Picasso Sculpture

September 3, 2012 · Posted in Art History · Comments Off on Picasso Sculpture 


EVANSVILLE, Ind.–A call from a New York art dealer about a glass sculpture by Pablo Picasso to a museum in Evansville, Ind., led the museum to search its holdings and unravel a bizarre mystery of a hidden treasure.

•By Michael Wheatley, Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science
Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman with Red Hat, a fired-glass piece kept in storage nearly 50 years, was only recently discovered to be genuine.

By Michael Wheatley, Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science

Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman with Red Hat, a fired-glass piece kept in storage nearly 50 years, was only recently discovered to be genuine.

Arlan Ettinger, of the art broker/auctioneer Guernsey’s, who had handled the sale of Jackie Kennedy’s possessions and Princess Diana’s things, among other celebrities’ belongings, was the New Yorker. In February, he was researching rare, extremely valuable sculptures made of glass — the word for it is “gemmaux” — by Picasso. One of Ettinger’s clients was considering selling some Picassos and was interested in their value. Ettinger tracked one to Evansville by perusing the papers of its original owner.

But old records of transactions involving art aren’t always reliable. Ettinger hung up the phone figuring he’d reached a dead end.

In Evansville, the museum staffers, their curiosity piqued, soon were rummaging through their storage area. And inside a shipping crate that had arrived during the tail end of the Lyndon Johnson administration, there it was, 3 feet tall, a couple of feet across: Picasso’s “Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge” (“Seated Woman with Red Hat”).

“I pretty much know the lay of the land here,” said John Streetman, in his 38th year as the museum’s executive director, “but this was a total surprise.”

The cash value of such a piece can’t be known until it’s sold, but Ettinger puts it “in the range of $30 (million) or $40 million.” Another Gemmaux expert said that estimate sounds high. But even half as much is a lot of money to Evansville’s museum, whose entire endowment fund contains $6 million.

When Streetman got Ettinger on the phone with news of the Picasso’s discovery, “you could almost hear champagne corks popping in the background,” Ettinger said. “They were shocked. I don’t know if ’embarrassed’ is the right word, but maybe ‘amazed,’ ‘thrilled.’ ”

Museum officials, like the occasional lottery winner that doesn’t come forward right away, moved forward with caution. They debated what to do with their new-found masterpiece but kept the debate within the museum’s walls.

By the time they spilled the beans in August, their plan was in place: “De-accession.” That’s museum-speak for: sell the piece, take the cash. Guernsey’s Ettinger will handle the transaction via a private sale, not an auction. He said he has fielded some inquiries, but so far there’s no deal.

Evansville’s Picasso is surely the most spectacular artwork to ever come through town. But only a handful of museum insiders got so much as a peek at it. There was no public showing; the piece was not made available for media photographing. It may even be out of town already. All anyone in the know would say about the artwork is, “It’s in a secure place.”

“I wanted to show it,” said Streetman, “but the president of our board came up with a list of good reasons not to.”

Board President Steve Krohn is a businessman, a lawyer. “It would have cost too much money to insure and to adequately protect,” he said. “We might have had to hire additional security and make changes to the physical plant that we couldn’t justify for one item. We made the only prudent decision.”

A Studebaker — and a showman

The story of “Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge” begins in 1954 with the great Picasso traveling to Paris and producing several dozen glass sculptures, or les gemmaux, in a new and original way.

In 1957, a collection of gemmaux was shown in Paris and New York, and some very fancy people made purchases, including Nelson Rockefeller, the emperor of Japan and Raymond Loewy. Loewy picked out “Femme Assise au Chapeau Rouge.”

Loewy today is largely forgotten. But back then, “the father of industrial design” was a ubiquitous celebrity. He designed locomotives, airplanes, tractors, the Lucky Strike cigarette package, the Schick electric razor, the Electrolux refrigerator and the Greyhound Scenicruiser.

Loewy liked to mingle with artists. He counted Salvador Dali a close friend. He collected art and gave it away.

In 1963, as the South Bend, Ind.-based carmaker Studebaker basked in the accolades for the look of its radical, grilleless, Loewy-designed Avanti sports car, Loewy agreed to give his Picasso to the Evansville museum.

