Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: Liver-Eating Johnson

Here’s another weird history piece, this time from the American west.  In the nineteenth century it
was easy to change your name and become someone else.  That is exactly what John Johnson, born Garrison, did.  And then his real story begins.  

A little backstory, he was born under the name Garrison in New Jersey around 1824.  When the chance to see the world and serve his country came up, he joined a fighting ship in the Mexican American war, but quickly deserted after a brawl with an officer that likely would’ve gotten him dishonorably discharged.  Garrison then changed his name to John Johnston and hopped a train out west, as many generations of Americans would do after him.  He was said to be a striking figure, over six feet tall, two hundred pounds, and pure muscle.  Not a man I would challenge lightly.

Johnston (later called Johnson) traveled to Montana in hopes of finding gold and becoming a rich man.  He did not find gold, what he found instead was a welcome to the Flathead tribe.  He married a Flathead woman and considered them to be his family.  Tragedy struck in 1847 when his wife was killed by a Crow brave.  His wife was heavily pregnant at the time, and Johnston had been away hunting, unable to protect his family.  Johnston was heartbroken and vowed revenge.

To the Crow the liver was vital to an individual’s chances of entering the afterlife, and Johnston knew it.  He began a personal vendetta against the Crow that would last twenty-five years and claim the lives of countless Crow men.  Distraught over the loss of his beloved wife, Johnston, now called Johnson, began killing any Crow he came across, and eating the liver, insulting the Crow.  Just coming across Crow men wasn’t enough for him, the loss of his wife was so great and Johnson was so bereft, that he sought out Crow men to kill and cannibalize.  

The Crow picked out their twenty best warriors, outfitted them, and sent them to kill Johnson.  Not one of them returned, and no accounts exist of what happened when they left their tribe.

Many legends surround Johnson, it can be hard to tell legend from fact through the veils of history, but one in particular stands out.  Some attribute this to another man, but many attribute it to Johnson.  He had begun a journey of over 500 miles to sell whiskey to some of his Flathead family when he was attacked by Blackfoot warriors.  They planned to sell him to the Crow for revenge.  Johnson was tied up, and put in a teepee with only one guard.  Of course, as we know, Johnson was a brick wall of a man with quite an axe to grind.  

Johnson broke through his binding, killed the guard, scalped him, and supposedly cut off his leg.  He then escaped from the camp and survived on only the guard’s raw leg in the middle of a Rocky Mountain winter until he reached the cabin of a friend and old hunting partner Del Que.  He would’ve traveled 200 miles through snow and ice.  

In 1864, almost twenty years after the death of his wife and unborn child, John Johnson joined the Union Army.  A year later, at the end of the war, he was honorably discharged from the army, and returned to Montana.  A few years later he made peace with the Crow, bodies having piled up and followed him everywhere.  Later, he was appointed deputy sheriff, then town marshal in Montana.  In December 1899 Johnson was admitted to a VA hospital in California, where he died on January 21, 1900.  

Tragedy can be truly transformative, and for John Garrison Johnston Johnson it created a monster.

Stay Tuned.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Hi guys.  Sorry for my unanticipated hiatus.  I've been super busy and kind of stressed, but I've also been writing.  Yay for writing!  Let's hope it keeps up.  I have a cool weird-history style Weekly Dose of Weird for you tomorrow, so stick around.  

I've also been thinking of cross-posting the Weekly Dose of Weird posts on their own blog page so that people who are only interested in them don't have to wade through all the rest of my weirdness to find them. Also cause then I could use them as an example of freelance writing, although they need to be edited and cleaned up more if I'm going to do that.

Regardless, good luck with your own writing and other summer adventures.  I'll be in my cave.

Stay Tuned.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Honesty Hour: Writing Edition

This is the first post in a while that I haven't pre-written in Google drive, edited, then scheduled.  And it's gonna be a really honest one.  It's time to talk about writing again.  

Writing has been rough lately.  I've been having a lot of trouble getting it going at all.  I re-read outlines from last summer, and I get excited about the stories again, but I also can't seem to slip into that world like I did in 2012.  So I'm struggling.  Partly I think it's because I'm doing so many other things right now, partly I think it's because I'm leading a particularly stressful life of late (lots of added responsibilities with my family and the house, lots of personal stress about finding a place to live after I graduate and hoping to move there as quickly as I can after I graduate, etc).  But regardless of why, I'm struggling.  

