The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays

My essay on the 19th-century photographs taken by Félix Nadar in the Paris photographs is included in The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays, Vol. VII! The new book features 12 essays (including one by Philip Pullman!) along with over 100 illustrations. Read all about how the catacombs were a solution to burial overcrowding, became an unexpected tourist attraction, and were captured in startling images—with innovative techniques—by the eccentric photographer Nadar:

Nadar succeeded in creating the first photographic documentation of this realm of the dead. The geometry of the walls of skulls is revealed in stark contrasts; long shots down tunnels give the viewer a sense of claustrophobic unease, with their framing of the low ceilings and seemingly endless bones. There are even photographs that highlight the grim labor of hauling and stacking the skeletal remains in this space. Because the exposure time could be as long as eighteen minutes, Nadar used a mannequin instead of a live worker.

Odd Salon Fellowship

I joined the virtual October Odd Salon, themed on “Shock & Art,” to share the story of Georgiana Houghton and her spirt-guided artwork. (You can read all about her enigmatic art in my 2019 story for the data visualization publication Nightingale.) As this was my third talk with Odd Salon, following ones on the Paris catacombs and the magician Adelaide Hermann for two of their New York events, I was honored to be named an Odd Salon Fellow. You can watch my “Shock & Art” talk on YouTube and find a playlist of the whole evening of lecture shorts.

JSTOR Daily: How Cremation Lost Its Stigma

In a short history post for JSTOR Daily, I wrote about how the 19th-century pro-cremation movement battled religious tradition as well as the specter of mass graves during epidemics:

The cost and simplicity of cremation led to its rise in popularity through the twentieth century, supported in large part by its cultural acceptability. Now, as epidemics and pandemics continue to challenge our funerary systems, the history of cremation and its relationship to our understanding of disease show how every health crisis has required a rethinking of our infrastructures for death.

Nightmare Delivery Service

With the pandemic disrupting Halloween this year, I decided to create a “nightmare delivery service” to write short flash fiction horror stories for my friends. I hand typed them all on a typewriter and compiled each one here online with the password “nightmare.” They range from tales of apocalyptic horror (although no 2020 metaphors allowed) and haunted apartments to great old ones rising up from the earth and botanical monsters.

Green-Wood Cemetery Talk

For the Halloween season I led another virtual talk for Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery on the language of flowers as it appears on tombstones, such as snapped roses for a life cut short, lotus flowers for rebirth, and poppies for sleep. I explored the Victorian-era rise of “floriography” and what these sometimes obscure symbols can reveal about the past. I’m planning to develop some of the material into a zine, stay tuned!

Cooking with the Dead Zine

In a fun project, I created the Cooking with the Dead zine with two friends to try out recipes left on tombstones around the world. Carved and etched on granite gravestones, they dictate—sometimes hazily—the instructions for delicious fare such as cookies, cobblers, and bread. Scouring cemeteries and the internet, we collected and attempted seven of these kitchen formulas, found in burial grounds from Alaska to Israel.

JSTOR Daily: How Black Communities Built Their Own Schools

In a short post for JSTOR Daily, I wrote about how Black communities came together to build their own schools through the Rosenwald Fund that was established in 1917. The story also looks at how these historic sites are now in danger of being lost:

When the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002, it included the Rosenwald schools, estimating that only 10 to 12 percent of the buildings were still standing. One in Texas was torn down last year by an oil company; this July, one in Tennessee was destroyed in a fire. However, the National Trust recently announced that the 1921 May’s Lick Rosenwald School in Kentucky would receive a grant through its 2020 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. The saving of these sites protects a physical memory of how Black communities came together to give their children an education at a time when legal segregation and discrimination denied it.

Fine Books: Photography’s Gilded Age

In the Summer 2020 issue of Fine Books magazine, I have a story on daguerreotypes from the Gold Rush:

The 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill—a sawmill in Coloma, California—inspired thousands of people to uproot their lives and travel west to seek their fortunes. They arrived from across the country and abroad, from Chile, Mexico, France, China, and Australia. They believed they were part of something exceptional and many posed for portraits in the new medium of photography to commemorate this moment. These images are a contrast to the refined dress and gentility usually seen in 19th-century daguerreotypes. The miners had unruly beards, wore tattered work shirts, and proudly displayed their pickaxes; the lucky ones showed off gold nuggets and flakes, which were sometimes hand-gilded on the photographic plates to add a visual dazzle representing their success.

The story is only in print and you can pick up a copy through the Fine Books site.

JSTOR Daily: Why Do Police Use Tear Gas When It Was Banned in War?

As the US has experienced a wave of police brutality in response to the protests, I explored why they are allowed to use tear gas when it is banned in war. From the story on JSTOR Daily:

As a police tool, the current deployment of tear gas reinforces the effect that made gases so powerful in World War I: fear. With reports showing tear gas being used on peaceful protesters, that fear is itself a deterrent by law enforcement on public demonstrations. Given legitimacy by the CWS in the interwar period, tear gas provides police with a chemical weapon that is no longer permitted in war.

Read more at JSTOR Daily.

Wellcome Collection: Graveyards as Green Getaways

For Wellcome Collection, I interviewed three cemeteries that kept their gates open during the pandemic when so many spaces have closed to the public:

Notably, many of the cemeteries that stayed open were founded in the 19th century as respites from urban life, and their capacity to accommodate people safely comes in part from their design as spacious natural retreats. This era saw a shift from churchyards and Quaker Meeting House burial grounds towards what is known as the rural cemetery movement. The new, larger cemeteries were often on the edges of cities in the United States and Europe that had experienced a surge in urban population growth and industrialisation.

Read more at Wellcome Collection.