Loewy died in 1986, but the decision makes no sense to his son-in-law, David Hagerman, who lives in Atlanta and manages the Loewy estate.

“Raymond Loewy had a great affinity for South Bend,” Hagerman said, referring to the Studebaker connection. “I would have assumed if he’d have donated to a museum in Indiana, he’d have donated to a museum in the South Bend area.”

It’s possible Loewy never even set foot in Evansville, which is 300 miles from South Bend. But he did know Siegfried R. Weng, an artist and arts administrator who by all accounts was difficult to resist.

In the 1940s, Weng headed the art museum in Dayton, Ohio, where he curated a show of Loewy’s art collection and probably got to know the great designer.

Weng moved to Evansville to run the museum in 1950 and took the organization to new heights, leading it to the construction of its first new museum building.

“Siegfried (Weng) was like P.T. Barnum,” said Streetman. “A very unusual, wonderful man.”

Philanthropists often make donations based on personal relations, which would explain Loewy’s gift to Evansville. It’s impossible to know for certain how that gift came to languish in storage for 44 years. But it’s obvious that when Loewy’s Picasso arrived, the Evansville museum wasn’t paying attention. A staffer mislabeled it a work by “Gemmaux,” said Mary Bowers, the current curator.

Some possible explanations for the mix-up: The piece arrived in 1968 (per the terms of Loewy’s 1963 promise) just as Weng was retiring; the director as well as his staff may have been preoccupied with their own futures.

Besides, the piece itself wasn’t the colossus it is today. Its appraised value, for Loewy’s tax purposes, was just $20,000.

The value has increased considerably, but exactly how much isn’t clear because as far as the art world knows, no similar work has changed hands for many years.

“There’s no pre-established market,” said Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., which owns three Picasso gemmaux pieces. “We received them in the ’90s, when no one really knew what they were,” Oldknow said. (She declined to disclose their appraised value.). “But now there’s an intense interest in the ’50s, and everything from then is being re-evaluated.”

Oldknow said she’d “rather not comment” on Ettinger’s estimate, “but I think it’s high.”

Just what will the Evansville museum do with its windfall? There are no plans.

“We’ll turn it over to the Finance Committee for their recommendations,” said Krohn, the lawyer.

Some townsfolk are sorry to see the artwork go, even if they never saw it in the first place.

“Seems like if the museum needed the money that bad they should have looked through their basement sooner,” said Brent Carroll, who manages River City Pawn, where people swap treasures for cash daily. “Something that’s been there since ’68, to right away take it to where no one’s going to see it again? I’d say keep it and put it on display a year or two, then sell it. But that’s just me.” Indiana museum unravels mystery of Picasso sculpture

Neil Armstrong’s Death at 82

August 25, 2012 · Posted in Science · Comments Off on Neil Armstrong’s Death at 82 

I am very saddened to learn of the passing of Neil Armstrong today. Neil and I trained together as technical partners but were also good friends who will always be connected through our participation in the mission of Apollo 11. Whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone.

Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us. I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew. My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history. I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit.

On behalf of the Aldrin family, we extend our deepest condolences to Carol and the entire Armstrong family. I will miss my friend Neil as I know our fellow citizens and people around world will miss this foremost aviation and space pioneer.

May he Rest in Peace


Eastman Kodak

August 25, 2012 · Posted in American Business · Comments Off on Eastman Kodak 

Kodak to sell film business

By Aaron Smith @CNNMoneyAugust 24, 2012: 2:25 PM ET

Eastman Kodak is selling off its film business as part of its effort to emerge from Chapter 11.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — The venerable but bankrupt camera company Eastman Kodak has put the iconic film portion of its business up for sale. Eastman Kodak said on Thursday that it’s selling the business unit, which includes its “traditional photographic paper and still camera film products.” Film has been overtaken by digital imaging in recent years.

The unit also includes its retail division, which encompasses tens of thousands of photo-printing labs and kiosks, as well as its “event imaging” division, which provides souvenir photos at theme parks, including the automated snaps of screaming roller roaster riders. In addition, the company is selling its document scanning business.

An open letter from Kodak’s Chief Executive Officer Antonio Perez said he wants the deal to go through in the first half of 2013. But the company said it’s holding onto some aspects of its printing business, including commercial printing, entertainment imaging, commercial film, consumer inkjets and its specialty chemicals business.

