Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Orienienburg, Germany)
A Morbid Must-See!

I visited this compelling concentration camp in the former East Germany in the summer of 2014 with a couple of friends who are of the non-morbid persuasion.  I didn’t think they’d be very interested, so I tried to be polite and only allowed a few hours for the visit.  As it turned out, they were every bit as fascinated by this tragic site as I was and we all wished that we’d had a full day to explore.  They have done an incredible job of reconstructing the horror of life and death in the camp via first person accounts and memorabilia, with an especially huge collection of medical history memorabilia.  I highly recommend that if you go, you allot a full day and get there early!

The account of my visit can be read on my Forlorn Photography site:
Nineteen Thirty-Sick!

Sing Sing Prison Museum

Sing Sing Prison Museum (Ossining, New York)

Sing Sing_0409sm

Sing Sing Your Life!
July 19, 2003

Since I had recently read the book Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House I decided that when I visited New York, I had to stop by Sing Sing and see the infamous prison for myself.  I knew that there was a derelict section which comprised the original 1825 prison block, and that was what I most wanted to see.  I also knew that it was inside the prison complex so I probably wouldn’t see much anyway.  But still… I had to pay a visit.

The town of Sing Sing isn’t called Sing Sing anymore – it’s called Ossining.  The boring people who live there changed the name to try and separate themselves from that infamous prison.  Of course, I don’t get that at all.  You’d think they’d want to celebrate their morbid claim to fame?  But then again, I’m “different” from most people.

Anyway, I drove around the prison, which is situated in a lovely location along the bank of the Hudson River, and took a few photographs. I didn’t realize at the time that taking photographs of active prisons is a no-no! I found that out when I got yelled at by a mean man up in a tower. I kinda figured that, you know, all the historic marker signs in the area meant that it was a historic place that we could document, but I guess that was my naivety showing.  In any event, I got a few shots in before he doused my fun with ice cold water just like they used to do to prisoners in the shower baths!

After I finished my abbreviated prison documentation, I drove up to the Ossining Visitor Center (aka the Caputo Community Center), where they have a little exhibit dedicated to the prison.  I have to admit, the exhibit disappointed me. There was a recreation of a modern prison cell, a replica of the infamous electric chair Old Sparky (dammit, I want my electric chair replete with the sizzled blood of the condemned on it!), and some exhibits showing old illustrations and photographs of the torture techniques perfected inside.  Two authentic displays were an iron door from one of the original 1820’s prison cells, and a display of shanks that had been confiscated from prisoners. Truly a study in human ingenuity!

There’s talk these days of turning the power house at Sing Sing into an expanded prison museum, and my fingers are crossed that this comes to fruition because Sing Sing deserves better than this little display.

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour (Seattle, Washington)
A Comtesse Travelogue!

The Seattle Underground

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour
Seattle, WA – August 4, 2001
 

In August of 2001, I drove from my Californian home up to Seattle to see the ever-magnificent Sleater-Kinney open for Patti Smith at the Summer Nights At The Pier Concert Series. While there, I decided it was as good a time as any to visit historic Pioneer Square and take The Underground Tour. Being one of those strange people who adore old urban ruins, I’d be waiting for years to go on this tour – which takes you past some of the original 1890’s-era storefronts that now rest well under Seattle’s street level. You see, back in the 1800’s, Seattle had horrible plumbing problems caused by the high water table and a poorly designed septic system. The pipes emptied into the ocean, and the fluctuation of the water level when the tide would come in made flushing a decidedly dangerous prospect. You see, if someone didn’t pay attention to the tide schedule and flushed during high tide, the toilet would flush in the opposite way that it was intended. Can you say, “Ewwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!”?

