Sunday, July 15, 2018

dear dr. granville, there’s been a discovery

I just read about the latest discovery in the pyramids—a mummification workshop. Will the great mysteries of Egyptian mummification at last be revealed? Will there be any mention of beeswax? So far I’ve read only of “oils and substances” being found, but surely specific identifications will come, and suddenly my research into Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville (father Italian, mother Cornish) feels a bit less abstruse. I’m glad I found and snatched up just this week that one copy of his autobiography found online (“First edition, 2 volumes complete, in half leather boards with marbled end papers and cut edge. Minor signs of repairs to the spine creases of Volume 1 and its end paper hinges reinforced with a strip of red tape. Boards clean and bright with some rubbing of the edges. Both books firm with contents in nice condition.”). The books are coming from England. The title alone brings joy.
Autobiography of A. B. Granville, M.D., F.R.S.,—Being 88 Years of the Life of a Physician Who Practiced His Profession in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, The West Indies, Russia, Germany, France, and England. Edited, with a Brief Account of the Last Years of His Life, by His Youngest Daughter, Paulina B. Granville.
To refresh, Dr. Granville (1783-1872) is the guy who scraped adipocere from a mummy, thinking it was beeswax, turned it into candles. Yes, that Dr. Granville and no, I’m not done with him yet because I am so glad to have his account of this event. I perused parts of his autobiography online. He writes of obtaining the mummy:
A young baronet, Sir Archibald Edmonstone, just returned in bad health from a long incursion into Egypt, applied to me for advice, and at the same time commenced a conversation on the subject of Alexandria, which we had both of us visited, branching off into an account of a visit he had paid to the kings’ tombs, where he had been able not only to penetrate into the mummy pits, but, a rare privilege, had purchased one of the best preserved specimens, judging from the exterior case, which was perfect both in material and painting. This he had brought home with him, and kept in his house in Wimpole Street, where I went to see it. …
Of the unwrapping and dissection:
The case was in Savile Row the next day. On that day week my dining-room was open at one o’clock to some scientific and other friends, to witness the examination of the mummy. During the week I had had the case carefully opened, which proved to be made of sycamore wood an inch thick, whitewashed or plastered in its interior, with long ranges of hieroglyphic inscriptions painted in black characters. The body, enveloped in all its cloth wrappers, being taken out and deposited on a long table, was searched all over for papyri or amulets or any ornament, but nothing was discovered except a few segments of very slender glass tubing, tinted pale blue, and looking like enamel, and a few grains of wheat that looked as fresh as any grain of wheat of the last harvest. …
Of the wax:
I claim in this laborious investigation to have demonstrated the fact of wax having been the ingredient which was successfully employed, not only to preserve the body from putrefaction, but also to keep the membranes as well as the ligaments in their supple condition, so that when the wax was discharged from them by the process of boiling in water, the soft parts came out with their natural structure, and in less than twenty-four hours underwent decomposition and putrefaction. To these facts antiquaries and such persons as are versed in the old Egyptian language, add the information that the Egyptian word corresponding to wax is “mum.” …
And, finally, the lighting of the candles made from the wax:
… some of the wax obtained being manufactured into small tapers, which were lighted and burned during the lecture. …
Dear Dr. Granville, Thank you. I turn to you for the last word (for now):
When I look back to the work I spontaneously took upon myself to perform unsolicited by anyone, and to the nature of the work itself, I fear that I must confess that the motives that induced me to undertake it were akin to that spirit of restless impatience which the good preceptors in my college early divulged to my parents, when they sent me home for my holidays with a very gratifying encomium of my intellectual progress somewhat damaged by an explicit lament over the listlessness of my temperament and my love of change. I was born to be a reformer! …

Sunday, July 8, 2018

josie’s world, my world: deer, porcupine, a soybean menu, and adipocere revisited

Josie’s been negotiating property rights with a deer.

And one evening Josie spotted a porcupine by the kitchen stoop. I was elsewhere, but he let me know I might want to look at this thing here and when I saw what it was, I picked up Josie, took him inside, got my camera, went back out.

And as I contemplated writing a book about wax, which of course brought to mind all the times I have contemplated writing a book about anything at all as well all the times I have not written a book about anything at all, I began revisiting my wax posts, taking it from the top, just to see if there was something there (there is always something there, the question is, what is it? what to do with it?), and if nothing else my interest in the topic grew deeper. Which is how I came to learn that in 1941 the Ford Motor Company created a car touted as being made from soybeans, a “soy car.” Apparently Henry Ford was a soybean fanatic and you, too, can see some fun pictures and read all about it at Henry Ford: Soybeans and Henry Ford and His Employees: Work with Soy. For some reason, I found this menu more interesting than the car.

Suffice to say that with this topic of wax I realized there was a bit more to delve into. Which is how I got back to adipocere, the wax our bodies create after we’re dead, and that story about Dr. Granville’s big mistake, mistaking adipocere (which apparently wasn’t something anyone knew about in Granville’s time, two hundred years ago) for beeswax and making candles from the stuff (the stuff he had scraped from the insides of a very old Egyptian mummy that he had unwrapped, dissected, studied, diagnosed, apparently in his own home) and subsequently lighting a lecture hall with said candles while he made a presentation on said mummy and his findings. I found the article he wrote on the mummy and as well the subsequent paper from 2009 that re-examined the mummy, leading to the summation that what Granville took to be beeswax was actually adipocere. I have not yet read the 2009 paper, but I did read Granville’s. I had to look up a few words to get a better grasp on what he was saying, but, all in all, I found it fascinating. Whether it’s more good stuff for a book or not, I don’t know. Whether I actually have the discipline or whatever it is one needs to write something longer than, say, a blog post, I don’t know. Whether the end result of any such effort would be any good, or of interest to anyone else, which, judging by my experience talking to folks at the farmers market and gauging at what point they lose interest in the broader topic of wax, well. Stop now. But, I don’t know. And of course there’s really only one way to find out.

