In the mid-19th century, Thomas Maxey, a patient at the New York Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, built Fort Maxey, a strange structure complete with cannons, a garden of tall flowers, and mysterious carvings.

The infamous New York Lunatic Asylum has its share of chilling stories. But one odd, forgotten story is the tale of a mysterious man who took it upon himself to build a bizarre, hobbit-hole like “fort,” which included a bridge, a bizarre stone gateway, and a toll for curious visitors.

Thomas Maxey, the “lunatic” who built the structure single-handedly, believed that the government would one day realize how valuable the fort was and purchase it from him. But in the meantime, he lived in the fort himself, surrounding himself with hollyhocks and broken weapons, donning pretty hats, and regaling his guests with stories about mythology and the ancients.

 

Highlights include:
• An infamous lunatic asylum
• An “insane” man who seems smarter than most sane people
• People being committed to the asylum for no reason
• Nellie Bly’s gutsy investigative reporting
• Some follow-up on the Luxor, and magical triangles

 

“At the farthest extremity of the Island the ground on which [Fort Maxey] stands has been rescued from the grasp of Neptune by the . . . endeavors only of its proprietor, whose name is given to the structure—Thomas Maxey, Esq., architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist.”
-from an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1866

 

Pictures of Fort Maxey

Fort Maxey Blackwell's Island

Within Fort Maxey-Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 126 December 1865 to May 1866

Fort Maxey Blackwell's Island

Grand Entrance to Fort Maxey, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. March 24, 1866

Fort Maxey Blackwell's Island

Gateway To Fort Maxey, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 126 December 1865 to May 1866

Fort Maxey

Unwanted Visitors-Fort Maxey. Frank Leslie’s llustrated_Newspaper. March 24, 1866

Episode Script for A Victorian Lunatic’s Fort: Fort Maxey, Blackwell’s Island, NYC

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“At the farthest extremity of the Island the ground on which [Fort Maxey] stands has been rescued from the grasp of Neptune by the . . . endeavors only of its proprietor, whose name is given to the structure—Thomas Maxey, Esq., architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist.”

-from an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1866

 

First, some follow up RE: the Luxor and pyramid shapes. I talked last week about how I didn’t understand why people might consider a pyramid cursed or powerful aside from sort of sensationalist ideas about Ancient Egypt and the “mummy’s curse,” etc.

  • But I was reading a book called Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board by J. Edward Cornelius, which I’ve mentioned before. I’d read bits and pieces of it but I’m actually reading it in order now. It has a lot to say about ceremonial magic and that kind of more structured occultism (which contrasts with the extremely loosy goosey, heresay type urban legends that I was looking at RE: the Luxor)
  • There’s a really interesting passage in the book about the planchette, which is the heart-or-triangle shaped pointer that moves around the Ouija board, and it talks about why triangle shapes are meaningful. I wanted to read a bit of that, because I think it could speak a bit to why a pyramid shape might have some occult resonance.
    • “The triangle is one side of a pyramid whose shape was used by the ancients as a tomb. The structure of a pyramid, with its apex pointing upward, projects the spirit of the deceased into the nether world. . . .  The triangle as an image has an almost archetypal effect on our mind and especially on invisible entities like the elementáis, which abound in the lower astral plane. Magicians have known for centuries that the magickal image of a triangle acts as a “between state” which is neither an entity’s world or ours. In some respect it is a doorway that swings both ways. You’ll find images of a triangle in the pages of almost every ancient magickal grimoire. It is within a triangle that a magician will summon a disincarnated entity in order to communicate, bind them and control them at the same time.”
  • The book then goes on to talk about details of summoning spirits and the use of a magical triangle. It then continues:
    • “Use of the magical triangle for summoning entities has been around for centuries. The danger is not in the simplicity of the symbol itself, but rather in its misuse in effecting a gateway into the invisible world without the knowledge and ability to control that which is being summoned.”
  • And then there was an interesting bit about a black mirror, which stood out to me, because the Luxor is, in effect, a black mirror in the shape of a pyramid:
    • “In some of the old grimoires the triangle is pictured as being laid out on a table with either a black mirror or a crystal ball on a stand in the very center.”
  • So I’m not sure that the urban legend websites that talk about the Luxor’s shape had this specific occult information in mind, but I wonder if it may be a case of accidentally stumbling across some kind of truth.

 

  • This week, I want to look at a strange, almost entirely forgotten structure that supposedly stood at the northernmost point of Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island. And I also want to talk about the patient who built this odd fort.
  • First, some background on the location and the Lunatic asylum where this supposedly insane architect lived:
    • The island is in the middle of the East River in NYC, between Manhattan and Queens, and if you want to know more about the island in general, check out the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episodes that we did. And if you want to read even more, there’s an excellent book about the island called Damnation Island by Stacy Horn. That book is a big source of background info for this episode, but like many things written about the island, it contains no mention of the patient and story we’ll be looking at today.
  • On the island, there were a number of grim institutions: hospitals, a prison, a workhouse, and a lunatic asylum. Today, only the octaganal atrium of the lunatic asylum still stands, though nowaways it’s the entryway into a fancy apartment building.
  • In its time, though, the Lunatic Asylum was famous for being a truly awful place to be.
    • The Asylum is most famous because the famous reporter Nellie Bly did an investigative report about it. This is a story that most Americans learn in school, but basically she pretended to be insane so she could see what conditions were really like in the Lunatic Asylum.
    • In her book about the experience, Ten Days in a Mad-House, she said that once she got herself committed, she stopped pretending to be insane and instead acted completely normal.
    • But the more normally she behaved, the more insane people thought she was.
    • After leaving, she said that she believed that perfectly sane women were locked up in the asylum.
      • And this is backed up by other sources. For example, in the 1870s, a doctor testified that they’d found at least 60 patients with no commitment papers or admission documents
    • She said that it would be better to be condemned as a criminal than thrown in the asylum. To read from her book:
      • Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape?
    • And the conditions she described were truly horrific. I’ll link to the full text of her book in the shownotes if anyone is curious and wants to read it.
  • The Asylum was the first in NYC, and it opened in 1839, and the idea was for it to house the city’s “lunatic poor,” who previously had often been put into prisons. Many of the patients were immigrants, particularly from Ireland and Germany.
  • It was located on the northern end of the Island–there was a main building in addition to other, smaller buildings.
    • There was a building called “The Lodge” for very violent and disturbed cases
    • A structure called “The Retreat” was for chronic cases, especially people who were suicidal and deemed too noisy for the main asylum, but not violent like those sent to the lodge
    • When things got dire, small pavilions would be added along the northern shore of the Island–they were basically just wooden shacks. They were meant to hold 50 “quieter” patients, but often housed 75-90, or more, patients
  • In addition to the octagonal tower, the wings of the hospital were crenellated, so it looked very castle-like.
  • The asylum, like many other buildings on the island, was built from stone quarried on the island, a grim gray stone called Fordham gneiss
  • When they first started drawing up the plans for the asylum, the idea was that no more than 200 patients would live there at once.
    • On the first day the hospital opened, June 10, 1839, 197 people were transferred from Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan to the Lunatic Asylum. So they were at capacity on day 1.
    • In 1840, the asylum housed 278 patients
    • by 1870, it housed 1,300 people, even though there hadn’t been any major expansion or infrastructure improvements
    • It turns out they had seriously underestimated how many people needed mental health care
      • In Damnation Island, Stacy Horn points out that in 1858, people believed that .002% of people needed mental health care
      • But today, 28% of the population has some kind of anxiety disorder, which back in the 19th century, could get you committed
    • Another problem was that the commissioners of the asylum were political appointees, and weren’t experts, so the people actually doing the work on the island had to go to them and beg for anything they needed
    • Also, convicts from the prison were often put to work at the asylum, which saved money but caused rampant abuse
    • They spent 18 cents per day on each patient ($4.88 in today’s money), so of course patients weren’t well fed or cared for in any way
    • Things were really, really bad. Sanitary conditions were awful, people died from all sorts of disease. When Dickens toured the island in 1842, I believe, he had this to say about the asylum, which he wrote in his book American Notes for General Circulation (the full text of which is linked in the shownotes):
      • “The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase.  The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.
      • I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity.  . . . everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful.  The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.  In the dining-room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone.  She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide.  If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence.
      • The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint. “
  • I don’t really want to go further into how bad conditions were in the asylum, just because I find it really disturbing and upsetting.
  • But suffice to say, things were bad, and there was very little for the patients to do. It was even hard to come by reading material. Maybe once a week, there might be some kind of small entertainment planned, like occasional lectures by doctors or concerts.
  • And there were a few really special occasions:
    • A big event was the widely-publicized Lunatic’s Ball, where they’d set up a pavilion for dancing and patients, attendants,  and doctors would all dance. That was a popular event for the newspapers.
    • A couple times a year, the patients might get to see the magic lantern, which is basically a slide projector. Sometimes patients would get to sit in a dark room and see pictures of Arctic explorations, or fantastical things like dancing goblins and ghosts
  • So, despite all of this grimness, there was of course a public fascination with the asylum and its odd inmates, so a number of sensational articles profiled the patients. But there’s one patient whose story is so interesting, and so elliptical, that I’ve found myself really fascinated.
  • That man is Thomas Maxey, an allegedly insane patient who built a strange stone fort with an arched entry gate and a beautiful garden, constructed on land that he’d reclaimed from the east river through his own engineering skill.
    • When I first heard of Fort Maxey, I had a lot of questions–not just about what it was, what it looked like, why it was built, and what happened to it, but also about why on earth a supposed lunatic was given free reign to do a major construction project all on his own.
    • I’ve had a lot of trouble finding the answers to that last question, but my guess is that Thomas Maxey may have been housed in one of the pavilions on the north edge of the island. They were hastily constructed buildings, and I could imagine him wandering out and deciding he wanted to build a fort to live in, and it sounds like once the administrators of the hospital and island saw that he was doing something useful–namely, literally expanding the island through his engineering, they let him keep doing it.
  • There’s a great article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1866, that’s written by a former patient of the Lunatic Asylum.
  • The article is pretty positive, which I think means it should be taken with a grain of salt.
  • But I want to read a bit from that article. This passage is pretty long, but I think it really helps paint a picture of what the island was like, and also it gives some hints to why and how a asylum patient would be given enough free reign to literally build a fort.
    • The Asylum grounds contain some fifteen or twenty acres (the island containing one hundred), and produce . . . the vegetables . . . used by the Institution. . . The tilling of the land, like most of the work about the Asylum, is done by patients under the guidance of a paid official. A  considerable portion of the grounds is devoted to yards for the benefit of the insane, and an extensive garden blooms with many colored flowers. Rarities are not infrequent.
    • An ornamental summer-house adds to the charm of the spectacle, while grand old willows, horse chestnuts, and button-woods, with other trees, make the scene immediately contiguous to the main Asylum exceedingly picturesque by their diversified and luxuriant foliage. The carriage road to the principal entrance runs through a densely-shaded avenue, and a fine vista presents itself—at the end of which the blue water gleaming in the sun, dotted here and there with a white sail, delights the eye. The aspect of nature can not be too highly estimated in its effects upon the better class of patients ; it is the most prominent alleviation of the sufferings they feel in being separated from friends, and for no sin confined in durance vile. It affords them that on which they can build many a pleasant thought, and helps them to relieve their minds of the fancies which oppress them.
  • So that also helps answer the question of why a patient would be allowed to build a weird fort.
  • Though I do want to offer this passage from Nellie Bly’s book as a counterpoint, because it’s clear that not all patients were given such freedom:
    • I looked at the pretty lawn, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass—it is only to look at. I saw some patients eagerly and caressingly lift a nut or a colored leaf that had fallen on the path. But they were not allowed to keep them. The nurses would always compel them to throw their little bit of God’s comfort away.
  • So I’m not sure what made medical professionals deprive some inmates of a leaf while allowing others to manage construction projects.
  • The article has a great description of the fort:
    • The fort is a circular mound of earth, on which stands a wall some four feet high, built of blocks of clay and grass dug from the marsh behind it. Through the wall project the mouths of several large wooden cannon, which, when presented to him by the Commissioners during the past war, Thomas accepted with many thanks, declaring they would be a great protection to the Island and city in frightening off rebel privateers. He has erected a house of novel appearance within this parapet containing two sleeping apartments, a kitchen, and sitting-room, together comjjrising a space less than twelve feet by eight. His garden shows a taste for the sublime, none but the tallest flowers being therein rdmitted. The hollyhock and sunflowers sadly interfere with a view of his interesting domicile. He is now building a stone magazine back of this to contain his ammunition, which exists in vast quantities—in his imagination. The whole structure, together with the long embanked road leading to it, is the work of his own hands, and has occupied more than three years of what he deems his valuable time. Nor is the work without value to the Commissioners, for in the process of construction he has, in order to render it accessible, dug several ditches through the marsh, and thus drained and rendered useful a great part of it. The extent of his labors and of the work may be understood when it is said that at least sixteen square rods have been raised from eight to ten feet, and that a great part of the material was carried a considerable distance.
  • He has also ornamented the causeway leading to the fort by a stone gate, the erection of which would seem to mark an era in architecture, as it is not built according to the rules of any ancient or modern school.
  • I think it’s so fascinating that he basically invented his own architecture style–I’ll include pictures of the house and gate in the shownotes at buriedsecretspodcast.com if you want to take a look.
  • But apparently the gate was covered in ornate carvings and had two openings near the top, which Maxey said was to accommodate wild geese who might want to make their nests there.
  • Having spent a bunch of time on Roosevelt Island, especially since coronavirus started, I can confirm that there are tons and tons of wild geese there, who nest all over the island in the spring.
  • After the gate, there’s a bridge that leads up to the fort.
  • When they reach the fort, the journalist says that they’re greeted by an excited man wearing a woman’s bonnet.
  • Then they go inside the fort, which is tiny and can only hold 3 people at a time. The interior is crowded with wood carvings and a large stone oven. It’s furnished with discarded items from the asylum.
  • There’s a great description of this strange structure, or fort, in an article in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The story’s called “A Singular Lunatic,” and it was published March 24, 1866:
    • “Travellers on the East River and Sound steamboats, as the enter Hurl Gate on their passage from the metropolis, invariably have their attention drawn to a strange structure on the extremity of Blackwell’s Island. A fort there stands, such as the pupils of a military school might be imagined to have erected for amusement. Toy-like as it seems, it is rendered imposing by the mouths of several terrrific-looking cannon which project from its sides. A nearer approach, and alarm departs; they are discovered to be merely wooden dummies; while an oddly-built shanty, submerged in foliage, attracted the gaze, and assures one of the peaceful nature of the proprietor.”
  • The article then compares it to something from Robinson Crusoe, describing drawbridges, a moat, and a “ponderous mass of masonry supporting the back of the cottage”
  • Apparently the structure had detailed and extensive engravings that the inhabitant, Thomas Maxey, did himself.
    • “Unaided he has drained the marsh, dug turf for the embankment of his fort and the long avenue leading to it. Alone he has conveyed large blocks of stone to the interior of his edifice, and built of them a magazine or cellar. The masonry of the grand entrance is, as well as its design, solely of Tom’s construction; so, too, are the queer architectural adornments in wood-work with which the establishment is filled.”
  • Apparently Maxey had been working on his project continuously for three years, and hadn’t stopped yet.
  • Beside his fort, to the left, there was a fisherman’s hunt with an oven, where it sounds like someone lived. Apparently Maxey thought of the fisherman as his tenant.
  • Maxey claimed that the goal of his project was to make a fortune. He believed that the city government would eventually acknowledge his accomplishment and purchase the fort at a large sum for the city’s protection.
  • He mentioned that plan to everyone who visited him. And since he saw his property as so valuable, he charged visitors, who often paid in ten-cent stamps, and sometimes in dollars. The journalist guessed that Maxey probably had $30 cash.
  • The journalist avoided paying the entry fee by saying that he was a civil engineer sent from Washington to inspect and report on the fort.
  • But  most people who refused to pay were met with attack: Maxey would throw dirt and rocks at them, trapping them in the marsh and forcing asylum employees to rescue them.
  • Occasionally, small boats would drop by the fort in the summer, curious to see what it is. For those trespassers, Maxey claimed there was a $50 fine.
  • Articles about Maxey tend to have long passages of conversation with him which seem calculated to goad Maxey into giving an interesting answer.
    • So from this article, the reporter asks Maxey, “The work goes bravely on, eh?”
    • And Maxey replies very earnestly:
      • Yes, I’m finishing this addition to the house. Strong stone-work, you see. If I’m attacked, you know, I can retreat into my wooden house there; and if then the enemy follow, I can retire into this fortification and keep them all at bay. They’d have to come one by one, and I’d shoot each one as he appeared.
    • The reporter then asks him about his rifle, which Maxey claims just needs a bit of a cleaning, but which the reporter describes as “a rusty fire-lock of antediluvian date, of which the trigger is gone, and the stock is splintered.”
    • Then he starts arguing with Maxey about how his gun is worthless, etc. It sounds like it was an old Revolutionary war gun that someone gave to him.
  • And the reporter then compares him to Don Quixote and Rip Van Winkle, and says he’s like a child making a fake fort. I think the writer is very cruel and condescending in his description of Maxey, who sound like he legitimately is intelligent, since he built a seawall to reclaim land plus a fort with a cool archway and a beautiful garden. Maybe he’s weird, but someone who isn’t smart couldn’t design and construct a fort and arch and engineer a way to reclaim marshy land.
  • I guess Maxey talked a lot, and it sounds like some of his favorite topics were science, mythology, and history.
  • The reporter, seeking to prove that Maxey was a lunatic, asked him some questions that made literally no sense to me. Then when he gets nonsensical, confused answers, he uses that as a way to underscore Maxey’s apparently lunacy.
    • The Harper’s article I was reading from earlier has a moment where that reporter also starts asking Maxey weird questions, like “Can a Chimera, ruminating in vacuum, disseminate second intentions?” Which of course Maxey responds to strangely.
  • I don’t feel like I have enough information to say how sane or insane Thomas Maxey was, but he kind of just sounds like an eccentric inventor to me, more than anything else.
    • The author of the Harper’s article, who’d been a patient himself, closed the article with this really disturbing sentiment:
      • There are within the walls, it is true, a few no more crazy than many outsiders; but they are destitute of friends, and a passage to the world at large would intensify their idiosyncrasies and finally compel their return to the Asylum. Any person able and willing to take them out and try them in their respective professions would be gladly “welcomed by the resident physician. They excite pity which to a certain extent can not be shown them.
  • So, as you can tell, I’m pretty skeptical of the contention that this apparent genius, Thomas Maxey, was a lunatic, based on the data I have. But I find his story fascinating, and almost charming–or at least as charming as any story like this one can be.
    • It at least feels charming compared to the awful, dark history of the rest of Blackwell’s Island. Amid all of the death, and disease, and abuses, it’s refreshing to see engravings of Maxey’s beautiful and strange fort. I stumbled across Fort Maxey six months ago while researching the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episodes and have been fascinated by it ever since.
  • So, what happened to Maxey? I’ve searched findagrave.com, but haven’t been able to find any Thomas Maxeys buried in New York. I also haven’t been able to find anything saying who he was before he was committed, or what he was committed for. That remains a mystery.
  • But what we do know is that the fort was destroyed, and Maxey’s masterpiece was forgotten.
  • And this is where we’ll pick back up next week, where we’ll look at the mysterious lighthouse that now stands on the ground where Fort Maxey once was, and which to this day, casts a weak glow over the waters of the Hell Gate.

Sources consulted RE: Fort Maxey Blackwell’s Island

Books consulted RE: Fort Maxey Blackwell’s Island

Websites RE: Fort Maxey Blackwell’s Island

  • Great pics of the asylum: https://www.theruin.org/blog/2016/10/12/the-new-york-city-lunatic-asylum-a-history
  • https://quiverquotes.com/2017/05/03/to-be-sane-amongst-the-insane/
  • http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Blackwell%27s_Island_Asylum
  • https://rihs.us/2020/03/30/charles-dickens-visit-%E2%80%A2-an-island-in-the-mist-%E2%80%A2-artworks-for-sale/
  • https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/01/03/charles-dickens-visit-to-blackwells-island-asylum-1842/
  • https://www.melinadruga.com/blackwellsislandasylum/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2005/10/roosevelt-island-2005/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Island_Light
  • https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2018/06/25/dancing-at-the-lunatics-ball-on-blackwells-island/
  • http://www.hauntingdarkness.com/2012/01/ghosts-of-roosevelt-island.html
  • “BLACKWELL’S ISLAND LUNATIC ASYLUM.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Feb1866, Vol. 32 Issue 189, preceding p274-294. 22p. 20 Illustrations:
    Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 126 December 1865 to May 1866: https://archive.org/details/harpersnew32various/page/290/mode/2up?q=fort+maxey
  • Article page 184: https://archive.org/details/harpersweekly00bonn/page/184/mode/2up?q=blackwell%27s
  • Article page 91: https://archive.org/details/harpersweeklyv13bonn/page/91/mode/2up?q=blackwell%27s
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/roosevelt-island-lighthouse
  • http://www.correctionhistory.org/rooseveltisland/html/rooseveltislandtour_lighthouse.html
  • https://rihs.us/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2018-August-Blackwells-Almanac.pdf
  • https://www.loc.gov/item/ny0949/
  • https://www.loc.gov/item/ny0953/
  • https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2007/10/mysteries-of-roosevelt-island-madmans.html
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2005/10/roosevelt-island-2005/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Island_Light
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/islands-of-the
  • undesirables-roosevelt-island-blackwell-s-island
  • https://lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=753
  • https://www.gothamcenter.org/blog/an-afternoon-at-blackwells-light
  • Harper’s Weekly Archives: https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=harpersweekly
  • HARPER’S WEEKLY. A JOURNAL OF CIVILIZATION. / Volume IX, Issue 466:
    https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/h/harpersweekly/harpersweekly-idx?coll=harpersweekly;type=HTML;rgn=DIV1;id=;byte=10925913

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A look at the Luxor Hotel ghosts in Las Vegas, as well as some of the tragedies and violence that have happened in the area.

This episode is focused on the haunted aspects of the hotel, including creepy things that have happened there and nearby, theories about why it may be haunted, ideas about what should be done to counteract the Luxor “curse” and more.

Note: This episode contains brief mentions of suicide, domestic violence, mass shooting, bombing, and falling from a great height.

Highlights include:
• A possible burial ground for mob victims
• What supposedly happens to your body if you die in a Vegas hotel
• Mysterious deaths and violence
• Theories about the hotel’s “curse” and how to lift it
• Possible Illuminati connections

 

 

Episode Script for The Haunted Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas: Part 2

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“We think this is going to be the most strikingly dramatic hotel Las Vegas or the whole world has seen,” said William Bennett, chairman of Circus Circus Enterprises Inc. “There’s a lot of things in there that nobody knows about. The inside is going to be a knockout.” -LA Times, July 1993

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-07-13-fi-12815-story.html

  • So I know I’ve talked for a long time about the hotel’s history and shifting identity, but I haven’t talked at all about the strange, tragic, and potentially paranormal elements of the hotel’s history.
  • So let’s get into the more urban legends parts of this story, which means of course that it’s time to talk about some rumored suicides, and it’s also time to put on our most skeptical hats.
    • Because while I love urban legends and stories of hauntings, I find most of them, including these, very suspect
    • Also, like in seemingly all urban legends, there’s plenty of mentions of suicide in this, so if that’s not something you want to hear about, heads up about that.
  • Back when we looked at the Hawthorne Hotel, I talked about how one thing that I found notable about the Hawthorne was that so much stuff had happened there.
    • It wasn’t just one story: it seemed like the hotel, or the site that the hotel was on, had attracted an unusually large number of strange things, and maybe the collective energy of all of that had something to do with hauntings.
    • I feel similarly about the Luxor–there’s no one thing that really makes me feel that it’s definitely haunted, but more like a bunch of different details that seem to weirdly converge at the Luxor.
    • Also, apparently the intersection that Exaclibur and Luxor sit at, where Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard meet, has the most hotel rooms of any intersection in the world. So that’s a lot of lives and souls moving through there, and in a place like Vegas, where people travel to party and often lose huge sums of money, it seems like there could be an awful lot of psychic upset and human pain there.
    • They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and maybe that saying applies to ghosts, too.
    • I know that suicides are extremely common in Vegas, and a lot of desperate people go there to try to win something with their last dollars. They’re so common that there’s even supposedly a policy that if you shoot yourself in your hotel room and cause damage to the room or furniture, your estate will be billed for the damage.
    • I was also reading that apparently every time someone dies in a Vegas hotel room, that room has to be quarantined for 2 weeks, which hotels don’t want to have to do. So many hotels supposedly move bodies to other areas of the hotel before calling the cops, so the don’t have to go through the trouble of closing up the room for 2 weeks. But the good news is that if you die in a Vegas hotel and it’s not a suicide, the standard practice is to comp the room.
    • To read a bit from VitalVegas.com:
      • Some of the most gruesome suicides happen off of hotel balconies and parking garages, but the absolute winner in the area of ghastly suicides has to be the Luxor. Why’s that? Well, because if you jump from a balcony or parking garage, you land outside. At Luxor, because of its pyramid design, jumpers jump inside the building, into the casino and reception area.
  • Supposedly the Luxor was built on the site of a burial ground for mob victims. To read from bestofvegas.com:
    • “Another possible reason for ghost sightings at the Luxor have to do with the much talked about “holes” in Las Vegas. The term “holes on the Strip” refers to the fact that years ago the town was laced with mobsters who supposedly buried bodies all along the south end of the Strip because at the time there were no buildings there. The Luxor is said to have been built on top of a popular burial site.”
  • But it is true that the Luxor was built very quickly and cheapy, and who knows, maybe some corners were cut.
  • The hotel wasn’t totally done being built when it opened, actually. Some of the first guests stayed in rooms that weren’t quite completed. And there were issues with the elevators, or, as they called them “inclinators”
  • Shortly after opening, the owners learned that the hotel was sinking into the sand and had to make adjustments to stop it. Apparently there was a soft spot under a bit of the hotel, which is pretty unusual–I guess the desert floor is usually pretty hard.
  • In 1994, one year after the Luxor opened, William Bennett, who ran Circus Circus enterprises and oversaw the creation of both Exalibur and Luxor, was ousted.
    • Just one note: Circus Circus is said to be haunted, and there are supposedly a number of murders and suicides that happened there. People have said that they’ve heard screams of whispers crying for help, or “Help Me” materializing on bathroom mirrors.
    • Excalibur is also supposedly haunted (there are strange technology issues, like alarm clocks going off when they aren’t supposed too, static coming from TVs that are off, etc. also furniture supposedly has moved on its own, etc.) But there doesn’t seem to be stories about why this would happen.
  • So on a now-defunct page on casino.org that I had to dig up in the wayback machine, as I did for many of my sources here, I found some interesting rumors:
    • Supposedly, 7 construction workers died when the Luxor was originally built, though elsewhere I read that 3 workers died. That, to me, seems not particularly unusual, though, again, what do I know.
      • Here’s my frame of reference, though:
        • 5 people died when building the Empire State Building
        • More than 30,000 people died building the Panama Canal
        • 11 people died during construction for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics
        • World Trade Center construction resulted in 60 worker deaths
        • 5 workers died while building The Sears Tower
        • 6 people died building Las Vegas’ CityCenter project
        • 28 people died while building San Francisco’s Bay Bridge
      • So to me, I’m hearing that construction work is extremely dangerous, and maybe there are legends of all of those places being haunted, but if that’s the case, then most major building projects would be haunted by the ghosts of construction workers
      • But to read from vegasghosts.com:
        •  Perhaps significantly due to the main pyramid’s steeply sloping shapes, the Luxor’s construction is considered to have been extremely difficult and dangerous. The resort’s construction may very well remain the most treacherous construction process in the history of the Strip. The fallen workers have not gone completely forgotten, however. At times, especially in quiet parts of the hotel, the ghosts of the construction workers can be seen. When the Luxor’s Nile Riverboat ride was still operational, some guests claimed to have seen their ghosts roaming the tunnels.
  • I already touched on the Tupac connection–it is strange that he was staying at the Luxor the night he died, out of all the hotels in Vegas.
  • One thing that’s invited speculation about ghosts is the hotel itself. Its Egyptian theme invites speculation and seems mysterious.
    • Maybe it has to do with how it’s a huge black glass pyramid with the brightest beam of light on earth coming out of the top?? It’s a really weird structure, when you think about it.
    • Some folks say that the pyramid’s shape attracts dark energy, and that an eye needs to be placed at the top of the pyramid to counteract the curse.
      • I don’t get that really, since the eye of providence or all-seeing eye has such a strong connection to things like the dollar bill, and to freemasonry, but not to ancient Egypt, to my knowledge. (There is the eye of Horus in ancient Egyptian symbolism, but that didn’t crown the pyramids or anything.)
    • Some people say that the pyramid should have been more accurate–supposedly in ancient Egypt, pyramids were supposed to be flanked by two sphinxes, one on each side, so it’s protected from both directions. But the Luxor has a single pyramid, facing east. (Supposedly the Great Pyramid at Giza used to have a second sphinx, which was destroyed.)
    • The hotel was, at least back when I visited, decorated with detailed reproductions of ancient Egyptian artifacts, and some people have pointed out the discrepancy between the lovingly crafting, authentic reproductions of things like King Tut’s tomb, there was less attention to detail and accuracy elsewhere in the structure.
      • One interesting tidbit is that the replica of King Tut’s tomb was just one of two sets authorized by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities (it’s now housed at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum)
    • One thing that a lot of youtube commenters pointed out was that for the Sphinx, they made the ancient Egyptians look really white, which is really screwed up and can’t have brought anything positive.