Then, on June 6, 1889, a furniture maker left a pot of glue unattended on a stove, which ignited a conflagration which burned wooden downtown Seattle to the ground in a matter of hours. It was a tragedy… but one which actually turned out to be beneficial to the city, because a group of majestic brick and masonry buildings began to be raised in place of the rickety wooden structures that had burned. Then, the citizens decided to try to fix the plumbing while they were at it by raising the ground level up a story, thus allowing room for gravity to work wonders on the pipelines and fix the tide-induced flushing problems. This decision was made after the buildings were already completed – or nearing completion – so the streets were raised up above the ground floor – so that when you wander around Pioneer Square today, you’re actually entering the buildings through the second floor. In order to access the first floor stores, there was a group of subterranean walkways – and these remained open to the public until 1906, when access was closed off… only to be reopened by Bill Speidel for his Underground Tour years later. A great deal of this network of subterranean walkways was destroyed when the Seattle Kingdome was built, unfortunately, but there’s still enough preserved to provide a fascinating view of Underground Seattle.

But enough with my yapping – here are some images I took during the stroll beneath Seattle:


An old steam baths sign greets you as you first descend under the streets.

There are many interesting bits of antique detritus piled up in this subterranean wilderness. Here’s an old gas light fixture.

A long-neglected Turkish Baths sign

I love this picture of an old forgotten ‘Sam’s’ sign.

As you walk along the sidewalks of Pioneer Square, you’ll notice little square pieces of glass on the ground. When you go underground, their purpose becomes obvious: they are original skylights from when the underground was open to the public. Originally, the glass was clear – but they found that perverts would hang out beneath them, waiting for ladies to walk over them, so they changed them to a more opaque, colored glass to prevent this voyeurism.

An old forgotten door…

A rather creepy looking old doorway…

Didn’t this picture turn out perfectly Ghostly??? I love it…

Here’s an old abandoned (I hope!) toilet… I found it funny because it symbolizes the entire reason for the underground.

Another creepy doorway… obviously, I must find them fascinating, for some odd reason…

The Underground Beckons… (Pretentious subtitle du jour!)

Here’s a bit of the original wooden pipes that caused so much grief in old Seattle.

Because the conditions for photography on this day weren’t ideal, I decided to purchase a collection of Pioneer Square prints that provide a much more attractive overview of the area:


This is the entrance to the Underground Tour in Pioneer Square. Bill Speidel felt the Underground Tour would save Pioneer Square and it worked. In 1970, Pioneer Square became Seattle’s first historic district.

The tour begins at Doc Maynard’s historic bar. The bar you see in this picture was manufactured over a hundred years ago in Chicago and travelled here by ship around Cape Horn to Seattle.

A picturesque dusty corner of the old Moses Korn Mercantile Emporium, one of the subterranean stops on the Underground Tour.

A better-lighted shot of the old toilet.

Undergound windows peering out to underground sidewalks. These windows brought in daylight until the streets of Seattle were raised making the ground floor the underground floor, and the second floor became ground level.

Looking up at the original skylights in the sidewalk…

The subterranean passageways of Seattle’s Underground became a haven for bootleggers, smugglers and tourists – not to mention a few rats, of course.

One of the saddest stories I heard was regarding this beautiful old Pergola that stood in Pioneer Square from 1909 until 2001 – when an idiotic semi-truck driver misjudged his turn and took down the entire structure.

The Pergola is being rebuilt – and hopefully a great deal of the original structure can be used to raise it again to its former beauty – as seen above. 
UPDATE: Wayne from Seattle has informed me that the Pergola is “back in all its glory”! Hurray!

Here’s the Tlinget totem pole – another historic Seattle structure – with the top of the Smith Tower behind it.

I also took a shot of the totem pole while I was there. In true Seattle style, the pole wasn’t given to the city – it was stolen from a Tlinget camp by city representatives on a goodwill trip to Alaska. Seattle was a town founded by scoundrels, and you hear lots of stories about them during the tour. Very entertaining, indeed! Here’s another shot of Smith Tower – the building you see poking above Pioneer Square in the postcard images above. Pioneer Square is an extremely lovely area of the city and one that I really need to go back to again. There just wasn’t enough time on this trip to do all the exploring I desired…

 


Rich’s Walking Tour Of Seattle

Asylum inmate Rich writes with a suggested itinerary for tackling the mean streets of Seattle!

