under new regulations, canings could only be distributed after a formal hearing and were no longer carried out in public.

By the 1930s there were few canings carried out on seagoing ships. Caning continued to be used on young naval trainees until 1967, when it was abolished altogether.

Sources: The Humanitarian, January 1905 and March 1905. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1910: Mantelet invents the breast douche

Nothing is known about Frenchman Alexis Mantelet – other than the fact he was a man seemingly obsessed with breasts and the cleanliness thereof.

In 1910 and 1927, Mantelet filed two applications for devices to wash the female bosom. The first of these he dubbed the “breast douche”. Pictured below, Mantelet’s “breast douche” was a long hose and tap fitting, connected to a cupping arrangement housing “two or preferably three rings of strong jets”. It was then placed briefly on each breast, while the user adjusted the jets to her liking. According to Mantelet this process achieved:

“A complete, vigorous and abundant douche over the whole surface of the breast… so that the douche may very well be of short duration. This douche therefore gives very desirable results [without] shock or undue chill.”

Mantelet fails to explain the necessity or advantages of washing one’s breasts so thoroughly. However 17 years later he had changed some of his views about “breast douching”.

Mantelet’s second patent, lodged in April 1927, was a less complex handheld device for “sprinkling the breasts”, rather than bombarding them. Harsh jets of water on “delicate mammillae”, wrote Mantelet, deliver “an exaggerated massage of the muscular fibres of the mammary glands”, toughening the breast and possibly distorting its shape. The 1927 version of Mantelet’s breast washer was easier on the breasts and would “preserve the due proportion of their shape”.

Both patents were granted but it seems that Mantelet’s “breast douches” never reached the market.

Source: US Patent Office records, Nos. 973445 (1910) and 1746861 (1927). Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1933: Doctor tries reviving the dead – with a see saw

robert cornish

Robert E. Cornish (1903-63) was a Californian physician, academic and medical researcher, best known for his attempts to revive the dead.

Born in San Francisco, Cornish was the Doogie Howser of his day: he completed high school at age 15, graduated from Berkley three years later and was licensed to practice medicine in his 21st year. In his mid 20s, Cornish returned to Berkeley as a researcher where he worked on a number of projects, from reading glasses to the isolation of heavy water.

Cornish’s pet interest, however, was the resuscitation of human and animal cadavers after death, which he believed entirely possible. By 1933 he had developed an unusual method of reanimation. Cornish’s ‘patients’ were strapped to a large see-saw, injected with adrenaline and heparin to thin the blood, then vigorously “teetered” to restore circulation. He attempted this bizarre experiment on several bodies without luck, coming to the conclusion that too long had elapsed since death for it to work.

In May 1934 Cornish turned his attentions to freshly euthanised dogs. He acquired five fox terriers, each pithily named Lazarus, and conducted his experiment. Three of them stayed dead while two were successfully revived, though both were rendered blind and insensible.

Despite this rather inconclusive outcome, the experiments were hailed as a great success. Cornish was feted in the press and a 1935 film, Life Returns, was made about his work. After lapping up the celebrity, Cornish returned to more mundane areas of research. But in 1947 he reemerged with a scheme to “teeter” a freshly executed human cadaver. He found a willing participant, a child killer named Thomas McMonigle, who would be carried straight from the gas chamber to the ‘Cornish teeter’:

“Dr Cornish, elated at the sensational success of his experiments with dogs, wants to make the attempt [on humans]. He is now seeking permission to experiment with a criminal executed by poison gas. Given the body after physicians declare the man to be dead, he would strap the body to a teeterboard and attach electrical heating pads to the limbs. Next a chemical known as methylene blue would be injected into the veins to neutralise the poisonous fumes that had caused death. Pure oxygen would then be pumped into the lungs through a mask and the teeterboard rocked slowly to keep the blood in circulation… Dr Cornish believes firmly that the dead man would live. He does not agree with other scientists that the brain of the man so revived would be hopelessly damaged.”

Thankfully, Cornish’s proposal was turned down by the state of California, and McMonigle was executed without “teetering” in February 1948. By the late 1950s Cornish had retired from medical research and was marketing his own product: “Dr Cornish’s Tooth Powder with Vitamin D and Fluoride”.

Source: “Can science raise the dead?” in Popular Science, February 1935. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1942: LBJ wins Silver Star for “coolness”

In 1942, future United States president Lyndon Johnson was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military decoration – for showing “coolness” during a plane ride.

Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, weeks before his 29th birthday. When Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941 Johnson rushed to enlist in the Naval Reserve, probably thinking that military service would enhance his political prospects.

In mid 1942, Johnson, by then sporting the rank of lieutenant commander, travelled to the Pacific theatre as an observer. There he became friendly with Douglas MacArthur, who allowed Johnson to ‘sit in’ on an aerial bombing raid against Japanese targets. On June 9th Johnson arrived at an airstrip in Port Moresby, New Guinea and boarded a B26 Marauder dubbed the Wabash Cannonball.