According to Granville, the beeswax made its way into the mummy, the dead body, thus helping to preserve it, by virtue of embalmers soaking it in a bath of wax and bitumen.
To have penetrated thus far, and to have lodged between closely adhering membraneous folds, this mixture must either have been injected quite warm into the cavity of the abdomen, or the body itself must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen, and there kept for some hours or days, over a gentle fire.
He goes on about this probability, turns it into an almost undeniable fact, and sums up
that admirable method of embalming, devised and followed by the ancient Egyptians, which my inquiries have been directed to ascertain, and which may be summed up in a few words by saying: that it consisted in impregnating the body with bees wax.
Granville conducts his own experiments with the soak-em-in-beeswax-over-a-gentle-fire embalming method that lend a certain amount of proof, or, shall we say, well, maybe. But he was wrong. Or so they say now. But still, he made candles from the wax he found in a mummy, whatever it was—beeswax, human wax—and the candles burned and no one knew.

A drawing of the head of the mummy Granville unwrapped, dissected, and wrote about.
From the aforementioned article in Philosophical Transactions, Royal Society Publishing, January 1825.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

kool & the gang & all that jazz (sshhh ... ) the night pastor is about to appear

Kool & the Gang. A favorite. Are you thinking “Celebration”?

I like the song, sure, but that’s not it, not my favorite, my favorite is Kool & the Gang’s “Kool Jazz” album that I owned and loved until I no longer owned it, jiminy crickets who knows why, we gather and gather and then winnow away until oops, one day, wait a minute, where is that thing, that song, I loved it … and we go online searching for that thing, that song (that’s why the internet was invented), and all I remember about this one particular song on “Kool Jazz” that truly made the whole album worth it (even though the whole album = very good) is that it had something to do with night, no, wait a minute, it was “Dujii,” that’s it, “Dujii”!

One of my favorites.

Dave Brubeck on the way to the farmers market … Blue Rondo a la Turk jammin’ like walking down a street and all you’re doing is seeing face after face, each face passes by, young, old, middle-aged and pink and red and brown and black and ghostly white; no noise, just music, the groove, the beat, the riff, the storefronts, awnings, scraps of paper, a paper bag, sidewalk, bench, the side of a bus and kids jumping rope; like skimming along on train tracks, a lighted tunnel then over a bridge and woods and mountains flash by between wooden or rusty steel lines, beams and cross-beams, a glimpse of river, lakes, sun sparkling on water, going by, passing by, all in a groove, fish jumping, walking along, moving along, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Take Five.

I inherited from my dad “Sing Sing Sing” on vinyl as recorded famously live at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and I remember another Benny Goodman record and it’s on the hi-fi and I’m dancing in the living room pretending to play a clarinet which was all I could do when it came to playing the clarinet—pretend—and my dad is there and I still have that record, too. And at the farmers market almost every week now a jazz combo plays and I love these guys, just kids, talented, lucky kids playing “Take the A Train” and take everything else and it’s just music, kind and pure.

There’s a Ramsey Lewis Trio record I picked up somewhere, “The In Crowd,” recorded live at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., 1965, and there’s a strange and wonderful record my mom had—had something to do with her P.E.O. affiliation, I think—called “The Night Pastor and Seven Friends Play Chicago Jazz.” I don’t remember ever hearing this record growing up. I discovered it as an adult when helping out during a move. No, Mom, I don’t want the china or those salt cellars old so-and-so gave you as a wedding present. But can I have this old record?

The Night Pastor was a real guy, an episcopal priest, The Reverend Robert H. Owen, and a minute or two into Track 1, Beale St. Blues, he says:
Hello. This is the Night Pastor. I’d like to visit with you for a moment, so please pardon me for cutting in on this fine music. First, a million thanks to the musicians who are recording this album and to Dave Remington who got them together. Secondly, thank you for your interest. The Night Pastor program aims at giving pastoral care and guidance to those who work or play at night, called by many “the people of the night.” They are the entertainers and the entertained, the lonely and the lost, those who serve and those who are served, the loving and the loved, the unloving and the unloved, the sleepless, and others who are active at night. Because of the late or strange hours, or for other reasons, many of them have been unable to get the guidance they might want or need. The Night Pastor program is one attempt at helping these people of the night to solve their problems. If you would like to know more about the program, please write to the Night Pastor, 30 East Oak Street, in Chicago. Again, thank you very much. Now let’s get back to the music.
But the music never stops as the pastor’s seven friends jam away quietly below his words turning his entire spiel into poetry. Side Two begins with Saints, as in when the saints go marching in, and this is the only other time the album is adorned with voice, the pastor’s voice, as he riffs along with the musicians starting with just the snare drum and cymbal and the pastor praising Him in all sorts of ways and then Praising Him in the sound of the trumpets (enter the trumpets!) … the lute and harpstrings and pipeswell-tuned cymbals … Well damn and jam. This is absolutely one of my favorite albums. It was recorded in 1965 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, by Claremont Record Company.

(There is a second Night Pastor album, “Music to Lure Pigeons By.” You can listen to it on YouTube.)

I have a number of instrumental jazz albums and CDs randomly collected sans any real education or guidance, knowledge of what I was doing (though my mother would like to interject: “Leslie once took jazz piano lessons and she was very good. She could have been a jazz pianist.” And I will roll on the floor now, in agony.). Among these records and CDs are horns, pianos, marimba, bass, drums, vibraphone, mambo, Dixieland, ragtime, bossa nova, Tito Puente!, standards, classics, improv, the usual and the unusual, stuff I like. Stuff I haven’t yet given away. Stuff I think I will turn to for a while now, as long as it takes, as long as I need to, for pastoral care. Just line it up, let it play.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

when it’s emblazoned on your back, it’s not a hidden message, and the river rises

The river rose fifteen feet Sunday. It was still a few feet from the top of the bank, though in places where the bank is lower it took over low-lying meadows, crept into the woods. The island Josie and I walk to every day disappeared.

otter river upper peninsula

The river dropped a dozen or more feet Monday into Tuesday. By Thursday it had dropped even more. Josie and I walked our usual trail though there was little that was usual about it. It had been ravaged and swept and about halfway along a big wall of debris had been dumped across it. The wall was about eight feet high and several feet thick.

otter river upper peninsula

The first day, Monday, the wall was underwater.