“Sometimes when people come to Seattle, I take them on what I call a walking tour of the town. It goes something like this. We drive to the Seattle center and park. Many times you can find free parking nearby. We take a walk around the center to warm up. Then on to the monorail for a quick ride to Westlake Center. We head west to Pike Place Market, aka Public Market, Farmer’s Market. When I was a kid in the 1950’s my grandmother often did some of her shopping here and sometimes we’d go with her. Later on my own I explored all the hidden places. Unlike today, the smells would make your head spin. Not from stink, but from the wonderful aromas. Just like today they did the fish throw. In the late 60’s and into the late 70’s you could hardly walk 10 feet without running into street musicians. There are few nowadays. We just cover the upper level on this part of the walk and don’t buy things we are going to have to carry. We get them on the way back.

“It’s out onto 1st Av and head south. It’s easier walking downhill. While there isn’t a lot to look at, it is fun to pop into some of the shops and see what you can find. Keep walking and on the Westside you’ll pass the federal building. Look close on the Northeast corner of the building and you’ll see a placard. It’s where the Great Seattle fire started. You’ll also notice on your walk down what looks like soda bottle bottoms in the sidewalk. Keep them in mind. When you get to Pioneer Square, find and take the underground tour. On the tour you’ll see the soda bottle bottom once more – this time from the bottom side.

“After the tour, take time to explore the shops in Pioneer Square. A lot of money has gone into the area to bring it back from the old days when they would have been torn down. Ready for something to eat? Well head on over to the waterfront. There are many places to eat, but Ivar’s was the first and to me the only place to eat. Now comes the time to walk it off. Head north along the waterfront. There’s more shops and little hidden places to explore. There’s no way around it. If you see something you want to buy, you’re going to have to carry it, all the way back.

“OK, now we’re on the backside of Pike Place and look at all those stairs. Don’t worry, about half-way you can take the elevator to the lower level of the market, but you will have to walk to the upper level. Now’s the time to buy what you wanted when you started your walk. You’ve got one more small hill to climb, heading back to Westlake Center and the monorail.

“If you want to see more and don’t want to have to walk up and down hills, head for Ballard. If you drive up Elliott Av. (North) before you cross the Ballard Bridge, you can stop at Fisherman’s Terminal. Not much going on there except during Fishing Season. Late spring and summer are best. You can keep heading North across the Ballard Bridge to Market Street. Turn left (west) and follow it to the locks. During spring and summer, you can watch boats come and go through the locks and you can watch the salmon returning to spawn.

“There’s a lot of history here, not just in Seattle, but many other places around here. Next time you come to Seattle allow as much time as you can to explore.”

 

Anyone have any additional stories, tidbits or photos to add?
If so, by all means, write me!

Mütter Museum

Mütter Museum (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

The Only Museum That Mütters!


Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, PA
June 14, 2001

As you must surely know, one of the main reasons why I wanted to come to Philadelphia – indeed, my primary long-term motivation to come here, was to visit the magnificent Mütter Museum at the College Of Physicians of Philadelphia. The Mütter Museum is a fantastically disturbing collection of 19th century medical teaching specimens, including a large number of oddities such as congenital birth defects, mummified remains, skeletons showing strange malformations, and the like. In other words – can there possibly be a more glorious place to visit!! I thought not! And so, with a full memory card on my digital camera and a heart full of hope and wonder, my friend Christine and I set off to locate that most morbid of museums.

We parked the car nearby and walked down 22nd Street, past a pretty old church and to the front of the College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia. Hmmm… somehow it wasn’t nearly as pretty as I’d hoped since it was undergoing renovation of the front facade. We had to enter through a back entrance that was so nondescript I didn’t even bother photographing it.

