December 4, 2013
In 1981, an unknown epidemic was spreading across America. In June of that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter mentioned five cases of a strange pneumonia in Los Angeles. By July, 40 cases of a rare skin cancer were reported by doctors working in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco. By August, the Associated Press reported that two rare diseases, the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis, a form of pneumonia caused by a parasitic organism, had infected over 100 gay men in America, killing over half of them. At the end of 1981, 121 men had died from the strange disease; in 1982, the disease was given a name; by 1984, two different scientists had isolated the virus causing it; in 1986, that virus was named HIV. By the end of the decade, in 1989, 27,408 people died from AIDS.
In the years following the AIDS epidemic, medical research has given us a better understanding of HIV and AIDS, as well as made some remarkable breakthroughs unimagined in the 1980s: today, people living with HIV aren’t condemned to a death sentence, but rather have treatment options available. Still, to think of the AIDS epidemic in medical terms misses half of the story–the social aspect, which affected America’s perception of HIV and AIDS just as much, if not more than medical research.
The two sides of the story are told through a collection of articles, pictures, posters and pamphlets in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics and Culture, a traveling exhibit and online adaptation curated by the National Library of Medicine that explores the rise of AIDS in the early 1980s, as well as the medical and social responses to the disease since. The human reaction to the AIDS epidemic often takes a back seat to the medical narrative, but the curators of Surviving and Thriving were careful to make sure that this did not happen–through a series of digital panels, as well as a digital gallery, readers can explore how the government and other community groups talked about the disease.
At the beginning of the epidemic, response was largely limited to the communities which were most affected, especially the gay male community. “People with AIDS are really a driving force in responding to the epidemic and seeing how change is made,” says Jennifer Brier, a historian of politics and sexuality who curated the exhibit.
In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men living with AIDS in New York City, published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, which helped spread the idea that safe sex could be used as protection against spreading the epidemic–an idea that hadn’t yet become prevalent in the medical community. The pamphlet was one of the first places that proposed that men should use condoms when having sex with other men as a protection against AIDS.
Condoms as protection against AIDS became a major theme for poster campaigns. The above poster, paid for by the Baltimore-based non-profit Health Education Resource Organization, shows how visuals attempted to appeal, at least at first, to the gay community. Due to widespread misinformation, however, many people believed that AIDS was a disease that affected only white gay communities. As a response to this, black gay and lesbian communities created posters like the one below, to show that AIDS didn’t discriminate based on race.
Many posters and education campaigns harnessed sexual imagery to convey the importance of safe sex in an attempt to make safety sexy (like the Safe Sex is Hot Sex campaign), but it wasn’t a campaign tactic supported by governmental bodies–in fact, in 1987, Congress explicitly banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” (the legislation was spearheaded by conservative senator Jesse Helms and signed into law by President Reagan).
Instead, federally-funded campaigns sought to address a large number of people from all backgrounds–male, female, homosexual or heterosexual. The America Responds to AIDS campaign, created by the CDC, ran from 1987 to 1996 and became a central part of the “everyone is at risk” message of AIDS prevention.
The campaign was met with mixed feelings by AIDS workers. “The posters really do help ameliorate the fear of hatred of people with AIDS,” Brier explains. “There’s a notion that everyone is at risk, and that’s important to talk about, but there’s also the reality that not everyone is at risk to the same extent.” Some AIDS organizations, especially those providing service to communities at the highest risk for contracting HIV, saw the campaign as diverting money and attention away from the communities that needed it the most–leaving gay and minority communities to compete with one another for the little money that remained. As New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote in 2001 (, “Much of the government’s $600 million AIDS-prevention budget was used…to combat the disease among college students, heterosexual women and others who faced a relatively low risk of contracting the disease.”
(This linked column by Blair was later found to be plagiarized from reporting by the Wall Street Journal, but the point still holds.)