The second day, Tuesday, the wall was adjacent to the water. There was a large muddy puddle in front of it. Josie walked through the puddle, began investigating the wall, looking, no doubt, for a way through. I agreed there were possibilities, but also dangers. At my call, Josie turned back. He took his time and while mucking about in the puddle, he suddenly dropped down. A look of surprise, maybe panic, flashed across his face. He paddled out of the puddle and galloped back up the trail.

Wednesday, the puddle was gone, the wall stood firm. A massive blockade of tree trunks, branches, twigs, sand, mud, pine cones. A whole town could set up in there. We turned back.

Thursday, we moved forward. We proceeded right through the wall. Walls can nearly always be breached. Josie took a lower route through a series of gaps in the debris, I took a higher route going up and around. The bank was steep. The bank was muddy. I used branches and tree trunks for handholds. For a moment, as I slipped, pulled myself up, balanced at the edge of the top of this monstrous pile of flotsam, I thought I was being foolish. I could slip. I could fall. I could get trapped by debris. And I did not know what I would find on the other side. But, once you start a journey, it can be hard to stop, to turn back, because you’ve set your course, made some kind of plan, invested time and effort, perhaps faced a challenge and whether it’s bravery or foolishness you’ve come this far, and it took me just a minute or two to climb up to the top of this wall but that was enough to propel me forward. Josie trotted on ahead, brave and fool-hardy, delighted.

On the far side of the wall, a large smooth tree trunk on its side, roots like a flower before me, needles and cones behind me, continued to block the trail. I stood on the trunk. It felt good, sturdy, and I could see all around. The trail going forward was a mess, obliterated, I was, after all, on a river bottom. But I could see possibilities.

On the island, which was connected to land by a spit of mud, it was nice to see turtle tracks.

Near the island, I wondered what canine had left those huge pawprints in the mud.

And how many nests with eggs had been swept away?

otter river upper peninsula

Chapter 35 of “Beartown,” by Fredrik Backman, begins with this paragraph:
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
I always thought hate was hard. When I saw someone investing in hating someone or something, I thought, boy, that must take a lot of energy, be draining. And I thought it was fruitless. To what end do you hate? Then Donald Trump became president, and I saw how hate can be easy, so easy—simple—and I saw that hate doesn’t aim to be fruitful, not at all, hate aims to destroy. It has a goal. To tear down. To tear asunder. And hate used to be something I didn’t see much of—I avoided it. Looked away. Didn’t listen; didn’t respond. But that no longer feels possible. Every day now, I see hate. Every day now, I hear hate. I fumble to navigate, get through, go around, rise above. All these walls, all these lives. Just going to the store can be a little weird. The reduction of human beings to four-letter words. The chip-chip-chipping away, the relentless demeaning language of hate—the us, the them, the blame, the just get rid of them and we’ll be fine. Just send them back, and we’ll be fine. A neighbor comes to visit, it can be a little weird. Did she really just say that? We are miles apart. And that which is ignorant and destructive has been so emboldened—it is impossible not to see it, to hear it, to feel it. It takes its toll. Or maybe it’s just that my eyes and ears have been opened, like a flood, and all I want is to never hear that man’s voice again, to never have to see his words. Because it does, indeed, pull asunder.

But the wall is there.

It was easy, after all, to get around the wall of debris. But this wall, these walls—I don’t know.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

a great rush of candelilla smacking up against the wall and the flood

One night I was in bed reading an article about a canoe trip. The article was in The New Yorker. I have a subscription to the paper edition of the magazine that in essence was inherited from my father and then my mother. The canoe trip article was written by Nick Paumgarten, and the trip included a senator, a Roosevelt, and a groover. They paddled down the Rio Grande and by floating off here and there Paumgarten paints an interesting kind of boots-on-the-ground, paddle-in-the-water reality in which to set this idea of a border wall that’s been bandied about. Among other things, the article pointed out that the wall, which I personally feel is an incredibly stupid idea, would effectively change the location of the southern border of the United States and has already led to the bulldozing of butterflies. What really caught my eye, though, had nothing to do with the wall but with the Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago.

Now wait a minute. The Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago? How in all my great wax research did I miss the great wax rush? Am I that lousy of a researcher? Perhaps. From my wax bible I had made this note on candelilla wax:
... coats entire surface of shrub (N. Mex; SW US) ... odor of beeswax ... burns w/ bright flame ... used to harden other waxes ... raises M.P. of paraffin.
I bet I googled “candelilla wax” and got, as I did recently, a bunch of ads. Ads, of course, make my eyes glaze over. But google “great wax rush” and whoa-ho, there’s Texas Beyond History: The Virtual Museum of Texas’ Cultural History. The section “Wax Camps” offers a series of articles and a plethora of photographs, some of which will be copied here. But go to the website (all links below). It tells a fascinating tale of life on the border with candelilla, aka Euphorbia antisyphilitica, aka Euphorbia cerifera, a plant which grows nearly exclusively in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Photo of candelilla from

Much of the text and many of the photos stem from survey expeditions along the Rio Grande in the 1960s and ’70s. A man named Curtis Tunnell, once a state archaeologist of Texas and executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, was a leader of the expeditions. In 1981 he wrote the report “Wax, Men, and Money.”

