Record made out of an X-ray of two hands

This week I learned: bone music, Elmer McCurdy’s posthumous career, the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia

About the amazing world of secret bone music, the outlaw who became Skeletor, and yet more interestingly-shaped rocks with surprising ancient history.

Bone music from the Russian underground

Despite what it sounds like, this isn’t a story about grave-digging. But it is an amazing example of the lengths people will go to to circumvent government censorship.

In 1946, Soviet Russia banned the ownership of foreign music, as well as any Russian tunes considered controversial – apparently, anything other than classical music or folk tunes praising Stalin and socialism. But Russian music lovers still knew rock ‘n’ roll and jazz were out there, and would do anything to get their hands on these and other forbidden songs.

In Leningrad, 19-year-old Ruslan Bogoslowsky managed to build a transcription lathe – a device for turning live sound into grooves scribed onto a soft disc. Now all he needed was a material soft enough to be scribed on, solid enough to hold the grooves, and common enough to come by. The answer: discarded hospital X-rays.

Bogoslowsky’s technique soon spread. They were nicknamed ryobra – Russian for “ribs” – and they are hauntingly eerie to look at: perfect record shapes stamped out of images of skulls and hands and chest-bones.

Their recordings were far from high-fidelity, and their creation led to jail time for Bogoslowsky and other rib-makers caught by the government, but for nearly twenty years bone music brought the songs of the rest of the world to Russian turntables in defiance of Stalin and the Soviet government.

Original source: Ripple Music (N.B. this post contains some inaccuracies – for instance, Bogoslowsky was not the inventor of the transcription lathe)

More information: X-ray decks: the lost bone music of the Soviet Union

Elmer McCurdy: from outlaw to Skeletor

This is one of those stories you just can’t make up, and the sheer number of twists it takes would justify an entire post on their own. Here’s the cliff notes version, with plenty of links if you want more than a taste:

Elmer McCurdy was an alcoholic and drifter who in 1911 took up a brief and largely unsuccessful career as a safe-cracker. He had some army training in the use of nitroglycerin, but was either incompetent or just lazy about quantities – on one occasion he used so much that he and his fellow robbers had to leave most of the money behind, as the explosion had fused it to the inside of the safe.

McCurdy’s life of crime ended less than a year after it began: in October 1911, he was killed in a police shootout. His body was unclaimed, but the undertaker at the funeral home saw a business opportunity in that: he mummified McCurdy and charged people a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up.”

Eventually a pair of men showed up to claim McCurdy as family, and took the corpse away – but in fact they were carnies, so inspired by the undertaker’s money-making scheme that they stole it from him. They took McCurdy on tour, displayed under the exact same tag line. After many years of touring, McCurdy wound up at Pike Amusement Park in California, where he was assumed to be fake and incorporated into the park’s ghost train as just another (particularly) creepy mannequin.

That lasted until 1976, when McCurdy’s arm was broken off during, of all things, the filming of an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man, leading to the discovery that this was a real corpse. His true identity was eventually deduced, and he was finally buried in 1977.

But even that’s not quite the end of this unbelievable story. Because sometime before 1976, a little boy called Mark Taylor rode the ghost train at Pike Amusement Park and was convinced he’d seen a real life corpse. The event stuck with him – so deeply that, many years later, he used it as inspiration for the main villain in the classic cartoon series he co-created: Skeletor, in Masters of the Universe.

Original source: Futility Closet ep. 190: Mary Patten and the Neptune’s Car

Phallic formations or fairytale foxholes?

Perhaps inevitably (though I didn’t see it coming), last week’s post about a geological vulva prompted one reader to clue me in about certain other NSFW geological formations. Unlike Utroba Cave, these *cough* interestingly-shaped pillars are naturally occurring, but it turns out they have a fascinating history.

The “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia, in Turkey, are the result of erosion – their “caps” are basalt, a hard stone that erodes more slowly than the soft, porous tuff around it, and thus protects the column of tuff directly beneath it. The tuff is (despite its name) so soft, in fact, that people have been carving dwellings and hiding places out of these formations for centuries.

Some of these formations are much larger than those humorous columns – so large, in fact, that some of them contain entire cities. When invaders came by, as they did regularly in this part of Turkey, the locals would retreat into these underground complexes, which they filled with traps and choke-points that they could use to make life very uncomfortable for anyone who tried to follow them.

Original source: Turkey’s ‘Fairy Chimneys’ Were Millions of Years in the Making

Photo used with permission from The X-Ray Audio Project.
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