When we entered into the lobby, the man at the counter looked disapprovingly at my camera and said, “There are no photographs allowed”. I was shocked! I’d come thousands of miles to photograph this glorious place and now I was being told I could not take any pictures??? I asked him why this was the case. He said, “Some site on the internet has been selling photographs.” I explained to him that I run a Morbid Sightseeing website and that I was hoping to use the photographs I took here to advertise the museum, not for profit. He was unconvinced, but explained that they had calendars that I could purchase instead. As if I wasn’t going to purchase those damned calendars anyway, in addition to taking some pictures!

So, you can imagine how grumpy I was as I wandered into the museum. The only good thing was that he hadn’t asked for my memory card or told me that I couldn’t take my camera with me, so there was still a chance I could completely unethically sneak a few shots inside. In fact, as I entered the main hall of the museum I tested my mettle by slyly snapping a shot of a beautiful collection of skulls along the far wall – and, hey! It came out as crappy as you’d expect a low-lighted long distance taken on the sly shot to turn out! But let me tell you about those skulls anyway. They were all annotated with explanations of how the person died and the date of death. (Here’s a much better Joel-Peter Witkin shot of one of the skulls, taken from the calendar, showing the writing on the side.) It was, of course, of compelling interest to me and I spent the longest time staring at each skull and reading of the manner of death – suicides, murders, diseases, etc. – that befell the poor unfortunates. Obviously, I should have taken a close-up, but I was suddenly filled with nervousness that I would be caught and castigated for snapping pictures illicitly. I know, what a wuss, huh?

Fortunately for all of us, Christine was not nearly so much of a wuss as I, and she quickly took over camera duties. Of course, in a dimly lit arena like this, one cannot expect the greatest of pictures, so please lower your expectations… ummm… lower than that… a little lower… almost there… okay, now that you’re buried three stories underground, you’re about right! 😉

Okay, enough muttering about the pictures. (Yes, I’m going to use and abuse that pun until you’re ready to put my skull up on that shelf yourself!) It’s time to introduce you to one of the stars of the museum: The Giant Colon. Okay, in this picture, it doesn’t look like much but that brown thing is actually a five-foot long megacolon – a condition where the colon just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, without being able to properly move feces through the body. This poor guy had 40 pounds of excrement in his colon when he finally died from this condition. There was a picture of him when he was alive and he looked incredibly obese – but it was all just his colon filling up his entire abdomen, putting pressure on his other organs, etc. Not a pretty condition, by any means!! (Here’s a somewhat better picture of the colon from the Roadside America site, if you really, really want to see it!)

Another of the “highlights” of this section of the museum is the Soap Lady, which I could not photograph because of the poor lighting conditions. Here’s an image of her from the Roadside America website, however. She was a woman who died of yellow fever sometime in the 19th century and her body turned to adipocere – a waxy, soap-like substance. There are x-rays of the Soap Lady as well. Isn’t that nifty?

There are Freakish Things are all around you as you walk around the disturbing realm of the Mütter Museum. It’s like one of those silly horror movies where the woman backs up in the spooky basement and bumps into a teaching skeleton and screams! And then then she opens a cabinet and sees some horrible malformed things in jars and screams louder still! (Actually, these are anencephalic babies – babies with underdeveloped brains…) You’re just surrounded with horror everywhere you look… and it’s absolutely captivating! This was one of my favorite freaky specimens – a skeleton of a siamese twin with two bodies, but only one head/face! Talk about weird!! I’d love a model of this one in my house – what a conversation piece that would be! (Yes, I think that’s enough evidence to convince the asylum to throw me in the padded room without a key, but if you did that you wouldn’t have any more of these nifty travelogues to look forward to, would you?)