Photo from

For a period of time beginning about one hundred years ago, the candelilla wax industry flourished back and forth across the border in the area that is now, on the northern side, Big Bend National Park. One reason for the rush was that the wax fetched a good price during World War I when there was an increased need for wax to waterproof tents and ammunition. After World War II, the industry’s flame flickered and activity has, appropriately, waxed and waned ever since. A steady demand, however, remains.
Wax has always flowed across the Rio Grande either because buyers on this side would pay more than the Banco or because cash was more quickly accessible from Texas buyers. It is illegal under Mexican law to smuggle wax out of Mexico, but not illegal under United States statutes to bring it into this country for marketing if it is declared with customs. Heavily laden burros have brought wax into Texas at various places, including Stillwell’s Crossing, Reagan Canyon, La Linda, Boquillas, San Vicente, Solis, Santa Elena, Lajitas, El Mulato, Presidio, and Candel├íria. It is estimated that as many as 1700 tons of wax have been smuggled across the Texas border in some years.
The process of separating the wax from the plant is simple, yet arduous. Paumgarten neatly sums it up; Texas Beyond History branches out with detailed descriptions of the candelilleros and their camps, their burros, their burlap bags and buckets, their vats and firepits. The camps were primitive.
Devices for marking the passage of time such as radios, calendars, clocks, and watches have not been recorded [in the camps]. Basic tools such as axes, hammers, and saws are apparently replaced by machetes and hammerstones. Lighting devices such as flashlights, candles, lanterns, and lamps have never been seen in the camps; moonlight and a campfire suffice at night.
Photo from

There are descriptions of the U.S. buyers of cerote (raw wax) and refining factories; tales of smugglers and smuggling operations that occurred in the dead of night—
Along the river there were many stories about burro trains of wax smuggled across and sold to representatives of the big floor-wax companies
—a story of pesos sewed into a burlap bag, flung from an airplane; an account of the regulations and controls that developed over time; the raids and the border patrols; and, of course, descriptions of the wild, weedy plant it all stems from. When cultivated, the candelilla produces very little wax. Only in the wild does it produce what we want.
The wax of the candelilla is an epidermal secretion on the stems that helps conserve internal moisture of the plants during severe hot and dry periods. The wax, which forms a scurfy coating on the stems, is much heavier in the dry season of the year and during periods of drought. Since average annual rainfall in the desert where candelilla flourishes ranges from about 4 to 20 inches, drought is not an uncommon condition. The moisture-protecting mechanism of the plant is apparently effective for, as Big Bend writer Virginia Madison has said, “You seldom see a dead candelilla plant.”
One chapter of “Wax Camps” is an update circa the early 2000s, when there is significantly less activity in the borderland wax trade. However, descriptions and photos of the production of the wax—the way the candelilla is harvested and the wax boiled out—remains much the same.
Harvesting native stands of the plant and processing the wax under primitive conditions remains the best and perhaps only method of extracting candelilla wax.
Photo from

Now, I’ve played and monkeyed with the ending of this post many times, and I might have finished this morning and posted it with a very different ending had I not been without internet service. Last night there was a great amount of rain and flooding in the area that has disrupted life, though so far it has disrupted mine very little. Internet service was restored by noon. But this morning I had trouble even tuning in local radio stations, and when I finally got the NPR station from Marquette, the first story I heard was from the Mexican-U.S. border. It was about the current U.S. policy of busting up families at the border and it made me think, among other things, of so much of the campaign literature I’ve received over the past few years. The glossy images of men touting themselves as “family men” with “strong family values.” I have often wondered what those terms mean and why anyone thinks they might persuade me to vote for them. Family man. Family values. Do you think I am an idiot? Have you ever heard of a woman being described as a family woman? I haven’t. Why not? Sounds odd, doesn’t it. She’s a family woman.

Photo of a candelillero and his burro

Distractions and tangents take me far, but so often they lead right back home. Like the present being linked to history and history leading right up to now. My original ending went something like this: I really couldn’t tell you how many people have either eked out a living or amassed a fortune from the candelilla plant [but I can tell you who lives on which side of the border], nor how many have enjoyed candelilla wax in one product or another, but it seems to me it’s like so many things: it’s there, a part of our lives, whether we know it or not.

I don’t claim it’s a great ending.

A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall (The New Yorker, April 23, 2018)
National Butterfly Center Staff Surprised by Workers with Chainsaws Prepping Trump’s Border Wall (The Texas Observer, August 4, 2017)
Texas Butterfly Preserve Contests Border Wall in Court (Courthouse News Service, December 12, 2017)
National Butterfly Center
My wax bible
Texas Beyond History, Wax Camps, Main Page
Big Bend National Park
Candelilla Institute
Trade Survey … with Special Focus on Candelilla Wax (Paper submitted at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2009)
A Photojournalist at the Border (NPR, Weekend Edition, June 17, 2018)
Flooding Hits Local Area, (The Daily Mining Gazette, June 17, 2018)

The flower of the candelilla. Photo from

Sunday, June 3, 2018

einstein’s head: after 71 years, he looks pretty good, but maybe someone could fluff his hair

albert einstein 1947
Albert Einstein, 1947
Library of Congress
In 1947, Albert Einstein, a member of the Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, went to Katherine Stubergh’s waxworks studio in Hollywood, California, to participate in a “live blast.” Stubergh used this term to describe the process—or event—of making a plaster mold directly on a living person’s face. Into this mold a proprietary mixture of wax would be poured in order to create a replica of the person’s head. Stubergh’s habit was to make two heads from a “live blast” mold: one for the person who had commissioned the work and one for herself. Wherever Einstein’s head—the one made for him—ended up, I don’t know, but the Einstein head Stubergh made for herself is now part of an online auction at Skinner, Inc., in Marlborough, Massachusetts. When I heard of this auction, I got pretty excited and began tracing the route the head took to get from Hollywood to Marlborough and, as well, the route one might take from Pelkie to Marlborough.

einstein wax head by stubergh
Albert Einstein by Katherine Stubergh
Images courtesy Skinner, Inc.
The head’s journey begins in 1969 when Stubergh was raising money to establish a wax museum dedicated to the presidents of the United States. Along with other pieces, she sold Einstein’s head to Herbert A. Moore of Cave City, Kentucky. The head, age 22, was packed in a cardboard box, put on an airplane, flown to the Lexington airport. In Cave City it was put on display at Moore’s Mammoth Cave Wax Museum, sometimes referred to as the Cave City Wax Museum.

