The Birdman of Leavenworth, a Death Row Proto-Kevorkian

I’m currently working on a new book (new, as in I have an OLD book and you should probably go buy a copy because my publisher deserves money for enduring my head-casery) and as I research I keep finding interesting alleys off the main street of my reading.  So many little snippets that likely won’t have a place in the larger story but are entertaining enough that I want to share them.

My upcoming book will be a look at personal manifestos and their role in shaping particular parts of contemporary culture as well as serving as at times unintentional autobiographies of the people who wrote them.  Less Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and more Elliot Rodger’s My Twisted World.  Some of the manifestos I am analyzing are quasi-political, like Valerie Solanas’ The SCUM Manifesto or Anders Behring Breivik’s 2083, but most of them are  analyses of the self that also stand as a statement or declaration of social or political aims.  One such manifesto is Carl Panzram’s autobiography, wherein he discusses how he came to be shaped into a multipurpose psychopath and why he felt entitled to engage in the mayhem that saw him imprisoned multiple times and ultimately executed.  As I researched Carl Panzram, I came across Panzram: A Journal of Murder by Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long, editors, and an unexpected look at how the politics of the death penalty played out among the condemned.

Before he was The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud was The Birdman of Leavenworth (which actually makes more sense as a moniker since he was never permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz).

Seriously, if there’s a bird with Stroud, he was at Leavenworth. Don’t challenge me on this, I’m ready.

The movie about him, starring Burt Lancaster, was before my time and I probably should watch it in due time, but from what I can tell it portrays Stroud in a very sympathetic manner (as does a more recent film about Panzram that stars James Woods).

Yep, that’s the wiener sidekick from House M.D. standing behind Woods/Panzram in the film Killer: A Journal of Murder.

But bear in mind, if Carl Panzram, dream date of late-child murderer Ian Brady, was a one-man-mayhem-machine, Robert Stroud, had he stayed out of prison longer, would have been his peer.  Though he spent decades nursing birds and researching cures for avian diseases at Leavenworth, Stroud was also a pimp and a murderer, and once imprisoned he was the instigator of many fights and eventually killed a prison guard.  That murder landed him on death row at Leavenworth, but his sentence was commuted and he spent 1918 through 1942 in solitary confinement at Leavenworth (which sounds much different than what prisoners experience in solitary in the USA today).  It was in solitary confinement in Leavenworth that Stroud “met” Carl Panzram.

Oh, and in case you were wondering how Stroud ended up in Alcatraz, the Birdman was caught using the equipment a benevolent prison warden gave him for his birds to make alcohol and sell within the prison.  Upon discovery of this side hustle, he was transferred to Alcatraz.

There are so many mug shots of Carl Panzram, under varying names, that it was hard to pick just one. I selected this one because I like that little curl of hair sticking up over his forehead. It’s easy to imagine him as a kid with hair like this, which is sort of awful now that I think about it.

Carl Panzram was a life-long criminal and an utter psychopath whose crimes ranged from audacious financial exploits on oil rigs in Africa to child rape to murder.  A victim of the harsh practices in reform schools and even harsher practices in prison, all attempts to rehabilitate him made him even worse.  He’d been in several prisons before ending up in Leavenworth, often under false names.  Panzram in prison was a man who just wanted to be left alone.  It’s hard to be left alone in prison and Panzram, in Leavenworth, became a pot waiting to boil over.  He reached his limit and started a prison riot when he killed the foreman in the prison laundry.  That earned him the death penalty and he was kept in solitary during his trial and the time during which he was awaiting execution, in the same solitary block as Robert Stroud.

(There’s a funny story about the end of the riot, too.  Or at least it was funny to me.  Panzram beat the prison laundry foreman to death with a pipe and rampaged through the prison with it in his hand.  When he reached a wing that a guard, Red Ballard, locked down anticipating his arrival, Panzram shouted at him to open the door. Ballard, terrified and shaken, said, “I will never let you in with that in your hand.” As if he forgot he was holding it, Panzram tossed the iron bar away and declared that this must be his lucky day.  Ballard called for assistance and, presumably, opened the door.)