This was the one thing that probably freaked me out more than anything in the entire building (even the evil man who wouldn’t let me take pictures!) This is someone’s face in plastic. And right to the right of the face is a slice of the skull. You see, some creative soul in the 19th century took someone’s head and sliced it into thin slices and put each piece in plastic, to create this great learning tool that allowed you to see inside the head. (Here’s a better shot from the calendar.) What really freaked me out, though, was the face. You can’t really see it in my crummy picture, but the expression on the face was one of a sort of beautiful tranquility, and the details – the eyelashes, imperfections, lips, etc. – were all perfectly preserved which just startled me. Imagine having your face preserved for all time (well our time anyway) like that?? This very well might have been a criminal – since they used to do most of their studies on criminals back in those days – and I’m not even sure if it was a man or woman (it looked more feminine to me, but who knows)… it just seemed disturbingly beautiful within all the ugliness of the museum…

The other centerpiece (other than the colon and the soap lady) were these two paradoxical skeletons (as seen in a much better picture at the top of this page). You can see the big one – a 7’6″ giant whose crooked spine has caused his ribcage to bow out like a bird’s- but on the right is the skeleton of a 3’6″ dwarf with an extraordinarily sad story to tell. You see, back in the 19th century, there was no way for her to make a living, so she turned to the sex industry and worked as a prostitute. She became pregnant and of course her tiny pelvis was not big enough for the baby to fit through. They ended up crushing the baby’s skull to try and fit her through the pelvic opening, but it still didn’t work. (The crushed skull is on display next to the dwarf. You can see it in this image from the calendar.) They had to do a C-Section but in those days before anti-septic that was a virtual death sentence. Sure enough, her abdominal wound became infected and she died shortly after. Gosh, isn’t that just the saddest story ever? I certainly thought so… Oh, here’s another, much clearer picture of the giant, but unfortunately the dwarf is hidden in this shot. Good thing I bought the calendar, eh?

Here was another interesting display: a chronology of fetus skeletons. It’s very artistic, don’t you think? Well, I think so anyway… Fetuses and babies are very prevalent in the displays. Here are some plaster casts taken from deformed infants. They also have a plaster cast of Chang and Eng – the original Siamese Twins – taken after their death. (Here’s an image of them taken from a calendar.) Of course, they also have a few real specimens in formaldehyde as well. I tell ya, I haven’t been this startled by specimens in jars since I realized that the furry thing in the dimly lit Orland High School biology classroom was actually a two-headed calf’s head – and it was looking right at me!!

In addition to the jars, there were quite a few nifty 19th century wax models exhibiting a large number of horrendous skin and eye disorders. Here are a few of them – next to a collection of trepanned skulls. (These are skulls of “primitive peoples” that have holes drilled in them in an early form of brain surgery.) There were also some other odd specimens sitting about… like the poor unfortunate plaster cast of the boy with the tumor of the buttocks (on the right) and the hydrocephalic baby (ie. really big skull due to water swelling the brain) on the left.

And so it goes on and on and on. And we’ve only shown you a fraction of the delightfully depraved items in the collection because it was right about here that Christine looked up and noticed the cameras all around the room… watching her every move… watching her every click of the camera!!! Obviously, she fell into panic mode and I slyly removed the photo card from the camera – just in case they should try to confiscate the precious images. She snuck out the back door, while I went back to the front to buy the calendars to get some decent quality pics. They never said a word (hopefully, they don’t bother with watching their display monitors – but don’t count on that! We might have just been lucky.). So, here are a few more images culled from the calendars taken by professional photographers who were actually granted the right to take decent pics here. Imagine that! (But I’m not bitter…) I figure I must have the right to show these pictures on my site, after all when I asked about taking pictures they said, “You can buy calendars with images.” So, indeed, here are a few more of my favorites:

Triplets. Miscarriage at 4 1/2 months
Model of decapitated Chinese head, 1896
Dried skeleton of a child showing veins and arteries
Another view of the “beautiful” sliced face, 1911
Skeletal
Fetus
A plaster cast and actual Chinese bound “lotus” foot

And so our trip to the Mütter Museum came to an end. I would highly recommend this fascinating museum to anyone of peculiar disposition. On the Morbid Scale, it’s definitely a 10!!