I've been trying to get back into my Camp Nano book from last year, about a teenage psychic who moves to my hometown and discovers there's a lot more to the world than she thought.  It's a character I've been playing with for the last six years.  

I'll let you know how it goes.  But that'll probably take a while.

To any of you struggling with writing right now, good luck.  And I've always got the chocolate for when we need it.

Stay Tuned.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: New England Vampires

On a cold night in 1892 George Brown pried open tomb doors to see his younger daughter’s dead body.  It had been months since young Mercy died of consumption, which we now call tuberculosis, but her body was perfectly preserved.  She looked just as she had when her father and brother laid her to rest in January.  She should’ve been buried properly, as her mother and sister had, but the ground is hard in New England in January, so she was held in a tomb until the ground was looser.  Mercy’s body was perfect, her skin and clothes still intact, her hair and nails seemingly longer than when she’d died.  Her father and their neighbors believed she had become a vampire, and was praying on her sick brother Edwin.  
In the four years preceding Mercy’s death George Brown had lost his wife Mary, and their other daughter Mary Olive.  Then Mercy died, and Edwin became sick.  George tried to save his son.  He sent Edwin to Colorado to get the Western air, which was considered to be better for the lungs of patients with tuberculosis, but unfortunately when Edwin came home he was even sicker.  Then neighbors suggested that perhaps Edwin wasn’t really sick, perhaps he was being targeted by undead relatives.  
George Brown and his neighbors dug through the tough New England soil to unearth Mary and Mary Olive’s bodies.  They were clearly long since deceased, their bodies decayed and brown.  But Mercy had been kept above ground, in a stone building, in the freezer-like temperatures of early 1892 Rhode Island.  Thus, her body was perfectly preserved, and that was enough for her community to say that she was clearly a vampire, preying on her own big brother.  

Her father and community cut open Mercy’s chest, pulled out her heart, and burned it.  They then mixed the ashes with water, and gave it to Edwin to drink, believing that it would cure him of his disease.  Two months later Edwin joined his mother and sisters in the Rhode Island ground.  George Brown must have been heart crushed, destroyed inside.  First he lost his wife, then his first daughter, and then another daughter.  When his son too became sick, he would have taken on Atlas’ burden if it would’ve saved Edwin.  George Brown underwent the emotional trauma of digging up his wife and daughter, then of removing his other daughter’s heart and burning it.  And all of this still did nothing to save his son.  He had been a father of six children, five daughters and one son.  By June 1892 he was a father of three living daughters, and he bore that burden alone.  
George Brown was not the only one to fall into this tragedy.  Disease was not well understood in the late nineteenth century, tuberculosis especially.  Doctors recommended sending patients out west to drier air to clear out the lungs.  We know now that disease has to be treated with medicine, but at the time if the doctor’s suggestions didn’t work, people thought maybe it wasn’t disease.  Maybe, just maybe, it was a vampire.  
Archaeologists and historians in New England are very familiar with the folklore that surrounded vampires in the Victorian era.  Though the disinterments that mark a vampire search date back to the seventeenth century and stretch to the midwest, they cluster in the 1800s and New England.  Many places have legends about vampires and other undead, but this one was so strong it drove people to dig up their relatives.  
(this is where Mercy Brown's remains were likely stored until the ground thawed)

We know now, with modern science, that the reason dead people’s hair and nails seem to still grow after they die is that the skin recedes.  We know now that people likely passed tuberculosis to members of their families, and that the disease could kill you very slowly.  We know now that once truly dead, you stay dead.  But for most of the nineteenth century there was no germ theory, no pasteurization, no sanitation measures.  People still believed that disease could be caused by an imbalance of the vapours or the ire of a witch or the unholy desires of the undead.  And it is never, ever a surprise that people will go to any lengths to save their family members, especially their children.  
So it’s not really that surprising that people were willing to dig up friends and family, neighbors and community members, to try to protect those still living.  Why such a cluster in New England?  Perhaps there was a higher death rate in New England then, perhaps it was the influence of neighbor whispering to neighbor, perhaps there was a touch of mob mentality about the whole affair.  Perhaps those interred in the cold New England ground woke, and had lost their human instinct of family.  
We’ll never know.

Stay Tuned.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Recent events in my life have made me rediscover my monogram.  I’ve loved monograms for a long time, but lately I’ve been monogramming a lot of things.  Including my water bottle...

