Thursday, November 27, 2014

Germ Warfare and Other Intimidations

Mark that one "Return to Sender," would you?
A Colorado judge received a gruesome package in the mail in November, 1909, as reported in the Spokane Press. The box contained two small strips of human flesh. I’m ready to heat sterilize my mailbox just for reading that. But it gets worse, and when you’re starting with medical waste in your mailbox, worse must be pretty bad. The title of this post isn’t “Yucky Mail.” According to a note in the box, the skin was from a smallpox victim. So the anthrax attacks of several years ago, were just kinda copycat.

Wikipedia notes that smallpox was almost completely eliminated from the United States by 1897, so it’s not actually clear that there was any smallpox-infected skin for someone to easily obtain in 1909. To do this, you have to be certain that you’re immune, and it only works if your prospective victim is not immune (flip those around and it’s suicide and annoying, disgusting mail).

Since I’m publishing this on Thanksgiving, let me note that Judge Toombs clearly lived for years after this. I wasn’t able to ascertain a date of death (he was born in 1853, so he’s certainly dead by now), but he is listed in city directories for a few years following. The smallpox terrorist did not accomplish his goal.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., Nov. 27.—A diabolical plot to end the life of Judge A. P. Tombs of this city was revealed to the postal authorities today.

In the judge’s morning mail was a small paper box about three inches long and an inch wide, neatly wrapped in oiled paper. When the cover was raised, two strips, unmistakably of human flesh, were revealed. The gruesome relics were accompanied by a note, penciled upon a thin sheet of paper, stating that they had been cut from the body of a smallpox patient and expressing the wish that Judge Toombs would contract the disease and die.

The package was turned over to the health authorities. An examination of the dried strips proved them beyond doubt to be human flesh. Inoculation will be resorted to to determine whether the flesh actually is infected.
The Spokane Press spelled it “grewsome.” But really, if smallpox had been eradicated n the U.S. some twelve years before, where did the person who sent the mail get the smallpox-infected skin (though the same Wikipedia article notes that some Civil-War era smallpox scabs were discovered in 2004, at which point the virus was presumably no longer infectious).

But sending nasty things through the mail isn’t the only way to intimidate people. Just above this article is an item noting the sermon coming the next day at the First Baptist Church of Spokane. Elsewhere in the paper, it’s noted that Reverend J. W. Kramer would be speaking about Thanksgiving in his morning sermon. The evening one was a little more fiery.
A subject that is calculated to make the average citizen stop and take notice has been selected or his sermon Sunday evening at 7:30 by Rev. J. W. Kramer, pastor of the First Baptist church, Second and Lincoln.

On that occasion Dr. Kramer will preach on “Has Spokane a Sodomite Alderman?” Reserved seats might be set aside for our city fathers so that they may all look virtuous and enter a plea of “Not guilty.”
Note the implied threat here: don’t show up and you miss out on your chance to “look virtuous.” I suspect that the (not so) good reverend was planting the suggestion that some of the city officials might be heterosexual sodomites, and not that there was any city-father-on-city-father action going on at all in Spokane (just one more blot against it as a tourism destination).

My guess is that Dr. Kramer did not substantiate this charge, or name any names. In any case, the Spokane Press is silent on the question in the days that follow. There is no further discussion of the probably sodomite Spokane aldermen. But there it is, the lurid enticement of “a subject that is calculated to make the average citizen stop and take notice.” Calculated certainly is the word for it, much like today’s outrage machine. Let us calculate how to phrase this to best outrage the populace.

Something to be thankful for? That 1909 was a long time ago. That no one is sending you boxes of skin allegedly infected with smallpox (happily, in 2014, you can conclude the sender was attempting to hoax you). The local minister isn’t accusing you of being a sodomite (okay, that still happens in some places, alas).
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