During the trial, Panzram was clear that he wanted to be executed.  Many anti-death penalty groups tried to intervene on his behalf and in response Panzram essentially told them to take their do-gooder notions and go fuck themselves.  He was set on execution, not only because he was tired of the misery of prison life, but also in the spirit of telling the state and the penal system that since they created this monster, they needed to kill it.  A sort of slow-motion suicide by cop.

This attitude alarmed Robert Stroud to the point that he intervened. Or at least he tried.  Despite both men being in solitary confinement, there is ample evidence that Stroud and Panzram managed to effect some sort of communication, and that communication focused on one aim: Stroud wanted Panzram to kill himself.

Unsure if that is the actual gallows where Panzram was executed but I found this pic on a site called The Temple of Ghoul and with a name like that I have to think that if anyone has the actual photo, that site does. (http://templeofghoul.blogspot.com/2013/02/carl-panzram-spirit-of-hatred-and.html)

Stroud found himself on Leavenworth’s death row for the same offense as Panzram, for killing a prison employee, but his sentence was commuted to life.  Stroud to the end felt that Panzram’s yearning for execution was a bluff, that he would, like any reasonable man, want to cheat the executioner, even if it meant dying by his own hand.  But Stroud also felt very strongly that the death penalty – either through the state of Kansas or through the federal government – should never be performed on Leavenworth soil.  He even went so far as to give money to a campaign to prevent another solitary inmate from facing the death penalty for murdering a fellow Leavenworth prisoner.  There had been no executions at Leavenworth and Stroud, as well as many other death penalty abolitionists, did not want a death penalty precedent set.  From his isolation cell, Stroud could see the gallows being constructed and it fired his resolve that Panzram should be encouraged to kill himself to avoid being the man who brought the death penalty to Leavenworth.

Interestingly, Stroud managed to get information to Panzram regarding ways to end his life, and Panzram, afraid his death sentence might not be carried out, made a genuine suicide attempt.  From Panzram, A Journal of Murder (228):

Stroud began long disquisitions to the guard Red Ballard, to the orderlies and to Ono Manuel [another inmate] in a clear, loud voice, hoping that the information would reach Panzram.  He talked about how simple and painless it would be to end it all: press two fingers into the groin until the throb of the femoral artery can be felt, work the fingers back and forth until the artery is brought against the skin, and cut it with a long thumbnail or a chip of a razor blade.  Death would come in minutes.  This artery, Stroud explained in loud tones, is the only one which can be easily reached, yet cannot be tied off.  He also spoke of making a paper quill, opening a large vein anywhere, inserting the quill and blowing a bubble or two into the vein.  Or, he added, simple tap water would do it.

Ballard said nothing.  He closed the wooden door to Panzram’s cell and cautioned Stroud to lower his voice.

Red Ballard kept a very close watch on Panzram but he could not prevent the suicide attempt Panzram made on June 20, 1929 (the one year anniversary of beating the laundry foreman to death).  He had hidden a plate of beans he let go bad, making them poisonous.  He ate those beans and then opened a six-inch gash in his leg using a sharpened button.  Had he just slashed his leg he might have succeeded because it was the sound of him vomiting up the tainted beans that alerted the night guard that there was a problem in his cell.

Once the execution date was firmly set and no appeals were made, Stroud was still convinced that Panzram was bluffing, that he really did not want to die at the hands of the state and that he had simply been too incompetent to carry out his prior suicide attempt.  Since Panzram feared that the state might consider him too mentally unwell to execute, which was the impetus behind the attempt, there may have been some truth to the notion that he was inept with fear. Stroud may have been correct on that front because if there had ever been a man who knew how to kill, it was Panzram.  Still, a failed suicide involving bad beans and a button might help the case that Panzram was too mentally ill to execute and surely Panzram knew this.  It seems very likely that Panzram engaged in overkill with his methods of choice rather than failing due to incompetence. As the execution drew closer, Stroud upped his game and Panzram, in the end, showed his genuine intent.