 

  • Supposedly two guests have killed themselves by jumping into the atrium, which sort of makes sense to be because like I mentioned, the rooms open out around the atrium, which is 30 stories tall.
    • In 1996, a woman, , who some people claimed was a sex worker, supposedly fell from the 26th floor and died. She landed right where the buffet was then; the food court stands where she fell–some ghost tours have apparently claimed that they tore out the old buffet because of fear of contamination, but my guess is that they prob just wanted to freshen up the place–it’s too gruesome to eat at the buffet where someone died.
      • The Las Vegas Sun called it a suicide. To read from the September 1996 article about the woman’s death:
        • Police have “no idea who she is,” Keeton said. She appeared to be a Hispanic or Asian woman in her 30s. She did not have a purse or identification with her, he said.
        • The coroner’s office is using fingerprints and dental records to attempt to identify her, a spokeswoman said today.
  • They say this may have been a suicide. Some people claim that she’d just gotten an HIV diagnosis so killed herself, though I don’t know how people would know that if they couldn’t identify her–that sounds made up.
  • But this is interesting to me because it’s similar to some of the legends of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, which we looked at a month or two ago. An unidentified woman fell to her death there, too.
  • Another guest supposedly died falling from the 10th floor. It doesn’t sound like it was a voluntary death.
    • He supposedly landed on the express check out counter, which has since been moved
  • In May 2007, a homemade pipe bomb went off in the parking garage of the Luxor. One 24-year-old person died; he’d been a worker at the Nathan’s hot dog stand in the Luxor’s food court.
    • The bomb was underneath an upside-down plastic cup; when the worker picked up the cup, it exploded.
    • It seems that this man was intentionally targeted, though it’s unclear why, and some people said it was a random killing.
    • Two men were arrested for the bombing and put in jail for life with no chance of parole.
    • The hotel wasn’t evacuated and operations didn’t stop at all–it doesn’t seem like the bomb had an impact outside of the garage, and it didn’t damage the building at all.
  • In 2010, a former football player from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas tried to intervene in a physical altercation between another guest, a friend of his who happened to be an MMA fighter, and the fighter’s girlfriend. The MMA fighter was drunk and angry, and grabbed his girlfriend by the neck and hit her.
    • The football player intervened, trying to restrain the MMA fighter, who ended up brutally assaulting and killing him.
    • He never work up again, but later a court claimed that the football player died of an overdose, not from the fight. Which is . . . Weird.
  • According to an archived article from September 2010 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, there’d been a number of structural problems with Vegas resorts, and a decent amount of renovation work that’d been done in Vegas without permits.
    • It sounds like that prompted a number of investigations of different resorts, and a routine inspection may have unearthed something strange at the Luxor:
      • “The Clark County building division in mid-July ordered the Luxor to vacate a section of the pyramid building’s basement level, which holds various offices not open to the public. The order came after Lochsa Engineering did a study for MGM Resorts International, which owns the hotel-casino. MGM hired the firm when county inspectors, in March, found two unfinished support columns in the pyramid’s basement.
      • Lochsa determined the two unfinished columns were not part of the building’s original plans. But MGM completed the columns anyway and is now evaluating how to further strengthen the structure. Lochsa also looked at the “load bearing capacity” of the pyramid’s casino level — which is over the basement.
      • The basement closure is below, but “near the main entrance of the subject property,” according to the county’s July 16 notice of violation. The document says completion of the two “partially cast concrete columns … will not fully resolve the structural repair requirements” for the casino level’s “deficient slab.” . . .
      • To date, the Luxor’s ongoing inspection has generated 1,129 correction notices and notices of violation, according to a search of the county’s website. Items range from the great — such as the casino slab problem — to small points of maintenance”
  • In 2012, a casino employee was murdered by her boyfriend in the hotel’s lobby.
  • Also in 2012, a hotel guest died of Legionnaires disease. This was the third case of te disease, apparently, but wasn’t caught because water tests came back negative, until after the guest died, when they came back positive.
  • And again, in 2012, an airman visiting from a nearby Air Force base fell 25 feet down an elevator shaft. He’d gotten into a fight with a colleague in the lobby of the west tower, and was pushed against the elevator door, which suddenly opened, despite there not being an elevator there. He fell to his death.
  • In 2013, lightning struck the Luxor Hotel and Mandalay Bay, during a storm that made 33,000 people lose power and that saw 740 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in 3 hours.
  • You might remember the shooting that killed 60 people and injured 411 people at the Mandalay Bay Hotel back in 2017, during a concert.
    • That was close enough to the Luxor that during the shooting, authorities couldn’t tell if the shots were coming from the Mandalay Bay or Luxor
    • There are definitely plenty of conspiracy theories about the shooting, seeking to link it to the illuminati, government programs like MKULTRA
    • Let’s read a bit from illuminatiwatcher.com:
      • The Luxor is known as the Egyptian themed casino with the pyramid that has the illuminated apex and obelisk nearby. These symbols are of great usage to the “Illuminati” who subscribe to many of the magickal and esoteric concepts of ancient Egypt and its mystery schools that shared these ideas only to the initiates deemed worthy.
    • So that’s a whole thing that’s adjacent to the Luxor.
  • It’s said that there are 5 different ghosts at the Luxor:
    • A woman supposedly walks through the halls of the 12th, 13th, and 14th floors, breathing down guests necks and pushing them.
    • Some people say that the construction workers who died appear in quiet parts of the hotel
  • I read a number of trip advisor reviews that mention that the hotel feels creepy and haunted, and many have said that it’s very run down and crappy. Many people complained of bad smells and flickering lights.
    • One reviewer said:
      • “And if you believe in spirits/ghosts, the Luxor is rumored to be haunted. be careful looking down over the railing, stories have it that people who have died at the hotel make you feel like jumping when looking over the railing!”
    • Another said:
      • “Here is the best part My fiance screamed for me to come here when I was brushing my teeth. I came out and asked whats wrong? the man was stunned and couldn’t speak. He said a little girl from the across the room asked help me … Wow now we have a ghost in our room, he woke me later to ask if I could hear singing.”
    • There’s a long review from December 2016 where someone describes a series of frightening events, including being woken by a spider crawling down her face and neck, and maybe a hand grabbing her, and then she climbed out of bed and her husband saw a pretty blonde woman in a hat–maybe a beret–standing at their bedside, who then disappeared.
      • Then they went to sleep in the other bed in the room, but during the night, she felt someone wrapping the covers tight around her and leaning against her back, which I found very interesting, because that’s similar to what happened to Jen when we stayed at the Hawthorne Hotel, as we talk about in those episodes.
      • The next day, they went to the concierge, and the woman there was very nice but didn’t seem surprised by the experience. She said they’d move them to a different room, out of the pyramid (where they’d been staying on the 12th floor) and into one of the newer towers. That seemed to help, though the guest said that she experienced electric shocks throughout the hotel, even after their rooms moved.
      • A ghost hunter on trip advisor saw orbs and their friend felt a hand at the bottom of the comforter. They also said the hotel gave them a sense of vertigo, as if the hallways were all at an angle and they were walking at a slant, which makes sense, because of the hotel’s shape.
      • Another reviewer said:
        • “running the risk of sounding insane, I swear my room was haunted. I always felt like there was a shadowy figure just at the edge of my vision and this creeped me out like nothing before. “
  • A blogger, at becksghosthunters.com, said that they experienced someone going through their luggage during the night. Hopefully that was  a ghost.
  • One urban legend theorizes that after a few coincidental deaths started happening at the Luxor, the mob started using it as a place to kill victims, since people believed there was a curse

Sources consulted RE: Luxor Hotel Ghosts

Articles RE: Luxor Hotel Ghosts

  • Wright, Gordon. “Pyramidal shape pushes the envelope.” Building Design & Construction, vol. 35, no. 8, Aug. 1994, p. 36+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15687724/AONE?u=nypl&sid=AONE&xid=710afd9f. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

  • Hartinger, Brent. “Is it real or is it just really cool.” Omni, vol. 17, no. 3, Dec. 1994, p. 35. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15986878/AONE?u=nypl&sid=AONE&xid=5abe0e0d. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

Websites RE: Luxor Hotel Ghosts

  • The Making of Luxor Las Vegas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwB14kIEI2A
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Las_Vegas_casinos_that_never_opened#Xanadu
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxor_Las_Vegas
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excalibur_Hotel_and_Casino
  • https://excalibur.mgmresorts.com/en.html
  • https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7203118/anniversary-tupac-shakur-murder-shot-dead-las-vegas/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupac_Shakur#Death
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettin’_Jiggy_wit_It
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mirage
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_Island_Hotel_and_Casin
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dream_Meadowlands
  • https://gaming.unlv.edu/Xanadu/then.html
  • http://digital.library.unlv.edu/skyline/hotel/xanadu
  • https://viewfinder.expedia.com/most-amazing-hotels-never-built/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xanadu
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kubla_Khan
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Simbel_temples
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candela
  • https://www.lasvegasadvisor.com/question/luxor-implosion/
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20200831185429/https://vitalvegas.com/rumor-mill-demolition-could-be-in-the-cards-for-luxor/
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20161226060524/
  • http://www.reviewjournal.com/business/luxors-floor-under-review
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20200912074529/
  • https://www.casino.org/news/luxor-las-vegas-demolition-rumors-spread-insiders-say-days-numbered/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sands_Hotel_and_Casino
  • http://onlinenevada.org/articles/luxor-hotel
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_G._Bennett_(gaming_executive)
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20190803113506/https://www.casino.org/blog/deaths-in-luxor/
  • https://www.reference.com/history/many-people-died-building-empire-state-building-48bddec3439ab036
  • https://www.forconstructionpros.com/blogs/construction-toolbox/blog/12096401/looking-back-on-the-worlds-deadliest-construction-projects
  • https://www.reviewjournal.com/entertainment/entertainment-columns/kats/vegas-attraction-bodies-adds-covid-exhibit-titanic-back-online-2140592/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodies:_The_Exhibition
  • https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5637687
  • https://www.ktnv.com/positivelylv/now-open-titanic-the-artifact-exhibition-and-bodies-the-exhibition-at-luxor-hotel-and-casino
  • https://luxor.mgmresorts.com/en/entertainment/titanic.html
  • https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/861169/las-vegas-shooting-mandalay-bay-resort-luxor-hotel-bomb-threat
  • https://www.inquisitr.com/4531623/las-vegas-shooting-conspiracy-theories-surface-illuminati-area-51-luxor/
  • https://illuminatiwatcher.com/las-vegas-shooting-stephen-paddock-illuminati-conspiracy-theories/
  • https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/famous-waypoints-aviation-luxor-sky-beam/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Las_Vegas_shooting
  • https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g45963-d111709-Reviews-Luxor_Hotel_Casino-Las_Vegas_Nevada.html
  • http://www.becksghosthunters.com/2019/01/the-luxor-in-las-vegas-is-haunted-what.html
  • https://vegasghosts.com/luxor-dark-pyramid-vegas/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Providence
  • https://www.vegasbright.com/2016/03/29/luxors-questionable-origins-the-crookedness-of-an-era-gone-by/
  • https://www.bestofvegas.com/articles/haunted-hotels-in-las-vegas/
  • https://www.travelchannel.com/destinations/us/nv/las-vegas/articles/luxor-las-vegas
  • https://lasvegassun.com/news/1996/sep/26/woman-commits-suicide-inside-luxor/
  • https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2015/08/high-rollers-and-high-strangeness-the-haunted-casinos-of-las-vegas/
  • http://hauntedhoneymoon.com/hauntedplaces/luxor.html
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3sZKKrfkEo
  • https://www.hauntedrooms.com/nevada/las-vegas/haunted-places/haunted-hotels
  • https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/nevada/articles/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-las-vegas-luxor-hotel/
  • http://www.hauntedpoker.com/true-hauntings/luxor-las-vegas-haunted.html
  • https://www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/las-vegas/haunted-houses-in-las-vegas-nevada-halloween
  • https://vitalvegas.com/rumor-mill-demolition-could-be-in-the-cards-for-luxor/
  • https://vitalvegas.com/insider-secrets-really-really-dont-want-know-las-vegas/
  • http://www.weirdca.com/location.php?location=128
  • https://amyscrypt.com/haunted-places-las-vegas-nevada/
  • https://www.lasvegasadvisor.com/question/luxor-boat-ride/
  • http://www.vegastripping.com/news/blog/4282/luxor-sinks/
  • https://ballenvegas.com/haunted-vegas/
  • https://www.bestuscasinos.org/news/las-vegas-luxor-may-soon-demolished/
  • http://www.city-data.com/forum/las-vegas/1668131-luxor-haunted-2.html
  • https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7203118/anniversary-tupac-shakur-murder-shot-dead-las-vegas/
  • https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/with-prices-down-24200-per-room-nyc-hotels-set-for-more-pain/ar-BB19RI8Z
  • https://www.thepierreny.com/
  • https://luxor.mgmresorts.com/en.html
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3sZKKrfkEo
  • https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/lightning-bolt-strikes-las-vegas-2071605
  • https://www.lasvegasinsideout.com/luxor-hotel-after-opening-in-1993/
  • https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-10-17-tr-46901-story.html
  • http://www.lvstriphistory.com/ie/luxor.htm
  • https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-07-13-fi-12815-story.html

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The Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is one of the most iconic hotels on the strip—and supposedly one of the most haunted.

Back in the 1990s, there were grand plans to make Vegas a new Disney-type destination, full of ornate themed resorts and fun activities for children. The Luxor Hotel and Casino, an Ancient Egyptian themed hotel that’s shaped like a giant obsidian pyramid with a beam of light coming out of the top, was a strange and fascinating example of Vegas’ ’90s family-friendly ambitions. But all that changed in the early 2000s, when Vegas changed tack.

This week is a look at the history of the hotel, from its construction and grand opening to its current de-themed state, plus some initial thoughts on why people might believe the hotel is cursed.

Highlights include:
• A ill-fated pyramid hotel project that was planned for the site next to the Luxor
• Mysterious dead links
• A light that’s visible from space
• Special elevators that go sideways and up to bring people to their rooms
• Ancient alien 3D movies
• Authentic reproductions of Ancient Egyptian artifacts

 

Episode Script for The Haunted Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas: Part 1

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • We’ve been talking Ancient Egypt for the last few weeks, so I wanted to pivot and talk about a haunted hotel that was inspired by Ancient Egypt, the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
  • I’m gonna start by talking about the history of the hotel, what made it strange and unique, my experiences from when I stayed there as a kid (which unfortunately didn’t involve anything paranormal, that I noticed), and what it’s like now. But I did want to mention right off the bat that it’s known as a very haunted hotel.
    • Also, and I’m not gonna get very much into this since it could be its own episode or series but the Luxor is also the hotel where Tupac Shakur was staying on the night he died. For anyone not familiar with his story, he was one of the most influential rappers of all time, he was killed in Vegas in 1996, though that’s complicated and there are a ton of conspiracy theories that posit that he’s still alive. Google it if you want to know more about that.
    • I was trying to think of other reasons why folks may have heard of the Luxor, so here’s another thing: if you’ve seen the music video for Will Smith’s 1997 song Getting Jiggy Wit It, part of that was filmed at the Luxor.
    • One thing you’ll notice is that the most famous things that happened at the Luxor were in the mid-to-late 1990s.
    • That’s because the Luxor has had a bit of a fall since opening to fanfare and 10,000 guests almost exactly 27 years ago, on October 15, 1993.
  • I’ve been to Vegas once, when I was about 5 years old, in 1995, and while we were there, we stayed at the newly opened Luxor hotel.
    • I really loved it there and still have extremely vivid memories of the trip and the Luxor in particular, because it was so cool.
  • During the 90s, there was an attempt to make Vegas into a sort of Disneyland, somewhere kid-friendly, with grand hotels that catered toward families and spared no expense.
    • Around that time, a number of themed resorts that catered towards kids were created.
    • Some of those include hotels like the medieval-themed Excalibur in 1990, and its neighbor, and the Egyptian-themed Luxor and pirate-themed Treasure Island which both opened in 1993.
    • The Excalibur was built on a site that back in the 1970s, had been intended to be the site of what was supposed to be the first themed mega-resort in Vegas.
      • In 1976, developers planned to build Xanadu, a hotel that would feature a pyramid design and would have cost $150million to build
      • Rather than looking Egyptian, this pyramid would have been more aztec-style. It was intended to have 2,000 rooms, a 20-story atrium, and some sort of flaming water feature.
      • It sounds like the project ran into financing issues, though I also read that there were issues with sewer line installations that screwed up the project.
      • The site was immediately next to where the Luxor hotel was built, and I wonder if Xanadu had been built, that may have made a pyramid-shaped hotel like the Luxor less novel? Maybe they never would have built the Luxor if the Xanadu had succeeded?
      • As a sidenote, I want to look at Xanadu in a future episode–not just the Xanadu hotel, but the idea of Xanadu, because this hotel isn’t the only failed major project called Xanadu, and I feel like there’s something strange, or cursed, about things called Xanadu. (Remember that the mansion in Citizen Kane was called Xanadu as well.)
      • Remember, of course, that Xanadu was the capital of Kublai Khan’s empire, and it came to represent opulence and destroyed splendor, which feels very a propos when it comes to Vegas and maybe America in general.
  • The Luxor opened three years after the Excalibur did.
    • There’s a great 30-minute promotional “documentary” on youtube that tells the story of the Luxor’s conception and construction, which I’ve watched a few times. It’s about a half hour long and it has that delightfully positive early 90s vibe. It kinda feels like the BTS videos that DVDs used to have
    • It talks about the development of the Luxor, and the storytelling behind the hotel, including the guy who designed the shows and theatres inside the hotel. He was the guy who designed rides at Disney, including the Back to the Future one.
      • One thing they talk about is how they made a 3D ride with moving seats, like at Disney, that’s basically an ancient aliens type story, where two people go back in time to ancient egypt and it’s a highly technological civilization with spaceships and lazer guns and stuff.
        • They made up a whole “archiectural” style that they called “crypto-Egypto”
        • They show how they made all the miniatures for the shows, and sets, and it’s really really detailed–like one of the sets has over 1,000 lights, and they talk about how the cameras are “computer controlled” etc.
        • They talk about how each image in the CGI stuff is 90 MB of data, which they call “a computer worth of data” which is hilarious.
        • There’s a whole trilogy of films and live performances–which I don’t remember seeing and may have been too young for.
      • But anyway, about the construction of the hotel itself: They built casino and hotel in 18 months, for $375 million (which were drawn from Circus Circus’ petty cash, rather than from outside investors). There’d been a trailer park there before the Luxor was built.
      • The pyramid was 30 stories high–10 stories more than the failed Xanadu–and it was one of the largest glass-and-metal structures that’d been built. It contains 11 acres of glass.
      • There were 2,500 rooms when it first opened, along with a 100,000 square foot casino.
      • The hotel is shaped like a pyramid, of course, since it was named after the city, Luxor (where the ancient city of Thebes had been located.)
      • The pyramid is topped with the world’s most powerful light, which can be seen from space. It’s 42.3 billion candela. One candela is about the equivalent of one normal wax candle, so it’s like . . . 42.3 billion candles.
        • When the lights are on, the temparature in the lamp room is 300 degrees F.
        • While the light, called the Luxor Sky Beam, has operated every night since the hotel opened, since 2008, they only light half the lamps to save money and electricity.
        • The light is so strong that you can see it from airplanes flying near LA.
        • And the light has its own ecosystem: it attracts months, which attracts bats and birds, which attract owls
      • There’s also a single sphinx in front of the pyramid, which is actually larger than the actual sphinxes in Egypt, since if they did it to scale, it would look too small next to the pyramid hotel.
        • The sphinx is 10 stories tall, and as wide as 9 lanes of traffic.
      • There are over 100 “computerized fountains” in front, with lazer beams that come out of the sphinx’s eyes to project onto a water screen.
      • There was enough carpet put down in the Luxor to cover 34 football fields.
      • The atrium of the Luxor was the largest in the world. (That was true back then, but not anymore.)
        • Apparently, 9 747s could be stacked on top of each other in the atrium
      • And because it was built at a slant, the elevators, or “inclinators” as they called them, had to go up at a 39-degree-angle along the sloped slides of the pyramid–there was one at each corner of the atrium.
      • And all around the sides of the slanting walls of the atrium are the rooms, which exit out onto the hallways that look straight down over the atrium so you could see all the cool stuff below.
      • When they opened, there was also a Nile river ride, which I remember making my parents go on a number of times.
        • Apparently, the original idea behind the river ride was to take people from the check in desk to the inclinators so they could go upstairs.
        • The Nile ride was a sort of faux-archaeological tour. There was a guide on the boat who’d give you a tour and talk about some of the reproductions of egyptian sites and artifacts.
        • One highlight I remember from when I was there: at one point there was a bridge with a waterfall that the boat passed under, and it was timed so that the waterfall stopped right before you went under it, and the tour guide would say if a drop of water fell on you there, it was good luck.
        • There was a really impressive attention to detail in terms of the ancient Egyptian stuff there.
          • There as a recreation of a temple of Isis from 50 BC, as well as the statues at Abu Simbel (which, the real temple at Abu Simbel was something that Ramesses the Great, who we talked about last week, built), and a replica of King Tut’s Tomb.
        • I also recall some talking animatronic camels. 
      • The video was made before this, but in 1996, there was a $240 million expansion of the Luxor, which added a imax theatre, ice rink, and laser light show. And then in 1998, they added 2,000 rooms in ziggurat-style towers, for $675 million. I have no idea how the first expansion cost 2/3 as much as the initial construction, and then the second addition cost almost double–that seems really weird.
      • The video is so positive; they quote someone saying “this place will never close, it’ll be here forever, it’ll be open 24 hours/day.”
      • Well, that’s sort of a foolish and fate-tempting thing to say about an Ancient Egyptian-themed hotel.
      • As the youtube comments of the video are quick to point out, things have really, really changed.
        • The technology that they used to make the attractions look quaint and are extremely dated by our standards, and those attractions are closed now anyway.
        • Coronavirus shut down Vegas, along with the rest of the country, for a while, making the really grand statements seem especially silly nowadays.
        • Vegas itself has changed. After a the foray into themed resorts and family-friendly splendor, it was decided that gambling and drinking was better business–I imagine the margin on casinos is way, way, better than the margin on free Nile river board rides and overpriced kids menus–and what I thought of as a kid as the “fun” parts of Vegas were phased out.
        • I mentioned Treasure Island, before–if you’ve seen Miss Congeniality 2, you may remember the pirate show that was there back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
          • I remember seeing it and thinking it was cool, definitely Disney worthy.
          • In 2003, Treasure Island took out that show and replaced it with what the president of the casino called a “sexy and beautiful, adult Broadway-caliber show.” I don’t really know why he seems to think that Broadway provides adult entertainment–maybe he’s thinking of the old Times Square before that got Disney-ified, but whatever. It sounds like the hotel’s owners realized that fun disney pirate stuff doesn’t appeal to adults looking to party and loose a bunch of money at casinos.
          • Also, around the time of the revamp, Treasure Island rebranded as “TI,” which seems really weird to me, beause 1) it just makes me think of the rapper, and 2) because it isn’t memorable and doesn’t really say anything, whereas at least Treasure Island fits with the casino theme.
          • In 2013, the Sirens of TI–the adult version of the show–was shut down and replaced by a shopping and entertainment center with a CVS as the anchor tenant. So sounds like Vegas has gone the way that NYC has–take out everything interesting and replace it with a CVS.
        • Likewise, Exaclibur had a cool statue of Merin on a high turret of the castle, which in 2007, they replaced with something advertising Dick’s Last resort.
          • Starting in 2006, they started removing the medieval themes, most of which were gone by 2010.
        • Sadly, the same thing happened with the Luxor.
          • The Luxor had been built by the Circus Circus Enterprises, but was purchased by MGM Resorts International in 2005.
          • In July 2007, they spent $300 million–almost as much as they spent to build the hotel in the first place–to renovate 80% of the Luxor’s public areas. They stripped out the Egyptian stuff and replaced it with generic-feeling, kinda seedy looking restaurants, bars, and lounges.
          • There are two shows at the Luxor these days: a topless show called “Fantasy” and a Carrot Top comedy show.
          • There’s also a club on the casino floor called “Cathouse.”
          • And I believe that the Nile River ride that I loved so much as a kid was only open for three years, I guess from 1993-1996. And then, after that, they drained the river ride and filled it in to have more public walking space.
  • Nowadays, the cheapest room, the pyramid two queen room, which sleeps four guests and has two queen sized beds, and is about the same size as my apartment, costs $37/night. The most expensive room I could find was the Tower Two-Bedroom Penthouse Suite, which is 3,600 square feet, which is $733/night.
  • You can stay in the pyramid, which is where I stayed in the 1990s–one really distinctive thing about the pyramid rooms is that the windows and outer walls are at a slant, since they’re the outside of the pyramid.
  • They later built a tower with additional rooms, which have normal walls and which look like they might be a bit nicer and more modern. (Those rooms start at $45.)
  • So the Luxor is really, really cheap. I’m sure COVID doesn’t help, but just for contrast, in NYC, there were headlines this week about how hotel room prices were way, way down during COVID, so now the average daily room rate is $135, whereas usually in October they’re $336.
    • And a lot of hotels here are closed.
    • But for example, the Pierre Hotel, a luxury hotel on Central Park, has priced its cheapest room, a 350 square foot room that sleeps 2 people,  at $745/night right now, whereas their most expensive suite, which is 2,088 square foot and sleeps 5 people, starts at $22,000/night.
    • So when you see that you can get a suite at the Luxor for $733/night, we’re talking bargain basement. And of course there’s a difference between staying in NYC and Vegas, and I guess at Vegas they expect to make more money from the casinos than from the rooms, but still.
  • But honestly, as I was doing this research on the Luxor and saw how cheap the rooms were, it made me kind of sad–it just seems not worth it to keep the hotel open.
  • In fact, this summer, rumors have started flying that the Luxor is being considered for demolition.
    • Interestingly, I was reading some articles about this a month or so ago and several of the articles I read are now dead links, but I still found a few sites from July 2020 that address the rumor that the Luxor, and possibly the Exaclibur, may be torn down.
    • I know the games industry is extremely powerful, so I don’t know if financial pressure, or something else brought down the original articles I read, but just to be clear: this is a rumor, and the fact that the original articles have been taken down make me think it may have been a false rumor, or at least a killed one. I feel a little skeptical of it, since it doesn’t really seem like a great time to tear down a couple hotels and then spend probably a billion dollars building news ones, though what do I know?
      • To read a bit from the now-removed article on VitalVegas.com, which I found on archive.org:
        • “De-theming casinos in Las Vegas has happened fairly frequently in recent years, as the perception of themes has evolved from cool to kitschy (or downright tacky) over time.
        • Many changes have already been made at Luxor to move away from its original theme, but it’s virtually impossible to re-imagine a massive pyramid.
        • The same dilemma is faced by Excalibur. Good luck tweaking a castle.
        • Our sources say company officials have discussed demolition of both Luxor and Excalibur for at least five years, but have been unable to proceed due to union contracts. It’s possible the COVID-19 shutdown has paved the way for what’s to come for Luxor.”
  • I don’t know. There are tons of stories of old classic Vegas hotels like the Sands, Riveiera, and Stardust, but there’ve also been false rumors of demolitions of other hotels, like the Rio, recently.
  • Next week, we’ll get into the haunting of the Luxor, but there’s one more bit of the hotel itself that I want to talk about: Now, despite my fond memories of the Luxor, it seems like there’s some bad vibes at there, that much is clear.
  •  But also, I doubt it helps that the Luxor is also host to two exhibits:

○ One of them is the “Bodies” exhibit that was so popular a decade or so ago. To be clear, the Vegas exhibit isn’t the only one. I remember back in, say 2005-2008, there were tons and tons of “Bodies” exhibits all over the world. The Luxor got a permanent version of the “Bodies” exhibit in 2009.

