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.”
July 22, 2013
The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.
The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.
We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods.
June 17, 2013
Along the Los Angeles beach between Venice and Ocean Park, a small group of mourners wandered aimlessly, occasionally dropping to the sand to pray—unable to stop their tears. “Aimee is with Jesus; pray for her,” they chanted. A Coast Guard cutter patrolled just offshore as deep-sea divers plunged into the water. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist, faith-healer, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church and builder of the Angelus Temple, was believed to have disappeared during a swim on May 18, 1926. In the hours that followed, rescuers were sparing no effort to find her.
“God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.”
Already, one young church member had drowned herself in her grief. Soon after that, a diver died while trying to find McPherson’s body.
In the coming days, her followers would dynamite the waters of Santa Monica bay, hoping to raise her body from the depths. Yet the blasts surfaced only dead fish, and the passing time merely gave rise to countless rumors. She’d disappeared to have an abortion. Or plastic surgery. Or an affair. As the days turned to weeks, McPherson’s body, much to the chagrin of police and the California Fish and Game Commission, remained missing. Soon, witnesses were coming forward to contradict the report, given by McPherson’s secretary, Emma Shaeffer, that the evangelist had vanished shortly after entering the water.
There were accounts from a detective in San Francisco that McPherson was spotted at a railway station there. “I know her well by sight,” the detective said, “and I know that I am not mistaken.” A ransom note delivered to McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, demanded $50,000 for the safe return of her daughter and warned, “Mum’s the word—keep police away.” Meanwhile, some faithful church members, convinced that the evangelist was dead, clung to the belief that she would be resurrected by supernatural powers.
Newspaper headlines trumpeted alleged McPherson sightings in cities across the United States. Another ransom letter surfaced—this one promising to sell the evangelist into “white slavery” unless a half-million dollars was paid in cash. Convinced her daughter was already dead, Minnie Kennedy threw away the letter. By the summer of 1926, no woman in America commanded more headlines than the vanished “Sister Aimee.”
The woman at the center of this media storm was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 to a religious family on a farm in Ontario, Canada. But unlike her Methodist parents, she questioned her faith at a young age and began to rebel against her “tambourine-thumping Salvation Army” mother by reading novels and attending movies.
Yet when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution made its way into Canadian schools, Aimee rebelled again—this time, against evolution. (In 1925, she would support the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial.) Before her 18th birthday, she married an Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple, became pregnant, and set off for Asia on an evangelical tour. But the young couple contracted malaria, and Robert succumbed to the disease in August 1910. Aimee gave birth one month later to Roberta Star Semple and returned to the United States.
In 1912, she married an accountant, Harold Steward McPherson, but after giving birth to a son, Rolf McPherson, and trying to settle into a life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island, Aimee felt a sudden calling to preach the Gospel. In 1915, she ran out on her husband, taking the children, and hit the road in a Packard touring car (“Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted on the side), preaching in tent revivals and churches across the country.
As a female preacher and something of a Pentecostal novelty, Aimee Semple McPherson learned to whip up crowds by speaking in tongues and delivering faith-healing demonstrations in which crutches were tossed aside and the blind were made to see. By 1922, she was breaking attendance records set by the biggest evangelical names at the time, such as Billy Sunday, the former baseball star. In San Diego, more than 30,000 people turned out for one of her events, and the Marines had to be called in for crowd control. There, McPherson laid hands on a supposedly paralyzed woman who rose from her chair and walked. The audience reached a frenzy.
The constant travel began to take its toll, and McPherson decided to settle down in Los Angeles, where she raised funds to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. She packed the 5,300-capacity building in services held seven days a week. Her style was light-hearted and whimsical at times, yet she spoke and sang with power and passion.
By the spring of 1926, McPherson had become a phenomenon—a household name across America. So it came as a surprise to the faithful on May 18, 1926, when McPherson did not arrive at the temple to preach the scheduled sermon and her mother stood in. By the next day, the entire nation was in shock at the news that Sister Aimee had disappeared and likely drowned.
But the prayers of many were soon to be answered: After a month of mourning and unending rumor, McPherson turned up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a small Mexican town just south of Douglas, Arizona. She claimed to have walked across the “burning sands” of the desert to flee kidnappers and then collapsed. She was taken to a hospital, and in a phone call with the staff, Minnie Kennedy confirmed her daughter’s identity by telling them of the location of a scar on her finger and of her daughter’s ability to provide the name of her pet pigeon.
Once she’d recovered from her “state of collapse,” McPherson gave a bedside interview, saying she’d been lured to a car after swimming and taken across the border by three Americans, including a man named Steve and a woman named Rose. She’d been drugged and held in a Mexican shack for weeks, she said, and her captors had planned on keeping her until they’d received a ransom of half a million dollars. But she foiled the plan, she claimed, when she sawed through the ropes that were restraining her and staggered 20 miles through the desert to Agua Prieta.