Beyond campaigns that tried to generalize the AIDS epidemic, a different side used the fear of AIDS to try and affect change. These posters, contained under the section “Fear Mongering” in the exhibit’s digital gallery, show ominous images of graves or caskets behind proclamations of danger.
“It was like this sort of scared straight model, like if you get scared enough, you really will do what is right,” Brier says of the posters. “There were posters that focused on pleasure, or health, or positive things to get people to affect change in their behavior, but there were consistently posters that used the idea that fear could produce behavior change.”
The above poster exemplifies the tactic of fear mongering: a large, visible slogan to affect fear (and shame sexual behavior), while information on how to prevent the spread of AIDS is buried in small print at the bottom of the poster. A lack of information was typical of fear-mongering posters, which relied on catchy, scary headlines rather than information about safe sex, clean needles or the disease itself.
“The posters fed on people’s inability to understand how AIDS actually spread. It didn’t really ever mention ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” Brier says. “Fear-mongering posters don’t talk about condoms, they don’t talk about clean needles, they don’t talk about ways to be healthy. They don’t have the solutions in them, they just have the fear.”
Through exploring the exhibit, users get a sense of the different approaches public organizations took to spread information about AIDS. “It’s a fundamental question of public health,” says Brier. “Do you spread information by scaring people, do you do it by trying to tap into pleasure or do you do it by recognizing that people’s behavior isn’t just about their individual will but a whole different set of circumstances?”
October 1, 2013
Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”
At the time, Koudounaris was working on a book called The Empire of Death, traveling the world to photograph church ossuaries and the like. He’d landed in this particular village near the Czech border to document a crypt full of skulls, but his interest was piqued by the dubious yet enticing promise of a bejeweled skeleton lurking behind the trees. “It sounded like something from the Brothers Grimm,” he recalls. “But I followed his directions—half thinking this guy was crazy or lying—and sure enough, I found this jeweled skeleton in the woods.”
The church—more of a small chapel, really—was in ruins, but still contained pews and altars, all dilapidated from years of neglect under East German Communist rule. He found the skeleton on a side aisle, peering out at him from behind some boards that had been nailed over its chamber. As he pried off the panels to get a better look, the thing watched him with big, red glass eyes wedged into its gaping sockets. It was propped upright, decked out in robes befitting a king, and holding out a glass vial, which Koudounaris later learned would have been believed to contain the skeleton’s own blood. He was struck by the silent figure’s dark beauty, but ultimately wrote it off as “some sort of one-off freakish thing, some local curiosity.”
But then it happened again. In another German church he visited some time later, hidden in a crypt corner, he found two more resplendent skeletons. “It was then that I realized there’s something much broader and more spectacular going on,” he says.
Koudounaris could not get the figures’ twinkling eyes and gold-adorned grins out of his mind. He began researching the enigmatic remains, even while working on Empire of Death. The skeletons, he learned, were the “catacomb saints,” once-revered holy objects regarded by 16th- and 17th-century Catholics as local protectors and personifications of the glory of the afterlife. Some of them still remain tucked away in certain churches, while others have been swept away by time, forever gone. Who they were in life is impossible to know. “That was part of this project’s appeal to me,” Koudounaris says. “The strange enigma that these skeletons could have been anyone, but they were pulled out of the ground and raised to the heights of glory.”
His pursuit of the bones soon turned into a book project, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, in which he documents the martyred bones’ journey from ancient Roman catacombs to hallowed altars to forgotten corners and back rooms. Though largely neglected by history, the skeletons, he found, had plenty to say.
Resurrecting the Dead
On May 31, 1578, local vineyard workers discovered that a hollow along Rome’s Via Salaria, a road traversing the boot of Italy, led to a catacomb. The subterranean chamber proved to be full of countless skeletal remains, presumably dating back to the first three centuries following Christianity’s emergence, when thousands were persecuted for practicing the still-outlawed religion. An estimated 500,000 to 750,000 souls—mostly Christians but including some pagans and Jews—found a final resting place in the sprawling Roman catacombs.