My clipboard...

My phone...

And my iPod, and iPad backgrounds.  Plus my desktop wallpaper is my monogram surrounded by two photos from this year, and a quote from C.S. Lewis.  (It’ll come up again in August...)  

You can choose how your monogram represents you.  The font, the way that the letters intertwine or don’t, the size of the letters.  There are so many ways to customize the three letters decided by your parents.  Your name may have been chosen by your parents, but like your nickname the way that your monogram represents you is entirely your own decision. The letters can be uppercase or lowercase or a mix thereof.  The font can be solid print, or loopy cursive.  The size of the central last initial can emphasize a family connection.  

I love my monogram.  It just looks so fancy and sophisticated on my water bottle.  My clipboard with my monogram makes me feel very grown up.  It also is helping me feel connected to family members that came before me, and distant ones.  My third cousins with the same last name?  Same middle letter in the monograms.  Even if we’ve never met, same letter, and it means the same thing.  It’s like hanging walking around with your family crest, but stylized to match your own personality.  

Names are a basic part of our identities. But the thing about names is that they’re given to us before our parents know our personalities.  They mean well, but we have to stylize them to fit us.  We do this through nicknames, nameplates in our own style, changes of spelling, and through the style of our monograms.  

Own your name.  Own your monogram.  Take a lesson from Reese Witherspoon: If it’s not moving, monogram it!

Stay Tuned.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Home Is Where Your Feet Are

I call myself a perpetual nomad because I never live in the same place for very long at once.  Even though I’m moving between the same house and various dorms on the same campus, I never feel like I have a place to call home.  At first, this bothered me a little bit.  Then I came to the perspective that home could be a person, or a feeling.  But recently I’ve come to a different philosophy.  Home is where your feet are.  

Pinterest is where I first came across this sentiment, and it immediately resonated with me.  I didn’t need to have one physical place to call home.  I didn’t need to tie my feelings of home to another person.  I didn’t need to leave my “home” somewhere that I would rarely be.  Home could be wherever I was at any given time.  Home could be my dorm, home could be my grandma’s house.  Home could be the hiking trails of Rock Creek Park.  

Home has always been a complicated concept for me.  When I was a kid I would sit on the stairs in my house, wrap my arms around my knees, and rock back and forth saying “I want to go home, I want to go home” to myself, even though I was home.  I just didn’t feel at home.  In middle school, when my parents sold the house I grew up in, I was determined that the apartment I moved to would never be home.  But it did become a home.  Then college came and I lost that home as well.  For a time home was tied to a significant person, and the feeling of being warm and safe.  

(click through for a high-res, perfectly sized for ipods, version!)

My doctor in high school once told me that how much she had enjoyed medical school was tied to the experience of moving around.  She went to school in the Caribbean and for a while home was wherever she could put her pillow down for the night.  That particular piece of conversation always stuck with me.  

As mentioned earlier, I’ve always had a touch of wanderlust.  I used to fantasize about being a forensic anthropologist in high demand and flying all over the world with nothing but a duffel bag of clothes and my ipod.  Home would be wherever I could lay my pillow.  

Reminding myself that “home is where my feet are” helps when I start to feel alone, or out of place, or uncertain.  Wherever I am, that’s home.  Because of my lack of one “home base” I live a very flexible lifestyle, and I really (really) don’t like uncertainty.  The “home is where your feet are” philosophy really helps me with that though because I remember to treat wherever I’m living as my home, not just a temporary spot to lay my pillow.  It helps me fight that feeling of uncertainty.  

Knowing that I’ll be changing locations after graduation is scary, but it’s tempered by “home is where your feet are” enough that my excitement is larger than my anxiety.  Which is tough, my anxiety levels are often pretty high.  

On twitter and instagram I’ve been taking pictures of my feet in various places and hashtagging it #homeiswhereyourfeetare.  So far they’re mostly here in Missouri, and mostly in my neighborhood/territory.  Eventually, that’s gonna change.  Eventually they’ll be in DC.  Eventually maybe they’ll be in Chicago or Indianapolis or Colorado Springs or Grand Forks, North Dakota.  But for now, home is Missouri.  Home is The Peninsula, and the poolside; home is the bench with my book and my dog.  Home is driving the alleys of my town. For now.

(click through for a high-res, desktop-sized version to use as wallpaper!)