○ In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s an exhibit shows real human bodies that have had the skin stripped off, perserved using a method called plastination, and then dissected and displayed in different stages. Like for example, posted like they’re running, or playing tennis, etc.

○ There are some major issues with the “Bodies” exhibit, aside from it being awfully creepy and gruesome. Human rights advocates have raised concerns that the bodies are gathered from executed Chinese political prisoners, without the consent of the prisoners and their families

  • To read from the wikipedia page about the exhibit:
  •  “the front page of the exhibition website displays a disclaimer about the presumed origin of the bodies and fetuses, saying that it “relies solely on the representations of its Chinese partners” and “cannot independently verify” that the bodies do not belong to executed prisoners”
  • Also , to read a bit from a 2006 NPR report:
    • “One delicate ethical concern stands out above all the others: whether the bodies were legitimately obtained. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of plastination and the impresario behind the Body Worlds exhibitions, says that every whole body exhibited in North America comes from fully informed European and American donors, who gave permission, in writing, for their bodies to be displayed. The science museums that have hosted Body Worlds also make this assurance.
    • “What I certainly never use for public exhibitions are unclaimed bodies, prisoners, bodies from mental institutions and executed prisoners,” von Hagens says.
    • Chinese medical schools supply von Hagens with unclaimed bodies, which he plastinates and sells to universities. Von Hagens used to take cadavers from the former Soviet Union, but he stopped after body-trafficking scandals in Russia and the Kyrgyz Republic.
    • Five years ago, customs officers intercepted 56 bodies and hundreds of brain samples sent from the Novosibirsk Medical Academy to von Hagens’ lab in Heidelberg, Germany. The cadavers were traced to a Russian medical examiner who was convicted last year of illegally selling the bodies of homeless people, prisoners and indigent hospital patients.
    • Von Hagens was not charged with any wrongdoing, and says his cadavers are obtained only through proper legal and ethical channels.
    • Still, NPR has learned there’s no clear paper trail from willing donors to exhibited bodies.”
  • A number of religious groups, as well as bioethicits, have objected to the concept in general. There’s something really sick about paying money to look at exhibits of human bodies, put out on display, especially when the company that put on the exhibit hasn’t been able to come up with consent documentation for the people who are on display.
  • The Bodies exhibit just reopened last week, after the COVID shutdown, and has been updated with displays showing the effects of COVID on the human body
  • And if the creepy bodies obtained by a creepy German doctor aren’t enough for you, there’s also a Titanic exhibit that includes artifacts from the wreck, including, to quote the exhibit’s website “luggage, the ship’s whistles, floor tiles from the first-class smoking room, a window frame from the Verandah Cafe and an unopened bottle of champagne with a 1900 vintage”
  • I feel really nostalgic about the Luxor and if I ever go to Vegas again, I’d love to stay there for old time’s sake. But also for ghost hunting.

 

Sources consulted RE: The Haunted Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

Articles RE: The Haunted Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

  • Wright, Gordon. “Pyramidal shape pushes the envelope.” Building Design & Construction, vol. 35, no. 8, Aug. 1994, p. 36+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15687724/AONE?u=nypl&sid=AONE&xid=710afd9f. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

  • Hartinger, Brent. “Is it real or is it just really cool.” Omni, vol. 17, no. 3, Dec. 1994, p. 35. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15986878/AONE?u=nypl&sid=AONE&xid=5abe0e0d. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

Websites RE: The Haunted Luxor Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

  • The Making of Luxor Las Vegas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwB14kIEI2A
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Las_Vegas_casinos_that_never_opened#Xanadu
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxor_Las_Vegas
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excalibur_Hotel_and_Casino
  • https://excalibur.mgmresorts.com/en.html
  • https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7203118/anniversary-tupac-shakur-murder-shot-dead-las-vegas/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupac_Shakur#Death
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettin’_Jiggy_wit_It
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mirage
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_Island_Hotel_and_Casin
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dream_Meadowlands
  • https://gaming.unlv.edu/Xanadu/then.html
  • http://digital.library.unlv.edu/skyline/hotel/xanadu
  • https://viewfinder.expedia.com/most-amazing-hotels-never-built/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xanadu
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kubla_Khan
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Simbel_temples
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candela
  • https://www.lasvegasadvisor.com/question/luxor-implosion/
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20200831185429/https://vitalvegas.com/rumor-mill-demolition-could-be-in-the-cards-for-luxor/
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20161226060524/
  • http://www.reviewjournal.com/business/luxors-floor-under-review
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20200912074529/
  • https://www.casino.org/news/luxor-las-vegas-demolition-rumors-spread-insiders-say-days-numbered/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sands_Hotel_and_Casino
  • http://onlinenevada.org/articles/luxor-hotel
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_G._Bennett_(gaming_executive)
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20190803113506/https://www.casino.org/blog/deaths-in-luxor/
  • https://www.reference.com/history/many-people-died-building-empire-state-building-48bddec3439ab036
  • https://www.forconstructionpros.com/blogs/construction-toolbox/blog/12096401/looking-back-on-the-worlds-deadliest-construction-projects
  • https://www.reviewjournal.com/entertainment/entertainment-columns/kats/vegas-attraction-bodies-adds-covid-exhibit-titanic-back-online-2140592/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodies:_The_Exhibition
  • https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5637687
  • https://www.ktnv.com/positivelylv/now-open-titanic-the-artifact-exhibition-and-bodies-the-exhibition-at-luxor-hotel-and-casino
  • https://luxor.mgmresorts.com/en/entertainment/titanic.html
  • https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/861169/las-vegas-shooting-mandalay-bay-resort-luxor-hotel-bomb-threat
  • https://www.inquisitr.com/4531623/las-vegas-shooting-conspiracy-theories-surface-illuminati-area-51-luxor/
  • https://illuminatiwatcher.com/las-vegas-shooting-stephen-paddock-illuminati-conspiracy-theories/
  • https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/famous-waypoints-aviation-luxor-sky-beam/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Las_Vegas_shooting
  • https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g45963-d111709-Reviews-Luxor_Hotel_Casino-Las_Vegas_Nevada.html
  • http://www.becksghosthunters.com/2019/01/the-luxor-in-las-vegas-is-haunted-what.html
  • https://vegasghosts.com/luxor-dark-pyramid-vegas/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Providence
  • https://www.vegasbright.com/2016/03/29/luxors-questionable-origins-the-crookedness-of-an-era-gone-by/
  • https://www.bestofvegas.com/articles/haunted-hotels-in-las-vegas/
  • https://www.travelchannel.com/destinations/us/nv/las-vegas/articles/luxor-las-vegas
  • https://lasvegassun.com/news/1996/sep/26/woman-commits-suicide-inside-luxor/
  • https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2015/08/high-rollers-and-high-strangeness-the-haunted-casinos-of-las-vegas/
  • http://hauntedhoneymoon.com/hauntedplaces/luxor.html
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3sZKKrfkEo
  • https://www.hauntedrooms.com/nevada/las-vegas/haunted-places/haunted-hotels
  • https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/nevada/articles/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-las-vegas-luxor-hotel/
  • http://www.hauntedpoker.com/true-hauntings/luxor-las-vegas-haunted.html
  • https://www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/las-vegas/haunted-houses-in-las-vegas-nevada-halloween
  • https://vitalvegas.com/rumor-mill-demolition-could-be-in-the-cards-for-luxor/
  • https://vitalvegas.com/insider-secrets-really-really-dont-want-know-las-vegas/
  • http://www.weirdca.com/location.php?location=128
  • https://amyscrypt.com/haunted-places-las-vegas-nevada/
  • https://www.lasvegasadvisor.com/question/luxor-boat-ride/
  • http://www.vegastripping.com/news/blog/4282/luxor-sinks/
  • https://ballenvegas.com/haunted-vegas/
  • https://www.bestuscasinos.org/news/las-vegas-luxor-may-soon-demolished/
  • http://www.city-data.com/forum/las-vegas/1668131-luxor-haunted-2.html
  • https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7203118/anniversary-tupac-shakur-murder-shot-dead-las-vegas/
  • https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/with-prices-down-24200-per-room-nyc-hotels-set-for-more-pain/ar-BB19RI8Z
  • https://www.thepierreny.com/
  • https://luxor.mgmresorts.com/en.html
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3sZKKrfkEo
  • https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/lightning-bolt-strikes-las-vegas-2071605
  • https://www.lasvegasinsideout.com/luxor-hotel-after-opening-in-1993/
  • https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-10-17-tr-46901-story.html
  • http://www.lvstriphistory.com/ie/luxor.htm
  • https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-07-13-fi-12815-story.html

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A look at the legendary Book of Thoth and the historical figure who inspired Ancient Egypt’s most famous fictional sorcerer and is considered the first Egyptologist.

Setne Khamwas, aka Prince Khaemweset, was the son of Ramesses the Great, as well as a high priest of Ptah, and a historian with a passion for preserving Ancient Egyptian history. He traveled around Egypt, restoring sites and monuments from the Old Kingdom, including the famous Pyramids at Giza. He’s a big factor in why so many famous Ancient Egyptian sites are in relatively good repair. He’s also behind some ancient alien theories.

The Book of Thoth, a book of magic that was featured in the fictional stories about Setne Khamwas, also has an interesting backstory, and links to ceremonial magic, Hermes Trismegistus, and hermeticism in general.

Highlights include:

• Ancient aliens
• A magical bull
• Field mice fighting battles
• The good and bad parts of being an ancient historian/tomb raider

 

 

Episode Script for The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“The archaeologists who first began professionally excavating Egyptian sites in the 19th century CE owe the existence of their records, and in many cases the structures themselves, to the efforts of the prince and high priest Khaemweset.” –from an article about Khaemweset in Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient.eu

 

“It seems that later Egyptians admired Khaemwaset because he was able to read old inscriptions but, at the same time, thought him reckless as he entered tombs” -Van de Mieroop

 

The real Setne:

https://www.ancient.eu/Khaemweset/

  • So let’s talk about what’s real
  • Some of the big sources for this episode are:
    • Stories of the High Priests of Memphis by LL Griffith (1900)
  • The real historical figure who Setne was based on is Prince Khaemweset, whose name is translated a bunch of different ways, including as Setne Khamwas. Setne was basically a corruption of his title, which was “Sem” or “Setem” priest.
  • I’ll call him Khamwas since that was his actual name, and also to distinguish him from the literary Setne.
  • He was the fourth son of Pharaoh Ramses II, and while he never became Pharaoh, he was the best known son of Ramesses II, aka Ramesses the Great, who reigned for 67 years.
  • Khamwas was born near the end of his grandfather, Seti I’s, reign, so maybe in the 1270s BC
  • His name meant “manifestation in Thebes” so some historians think he was born in Thebes, which was a major city in southern Egypt, but he lived his life and died in Memphis, Egypt.
  • When he was young, he would have fought in wars, and there’re a bunch of inscriptions and reliefs that show him on the battlefield.
  • While he was fighting, he also would have been in school, studying to become a scribe, and then studying to become a priest, and then doing an apprenticeship with a priest. And through all of this, he also would have been working out a lot, because physical fitness was really important at the time if you were the child of the Pharaoh
  • He became a priest of Ptah, who was a very important god in Memphis, when he was 18 years old
  • And by the time he was 32, he was the high priest of Ptah
  • As high priest, he was at the top of the hierarchy and was very important
  • Part of the High Priest of Ptah’s job was to oversee the upkeep of temples, and Khamwas took this role very seriously.
  • When he was younger, he would have traveled around Egypt with his father and seen the state of different historic structures–some had been well maintained by priests, whereas others were in bad shape.
  • Then, once he became a priest, he would have had access to a huge amount of historical records, which were kept in the temple in a room called the Per-Ankh, or House of Life.
    • And, as it turns out, Khamwas was obsessed with the past, especially with Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom
    • All the major temples had a House of Life, which included libraries, classroom space, and areas that people used for writing.
    • Using the records in the House of Life, Khamwas was able to identify and research structures that were in disrepair
  • In fact, he’s been called “the first Egyptologist” because of the research and restoration work that he did.
  • An article about him on ancient.eu quotes an Egyptologist named Kenneth Kitchen:
    • He was no doubt impressed by the superb workmanship of the splendid monuments of a thousand years before – and perhaps also depressed by their state of neglect, mounded up in drifts of sand, temples fallen into ruin. Deeply affected by all that he had seen, Khaemweset resolved to clear these glories of antiquity of the encumbering sand, tidy the temples, and renew the memory (and perhaps the cults) of the ancient kings.
  • One thing that’s hard for us to fathom is that Egypt has such a long history, and even during the times of what’s called the “New Kingdom” of Ancient Egypt, there were things from the “Old Kingdom” that were already ancient, as in 600-1500 years old.
    • I think that kind of history is really hard to picture, but for me, one way of looking at it is to compare it to famous historic structures in Europe: construction on Notre-Dame, in Paris, started in the 1,100s,  so about 860 years ago. So imagine structures that were twice that age, and you can maybe imagine some of the historic structures that Khamwas was restoring.
    • Another way to think of it is that Stonehenge was probably erected around the time of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (the Old Kingdom was around 2600-2180 BC, and carbon dating suggests that the  first parts of Stonehenge were erected between 2400-2200 BC.) So, you know, while the Egyptians were building the pyramids at Giza, some people put up some big rocks in England.
  • He would find ruined tombs and restore them and make sure that the names of the dead were clearly inscribed on them. That’s an important detail, the fact that he preserved not just the past but the names of those who had built the structures. He’d also write what the structure was used for, and when it was restored. Basically he was creating historical plaques.
  • One inscription, for a king’s tomb, read:
    • His Majesty instructed the High Priest of Ptah and Setem, Khaemwise, to inscribe the cartouche of king Shepsekaf, since his name could not be found on the face of his pyramid, inasmuch as the Setem Khaemwise loved to restore the monuments of the kings, making firm again what had fallen into ruin.
  • In addition to restoring structures, he’d fix up statues. The inscription for a statue that he restored of the son of the Pharaoh who built the great pyramid reads:
    • It was the High Priest and Prince Khaemwise who delighted in this statue of the king’s son Kawab, which he discovered in the fill of a shaft in the area of the well of his father Khufu. He acted so as to place it in the favour of the gods, among the glorious spirits of the chapel of the necropolis because he loved the noble ones who dwelt in antiquity before him, and the excellence of everything they made, in very truth, a million times. (Ray, 87-88)
  • Apparently the pyramids at Giza were in terrible disrepair at the time, since they were a thousand years old and it was no longer an active burial site. So Khamwas restored the whole area, and now it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in egypt.
  • In Ancient Egypt, he was remembered and respected for hundreds of years after his death because of the work he did to restore historic tombs, temples, and buildings.
  • And one reason why his father, Ramesses the Great, became so famous, is because Khamwas was going around fixing things up and mentioning his father on the inscriptions for everything.
    • Ramesses the Great was even mistaken for the Pharaoh in Exodus, because his name was so well known that it sounds like it just kind of attached itself to the story in the popular imagination.
  • However, his work was sort of a double edged sword.
  • He did excellent restoration work, which was important since the afterlife was so important to the Ancient Egyptians. But for the same reason, there were many taboos against entering tombs, and people did not like that he was breaking that taboo. That’s probably part of why the literary character that’s based on him was so reckless and often looked foolish and unaware of consequences.
    • To quote an article in ancient.eu, he “impulsively follows his heart instead of the precepts of tradition and cultural values.”
  • In addition to restoring old monuments, Khamwas also built new ones to commemorate important events during his own time.
  • In fact, some Egyptologists have criticized him, claiming that his restoration work was just about trying to use ancient sites as quarries–basically the idea is that he would steal stones from sites during restorations, and use them for his own building projects.
  • However, it sounds like most Egyptologists don’t think that was the case, though he may have reused some stones and other materials from structures that were too far gone to restore.
  • One of the things that he would have done as high priest was preside over the burial of something called an Apis bull, which was a type of bull that at the time, was a sort of sacred herald to Ptah, and who also had associations with kingship.
    • Around Memphis, the cows were mostly black with white patterns, and an Apis bull had specific patterns: they’d have a white triangular spot on their forehead, a vulture wing outline on its back, a mark that looked like a scarab under its tongue, a crescent moon shape on its right flank, and double hairs on his tail.
    • When they found a bull with these markings, they’d take him from the herd and worship him as a manifestation of Ptah. The story was that an Apis bull was conceived  by a flash of lightning or a moonbeam, and the mother of the bull would get special treatment and burial when she died.
    • The Apis bull would be used as an oracle in the temple–they made prophecies based on his movements.
    • The bull’s breath was supposed to cure disease, and his presence brought strength
    • People on the street could see the bull through a window in the temple, and for festivals, they’d festoon the bull with jewelry and flowers and parade him through the streets
    • When the bull died in a ritual slaying, it would be mummified in a special way, and sometimes they’d affix the mummy to a wooden platform in the tomb so he’d be standing.
    • Then, while the bull was prepared for burial, they’d search for the new Apis bull.
    • They kept meticulous records of the lives of the Apis bulls, detailing when they were born, when they were enthroned, when they died, who their mothers were, etc.
    • And it was extremely expensive to bury them–they were put in huge sarcarphagi, and they were embalmed and prepared for burial with the highest honors.
    • Because Apis was a protector of the dead and had ties to the Pharaoh, some Pharaoh’s tombs had horn decorations, and some ordinary people would have depictions of the Apis bull on their coffins.
    • In addition to presiding over the burials of the Apis bull, and searches for new Apis bulls, Khamwas also had a huge gallery excavated in an underground burial complex, and the bulls were buried there in his time.
      • The idea was that if all the bulls were buried together, it’d be easier for people to visit them and leave offerings
      • These tombs were used for 13 centuries, and were rediscovered in the 1850s
      • This tomb for the bulls is still around today, and it’s a popular tourist attraction
    • There are also apparently a lot of conspiracy theories about this tomb, because the granite sarcophagi weigh between 70-100 tons
      • In the name of research, I did watch a youtube video about the conspiracy theory. Basically the idea is that the giant granite sarcophagi are extremely heavy, from stone that was quarried far away, and many of them are extremely precise,  there are questions about how they could have created them, and people can’t imagine that anyone would go to so much trouble to bury a bull.
      • I don’t find this convincing, really, because if the bull is a god, then nothing’s too good for them, and also the Egyptians were amazing mathematicians and architects.
      • Some people think aliens created them, whereas other people think nephilim, or angels, made them. And you can google “Serapeum” if you want to learn more about that.
    • In addition to creating the Serapeum, Khamwas also constructed a temple to Apis. Previously, there’s been a chapel at each bull’s tomb. And that became a hub for the cult of the Apis bull
  • There was one story that Herodotus tells about Khamwas, where he’d angered the military by treating them with contempt and not giving them land allotments, as they’d been given by kings in the past. For whatever reason, he thought he wouldn’t need the military’s help.
    • So he was totally screwed when the king of Assyria and Arabia marched with his army to attack Egypt, because the Egyptian troops refused to help.
    •  So Khamwas went to the temple and bemoaned the terrible situation he’d gotten himself into, and then he fell asleep and Ptah gave him a vision where he comforted him and said not to worry, he’d help him.
    • So Khamwas gathered up all the Egyptians who were willing to help him, which ended up being just artisans and merchants, basically.
    • When they arrived at the battlefield, an enormous stream of field mice arrived, and scurried over to the enemy camp, where they ate all of the shields, bows, quivers, and other weapons. And then, having lost all of their weapons, which which was a major financial loss as well, the enemy army fled.
    • Herodotus claimed that in his day, a statue of Khamwas stood before the temple with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription that said “Let any one looking upon me, (learn to) be pious!”
    • It’s unclear to me how real this story is, but apparently it influenced the bible story in II Kings 19:35 where an angel destroys an Assyrian army, much like some of the fictional Setne stories we’ve looked at influenced the bible, which is really fascinating to me. (I did read, on ancient.eu, that the story of the rich man and poor man that we looked at last week is considered to have influenced the story of Lazarus in the bible, in Luke 16:19-31.)
  • We don’t know much about Khamwas’ personal life. We don’t know his wife’s name, but we think he maybe had three children, but even that’s fuzzy. We do know that his daughter’s tomb was discovered recently, I think around 2009?
  • Khamwas was named crown prince, but died when he was 55; so he could have been Pharaoh if he had lived longer, but the crown went to his brother, Merenptah, Ramses II’s 13th son
  • Today, Merenptah’s name is apparently better known, because he won an important victory against the Sea Peoples, who were a confederacy of naval raiders who attacked coastal cities on the Mediterranean.
    • Not much is known about the Sea Peoples, and we don’t know who they were or where they were from. But they were apparently a contributing factor to something called the Bronze Age Collapse, which was when some major civilizations along the Mediterranean were destroyed.
    • One ominous Egyptian inscription described them like this:
      • “They came from the sea in their war ships and none could stand against them.”
    • Though Merenptah believed he had defeated the Sea People once and for all, he didn’t, and they continued to launch attacks against Egypt after his reign.
  • After his death, Khamwas was highly respected, and known as a wise man and magician who knew ancient languages and who could perform powerful spells.
  • We talked about Imhotep last week, who was a priest and polymath with knowledge of medicine, math, astronomy, architecture, and poetry. After his death, Imhotep eventually became deified and was worshipped as a god.
  • That didn’t happen to Khamwas, probably because he entered tombs.
  • It’s unclear where Khamwas was buried; in 1993, archeologists found a ruined tomb inscribed with his name, but the tomb was built in the style of the Old Kingdom, so they aren’t sure that it’s his. However, some people have suggested that even though Khamwas lived and died in the New Kingdom, he may have been so enamored of past styles that he had his tomb made up in an old fashioned way.
  • Some people say he may have been buried in the Serapeum alongside the Apis bulls.
  • Around 2000, a team of archaeologists found a funerary chapel to Khamwas 1.5 K from the Serapeum, on an outcropping of rock that overlooked all of the pyramids of the Memphis necropolis, which he loved so much
  • And of course he’s remembered through the fictional stories about him.
  • Though the Setne stories we looked at in past episodes were fictionalized, it does sound like a lot of Khamwas’ personality made it into the stories. He wasn’t afraid to enter tombs, no matter what magic or curses may lay in wait for him there, or what ghosts he might find there–so he was a pretty reckless and curious guy.
  • And in speaking of magic and ghosts, I did want to talk a bit about the Book of Thoth, which was so important in the Setne I story.
  • The Book of Thoth
    • Something pretty weird happened while I was researching the Book of Thoth–I was watching a documentary-type video on ancient.eu, which seemed very credible, and then suddenly, about 6 minutes in, the audio quality changed, and instead of the gravelly male narrator, an Australian woman began narrating, and instead of cheesy historical reenactments and talking heads, there was a slideshow of images, and the video talked about how the ancient knowledge of the Book of Thoth was lost because of the Catholic Church, or as the video called it, “The Anti-Christ Catholic Church” who stole the knowledge to keep everyone enslaved.
    • So I have NO idea what happened here, or why this weird anti-Catholic screed was on ancient.eu, which seems otherwise very credible . . .
    • But when I skipped forward in the video, I eventually found the rest of the credible documentary, and the credible part was interesting, and hinted at how what we consider ceremonial magic these days comes from ancient Egypt.
    • But anyway, it seems that some people think that The Book of Thoth was located in the astral plain, and ppl reached it via channeling
    • In Ancient Egypt, only priests with special training could access the knowledge of Thoth
    • It sounds like a lot of knowledge attributed to having come from Thoth actually came from the Babylonians
    • No one’s ever found an actual spellbook as described, but there is something written in demotic script that has been called The Book of Thoth.
      • It’s a conversation between Thoth, referred to as “He Who Praises Knowledge” among other things, and a student, called “He Who Loves Learning”
      • They discuss bulls, cows, agriculture, as well as “the writings of the house of darkness” which probably meant the underworld
    • An Egyptian historian who lived during the Ptolemaic period claimed that Thoth wrote 36,525 books, many of which were stored at temples in the “houses of life”
    • An early Christian theologian claimed that there were 42 books that contained “the whole philosophy of the Egyptians,” and he said that Hermes had written it.
    • That’s because the Graeco-Roman religion had combined Thoth with Hermes, who was a guide of souls and messenger of the Gods
    • It sounds like Thoth was referred to as “thrice great,” and that’s how Thoth-Hermes became Hermes Trismegistus, who’s a huge figure when it comes to Hermeticism and alchemy, topics that I want to learn more about and talk more about another time.
    • But there was something called the Emerald Tablet, a wisdom text, or hermetica, that contained the secret of prima materia, or the substance that you start with in alchemy, and that you’d transmute into the Philosopher’s Stone. This was a really important text to European alchemists, and it claims to have been written by Hermes Trismegistus
      • While the tablet’s text is supposedly ancient, it sounds like it was more likely Arabic and written between the 6th and 8th centuries
      • Isaac Newton was interested in alchemy, and a translation that he’d created was found among his alchemical papers
    • So this is just a tiny bit about the Book of Thoth and how Egyptian magic fed into medieval alchemy and ceremonial magic nowadays, though I want to return to the topic of alchemy in a future episode.