The company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, said on Thursday that “the sale of these assets,” as well as cost-cutting measures, “will be significant milestones toward completing the company’s reorganization and emergence from Chapter 11 during 2013.”Kodak (EKDKQ, Fortune 500) spokesman Christopher Veronda declined to put a dollar value on the assets for sale.

When asked if Kodak has received any bids, he said the sale process is just beginning.Kodak ditches digital camera business“My only shock is that they didn’t try to sell it five or 10 years ago, when it still had value,” said Michael Holt, a photo industry analyst for Morningstar, referring to the film portion of the business.But the problem is, who will they sell to?Nima Samadi, photo industry analyst for Ibis World, said Fujifilm Corp. is the only other company that could possibly buy Kodak’s film division, but there isn’t a viable reason to, given the move to digital.

“They would probably be buying this pretty cheaply and it would be a market share grab, albeit a quickly shrinking market,” he said. “There still exists a small and shrinking community of hobbyists who prefer film to digital, but the structural shift is to digital.”

At the time of its bankruptcy filing, the company said it had assets worth $5.1 billion, but it also had 100,000 creditors with debts totaling $6.75 billion.The Rochester, N.Y.-based Kodak, which was founded in 1888 by George Eastman, invented the digital camera in the 1970s. But Kodak failed to embrace digital technology as aggressively as competitors like Sony (SNE), Nikon and Samsung, and its reliance on outmoded film technology contributed to its undoing. To top of page

First Published: August 24, 2012: 10:33 AM ET

Information Innovation in History

August 23, 2012 · Posted in Science · Comments Off on Information Innovation in History 

“But this is not another rant against email. Email is magic. It enables abundant, free communication. Consider how far we have come in less than a century: In 1915 — the year my grandfather was born — Alexander Graham Bell picked up a telephone in New York and made the country’s first transcontinental call to San Francisco. Adjusting for inflation, the price of a 3-minute call back then was $440. Today, I video chat through my Gmail account with friends in Budapest or Tokyo — for free. Seriously, magic.” Tech Fortune

  • Four basic periods Characterized by a principal technology used to solve the input, processing, output and communication problemsof the time:

    1. Premechanical,
    2. Mechanical,
    3. Electromechanical, and
    4. Electronic

A. The Premechanical Age: 3000 B.C. – 1450 A.D.

  1. Writing and Alphabets–communication.
    1. First humans communicated only through speaking and picture drawings.
    2. 3000 B.C., the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (what is today southern Iraq) devised cuniform
    3. Around 2000 B.C., Phoenicians created symbols
    4. The Greeks later adopted the Phoenician alphabet and added vowels; the Romans gave the letters Latin names to create the alphabet we use today.
  2. Paper and Pens–input technologies.
    1. Sumerians’ input technology was a stylus that could scratch marks in wet clay.
    2. About 2600 B.C., the Egyptians write on the papyrus plant
    3. around 100 A.D., the Chinese made paper from rags, on which modern-day papermaking is based.
  3. Books and Libraries: Permanent Storage Devices.
    1. Religious leaders in Mesopotamia kept the earliest “books”
    2. The Egyptians kept scrolls
    3. Around 600 B.C., the Greeks began to fold sheets of papyrus vertically into leaves and bind them together.
  4. The First Numbering Systems.
    1. Egyptian system:
      • The numbers 1-9 as vertical lines, the number 10 as a U or circle, the number 100 as a coiled rope, and the number 1,000 as a lotus blossom.
    2. The first numbering systems similar to those in use today were invented between 100 and 200 A.D. by Hindus in India who created a nine-digit numbering system.
    3. Around 875 A.D., the concept of zero was developed.
  5. The First Calculators: The Abacus. One of the very first information processors.