Two weeks before the execution, Stroud saw his opportunity.  He wrote his earlier instructions on a slip of paper, broke a new Gillette blade in two and wrapped the paper around the top halves of the broken blade. Having found an old tube of watercolor gray, he painted the package the same color as the concrete floor.  He then persuaded a new short-term prisoner, who had been made an orderly in the isolation section, to throw the tiny packet into Panzram’s cell the first time the guard, Red Ballard, turned his head.  The orderly agreed […].

The packet was dropped into Panzram’s cell without incident […]. 238-239)

Stroud had some hope that Panzram would use the blades and take his own life because Panzram held onto the blades until two days before his execution, and then turned them over to guard Red Ballard (who really needed to be paid far more than he was for dealing with all he endured during his tenure at Leavenworth).

“Where did you get these?” Ballard demanded.

“None of your damned business,” said Panzram. (239)

Stroud may have been onto something because why else would Panzram have held onto the blades for around ten days, turning them in so close to the execution.  Was he wavering until the end, perhaps mulling over how he wanted to die?  Did the packet with the blades sit unseen on his prison floor for a while, so well camouflaged by Stroud’s watercolor? More likely he wanted insurance in the event the state decided on a last minute pardon and commuted his sentence, one that carried a better chance at success than rotten beans and a shaved-down button. It’s hard to say why Panzram kept the blades for so long, but in the end the state did execute him. He had the option of slashing his wrists or neck or groin but went to the gallows instead.

And of course, the statement Panzram is most famous for occurred on the gallows.  He sneered at his executioner, saying, “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard.  I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around.”

He probably could have, too.  But he didn’t.  Nor did he kill himself.

I admittedly knew very little about Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz, before I read about Panzram, and what I knew was very fluffy, redemption-oriented sort of quasi-knowledge.  While I could have guessed a man like him would be anti-death penalty, I certainly didn’t anticipate him being so keen on enabling a suicide he considered more ethical in the macro and having more dignity in the micro, nor did I expect him to be so knowledgeable on methods of suicide.  Child of the media that I am, I now have visions of Burt Lancaster encouraging James Woods to commit suicide.

The things you learn when learning about other things…

Crypt of the Living Dead by Doug Brunell

Book: Crypt of the Living Dead, Sinful Cinema Series #2

Author: Doug Brunell

Type of Book: Non-fiction, film criticism

Why Do You Consider This Book Odd: It shows the charm and marginal merit of a film that I initially felt had neither but could see once I read Brunell’s take on the film.

Availability: Published by Chaotic Words in 2017, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve begun to despair of the horror genre as of late, and it may be because I’ve reached the age to where there is very little that’s new under the sun.  It’s not helped by the fact that so often genre films are endeavors where those with marginal talents do the bare minimum necessary to get a film together, as evidenced by many of the anemic offerings on NetFlix.  For every Babadook or It Follows, there are a dozen miserable titles that one shouldn’t bother to remember because they all tell the same story, poorly acted, with little spark.

But perhaps I’m being an old crank.  Well, actually, I am being an old crank, at least where the horror genre is concerned and I needed to be reminded that sometimes the desire to see only that which is wholly new, unconventional or somehow rarified can cause us to overlook films that might be interesting if only paid attention.

Enter Doug Brunell’s look at little-known films.

I came across Doug’s work after he read my compendium TL;DR and introduced himself on Twitter. I looked up his work and was delighted to see that he was a fellow traveler in the bizarre and fringe and had written analyses of the cinematic corollaries to some of the books I discuss here.  I saw the title Crypt of the Living Dead, and thought it had something to do with zombies.  Nope, this is a vampire film. (Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters links zombies, werewolves and vampires together as monsters conjured by mass fears of overpopulated cities, disease, especially diseases caused by bodily rot, and though that is certainly not relevant to this discussion it was interesting to see all three monsters represented in this film, as it features a vampire who turns into a wolf and the title leads modern audiences raised on George Romero films to think of zombies.)  I decided it would be interesting to watch the film first and then read what Brunell had to say about it.

Though Mr OTC and I agreed that the film might have gone down better had we been watching it with a space janitor and two wise-cracking robots, it wasn’t wholly bad.  In fact, I found myself uttering Yogi Berra-worthy statements as I watched it, like, “This film would be pretty good if it wasn’t so bad.”  Because there were moments in it that were entertaining, and most of those moments were entertaining because they were so weird.