In 1982, Moore sold the museum, new owners took over, Einstein stayed put. In 2010 or 2011, the museum sold again, this time to an investment company (or somesuch), and the museum closed. In May of 2012 all of the wax figures, including Einstein’s head, now 65 years old, were put up for sale by auction. Einstein’s head had a reserve price, that price was not met, and in July the head turned up on eBay. The listing is preserved at Greatest Collectibles, and if you enjoy hyperbole and want more of the story in that format I encourage you to read it. I am satisfied with telling you that after seven days, 14 bidders and 81 bids, Einstein’s head sold for $111,100.

einstein wax head by stubergh
But there was a glitch. The winning bidder didn’t have the cash. Enter Preston Evans, an auctioneer from Georgia who had bought many of the wax figures from Mammoth Cave and who had been watching the eBay auction closely. Evans stepped in and proposed a trade. According to an article at Auction Publicity, for Einstein’s head Evans traded “a 1940s-era 4-cylinder motorcycle (worth about $50,000), around 40 vintage trains (including some by Lionel), two Batman arcade games, music boxes and phonographs” and some cash. On the last day of August, 2012, Evans opened Follow the Leader Wax Museum in Warm Springs, Georgia. Einstein’s head went back on display. Less than five years later it was back on the auction block.

When Evans decided to retire, his wax museum closed. Pa. Onsite Auction, a father and son operation, handled the sale of the wax figures, and, as best I can figure, they held on to Einstein. Now, one year later, Einstein’s 71-year-old head is part of a Fine Books & Manuscripts auction at Skinner that includes all sorts of arcana and ephemera such as a John Dillinger “Wanted” poster, very old books, maps, letters, deeds, Audubon hand-colored engravings, Arabic manuscripts, autographed photos, photos taken on the moon, photos from Roseland Ballroom. The auction began May 31, will end June 8. For a few days this coming week, all items will be available for a look-see and even handling at the auctioneer’s site in Marlborough. I am sorely tempted. The route there would go through Ontario, Canada, and follow for a time the route Sheldon and Fidelia Allen, characters in my ancestral journey, reportedly took to get from New York to Illinois in 1837; Josie and I could stop and gawk at Niagara Falls; we could stay one night in Cooperstown, New York; I could visit the Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum; and, in the end, I could hold Katherine Stubergh’s Einstein head in my hands, feeling the wax, staring into the glassy eyes, lamenting the bed hair, and inspecting the signature:
Katherine, Much thanks, Albert Einstein
Now, what is that worth?

But after much deliberation and quasi-planning, the mundaneness of bad timing will keep me home. I hold on to the idea, though, that one day I will meet Einstein’s head under circumstances that must remain, only for now, unknown.

Additional Sources
Warm Springs wax-museum figures up for auction, The Newnan Times-Herald, April 22, 2017
Einstein, Dolly Parton, Wolf Man and more up for bid in Gettysburg, Evening Sun, April 13, 2017
The Mysterious Afterlives of a Wax President, MTV News, February 17, 2017
Wax museum opens in Warm Springs, Ledger-Enquirer, August 31, 2012
Mammoth Cave Wax Museum Auction,, May 9, 2012
Ohio auction to feature celebrity wax portraits, Antique Week, May 3, 2012

Sunday, May 27, 2018

josie’s week in review


turkey on the run

Sunday, May 20, 2018

busted by random sensation (bad poetry / rough draft)

Like a Carousel in June, spring is bustin’ out all over
daffodils and tulips bloomin’ red and yeller
volunteerin’ pansies offerin’ up orange
along the riverbank, bloodroot and trout lily
nodding white and yellow, spotted green leaves,
(shy violets in the fields)
and everywhere, and everywhere, green green green –
the pastels of new leaves, sunshine and chlorophyll,
fresh oxygen, zero to sixty, blizzard to bloom,
and actually and truly, factually and fancifully
it’s everything from 25 a’frostin’ to 65 a’bloomin’ and some days
zippety-doo-dah straight on past to 83 &/or 4 and a’wiltin’
bam-zoom, zip-zip, up-down, back-forth
the only thing there’s been little of?

Rain, rain, come again.

(if only the Rain Man were scheduled to pitch here)

Cacophony. Sleepless nights.
chirr-up chirr-up
peep peep peep peep
we be the peepers
twee-ee-ee! twee-ee-ee!
(and on and on and on and on)
chirr-up chirr-up
All night long. A thousand voices. Sunset to dawn.
(which is barely seven, eight hours long)
and then at noon: silence.
chirr-up chirr-up
and a’rattle of cranes

Turkey by the river waits for quiet moment.
Like an underwater scream? surfacing, breaking.
Josie – red lights flashing – HIGH ALERT –
bounce-bounce-leap-leap cross the yard to the head of the trail
Stop. Straight-legged and fierce throwing back his head

Am I in church? Every once in a while I break into song,
join the throng.