B. The Mechanical Age: 1450 – 1840

  1. The First Information Explosion.
    1. Johann Gutenberg (Mainz, Germany)
      • Invented the movable metal-type printing process in 1450.
    2. The development of book indexes and the widespread use of page numbers.
  2. The first general purpose “computers”
    • Actually people who held the job title “computer: one who works with numbers.”
  3. Slide Rules, the Pascaline and Leibniz’s Machine.
    • Slide Rule. Early 1600s, William Oughtred, an English clergyman, invented the slide rule
      • Early example of an analog computer.
    • The Pascaline.Invented by Blaise Pascal (1623-62). The Pascaline (front) (rear view) Diagram of interior
      • One of the first mechanical computing machines, around 1642.
    • Leibniz’s Machine. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), German mathematician and philosopher. The Reckoner (reconstruction)
  4. Babbage’s EnginesCharles Babbage (1792-1871), eccentric English mathematician
    • The Difference Engine.
      • Working model created in 1822.
      • The “method of differences”.
    • The Analytical Engine.Joseph Marie Jacquard’s loom.
      • Designed during the 1830s
      • Parts remarkably similar to modern-day computers.
        • The “store”
        • The “mill”
        • Punch cards.
      • Punch card idea picked up by Babbage from Joseph Marie Jacquard’s (1752-1834)loom.
        • Introduced in 1801.
        • Binary logic
        • Fixed program that would operate in real time.
    • Augusta Ada Byron (1815-52).
    • The first programmer

C. The Electromechanical Age: 1840 – 1940.

The discovery of ways to harness electricity was the key advance made during this period. Knowledge and information could now be converted into electrical impulses.

  1. The Beginnings of Telecommunication.
    1. Voltaic Battery.
      • Late 18th century.
    2. Telegraph.
      • Early 1800s.
    3. Morse Code.
      • Developed in1835 by Samuel Morse
      • Dots and dashes.
    4. Telephone and Radio.
      • Alexander Graham Bell.
      • 1876
    5. Followed by the discovery that electrical waves travel through space and can produce an effect far from the point at which they originated.
    6. These two events led to the invention of the radio
      • Guglielmo Marconi
      • 1894
  2. Electromechanical Computing
    1. Herman Hollerith and IBM.Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) in 1880. Census Machine. Early punch cards. Punch card workers.
      • By 1890
      • The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).
        • Its first logo
    2. Mark 1.Paper tape stored data and program instructions.
      • Howard Aiken, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University
      • Built the Mark I
        • Completed January 1942
        • 8 feet tall, 51 feet long, 2 feet thick, weighed 5 tons, used about 750,000 parts

D. The Electronic Age: 1940 – Present.

  1. First Tries.
    • Early 1940s
    • Electronic vacuum tubes.
  2. Eckert and Mauchly.
    1. The First High-Speed, General-Purpose Computer Using Vacuum Tubes: Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)The ENIAC team (Feb 14, 1946). Left to right: J. Presper Eckert, Jr.; John Grist Brainerd; Sam Feltman; Herman H. Goldstine; John W. Mauchly; Harold Pender; Major General G. L. Barnes; Colonel Paul N. Gillon. Rear view (note vacuum tubes).
      • Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)
        • 1946.
        • Used vacuum tubes (not mechanical devices) to do its calculations.
          • Hence, first electronic computer.
        • Developers John Mauchly, a physicist, and J. Prosper Eckert, an electrical engineer
          • The Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania
        • Funded by the U.S. Army.
        • But it could not store its programs (its set of instructions)
        • Read More Here


The Inventor of the Telephone

August 23, 2012 · Posted in Science · Comments Off on The Inventor of the Telephone 


May 28 Older brother Melville Bell dies of tuberculosis at the age of 25. July-August Alexander Graham Bell, his parents, and his sister-in-law, Carrie Bell, emigrate to Canada and settle in Brantford, Ontario.


AprilMoving to Boston, Alexander Graham Bell begins teaching at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes.


March-June Alexander Graham Bell teaches at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Boston and at the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. April 8 Alexander Graham Bell meets Boston attorney Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who will become one of his financial backers and his father-in-law. Fall Alexander Graham Bell opens his School of Vocal Physiology in Boston and starts experimenting with the multiple telegraph. Brochure for Bell’s School of Vocal Physiology


Boston University appoints Bell Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at its School of Oratory. Mabel Hubbard, his future wife, becomes one of his private pupils.


Spring Alexander Graham Bell conducts acoustics experiments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and Clarence Blake, a Boston ear specialist, begin experimenting with the mechanics of the human ear and the phonautograph, a device that could translate sound vibrations into visible tracings. Summer In Brantford, Ontario, Bell first conceives of the idea for the telephone. (Bell’s original sketch of the telephone) Bell meets Thomas Watson, a young electrician who would become his assistant, at Charles Williams’s electrician shop in Boston.


