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.
When it comes to spooks and spectres and things that go bump in the night, Prague is undeniably one of the richest towns in the world. Its bizarre history, winding streets, and jumble of architecture spanning centuries’ worth of styles make it the perfect setting for tales of the macabre and unexplained. On these streets prowled the golem created by Jewish mystic Rabbi Loew and the socially awkward Iron Knight, still trying to get a young woman to listen to him for a couple of hours so he might be freed of his murderer’s curse. Most famously, Prague was the center of medieval alchemy thanks to the obsession of its one-time ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, who invited mystics and alchemists and wizards from across the world to come to Prague. Deep beneath the cobblestone streets of this most mysterious of cities, at the Speculum Alchemiae, one can walk the secret passages and hidden laboratories where these sorcerers sought to unlock the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.
Where does our Frolic Afield take us to this week? To Bardstown, Kentucky, by way of Alcohol Professor. Bottled History is a look at my visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. From bottles of old Coon Hollow to a still they claim belonged to George Washington, it’s a fascinating — and free — look at the history of my favorite tipple told by an amazing assortment of artifacts.
Recently, we posted a look at the films of Czech animator and filmmaker Karel Zeman. Since basically every frame of each of his films is an amazing screencap, we went a little overboard. However, in an effort to keep the article itself from reaching epic lengths and load times, it included only a limited number of pictures. Since the films deserve indulgence, here are all the screenshots we made.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
Nestled with irony between a McDonald’s and a casino is Prague’s Museum of Communism (only the KGB Museum has a more deliciously ironic location, next door to the heavily guarded U.S. embassy). It walks the thin line between being another tacky tourist trap museum (which I love) and an actual educational experience (which I also enjoy), with the over-arching message of, “Communism — that sure did suck.”
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.
If you brave the tourist-chocked nightmare that is the Penn Station/Madison Square Garden area of Manhattan and manage to push your way through the throngs of dazed people waiting for the budget Bolt Bus lined up along 33rd Street, and look for the small sign next to the larger signs for psychics and porno videos, you will find 421 7th Ave — Fantasma Magic. Through the nondescript office building lobby, on the 3rd floor, you will find a phantasmagorically decorated hallway lined with posters and reflective wallpaper that leads you to Fantasma’s small but absorbing Houdini Museum of New York. Inside, clerks and local magicians hang out with visitors at the counter, showing off and sometimes even exposing the secret behind sleight of hand magic tricks. Lining the walls is a small wealth of Houdini memorabilia. More is stored in a couple glass display cases. And the far wall showcases, among other things, some of the props from Houdini’s greatest escapes and even includes an animatronic Houdini that will escape from a straight jacket for you.
Owing to its proximity, my interest in poking about in history, and the ease of getting to it by mass transit means, Washington DC has become my most common short holiday from New York. As I am not one who finds visiting well-trodden tourist destinations to be distasteful or unfulfilling, I have logged more than my fair share of time at the city’s sundry monuments and museums. I have gazed upon The Bill of Rights, the Korean War memorial, that painting of George Washington we put on our money, and the Wright Brothers flyer. But while I consider destinations like The Smithsonian to be among this country’s great national treasures, I am also a fan of slightly less respectable educational endeavors and spectacles.