A quick synopsis, and here be spoilers but I don’t think anyone will be watching this film with an eye toward creative storytelling or unexpected plot twists (but I will try to minimize them): An older man, who came to a small, almost inbred European island to study their customs, is crushed under the crypt topper of a woman called Hannah, who died in 1269.  He is crushed because a wild man (a literal wild man who resembles a cave man with an eye patch) and a robed man knock him over, shove him under the crypt, and knock the supports out from under it, crushing him, effectively decapitating him.  The man’s son, Chris, comes to the island and is greeted by the man in robes, Peter, who lives on the island with his sister, Mary.  We don’t know what Peter’s game is but he seems very helpful to Chris, helping him navigate the stand-offish islanders who are slow to welcome newcomers.  Mary is a schoolteacher and the kids are suitably creepy, as are the islanders, especially the fishermen who won’t even speak to Chris.  We find Chris has come to the island to get his dad out from under the crypt – the islanders were just going to leave him there, minus his head, because the tomb was too heavy to lift, evidently.  So Chris, with Peter’s help, organizes the fishermen on the island to try to go underground and lift the tomb and though they are divided on whether or not they should be messing around with Hannah’s tomb because, as you probably know, she was interred as a vampire and to mess with the tomb risks letting her out, they ultimately try to help. Mary and Chris “bond” and Peter seems excited at the prospect that his sister may leave the island with Chris. But nothing goes easily because Hannah has gotten out, she preys on the islanders and everything ends rather poorly for many of the islanders and, of course Peter, who was in thrall to the undead Hannah.  And it all seems okay at the end, once Hannah has been dealt with in a rather pyrotechnic manner, but alas, peace will be short-lived because evil now infests this little island.

As I watched the film, the deficits, which were funny rather than infuriating, were what I noticed first.  Here are the best of the “WTF” moments:

–When Chris’s dad was exploring the catacomb area, he walks under a sacrificed goat that has been strung up high and is bleeding out.  He feels the blood drip on his face and looks up and stands there staring at the bleeding goat as it spills blood all over his face.  When he finally starts walking again, he doesn’t bother to wipe the blood off, but instead wanders the catacombs with goat’s blood all over his face and head.

–Chris is such a dead ringer for notable porn actor John Holmes that it was distracting.

–Inexplicably, the only person who saw Hannah in her wolf form was, I am not kidding, completely blind.

–Mary, who taught in a one-room school house, forced one kid to stand in the corner ALL DAY because she found him playing in the cemetery because that is a totally reasonable thing for a grade school teacher to do.  The entire classroom is filled with children who would need a bath and a complete set of chromosomes to qualify as extras in Children of the Corn.

–Hannah, the person for whom the film is named and who ostensibly should have at least been a peripheral character, never says one word in the film.  Instead she writhes about in her tomb, wanders about in a filmy white dress, and generally looks kind of pretty but is basically just a piece of animated scenery.

–Chris and Mary hook up and Peter, who I may remind you is Mary’s brother, watches from outside.  Okay, sort of gross, right.  Then the next day when he sees them he is super pleased and overly enthusiastic about Chris nailing his sister and immediately demands that Mary leave the island with Chris because nothing says emotional security and trust like a stranger having sex with your sister within days of meeting her even though he’s supposed to be trying to haul his dad’s carcass out from a vampire’s tomb.

There are other moments that left me wondering what on earth was at play but mostly I focused on the silly plot points because the movie seemed very simple and the details of the film seemed secondary to the gentle mockery that made up most of my reaction.  But then I followed it up by reading Brunell’s analysis of the film and it changed the film for me.  Of course, the film isn’t suddenly rendered amazing after seeing it through Brunell’s filter – and Brunell himself points out the movie’s many flaws – but the efforts the filmmakers put into the film, as well as details that went completely over my head, combined with the themes that Brunell saw in the movie, certainly rescued it from the mental file where I had placed it alongside Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Vampires or Gods? by William Meyers

Book: Vampire or Gods: The True Stories of the Ancient Immortals

Author: William Meyers

Type of Book: Non-fiction (sort of), supernatural, paranormal, alternative history

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: If you were to substitute vampires for aliens in some of the more accessible “alien intervention” conspiracy theories, you’d end up with something like this book.  Also the dude on the cover who is eating grape is… unsettling.