Spring is bustin’ out all over …

But one tick and one tick only: May 5
One turtle and one turtle only: May 4
But turtle tracks like country lanes
through the sand
along the river
reminds me of a platypus swimming
circling now back to third grade
and i don’t know why and i don’t know
what it is about a platypus swimming


the noisiest bird of all
the singingest bird of all
ruddy red breast a’puffin’ operatic


i sit on a step in summery heat
a’dreamin’ away and HUMMIE!
darts out from a favorite tree (barely a’leaf)
a’hummin’ and a’hoverin’, pointing, staring,
undeniably indicating
the exact spot where year after year
his feeder hangs and HELLO it is NOT THERE –
I leap from my reverie –
dash inside (josie a’heel) –
sugar! feeder! hot water!
within minutes the feeder hangs
and Sir Hummie is a’sippin’, a’sittin’, a’lookin’ ’round,
ah, I have returned.
May 18: Hummie arrives.
True traveler.
With whom did he spend his winter?

and apostrophes they be bustin’ out all over …
save us

Gauzy parties of caterpillars.
Dandelions and the first whiff of freshly mowed grass.
Wild turkeys trooping by, skirting the yard,
and serviceberries a’bloomin’, even the one in the garden
that I have been seeing
just in my mind
a handful of years.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

statues at the prairie’s edge: presidents, Mother Bickerdyke, a poet, and feathers that flow from fingertips

The nice thing about downtown Rapid City, South Dakota (pop. 74,509), is that there is a potential dog walker on every corner.

“What’s that you say, Bill? Ready to go?”

Of course, them beings being statues, you’re not likely to get very far.

“Not now, Josie. I’m busy striking a Ponderous Pose prior to Signing with Feather Pen
this Highly Important & Indubitably Historic Document.”

I checked into a motel and the clerk gave me a map to the city’s presidents, that is, statues, that is, presidents. She told me that people love taking pictures of them wrapped in scarves and such.

“Here we go! Yes? No? Maybe? O! Patience be a virtue.”

All Josie had was a leash. And a yen. Not enough to get these fellows moving.

I like these statues. I like that they are not on pedestals but on street level in every day poses looking passers-by in the eye. Plus, they got Josie off my hands for a minute so I could take pictures of Josie.

But what is it with South Dakota and all these unavoidable presidents? Not a one was born here, but, of course, there is Mount Rushmore, kind of a presidential calling card, I suppose, a theme to build on. I got to thinking about statues. What are they? Monuments to ourselves? Concrete (granite, bronze) reinforcements of who we are? Of who we think we are? Bold statements, immovable statements, representations of … ? What, exactly.

Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related. On a Rapid City street corner.

From Rapid City I went on to Galesburg, Illinois (pop. 30,960), the part of the trip known as the Graveyard Tour as my recent ancestors (1800s on), for the most part, at least the non-Jewish ones, are resting in a few small towns scattered across eastern Iowa and western Illinois, and, having done most of that tour and now in Galesburg, tired, the last day of the trip before the long haul home (Pelkie, Michigan, unincorporated, pop. 0), I wondered what, if anything, I had the energy to do. I flopped on the bed in yet another motel and flipped through a Galesburg tourism magazine. Aha. Statues. Abraham Lincoln, Mother Bickerdyke, Carl Sandburg.

The Bickerdyke Memorial was, of course, on that list of Galesburg places to visit that in my weariness I had tossed aside. Mary Ann (Mother) Bickerdyke was a Civil War hero of whom I had first learned of a year ago when my sisters and brother-in-law and I gathered in Galesburg to bury my parents’ ashes in the nearby town of Keithsburg. Then the weather had been cold, wet, windy, but, my gosh, today it was warm, sunny, calm. Josie and I went out to gawk at statues.

First stop: Lincoln. He holds court at the train station. A nice statue, kind of like a tall drink, a cool one on a hot summer’s day, appreciated, up on a pedestal with a plaque that tells of Lincoln’s connections to Galesburg, most notably the Lincoln-Douglas debate that was held at Knox College in 1858.

A few blocks away, the Bickerdyke Memorial, on the grounds of the Knox County Courthouse. Mother Bickerdyke, on a pedestal, is on one knee cradling a fallen Union soldier who appears, really, to be just a farm boy. Mother Bickerdyke holds a canteen or somesuch to his lips. In the summer of 1861, when the Civil War was just beginning to pop, residents of Galesburg gathered supplies to send to Union troops in Cairo, Illinois. They chose Bickerdyke, a widow with two young sons, to deliver the supplies. She practiced what they then called botanical medicine, and, apparently, she was well-thought of by her neighbors. After securing care for her sons, Bickerdyke delivered the supplies as if on a mission from God. It was months before she returned home. At the field hospital in Cairo, she saw a need, and proper sanitation and diet, as well as allowing female nurses in the hospitals, were some of the new-fangled ideas for which Bickerdyke fought for the next four years. She broke rules and stood her ground against any who riled her or got in her way, all in the name of helping the Union, her boys in blue. By the end of the war, she had established three hundred field hospitals and toiled and tended to the wounded through nineteen battles. After the war, among other things, she worked with homeless people in New York City and in California worked to get veterans their pensions. She died in 1901, is buried in Galesburg. The memorial to her was established in 1904.

Nearby, Carl Sandburg on a pedestal in a traffic circle, which seemed strange and potentially dangerous, but, turns out, it was easy to park and to cross the street, and well worth it. Any statue of a poet with books, a goat, and a guitar has my vote. Especially if situated in a pleasant park on a fine spring morning.

Then I noticed the quotations. They are embedded in the garden that rings the statue.

What a beautiful partner this morning had become. Magnolias about to bloom.

The next day, a thought. What if I just kept going? Next stop: Paducah, Kentucky (pop. 25,145). The National Quilt Museum. And to whom (or what) has Paducah erected statues? Maybe then on to Montgomery, Alabama, (pop. 200,022). I’d been hearing on the radio about the opening of the lynching memorial. I looked at Josie. He looked at me. I told him what I was thinking; I could tell he was in the groove. We were all packed up, ready to go, getting back in the car. Did you get my blanket? Did you get my food? Yippee. Where to next? Home? Paducah? … ? I realized that despite the pull I’d been feeling for home, I also was feeling the pull of the road—

I thought of Prairie Edge, a store and gallery on a street corner in Rapid City. The statue out front was of a Native American woman and child. I had been taken with it and the store, which is huge with various rooms opening one to another, flowing, some rooms feeling designed for souvenir shopping, others more of a gallery, art, furniture, and one room for books, and then, in a nook on an upper floor, the Italian glass bead library with a display of beads euphoric and by the time I happened upon it I was already in a bubble of wonder that had taken hold down in the gallery with its painted horses racing across buffalo hides, its beaded skulls, beaded bags, bone, fur, feathers, pouches, things I’d never seen, imagined, and colorful hand rattles with feathers sprouting from fingertips—in that space among those things an emotion grabbed me that I could not name and on the second floor, ledger paintings.