Stay Tuned.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: Phineas Gage

Lest you think this should really be called Weekly Dose of Ghosts, here’s a post about a strange brain injury.  You may have heard of the victim, especially if you’re a nerdfighter.  This post is about Phineas Gage.  

When Phineas was twenty-five, in 1848, he worked as a rail foreman in Vermont.  His crew was blasting their way through rocks to lay track, when tragedy struck.  Phineas was packing explosive powder into a hole drilled into the rock, when his iron tamping rod created a spark against the rock.  This explosion drove the iron bar through his skull and straight out the top.  

Immediately after the accident Gage’s crew rushed to him, and were shocked to find that Gage was able to sit up, and speak, within moments of the bar being driven through his brain.  They took him to his lodgings in town, and called for a doctor to come see to him.  When the first doctor, Edward H. Williams, arrived, he saw the injury from his carriage.  Because of Gage’s remarkable ability to speak and move, the doctor did not believe that the bar had truly been driven through his skull.  At least, until Gage got up to vomit.  According to Dr. Williams a “teacupful of brain” fell out onto the floor from the effort required to vomit.  

Another doctor, John Martyn Harlow, took over after Dr. Williams left.  Harlow was nearly as shocked by the injuries as Dr. Williams, though he appears to have served in the military as a surgeon.  Dr. Harlow wrote that the injury was “truly terrific” but that Gage was strong throughout it, even saying that he hoped he wasn’t hurt too badly.  When he had finished examining and cleaning Gage’s head wound, Harlow remarked that Gage’s body, the bed, and his clothes were “one gore of blood.”  

For the next month or so Gage was semi-comatose.  For the length of his coma Gage’s friends thought he would die.  They went so far as to set out clothes for him to be buried in, and readied a coffin for him.  Amazingly, though, Gage survived, and in late November he made the journey home to New Hampshire after a month of walking around and recovering in Vermont.  Within a month Gage was well enough to ride horses at his parents’ home in New Hampshire.  The next year in April he went back to Vermont to visit Dr. Harlow.  The doctor noted that Gage could no longer see out of his left eye and the eyelid would not lift.  

Gage was unemployed at the time, and may have come to work for P.T. Barnum in New York, though this fact is only stated by Dr. Harlow.  In 1852, Gage moved to Chile to work as a stagecoach driver.  He stayed there for 7 years.  At about the same time that he moved to Chile, his mother and sister moved to San Francisco.  At first he had donated the iron bar that had wounded him to the Warren Museum at Harvard, but later requested its return and made it his constant companion.  

During his life after the accident Gage’s personality was said to be completely changed.  Before his accident Phineas Gage was a well-liked man, a favorite of his employers, and a hard worker.  Accounts of him later, claimed the exact opposite.  He seems to have lost his ability to consider what was appropriate or inappropriate; he became impatient and irritable.  Though he had little formal education, most had considered Gage a smart and business savvy  man, but after his accident he couldn’t keep one idea in his head long enough to pursue it.  His employers felt he was so changed that they could not offer him his job back.  Friends and family said he was so drastically changed that he was “no longer Gage.”  

However, over time it appears that Gage recovered and became much more like his old self.  Some neurologists theorize that this was partly due to the highly routinized nature of his job in Chile as a stagecoach driver.  Correspondence between his mother and Dr. Harlow also shows that Gage was good with children, as he often entertained his nieces and nephews.  

In 1859 Gage joined his family since his health was deteriorating.  He began to have epileptic seizures and convulsions, then in May of 1860 Phineas Gage died in San Francisco.  

But, it wouldn’t be a Weekly Dose of Weird if the story stopped there.  At first Phineas Gage was buried out in San Francisco.  Then, Dr. Harlow found out where he was and that he’d died.  Dr. Harlow immediately went to the family and requested Gage’s skull.  His family agreed, and Dr. Harlow came into possession of both Gage’s skull and his iron bar.  The doctor spent some time studying Gage’s skull again, then he wrote a seminal paper on Gage and the incident.  

Gage’s skull and iron bar were then both given back to the Warren Museum at Harvard.  The iron bar was then inscribed “This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr Phinehas P.­Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, [sic] 1848. He fully recovered from the injury­& deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P.­Gage Lebanon Grafton­Cy N–H Jan 6 1850.”  It’s still on display there today.  

Stay Tuned.