Availability: Published by III Publishing in 1993, it’s out of print but you can still get a copy from second-hand sellers on Amazon:

Comments: Halloween looms so what better time to dig out and discuss this relic. It’s strange at times to consider the enormity of weird information available to us and how normalized such weirdness has become. That’s been a boon for people like me, and presumably anyone reading this, but it’s fun to revisit books that predate the rise of the Internet. This book is a hoot and there’s a reasonably good chance that even ardent readers of this site may not have heard of this title. As time permits, hopefully I can discuss more hidden, somewhat Halloween-ie media that may appeal to those looking for creepy stuff with a nice fringe. We’ll see, I can’t even believe Halloween is this week. I don’t even have pumpkins yet. Time is not so much slipping into the future, to paraphrase Steve Miller, as it is hurtling into some quantum physical state wherein time speeds up and keeps speeding up. Someone tried to explain “Schuman Resonance” to me once and it was like trying to teach a dog stoic philosophy so enough about that. Let’s discuss some vampiric high weirdness.

This is a book that is easy to summarize but very hard to discuss in depth. The concept is easy: William Meyers believes that the old gods, and the new, were actually real people who once lived very long lives, thousands of years in some cases, and they were so long-lived because they were/are vampires. He thinks the historical record, as well as common themes that run through world religions, points to vampirism being a part of our world since human beings organized enough to need or appreciate governments and spiritually dogmatic beliefs.

I walk a fine line when it comes to conspiracy theory. It’s very subjective as to whether or not something like this is harmful. Martin Gardner would think so and we can all agree he was way smarter than me. But I am not bothered by this as much as I am the recent “false flag” trends that cause cretins to harass the families of dead children and deny the existence of bomb victims. This is not as horrible to me as shady purveyors of “non-Western medicine” who convince hopeless cancer victims that medical science is evil, driven only by profits and making them sicker via chemo, and then sell those cancer sufferers very expensive crystals or pyramids or instructions for miserable regimens of coffee enemas out of the goodness of their hearts.

This book is entertaining conspiracy, a form of alternate history that shows how creatively human beings can weave together disparate ideas into a larger tapestry that tries to tell the story of humanity. And it seems to do little harm. I don’t see holy wars or anti-vaccination screeds or weird instructions on how to mutilate the genitals of children springing forth from this theory. And that’s not just because this theory requires both a belief that mythological gods were once living beings AND that vampires are real, something that will require a huge leap of faith in the average reader. Rather, this attempt to explain interesting correlations in religious stories and how they all point to a world shaped and ruled by vampires is not a dogmatic belief system.

It’s the dogma that gets you. It’s always the dogma. And without dogma we’ve got ourselves a fun, sometimes bizarre, interpretation of recorded human history. (And to be perfectly honest, I review this book with the mindset and influence of Mac Tonnies, a brilliant examiner of alien-oriented theories for whom the conversation was as important as the “truth.” I may not believe much but I still find myself examining theories like this with Tonnies in mind, willing to muse about the idea as much as its validity. Well, I do that when it doesn’t seem too harmful, but even so I still cut conspiracy theorists a lot of slack. That I let them leave comments here at all is a testament to the legacy of the importance of discussion that the late Tonnies fostered.)

Just in case anyone thinks that Meyers is just positing and not endorsing the notion that vampires are real and that Set and Cybele and Dionysus and many others were all vampires who actually walked the earth once as humans or humanoids, let me disabuse you of that notion:

…there is the possibility that we are not dealing, in the case of vampire-gods, with humans at all. Perhaps they are a distinct species, related to man as man is related to gorillas. Or the gods were a result of a mating between immortal beings and ordinary humans, as is claimed in the stories of Dionysus, Hercules, Jesus Christ and others. Perhaps the rash of women claiming to have been abducted by UFO’s in the past two decades will find that their children are immortal or have unusual abilities.