Minnie Kennedy rushed to Arizona to reunite with her daughter. “My God, Sister McPherson is alive,” she told followers. “Run up the flag on the temple and send out the word broadcast. The Lord has returned his own.”
When McPherson came home, a throng of more than 50,000 showed up at the train station to welcome her. In a massive parade featuring airplanes that dropped roses from the skies, the evangelist made a grand re-entrance. But despite the attendance of Los Angeles officials and dignitaries, not everyone was thrilled. The Chamber of Commerce viewed the event as “gaudy display,” and Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes called for an investigation into the evangelist’s account of a kidnapping.
Within two weeks, McPherson voluntarily appeared before a grand jury as newspapers continued to trumpet accusations of fraud, accompanied by witness “spottings” in Northern California. Gaining the most traction was a story that centered on the fact that Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer at the Christian radio station KFSG (owned by McPherson’s church) disappeared just when McPherson did. The two worked together on McPherson’s regular broadcasts. Police were dispatched to a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Ormiston had been seen with an unidentified woman during McPherson’s disappearance. (Ormiston admitted to having an adulterous affair at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, but denied that the stranger known as “Mrs. X” was her.) After dusting the cottage for fingerprints, however, police found none that matched the evangelist’s.
The headlines, gossip and innuendo continued throughout the fall, until a judge determined that there was enough evidence to proceed with the charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice against McPherson. A jury trial was scheduled for January the following year. However, Keyes had begun to determine that some of his witnesses were unreliable, and he decided to drop the charges.
The kidnapping remained unsolved, and the controversy over a possible hoax went unresolved. Critics and supporters alike thought McPherson should have insisted on a trial to clear her name; instead, she gave her account of the kidnapping in her 1927 book, In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life. She would be mocked in the media for years, but the scandal did not diminish her popularity.
McPherson continued to build her church right up until her death in Oakland, California, in 1944, from what the coroner described as most likely an accidental overdose (Seconol was found in the hotel room where she died) “compounded by kidney failure.” The Foursquare Gospel Church was worth millions at the time, and today claims nearly 9 million members worldwide. But when Aimee Semple McPherson’s estate was sorted out, the evangelist had just $10,000 to her name.
Articles: “Divers Seek Body of Woman Preacher,” New York Times, May 21, 1926. “No Trace Found of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, May 29, 1926. “Cast Doubt on Evangelist’s Death in Sea,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1926. “Bay Dynamited to Locate Body of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1926. “Faithful Cling to Waning Hope,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1926. “$25,000 Reward for Evangelist’s Return,” Boston Globe, May 29, 1926. “Kidnap Hoax Exposed,” The Baltimore News, July 26, 1926. “Los Angeles Hails Aimee McPherson,” New York Times, June 27, 1926. “Evangelist Found: Tells Story of Kidnapping,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1926. “Missing Woman Pastor Found in Douglas, Arizona,” Boston Globe, June 23, 1926. “Aimee Semple McPherson,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson. “Aimee’s Life,” “Aimee’s Message,” “Aimee’s Religion,” by Anna Robertson, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/robertson/asm/background.html. “Sister Aimee,” The American Experience,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/sister/filmmore/index.html
January 28, 2013
Siberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs. This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.
When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.
Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.
It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.
The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”
As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,
beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.
The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’
The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’
December 6, 2012
To this day, he is considered one of the most influential politicians in U.S. history. His role in putting together the Compromise of 1850, a series of resolutions limiting the expansion of slavery, delayed secession for a decade and earned him the nickname “the Great Pacificator.” Indeed, Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote later said, “Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-’61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.”
Clay owned 60 slaves. Yet he called slavery “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country” and did not modify his stance through five campaigns for the presidency, all of which failed. “I’d rather be right than be president,” he said, famously, during an 1838 Senate debate, which his critics (he had many) attributed to sour grapes, a sentiment spoken only after he’d been defeated. Throughout his life, Clay maintained a “moderate” stance on slavery: He saw the institution as immoral, a bane on American society, but insisted that it was so entrenched in Southern culture that calls for abolition were extreme, impractical and a threat to the integrity of the Union. He supported gradual emancipation and helped found the American Colonization Society, made up of mostly Quakers and abolitionists, to promote the return of free black people to Africa, where, it was believed, they would have better lives. The organization was supported by many slaveowners, who believed that free blacks in America could only lead to slave rebellion.
Clay’s ability to promote compromise in the most complex issues of the day made him a highly effective politician. Abraham Lincoln said Clay was “the man for a crisis,” adding later that he was “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.”