Needing to “take a leak”, Johnson left the aircraft for a few minutes. On his return he found the seats occupied by other officers, forcing LBJ onto another B26, the Heckling Hare. As it turns out Johnson’s full bladder saved his life: the Wabash Cannonball was shot down over water near Lae, killing all on board.

Johnson’s plane also came under attack from numerous Japanese Zeros and was forced to abandon its bombing mission. While the pilot, Lieutenant Walter Greer, struggled to evade the Zeros, and the air crew manned the guns, Johnson watched the whole show from his window seat. The attack lasted less than 13 minutes before the Heckling Hare slipped its pursuers and headed back to Moresby on one engine.

Despite playing no active part in the mission Johnson was awarded the Silver Star – apparently for showing “coolness”:

“While on a mission of obtaining information in the Southwest Pacific area, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, in order to obtain personal knowledge of combat conditions, volunteered as an observer on a hazardous aerial combat mission over hostile positions in New Guinea. As our planes neared the target area they were intercepted by eight hostile fighters… The plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favourable target to the enemy fighters, [and] he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved.”

The Heckling Hare’s other crew members – including Lieutenant Greer, whose brilliant flying had saved Johnson’s life – were awarded no medal of any kind. Greer was not even aware of Johnson’s Silver Star until reading of it in the press. The men who died on the first B26, the Wabash Cannonball, received only the lower rated Purple Heart.

As for Johnson, he showed some initial embarrassment about his Silver Star, telling a Washington reporter he didn’t deserve the medal and drafting a letter declining to accept it. Nevertheless, accept it and wear it he did. When Johnson returned to the campaign trail in Texas his Silver Star, perhaps the least deserved military decoration in American history, became one of the most worn and referenced.

Johnson continued to wear the Silver Star citation in the Senate, as vice president and during his tenure in the White House.

Source: Silver Star citation, General Orders No. 12, Southwest Pacific Area, June 18th 1942. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1941: The Nazis ban Jewish fonts

Bormann’s memo under a Jewish font – ordering a ban on Jewish fonts

Most printing in early modern and 19th century Germany used two font families: Antiqua and Fraktur. Both were ornate, old style typefaces that replicated calligraphic handwriting. Antiqua was employed mainly for printing Latin texts, while Fraktur was used more in German language documents.

During the rising German nationalism of the 1800s, many came to see Fraktur as a ‘German’ typeface and pressured the government and private printers to use it more. Otto von Bismarck refused to read books in ‘un-German fonts’ and Kaiser Wilhelm II also disliked them.

When the Nazis emerged in the early 1920s they also opted for Fraktur and its derivatives. The cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf used a hand-drawn Fraktur font; official Nazi documents and letterheads also employed it. This continued until January 1941 when there was a remarkable shift in Nazi attitudes to typography. In an edict signed by Martin Bormann, the Nazis called for a ban on the future use of Judenlettern (Jewish fonts) like Fraktur:

“…I announce the following, by order of the Führer:

It is false to regard the so-called Gothic typeface as a German typeface. In reality, the so-called Gothic typeface consists of Schwabacher-Jewish letters. Just as they later came to own the newspapers, the Jews living in Germany also owned the printing presses… and thus came about the common use in Germany of Schwabacher-Jewish letters.

Today the Führer… decided that Antiqua type is to be regarded as the standard typeface. Over time, all printed matter should be converted to this standard typeface. This will occur as soon as possible in regard to school textbooks, only the standard script will be taught in village and primary schools. The use of Schwabacher-Jewish letters by authorities will in future cease. Certificates of appointment for officials, street signs and the like will in future only be produced in standard lettering…

Signed, M. Bormann.”

Ironically, Bormann’s memo went out under Nazi Party letterhead – which was itself printed in a Fraktur font. The reason for the Nazi turnaround on typefaces has never been definitively explained. One theory is that Hitler had a personal dislike of more ornate Gothic fonts; his increased reading workload in 1939-40 may have tripped his fuse and prompted the ban on Fraktur

Source: NSDAP memo on Judenlettern, signed by Martin Bormann, January 3rd 1941. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1909: Missing Texas boy turns up in cotton bale in England

In December 1908, a Texas cotton farmer, George Hartman, reported his two-year-old son Alfred missing. Young Alfred had accompanied his father on a delivery run to Fredericksburg but went missing while Hartman Snr. was conducting business.

An extensive search of the town failed to turn up any sign of Alfred. It was presumed he had wandered into a local waterway, drowned and sank to the bottom. The mystery was solved six months later, with:

“…the finding of the dead body of the infant in a bale of cotton opened in Liverpool, England… The child having crept into the press while open and, falling asleep, was ginned into the bale of cotton. The cotton was sold to a Texas concern, placed in a warehouse for several weeks and finally exported to Liverpool.”