One informant who claims to know real “vampires,” humans who do not age or age only slowly, says that while they are not sure what causes their condition, a common theory is that it is simply a rare and recessive gene or set of genes. This could explain why most immortals chronicled in this book were the result of some sort of sexual liaison that today is considered incest.

Yep, Meyers believes gods were living beings and even goes so far as to try to explain their origins. What makes this so awesome for me is that as he tries to offer explanations for these gods, he invokes mainstream science in the form of evolution and recessive genetics AND marries his theory with other stories of external beings manipulating mankind. Alien intervention, alien abduction and possibly even the biblical stories of Nephilim and giants mating with humans can stand alongside Meyers’ vampire-god theories.  I love this sort of synthesis, a combination of all the ways of interpreting and explaining the world around us.

God Speed, Adam Parfrey

Adam Parfrey died on May 10, 2018, and his death has been a mild devastation to me.  I never met him in the flesh but had some online interactions with him wherein he was both very professional and very kind to me.  I keep wanting to discuss his commitment to freedom of speech and to the dissemination of ideas that were guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable – given recent societal determination to ban and censor all thought that makes anyone feel uneasy, losing Parfrey seems all the greater a loss.

But if you know who Parfrey was, you already know this.  And if you don’t know who he was, the best way to explain why Adam Parfrey was so important is to just to let you see, quite literally see, why he matters so much to me and to other people dedicated to experiencing strange and frightening ideas, to supporting freedom of speech in public and private realms, to shining light on that which is hidden. I said on social media that creating I Read Odd Books, which eventually morphed into this current site, was in no small part influenced by Adam’s works: his own writing, his work with Amok books, Feral House and Process Media are present throughout OTC.

My site and my own life’s works are a small leaf growing on a twig growing from a branch on the tree Parfrey planted and cultivated.  Almost every non-fiction shelf in my home has at least one title that is in some way associated with Adam Parfrey.  This is just a sample of what I found in five minutes or so, glancing at my shelves.

In this shelf sampling, left to right, top to bottom: The Covert War Against Rock by Alex Constantine, Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan, Pure Filth by Peter Sotos and Jamie Gillis, Strange Creations by Donna Kossy, The Gates of Janus, first and second editions, by Ian Brady, Rants by Adam Parfrey and Bob Black, The Carnivals of Life and Death by James Shelby Downard, The Source by Isis Aquarian, American Hardcore by Steven Blush, Shit Magnet by Jim Goad, Technological Slavery by Ted Kazcynski, Psychic Dictatorship in the USA by Alex Constantine, Apocalypse Culture/ Apocalypse Culture II / Cult Rapture, all three edited by Parfrey, and Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson.

This really is just a sample.  There are likely a dozen more, at least, that I didn’t hone in on in my quick survey of my books.

Despite the clear influence Parfrey has had on my book purchasing habits, it seems a bit mawkish to me to be so upset about the death of a man I never met in the flesh.  But, as I think of it, it becomes clearer why I am so sad.  When I look at various elements of my tastes, I can see Adam Parfrey’s influence, even if it is a circuitous route to get from A to B.  For example, I listened to black metal before Lords of Chaos was published, but the book encouraged me to seek out a few musicians mentioned because I wanted to include them in a book I was working on at the time, a book that became hard to work on after 9/11 and was ultimately abandoned.  Reading that Feral House title led me to an interesting, decade-long correspondence with one of the musicians in the book.  That has happened with other Feral House titles, strange friendships forming after the authors saw my discussions of their work.

Parfrey also indirectly led me to Ulver.  My favorite album of all time is Ulver’s Perdition City.  I only listened to Ulver after reading about them in LoC.  I may have eventually given them a try but Parfrey’s willingness to publish such a book certainly got me there quicker.