For hundreds of skeletons, however, that resting place would prove anything but final. The Catholic Church quickly learned of the discovery and believed it was a godsend, since many of the skeletons must have belonged to early Christian martyrs. In Northern Europe—especially in Germany, where anti-Catholic sentiment was most fervent—Catholic churches had suffered from plunderers and vandals during the Protestant Revolution over the past several decades. Those churches’ sacred relics had largely been lost or destroyed. The newly discovered holy remains, however, could restock the shelves and restore the morale of those parishes that had been ransacked.
The holy bodies became wildly sought-after treasures. Every Catholic church, no matter how small, wanted to have at least one, if not ten. The skeletons allowed the churches to make a “grandiose statement,” Koudounaris says, and were especially prized in southern Germany, the epicenter of “the battleground against the Protestants.” Wealthy families sought them for their private chapels, and guilds and fraternities would sometimes pool their resources to adopt a martyr, who would become the patron of cloth-makers, for example.
For a small church, the most effective means of obtaining a set of the coveted remains was a personal connection with someone in Rome, particularly one of the papal guards. Bribery helped, too. Once the Church confirmed an order, couriers—often monks who specialized in transporting relics—delivered the skeleton from Rome to the appropriate northern outpost.
At one point, Koudounaris attempted to estimate in dollar terms how profitable these ventures would have been for the deliverymen, but gave up after realizing that the conversion from extinct currencies to modern ones and the radically different framework for living prevented an accurate translation. “All I can say is that they made enough money to make it worthwhile,” he says.
The Vatican sent out thousands of relics, though it’s difficult to determine exactly how many of those were fully articulated skeletons versus a single shinbone, skull or rib. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where the majority of the celebrated remains wound up, the church sent at least 2,000 complete skeletons, Koudounaris estimates.
For the Vatican, the process of ascertaining which of the thousands of skeletons belonged to a martyr was a nebulous one. If they found “M.” engraved next to a corpse, they took it to stand for “martyr,” ignoring the fact that the initial could also stand for “Marcus,” one of the most popular names in ancient Rome. If any vials of dehydrated sediment turned up with the bones, they assumed it must be a martyr’s blood rather than perfume, which the Romans often left on graves in the way we leave flowers today. The Church also believed that the bones of martyrs cast off a golden glow and a faintly sweet smell, and teams of psychics would journey through the corporeal tunnels, slip into a trance and point out skeletons from which they perceived a telling aura. After identifying a skeleton as holy, the Vatican then decided who was who and issued the title of martyr.
While there doubters within the Vatican, those on the receiving end of these relics never wavered in their faith. “This was such a dubious process, it’s understandable to ask if people really believed,” Koudounaris says. “The answer is, of course they did: These skeletons came in a package from the Vatican with proper seals signed by the cardinal vicar stating these remains belong to so-and-so. No one would question the Vatican.”
The Dirt and Blood Are Wiped Away
Each martyr’s skeleton represented the splendors that awaited the faithful in the afterlife. Before it could be presented to its congregation, it had to be outfitted in finery befitting a relic of its status. Skilled nuns, or occasionally monks, would prepare the skeleton for public appearance. It could take up to three years, depending on the size of the team at work.
Each convent would develop its own flair for enshrouding the bones in gold, gems and fine fabrics. The women and men who decorated the skeletons did so anonymously, for the most part. But as Koudounaris studied more and more bodies, he began recognizing the handiwork of particular convents or individuals. “Even if I couldn’t come up with the name of a specific decorator, I could look at certain relics and tie them stylistically to her handiwork,” he says.
Nuns were often renowned for their achievements in clothmaking. They spun fine mesh gauze, which they used to delicately wrap each bone. This prevented dust from settling on the fragile material and created a medium for attaching decorations. Local nobles often donated personal garments, which the nuns would lovingly slip onto the corpse and then cut out peepholes so people could see the bones beneath. Likewise, jewels and gold were often donated or paid for by a private enterprise. To add a personal touch, some sisters slipped their own rings onto a skeleton’s fingers.