For more information on the Mütter Museum , also see:
Look At The Giant Colon!
(This is the site that first introduced me to the wonders of the Mütter Museum.)
Roadside America 
The Mütter Museum

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Repent-itentiary!

Eastern State Penitentiary
Philadelphia, PA – June 15, 2001


On an overcast and very warm June day, a couple of friends and I set off to explore the dank cavernous ruins of the first modern style prison: Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. This place is so cool, it’s been featured on MTV’s “Fear“! It’s so cool that it’s been on The Scariest Places On Earth! It’s so cool that I am going to memorialize it with a Travelogue!

Before I begin, let me tell you a bit about the prison itself. Eastern State Penitentiary was built by the good old Quakers back in 1829. You see, the Quakers started thinking that the best way to rehabilitate criminals was to isolate them from society, give them a Bible, and make them reflect long and hard on all the bad things they’ve done for a few years. The Bible will lead them back to the path of righteousness, and all will be well. So, with this is mind, ESP was built. It was the most expensive structure ever built in America at the time of its construction, and it was so famous around the world that Dickens stated it was one of the two things he most wanted to see when he visited the U.S. in 1842 (Niagara Falls being the other). The prison had a novel, highly influential design: a circular central area with seven spoke-like halls radiating outwards. This would allow a guard to stand in the central area and watch all of the halls at the same time. Many other prisons ended up adapting this design. The prisoners were never allowed to talk to or see one another – they were completely isolated from all human contact. They had private courtyards that they would be allowed to exercise in for a short time each day, but they would never be outside at the same time as their neighbors, so there was never any chance of conversation. They even made sure not to have exposed pipes so that prisoners couldn’t “knock” messages to one another. They were given a Bible and some needlework type tasks to do, and that was it. As you might imagine, quite a few people went insane after several years of this sort of thing… so they ended up deciding it wasn’t such a good idea after all, and the solitary confinement philosophy was officially abandoned in 1913. Since it was designed to be a solitary confinement prison, it didn’t work very well when they started intermingling the prisoners. The narrow halls allowed people walking by cells to be grabbed by prisoners and injured, among other problems. A lot of prisoners were killed or badly injured here – which explains its reputation for being haunted. The prison stayed in operation until 1971, when it was closed. It sat empty and decaying for over thirty years until it was opened as a museum in 1994. And here we are!

We ended up going on a nice guided tour of the prison, which takes you into some of the areas that they don’t let you wander around in by yourself. There are some areas that you are free to wander in alone, though. I figure I’ll just let the pictures do the talking… with captions, of course.

Beside the gift shop area is a nice little museum that displays the original door to the prison and lots of interesting trinkets – like a confession of murder written in the inside of a drawer. Also, the visitation area is back there and they show videos of the history of the prison. It was very interesting and I took lots of pictures. Where are those pictures? Damned if I know!! When I went back to look at the pics a day later, I realized that many of them – including all the museum pics and some nice ‘flower in front of castle wall’ type pics – were missing. I guess I must have accidentally not transferred all the images from the camera. Talk about a sad moment in my life! Anyway, take my word for it, it’s all really quite interesting…

Eastern State Penitentiary – a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there!

For more information on Eastern State Penitentiary, also see:
The Magnificent Official Site
Black Hoods And Iron Gags (interesting Historic Chronicle)

I would also recommend the following book of black and white photographs, which I purchased in the gift shop:

 

 

Gettysburg National Battlefield / Jenny Wade House Museum

Gettysburg National Battlefield / Jenny Wade House Museum (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)

Where Vultures Prospered…

Gettysburg National Battlefield, Pennsylvania
June 16, 2001

It was a lovely sultry summer day when we drove into the site of one of the greatest massacres in United States history: the National Battlefield at Gettysburg. What’s especially impressive about Gettysburg is its absolute beauty: miles of green rolling hillsides and fields, rocky outposts and lush groves, speckled with the largest collection of memorial statuary in the country. Here lie memorials to generals and sergeants, infantrymen and doctors, troops from all walks of life and all parts of the country that collided here in furious exchanges of artillery on July 1-3, 1863. The peacefulness of Gettysburg today is a remarkable contrast to the chaos that reigned here during those tragic days, when the fields were muddy with rivers of blood, the moans of dying men could be heard above the cracks of gunfire and shouts of defiance, and the smell of death hung heavy in the air for miles around. Gettysburg today is a suitably peaceful last resting place for the dead souls that still (allegedly) wander the fields.