I don’t know if I would have a book published were it not for Adam Parfrey.  Of course my book discusses titles from Feral House and Process Media, but my discussions of such works brought me to the attention of my publisher, Nine-Banded Books, in a particularly bizarre and even more circuitous way.  My site attracted an unstable young woman who tried to file false DMCA claims against my original content.  When that was quickly decided in my favor, she also tried to get me in trouble with my then host by claiming I was publishing obscene content, including child pornography.  She flagged my discussions of some books discussing sex, including Jim Goad’s Big Book of Sex, published by Feral House.  One of the authors whose book she mentioned spoke to Chip Smith about what had happened to me and Chip contacted me about it.  That led to a friendship and a decision to publish a brick of a book containing some of the more interesting discussions I wrote.  My book contains several Feral House and Process Media titles: The Covert War Against Rock by Alex Constantine, Strange Creations by Donna Kossy, two passes over The Gates of Janus by Ian Brady (the second reaction clocked in at around 20,000 words), The Carnivals of Life and Death by James Shelby Downard, and Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson.

Parfrey delivered complex, interesting, creepy, inspiring and fascinating voices to those of us willing to explore roads not familiar to us. He published content he thought needed discussion, knowing full well that doing so would ensure labels that did not describe him accurately would be foisted upon him.  I will always appreciate his courage to publish that which the purveying moral arbiters consider evil in some manner, raising the ire of bluenose prigs and puritans on the left and the right.  I owe him a lot. God speed, Adam.

Hi! Buy my book!

So my book, TL;DR is out and you can get it in a number of places.

If you love Amazon, you can get a copy there.

If you really dig ordering books online from Nine-Banded Books, the publisher of my brick-like compendium, you should head over there right now!

Are you in Baltimore?  Because Atomic Books is selling TL;DR. I feel a strange thrill knowing that the store that receives fan mail for John Waters is selling my book, and by strange thrill I mean I will likely be mentioning this fact for years to come.

If you are in the Chicago area, Quimby’s Bookstore is carrying TL;DR.  No direct link to the book yet but go ahead and shop there now.  If I’m not on the shelves, get a few ‘zines and go back later, because that’s what I’d do.

Want a signed copy? You can buy one from me here.

I can’t believe I have a book out.  What a time to be alive.

 

Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

Book: Dark Sparkler

Author: Amber Tamblyn

Type of Book: Non-fiction, poetry, confessional

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I spent at least a dozen hours investigating the “Search” suggestions on pages 101-108 and didn’t even make it through the first page due to all the horrible yet interesting rabbit holes I found myself falling down into.

Availability: Published by Harper Perennial in 2015, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read this book last summer but my overall disorganization as of late worked in my favor for once because some of the content in this book is rather topical right now (I really need to start discussing books the day after I finish them but we can talk about how much I suck in another entry, I promise). The #metoo and #timesup “movements” have brought institutionalized sexual violence and harassment in the entertainment industry into a sharper focus than I could have ever thought possible. The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has been absolutely surreal to witness, but it helps explain why Mira Sorvino sort of disappeared from movie screens after winning an Oscar. I always liked her and now I know Weinstein systematically blocked her from access to high profile roles because she preferred not to have sex with an aggressive ogre of a man. The sentencing of Larry Nassar has lit up Twitter with people cheering as a man who molested at least 140 gymnasts was dressed down by the judge in the case. No matter what the industry is, if it is fueled by young, fit, attractive people, you can count on the industry attracting predators.

But predation can take many forms. A parent, a manager, a director, drug dealers, a world that devalues older women. As topical as this book is in many regards, the women Amber Tamblyn discusses in these poems aren’t exclusively victims of sexual predators. The women who inspired the poetry in this collection experienced a variety of miseries in a world that chews people up and spits them out for all sorts of reasons. Tamblyn took the stories of these girls, teens, and women who achieved some fame, however small or fleeting, and showed the damage done in a way that, strangely, honors humanity as much as revealing interesting and at times salacious stories.

My interest in books is mainly prose – I am not as learned in poetry as I am in prose fiction and non-fiction. But there are still poets whose words speak to me. I focus on specific poems by those poets, seldom embracing their bodies of work as much as the poems that contain those lines that mean something to me. Wilfred Owen (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning…”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.”), and EE Cummings (“Olaf (upon what were once knees) does almost ceaselessly repeat ‘there is some shit I will not eat'”) are great examples of poets who produce specific lines that resonate with me deeply, and Tamblyn manages to create lines that similarly resonate. One in particular I will discuss in a moment.