Sources consulted RE: The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

Books RE: The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

Websites RE: The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

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  • https://www.ancient.eu/Thoth/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Thoth
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerald_Tablet
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prima_materia
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Thoth/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre-Dame_de_Paris
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonehenge
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis,_Egypt
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramesses_II
  • https://www.ancient.eu/imhotep/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/video/1031/the-book-of-thoth/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Kingdom_of_Egypt
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonehenge
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Thoth
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/https://www.ancient.eu/article/1056/setna-i-a-detailed-summary–commentary/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Khaemweset/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Egyptian_language
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_hieroglyphs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursive_hieroglyphs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieratic
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demotic_(Egyptian)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_language
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_Stone
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Egypt#Greek_rule
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemaic_Kingdom
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-seventh_Dynasty_of_Egypt
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darius_the_Great
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nubia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egypt_(Roman_province)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep_(The_Mummy)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duat
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anubis
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammit
  • http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythsealletr.htm
  • http://www.perankhgroup.com/The%20Sealed%20Letter%20-%20Se%20osiris.htm
  • http://www.egyptianmyths.net/section-myths.htm
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1057/setna-ii-a-detailed-summary–commentary/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptah
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis,_Egypt
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/885/egyptian-gods—the-complete-list/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennead
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crook_and_flail
  • http://ib205.tripod.com/setne_2.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Magical_Papyri
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tale_of_Setne_Khamwas_and_Si-Osire
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaemweset
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  • https://amp.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/dcpm06/in_the_story_of_se_osiris_we_discover_ancient/
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  • https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mortuary-mask-khaemwaset
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  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Thoth

Listen to the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

A look at the magic-filled legends of Se-Osiris, Ancient Egyptian Wizard, who, as a pre-teen, traveled to the underworld and later dueled with a reincarnated sorcerer.

Setne II, an Ancient Egyptian story that’s survived on papyrus, tells the tale of a Dante’s inferno-like descent into the underworld, and a flurry of magical duels and reincarnation. Oh, and the person doing the magic is a 12-year-old kid.

Highlights include:
• A protective mother who turns into a goose to fly to save her sorcerer son
• The weighing of hearts
• The jackal-headed god Anubus
• Ammit, devourer of the dead
• A trip to the land of the dead

 

 

Episode Script for Se-Osiris, Ancient Egyptian Wizard

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

[When the] boy Si-Osire [reached] twelve years of age, it came to pass that there was no [scribe and learned man] in Memphis [who could compare] with him in reciting spells and performing magic.

–Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 3, by  Miriam Lichtheim

 

Last week we talked about Setne I, a story about an Ancient Egyptian prince who did some magic and stole a spell book called the Book of Thoth.

  • This week, we’ll get into the story of Se-Osiris, his son, which is a story that I was really interested in when I was a kid.
    • It sounds like Setne II maybe begins much later, when his children were grown.
    • But the story says that he and his wife, Mehusekhe, were sad because they didn’t have a son. (So I wonder if this was his second wife, maybe?)
    • So Setne’s wife, whose name I’m not gonna try to say again, went to the temple of Imhetep to pray for a son.
      • Imhotep had been a chancellor to a pharaoh in the 27th century BC. He may have been the architect of a step pyramid that still stands in Egypt, and he was also the high priest of Ra, the sun god, in Heliopolis, which was the biggest city in Egypt at the time.
      • We don’t know a ton about him, but he was supposedly a great physician, and an author of wisdom texts. Interestingly, for the first 1200 years after his death, there’s no written mention of his name, but 2,000 years after his death he became more and more popular, especially among intellectuals, and eventually became a god. He’s notable for being one of the few non-royal Egyptians who became dieties after death, and there was a cult that grew up around him.
      • He ended up being kind of combined with the god Thoth, the god of math, medicine, and architecture, and the patron of scribes.
      • There are tons of legends about Imhotep, including stories about him ending a 7-year famine, having a god as a father, and fighting an Assyrian sorceress in a magical duel. He’s also credited with having been the one to start the tradition of burying pharaohs in pyramids made entirely out of stone.
      • Imhotep was an important god for a while; his popularity lasted into the Roman period. Also, the Greeks combined him with their god of medicine, Asklepios.
      • And I know you’re thinking: Wait, isn’t Imhotep the bad guy in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns? And the answer is, yes. The filmmakers of the 1932 version of The Mummy were very vaguely inspired by the historical figure of Imhotep when creating the bad guy, and of course that led to him to be an important figure in the Brendan Fraser remakes as well.
    • So, anyway: Setne’s wife went to pray to Imhotep and asks for a son. That night, she slept in the temple, and in her dreams, she was shown how to prepare a magical remedy that would give her a son.
    • The remedy worked, and Setne and his wife were thrilled. Setne felt that his wife needed extra protection, so he gave her an amulet and cast some spells around her.
    • One night, Setne was told in a dream that his son would make wonders happen and that his name would be Se-Osiris.
    • So when the son was born, that’s what he was named.
    • When Se-Osiris started school, he was smarter that the other children and smarter than the tutor. So Se-Osiris started reading all of the magical papyri in the temple, and everyone was amazed.
    • Setne made plans to bring his son to a festival where all of the Pharaoh’s magicians would try to defeat him.
    • So one day, when Se-Osiris, who was still a little kid, was preparing for the contest with his father, they heard mourners crying.
    • Setne looked down from the terrace they were standing on and saw a funeral procession for a rich man. He was being brought to the mountains to be buried.
    • At the same time, he saw  the body of a poor man, wrapped in a straw mat, being carried through the streets, with no one there to mourn him.
    • Setne said that he hoped that he’d die like the rich man, honored and lamented, and not like the poor man, who was alone and forgotten.
    • Se-Osiris replied (and I’m quoting from the 1915 book of Egyptian legends): “Nay, my father, rather may the fate of the poor man be thine, and not that of the rich one!”
    • Setne was really upset by this, and said: “Are they the words of a son who loves his father?”
    • Se-Osiris replied: “My father, I will show to thee each in his place, the peasant unwept and the rich man so lamented.”
    • After Setne asked him how he planned to do this, Se-Osiris started chanting words of power from the magical books, and he led his father to an unknown part of the mountains near Memphis.
    • There they found 7 great halls full of all sorts of people.
    • They passed through 3 of them without incident, but when they reached the 4th, they came across, to quote from the book a bit more:
      • “a mass of men who rushed hither and thither, writing as creatures attacked them from behind; others, famished, were springing and jumping in their efforts to reach the food suspended above them, whilst some, again, dug holes at their feet to prevent them attaining their object.
    • I also wanted to read a bit from a summary of the story from ancient.eu, which had some detail that the 1915 mythology book didn’t:
      • There they see people who had no luck in life, and blamed others instead of themselves, trying to plait ropes together, but before they can finish, donkeys chew through their work. Their efforts are as futile in the afterlife as they were on earth because they accepted no personal responsibility. . . . These people, Si-Osire explains, are those who were grasping in life, never content, and remain the same in death.
    • And then to continue reading from the 1915 book:
      • “In the fifth hall were venerable shades who had each found their proper and fitting place, but those who were accused of crimes lingered kneeling at the door, which pivoted upon the eye of a man who ceaselessly prayed and groaned. In the sixth hall were the gods of Amenti, who sat in council, each in his place, whilst the keepers of the portals called out the causes. In the seventh hall was seated the great god Osiris on a golden throne, crowned with the plumed diadem. On his left was Anubis, and on his right the god Thoth. In the midst were the scales wherein were weighed the faults and virtues of the souls of the dead, while Thoth wrote down the judgment that Anubis pronounced.”
    • So to explain a couple things here: we already talked about Thoth, the scribe god, and Osiris, the god of the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, and life.
    • Amenti was the land of the dead in Egyptian mythology, also called Duat.
    • Anubis, of course, is the jackal-headed god of death, mummification, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, tombs, and the Underworld.
      • And I guess I should say: I described him as jackal-headed because that’s generally how he’s described, in part because jackals were associated with cemeteries since they were scavengers who apparently could dig up human bodies and eat them. So the Ancient Egyptians decided that a jackal god should be the one to protect the dead.
      • But nowadays, it’s said that the animal that was sacred to him was’t actually a jackal, but was actually an African golden wolf, which until 2015 had been mistakenly classified as a jackal.
      • But despite having a golden wolf’s head, Anubis was usually depicted in black, because that color symbolized life, regeneration, the soil of the Nile River, and color of a corpse after embalming
      • In the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, Anubis was the most powerful god of the dead, before being supplanted by Osiris in the Middle Kingdom. And then by the late pharaonic era, Anubis was someone who would hold the dead person’s hand to lead them to Osiris, and the afterlife. So talk about a demotion.
      • But at any rate, in the Book of the Dead, Anubis weighted the heart of a dead person against truth, which was often symbolized by an ostrich feather. Anyone whose soul weighed more than the feather would be denied the afterlife and consumed by Ammit.
      • Ammit was a demon and goddess with a body that was part lion, part hippo, and part crocodile, because those were the three largest human-eating animals in Ancient Egypt. Some of her titles were “Devouerer of the Dead,” “Eater of Hearts,” and “Great of Death.”
      • Once Ammit ate the heart, the soul basically died a second death and became restless for eternity.
      • Ammit wasn’t a goddess who was worshipped, because she represented everything that the Ancient Egyptians feared. Because in their faith, unlike in Christianity, the worst fate wasn’t hell, but to be denied entry into the afterlife and immortality.
      • And apparently in some stories, Ammit stands next to a lake of fire. So it’s all very metal and terrifying.
    • So, anyway, back to the story. Setne and Se-Osris are standing watching the souls being judged, and Setne sees someone who’s been dressed in fine linen and sitting in a place of honor.
    • As Setne’s looking around, Se-Osiris says:
      • 1915:
      • “My father Setne, seest thou that great personage in fine robes and near to Osiris? That peasant whom thou didst see carried out of Memphis without a soul to accompany him, and his body wrapped in a mat, dost thou remember, my father? Well, that peasant is the one beside Osiris! When he had come to Amenti and they weighed his faults and virtues, lo! his virtues outweighed all. And by the judgment of the gods all the honours that had been the share of the rich man were given to the peasant, and by the law of Osiris he takes his place midst the honoured and exalted. But the rich man, when he had come to Hades and his merits were weighed, lo! his faults weighed heavier, and he is that man you have seen upon whose eye pivots the door of the fifth hall, the man who cries and prays aloud with great agony. By the life of Osiris, god of Amenti, if upon earth I said to thee, ‘Rather may the fate of the peasant be thine than that of the rich man,’ it was because I knew their fates, my father.”
      • The 1973 translation says that Thoth had written down the misdeeds of the rich man and the poor man, and compared their deeds to their luck while on earth. So then based on that information, Osiris ordered that the poor man be given the burial equipment that the rich man had been buried with, which is how the poor man came to be dressed in the rich man’s robes.
    • This is interesting to me, because it feels really, really Christian to me. I’m not sure if the Christian bent was introduced by the author of this book in 1915, or if it was there in the original papyrus. But this whole tableau really reminds me of Dante’s inferno, and the new testament line when Jesus says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
      • However, a study written by an H. Gressmann apparently makes a convincing case that this story, to quote the 1973 book, is made of “genuinely Egyptian motifs that formed the basis for the parable of Jesus in Luke 16:19-13 and the related Jewish legends”
    • Also, I notice that in this translation, it calls the afterlife hades as often as it calls it Amenti, so that betrays a major greek mythological influence.
    • The 1973 book mentions how this story is of course very much like the Greek tales of Tantalus and Sisyphus, as well as the tale of Orpheus descending into the underworld and Odysseus talking to ghosts.
      • The author talks about how this speaks to how Greek and Egyptian cultures mingled in Greco-Roman Egypt.
    • In an analysis on ancient.eu, there’s an explanation that wealth wasn’t seen as an evil in ancient Egypt. (For example, the Pharaohs were wealthy, but they were going to have a good afterlife.) But there’s an Egyptian concept of truth, or ma’at, which is about balance and doing more good than bad. To read a bit:
      • What should be noted in this section of the story is what brings the two men to their respective fates: the poor man did “good works” while the rich man’s misdeeds were greater than his good ones. This would have been understood as the difference between keeping ma’at as one’s focus in life or putting one’s self first before the good of others. The rich man would not have been punished for his wealth but for his selfishness and lack of concern for ma’at.
    • Setne then asks his son about the people who they saw being eaten by animals, and the others trying to grab food that was out of their reach.
    • And Se-Osiris says:
      • “In truth, my father, they are under the curse of the gods; they are those who upon earth wasted their substance, and the creatures who devour them without ceasing are the women with whom they squandered both life and substance, and now they have naught, though they should work day and night. And so it is with all: as they have been on earth, so it is with them in Amenti, according to their good and bad deeds. That is the immutable law of the gods, the law that knows no change and under which all men must come when they enter Hades.”
  • In the 1973 translation, Se-Osiris ends their trip, saying:
    • Take it to your heart, my father Setne: He who is beneficent on Earth, to him one is beneficent in the netherworld. And he who is evil, to him one is evil. It is so decreed [and will remain so] for ever.
  • So then they descended from the mountains. Setne was freaked out, but Se-Osiris was calm, and said some magic words that would exorcise the spirits of the dead. I wonder if that’s so they don’t follow them back out?
  • It said that Setne never spoke to anyone about what he’d been shown, but always remembered it. (Of course, if he never told anyone, then this story couldn’t be told–another indication that this is fictional.)
  • So then that story ends with “And when Se-Osiris was twelve years of age there was no scribe or magician in Memphis who was his equal in the reading of the magical books.”
  • So the next story that features Se-Osiris is the tale of Se-Osiris and the Sealed Letter.
  • Let’s talk about the other story, the tale of Se-Osiris and the Sealed letter.
  • In this story, a Nubian chieftan arrives at the Pharaoh’s court, and declares that if an Egyptian magician can read the contents of a sealed letter, he will admit that Egypt is greater than Nubia. And if no scribe or magician could read the letter, then he’ll spread tales of Egypt’s weakness in Nubia.
    • The Pharaoh is distressed, and sends for his son, Setne.
    • Setne’s pretty freaked out, and he asks Pharaoh for 10 days to figure out how to read the sealed letter. But in truth, he has no idea how to do it.
    • To read from Lictheim’s translation, there’s a great description of his despair:
      • Setne went to his house without knowing where on earth he was going. He wrapped himself in his garments from head to foot and lay down without knowing where on earth he was.
    • But then his son, Se-Osiris, comes in and asks him what’s wrong.
    • Setne, sure that he’ll be the reason why Egypt is put to shame, tells Se-Osiris the story. To his surprise, Se-Osiris starts laughing.
    • He tells Setne that this is no big deal, and Se-Osiris can read the letter easily.
    • Se-Osiris tells Setne to go downstairs to a chest of books, and says that without going downstairs, Se-Osiris will be able to tell Setne what each book is.
    • He’s as good as his word, and Setne is thrilled. He runs to tell Pharaoh, who puts on a banquet for them that night.
    • Then, the next day, Pharaoh calls in the Nubian chieftan, and Se-Osiris reads the sealed letter.
    • The letter tells the story of three Nubian sorcerers from long ago, who brag to each other about all the things they could do to Egypt, like make the sun stop shining there for three days, or magically kidnapping the Pharaoh and beating him with a stick, or making all of their land barren for three years, but they said they can’t do those things since they’d get in trouble with the god Amun and with the Pharaoh.
    • The ruler of Nubian hears that the sorcerers have been bragging about these skills, and he asks for the sorcerer who said he could magically kidnap the Pharaoh, beat him 500 times with a stick, and then return him to Egypt within 6 hours, to do it.
    • So the sorcerer makes a litter and figures to carry it out of wax, and gives them life using a magical spell. (This is similar to the prince’s magical boat and crew in Setne I.)
    • And the sorcerer gives his creation their orders, and they go and kidnap the Pharaoh and bring him to be beaten before the Nubian ruler.
    • Se-Osiris pauses in the story and asks the Nubian chieftan to say whether he’s reading the letter correctly, and the chieftan says he is.
    • And then Se-Osiris continues reading the letter:
      • The next morning, the Pharaoh asks his staff what happened while he was away from Egypt, and people kinda wonder if he’s losing it.
      • The Pharaoh has to show them the marks on his back from being beaten, and tells them what happened to him.
      • They call in an Egyptian sorcerer, who realizes it was Nubian sorcerers who did this, and casts a spell over the Pharaoh and gives him amulets to protect him.
      • Then the sorcerer goes to the temple of Thoth and implores him for help, saying that since Thoth invented magic, he’s now calling on Thoth to help him save the Pharaoh from the Nubian sorcerers.
      • That night, Thoth comes to the sorcerer in a dream and tells him where he can find a book of magic that Thoth wrote himself, which will help him. He hurries to get the book and then follows Thoth’s instructions and creates a written amulet to protect the Pharaoh.
      • When the Nubian sorcerer’s creations come to kidnap the Pharaoh again, they’re unsuccessful because of this protective magic.
      • Then the Egyptian sorcerer creates his own wax figures with a litter, and has them capture the Nubian ruler so he can be beaten as the Pharaoh was.
      • The next day, the Nubian ruler is very angry with his sorcerer. He shows him the marks on his back and demands protective magic.
      • However, the protective magic doesn’t keep the Nubian ruler safe, and for three nights in a row, he’s kidnapped and beaten.
      • The Nubian sorcerer says that he must go to Egypt so he can confront the Egyptian sorcerer. Before going to Egypt, he visits his mom, who warns him to be careful, and says that the Egyptians’ magic is stronger than the Nubians’.
        • To read a bit from the story:
        • He said : “There is nothing to the words you have said . I cannot avoid going down to Egypt if I want to cast my sorceries into it.” The Nubian woman, his mother, said to him: ” If it is so that you will go down to Egypt, set some signs between me and you , so that if you are defeated, I shall come to you and see if I can save you.” He said to her : “If it happens that I am defeated , then when you are drinking [and eating], the water will take on the color of blood before you, the food before you the color of meat, and the sky will have the color of blood before you .”
      • So then the Nubian sorcerer goes to Memphis, to the Pharaoh’s court, and confronts the Egyptian sorcerer, who recognizes him as someone who he’d saved from drowning once.
      • The Nubian sorcerer starts casting spells: first, he makes a fire break out in the court, but the Egyptian sorcerer calls down clouds from the south and makes them rain to extinguish the fire.
      • Then the Nubian sorcerer made a thick cloud fill the air so no one could see each other. But then the Egyptian sorcerer casts a spell to the sky, which chases out the cloud.
      • Then the Nubian sorcerer created a stone vault that penned in the Pharaoh, intending to trap him there forever. But the Egyptian sorcerer “created a sky-boat of papyrus” which carried away the stone.
      • At this point, the Nubian sorcerer realizes he’s beat, so he turns himself into an invisible goose so he can escape, and fly away unseen. But the Egyptian sorcerer turns him visible again, and a hunter goes to hill the sorcerer-goose.
      • But at that moment, the Nubian sorcerer’s mother sees the signs that he’s in danger, and she turns herself into a goose and flies to save him.
      • The Egyptian sorcerer sees her and sets the hunter on her, but then the Nubian woman turns human again and begs for her life and the life of her son.
      • She says that if they’re given a sky-boat to fly away in, they’ll never come back to Egypt. The Egyptian sorcerer agrees, after the Nubian sorcerer promises not to return to Egypt in 1,500 years.
      • That’s everything the papyrus said. Se-Osiris then tells the Pharaoh that those 1,500 years are up, and now the Nubian sorcerer has returned.
      • The Se-Osiris reveals that he’s actually the Egyptian sorcerer from the story. After dying, he’d forseen that this would happen, so he begged Osiris, in the land of the dead, to let him return to the world of the living so he could save Egypt.
      • Osiris allowed it, which is why Se-Osiris was here now.
      • Then, Se-Osiris cast a spell and surrounded the Nubian sorcerer in flames, which consumed him.
      • Then, Se-Osiris vanished as a shadow.
      • Setne cried out, having missed his son disappearing.
      • He and his wife were devastated, but they were given another son soon after that.
      • But until he died, Setne would always make burnt offerings and give libations to the spirit of the sorcerer who has been his son Se-Osiris.
    • It’s kind of a sad story, but a dramatic one.
    • One thing I did want to mention, since this story pits the Egyptians against the Nubians–some versions of the story describes the Egyptians as white and calls the Nubian leader the “black dog of the south.” I read that that language isn’t in the original text at all, and that those versions should be considered spurious and inauthentic.
    • One thing we talked about during the Victorian Egyptomania episode is how many Black activists during that time period sought to prove that the Egyptians were Black, and since they had such an advanced civilization, especially at a time when white people really didn’t, that could potentially go a long way toward changing racist peoples’ minds.
    • I did a bit of reading, and this is a really complicated and hairy topic. But I think it’s safe to say that the ancient Egyptians were not white–a lot of modern scholars say that Ancient Egypt was ethnically diverse but not white–and that it’s clear that some people have tried to doctor this story to have some racist implications. Though one thing that’s worth noting is that ancient historians, including Herodotus, among others, described the Egyptians as being dark-skinned.
      • I’ll link to a really interesting article with more info in the shownotes, so you can check that out if you want to learn more.
    • Next week, I want to talk about the real Prince Setne, as well as the book of Thoth, the magical book that appeared in both Setne I and Setne II.

Sources consulted RE: Se-Osiris, Ancient Egyptian Wizard

Books RE: Se-Osiris, Ancient Egyptian Wizard

Websites RE: Se-Osiris, Ancient Egyptian Wizard

  • Article about race and Ancient Egypt: https://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2020/04/23/were-the-ancient-egyptians-black/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_race_controversy
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Egyptian_hypothesis
  • https://www.quora.com/Is-the-claim-that-the-ancient-Egyptians-were-black-had-dark-skin-supported-by-history-If-not-what-race-were-they-and-how-do-we-know?share=1
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Thoth
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/https://www.ancient.eu/article/1056/setna-i-a-detailed-summary–commentary/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Khaemweset/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Egyptian_language
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_hieroglyphs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursive_hieroglyphs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieratichttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demotic_(Egyptian)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_languagehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_Stonehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Egypt#Greek_rule
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemaic_Kingdom
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-seventh_Dynasty_of_Egypt
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darius_the_Great
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nubia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egypt_(Roman_province)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep_(The_Mummy)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duat
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anubis
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammit
  • http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythsealletr.htm
  • http://www.perankhgroup.com/The%20Sealed%20Letter%20-%20Se%20osiris.htm
  • http://www.egyptianmyths.net/section-myths.htm
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1057/setna-ii-a-detailed-summary–commentary/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptah
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis,_Egypt
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/885/egyptian-gods—the-complete-list/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennead
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crook_and_flail
  • http://ib205.tripod.com/setne_2.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Magical_Papyri
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tale_of_Setne_Khamwas_and_Si-Osire
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaemweset
  • https://www.thetorah.com/article/yhwhs-war-against-the-egyptian-sun-god-ra
  • http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/magic.htm
  • http://www.egyptsearch.com/forums/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=next_topic;f=15;t=002869;go=older
  • http://www.attalus.org/egypt/setne.html
  • http://vr.theatre.ntu.edu.tw/hlee/course/th6_520/sty_egy/minor/seallet.htm
  • https://amp.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/dcpm06/in_the_story_of_se_osiris_we_discover_ancient/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=5z3CAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PT336&ots=gonD6AeP9c&dq=se-osiris&pg=PT336#v=onepage&q=se-osiris&f=false
  • https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mortuary-mask-khaemwaset
  • https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/bas-relief-prince-khaemwaset
  • https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/3441
  • https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah15225
  • https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/46579
  • http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/detail.aspx?id=1096
  • https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG54170
  • https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100035505
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/death_sakkara_gallery_04.shtml
  • http://www.joanannlansberry.com/fotoart/brklyn/khaemwaset.html
  • http://carlos.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/items/show/8035
  • https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/prince-khaemwasets-signature-deposits-being-part-of-history/
  • https://www.academia.edu/1042964/_Khaemwaset_in_The_Encyclopedia_of_Ancient_History_Blackwell_2013_
  • http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk/roscicrucian/pages/rosicrucian%20museum%2C%20San%20Jose%2C%20May-2005%2C%20259.htm
  • http://www.digitalsculpture.org/egypt/main/model/d5b9dfb529b94903974f748c2b315829
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Thoth

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A look at the magic-filled legends of Ancient Egyptian tomb raider and wizard Prince Setne, a character based on the son of Ramesses II, who goes on a tomb-raiding journey to acquire a magical book. And it’s the prequel to the stories about his 12-year-old boy wizard son, Se-Osiris.

Setne I, or Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah, is a story that’s survived on papyrus from Ptolemaic Egypt. It tells the story of a wizard who descends into a tomb to collect a book written by the god Thoth, only to find it guarded by ghosts. Indiana Jones-style hijinks ensue.

Highlights include:
• An eternal snake (ouroboros)
• A magical glowing book hidden inside a series of boxes
• The ancient city of Memphis, Egypt
• The wrath of Thoth
• A look at different types of Ancient Egyptian writing systems

 

Note: This episode contains brief mentions of drowning, suicide, incest, soliciting sex for money, killing children, and disinterring corpses

 

 

Episode Script for Ancient Egyptian Tomb Raider and Wizard Setne

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • I’m excited to talk about the legends about the 12-year-old ancient Egyptian wizard Se-Osiris, who’s also referred to as Si-Osire. I’m not sure how well known he is, but I got really obsessed with him when I was 11 or 12, so I wanted to dig up the old stories that I was so interested in, and tell them.
  • I have such a clear memory of being up late at night reading the myths, and then printing them out and putting them in a binder or folder so I could read them in my room, since the family computer was downstairs, which is a very early 2000s thing to do and which feels so quaint now.
  • Also, a number of the websites I consulted for this were pretty old, and I kinda have the feeling they’re some of the same ones–I kinda recognize the design of egyptianmyths.net, for example. There’re a lot of very web 1.0-looking sites that mention him.
  • Today we’re going to talk about Se-Osiris’ father, Prince Setne, who was a skilled scribe and wizard, though he paled in comparison with his son.
    • Prince Setne is based on a real, historical figure who we’ll look at in a later episode, but a lot of liberties are taken in the fictional stories about him.
  • So first, let’s talk about the fictional Setne, specifically, the first story about him, Setne I.
  • The story involves tons of ghosts, tomb raiding, ghosts, curses, magical books, and lots of creepy stuff that made me think of the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, which I love.
  • So first, let’s lay some context for these legends.
    • First, it’s unlikely that Se-Osiris actually ever existed.
    • We’ll be talking about a boy wizard named Se-Osiris, who’s not to be confused with the Egyptian god Osiris.
    • Also, I’ll be calling him Se-Osiris just because that’s how I’m used to thinking of him, but I actually think that’s a dated way to write and say his name. If you google him, many more results come up under “Si-Osire”, so I kinda think that’s a more common and modern way of referring to him.
    • But I did want to talk a little about Osiris, since it seems possible that Se-Osiris was named after him.
      • Osiris was the god of agriculture, fertility, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, and plants.
      • He was typically depicted as a green-skinned god with mumm-wrapped legs, a crown with feathers on it, and holding a crook and flail that stood for fertility and kingship.
      • As we’ll learn in next week’s episode, Osiris was in charge of judging the dead and allowing entry to the afterlife.

 

  • My two biggest sources for this story are a book called Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt by Lewis Spence, published in 1915, and a book called Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume 3 by Miriam Lichtheim. In reading the two accounts, I’ve found that the 1915 book yadda yadda yaddas over a bunch of pretty racy stuff, whereas the 1973 book really gets into it.