An hour or two from home, Josie and I stopped by a wayside to slush about in remnants of winter and to breathe deep the scent of pine. It came to me that it’s all movement anyway, and every day asking what have we here? and isn’t it true, that we’re all just passing through?

This is the third and final post in a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. The trip encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen.

After posting, I saw this article in the Rapid City Journal: Obama statue to be unveiled this fall … It talks about the statues and includes an interview with the current sculptor who is also working on statues of South Dakota governors.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

katherine stubergh, wax artist extraordinaire, and that presidential wax museum in keystone, south dakota

stubergh wax figure
Every time I rounded the bend, there he was, staring at me, his eyes boring a hole right through me. Each time I stopped short, felt taken aback, felt caught out in something. Is he looking at me? Is he still looking at me? If I move … Wait, is he about to call the cops? And then his eyes did not move, would not follow me, and I felt relief. Howard Taft, our nation’s twenty-seventh President and tenth Chief Justice, turned out to be, after all, just another wax figure at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

It was a beautiful day in Keystone, South Dakota (pop. 340), and I was excited to be at the wax museum co-founded by Katherine Stubergh and stocked with many of her waxworks, including the arresting Mr. Taft. One tours the museum in a circular pattern that starts and ends in the gift shop, but rather than exiting to browse the souvenirs, I found myself backtracking time and again—I did not want to leave the quiet marvel of the displays. Teddy Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth President, was a favorite. I wanted to sit down, ask him, hey, what’s that you’re reading?

stubergh wax figure

Lady Bird Johnson was a favorite. She stood behind and slightly off to the side of her husband as he was sworn in as our thirty-sixth President aboard Air Force One that fateful late November. I wondered what her private thoughts might have been.

stubergh wax figure

I also favored Dolley Madison, wife of our fourth President. She was part of a large party scene. That’s her husband in the foreground.

stubergh wax figure

But it wasn’t until I happened upon Ronald Reagan, our fortieth President, chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev, that I realized what a truly exceptional wax artist Katherine Stubergh was. Henry Alvarez, a man who was taught by Stubergh and who became a renowned wax sculptor in his own right, was the creator of Reagan and all subsequent presidents in the museum up until the current one, the forty-fifth, who was created by a chap in England. In these more recent figures I felt a lack, specifically, a lack of softness. Softness was a word I had read or heard somewhere in relation to Stubergh’s waxworks and it came back to me like a bullet. Once past Stubergh’s figures, I realized that to me they had seemed more real, more appealing, and indeed to have had a quality well described as softness.

Stubergh was born in 1911 in San Francisco. Her parents were mannequin makers—she came from a long line of mannequin makers—and one story has it that in 1925 the Stubergh Manufacturing Company was hired by Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, to create wax figures for a new theater in Los Angeles, and thus the Stuberghs came to Hollywood. Katherine, by all accounts a girl with dreams of a career in dance, learned the family art and continued the business until she sold it, in 1970, to Ripley’s International Limited. During those years in Hollywood, Katherine and others in the Stubergh studio made wax figures, as well as figures of other materials, for movies, museums, and individuals. One of the more colorful accounts of who Stubergh was appears in an odd but interesting blog called “Waxipedia.” The piece is a recollection by wax sculptor David Cellitti, who got his start working with Stubergh. He begins:
She was the Madame Tussaud of America. Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood during the 1920’(s), 30’s and 40’s sat for her. When Albert Einstein sat for her she didn’t speak any German and he didn’t speak any English. Yet she said they got along and were able to communicate fine. She took a life mask from Amelia Earhart shortly before the aviator disappeared from the world. W.C. Fields and John Barrymore would show up drunk to the studio situated on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood because Barrymore thought what she did was so fascinating. Bela Lugosi, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Ginger Rogers were but a few of the actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era that sat for her.
buster keaton life mask
Life mask of Buster Keaton by Katherine Stubergh.
On display at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

I also learned about Stubergh at the museum, which has a couple of display cases devoted to her career and an introductory video that speaks of her. She and her husband and two others started the museum in 1971. According to the museum, it was Stubergh’s dream to start a wax museum devoted to the presidents. She had been involved in starting other wax museums, as well as creating figures for them, and in the article pictured below, which is on display behind glass in Keystone, we learn that “Miss Stubergh’s current ambition is to model the wives of the presidents of the United States for the famous Smithsonian Institute.” Perhaps she just wanted to put some heads on those gowns.

women in wax

One gets the feeling that Stubergh was a woman with a few different ideas and ambitions. (By the way, that’s Stubergh just below “Women in Wax.” Her mother, who also worked in the studio, is probably the woman to our left, holding the baby, who, no doubt, is made of rubber, a stand-in created for some movie. Cellitti wrote that Stubergh had a sardonic sense of humor, and he tells a somewhat funny story about Katherine’s reaction to Mother Stubergh’s passing.) Stubergh and her partners sold the Keystone museum, which has gone by a couple of different names, in the 1980s, and she and her husband moved to Honolulu. In 1996, she died.

One of the more notable Hollywood commissions Stubergh took on was for the wax figures used in the 1953 movie “House of Wax.” Apparently she received no credit for the work when the movie was initially released, but when it came out on Blu-ray in 2013, she got her accolade.

For “Shall We Dance,” a 1937 movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Stubergh created forty-four masks of Ginger Rogers. They were key to the movie’s grand finale, and if you want to know the significance of the masks, I mean, really and truly understand the masks and their meaning, try reading Wendy Doniger’s “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation.” On its cover are five (or is it six?) of the masks Stubergh created.