When we first arrived at Gettysburg, we parked at the visitor’s center and crossed the street to view the famous Gettysburg National Cemetery, where over 3,500 of the Union war dead are buried. (The Southern dead were hastily buried on the battlefield until 1877 when they were exhumed and removed to the Carolinas and Virginia for reburial.) Like most military cemeteries, it’s quite dull since all the stones are virtually identical, but there were a few points of interest. Most notably, there was a large monument marking the approximate spot where Abraham Lincoln made his famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. You’ve heard it all before, but I think it deserves to be reflected upon again:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth..

Lincoln made this address on the occasion of the ‘Grand Opening’ (if you will) of the cemetery. You see, in the previous July there had been over 50,000 lives snuffed out or wounded in the countryside surrounding the sleepy little town of Gettysburg. With so many corpses rotting in the fields, and many of them unidentified, it was definitely time for a new national cemetery. The unidentified bodies were gathered based upon the home state of the battalion (if they could even identify that – the cemetery records include comments such as “very light hair, comb” which were the only identifying features left behind), and they were buried in mass graves in a circle surrounding the beautiful main memorial. It’s rather poignant to walk around the circle and see the rows and rows of ‘Unknown’ bodies… and think of the family and friends that must have mourned their passing, forever hoping that maybe someday, someway they’d walk through the door again. But they never did…

With a bit of sadness, we walked from the Cemetery across the road to the Visitor Center Museum. Abundant battlefield memorabilia make this a quite interesting little museum, but of course, being The Comtesse DeSpair, I was here for the macabre. And it did not disappoint me. Behold this informative exhibit on civil war medicine: “More than 600,000 men died during the Civil War. Two thirds of them died of disease, only one-third of actual battle wounds. Here at Gettysburg, about 32,000 men were wounded, 8,000 of whom died. Most of the wounds, 94%, were caused by bullets, less than 1% by bayonets. The rest were caused by cannon fire.” The femur you see here has a painful story too: “This leg bone was found with the remains of an unknown soldier on the Trostle Farm at Gettysburg long after the battle. Judging from the extensive damage and the fact that this part of the body contains a number of arteries, he probably bled to death within 20 minutes. Bullets used in the Civil War were soft and travelled slowly. When they hit a bone, they mushroomed and shattered it.” Ouch!!

Of course, one of the well-known gruesome solutions to the bullet and the damage done was amputation. Civil War Surgeons were basically nothing more than lumberjacks (or is that ‘limberhacks’) with credentials. Here’s an example of the tools of the trade. As the exhibit so tactfully stated, “We can only imagine how many arms and legs were severed with this surgical kit.” Couldn’t have said it better myself…

But a surgeon’s life during the Civil War wasn’t just a psychopathic axe murderer’s dream come true. There were dangers lurking at every corner, as this picture demonstrates: “A surgeon’s life was hard and often dangerous as the note inside the kit indicates, ‘Medical Scales—Found in the pocket of a Federal Medical Officer after Battle-Bull Run, He being one of the dead.” Bum deal, huh?

After wandering about looking at some weapons, fences with bullet holes in them, bullets from the fields, and the likes, we meandered outside and began a self-guided driving tour around the battlefield. I was delighted to see that there were many buildings still standing that dated from the time of the battle. I’m sure there was a story that went along with this picture too, but damned if I can remember it! (Luckily for me, Riley does: “I believe the photo in the Gettysburg section is the Trostle Farm, where General Sickles lost his leg”. Now, how could I forget something like that????)