January Watson begins working with Bell more regularly. February Thomas Sanders, a wealthy leather merchant whose deaf son studied with Bell, and Gardiner Greene Hubbard enter into a formal partnership with Bell in which they provide financial backing for his inventions. March 1-2 Alexander Graham Bell visits noted scientist Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution and explains to him his idea for the telephone. Henry recognizes the significance of Bell’s work and offers him encouragement. November 25Mabel Hubbard and Bell become engaged to be married.


February 14 Bell’s telephone patent application is filed at the United States Patent Office; Elisha Gray’s attorney files a caveat for a telephone just a few hours later. March 7 United States Patent No. 174,465 is officially issued for Bell’s telephone. March 10 Intelligible human speech is heard over the telephone for the first time when Bell calls to Watson, “Mr. Watson.Come here. I want to see you.” June 25Bell demonstrates the telephone for Sir William Thomson (Baron Kelvin) and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.


July 9 Bell, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Thomas Sanders, and Thomas Watson form the Bell Telephone Company. July 11 Mabel Hubbard and Bell are married. August 4Bell and his wife leave for England and remain there for a year.


January 14 Alexander Graham Bell demonstrates the telephone for Queen Victoria. May 8 Elsie May Bell, a daughter, is born. September 12Patent litigation involving the Bell Telephone Company against Western Union Telegraph Company and Elisha Gray begins.


February-March The Bell Telephone Company merges with the New England Telephone Company to become the National Bell Telephone Company. November 10 Western Union and the National Bell Telephone Company reach a settlement.

History of Vampires

August 21, 2012 · Posted in Myths and Legends · Comments Off on History of Vampires 

Medveđa, Serbia. Jan. 1732 — The Carpathian mountains loomed ominously to the east, as if nature herself was conspiring with evil. In the valley below a shadow had been draped over the corpses that now littered the quiet cemetery. Of the forty villagers exhumed that morning, a total of thirteen had been identified as vampires. Fresh blood seeped from their mouth, nose, or the gaping wounds in their chest where the stake had been pounded in. The gore was clear evidence of their demonic guilt.

Dr. Johannes Flückinger, regiment medical officer dispatched by the Honorable Supreme Command, surveyed the ghastly scene. He was clearly uneasy about being sent to this small village on the remote edge of the Habsburg Empire. His disgust for the local haiduks was evident as he gazed upon a newborn child, who, “because of a careless burial had been half eaten by dogs.”

The young doctor hunched over what had once been the child’s mother, a 20-year-old peasant woman named Stana, and proceeded with his dissection. He noted that she was “quite complete and undecayed” despite having died in childbirth two months earlier. Like the others, her blood had not coagulated and after prying open her rib cage he documented that her lungs, liver, and spleen were all still fresh. The woman’s skin was described as “fresh and vivid” and she had a pool of extravascular blood in her stomach and chest cavity. The only interpretation could be that, after being turned into a vampire, she had risen from her grave to feast on the blood of the living.

“After the examination had taken place,” Flückinger wrote in his official report, “the heads of the vampires were cut off by the local gypsies and then burned along with the bodies, and then the ashes were thrown into the river Morava.”

The first to be transformed, Flückinger learned from the Serbian villagers, was a former soldier by the name of Arnod Paole who had fled his post in Turkey after being “troubled” by a vampire there. However, after settling in the village and being betrothed to his neighbor’s daughter, Paole met with a sudden and unexpected death. Not long after, people began to report seeing Paole wandering through the village after night-fall. Some swore that he had even attacked them or that he was observed taking the shape of a black dog, as though hunting for prey. More than twenty people had mysteriously died in the village since Paole met his untimely end, and most within a few months of each other.

“Paole attacked not only the people,” Flückinger reported, “but also the cattle, and sucked out their blood.” These were the two ways by which vampirism had then spread throughout Medveđa: some were bitten directly while others had eaten the infected meat and become vampires as well. Apparently, once they were turned, vampires not only behaved as though possessed by wild beasts, they could also adopt a beastly shape, or transmit their vampirism through animals to an unsuspecting human victim. In order to end Arnod Paole’s reign of terror, the villagers of Medveđa “drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.”