Source: The Gettysburg Times, May 10th 1909. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1937: Schick – as used by badly burned Hindenburg survivors

In 1937, the American company Schick attempted one of history’s most tasteless and least effective advertising campaigns – by claiming its products were being used by badly burned survivors of the German airship Hindenburg. These ads ran in LIFE, TIME, Business Week and other magazines in October, before being promptly withdrawn:

schick ad

Source: LIFE magazine, October 25th 1937. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1946: German admiral feigns madness, goes ‘bzzz, bzzz’

Karl Doenitz was a German admiral during World War II and, for a brief time after Hitler’s suicide, the president of Germany.

Doenitz served as a junior lieutenant in World War I, remaining in the navy during the interwar period and rising through the ranks. At the outbreak of World War II Doenitz was promoted to rear admiral and put in charge of Germany’s U-boat fleet. Though not formally a Nazi Party member, Doenitz was nevertheless pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and fanatically loyal to Hitler. He became president on April 30th 1945 and oversaw Germany’s surrender to the Allies, before being arrested three weeks later.

According to an apocryphal story Doenitz, who suffered from poor bladder control, was wearing several pairs of underpants when arrested. He was held by the British for several weeks then charged with war crimes and moved to Nuremberg. While awaiting trial Doenitz admitted to a US Army psychiatrist, Lt Col. Douglas Kelley, that he had feigned insanity while in British custody:

“Two companions and I decided it might aid our efforts to escape if we were adjudged insane. We walked about, our heads hunched down, going ‘Bzzz, bzzz’ and insisting that we were U-boats. But the British doctors were too much smart for us.”

Doenitz was convicted of military war crimes but acquitted of the more serious crimes against humanity. Sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, he was held at Spandau until 1956. After his release Doenitz retired to northern Germany where he penned two memoirs, remaining unapologetic for his role in the war. He died in 1980, aged 89.

Source: Douglas M. Kelley, Twenty-two Cells in Nuremberg: A Psychiatrist examines the Nazi criminals, 1947. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1940: Florida man’s seven year affair with a corpse

Maria Elena de Hoyos, as she appeared when found in 1940

Karl Tanzler (1877-1952) was born in Germany and spent years travelling through India, Australia and the Pacific before emigrating to the United States. Tanzler arrived in Key West, Florida in 1927 and took a job as a radiologist at a local military hospital.

In April 1930, Tanzler met 19-year-old Maria Elena de Hoyos, a Cuban-American beauty queen receiving treatment for severe tuberculosis. He became infatuated and spent the next 18 months caring for the ailing de Hoyos, showering her with gifts and attempting to gain her affections.

When she died in October 1931, Tanzler funded the construction of an ornate mausoleum, where he reportedly spent several hours every day. In April 1933, a year and a half after de Hoyos’ death, Tanzler kidnapped her body from the mausoleum, hauled it to his house in a child’s wagon and laid it out in his own room.

Tanzler would spend the next seven years trying to prevent the corpse from decomposing – a difficult proposition in the heat and humidity of southern Florida. When de Hoyos’ sister discovered the corpse in October 1940, it was encased in plaster and wax and fitted out with a wig and glass eyes. She immediately informed police and Tanzler was arrested:

“Deputies Bernard Waite and Ray Elwood said the body, well preserved with the aid of wax, was in a bedroom of the isolated home of [Tanzler]…

‘One day’, Tanzler told officers, ‘I opened her coffin and found that the body was decaying. I did not want one so beautiful to go to dust. I stole the body about two years after she died and have had it with me ever since.’

The body, wrapped in a silken robe, lay on one of the two twin beds in the room. On the wrists were gold bracelets and in the hair was an artificial rose.”

The corpse of Maria Elena de Hoyos

Two doctors present at the examination of de Hoyos’ remains later claimed to have seen evidence of sexual interference, including the insertion of a paper cylinder to serve as a makeshift vagina. This information was not officially recorded or publicly released, however.

Tanzler was psychologically examined and found fit to stand trial for disturbing a corpse but the charges against him were eventually dropped. Tanzler escaped the spotlight by moving to mainland Florida. He was given a death mask taken from de Hoyos’ face, which he lived with until his own death in 1952.

Source: The Palm Beach Post, October 6th 1940. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1909: Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy your possum

In November 1909, several US newspapers reported that President William H. Taft and family had enjoyed a gargantuan Thanksgiving feast at the White House. The Tafts reportedly enjoyed a huge Rhode Island turkey, a 50-pound mince pie and a 26-pound possum, straight from the Georgia woods.

Little wonder that President Taft weighed in excess of 330 pounds while in office and, according to legend, couldn’t fit in the White House bath:

Source: The Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 25th 1909. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.