The main thing about Gettysburg is the hundreds of statuesmemorials (how’s this one for impressive?) and vintage cannons that litter the countryside. I found it a very interesting and unique way of not only honoring the war dead, but also chronicling this fascinating little slice of time.

The drive is really quite interesting – especially if you’re a Civil War buff, which I am not (but I could be, if I but took the time). As you drive along, there are placards that describe  events of the battleand point out landmarks in the countryside that illustrate where the opposition forces were located during key moments. Even if you’re not a war buff, the serene beauty of the landscape is so peaceful and enchanting that it’s well worth the drive. But it’s best to get out of your car and wander around a bit to take in the countryside.

Of course, I don’t usually travel to someplace like Gettysburg without having a predetermined goal for the trip. In this case, I wanted to view Devil’s Den – the location of the famous (if posed) photograph of the “Confederate Sharpshooter”. (Check out this picture which was also taken in the Devil’s Den area – and tell me they aren’t of the same soldier. The photographer dragged him to a more picturesque spot to take the famous snap… but I don’t really care. It’s still an awesome image.) Before you head down into Devil’s Den (at least the direction we came), you must travel up into the Bluffs just above it — a place called “Little Round Top”. This was strategic high ground during the war, looking down, as it did, on the valley below. Devil’s Den is located where that group of rocks are near the cars. Of course, just seeing it from here made me so giddy, I nearly fainted and fell off the bluff – but I managed to hold myself together long enough to get back in the car and drive down the hill.

As I wandered down the road, I soon caught sight of the rocks that formed the back side of the Devil’s Den area. I expected that when I rounded the corner to the actual Den of Death itself, there would be a ton of people there, but I was extremely pleased to find myself there alone. I felt very moved to be standing here, after having loved the power of that photograph for many years. I was so powerfully moved, in fact, that I had to commemorate the moment by laying down in the same spot myself. (Don’t we all?)

That was obviously the high point of my trip to Gettysburg. But this was the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Yes, that little grove of trees marked the furthest point north that the southern forces managed to reach. They weren’t there long, of course, as the Union forces were able to repel their advance and win a decisive – if very costly – victory.

And that pretty much concluded the battlefield portion of our trip to Gettysburg. Except it didn’t. Because the battlefield didn’t just reside in the unpopulated countryside — its boundaries extended to the town of Gettysburg itself, where reminders of the war are still written in bullet markings on the walls of several buildings and a civilian death is given solemn remembrance at the Jennie Wade House Museum. It seems impossible to me now, but at the time I was too worn out from the days journey through the battlefields to go into the museum. Jeez, what a dummy – because if I had, I would have seen the bullet hole in the door by which poor Jennie Wade became the lone civilian casualty of Gettysburg. Here, let the placard speak for itself:

On the morning of July 1st, 1863, Gettysburg resident Jennie Wade and her family fled their town home to this brick double house shared by her sister Georgia McClellan, to distance themselves from the fighting. The Union retreat to Cemetery Hill soon placed Jennie and the rest of the household in the direct path of danger.

Despite the menace of stray bullets that constantly struck the house walls, Jennie busied herself furnishing water and baking biscuits for the many soldiers manning the nearby Union picket line.

Early on the morning of July 3rd, fate claimed Gettysburg’s only civilian fatality. Jennie was killed instantly by a random Confederate bullet while preparing biscuit dough in the kitchen. Her mother saw her fall and sadly informed the rest of the family: “… your sister is dead.”

After that fascinating diversion, I passed by a tree on my way through downtown. But this isn’t just any old tree. And this is the essence of Gettysburg – tragic history at every footstep.

And a beautiful, peaceful park as well.

For more information on Gettysburg National Military Park, also see:
Virtual Tour of Gettysburg
Military History Online
Virtual Gettysburg