Yet there was one crisis in Henry Clay’s life in which the Great Pacificator showed no desire to compromise. The incident occurred in Washington, D.C., when he was serving as secretary of state to President John Quincy Adams. In 1829, Charlotte Dupuy, Clay’s longtime slave, filed a petition with the U.S. Circuit Court against him, claiming she was free. The suit “shocked and angered” Clay, and whatever sympathies he held with regard to human rights did not extinguish his passion for the rule of law. When confronted with what he considered a “groundless writ” that might result in the loss of his rightful property, Henry Clay showed little mercy in fighting the suit.
Born into slavery around 1787 in Cambridge, Maryland, Charlotte Stanley was purchased in 1805 by a tailor named James Condon, who took the 18 year-old girl back to his home in Kentucky. The following year, she met and married Aaron Dupuy, a young slave on the 600-acre Ashland plantation in Lexington, owned by Henry Clay—who then purchased her for $450. The young couple would have two children, Charles and Mary Ann Dupuy.
In 1809, Clay was to elected to fill retiring Senator John Adair’s unexpired term at the age of 29—below the constitutionally required age of 30, but no one seemed to notice or care. The Dupuys accompanied him to Washington, where they lived and worked as house slaves for the congressman at the Decatur House, a mansion on Lafayette Square, near the White House. In 1810, Clay was elected to the House of Representatives, where he spent most of the next 20 years, serving several terms as speaker.
For those two decades the Dupuys, though legally enslaved, lived in relative freedom in Washington. Clay even allowed Charlotte to visit her family on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on several occasions—visits Clay later surmised were “the root of all the subsequent trouble.”
But in 1828 Adams lost in his re-election campaign to another of Clay’s rivals, Andrew Jackson, and Clay’s term as secretary of state came to an end. It was as he was preparing to return to Kentucky that Charlotte Dupuy filed her suit, based on a promise, she claimed, made by her former owner, James Condon, to free her after her years of service to him. Her case long predated the Dred Scott suit, which would result in the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, that the Constitution did not apply to people of African descent and that they were not U.S. citizens.
Dupuy’s attorney, Robert Beale, argued that the Dupuys should not have to return to Kentucky, where they would “be held as slaves for life.” The court agreed to hear the case. For 18 months, she stayed in Washington, working for wages at the Decatur House for Clay’s successor as secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Meanwhile, Clay stewed in Kentucky. The court ultimately rejected Dupuy’s claim to freedom, ruling that Condon sold her to Clay “without any conditions,” and that enslaved persons had no legal rights under the constitution. Clay then wrote to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, encouraging him to order the marshal to “imprison Lotty.” He added that her husband and children had returned with him to Kentucky, and that Charlotte’s conduct had created “insubordination among her relatives here.” He added, “Her refusal therefore to return home, when requested by me to do so through you, was unnatural towards them as it was disobedient to me…. I think it high time to put a stop to it…How shall I now get her, is the question?”
Clay arranged for Charlotte to be put in prison in Alexandria, Virginia. “In the mean time,” he wrote Fendall, “be pleased to let her remain in jail and inform me what is necessary for me to do to meet the charges.” She was eventually sent to New Orleans, where she was enslaved at the home of Clay’s daughter and son-in-law for another decade. Aaron Dupuy continued to work at the Ashland plantation, and it was believed that neither Clay nor the Dupuys harbored any ill will after the freedom suit was resolved—an indication, some historians have suggested, that Clay’s belief that his political adversaries were behind Charlotte Dupuy’s lawsuit was well-founded.
In 1840, Henry Clay freed Charlotte and her daughter, Mary Ann. Clay continued to travel the country with her son, Charles, as his manservant. It was said that Clay used Charles as an example of his kindness toward slaves, and he eventually freed Charles in 1844. Aaron Dupuy remained enslaved to Clay until 1852, when he was freed either before Clay’s death that year, or by his will.
Lincoln eulogized Henry Clay with the following words:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Books: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House, 2010. Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capital: Discovering African American History in and Around Washington, D.C., Globe Pequot, 2007.
Articles: “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square, 1795-1965, Presented by the White House Historical Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” http://www.whitehousehistory.org/decatur-house/african-american-tour/content/Decatur-House ”Henry Clay and Ashland,” by Peter W. Schramm, The Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, http://ashbrook.org/publications/onprin-v7n3-schramm/ ”Henry Clay: Young and in Charge,” by Claire McCormack, Time, October 14, 2010. “Henry Clay: (1777-1852),” by Thomas Rush, American History From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/henry-clay/ “American History: The Rise of the Movement Against Slavery,” The Making of a Nation, http://www.manythings.org/voa/history/67.html “Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6, 1952, Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Online, Speeches and Writing, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/clay.htm