 

  • So, the story of Se-Osiris appears in a cycle of stories called Tales of Prince Setna.
    • There are two parts of cycle:
      •  Setna I, which was written during the Ptolemaic period, in a neat handwriting, and carefully numbered so it’s obvious that the first two pages are missing.
      • And then Setna II, which was written on the back of another papyrus from the Roman Period. The handwriting is messy, the pages aren’t numbered, it’s riddled with errors, and parts of it are missing, though we aren’t sure how much.
        • To read a bit from the 1915 book:
          • “This story was discovered written on some papyrus belonging to the British Museum. An English translation was published in 1900 by Mr. F. Ll. Griffiths, and one in French by Sir G. Maspero in 1901. It is written on the back of some official documents in Greek and dates from the seventh year of the Emperor Claudian. The papyrus is much dilapidated and pasted end to end; it is incomplete, and the beginning of the history has disappeared. By the writing one would judge the copy to belong to the latter half of the second century of our era.”
    • Both parts of the story were written on papyrus in Demotic, which is an ancient Egyptian form of writing.
    • So I wanted to pause and explain exactly what Demotic means, and talk a bit about writing and literature in ancient Egypt, as well as touch on some Egyptian history so we can place where in time all of this is happening.
    • First, basically, everyone knows about hierogyphic writing.
    • Hieroglyphs started being used around the early bronze age, so like the 32nd century BC, and it was used through the Late Period of Ancient Egypt, as well as the Persian and Ptolemaic periods in the 500s-300s BC.
      • For reference, if these periods are hard to place or visualize, since I for one didn’t learn much about Egyptian history in high school or in college and I figure most other listeners also didn’t:
        • the Persian period was when the King of Persia conquered Egypt and became Pharaoh. Darius I was one of these Pharaohs, as was his son Xerxes I, and you may have heard of them since they’re both mentioned in the bible.
        • And then the Ptolemaic dynasty was established after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the 300s BC. Basically, Egypt was part of Alexander’s empire, and when Alexander died, a Macedonia Greek named Ptolemy got control of Egypt and said he was the Pharaoh.
          • The dynasty was actually the longest-ruling dynasty of Egypt, since they ruled for 300 years. It ended when the final Ptolemy ruler, Cleopatra, died, in 30 BC.
          • One random fact that I learned while researching was that apparently Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic ruler who bothered to learn the Egyptian language; all the rest just spoke their native Greek.
    • So anyway, hierogyphics were still being used during those periods, when the rulers weren’t even Egyptian and didn’t necessarily even speak the language.
    • And there’re even examples of hieroglyphic writing being used even in the Roman Period, which began after Cleopatra died and lasted through 4th century AD.
    • But the last pagan temples were closed in the 5th century AD, and everyone who knew and understood hieroglyphics died off.
    • So anyway, if hieroglyphics were forgotten, what replaced them?
    • First there was Hieratic, which was sort of like a cursive version of hieroglyphics.
      •  While hieroglyphics were used in formal settings, and in religious texts like the Book of the Dead, once hieratic came along, it was more important that hieroglyphics, because it was the everyday style of writing. It was what students learned; it was just a select group of people who got the additional training needed to know hierogyphics.
      • So Hieratic was used for recordkeeping, legal documents, letters, and things like scientific, literary, and religious texts.
    • Demotic was basically an even-more-cursive way of writing. It was called “cursive Coptic” by some 18th or 19th century scholars, though it wasn’t really coptic.
      • Once Demotic came around, hieratic was relegated to religious texts, and demotic was used for administrative documents and literature
    •  And then after that, the last Egyptian language that came about was Coptic, which began being used during Greco-Roman Egypt.
    • Demotic was used from around 65 BC until the 5th century AD.
    • Coptic was an adaptation of the Greek alphabet, with some Demotic characters added in for sounds that didn’t exist in Greek.
      • It was used in literature until the 13th century, and while Arabic ended up replacing it as a language, Coptic is still spoken by Coptic christians. I assume it’s similar to how there’s still some Latin spoken in the Catholic church (or at least there was in the early 20th century).
    • As a sidenote, I’m vaguely aware of Coptic because in college, I had a roommate who was learning it. Because a lot of ancient literature was written in Coptic, it’s sill learned today, but at least in the states, it’s only a specific kind of academic or researcher who might learn it.
    • But people didn’t know how to read any ancient Egyptian writing.
    • Throughout the middle ages and beyond, people tried to decipher them, but it was unsuccessful until the 1820s, when the Rosetta stone was deciphered.
      • And the tl;dr on the Rosetta Stone is that it’s a stele, which is a big slab of rock with writing carved into it.
      • The Rosetta Stone bears a decree from 196 BC written in hieroglyphic script, Demotic script, and then Ancient Greek.
      • So when an officer in Napoleon’s army discovered it in 1799, scholars were able to compare Ancient Greek part, which they understood, to the different versions of the decree and figure out what the ancient Egyptian writing meant.
      • We talk a bit more about how Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns inspired a huge interest in Egypt in the Victorian Egyptomania episode, and that’s a topic I want to return to later.

 

  • So anyway, while the story we’re talking about is set during an earlier period of Egyptian history,  during the reign of Ramesses II, the papyrus that the story was written down on was from a much later period.
  • There are a few reasons why this story is probably just a legend, even though some of the characters in it were real, but the fact that the written record of it is from so much later than the time when the story occurred is definitely one of them.
  • So the very beginning of the story was lost and they haven’t been able to reconstruct it, but the story of Se-Osiris begins with his father, a scribe named Setne.
  • Setne was the son of the Pharaoh, which is why he was referred to as a prince.
    • The first story about Setna is pretty explicit and has some weird incest stuff in it, but I’m gonna focus more on of the more magic-and-occult parts of that story. The translation that I read is from the 1973 book that I mentioned.
      • The book describes Setne as the son of Ramesses II, and a high priest of Ptah, the creator god, in Memphis, Egypt, which a major, important city of Egypt.
      •  It was believed that Ptah protected Memphis, and in Memphis, there was a huge temple to Ptah that was one of the most prominent buildings in the city.
      • In fact, the Greek word for this temple was Ai-gy-ptos, which people think is where the word “Egypt” came from.
      • Basically, one day, someone tells Setne about a book of magic that the god Thoth wrote. Thoth was associated with magical arts, writing, science, and the judgement of the dead. You may be familiar with his name if you’re into tarot, because Aleister Crowley’s tarot deck, the Thoth tarot, is a popular and cool deck.
      • So anyway, Setne learned that the book was kept in the tomb of a long-dead prince who was buried somewhere in the huge necropolis of Memphis.
      • So he goes to the tomb, and sees the book, which is literally glowing, and tries to grab it.
      • But as if this is some kind of Indiana Jones movie, when he reaches for it, the prince and his wife rise up to confront him and protect the book.
      • The spirit of the wife, Ahwere, tells Prince Setne how her husband had gotten the book, and how it’d cost both of their lives.
        • The husband’s name is Naneferkaptah, so I’m just gonna call him the prince from here on out.
      • She starts out by telling about how she and her husband were both children of the Pharaoh, but were in love with each other so ended up being together.
      • When they got together, the husband was kind of at loose ends; the book says that he
        • “had no occupation on earth but walking the desert of Memphis, reading the writings that were in the tombs of the Pharaohs and on the stelae of the scribes of the House of Life and the writings that were on the other monuments, for his zeal concerning writings was very great.”
      • And then one time the husband followed a procession in honor of Ptah and went into the temple to worship him.
      • In the temple, a priest laughed at him, and told him that he was wasting his time reading unimportant writings, but if he followed this priest, he’d take him to a book written by Thoth. The priest said:
        • Two spells are written in it. When you recite the first spell you will charm the sky, the earth, the netherworld, the mountains, and the waters. You will discover what all the birds of the sky and all the reptiles are saying. You will see the finish of the deep . . . When you recite the second spell, it will happen that, whether you are in the netherworld or in your form on earth, you will see Pre appearing in the sky with his Ennead, and the Moon in its form of rising.
      • I had trouble figuring out who Pre was, but I think it might be another name for the sun god Ra? But the Ennead were a group of 9 really important egyptian gods, and included the sun god Atum, the god Osiris, the goddess Isis, the god of deserts, storms, disorder, and violence, Set, sometimes the god of the sky Horus, along with some other gods. It sounds like in Memphis, Ptah was seen as more important than the Ennead, but in the major city Heliopolis, the nine were seen as the most significant gods.
      • So anyway, after talking up this magical book, the priest said he’d tell Setne where it was if he paid him 100 pieces of silver, and waived the taxes on the payment. (The ancient egyptians were very practical, as far as I can tell.)
      • So then the priest described the box, and I really loved this description:
        • The book in question is in the middle of the water of Coptos in a box of iron. In the box of iron is a box of copper. In the box of copper is a box of juniper wood. In the box of juniper wood is a box of ivory and ebony. In the box of ivory and ebony is a box of silver. In the box of silver is a box of gold, and in it is the book. There are six miles of serpents, scorpions, and all kinds of reptiles around the box in which the book is, and there is an eternal serpent around this same box.
      • So the prince left the temple in a daze, and Ahwere cursed the priest for having told him about the book, which she could tell was going to destroy their lives. She tried to keep her husband from going to find the book, but instead he went to the Pharaoh, asked for equipment for the journey, and set off to find the book with Ahwere and kid in tow.
        • Apparently the prince didn’t want to endanger anyone on the trip, so he made a crew out of wax figures and brought them to life using magic, so that’s who was on the boat with them.
      • The prince left Ahwere and their son in Coptos and went on the rest of the way alone, with rowers to bring him to where the book was kept.
      • So here’s what the prince did when he found the book:
        • He recited a spell to the six miles of serpents, scorpions, and all kinds of reptiles that were around the box, and did not let him come up. He went to the place where the eternal serpent was. He fought it and killed it. It came to life again and resumed its shape. He fought it again, a third time, cut it in two pieces, and put sand between one piece and the other. It died and no longer resumed its shape.
      • Then he goes to where the book is and does all of the unboxing to get it out. He cast both spells and everything the priest said would happen, did.
      • He brings the book back to where Ahwere had been waiting for him for days, and she was weak from not eating or drinking because she was so worried. When she examined the book, she cast the spells as well, and they worked.
      • Then, the prince, who was a very good scribe, wrote down all of the words from the book on some papyrus. Then he soaked it in beer, dissolved it in water, and drank it, so he knew everything that had been written in it.
      • However, as anyone who’s ever played the worldbuilder game Pharaoh (which is an old game that’s like sim city except in egypt, I downloaded steam onto my computer just so I could play that)–as anyone who’s played Pharaoh would know, it’s easy to displease the gods, and that’s something that you really don’t want to do.
      • So Thoth was mad that the prince had stolen his book, and also unhappy that he’d killed the guardian of the box, the eternal snake. (Who I think is an ouroboros, the snake eating its tail, since the ouroboros originated in ancient Egypt.)
      • So Thoth complained to Pre, which I think might be another name for Ra, the sun god? And Pre said “He is yours, together with every person belonging to him.”
      • So then they sent an order from the heavens that the prince and his family wouldn’t return to Memphis safely.
      • So first, their son fell out of the ship and drowned.
      • But the prince cast one of the spells he’d learned and brought him back.
      • Weirdly, it sounds like the son was able to relate what Thoth had said, but he was still dead.
      • So then they went back to Coptos, and their son was embalmed as a prince and buried in a coffin in the desert.
      • They left again, and right at the spot where their son had drowned, Ahwere fell out of the boat and drowned.
      • So the prince brought her back, cast a spell so he could question her about Thoth’s accusations, and then brought her back to Coptos, where she was embalmed, also in the tradition of a prince or important person, and then buried her in the tomb alongside their son.
      • The prince left again, but when he reached the place where his wife and son had drowned, he was overcome with guilt, and wondered what he would say to his father, the Pharaoh. He didn’t know how he’d explain why he was alive when his wife, who was of course also the Pharaoh’s child, and son, were dead.
      • So then the prince took a fine linen scarf and used it to bind the book tightly to his body. Then he jumped overboard and drowned.
      • They couldn’t find his body, but the sailors returned to Memphis, where the Pharaoh and everyone was in mourning.
      • Then they say that the prince was, quote, “holding onto the rudders of Pharaoh’s ship through his craft of a good scribe” whatever that means. I think that maybe he used some sort of magic to keep himself hanging onto the rudder even though he was dead.
      • When they collected his body, they say the book, and the Pharaoh said that the book must be hidden.
      • So then Ahwere closes the story, telling Setne:
        • These are the evil things that befell us on account of this book of which you say, “Let it be given to me.” You have no claim to it, whereas our lives on earth were taken on account of it!
      • You’d think that Setne would have then steered clear of the book, but instead he demands the book, saying that he’d take it from them by force if he had to.
      • The prince agreed to allow Setne play a board game for the book.
      • It didn’t go well. They played three games, and Setne lost all of them. After each game, the prince cast a spell so that Setne sank further into the sand, until he was up to his ears in sand.
      • Not to be deterred, Setne called out to his foster brother Inaros, who was apparently hanging around through all of this, and he asked him to go tell the Pharaoh what happened, and to come back with all of his amulets and sorcery books.
      • When Inaros came back with the amulets, he threw them on Setne, who jumped up and grabbed the book.
      • Ahwere and the prince were upset, but the prince says to Ahwere “Let your heart not grieve. I will make him bring this book back here, with a forked stick in his hand and a lighted brazier on his head.”
      • When Setne returned to the Pharaoh with the book, the Pharaoh told him to bring it back to the tomb, or he’d regret it.
      • So that was my favorite part of the story, and I’m just going to briefly touch on what happened next.
      • Basically, Setne was hanging out at the temple of Ptah, and saw a really hot lady named Tabubu who he decides that he just has to sleep with.
      • He offers her money, and she’s offended, saying she’s of priestly rank–she’s the daughter of a prophet–but she says that he can come back to her place anyway.
      • Setne agrees, though everyone around him was indignant.
      • When he arrives at her mansion, she says that she’ll sleep with him if he draws up a deed that gives her the right to everything he owns.
      • He agrees, and does that.
      • Then she says that she wants his children to sign off on the deed too, so her children don’t have to have legal disputes with his children over the inheritance.
      • So then he does that, and then she says that actually, he needs to kill his children if he wants to sleep with her, because that way, his children won’t argue with her children over his property.
      • I’ll just read a bit of this:
        • Setne said: “Let the abomination that came into your head be done to them.” She had his children killed before him. She had them thrown down from the window to the dogs and cats. They ate their flesh, and he heard them as he drank with Tabubu.
      • So then they go to sleep together, and right before he touches her, Setne wakes up. It was all a dream.
      • But unfortunately, he’d woken up naked in public, and then a noble person on a litter approached, and that person was his father, the Pharaoh.
      • Setne explains to the Pharaoh that the cursed book has put him in that state, and says that he must return it. So Pharaoh, after reassuring him that his children are all alive and well, gives him some clothes and Setne returns to Memphis with him.
      • After greeting his children, Setne talks to Pharaoh and tells him everything that happened. And Pharaoh says: “Setne, I did what I could with you before, saying ‘They will kill you if you do not take this book back to the place you took it from.’ You have not listened to me until now. Take this book back to Naneferkaptah, with a forked stick in your hand and a lighted brazier on your head.”
      • So he returns to the tomb, where they all greet each other warmly. Ahwere tells him that the only reason why he got there safely was because of Ptah’s protection.
      • Setne returns the book and asks if there’s anything he can do for them, and the prince asked if he could bring Ahwere and their son’s bodies back from Coptos and put them in the tomb with him.
      • So Setne traveled to Coptos, where he made offerings to the god Isis, whose temple was there, and then went into the desert with the priests of Isis and searched the tombs for 3 days and 3 nights, but they couldn’t find the tomb.
      • When the prince saw that he couldn’t find the tomb, he used magic to rise from the grave as a very old man, and met Setne. He pretended to be an old priest who remembered where the tomb was, and told Setne that they were buried underneath the south corner of the chief of police’s house.
      • Setne’s suspicious and thinks that he has a grudge against the police chief and just wants his house to be torn down. So the prince in disguise tells him that they can hold him and if they don’t find the bodies, they can punish him.
      • So they dug up the area and found the bodies. Then he brought Ahwere and her son to be buried with her husband the prince, and the magical book, and had the tomb closed up with all of them together.
    • So that’s Setne. Even though he behaves foolishly in this story, he was known for being the super smart, and he was the favored son of the Pharaoh. I think he’s set up as being skilled but not super wise so that in the next story, his son Se-Osiris is all the more impressive. The story we looked at today was called Setne I, and next week, we’ll look at Setne II, which is where the boy wizard appears.
    • One thing to be aware of: tomb raiding was seen as a really awful thing to do back in ancient egypt, so to quote an analysis of the story from ancient.eu:
      • “Tombs were considered the eternal homes of the dead and tomb robbing was a very serious crime. Execration texts, better known today as ‘curses’ were often inscribed along with one’s autobiography on tomb walls, promising vengeance on any who would desecrate or steal from the deceased. The fact that Setna, identified as a prince, a scribe, and a magician, is punished for this sin would have made it clear that no one is exempt from eternal justice, and those of lesser status could expect even worse treatment.”
    • The same article talks about how the story of the prince and his wife stealing the book originally is supposed to teach people about how it’s dangerous to steal from the gods. The ghost prince is a sort of mirror of Setne, and like Setne, he’s punished harshly for his crime.
    • To quote a bit more of the article:

Setna I shows how even a skilled magician, learned in his craft, can make a terrible choice in desiring what he has no right to.

  • The article also talks about how Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch has said that the story of Setne and Tabubu can also be read as Setne being punished for lusting after a woman without seeing her as a person. He literally acts like he can buy her, and doesn’t see her as anything but a sex object.
    • Also, Tabubu wasn’t just any woman–she was the daughter of a priest of Bastet, and Bastet was a goddess who protected women, children, and women’s secrets, so she would have punished a man who disrespected a woman, especially because women were highly respected in Ancient Egypt, and Bastet was one of the most popular dieties
    • Also, throughout the story, Tabubu reminds Setne repeatedly that she should be treated with respect, and Setne keeps ignoring her and just keeps trying to sleep with her
    • It’s also been suggested that Tabubu was actually Bastet herself, in disguise
  • And the 1973 book talks about how “The tale exemplifies the traditional Egyptian view that magic is a legitimate weapon for man, but the ultimate secrets of life and the world belong only to the gods and may not be acquired by man.”
  • If you want to learn more, I’ll include a link to the book where I found this story; the full text is available on archive.org. I wanted to keep this PG-13 so I left out some details of the story, but if you want the full thing, it’s all in that book, Ancient Egyptian Literature Book III, from 1973.
  • And in typical form, I found out so much cool stuff about Setne that of course I haven’t even gotten to the story of Se-Osiris, but we’ll get to that next week.
  • There are two big stories about Se Osiris: the first is the tale of a trip to the land of the dead, and the second is the story of a magical duel.

 

Sources consulted RE: Ancient Egyptian Tomb Raider and Wizard Setne

Books RE: Ancient Egyptian Tomb Raider and Wizard Setne

Websites RE: Ancient Egyptian Tomb Raider and Wizard Setne

  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/https://www.ancient.eu/article/1056/setna-i-a-detailed-summary–commentary/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Khaemweset/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Egyptian_language
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_hieroglyphs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursive_hieroglyphs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieratichttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demotic_(Egyptian)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_languagehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_Stonehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Egypt#Greek_rule
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemaic_Kingdom
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-seventh_Dynasty_of_Egypt
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darius_the_Great
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nubia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egypt_(Roman_province)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imhotep_(The_Mummy)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duat
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anubis
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammit
  • http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythsealletr.htm
  • http://www.perankhgroup.com/The%20Sealed%20Letter%20-%20Se%20osiris.htm
  • http://www.egyptianmyths.net/section-myths.htm
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1057/setna-ii-a-detailed-summary–commentary/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptah
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis,_Egypt
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/885/egyptian-gods—the-complete-list/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enneadhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thothhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboroshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osirishttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crook_and_flail
  • http://ib205.tripod.com/setne_2.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Magical_Papyri
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tale_of_Setne_Khamwas_and_Si-Osire
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaemweset
  • https://www.thetorah.com/article/yhwhs-war-against-the-egyptian-sun-god-ra
  • http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/magic.htm
  • http://www.egyptsearch.com/forums/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=next_topic;f=15;t=002869;go=older
  • http://www.attalus.org/egypt/setne.html
  • http://vr.theatre.ntu.edu.tw/hlee/course/th6_520/sty_egy/minor/seallet.htm
  • https://amp.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/dcpm06/in_the_story_of_se_osiris_we_discover_ancient/
  • https://www.ancient.eu/article/1054/the-tales-of-prince-setna/
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=5z3CAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PT336&ots=gonD6AeP9c&dq=se-osiris&pg=PT336#v=onepage&q=se-osiris&f=false
  • https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mortuary-mask-khaemwaset
  • https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/bas-relief-prince-khaemwaset
  • https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/3441
  • https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah15225
  • https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/46579
  • http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/detail.aspx?id=1096
  • https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG54170
  • https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100035505
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/death_sakkara_gallery_04.shtml
  • http://www.joanannlansberry.com/fotoart/brklyn/khaemwaset.html
  • http://carlos.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/items/show/8035
  • https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/prince-khaemwasets-signature-deposits-being-part-of-history/
  • https://www.academia.edu/1042964/_Khaemwaset_in_The_Encyclopedia_of_Ancient_History_Blackwell_2013_
  • http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk/roscicrucian/pages/rosicrucian%20museum%2C%20San%20Jose%2C%20May-2005%2C%20259.htm
  • http://www.digitalsculpture.org/egypt/main/model/d5b9dfb529b94903974f748c2b315829
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Thoth

Listen to the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

Archbishop John Hughes, aka Dagger John, New York City’s most influential and vicious clergyman, had a huge impact, whether he was consecrating Calvary Cemetery and Fordham University, or peppering the mayor with threats to burn down the city.

” Are you afraid,” asked the mayor, “that some of your churches will be burned?”
“No, sir; but I am afraid that some of yours will be burned. We can protect our own. I come to warn you for your own good.”

-Life of the Most Reverend John Hughes by John R. G. Hassard

Highlights include:
• The “Black Coats,” aka America’s evil wizards, aka the Jesuit colonizers
• The Mohawks who built Manhattan
• Threats to burn down the city
• What happened on the land that became Calvary Cemetery
• The first saint born in the US, a Protestant society woman with eleven children who became a Catholic nun
• Secret societies in Ireland

 

Episode Script for Archbishop John Hughes, aka Dagger John: Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

“As early as the year 1840 the late illustrious Archbishop Hughes . . . foresaw that in a few short years the only burying-ground then available to the faithful of New York . . . Situated in what was at that time the upper part of the city, would be entirely inadequate to the wants of the rapidly increasing Catholic population.” -The Visitor’s Guide to Calvary Cemetery, 1876

 

  • Welcome back! We’re talking more about Calvary Cemetery: this time, I wanted to focus on Archbishop John Hughes, who consecrated the cemetery, because he’s a real character. But we’ll also touch on some of the history of Catholicism in New York, the first saint to be born in the US, and the fascinating story about some of the workers who built some of NYC’s most famous skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and the World Trade Center. Plus there’s some secret societies andnd suspicions of dark wizardry thrown into this history as well.
    • I’ll also talk a bit about the history of the Catholic church in New York.
  • I wanted to talk a bit first about the history of the land the cemetery was built on, I wanted to read a bit from The visitor’s guide to Calvary cemetery, which was published in 1876–one note, some of the language used here is out of date and racist :
    • The locality of the cemetery, peaceful and quiet as it seems to-day, has had its share of stirring scenes. On February 25, 1643, just about the time of the arrival of the illustrious Father Jogues, the first priest who ever visited the Dutch Colony, the Governor at Fort Amsterdam, on the pretense of some injury received from the natives, dispatched two bodies of troops at midnight, one of which fell upon the Indians at Pavonia, on the Jersey shore, and the other upon those at Corlears Hook, Manhattan Island. Both expeditions were fearfully successful, resulting in a horrid butchery of the sleeping Indians. The natives at first thought it was their old enemies, the terrible Mohawks, but were soon undeceived, for, only about a week after, the settlers at Flatlands attacked those at Merrickawick (now Brooklyn), seized a large quantity of corn, and killed two of them who attempted to defend their property. . . . The dwellers along the shores of Mespat Kills . . . Or, as in later days, called the Newtown Creek, felt the vengeance of the savages with the rest, and the vicinity soon presented a fearful spectacle of smouldering ruins and slaughtered inhabitants.
  • The guide goes on to say that the colonists around the creek moved to an area called Furman’s Island, “a short distance east of the present cemetery, and built a fort for mutual protection. They appear then to have concluded a peace, for there is on record a deed, or release, from the Indians to the white inhabitants, of several miles of land, including the Wandell plantation (and part of which is now Calvary Cemetery), lying north of the Creek.”
  • I just want to pause for a sec here, since we’re looking at Catholicism in NYC, and there’s some important context to get into here about what happened with the Jesuits in New York when they first got here, including a figure who the cemetery guide mentioned, a Father Isaac Jogues.
  • So this is a history I’m familiar with because I went to Fordham University in the Bronx, which like I mentioned last week was founded by Hughes. And at Fordham, there’s a dorm called Martyr’s Court, which is named after a group of Jesuits known as “The North American Martyrs” or the “Canadian Martyrs.” Each wing of the hall is named after a martyr, so one’s called Goupil after St. Rene Goupil, one’s Jogues after St. Isaac Jogues, and one’s Lalande after St. Jean de Lalande. Also, in a building called Duane Library, there’s a large mural depicting the martyr’s–that’s where the Fordham admissions office is nowadays.
    • I remember seeing that mural and getting extremely frustrated when I was a student, because if you know anything about American history, you can guess how much the martyrs “helped” the indigenous peoples they supposedly came here to save.
    • Jogues, for example, said that he came to New France, as Canada and Northern NY were known as back then, to “devote himself to labor there for the conversion and welfare of the natives”
    • So to follow Jogues through his time there: He arrived at a Jesuit mission on Lake Huron on September 11, 1636.
      • As soon as he got there, he became very sick.
      • Then, since the mission was near a Huron village, the sickness seemed to spread there, and people got very sick. This is unfortunately a pretty typical story of the interaction between colonists and indigenous peoples in the area that’s now the US.
      • It turns out that there had been repeated epidemics, which the Huron rightfully blamed on the Jesuits. The Hurons gave the Jesuits the appropriately ominous name the “Black Coats.”
      • So the Jesuits tried to convert people, and while many villages of indigenous people rejected them, they did succeed in converting some Huron people.
      • Eventually, Jogues, along with some other priests and some converted Hurons, were captured during a journey by Mohawks. It sounds like they weren’t great captors, and it was an unpleasant experience, though I actually don’t want to elaborate more than that, since we have so many accounts of gruesome things that happened to colonists, who were the victors who got to write history, and much fewer accounts of what happened to indigenous peoples (aside from vague stuff like “they died from diseases”  or “died in conflicts with colonists” etc). There’s a reason for this discrepancy, which is that the indigenous peoples were destroyed through genocide and their ancestors are still suffering in America today, so their stories don’t get told the same way.
      • So anyway, Jogues ends up escaping, and he was brought down to New Amsterdam, where he stayed with a Protestant minister until he could get on a ship bound back to France.
      • That made him the first Catholic priest to set foot on the island of Manhattan.
      • Not only is he immortalized at Fordham, but he also appears on the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, a church we’ll be talking about in a bit.
      • Jogues ended up returning to Iroquois territory and became an ambassador to the Mohawks.
      • The Mohawks viewed Jogues and the other priests as basically evil wizards, which I think is a very accurate way to look at them. Colonists had brought smallpox, measles, and other infectious diseases to the Mohawks, who had no immunity to them and saw huge fatalities.
        • And the Jesuits had come to preach their religion (which as someone who grew up Catholic, I can say is full of magic) and try to convince indigenous peoples to convert, while at the same time unwittingly bringing them disease and death.
      • After another major disease outbreak, and a crop failure, the Mohawks believed their misfortunes were the result of religious paraphernalia that the Jesuits had left behind in their village. Which, you know, that’s close enough to being true that I think that’s very fair to believe. Think about all the people who died because of the contact they had with European colonists.
      • So there was an anti-French faction of the Mohawk village, and they went and killed Jogue and the other Jesuit, LaLande, who was with them.
      • Then, indigenous people who were allies of the French (I’m not sure if they were Mohawk or Huron, but I assume they were Huron?), captured the man who killed Jogues. The man was condemned to death, but while waiting to be executed, he was baptized and then renamed Isaac Jogues. So then it’s like Jogues was martyred again.
      • One thing is that I would assume this conversion happened with the man’s consent, but I wonder if it wasn’t?
      • So then a bit later on, around 1666, a Mohawk village called Ossernenon (which is where the Jesuits were killed, and where Auriesville, NY, is now) was destroyed by forces led by a French aristocrat, in retribution for the killing of the Jesuits. They also destroyed 2 other Mohawk villages in the area. It’s unclear how many people were killed when those three villages were destroyed.
      • But after the destruction of their villages, the French forced the Mohawks to accept the missionaries, and the Jesuits established a Jesuit mission nearby, though that was destroyed by the Mohawks in the 1680s.
      • Jogues and the 7 other Canadian martyrs were made saints in 1930 and are clearly still well-regarded today, which I find pretty awful.
      • Before colonization, the Mohawks were one of the most populous tribes in the area, and they had a lot of influence in the Iroquois Confederacy, but disease took a terrible toll, and in the year 1635, their population went from 7,740 people to just 2,830 people. So many people died that they had to consolidate into three tribes, down from 4. During the Revolutionary War, the sided with the British, since the colonists had done so much harm to them, and after the war, their land was confiscated, and many of them moved to Canada.
        • The Mohawk people still exist: there are about 5,600 Mohawks living in New York, and about 23,600 living in Quebec and Ontario.
        • Also, one interesting fact is that Mohawk ironworkers were involved in building many of the skyscrapers in Manhattan, and has been for 6 generations. Mohawk ironworking teams worked on the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the UN, Madison Square Garden, plus bridges including the GW, the Triboro Bridge, and the Hellgate Bridge.
          • Hundreds of Mohawks a;sp worked on the World Trade Center, and the last girder was signed by Mohawk ironworkers, which is an ironworking tradition. And when the World Trade Center was destroyed, Mohawk volunteers helped with cleanup.
          • I’ll include a link to an interesting article I read about it in the shownotes