Eventually, of course, I had to leave our waxen presidents, enter the gift shop, look for a souvenir to take home. But there was none. Believe it or not, no little wax presidents for sale, no souvenir booklet, no book about waxworks or about Katherine Stubergh, no postcards depicting either the denizens of the museum or Stubergh at work; and wouldn’t this photo of Stubergh and John Barrymore make a nice postcard –

john barrymore

and when I asked the clerk about it—a nice, attentive woman she was—she seemed slightly surprised by what I was looking for. Certainly one could be happy with a bobblehead president …

There is no page for Katherine Stubergh on Wikipedia. She is not mentioned at all in the far-ranging tome “Madame Tussaud and The History of Waxworks.” And when in 1963 Stubergh appeared on the game show “What’s My Line” she stumped the panelists. They had no idea who she was and could not guess what she did. Even after they were told her occupation, they seemed slightly confused.

Although some links are in the body of the post, more are below. If you would like to see more photos of Stubergh’s or Alvarez’ work, I suggest perusing the Hollywood auction catalog. Also, the souvenir booklet for Walter’s International Wax Museum at the New York World’s Fair is superb. The Last Supper, one of Stubergh’s crowning achievements in wax, is pictured there. Stubergh was in New York working on figures for this exhibit when she appeared on “What’s My Line.”

National Presidential Wax Museum
The Museum’s YouTube channel
Waxipedia post on Stubergh
The Wax Figures of Grauman’s Chinese
Works of lifelike art with a horrific ‘House of Wax’
This is the USA Today article that includes the video clip above.
John Barrymore models for sculptress
The Los Angeles Public Library, source of the Stubergh and Barrymore photo. The date is given as September 30, 1941, and the caption as: John Barrymore poses for Katherine Stubergh, the famous Hollywood sculptress for a portrait bust of the actor. It is one of [a] group likeness of the members of the Royal family of theatre. Miss Stubergh will next do Ethel and Lionel on completion of the bust of John. These busts will then be presented to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Which are wax people?
Another photo (with caption) from the files of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Catalog, Hollywood Auction 65
This should open to pages 264-265, which shows lots 749-755. Flip back to Page 259 for info on the items pictured in this section as lots 731-830 are from the estate of Henry Alvarez. The auction was held in October, 2014. Here are the prices the items fetched.
Short Stubergh bio on
What’s My Line? (Dec 15, 1963)
Souvenir booklet, Walter’s International Wax Museum New York World’s Fair 1964-65
At the bottom of this page are links to press releases issued by the Walter’s museum.
This is the second post in a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. The trip encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen, most of it free and much of it—surprisingly—in the form of statues. Next week, what we found on the street corners of Rapid City.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

the world has only one corn palace, and it’s in mitchell, south dakota

corn palace
A farmer in his fields, made of corn, in downtown Mitchell, South Dakota.

If you’re ever driving Interstate 90, going east or west, it matters not, get off in Mitchell, South Dakota (pop. 15,254), and wind through town to the Corn Palace. If you are at all like me, you will love it.

mitchell south dakota
The World’s Only Corn Palace.

Even though I had perused pretty thoroughly the website for the World’s Only Corn Palace and knew to expect large murals made with ears of corn nailed to the outside of a building, I had little idea, really, what murals made of corn might look like.

mitchell south dakota
South side corn murals.

I knew that by showing up on a Sunday, I would not be able to go inside the Corn Palace, which is an arena where some lucky folks get to play basketball, attend graduation ceremonies, dance at the prom, stuff like that. Others can simply visit during normal business hours (which are everyday during the right season but just Monday through Saturday otherwise) and mosey around looking at exhibits and displays, gaining insight into the work that goes into making these murals of corn, a new set, a new theme, every year since 1892. Except for that drought year, 2007. No new corn, no new murals. But otherwise … imagine. 1892.

mitchell south dakota
A corn mural.

But a blizzard had delayed the start of our trip by two days, so it was early on a Sunday morning fresh with spring air and a bright sun that Josie and I wandered around outside the Corn Palace. We had the streets and sidewalks and corn murals pretty much all to ourselves. We got lucky with the Corn Palace’s 2017 theme of South Dakota Weather. I love weather, and I loved the corny snowman, the summer flowers, the spring tornado; honestly, I loved it all.

mitchell south dakota
Summer flowers made of corn and native grasses.

A few birds were there loving it too, pecking at the seed and the corn, mostly pigeons, but maybe not as many birds as you’d think, and I wonder why not. Maybe if I had gotten inside (so if not for the blizzard, which hit South Dakota, closing I-90, before slamming the Upper Peninsula), I would have learned about that. How these corn murals survive the birds and the squirrels and the blizzards and hot sun.

mitchell south dakota
A tornado of corn.

Also, who started this? I mean, back in 1892, who said hey, let’s make a mural with this here corn. Two guys who wanted to start a corn palace to promote South Dakota corn and everyone just went along with it, thought it was just kooky enough to work or maybe genius? And how has it kept going, year after year, through all kinds of weather and economic times and this president, that president, this war, that war, technology, and still, hey, let’s make some murals with this here corn! Not to mention the native grasses. I think I’ll have to find me a book with some history.

mitchell south dakota
Tornado close-up.

According to the Corn Palace website, the murals start coming down “in late May with the removal of the rye and dock. The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.” None of this happens without a big festival in August.

mitchell south dakota
Corny snowman.

I wonder what this year’s theme will be.

mitchell south dakota
The winter corn mural, complete with a snowball fight.

Could it possibly be as much fun as the weather?

mitchell south dakota
Throwing a snowball made of corn through a mural of corn.

With this post we begin a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. It encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen, most of it free and much of it—surprisingly—in the form of statues. Next week, on to the National Presidential Wax Museum!