Vampires were almost entirely unknown to the European imagination prior to 1730 and Johannes Flückinger’s strange report would become known as the most thoroughly documented–as well as the most widely circulated–vampire narrative in the world. Following the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718, much of the region now known as the Balkans was ceded to the Habsburg Monarchy by the Ottoman Empire. Along with it came a rich folkloric tradition which quickly merged with European ideas of witchcraft that had gripped the continent for the past three centuries. These stories would be widely reproduced in French, German and, later, in English, to eventually find their way into the hands of an obscure Irish writer and theater manager by the name of Bram Stoker.

The storyline of Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula about a Transylvanian Count and his invasion of English virtue would be almost entirely original. However, key attributes of the vampire itself would draw directly from Slavic folklore, particularly where there was an overlap with European witchcraft. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an elegant and seductive aristocrat, the Slavic vampires were typically rural villagers that had become possessed. In appearance and mannerism they would have shared more in common with Max Schreck’s animalistic performance in the German silent classic Nosferatu than with Bela Lugosi’s theatrical mesmerism as the Hungarian Count. However, the depiction of the vampire as a savage beast of prey, the infection of new vampires through bites or contaminated blood, their ability to transform into specific animal “familiars” (especially wolves and bats), and the method of dispatching the undead by murdering them in their coffins while they slept, would all be borrowed directly from Slavic folklore.

What the Slavic and European vampire mythologies both have in common however is that they tell an important story about how people understood natural events such as death, decomposition, and the transmission of disease prior to the advent of scientific medicine. They also serve as an illustration of the anxiety present in many Christian societies over the delicate line that seemed to separate human from animal.

“Far from being merely fanciful horror stories,” writes UCLA historian Paul Barber in the Journal of Folklore Research, “the vampire stories prove to be an ingenious and elaborate folk-hypothesis that seeks to explain otherwise puzzling phenomena associated with death and decomposition.” In nearly all cases, individuals would be identified as vampires after they were exhumed and irregularities found with the condition of their bodies. The most common reasons were lack of decomposition or because liquid blood was found around their mouth and nose.

Decomposition is largely misunderstood even today and is not the rapid or complete process commonly assumed. As Barber notes, putrefaction begins at about 50°F and occurs most rapidly at temperatures ranging between 70° and 100°. However, the temperature even just a few feet below ground is usually much lower and decomposition occurs on average eight times more slowly than on the surface. In the case of the Medveđa village cemetery, it would therefore be unsurprising for bodies that were exhumed in January (with average surface temperatures at just above freezing) to remain relatively intact for weeks or even months.

Furthermore, because the bacteria that cause decomposition feed on the protein-rich content of the blood, if there had been significant haemorrhage (as would occur in a violent death or sudden accident) the process would be significantly slower. This fact may have only reinforced these folk traditions, since it would be expected that violent or rapid deaths were somehow unnatural to begin with. However, the most common way that vampires were identified was when liquid blood was seen around the corpse’s mouth, nose, or ears. It was commonly believed that vampires would so gorge themselves on blood that it would leak out after they’d returned to their grave.

“[Vampires] suck the blood of living people and animals in such great abundance,” stated one early Slavic account, “that sometimes it comes out of their mouths, their noses, and especially, their ears, and that sometimes the body swims in its blood which has spilled out into its coffin.”

What is more likely, Barber argues, is that local populations simply filled the gaps in their knowledge about the process of decomposition with folktales that could explain what they had observed. In actuality, during the normal process of decomposition the lungs become loaded with a dark red sanguinous fluid and the brain liquifies. Depending on the orientation of the body, this liquid would have leaked out as it was acted on by the pull of gravity. Ironically, individuals suspected of being vampires at the time of burial would usually be placed face down to make it harder for them to find their way to the surface. When these individuals were later exhumed, the red fluid in and around their mouth or nose would only confirm the original assumption. Add to this the eruption of sanguinous fluid when a stake is hammered into their lungs (an event that can emit sounds from a low groan to a high pitched scream as gases are forced outwards) and the misinterpretation would be complete.