 

  • So let’s talk about John Joseph Hughes, aka “Dagger John.”
    • Before we get into his biography, I wanted to read a quote from an 1866 biography called
  • Life of the Most Reverend John Hughes by John R. G. Hassard:
    • Archbishop Hughes was neither the most learned theologian, the best scholar, the most eloquent preacher, nor the most active missionary among the bishops of this country ; but there was none of his episcopal brethren that possessed his influence, and none whose general reputation stood so high with the public at large.
  • So, in short, “Dagger John” loved power.
  • He was called Dagger John for 2 reasons:
    • First, bishops draw a cross before signing their name, and crosses are dagger-like
    • And second, he was famously aggressive
  • Born in County Tyrone, Ireland in 1797. County Tyrone is in Northern Ireland but my understanding is that even today, it’s a majority Catholic county.
    • At the time that he was born, there were a bunch of anti-Catholic laws that the British had enforced.
    • Hughes later talked about how for the first 5 days of his life, he had lived in “social and civil equality with the most favored subjects of the British Empire.” And then, when he was baptized Catholic, that changed.
    • Life wasn’t so great for his family because of their faith: his sister was denied a Catholic burial, and when he was 15, Hughes was almost attacked by Orangemen
      • Orangemen are members of the Loyal Orange Institution, or the Orange Order, which is a Protestant fraternal order that’s based in Northern Ireland (though there are Orange Order lodges throughout the UK, the Commonwealth, and the US)
      • The order was founded in 1795, two years before Hughes was born, and the idea was that they’d be a Masonic-style society that was, according to Wikipedia, “sworn to maintain the Protestant Ascendancy”
        • The Protestant Ascendancy was basically the domination of Ireland by a minority of protestant landowners, clergy, and professionals
        • The idea was that Catholics, as well as other religions aside from the Church of England and Church of Ireland, including Presbyterians, other protestants, and Jewish people, would be excluded from politics
        • Basically, what happened was that the land owned by Irish people was taken by English people. (Like for example, whenever there were revolts against the English, England would confiscate Irish people’s lands and give them to “loyal” people, aka English Protestants.)
        • And through that, not only was Ireland under English rule, but within Ireland, the ruling class were English, or “Anglo-Irish,” and the actual Irish were excluded from politics in their own country
      • So the Orangemen were the rich, English, anti-Catholic group, and then there was another secret society called the Ribbonmen, who were poor, Irish tenant farmers. The Ribbonmen’s goal was to oppose evictions and bad conditions for tenant farmers. There were a number of conflicts between the groups.
        • It sounds like both groups had a number of Masonic-influenced practices, like being organized into lodges.
    • So basically, things weren’t great for the Hughes family. John Hughes’ father was a poor tenant farmer, and John Hughes had to be taken out of school to help on the farm.
      • Wikipedia says that Hughes was “disinclined to farm life” which I assume means it didn’t go so well, so Hughes was sent to be a gardener’s apprentice at an estate called the Favour Royal Manor where he studied horticulture.
    • His family moved to the US in 1816, where they lived in Pennsylvania, and Hughes joined them in 1817
    • Hughes tried applying to college at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland, but they didn’t accept him. But the rector hired him to be a gardener
    • While he worked there, he befriended a woman, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, who later became a saint.
      • (In fact, she was the first saint who was born in the US.)
      • Her story is kind of interesting, because her life probably isn’t what you’d imagine for a nun who became a saint: She was born an Episcopalian, married a wealthy businessman when she was 19, and lived on Wall Street where she and her husband were very big figures in NY society.
      • She was a really devout Episcopalian, who did a lot of charity work with her sister-in-law, Rebecca, who wikipedia describes as “her soul-friend and dearest confidant” which sounds pretty gay but okay.
      • She had five children, and when her father in law died, she took in 6 of her husband’s siblings who were under the age of 17.
      • Because of some conflicts with France and the UK, her husband lost several of his ships and the family went bankrupt and lost their home. She and the children moved in with her dad on Staten Island, and her husband, who’d had TB most of the time they’d been together, got even sicker from  the stress and was sent to Italy, accompanied by Elizabeth and their oldest daughter.
      • Interestingly, they had to quarantine for a month upon reaching Italy, because Italians feared that they’d brought yellow fever with them from New York.
      • Unfortunately, the italian climate didn’t help enough, and her husband died in italy in December 1803.
      • Elizabeth and her daughter were taken in by her husband’s Italian business associates, who introduced her to Catholicism.
      • When she got back to NYC in 1805, she converted to Catholicsm. Interestingly, in 1805, there was only one Catholic church in all of New York City, St. Peter’s Church in the financial district.
      • To support her huge family, she started a school for girls, but when people found out that she’d converted to Catholicism, most of the parents pulled out their children.
      • She was prepared to move to Canada, but she ran into a priest (who had fled france during the reign of terror) and who was involved with St. Mary’s College, a seminary in Baltimore, and in 1809, she moved there to help start a Catholic girls’ school.
      • She also established a religious community dedicated to caring for  poor children, and she founded a congregation of religious sisters–the first to be founded in the US–and started the first free Catholic school in the US, which started off parochial schools in the US.
      • She was made a saint in the 1960s, and is the patron saint of widows and seafarers
    • So anyway, back to John Hughes: he impressed Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, and she convinced the rector to admit him as a seminarian.
      • He started school there, though he kept working in the garden, and worked as a latin and math tutor, and he was a prefect which apparently was a thing at that school.
    • John Hughes became a priest in 1826. He did a lot of work in Pennsylvania, where he founded:
      • St. John’s Orphan Asylum in 1829
      • St. John the Evangelist Church in 1832
  • We talked earlier about how he also founded St. John’s College—maybe you’re noticing a pattern in the naming conventions? Specifically, that he loved naming things after himself.
  • Around the same time, John Hughes got into a very public tiff with a Presbyterian clergyman, Rev. John A. Breckinridge, who claimed that Catholicism wasn’t compatible with American values like republicanism and liberty. People thought that John Hughes would be trounced by the better educated Breckinridge, since he was an immigrant, but he debated very well and made a name for himself as a very aggressive defender of Catholicism.
  • In 1837, Pope Gregory the XVI named Hughes the coadjutor bishop of the diocese of NY
  • So, back to Hughes, who’d just been made coadjutor bishop of the diocese of NY
    • There was some drama there, because most priests in the dioceses had been rooting for another priest. So in protest, the priests didn’t go to the concecration
    • He didn’t waste any time in getting into arguments:
      • he tried to get the government to support Catholic parochial schools off the ground, and that failed, so instead he set up a private parochial school system
      • He threw a fit because the KJB was used in public schools, and he claimed that Catholic kids were getting indoctrinated into Protestantism through the footnotes in the KJB. However, there are no footnotes in the KJB.
      • He campaigned in support of Irish immigrants, who were facing a lot of discrimination at the time
        • Though, important note: while it doesn’t sound that Hughes loved the idea of slavery, he said felt that labor conditions in the North were worse than the conditions of enslaved laborers in the South
        • Which, I understand that conditions were very bad in factories and stuff in the 19th century, but I think he’s missing the point. Comparing poor free workers and enslaved workers isn’t exactly apples to apples.
        • Plus, he spoke out against the abolitionist movement.
        • Remember, this is a guy with a ton of power, who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. So he could have really spoken out against slavery, and supported the rights of black people in the US. But he didn’t, and instead used his platform to criticize abolitionists and say that slavery isn’t really as bad as working in a factory, so it’s not like he really had a problem with slavery.
        • It sounds sort of like he had an issue with slavery when he was younger, but then changed his mind as he got older. Apparently, after traveling to the South and Cuba, in 1853, he decided that emancipation would be a bad thing for both slave owners and enslaved people.
        • Also, supposedly President Lincoln consulted with Hughes, and selected him for a “special mission” to Europe in 1861, where he says that he went as a” friend of both  north and  south alike”
        • And remember, there was a huge amount of tension between the Irish community and the community of free Black people in NYC, so he could have literally saved lives if he’d tried to confront racism in the Irish Catholic community of NYC.
          • I’m talking, of course, about the NYC Draft Riots in July of 1863, in which poor white people, mostly Irish immigrants, attacked black people throughout the city.
          • During the riots, an orphanage that housed 233 Black children, was attacked by a mob of several thousand people, who looted and burned down the building.
          • The children were saved just in the nick of time, but during the riots around 120 people were killed, black businesses were burned, and many black people left Manhattan for good, moving to Brooklyn.
          • The book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th Century NC by Stacy Horn talks more about this, if you want to learn more.
        • But anyway, I wanted to mention this because John Hughes could have done a lot of good, but he didn’t. As far as I can tell, he was a fierce defender of fellow Irish Catholic immigrants, but his compassion didn’t seem to extend any further than that.
        • Technically, Hughes did speak out against the draft riots, because the governor, seeing that the rioters were mostly Irish, asked him to, but I think that’s a case of too little, too late.  He gave the speech after 3 or 4 days of rioting.
        • His health was poor, so he had this notice posted around the city:
          • ” I am not able, owing to rheumatism in my limbs, to visit you, but that is no reason why you should not pay me a visit in your whole strength. I shall have a speech prepared for you. There is abundant space for the meeting around my house. I can address you from the corner of the balcony. If I should be unable to stand during its delivery, you will permit me to address you sitting ; my voice is much stronger than my limbs.”
        • About 3000-4000 people showed up for his speech, which was well received even though apparently it was rambling, and it was clear his mental faculties weren’t so hot at the time. He was near death at the time, and this was his last public address.
        • So while he did technically speak out against the riots once they were already well underway, the truth was that one speech probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but he could have really changed people’s minds through his ministry, but he didn’t.
        • Also, even his biographer, Hassard, admits that the speech probably didn’t make any difference, because the people doing the rioting were still doing it, they hadn’t paused to hear a religious speech. The draft riots were eventually ended up military intervention.
        •  When he spoke about the draft before the riots, he was pro-draft and encouraged people to join up out of patriotism, but didn’t mention anything about the human rights abuses of slavery.
  • In 1842, the bishop died, and John Hughes became bishop
  • He had a mess on his hands.
    • There were about 200K catholics in NY and north Jersey, but only 40 priests
    • Also, nativism created a major issue for Catholics in America.
      • Nativism was a big thing at the time, which, ironically, claimed that America should be for “Native Americans.” Which, let us be clear, did not mean indigenous Americans. In this context, “Native Americans” for some reason meant the descendants of colonizers from the 13 original colonies.
      • Nativism is just a fancy word for racism and bigotry.
        • Later on, in the 1880s, Nativism took the form of things like the Chinese exclusion act, which is exactly what it sounds like, and after the turn of the century, there was something called the “Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907” which resulted in Japan stopping emigration to the US.
      • In the mid-19th century, Nativists generally opposed Irish Catholics, who they said couldn’t be trusted since they were obviously loyal to the pope
      • In 1834, a nativist mob burned down a Catholic church in Boston (tho no one was injured)
      • There were a number of nativist riots. In 1844, riots in Phillly led to people being killed, and later, in 1855 in Louisville, Kentucky, on election day, rioters killed at least 22 German and Irish Catholics
      • So when, in NYC, an anti-Catholic protest was planned, Hughes told the mayor, who had nativist sympathies, that “if a single Catholic Church were burned in New York, the city would become a second Moscow”
        • That’s a reference to a fire in 1812 that basically destroyed the entire city of Moscow. 6,496 of 9,151 private houses, 8,251 retail shops and warehouses, 122 of 329 churches, were destroyed
    • I wanted to read this great exchange between Hughes and the mayor, as recorded in Hassard’s 1866 biography:
      • ” Are you afraid,” asked the mayor, ” that some of your churches will be burned ? “
      • ” No, sir ; but I am afraid that some of yours will be burned. We can protect our own. I come to warn you for your own good.”
      • “Do you think, bishop, that yonr people would attack the procession ? “
      • ” I do not ; but the Native Americans want to provoke a Catholic riot, and if they can do it in no other way, I be lieve they would not scruple to attack the procession them selves, for the sake of making it appear that the Catholics had assailed them.”
      • ” What, then, would you have me do ? “
      • ” I did not come to tell you what to do. I am a church man, not the mayor of New York ; but if I were the mayor,I would examine the laws of the State, and see if there were not attached to the police force a battery of artillery, and a company or so of infantry, and a squadron of horse ; and I think I should find that there were ; and if so, I should call them out. Moreover, I should send to Mr. Harper, the mayor-elect, who has been chosen by the votes of this party. I should remind him that these men are his supporters ; I should warn him that if they carry out their design, there will be a riot ; and I should urge him to use his influence in preventing this public reception of the delegates.”
  • Because of how intense Hughes was as a person, the city backed down and didn’t allow the anti-Catholic protestors to have the rally
  • It also probably helped that he arranged to have 1000-2000 armed men guard each Catholic church in manhattan. He said the men were “resolved, after taking as many lives as they could in defence of their property, to give up, if necessary, their own lives for the same cause.”
  • Some Catholics in NYC even prepared to burn down their own houses in order to destroy the homes of their anti-Catholic neighbors
  • He was a guy with a lot to say, so he started a newspaper called the New York Freeman, and in it, he wrote:
    • “to convert all Pagan nations, and all Protestant nations. . . . Our mission [is] to convert the world –including the inhabitants of the United States – the people of the cities, and the people of the country, . . . the Legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the President, and all!”
    • So, you know, not aggressive at all
  • In 1850, the pope declared the diocese an archdiocese, which made John Hughes an archbishop
  • Hughes was archbishop until he died, in 1864.
  • The book A history of St. John’s College, Fordham, N.Y., which was published in 1891, describes his death thusly:
    • He laid his head back on the pillow, closed his eyes, breathed quickly and gently for a few minutes, and died with a smile about his lips.
  • At his funeral, more than 200K people viewed his remains.  His body was laid out for 2 days.
  • His biographer,  John R. G. Hassard described the funeral this way:
    • It was perhaps the most imposing ceremony of the kind ever witnessed in New York. Eight bishops and nearly 200 priests took part in the services. . . The courts and other public offices were closed on the day of the funeral, and resolutions of sorrow and condolence were passed by the State Legislature

 

 

  • While he was a complicated and pretty unlikeable character, Hughes did have a lasting impact on NYC. In addition to consecrating Calvary Cemetery and founding the school that became Fordham, where I lived in a dorm named after him and walked by a statue of him every day, he also was behind a lot of northward development in Manhattan.
  • Back in the day, the city’s population was concentrated in lower Manhattan, like the Village and below.
  • But John Hughes felt that the city would grow northward, and he insisted on building St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue and 50th street.
    • (We talked about the cathedral a bit in the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episodes, since it was designed by James Renwick, Jr., but just a reminder, it’s now one of the top tourist attractions in NYC.)
    • He laid the cornerstone in 1858, and people mocked him for building a church in such a rural area.
    • Newspapers called the church “Hughes Folly”
    • But Hughes was right–eventually, the city grew up around the cathedral, and it ended up being a really great location
    • Hughes had been buried in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is in Soho, but in 1882, his body was disinterred and put into the crypt in the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral

 

Sources consulted RE: 

Check out the rest of the sources in the shownotes for Calvary Cemetery Part 1.

Books RE: Archbishop John Hughes and Calvary Cemetery

Websites RE: Archbishop John Hughes and Calvary Cemetery

  • Story of Mohawk ironworkers: http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraternal_Order_of_Eagles

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Jogues

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auriesville,_New_York#Ossernenon

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Martyrs

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manor_of_Rensselaerswyck

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohawk_people

  • http://www.mohawknation.org/

  • Mohawk Tribe Facts, History, and Culture

  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mohawk

  • https://mashable.com/2015/03/07/empire-state-building-vertigo/

  • https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ironmen-mohawk-cousins-helped-lift-1-wtc-empire-state-building-article-1.1073615

  • NEWTOWN CREEK

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_Ascendancy

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_Order

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hughes_(archbishop)

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribbonism

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Favour_Royal

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Ann_Seton

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_of_Moscow_(1812)

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_draft_riots

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Patrick%27s_Old_Cathedral

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Patrick%27s_Cathedral_(Manhattan)

  • http://sites.rootsweb.com/~nyqueen2/cemeteries/Calvary.htm

  • Home

  • https://calvarycemeteryqueens.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2019/09/CAL-price-list-9-26-19.pdf

  • https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=870

  • The Top 10 Secrets of NYC’s Calvary Cemetery in Queens, the Largest in the US

  • Queenswalk: Calvary Cemetery

  • http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_commissions/archeo/inglese/documents/rc_com_archeo_doc_20011010_catacroma_en.html#Roma

  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/calvary-monument/history

  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/64107/calvary-cemetery

  • There Are More People Who Are Dead Than Alive in Queens

  • From Da Bronx to Eternity

  • Manhattan’s Art of the Dead

  • INTERVIEW: Meet Mary French, the woman archiving New York City’s 140 cemeteries

  • http://www.interment.net/data/us/ny/queens/calvary_cemetery.htm

  • Cemetery Map

  • St. Raphael’s R.C. Church

Listen to the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

More people are buried at Calvary Cemetery, in Queens, New York, than in any other cemetery in the United States. 

“Calvary Cemetery is by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments, extent, and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.”

-The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity, 1901

This episode is focused on the history of the cemetery, what it’s like to visit it nowadays, and some of the most interesting people buried there.

Highlights include:
• The Cemetery Belt, a collection of NYC cemeteries that can be seen from space
• A rich man who died in a barn
• A Black, queer communist author and poet
• Rome’s ancient catacombs
• Some NYC mobsters
• A female author who grew up in a castle
• A NYC cop who was assassinated in Sicily

For more audio about Calvary Cemetery, check out our patreon.

 

 

Photos taken in and around Calvary Cemetery, Queens, in April and May 2020

Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York

 

Episode Script for Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York (Part 1)

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

 

 “Calvary Cemetery is by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments, extent, and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.” –The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity, 1901

“Calvary Cemetery is by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments . . . and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.” –The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity, 1901

 