One thing the nuns did lack, however, was formal training in anatomy. Koudounaris often found bones connected improperly, or noticed that a skeleton’s hand or foot was grossly missized. Some of the skeletons were outfitted with full wax faces, shaped into gaping grins or wise gazes. “That was done, ironically, to make them seem less creepy and more lively and appealing,” Koudounaris says. “But it has the opposite effect today. Now, those with the faces by far seem the creepiest of all.”
They are also ornately beautiful. In their splendor and grandeur, Koudounaris says, the skeletons may be considered baroque art, but their creators’ backgrounds paint a more complicated picture that situates the bones into a unique artistic subcategory. The nuns and monks “were incredible artisans but did not train in an artisan’s workshop, and they were not in formal dialogue with others doing similar things in other parts of Europe,” he says.
“From my perspective as someone who studies art history, the question of who the catacomb saints were in life becomes secondary to the achievement of creating them,” he continues. “That’s something I want to celebrate.”
In that vein, Koudounaris dedicated his book to those “anonymous hands” that constructed the bony treasures “out of love and faith.” His hope, he writes, is that “their beautiful work will not be forgotten.”
Fall from Grace
When a holy skeleton was finally introduced into the church, it marked a time of community rejoicing. The decorated bodies served as town patrons and “tended to be extremely popular because they were this very tangible and very appealing bridge to the supernatural,” Koudounaris explains.
Baptismal records reveal the extent of the skeletons’ allure. Inevitably, following a holy body’s arrival, the first child born would be baptized under its name—for example, Valentine for a boy, Valentina for a girl. In extreme cases, half the children born that year would possess the skeleton’s name.
Communities believed that their patron skeleton protected them from harm, and credited it for any seeming miracle or positive event that occurred after it was installed. Churches kept “miracle books,” which acted as ledgers for archiving the patron’s good deeds. Shortly after Saint Felix arrived at Gars am Inn, for example, records indicate that a fire broke out in the German town. Just as the flames approached the marketplace—the town’s economic heart—a great wind came and blew them back. The town showered Felix with adoration; even today, around 100 ex-votos—tiny paintings depicting and expressing gratitude for a miracle, such as healing a sick man—are strewn about St. Felix’s body in the small, defunct chapel housing him.
As the world modernized, however, the heavenly bodies’ gilt began to fade for those in power. Quoting Voltaire, Koudounaris writes that the corpses were seen as reflection of “our ages of barbarity,” appealing only to “the vulgar: feudal lords and their imbecile wives, and their brutish vassals.”
In the late 18th century, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II, a man of the Enlightenment, was determined to dispel superstitious objects from his territory. He issued an edict that all relics lacking a definite provenance should be tossed out. The skeletons certainly lacked that. Stripped of their status, they were torn down from their posts, locked away in boxes or cellars, or plundered for their jewels.
For local communities, this was traumatic. These saints had been instilled in people’s lives for more than a century, and those humble worshipers had yet to receive the Enlightenment memo. Pilgrimages to see the skeletons were abruptly outlawed. Local people would often weep and follow their patron skeleton as it was taken from its revered position and dismembered by the nobles. “The sad thing is that their faith had not waned when this was going on,” Koudounaris says. “People still believed in these skeletons.”
The Second Coming
Not all of the holy skeletons were lost during the 18th-entury purges, however. Some are still intact and on display, such as the 10 fully preserved bodies in the Waldsassen Basilica (“the Sistine Chapel of Death,” Koudounaris calls it) in Bavaria, which holds the largest collection remaining today. Likewise, the delicate Saint Munditia still reclines on her velvet throne at St. Peter’s Church in Munich.
