On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
Last Halloween, I wrote an article on Alcohol Professor about haunted bars in New York City. Well, gather ’round the campfire, children, because I’ve more macabre drinking tales yet to tell. Only this time, we’re going global. Son of Booooozy Tales: Haunted Bars Go International looks at haunted pubs, bars, and watering holes in New Orleans, Seattle, London, Wales, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Sydney. Be ye fairly warned. The person sitting next to you at the bar might have been there since the 1800s.
In our recent article about the Rabbi Loew/Golem trail in Prague, we mentioned the statue of the Iron Knight (or Iron Man) that stands vigil over Prague’s Old Town from a corner in the city hall building. Because the other corner is occupied by a statue of Rabbi Loew himself, and because the legend of the Iron Knight is relatively obscure outside of Prague, an overwhelming number of publications — including many that should be respectable enough to check their facts, like a 1938 issue of Life — misidentify the statue as Rabbi Loew’s golem (a few also identify it as Darth Vader, but what can be done about that?). Of course, it looks nothing like the golem, but with Rabbi Loew hanging around on the other corner, most people assume any strange monstrosity must be his golem.
Which is perhaps why the Iron Knight still hasn’t been able to lift the curse placed on him over four hundred years ago.
The history of Prague seems tailor-made to appeal to a vast number of my personal obsessions, among them my fascination with the history of magic and alchemy and the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem. Modern Prague has not failed to capitalize on this history of mystery and magic, as places like the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians prove. Fans of weird and mystical history owe a debt of gratitude to Emperor Rudolf II, the 16th century Holy Roman emperor who, because of his own obsession with the occult, turned his home base of Prague into the capital of European mysticism and alchemical pursuits. Rudolf II’s endless quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as his craving for a potion of immortality, brought such notable alchemists as Edward Kelley and John Dee to the city, not to mention Jewish mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.
If Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments proves a little too well-behaved and respectable for you, then perhaps you should switch gears a little bit and explore the two museums that make up the Mysteria Pragensia. Tapping into Prague’s rich occult and magickal history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians, and its sister museum down the street, The Museum of Ghosts and Legends, offer up all the gruesome wax dummies and delicious strange lore you want from a proper tourist trap museum.
I think every city of even modest size in Europe has at least one museum dedicated to the cruel and imaginative ways Europeans tortured one another during the Middle Ages. Prague, being a city that deals quite cannily with tourists, has a few torture museums. I’ve heard that many of the implements displayed in these types of museums were dreamed up mostly for the museums themselves, but I’m no scholar of medieval torture, so I can’t say. They seem believable enough to me, based on the research I’ve done of watching The Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price.
New York is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and its most populous. So it’s no surprise that among our eight million residents are more than a few ghosts. Our ancient (well, for America) brownstones and Revolutionary War mansions, our cobblestone (or potholed to the point of seeming cobblestone) streets, and our occasional nightmarish gambrel rooftops host a number of spooks and specters, many of them famous in life, some famous only in death. From the ghost of a Ziegfeld Follies girl to Mark Twain’s House of Death, here are some of my favorite New York haunts.
Time for a spooky new Frolic Afield. Back again on The Alcohol Profressor, I’m taking you all on a gaslight tour of New York City’s most famous haunted bars and taverns. Booo-zy Tales of Spirited New York will bring you face to face with spectral sailors, poltergeist pirates, and at the ghost of at least one drunken poet. Or, if nothing else, you’ll get a decent pint and a dram of Tullamore Dew.
Brooklyn’s sprawling, historic Green-Wood Cemetery has fast become one of my favorite places in the city. This cemetery-as-park serves as the last resting place for many of the city’s most famous figures, as well as a few of its most infamous. On a recent walking tour of the cemetery, I visited some of the most notorious scalawags and tragic figures.
Cave Hill in Louisville is, like Brooklyn’s Green-Wood, one of the finest, most beautiful public parks in the world. It also happens to be a sprawling cemetery, designed in the era of “garden cemeteries,” full of opulent and/or spooky monuments and historic figures. Chartered in 1848 (just ten years after Green-Wood), Cave Hill has become a popular destination for strollers and history buffs. It is the last resting place of local and international figures like Colonel Sanders, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, cult film director William Girdler, the Frito-Lay magician, and a vast assortment of local generals, mayors, captains of industry, and luminaries. I set myself loose on the grounds armed with a Lomo LCA and Holga to wander aimlessly and capture some of my favorite spots in a cemetery so huge that there are still, all these decades later, unknown corners.