  • Did you know that there are more dead people in Queens than living people?
    • Did you know that there are more people buried in a single cemetery in Queens than there are living ppl in Queens?
    • 2.3 million people live in Queens
    • 3 million ppl are buried in Calvary Cemetery–more people than at any cemetery in the US
  • I’ve gone to Calvary Cemetery a few times since the pandemic started–or at least I’ve looked in from outside the locked gates. I recorded some audio that’s on our patreon on one trip there in April I believe, though while we’ve been in NC, the cemetery has reopened. So I’m excited go actually go inside once I’m done quarantining.
  • So let’s talk about the cemetery’s history:
  • The Rural Cemetery Act, which was passed in NY in 1847, allowed commercial burial grounds in rural NYS.
    • This had a few effects:
      1. Burials became a business (before, people were mostly buried at churches and privately owned land)
      2. “Rural” areas like Queens and Brooklyn started becoming popular places to build cemeteries.
      3. It also created what’s called The Cemetery Belt nowadays, which is a bunch of cemeteries that exist on the border of Queens and Brooklyn. Apparently it’s large enough to see from space.
  • The act was a good idea, since Manhattan’s churchyards were getting crowded, especially because of the outbreaks of cholera.
    • Specifically, in 1832, 3,500 people in NYC died in a cholera outbreak, and tons of people left the city.
      • There was also concern that burying people in Manhattan was contaminating the drinking water.
    • It led to the establishment of many beautiful garden cemeteries, like Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Queens.
      • People would flock to these cemeteries on the weekends to enjoy their rolling hills and beautiful trees and flowers.
    • Calvary Cemetery was very much not a garden cemetery.
      • Even calling it a lawn cemetery feels charitable to me–it’s jam packed with tombstones that always make me think of a shark’s teeth. You know how shark’s teeth kinda grow in lots of uneven rows.
  • Calvary Cemetery  is run by the Catholic church, specifically the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who had started buying up land for Calvary Cemetery in 1846. As early as 1817, they’d realized that their  cemetery in Manhattan was filling up.
    • The land they purchased was in southern Queens, near the Newtown Creek that forms the border with Brooklyn. I’ve heard the area referred to as Maspeth, or Woodside, or Sunnyside, or an area of Long Island City called Blissville.
    • They purchased 71 acres of land–or maybe 115?
    • The land they purchased included the Alsop family farm and their family cemetery plot.
      • The Alsop family tombstones are still there; the oldest is from 1718
  • The new cemetery was named Calvary Cemetery, named after Mount Calvary, which was the hill where Jesus was crucified.
  • On July 31, 1848, the first person was buried in the cemetery. Her name was Esther Ennis, and she died at the age of 29, reportedly of a broken heart.
  • In August 1848, the cemetery was consecrated by Archbishop John Hughes
    • So I just want to pause here two talk about a synchronicity that I enjoy: So I went to Fordham University, which is a Jesuit school in the Bronx, which was founded by Archbishop John Hughes (the school was even originally called St. John’s College, until it was later renamed). And coincidentally, the dorm I lived in freshman year, which started out as a residence for priests and seminarians, was built in 1848.
    • When I found out that synchronicity in the spring it really tickled me, though of course it makes sense that the famous, or infamous, John Hughes had a hand in founding both.
    • So we’ll be talking all about Archbishop John Hughes, aka Dagger John, next time.
  • But to get back to the cemetery itself:
  • Hughes consecrated it in 1848, and by 1852, 50 people were buried there every day.
    • About half of the burials were poor Irish children younger than 7 years old
    • In 1867, the cemetery was full. So they opened additional sections, calling the original section First Calvary or Old Calvary
    • Between 1848 and 1898, almost  645K people were buried in Calvary cemetery
    • And from 1898 to 1907, 200K people were buried there
    • There are now 4 sections of Calvary, which also bear the names of roman catacombs. Some of the catacombs in Rome are as old as 2nd century AD; apparently they came about because there was a land shortage in Rome, so early Christians, as well as Jewish people, buried their dead in the underground catacombs.
      • So the 4 sections of Calvary are:
      • First Calvary, also called St. Calixtus, was  established in 1848,
        • St. Calixtus was a pope from 217-222, who was martyred by being thrown down a well by the Roman Empire, who didn’t like Catholics
          • Before becoming Pope, his predecessor, Pope Zephyrinus, made him administrator of the preeminent church cemetery, where church leaders and martyrs were buried.
          • So he’s the patron saint of cemetery workers.
        • The Catacombs of St. Callixtus in Rome house a number of 3rd-century popes, as well as the crypt of St. Cecilia, who gained a cult following in the middle ages
      • Second Calvary, aka St. Agnes,  acquired in 1888, is named after a catacomb where the young Roman martyr, St. Agnes, was buried.
        • To give the backstory of the Roman catacomb:
          • Agnes was 12 when she died, and was both burned and decapitated, though some people said the veins in her neck were just severed.
          • She became a popular figure right after she died. Many people began to venerate her and visit her tomb.
          • Emperor Constantine’s family got really into her, and the emperor’s daughter, Constantina, built a big church nearby because she wanted to be buried near St. Agnes. She built a fancy cylindrical mausoleum, which featured a dome decorated with mosaics featuring cupids gathering grapes. That church is pretty much gone today, aside from the ruins of some masonry.
          • Apparently the Catacombs of St. Agnes are badly preserved because they’ve been constantly visited basically from the time she died.
      •  Third Calvary,  aka St. Sebastian, established in 1879
        • The roman catacombs that it’s named after was somewhere where people would go to venerate the Apostles Peter and Paul
        • St. Sebastian is buried there, of course
        • And apparently in the middle ages, it was a popular destination for people to visit
      • Fourth Calvary, aka St. Domitilla, established in 1900
        • The roman catacombs of Domatilla, is built on the site of property owned by a noblewoman named Flavia Domitilla, who was exciled to the Pontine Islands because of her Christian sympathies. Before she left, she gave her possessions to the Christian community there, which led to the largest Christian underground cemetery in Rome being built there
  • Back to Calvary:
  • By the early 20th century, the flu and TB were major epidemics, so there was a shortage of gravediggers, and families had to dig graves for their deceased relatives themselves
  • Adults could be buried there in $7, children younger than 7 cost $3, and children aged 7-14 cost $5
  • As Manhattan’s East Village was developed more and more, many people were dug up from cemeteries there and moved to Calvary Cemetery so they could build more
  • People reached the cemetery by ferry
    • The boat left from 23rd street in Manhattan, and later 10th street
  • Initially, there was a simple frame chapel in Calvary Cemetery, but in 1908, they built a chapel that was inspired by the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris and looks a lot like it
    • To read from a 1909 article in Popular Mechanics:
      • Calvary, the chief Catholic burial ground of Greater New York, has . . . A greater population than any other city of the dead in America, and its new chapel, the only one of the kind in this country, has several features which make it unique in construction and design.
  • The building took 3 years to build and cost $180,000 ($50,000 of which was just for the sculptures and furnishings)
  • It was designed by a brooklyn architect named Raymond F. Almirall, who studied a bunch of old Italian churches and mortuary chapels
  • The building has rubble masonry with Indiana limestone facing
  • The dome is 80 ft from the ground and topped with a statue of Jesus that’s carved from a single piece of limestone
  • Apparently the dome was very impressive from an arhitectural standpoint, because it was made of reinforced concrete and that took some inventiveness. It’s lined with “golden yellow brick and . . . Pink Minnesota sandstone trimmings” that are attached to the concrete.
  • The idea was that priests would be buried in the catacombs, and as of 1909, only one section of the catacombs, which had space for 24 people, was ready. Then the idea was that the section could extend underground in four directions, and they could make space for and additional 72 bodies.
  • The chapel has a lift that was set into the floor to lower bodies down to the cripts
  • At the time, there were about 70-120 burials a day, so the article noted that the chapel would be in “almost constant use”
  • To read a bit more of the article:
    • The structure is consequently designed so that one funeral party can depart to the burial plot without interfering with the next cortege waiting in front of the chapel.
  • So I wanted to talk a bit about some of the people who’re buried in Calvary Cemetery:
    • As far as I can tell, the most famous person buried there is Dom Deluise. But let’s look at some other folks:
    • Rosemary Muscarella Ardolina wrote a book called Old Calvary Cemetery: New Yorkers Carved in Stone and examined 5,300 tombstones with legible places of birth listed
      • interestingly but not surprisingly 90% of the headstones cite Irish places of birth
      • though other common birthplaces were the United States, Italy, France, Scotland and Canada
    • The largest personal mausoleum in the cemetery is the Johnson Mausoleum, which was built in the 19th century and cost $100,000 to build (or $2.5 million in today’s dollars). Though I’ve read elsewhere that it cost $300,000 to build
      • The Johnsons were a set of brothers–Charles, John, and Robert. John opened J.C. Johnson Department Stores on 22nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue (so near where the Flatiron is today) and Charles helped him run the buisiness.
      • They were Irish immigrants who ended up becoming millionaires. Silk fabrics were a bestselling item at their department store, which is notable because apparently other similar stores weren’t doing well back then.
      • John was really involved in St. Patrick’s church, and was known as a generous donor. When he died in 1887, 7 years after Charles did, he had a big funeral and was put into the mauseleum, where Charles was.
      • It’s unclear what exactly happened, but a year after John died, the store, under Robert’s management, went under.
        • He retreated to the family mansion on Mt. St Vincent, on the Hudson, and lived there until the house was foreclosed on.
        • Then there was a fire, which he apparently barely escaped.
        • He went to live in the barn, which was on the property.
        • In the winter, some friends came to visit and found him there. Apparently he had pneumonia, and seemed to have gone crazy.
        • Ten days later, he died and was buried in the mausleum, which luckily had been paid for already.
        • The mausoleum has 30 vaults, but only 6 of them are occupied
    • So that’s the Johnson family. The cemetery also holds many Civil War Medal of Honor recipients, particularly soldiers of Irish heritage.
      • There’s actually a NYC park inside the cemetery–in 1863, NYC bought a bit of land in the middle of the cemetery from the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
      • The city used it to bury Union soldiers who died while in NY hospitals after fighting in the war. 21 soldiers were buried there.
      • There’s a big monument featuring an obelisk and four life-sized bronze soldiers
    • There are also a number of politicians buried there, including folks involved in Tammany Hall.
    • A number of mobsters are buried in Calvary, though apparently many of their graves are unmarked.
      • The Terranova brothers, who were part of the Morello crime family around the turn of the 20th century, are there in unmarked graves
      • Many 20th century mobsters are buried there, including Johnny Dolan
        • I looked him up, and found this interesting tidbit on wikipedia
          • Dolan was known as a particularly inventive criminal, who perfected a variety of devices widely used for assault and murder throughout the underworld. According to Asbury, Dolan designed a copper eye gouger to be worn on the thumb and used it both in criminal activities and in battles with other gangs. Dolan himself allegedly owned a personally designed pair of boots with sections of a sharp axe blade embedded in the soles, which he used to stomp a downed victim.
        • I will say that the veracity of the descriptions of his violent nature is debated, since one biographer reported it but contemporary newspapers didn’t.
          • Instead, they described him as a petty thief.
          • He did serve a stint in Blackwell’s Island Penetentiary, which we talked about in the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episode
          • He ended up being executed for a murder commited during a robbery, and he was hanged in 1876, when he was 26, in the Tombs Prison, which we talked about in the Victorian Egyptomania episode. It was an ill-fated Egyptian revival building that was constructed on quicksand.
      • Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria who apparently was one of the mafia’s “Boss of All Bosses” lies in Calvary–he led the most powerful NYC organized crime family during prohibition.
        • Nowadays, he led the Morello crime family, which is now the Genovese family.
        • In 1930, a war between families started, called the Castellammarese War, and it ended with Joe the Boss being killed by his own lieutenant, who shot him in the back in a restaurant where he’d been playing cards in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
        • If you want to know more about him, there’s a good blog post on the Newtown Pentacle about him, which I’ll include in the shownotes
      • And this isn’t a real burial, but in the movie The Godfather, Don Corleone was buried at Calvary Cemetery
      • Though there are many mobsters buried in the cemetery, there’s also obviously a number of cops buried there. And I wanted to share this interesting story about one of them, a cop named Joseph Petrosino.
        • A disclaimer: I’m not a fan of the NYPD,  but this story was too good not to share.
        • Like many of the people buried at Calvary, he was an immigrant. He was from Palermo, Sicily.
        • When he was a kid, he and his cousin came to the US to live with the grandfather, who ended up dying in a streetcar accident.
        • Since they had no other family in America, they ended up in orphans/surrogates court
        • But the judge took pity on them and instead of sending them to an orphanage, he took the boys home to live with his own family while their family was contacted in Italy.
        • Because of this, the boys ended up living with a politically connected Irish family for a while, which opened up educational and occupational opportunities that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, as recent Italian immigrants
        • He joined the NYPD in 1883, and was the first person in the history of NYPD to speak Italian
        • He was 5’3″ and had to get a special waiver to get around the NYPD’s height requirement
        • He was considered a whiz at solving crimes in the Italian community, so he was sent out anytime a serious crime happened
        • He was friends with Teddy Roosevelt, who was part of the council of police commissioners that oversaw the NYPD
        • In 1908, Petrosino was made head of the “Italian Squad,” which wikipedia describes as “an elite corps of Italian-Ameriacn  detectives assembled specifically to deal with the criminal activities of organizations like the Mafia, which Petrosino saw as a shame upon decent Italians and Italian Americans.”
        • As part of the Italian Squad, Petrosino helped out an Italian opera singer named Enrico Caruso, who performed at the Metropolitan Opera at the time. He was being extorted by Black Hang gangers; Black Hand was an Italian extortion racket. Petrosino was an opera lover, and he convinced Caruso to help him catch the blackmailers
        • Petrosino also infiltrated an Italian anarchist organization that was maybe connectcted to the assassination of the king of Italy, Umberto I, in 1900.
          • Petrosino discovered that the organization planned to assistant President William McKinley during his trip to Buffalo, NY
          • Petrosino warned the secret service, and Roosevelt, who was VP at the time, said that they should listen to him. However, McKinley went to Buffalo, NY, during the World’s Fair in September 1901, and was assassinated
          • Around 1909, new US law was passed, allowing the US government to deport anyone who’d been convicted of a crime in another country, if they’d been in the US for less than 3 years
          • So Petrosino went to Palermo, Sicily, on a secret mission to get evidence of criminals in NYC who’d committed crimes back in Sicily
          • It sounds like he shouldn’t have gone–even before he left, newspapers printed anyonymous sources who said why he was going to italy, and people said that he’d be recognized since he was so well known
          • In Rome, he saw a criminal he recognized from NYC following him, and it sounds like he’d given his associates in the Black Hand Society a heads up that Petrosino was in Italy
          • When he reached Palermo, Petrosino met up with an informant, who claimed to have info on mafia members, in the middle of the night. While waiting for the informant, Petrosino was shot in the face by two people.
          • He died there, and after funeral rites happened in Palermo, his body was sent to NYC, where more funeral rites were performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 200,000 people participated in the funeral procession, and NYC declared the day he was buried a city-wide holiday so people could pay their respects
          • He was buried in Calvary Cemetery, where a pillar with a bust mark his grave
    • I wanted to talk about a couple writers who were buried there: The first is Mary Letitia Martin
      • She was an Irish writer who published three books
      • She was born into a wealthy family that was the main landowner in Connemara (which is a region of Galway)
      • She knew Irish, English, French and supposedly some other languages too
      • In 1834, she met a Polish Count, Count Adolphe de Werdinsky. She refused to marry him, and he faked a suicide attempt at her family’s castle
      • She published her first book in 1845, and married her cousin, in 1847. Her husband took on her last name, Martin.
      • Also in 1847, her father died of Typhus after catching it while visiting a workhouse–which I guess means that a ton of people in the workhouse were dying from it too
      • Martin inherited her family’s estate, which was 200,000 acres of land, but it sounds like there were a number of debts or expenses associated with it
      • Over the next two years, her fortune was lost in the potato famine, supposedly because he was using her money to help her tenants survive
      • She and her husband, now without any money, moved to Belgium, where she wrote for a few publications
      • In 1850, she published an autobiographical novel, and moved to NYC with her husband. However, she gave birth prematurely on the ship
      • She died 10 days after arriving in NYC, and her baby died too
      • Her husband left NYC and went back to England, where he had her next book posthumously published
      • Martin was buried in Calvary
    • The second writer I wanted to talk about is Claude McKay, who was a Jamaican writer and poet, and a big figure in the Harlem Renaissance
      • He was born in Jamaica in 1889, to well-off farmers who apparently owned enough land to vote
      • He grew up Baptist, but his father often told stories about Ashanti customs, because he was of Ashanti descent
      • When he was four, he attended school at Mt. Zion Church, but when he was 9, he went to live with his brother, who was a teacher, to get a good education. His brother also did some journalism.
        • His brother encouraged him to read, and by the age of 10, he was writing poetry
      • As a teenager, he was apprenticed to a carriage and cabinet maker, but while he worked there, he met an English planter and writer named Walter Jekyll who encouraged him to write more, including in his native dialect.
        • In 1912, McKay published Songs of Jamaica, which were the first poems to be published in Jamaican Patois
      • Also in 1912, he went to the US to go to college, where he was surprised by the amount of racism he encountered there.
      • In 1914, he moved to NYC, where he continued to write and publish poems while working as a waiter on trains
      • In 1919, he published a poem called If I Must Die, about the Red Summer, which was the summer of 1919, when there was an especially vicious string of mobs of white people murdering black people.
        • I wanted to read that poem, which I think is his most famous one. The year it was written, the Senator from Massachusetts read it in congress, and which supposedly Winston Churchill quoted during WWII:
          • If we must die, let it be not like hogs
          • Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
          • While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
          • Making their mock at our accursed lot.
          • If we must die, O let us nobly die,
          • So that our precious blood may not be shed
          • In vain; then even the monsters we defy
          • Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
          • O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
          • Though far outnumbered let us show us brave
          • And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
          • What though before us lies the open grave?
          • Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
          • Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
  • In the 19teens, he also joined the IWW while working at a factory, and became involved in leftist politics
  • He helped found the African Blood Brotherhood, which was a propaganda organization that was modeled after secret societies
    • It ended up getting folded into the Community Party of America and didn’t exist by the early 1920s
  • He went to London around this time; he later said that he’d gotten an all-expenses paid trip, but it sounds like there may have been some pressure from the Justice Department that made him leave
    • In London, he grew more involved in socialist circles, and he read a lot of Marx and wrote for leftist papers
  • In 1922, his poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was published–it was one of the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance
  • He was invited to go to Russia in 1922, where he said he got an “ecstatic welcome” and “rock-star treatment.”
    • He returned to Russia a few years later, where he apparently was received very warmly again. According to wikipedia, “he was so well known in Russia that the brother of Nicolas the Second let him stay at his palace”
    • Apparently he had many conversations with Russians who were curious what it was like to be a black person in the US
  • It seems that McKay was bisexual, because he dated men and women
    • Apparently his poems have some queer themes, and there are times when gender is carefully omitted so you could interpret something several different ways
    • Some people have said that he had a sexual relationship with his mentor in Jamaica, Walter Jekyll
    • Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, he had an on-again, off-again, relationship with English labor activist and poet Charles Ashleigh
    • His attraction to several other men has been documented, including his attraction to a Catholic Bishop, Henry Sheil
  • Like many people, he became disillusioned with communism under Stalin (remember, his nice trips to Russia happened under Lenin) and converted to Catholicism in the early 1940s
  • He died in Chicago in 1948
  • It seems like Claude McKay has become more popular in recent years, at least according to a Washington Post review of his book Romance in Marseille, which was just published earlier this year. Romance in Marseille wasn’t published during his lifetime because it sounds like it was ahead of its time, and his friends felt that it’d be too controversial. It sounds like it deals with a lot of themes of disability and queerness
  • So those are some interesting people buried at Calvary
  • You can still be buried in Calvary Cemetery today, but you can’t reserve a plot in advance–they only accept immediate interments. I will say that back in April and May, I went to the oldest section of the cemetery a bunch (it wasn’t open, but I walked around the edges and looked in) and I did notice some somewhat recent looking graves around the edges
  • If you want to be buried in Calvary Cemetery, that’ll run you about 6,600 for a lawn crypt,or 5,500 to be buried in the Upright Monument area. Grave openings for adults cost between $2,400-$3,000. Cremation niches cost under $1,000, and an adult disinterment will run you about $3,600. If you’re indigent, you’ll get a good discount; burial of an indigent adult is less than $500.

Sources consulted RE: Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York

Websites RE: Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York

  • More about Joe Masseria: https://newtownpentacle.com/2010/10/29/the-man-who-could-dodge-bullets/
  • Vistors guide of Calvary Cemetery in “brooklyn” (1876):
    https://archive.org/stream/visitorsguidetoc02broo?ref=ol#page/14/mode/2up
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Queens
  • http://www.nymoon.com/pubs/undertone/dead/
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/64107/calvary-cemetery
  • https://hyperallergic.com/54404/there-are-more-people-who-are-dead-than-alive-in-queens/
  • https://hyperallergic.com/53757/from-da-bronx-to-eternity/
  • https://hyperallergic.com/54052/trinity-church-burial-grounds-manhattan/
  • https://www.6sqft.com/interview-meet-mary-french-the-woman-archiving-new-york-citys-140-cemeteries/
  • http://www.interment.net/data/us/ny/queens/calvary_cemetery.htm
  • https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Petrosino
  • https://calvarycemeteryqueens.com/cemetery-map/
  • https://www.brownstoner.com/history/st-raphaels-r-c-church/
  • Atlas and directory to the plots and grounds of Calvary cemetery
    https://openlibrary.org/works/OL15372992W/Atlas_and_directory_to_the_plots_and_grounds_of_Calvary_cemetery
  • The Leonard manual of the cemeteries of New York and vicinity 1 edition
    https://openlibrary.org/works/OL12735678W/The_Leonard_manual_of_the_cemeteries_of_New_York_and_vicinity
    cemetery trees:
  • https://archive.org/stream/cu31924089529634?ref=ol#page/n21/mode/2up
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Island_City#Blissville
  • https://hyperallergic.com/54404/there-are-more-people-who-are-dead-than-alive-in-queens/
  • Popular Mechanics: An Illustrated Weekly Review of the Mechanical …, Volume 12
    : https://books.google.com/books?id=qCbZAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA292&dq=%22Raymond+F.+Almirall%22+%22architect%22&hl=en&ei=85RUTdOXCoH6lweH8tCiBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAzgo#v=onepage&q=%22Raymond%20F.%20Almirall%22%20%22architect%22&f=false
  • https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20120325/maspeth-middle-village-ridgewood/man-found-dead-at-calvary-cemetery-queens/
  • https://www.spinlister.com/blog/beyond-calvary-cemetery-queens-cemetery-cycling-tour/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2011/12/calvary-cemetery/
  • https://untappedcities.com/2016/09/28/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-calvary-cemetery-in-queens-the-largest-in-the-us/?displayall=true
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_Ascendancy
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_Order
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hughes_(archbishop)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribbonism
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Favour_Royal
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Ann_Seton
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_of_Moscow_(1812)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_draft_riots
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Patrick%27s_Old_Cathedral
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Patrick%27s_Cathedral_(Manhattan)
  • http://sites.rootsweb.com/~nyqueen2/cemeteries/Calvary.htm
  • https://calvarycemeteryqueens.com/
  • https://calvarycemeteryqueens.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2019/09/CAL-price-list-9-26-19.pdf
  • https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=870
  • https://untappedcities.com/2016/09/28/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-calvary-cemetery-in-queens-the-largest-in-the-us/?displayall=true
  • https://www.brownstoner.com/history/queenswalk-calvary-cemetery/
  • http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_commissions/archeo/inglese/documents/rc_com_archeo_doc_20011010_catacroma_en.html#Roma
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Dolan
  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/calvary-monument/history
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Masseria
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castellammarese_War
  • https://newtownpentacle.com/?s=calvary
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hand_(extortion)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Petrosinohttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Letitia_Martin
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connemara
  • https://sites.rootsweb.com/~nyqueen2/cemeteries/Calvary3.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Blood_Brotherhood
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_McKay
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Eastman
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_We_Must_Die
  • https://scalar.lehigh.edu/mckay/claude-mckays-queer-poetics-public-humanities-syllabus
  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/claude-mckay-abandoned-romance-in-marseille-because-it-was-too-daring-he-was-just-ahead-of-his-time/2020/02/05/1c215cc4-46a1-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html

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A look at New York City potter’s fields, the forgotten cemeteries that lie beneath the most famous parks in NYC.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of potter’s fields (cemeteries for paupers) were scattered around Manhattan. Some of NYC’s most famous parks were built right on top of those forgotten cemeteries, including Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, Central Park, Bryant Park, and Sara D. Roosevelt Park.

Highlights include:
• Grave robbers
• The 20,000 bodies that lie beneath a famous park
• Yellow fever
• 18th century NIMBYs
• Construction workers finding tombstones

 

Episode Script for New York City Potter’s Fields

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves.”

-Kings Handbook of New York, 1893

“A skeleton was found in Madison Square Park yesterday morning by four plumers laying a water pipe for the city in a six-foot trench near 26th street and 6th avenue. Reginald Pelham Bolton, engineer and authority on the early history of New York, said that the ground from which it was taken once had been a Potter’s Field.”

-From an article published in the New York Times in 1930

 

  • I wanna talk about a topic that I’m really interested in, which is potter’s fields.
  • We’ve talked about them before, but as a reminder, potter’s field is a term that originates from the bible, meaning land that’s too bad to farm, but fine for using for clay for pottery.
  • Potters fields were places where the poor were buried, and they still exist today, in places like New York City’s Hart Island, which we talked about in our Renwick Ruin episodes.
  • Since there are countless forgotten cemeteries in NYC, I wanted to focus on the ones that famous parks have been built on top of, since maybe even for people outside of NYC might recognize some of these places.
  • Also, I used a number of sources, but wanted to acknowledge that a ton of this info comes from the NYC Cemetery Project, which you should absolutely check out if you want to know more; it’s an amazing resource. For some episodes I really do a deep dive and spend many hours going through newspaper archives, but for this episode, any primary sources that I quote or reference were dug up by someone else.

Madison Square Park

  • This was apparently the original potters field in Manhattan.
  • Madison Square Park is a smaller park on 23rd street in the Flatiron district.
  • I used to spent a ton of time there because I worked in the area for about 5 years, and it’s a popular tourist destination because it affords really great views of the famous Flatiron Building, NYC’s first skyscraper, which is shaped like a big triangle.
  • For a short time, from 1794-1797, Madison Square Park was used as a Potter’s Field because of a major yellow fever outbreak.
    • Since this’ll come up a few times today, let’s talk a bit about what yellow fever is. I won’t talk about the symptoms, but I think the context is both necessary and interesting.
    • Yellow fever is a virus spread by mosquito bites.
    • Nowadays, there’s a vaccine, and if you travel somewhere prone to yellow fever, or live somewhere prone to it, you have to get the vaccine.
    • Once you get it, there’s not a lot you can do about it, and even today, half of people who get severe yellow fever die.
    • In 2013, 127,000 people got yellow fever, and 45,000 people died of it. 90% of those cases were in African countries, and about a billion people live in places where yellow fever is common. Over the last five years, there’ve been increases of yellow fever in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Nigeria, and Brazil, and apparently the vaccine supply has been somewhat strained and there are all kinds of measures that have had to be implemented to save doses–like for example, giving people partial doses, etc.
      • I also know that some countries have looked into yellow fever as a possible biological weapon.
    • Apparently, since the 1980s, yellow fever cases have increased, because fewer people are immune than they used to be, more people live in cities, people move more often, and climate change is causing a better mosquito habitat. I know that in NYC nowadays, a lot of care is taken to try to reduce standing water for mosquitos, though I think that’s for West Nile.
    • But in the 18th and 19th centuries, yellow fever was one of the most dangerous infectious diseases.
    • The first outbreak in an english-speaking North American area was NYC in 1668, but from there the disease spread, apparently along steamboat routes, all the way down to New Orleans. In 1793, yellow fever killed 9% of Philadelphia’s population, and the US government, including George Washington, had to flee Philly.
    • Interestingly, a canadian weather and earthquake predictor known as the Ottawa Prophet, aka Ezekiel Stone Wiggins, said that yellow fever was maybe caused by something astrological, which I find weirdly charming:
      • The planets were in the same line as the sun and earth and this produced, besides Cyclones, Earthquakes, etc., a denser atmosphere holding more carbon and creating microbes. Mars had an uncommonly dense atmosphere, but its inhabitants were probably protected from the fever by their newly discovered canals, which were perhaps made to absorb carbon and prevent the disease.
  • But by 1848, people began to suspect that it was spread by mosquitoes and by the 1930s, two vaccines were developed, one of which is still in use today.
  • In the late 1700s, yellow fever was a major problem in NYC.
  • Though the Potter’s Field at Madison Square Park was only open for about 3 years, hundreds of people were probably buried there, because it was used as a burial ground for people who died in a nearby Almshouse (which was a new, huge, almshouse that was built because NYC’s population was rapidly increasing) as well as those who died in Bellevue Hospital, which had opened a yellow fever hospital
  • In 1795, 750 people died of yellow fever, and while the disease was dangerous for everyone, poor people were the most likely to get it.
  • The burial ground was closed pretty quickly because people didn’t like how dead people were being transported on the busy roads that led up to it, and a new potter’s field was built where Washington Square Park is today (which we’ll talk about in a sec).
  • In 1806, the area was used as an arsenal, and later, it was a House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents.
  • In 1847, the site was leveled and turned into Madison Square Park.
  • Bodies were found during the construction of the arsenal, and more were found by construction workers digging sewer lines and water pipes in the early 20th century.
  • There are probably still bodies underneath the park today.

 

Washington Square Park

  • According to findagrave.com, from 1797-1823, the place where Washington Square Park is now was once a potter’s field.
  • It was a 6-acre cemetery that sat on the bank of a creek that ran through there called Minetta Creek. The cemetery lays under the eastern 2/3 of today’s Washington Square Park.
  • At the time, it was referred to as just “Potter’s Field”
  • The location was chosen because it was north of where most New Yorkers lived at the time, while still being, as the NYC Cemetery Project phrased it, “a convenient distance to the Almshouse in City Hall Park, to the public hospital at Bellevue on the East River, and to the new state prison just west on the Hudson River”
    • Of course, rich people didn’t like the idea of having a cemetery there, because many of them had country homes in Greenwich Village, and not only did they not want to have a potter’s field next to their properties, but they were also annoyed that the wagons that carried bodies would be moving slowly along the main road,  subjecting them to the annoyance of the additional traffic and, presumably, reminding them that poor people were dying in droves.
    • So 57 homeowners in the area, including Alexander Hamilton, who I loathe, incidentally, wrote a letter protesting the Potter’s Field, saying:
      • “lie in the neighborhood of a number of Citizens who have at great expense erected dwellings on the adjacent lots for the health and accommodation of their families during the summer season, and who, if the above design be carried into execution, must either abandon their seats or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place of this description destined for the victims of contagion.”
    • But the city went forward with it anyway, and stopped using the Madison Square Park burial ground.
    • In November 1797, the cemetery opened. It had a sturdy fence around it, and trees were planted there. A keeper’s cottage stood at the northeast corner of the cemetery, where the keeper who maintained the grounds and dug graves lived. Part of the keeper’s job was also to protect against grave robbers.
      • At the time, in the 18th and 19th centuries, grave-robbing was a real issue, because doctors and medical students needed cadavers for research, but there wasn’t an infustructure to get fresh corpses to them, so they robbed graves.
      • At the time, most prominent doctors in the area admitted to body-snatching at least once.
      • Grave-robbing happened mostly at African burial grounds and potter’s fields, where it was rightly assumed that the public would care less if bodies were stolen from.
    • In 1808, the Potter’s Field keeper was fired becase he admitted to helping grave robbers.
    • A later keeper took his duties seriously, and in april 1824, at 3 am, he got an inkling that grave robbers had arrived, and he called for two watchmen and went out with his dog to confront them.
      • He found 10 coffins that had been dug up, and the man who’d dug them up was arrested and spent 6 months in prison.
      • A New York Evening Post article about the incident said: “the young gentlemen attending the medical school of this city, will take warning by this man’s fate. They may rest assured that the keeper of Pottersfield will do his duty and public justice will be executed upon any man, whatever may be his condition in life, who is found violating the law and the decency of Christian burial.”
  • 20,000 were known to have been buried there and many if not all of their bodies are still there.
    • In 1798, a Great Epidemic of yellow fever hit NYC hard, killing 2,000 New Yorkers, 660 of whom were buried in Potter’s Field.
    • In later outbreaks, churches weren’t allowed to bury people who died of yellow fever, so they all went into Potter’s field.
  • But the area wasn’t just a potter’s field: the cemetery also held a few private church plots, including two African churches’ plots.
  • By 1824, the Village had become a major suburb of the city, and the Potters Field was full.
  • In 1825, the Potter’s field was leveled and turned into a parade ground. On the 4th of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it opened as the Washington Parade Ground.
  • In 1878, it was made  a public park.
  • The idea behind not moving the bodies was that it was deemed disrespectful, especially because some wealthy people had been buried there alongside the paupers.
    • But in 1890, when the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park was built, coffins, skeletons, and headstones were exhumed.
    • In 1941, WPA workers found remains while excavating for a sewer on the north edge of the park.
    • In 1965, workers from power company Con Edison found an underground burial vault that had had a domed roof and held several coffins and at least 25 skeletons–this was probably part of one of the church’s plots.
  • In October 2009, a few weeks before Halloween, construction workers found a tombstone in Washington Square Park.
    • And before that, in early 2008, presumably as part of the preparation for the construction, a soil testing had led to the discovery of four bodies
    • And between 2009 and 2013, during the construction, at least 31 skeletons, including 16 graves, were discovered by archaeologists during the part renovations.
  • Also, at some point, a gallows stood there, apparently near where the fountain at Washington Square Park is today.