In addition to flawed assumptions regarding death and decomposition, certain diseases (particularly ones that result in extreme psychological and behavioral changes) would only add to folk-hypotheses seeking to explain such unusual events. While both schizophrenia and tuberculosis have been proposed as potential natural influences on the folk tradition of vampirism, a study published in the journal Neurology by Juan Gomez-Alonso of the Servicio de Neurologia, Hospital Xeral in Vigo, Spain argues that many of the primary attributes of vampires show remarkable similarities to the physical symptoms associated with rabies.

“In certain cases, rabies appears similar to vampirism,” says Gomez-Alonso, “The rabid patient rushes at those who approach him, biting and tearing them as if he was a wild beast.” In both cases, the method of transmission is identical since rabies infections are caused through animal bites or blood to blood contact. While dogs are the most common animal associated with rabies today, rural villagers have historically had much greater interaction with wolves and these animals were a significant threat both to themselves and their livestock. There have also been many documented cases of rabies infection from bats both in Europe and the United States. “Consequently,” says Gomez-Alonso, “it would be imaginable that men and beasts with identical ferocious and bizarre behavior might have been seen, by a primitive witness, as similar malign beings.” It is notable that in the early Slavic accounts there was no distinction between vampires and what we would now call werewolves; in some versions a vampire was simply what a werewolf became after they died.

There are many additional characteristics that appear to connect vampirism and rabies. In terms of pathology, for example, humans that have contracted rabies typically die of suffocation or cardiorespiratory arrest. These types of deaths, according to Gomez-Alonso, result in post-mortem features consistent with those used to identify a vampire: blood is less likely to coagulate after death and hemorrhage is common, resulting in slower decomposition. Humans can also contract rabies by drinking unpasteurized milk or eating undercooked meat from a rabid cow (or through oral exposure to their blood or saliva during preparation). In this way, knowledge of how the rabies virus can spread might have been contained in these folk traditions, even if the actual mechanism remained mysterious.

Finally, Gomez-Alonso points out the historical coincidence that during the period when dramatic tales of vampires were first emerging from Eastern Europe, a major epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves, and other wild animals was recorded in the same region between 1721-1728. This coincidence may have even been identified as early as 1733 when an anonymous physician argued that vampirism “is a contagious illness more or less of the same nature as that which comes from the bite of a rabid dog.” While it is likely that multiple natural factors would have influenced the folk tradition of vampirism, it is remarkable that rabies has the potential to connect such seemingly unrelated elements as transmission, behavior, and post-mortem pathology.

“Among the European peasantry wolves were dreaded because of the physical threat they represented,” says Jessica Wang, professor of history at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada “but also because they could transmit the symptoms that we now understand are caused by the rabies virus.” Wang is currently engaged in research documenting the social history of rabies, in which she has identified the common theme of animal possession as a folk-hypothesis to explain the transfer of symptoms from animals to humans. “People associated witchcraft and occult forces with animals,” she says, “as well as the crossing of the line between animals and humans. I think a lot of the fear was based on the fact that humans are animals and what happens if people concede that line rather than try and preserve it.”

In one newspaper account Wang identified from Prussia in the nineteenth century, a farmer was “seized with rabies” only to run amok through the village as though possessed. “He finally took refuge in his own house,” she related, “where he attacked his wife, a young woman to whom he had recently been married. He literally tore her to pieces.” After committing the horrible deed he was then seized with another convulsion and inflicted wounds upon himself from which he died. When neighbors entered the house both dead bodies were found on the floor “frightfully mangled and still warm.” The newspaper account didn’t specify whether or not he had been buried face down.

Just as the vampire myth has its origin in historical events, the cultural tradition that gave rise to it may also have had a natural basis. While these early vampire stories share little with the modern myths about such creatures, the folk tradition that spawned them does contain many of the same inherent fears. “What happens when people do, in a sense, become animals and lose control of their physical bodies through the display of uncontrolled aggression?” Wang asks. “I think a lot of these rabies narratives reflected these kinds of fears. They’re ultimately about the line between animal and human and the ease with which it can be breached.”


Barber, P. (1987). Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire, Journal of Folklore Research 24 (1), 1-32. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814375

Gómez-Alonso J. (1998). Rabies: a possible explanation for the vampire legend. Neurology, 51 (3), 856-9. PMID: 9748039

About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master’s degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.
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