In Koudounaris’ hunt, however, many proved more elusive. When he returned to that original German village several years later, for example, he found that a salvage company had torn down the forest church. Beyond that, none of the villagers could tell him what had happened to its contents, or to the body. For every 10 bodies that disappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries, Koudounaris estimates, nine are gone.
In other cases, leads—which he gathered through traveler’s accounts, parish archives and even Protestant writings about the Catholic “necromancers”—did pan out. He found one skeleton in the back of a parking-garage storage unit in Switzerland. Another had been wrapped in cloth and stuck in a box in a German church, likely untouched for 200 years.
After examining around 250 of these skeletons, Koudounaris concluded, “They’re the finest pieces of art ever created in human bone.” Though today many of the heavenly bodies suffer from pests burrowing through their bones and dust gathering on their faded silk robes, in Koudounaris’ photos they shine once more, provoking thoughts of the people they once were, the hands that once adorned them and the worshipers who once fell at their feet. But ultimately, they are works of art. “Whoever they may have been as people, whatever purpose they served rightly or wrongly as items, they are incredible achievements,” he says. “My main objective in writing the book is to present and re-contextualize these things as outstanding works of art.”
Accomplishing that was no small task. Nearly all the skeletons he visited and uncovered were still in their original 400-year-old glass tombs. To disassemble those cases, Koudounaris thought, would “amount to destroying them.” Instead, a bottle of Windex and a rag became staples of his photography kit, and he sometimes spent upward of an hour and a half meticulously examining the relic for a clear window through which he might shoot. Still, many of the skeletons he visited could not be included in the book because the glass was too warped to warrant a clear shot.
For Koudounaris, however, it’s not enough to simply document them in a book. He wants to bring the treasures back into the world, and see those in disrepair restored. Some of the church members agreed with Koudounaris’ wish to restore the skeletons, not so much as devotional items but as pieces of local history. The cost of undertaking such a project, however, seems prohibitive. One local parish priest told Koudounaris he had consulted with a restoration specialist, but that the specialist “gave a price so incredibly high that there was no way the church could afford it.”
Still, Koudounaris envisions a permanent museum installation or perhaps a traveling exhibit in which the bones could be judged on their artistic merits. “We live in an age where we’re more in tune with wanting to preserve the past and have a dialogue with the past,” he says. “I think some of them will eventually come out of hiding.”
June 27, 2012
In the spring of 1902 a woman calling herself Cassie L. Chadwick—there was never any mention as to what the L stood for—took a train from Cleveland to New York City and a hansom cab to the Holland House, a hotel at the corner of 30th Street and Fifth Avenue internationally renowned for its gilded banquet room and $350,000 wine cellar. She waited in the lobby, tapping her high-button shoes on the Sienna marble floor, watching men glide by in their bowler hats and frock coats, searching for one man in particular. There he was—James Dillon, a lawyer and friend of her husband’s, standing alone.
She walked toward him, grazing his arm as she passed, and waited for him to pardon himself. As he said the words she spun around and exclaimed what a delightful coincidence it was to see him here, so far from home. She was in town briefly on some private business. In fact, she was on her way to her father’s house—would Mr. Dillon be so kind as to escort her there?
Dillon, happy to oblige, hailed an open carriage. Cassie gave the driver an address: 2 East 91st Street, at Fifth Avenue, and kept up a cheery patter until they arrived there—at a four-story mansion belonging to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She tried not to laugh at Dillon’s sudden inability to speak and told him she’d be back shortly. The butler opened the door to find a refined, well-dressed lady who politely asked to speak to the head housekeeper.
When the woman presented herself, Cassie explained that she was thinking of hiring a maid, Hilda Schmidt, who had supposedly worked for the Carnegie family. She wished to check the woman’s references. The housekeeper was puzzled, and said no one by that name had ever worked for the Carnegie family. Cassie protested: Was she absolutely certain? She gave a detailed physical description, rattled off details of the woman’s background. No, the housekeeper insisted; there must be some misunderstanding. Cassie thanked her profusely, complimented the spotlessness of the front parlor, and let herself out, slipping a large brown envelope out of her coat as she turned back to the street. She had managed to stretch the encounter into just under a half hour.