 

Sara D. Roosevelt Park

  • This is a park in lower Manhattan, in kinda the lower east side/chinatown/little italy.
  • It’s not a super famous park, and isn’t one that tourists would try to go, but I used to spend a lot of time there in my early twenties.
    • It was near a dumpling place where you could get a really good sesame pancake for like $1 that the health department has since shut down.
    • There was also a bun place called Golden Steamer that I think is still around, where you could get a really good pumpkin or red bean paste bun for $.80.
    • So you could get a pretty good meal for under $2, but there wasn’t seating at either of those places, of course, so I used to sit in the nearby park and eat dinner. Most dinners that I had with friends back in those days were enjoyed at that park.
  • But I’m not here to reminisce about that, I’m here to tell you about something that I had no idea of back then: before the land became Sara D. Roosevelt Park in 1934, it  used to be a cemetery.
    • And not just any cemetery: it was an African burial ground, called the Second African Burial Ground.
    • I think most people know that NYC was once New Amsterdam, if only because of the They Might Be Giants song. Under Dutch rule, cemeteries weren’t necessarily racially segregated, but, predictably, as soon as the British took over, African Americans weren’t allowed to be buried in NYC.
    • Though to be clear, Dutch farmers in the area that is new NYC did use enslaved people as agricultural workers.
      • For example, according to the 1820 census, 338 white people and 91 black people lived in New Lots, Brooklyn, and half of the town’s families were slave owners. New Lots is another area that had a burial ground for black people, though the colonial cemetery there seemed to contain white and black people, with a specific area of it designated for black people.
        • If you’re wondering, in the 1920s, a nearby school took over the cemetery and used it as a playground.
        • To read from the NYC Cemetery Project’s website:
          • at a 1908 meeting of the New Lots Board of Trade . . . President Jacob Hessel stated, “it matters not that these bones are but the remainder of slaves; slaves they were, but they were also part of New Lots’ history, and as such we owe them respect”—[but] there is no evidence removals occurred at the time the playground was established.
        • In the 1950s, that playground was turned into a public park called the Schenck Playground, and in 2019, in memory of the African burial ground that was once there, the playground was renamed to be called Snakofa Park.
    • You’ll find that almost everywhere you turn in NYC, there either is or was a cemetery.
    • There were a good number of African burial grounds in NYC, one of which I used to walk by every day, before the pandemic.
      • That cemetery, which I think was the first major African burial ground in NYC, was in lower Manhattan, in an area that’s now practically entirely made up of government buildings. One of those government buildings does now contain a museum and monument commemorating that burial ground.
      • For about 100 years, starting in the 1690s, both free and enslaved Black people in NYC were buried there. Possibly about 20,000 people were buried there. In the late 1700s, a number of bodies were stolen for medical experiments.
      • And for a very long time, the burial ground was forgotten, until a big construction project in 1991 unearthed bodies. 400 bodies were sent to Howard University to be studied.
      • So now there’s both a museum and monument to the burial ground, as well as the IRS’s offices, since it’s a big government building.
    • Sara D. Roosevelt Park doesn’t have much commemorating the cemetery that used to be there: Instead of it’s full of basketball courts and benches.
      • There is a plaque, which reads:
        • In 1794, the African burial ground near City Hall was closed, and by October of that year, the Common Council of New York City received a “petition from the Sunday Black men of this City praying the aid of this board in purchasing a piece of ground for the internment of their dead.” By April, the land was granted in what was deemed “a proper place,” near the dilapidated ruin of James Delancey’s mansion. […] By the late 1700s, the growing population of the city forced northern expansion. The burial ground began to deteriorate, and in 1853, it closed forever. The human remains were disinterred, and the site was soon built over.
      • That being said, apparently not that many bodies were actually disinterred; as many of 5,000 people were buried in the Second African Burial Ground, and only about 485 interments appear on findagrave.com on the plot in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery where the remains were supposedly all moved.
        • When a local fancy modern art museum called the New Museum was built, around 2007 I believe, human remains were found.
        • Before the burial ground was closed, it was owned by St. Philip’s Church, who did  a big study in 2003 because of a proposed subway extension that would go through the area.
          • The study said that there were likely human remains still there, especially under the west sidewalk on Christie street between Stanton and Rivington.
      • Aside from the plaque, the only other suggestion that an African Burial Ground was in the park is a small community garden that was created in the 1980s, called the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, which means “Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World” in Kikongo, or Kongo, which is a Bantu langage that’s spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and Angola.
        • It was a language that was spoken by many people who were enslaved and taken to the Americas.
        • Because of that, forms of Kikong are apparently still spoken in rituals in Afro-American religions (especially in Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the DR, and Haiti)
        • Though mostly Kikongo’s spoken in Africa, where seven million people speak it as a first language and an additional 2 million speak it as a second language

Bryant Park

  • In March 1823, NYC passed laws banning burials in lower Manhattan.
    • Many cities in the US passed similar laws around this time, in the interest of public health.
    • There was a lot of controversies about the laws, though, because some people felt that having churchyard cemeteries all over were hazardous to their health and unsightly. Apparently the smell was also quite bad.
    • However, churches and people who’d bought plots in churchyards weren’t happy about it.
  • The city needed a new place to bury people, so they found a spot three miles north of City Hall, in the city’s common lands, surrounded by 5th and 6th Aves and 40th and 42 streets.
  • The city spent $10K prepping the land for the cemetery, including building 10 public burial vaults, surrounding the land with a 4-foot-high stone wall, and planting weeping willows and elms
  • And that is how, for 17 years, the land that became Bryant Park, which sits next to the main, big NYPL branch with the lions outside of it, was a potters field. If you’ve been to NYC, you’ve probably been to Bryant Park, especially since it’s near Times Square and the theater district.
  • Though the city tried to make it nice, the burial ground didn’t seem to appeal to middle-and-upper-class New Yorkers, and it doesn’t seem like churches or families acquired any of the vaults.
  • Supposedly the land was used as a potter’s field, though the city abandoned it by the late 1820s. But other sources have said that the land was too wet for burials and was just wasteland until 1837.
  • In 1840, the land was then used to make the Croton Distributing Reservoir, which we talked about in a lot more detail during our Egyptomania episode.

 

Union Square Park

  • Today, Union Square Park is on 14th street in Manhattan.
  • It’s by NYU and the New School, and is a really bustling park and area.
  • At least before the pandemic, it was extremely crowded all the time, and there was a great greenmarket there I believe on Saturdays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. When I worked near there I used to buy a lot of muffins and houseplants there.
  • There are often protests at Union Square, as well as artists selling their wares and people holding free hugs signs.
  • It’s a little grimy and the kinda place where you’re likely to get catcalled a lot, but it’s also a place that’s very full of life–again, at least before the pandemic. God knows what it’s like now.
  • Before it was a bustling, fashionable area, it was a potter’s field. I haven’t been able to find a ton of info about it for some reason, but it seems to have existed.
  • The last burials there were in 1807, and it was designated as a public park in 1815, called Union Place, which was later renamed Union Square.

 

Central Park

  • I didn’t want to leave the topic of cemeteries beneath NYC’s parks without at least mentioning NYC’s most famous park, Central Park.
  • Central Park has a number of gates that you can enter through, and one of them, Mariner’s Gate, stands at the location where All Angels Church, a mixed-race congregation that opened in 1848, as well as its cemetery, once stood.
  • In 1857, the government took the land and built Central Park
  • As far as we know, the bodies weren’t moved.
  • In 1871, workers were pulling out a tree when they found a coffin that contained a 16-year-old who had been buried there in 1852.
  • A number of other graves have been discovered by gardeners in the area.
  • I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t dig into this one too much, because a lot of the google searches I was getting didn’t surface anything about Central Park, but instead were about coronavirus-related mass graves. So maybe I’ll dig a bit deeper into this another time, but I didn’t really want to sift through all of that this time.

 

Sources consulted RE: New York City Potter’s Fields

Websites RE: New York City Potter’s Fields

  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561167/potter%E2%80%99s-field-(washington-square-park)
  • https://brooklynbased.com/2020/04/10/from-the-archives-the-past-lives-of-city-parks-as-potters-fields/
  • https://hyperallergic.com/75684/when-will-there-be-a-memorial-for-nycs-second-african-burial-ground/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/category/african-american-cemeteries/
  • https://www.nps.gov/afbg/planyourvisit/maps.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kongo_language
  • https://gothamist.com/news/tombstone-unearthed-in-washington-square-park
  • https://brooklynbased.com/2012/08/24/the-bones-beneath-fort-greene-park/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/public-burial-ground-madison-square-park-2/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_fever
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/public-burial-ground-madison-square-park/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2019/05/30/public-burial-ground-bryant-park/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madison_Square_and_Madison_Square_Park
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/manhattans-forgotten-graveyards_b_4171691
  • https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/a-brief-history-of-union-square-new-york-city/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Square,_Manhattan
  • https://nypost.com/2014/10/25/the-hidden-cemeteries-of-nyc/
  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/before-they-were-parks/manhattan
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561849/potter’s-field-(madison-square-park)
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561167/memorial-search?page=1#sr-187815630
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561363
  • King’s Handbook of New York: https://books.google.com/books?id=MEEAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA505&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

Listen to the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

A look at some popular ghost stories from haunted Asheville, North Carolina, along with a strange F. Scott Fitzgerald conspiracy theory.

Highlights include:
• Haunted bridges
• Gruesome disinterments at a potter’s field
• A haunted high school
• Two dead women named Helen
• A bookseller’s memories of hanging out with F. Scott Fitzgerald
• An old tombstone shop
• The Brown Mountain Lights

Note: This episode contains mentions of murder, police brutality, suicide, drowning, and disrespectful disinterment of corpses.

 

Episode Script for Haunted Asheville, North Carolina

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“It is hard to see what Asheville is going to do. It seems that they did enough damage in two or three years to ruin the town for fifty years to come. Our people were flying too high and forgetting how to tell the truth — everything bluff and brag and blow — this is what the whole country was doing and we’re paying through the nose for it right now. They invested their whole lives in a toy balloon, and when the balloon burst there was nothing left …” -In 1933, Thomas Wolfe wrote to his mother about how Asheville fared during the depression

 

I have a bit more info about why Asheville was such a big place for health resorts from the 1880s-1930.

There are a few reasons for that:

  • Asheville has mild weather and  barometric pressure of 2,216 feet above sea level, as well as clean mountain air, and people thought those were the ideal conditions for recovery from TB.
  • Also, in 1880, the Asheville-Spartanburg railway was completed

Before that, wealthy people had already started moving there, but the railroad really kicked it off

 

Jackson Building

  • The Jackson Building was Asheville’s first skyscraper. It was built in 1924.
  • Before it was built, author Thomas Wolfe’s father had a shop there. He made tombstones.

○ There’s now a few monuments to the tombstone shop outside, which displays tombstone carving tools and an excerpt of Look Homeward, Angel.

  • The building is crowned with gargoyles and has gothic tracery at the top.
  • So, part of what made Fitzgerald’s time in Asheville extra depressing is that the Great Depression was going on then, and it hit Asheville extra hard.
  • The depression hit Asheville so hard that the city’s debts weren’t paid off until 1976
  • Legend has it that several people killed themselves by jumping out of the Jackson Building after the stock market crashed.
  • And some people have reported that they see a man’s face in the top window of the building, and they believe that he was one of the people who killed himself there.

○ That being said, that seems like it could just be pareidolia, but it’s interesting.

  • Another strange thing, but not a paranormal thing, is that there’s a bullseye pattern at the base of the building, put into the brick next to the monuments to the tombstone shop.
  • Let’s start with the Battery Park Hotel, because it deals with several of the characters we talked about last week.
  • The original Grove Park Hotel was built in 1886 by a Col. Frank Coxe. It was built on the site of an old Civil War artillery battery, up on a hill. The hill was already a tourist attraction because it afforded beautiful views of the city
  • Built in the Queen Anne style, the hotel was a very modern, with a fireplace in every room, steam radiators, modern elevators (the first in the south) and bathrooms, and electric lights. It cost $100,000 to build.
  • It was a grand and beloved hotel. Supposedly, when George Vanderbilt visited the Battery Park Hotel, he looked out at the land around it and decided to purchase 125,000 acres and build his 250-room estate, the Biltmore, which we’ll get to later.
  • But by 1921, the building had gotten run down, and it was purchased by Edwin Grove, who we talked about at length last time. He was a wealthy patent medicine mogul who built the Grove Park Inn and did a bunch of other development in Asheville.
  • Grove had the old hotel torn down using steam shovels–a relatively new invention. The hotel had stood on a hill called Battery Porter Hill, and he had that torn down too. (The hill was reduced by 100 feet and he ended up removing 250,000 cubic yards of dirt.)
  • People weren’t happy about that.
    • In his book You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe described the new version of the hotel:
      • It was being stamped out of the same mold, as if by some gigantic biscuit-cutter of hotels that had produced a thousand others like it all over the country.
    • People felt like Asheville was losing its interesting buildings
  • Built in a Neoclassical style, the new Battery Park Hotel opened in 1924
    • It had 220 rooms, 14 stories, a rooftop restaurant
    • It was really nice, and had great views of the city. It attracted literary guests like O. Henry, eventually, Thomas Wolfe, as well as other famous guests including Babe Ruth, Grace Kelly, and Boris Karloff
    • Grove died in the hotel in 1927
  • You’ll remember that F. Scott Fitzgerald lived at the Grove Park Inn for a couple years, including in 1936.
    • Though he never stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, he was known to visit the hotel frequently.
  • In July 1936, a 19-year-old NYU student from Staten Island named Helen Clevenger stayed in the Battery Park Hotel with her uncle, William Clevenger, who was a professor
    • They checked into the hotel on July 15, and then went to dinner with her uncle’s friends
    • They returned home at 10:30 pm and returned to their separate rooms. Helen was in room 224.
    • There was a terrible thunderstorm that night. During the storm, a guest in the room across from 224 thought he heard a gunshot.
    • He called the front desk, and the house detective, Daniel Gaddy went to look
    • He listened at a few doors and then declared it was just thunder
    • The next morning at 7:30, William went to check on his niece. When she didn’t answer, he opened the door–which was unlocked–and found her on the floor, in her PJs, with blood all over and a fatal bullet wound in her chest. She’d also been pistol-whipped, and her face was all messed up. A .32 caliber bullet lay in the room.
    • Aside from the bullet casing, the only other clue was that a lanky man had leapt 15 feet from a hotel stairway in the middle of the night. I read that the man was about 5’9″
    • Initially, the police detained suspects including William, the house detective, and a German violinist named Mark Wollner who had been on a date at the Battery Park on the night of the murder
    • All of the suspects were released, and police decided that a hotel employee must have committed the murder
    • They interrogated 60 hotel employees and were most suspicious of two young black men who worked as bellhops, Joe Urey and L.D. Roddy.
    • The NYPD sent two homicide detectives to Asheville
    • A hotel cook told the NYPD that the janitor, Martin Moore, a 22-year-old Black man, had a .32 revolver
    • The NYPD confronted Moore, who said he was innocent and gave the cops his gun. The NYPD flew the gun to a lab in Brooklyn and they decided that the gun had hairs similar to Helen’s
    • The cops then claimed that Moore confessed and produced a 700-word transcript. They declared that the motive was that he wanted to rob her, though why someone would want to rob a college student is beyond me.
    • Moore said the confession had been forced; he said “a fan man from new york” (meaning one of the NYPD detectives) had beaten him with a rubber hose until he confessed.
    • Moore had an alibi that placed him at  birthday party at the time of the murder
    • Nevertheless, he was rushed to trial on August 19, 11 days after he gave the cops the gun
    • Moore and his family testified that Moore had been at the birthday party that night
    • But the judge declared the confession valid, and the all-white jury declared Moore guilty within an hour.
    • He was given the death sentence.
    • The NAACP campaigned to save Moore, and Moore’s attourneys tried to get an appeal but were denied; the court didn’t want to hear it
    • So Moore was executed in North Carolina’s new gas chamber, in Raleigh, on December 11, 1936.
    • He said he was innocent up to the day of his death
    • One interesting thing: I’ve seen it implied that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was about 5’9″ and was definitely lanky, may have been the murderer.
      • The logic is that F. Scott Fitzgerald was known to have been shooting a gun in the Grove Park Inn in July 1936, threatening to kill himself.
        • A secretary who Fitzgerald hired later recounted the story that a nurse told her:
          • She then went on to tell me the details of his getting his pistol and threatening to shoot himself. There was quite a commotion. In some way she got a bellboy, who got the pistol, and Scott, in pajamas and bathrobe, chased him over the hotel. After that, the hotel refused to let him stay there by himself.
  • So then a full-time nurse was hired so he could stay
  • He was obviously drunk all the time, and I could imagine him interacting with the young college student and things going wrong
  • I did read something that mentioned that while Fitzgerald was in Paris in 1930 and he and Thomas Wolfe met up, Fitzgerald was swarmed with “idolatrous college kids” so it does seem like young people knew who he was, etc.
  • There’s a book called Lost Summer, which is a memoir by Tony Buttitta, an Asheville bookseller who befriended Fitzgerald while he was in town in 1935. I’ve linked to the full text in the shownotes for anyone who’s interested in reading it.
    • I skimmed through some parts of it and saw a bit where Fitzgerald was hanging out at the pool with Rosemary, the married woman he was having an affair with.
      • When Rosemary had to go inside to take a phone call, Fitzgerald went over to talk to a younger woman named Lottie, who was sitting by the pool with a copy of The Great Gatsby trying to get his attention.
      • Buttitta describes Lottie as “one of Asheville’s most exclusive harlots, her charms . . . Available only to guests of the luxury hotels.” Though when Fitzgerald first learns who Lottie is and seems shocked, Buttitta says “I like her better than most of the society women.”
      • I’m not sure exactly how old Lottie was, but she seemed pretty young. When she told Fitzgerald she’d never met a writer before, he tried to impress her. To read a bit of that:
        • “They’re a breed apart from the human race,” Fitzgerald said, with the bravura he summoned up on meeting an impressionable girl. “Never tangle with a writer. Some are vegetarians, some prefer the flesh of their brothers. Many are alcoholics or lonely eccentrics who sit and dream up excitement to compensate for a sedentary life. You can never truly know one. He’s too many people trying to be one person—if he’s worth a damn as a writer.”
  • Also, soon after that their affair ended, and Rosemary moved into the Battery Park Hotel. This was in 1935. Rosemary left Asheville soon after, and Fitzgerald moved into the Battery Park Hotel for a while, then moved back into the grove park inn.
  • Another thing worth noting is that Fitzgerald was drunk all the time, and hurt himself doing stupid things like the swan dive that screwed up his shoulder, so I could imagine him recklessly jumping down a flight of stairs.
  • Also, I should mention that in the book it’s pretty clear that Fitzgerald is racist, against black people at least. At one point, Buttitta tells him about a book he’s writing with a black protagonist, and he says that Fitzgerald “frowned on” the idea of a black hero. And then at the end of the memoir, they get into a fight when Fitzgerald says some nasty stuff about “race mixing” and yells at Buttitta for supporting black writers and black people in general.
    • In addition to that, I think that the only thing Fitzgerald published between his summers in Asheville is an essay for Esquire called “The Crack-up,” which has a whole part about how he “can’t stand the sight of” black people, as well as some other groups of people. I’ve linked the full text to that in the shownotes if anyone wants to read that essay. It’s just basically about him falling into despair.
    • So I think it’s safe to say that in the Battery Park Hotel murder case, if someone had questioned Fitzgerald about who he thought committed the murder, he definitely would have pointed a finger at black hotel employees.
  • All of this is extremely circumstantial, but the Fitzgerald part of all of this was fairly intriguing to me, especially since he was so unstable during the summers he spent in Asheville.
  • And of course the cops were very motivated to pin the blame for the murder on someone, and just like today, it would have been easiest to frame a young black man, whereas potentially leveling the blame on someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or a wealthy hotel guest, would be much more trouble for them and would, in their eyes at least, reflect poorly on them.
  • Many people say that the hotel is haunted because of how a Moore had been so obviously railroaded
    • Apparently the elevator where Moore had worked as a bellhop behaves strangely, running through the night by itself and clattering, waking people up
    •  In the 70s and 80s, people claimed to see red light emanating from room 224
    • Some claim that the second floor is freezing cold, and changing the thermostat doesn’t help
    • It’s also been said that Helen haunts the hotel as well, though I haven’t heard specifics of that.
  • The Battery Park Hotel closed in 1972 and in 1980, it was made into an apartment building for senior citizens.

 

Helen’s Bridge, a bridge on Beaucatcher Mountain that was built in 1909 and was originally called Zealandia’s bridge. I assume it was named after Zealandia, a historic Tudor-style mansion in Asheville. It’s a pretty stone bridge with a road running under it.

  • A young mother named Helen lived on the mountain and lost her daughter in a fire. She was so devastated that she hanged herself from the bridge.
  • People now say that they have car trouble on the bridge, including having their batteries die while on the bridge. And some folks who’ve gone there for paranormal investigations have had car problems later on. In some cases, people have said they had car trouble a week after, and people have reported seeing a moving figure from the corner of their eye after leaving.
  • There have also been reports of Helen appearing and asking if they know where her child is. They say she wears a long dress
  • Apparently there’s a lot of paranormal activity around the bridge.
  • People have said they’ve also seen apparitions and figures that look like monsters in the underbrush nearby.
  • People have also been slapped, punched, and scratched while there

 

Erwin High School

  • In the 1970s, this high school was built on an old potters field called Country Home Cemetery. We’ve talked about potters fields before–Hart Island in NYC is one of them–but as a reminder, they’re cemeteries for people who can’t afford to be buried elsewhere. Many potters fields are for people who are indigent or whose bodies can’t be identified.
  • There had been an old folks’ home called Old County Home nearby, and many elderly people from there were buried in the potter’s field
  • There had been more than 1K graves, which were moved so they could build the school. But because most of the graves weren’t marked, some of the bodies couldn’t have been found and moved.
  • Contractors tried to field the bodies by shoving a T-handled rod into the ground and feeling for soft spots.
  • Many of the corpses didn’t have coffins; some were just wrapped in blankets.
  • The contractors put the decomposed remains into small wooden boxes, many of which were only 3 feet long.
  • According to research by paranormal researcher Joshua Warren, as reported in a 2002 article in Mountain Xpress, “a county commissioner, R. Curtis Ratcliff, reported that he saw workers punch a hole in a coffin, drag out a skull, and throw it on the ground; some of its false teeth fell out, and its hair fell off. An anonymous teacher claimed to have seen a coffin opened that contained the remains of a woman with flowing red hair, dressed in an old gown, and cradling in her arms a small corpse that appeared to be a stillborn baby.”
  • The bodies were moved to a hillside behind an elementary school, and the graves were marked with military-style white crosses
  • The school technically wasn’t built exactly on top of the cemetery–the cemetery was between the school and the football field
  • Strange phenomena supposedly started after students got ahold of some skulls and started using them in pranks
  • People have reported poltergeist activity like the elevator moving by itself, flying objects, slamming doors, and floating heads
  • Students and custodial staff have seen pictures fly off classroom walls, TVs turn themselves on and off
  • The reporter in 2002 claimed that if you walk around in the fields behind the school, there are shapes visible in the moonlit grass that look like human bodies
  • The football team is notoriously terrible, and in the 1990s during a really bad losing streak, the half-time show was a mock exorcism. (It didn’t work)
  • Custodial staff, who often work there late at night alone, have said that motion detectors go off when no one’s there, etc. But One former assistant principal claims that they’re being set off by animals who were abandoned at the Human Society, which is next door

 

Craven Street Bridge

  • The French Broad River is a river that runs through Asheville that people used to swim in back in the day. The Craven Street Bridge crosses the river, and there’s an odd ghost story associated with it.
  • Supposedly, in the early 20th century, some boys went for a swim in the river around sunset on a summer evening.
  • Not everyone owned bathing suits back then, so they swam naked.
  • Unfortunately, the river was flowing faster than usual that day because of some storms that had happened elsewhere a few days before.
  • When playing in the river, the boys were swept toward the Craven Street Bridge, where dangerous rapids had formed. So they went to go home, and then realized that someone in their party was missing.
  • They looked for the boy, and got other people to help him throughout the night, but they didn’t find him. The next day, boats dredged the river, but his body wasn’t found.
  • Soon after that, people started seeing a naked boy run across the bridge, but when they tried to get his attention, he didn’t respond. If they tried to catch up with him, he’d disappear.

 

Brown Mountain Lights

  • Orbs seem to rise off the mountain, hover 15 feet up, then vanish
  • Tons of people have seen them over the centuries
  • Cherokee legend says that they were the souls of the women searching for their men who’d died in a battle between the Cherokee and Catawba that happened on Brown Mountain
  • Some people say that they’re the lights from a search for a missing woman, echoing back from when the search happened in the 19th century
  • There’s one legend that romanticized slavery, saying that a slave-owner and an enslaved man were in the mountains together, and the slave-owned disappeared while the enslaved man continued looking for him. It became a popular mid-20th century song by Lulu Belle and Scotty called Brown Mountain Light.
  • Some scientific explanations that have been offered are swamp gas or reflected car headlights.
    • But there’s no swamp on Brown Mountain.
    • And the lights appeared before cars existed, and were still seen in 1916 when a flood shut down all train and car traffic in the area.
    • Some people say instead that they’re some kind of electrical discharge from the nearby fault lines.
  • We didn’t get to see them, especially since they’re observed at night and the folks I’m traveling with are very scared of ghosts.
    • And anyway, the best time to see them is October or November, once the trees have lost their leaves

Sources consulted RE: Haunted Asheville, North Carolina

Websites RE: Haunted Asheville, North Carolina

  • The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald: https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/

  • Tony Buttitta’s memoir of his time with F. Scott Fitzgerald: http://fitzgerald.narod.ru/bio/buttitta-lostsummer01.html

  • https://northcarolinaghosts.com/mountains/

  • https://northcarolinaghosts.com/mountains/ghost-chicken-alley/

  • https://northcarolinaghosts.com/mountains/pink-lady-grove-park-inn/

  • https://northcarolinaghosts.com/mountains/naked-ghost-craven-street-bridge/

  • https://www.romanticasheville.com/brown_mountain_lights.htm

  • http://brownmountainlights.com/

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Omni_Grove_Park_Inn

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Wiley_Grove

  • https://traveltips.usatoday.com/history-grove-park-inn-asheville-22468.html

  • https://www.cdc.gov/malaria/about/history/elimination_us.html

  • https://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park/property-details/history

  • Haunted Asheville, NC

  • Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, Asheville, North Carolina

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pony_glass

  • https://www.npr.org/2013/09/03/216164420/for-f-scott-and-zelda-fitzgerald-a-dark-chapter-in-asheville-n-c

  • https://blueridgecountry.com/archive/favorites/fitzgeralds-asheville-days/

  • https://blueridgecountry.com/newsstand/magazine/the-tragic-death-of-zelda-fitzgerald/

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F._Scott_Fitzgerald

  • https://ashevilleterrors.com/grove-park-inn/

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_of_the_Philippines

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_in_exile_of_the_Commonwealth_of_the_Philippines

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_occupation_of_the_Philippines

  • https://northcarolinaghosts.com/mountains/pink-lady-grove-park-inn/

  • https://the-line-up.com/the-pink-lady

  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/pink-lady-grove-park-inn

  • https://ghosthuntersofasheville.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-pink-lady-of-ghost-park-inn.html

  • https://avltoday.6amcity.com/asheville-ghosts/
  • The Story Behind This Haunted Bridge In North Carolina Is Truly Creepy

  • https://mountainx.com/news/community-news/0703erwin-php/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealandia_(Asheville,_North_Carolina)

  • Murder at the Battery Park

  • http://library.uncg.edu/dp/nclitmap/tours/details/Fitzgerald/index.aspx?pid=1683

  • Life, death and drama in the Battery Park Apartments

  • https://sites.google.com/a/clevelandcountyschools.org/asheville-intensive/battery-park-hotel

  • https://wcudigitalcollection.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16232coll3/id/76#_ga=1.199196139.531283170.1399304231

  • https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/asheville/bat.htm

  • https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/asheville/resort.htm

  • Episode 51 Murder At The Battery Park Hotel

  • https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/nyu-student-killer-rushed-execution-5-months-1936-article-1.3368737

  • https://swords-pens.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-haunting-of-battery-park-hotel.html

  • https://wncmagazine.com/feature/queen_hill

  • Gatsby’s Asheville

  • http://library.uncg.edu/dp/nclitmap/tours/details/Fitzgerald/index.aspx

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battery_Park_Hotel

  • Murder at the Battery Park

  • Historic (Haunted) Inns of Asheville

  • Let’s Be Honest about these Celebrated Asheville Writer’s

  • https://www.strangecarolinas.com/2016/09/the-jackson-building-ghost-asheville-nc.html

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