As she climbed into the carriage, Dillon apologized for what he was about to ask: Who was her father, exactly? Please, Cassie said, raising a gloved finger to her lips, he mustn’t disclose her secret to anyone: She was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter. She handed over the envelope, which contained a pair of promissory notes, for $250,000 and $500,000, signed by Carnegie himself, and securities valued at a total of $5 million. Out of guilt and a sense of responsibility, “Daddy” gave her large sums of money, she said; she had numerous other notes stashed in a dresser drawer at home. Furthermore, she stood to inherit millions when he died. She reminded Dillon not to speak of her parentage, knowing it was a promise he wouldn’t keep; the story was too fantastic to withhold, and too brazen to be untrue. But she had never met Andrew Carnegie. Cassie Chadwick was just one of many names she went by.
February 21, 2012
It was, by all accounts, a glorious Wednesday morning on June 15, 1904, and the men of Kleindeutschland—Little Germany, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side–were on their way to work. Just after 9 o’clock, a group from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street, mostly women and children, boarded the General Slocum for their annual end-of-school outing. Bounding aboard what was billed as the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York,” the children, dressed in their Sunday school outfits, shouted and waved flags as the adults followed, carrying picnic baskets for what was to be a long day away.
A German band played on deck while the children romped and the adults sang along, waiting to depart. Just before 10 o’clock, the lines were cast off, a bell rang in the engine room, and a deck hand reported to Captain William Van Schaick that nearly a thousand tickets had been collected at the plank. That number didn’t include the 300 children under the age of 10, who didn’t require tickets. Including crew and catering staff, there were about 1,350 aboard the General Slocum as it steamed up the East River at 15 knots toward Long Island Sound, headed for Locust Grove, a picnic ground on Long Island’s North Shore, about two hours away.
January 4, 2012
On the gusty afternoon of December 17, 1967, a group of five adults arrived at Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, Victoria, and strolled along the Bass Strait beneath the warm Australian sun. Harold Holt was eager for a swim, and after stepping behind a rock outcrop in the sand dunes, he emerged wearing a pair of blue swim trunks. Marjorie Gillespie and her daughter, Vyner, both in bikinis, turned to the water and noticed that the surf, at high tide, was higher than they’d ever seen it.
“I know this beach like the back of my hand,” Holt replied, and walked into the surf without breaking his stride. Immediately, he began swimming away from the beach. Martin Simpson, Vyner’s boyfriend, followed but stopped when he was knee-deep in the surf. “There was a fairly strong undercurrent,” he said, “so I just splashed around without going in too far.” The third man in the group, Alan Stewart, told the others, “If Mr. Holt can take it, I had better go in too.” But he stopped quickly when he felt a tremendous undertow swirling around his legs. He watched Holt swim out into what he considered “dangerous turbulence.”
Marjorie Gillespie had kept an eye on Holt as he swam further away, drifting from them until the water seemed to boil around him and he disappeared. Holt’s four companions climbed a rocky cliff and searched the water for traces of him. Finding none, they began to panic. Stewart went for help, and within minutes, three SCUBA divers were wading into the water. But the undertow was too strong even for them, and the currents made the water turbid and difficult to see in. They retreated from the surf, climbed a rock and scanned the water with binoculars until police and search-and-rescue teams arrived.
Within an hour helicopters were hovering over the coast, and divers, tethered by safety ropes, were stepping into the churning sea. By sundown, nearly 200 personnel had arrived, including rescuers from Australia’s army, navy and coast guard, the Marine Board of Victoria and the Department of Air. The largest search-and-rescue operation in the nation’s history was all for naught. Australia was paralyzed by news of the unthinkable: Prime Minister Harold Holt was gone at the age of 59.