This collection reminded me in many ways of Mikita Brottman’s short story collection, Thirteen Girls. I found myself curious about all the women in this collection, as I did when I read about the women who fell to serial killers in Brottman’s penetrating look at victims and the ways they are remembered. The titles of the poems are the names of the women they are about, and there were enough stories of women and children whose sorry tales I knew before reading this book to ensure I felt the power of the poems Tamblyn crafted to portray them. Seeing the most troublesome parts of their lives depicted in poetry forced me to rethink my attitudes towards some of the people Tamblyn wrote about.

Venal Men Getting Their Comeuppance: an OTC Two-fer

Books: The Deep Whatsis / Diary of an Oxygen Thief

Authors: Peter Mattei / Anonymous

Types of Books: Fiction, potentially asshole recovery manuals if taken somewhat seriously

Why Do I Consider These Books Odd:  Eh, they aren’t that odd in and of themselves but considering them together shows me how enjoyable shitty people can be when they know they are shitty and just accept it.

Availability: The Deep Whatsis was published by Other Press in 2013 / Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published by Gallery Books in 2006 and you can get a copy of both here:

Comments: Analyzing these two books together, because one hits the mark with me and the other doesn’t, might lead one to believe that one of these books is somehow bad, or at the very least lacking.  That’s not really the case.  Rather, reading these two books around the same time showed me something very interesting about myself: I like unrepentant assholes.  Don’t get me wrong – redemption arcs have their place and can be enjoyable, but after a while I tire of the trope of callow men with some measure of success deciding that their lives are empty and meaningless and that their chosen work is unsatisfying and that maybe, just maybe, they can be better men.  If the catalyst for change is the presence of a manic pixie dream girl, all the better for the formula.

It’s jaded to think that this formula got hijacked from the early successful Palahniuk novels but, yeah, many books told from the perspective of a male protagonist who is sick of his immoral job, who meets an outsider woman and experiences a strong philosophical shift have the aura of Fight Club about them.  I mean, it’s a common trope but perhaps I see it clearer after Palahniuk did it so much better.  The Deep Whatsis doesn’t have a Tyler Durden twist and is almost 99% non-violent, but it follows the script and at the end left me feeling like I really needed the protagonist to burn something to the ground because otherwise this book is more or less just a version of several George Clooney movies, like Up in the Air, where the lovable rogue discovers he’s an asshole and learns from the experience and it’s all really heartwarming.

And that’s well and good to a point but sometimes you just want a self-aware asshole to suffer without trying to become a better man. 

Halloween 2017: Psycho USA by Harold Schechter

Book:  Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

Author: Harold Schechter

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: True crime will always have a tinge of the odd or bizarre about it for those of us who are definitely not the serial killer type.

Availability: Published by Ballantine Books in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  Harold Schechter is one of my favorite true crime authors.  I have several of his books covering the crimes of Ed Gein, H.H. Holmes, Jesse Pomeroy and others and one day hope to find myself with time to read some of his fiction.  He writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible and manages to speak about the unspeakable without the bombast and disgust that I am sure would mar my writing were I ever to try to write about killers.

So given his skills, I should not have been so smug as to think this book had little to teach me.  I’ve stated on this site before that up until 2000 or so, I knew about almost all serial killers, and I did know quite a bit.  But I certainly knew far less than I thought I did because in this book of more obscure American killers, some of whom are serial killers or mass murderers, I only knew of three killers out of the thirty-one presented.  Among poisoners, sex killers, lonely hearts murderers and family annihilators, I knew of the Smutty Nose Killer, an angry seaman who killed a house full of women for money; Carlyle Harris, a despicable seducer and poisoner; and William Edward Hickman, a kidnapper and mutilator.  I had sort of heard of Andrew Kehoe, having come across his name in reference to school mass murderers, but had never read about him in any depth.

Since I am attempting to write quickly for Halloween, I’m going to write about the two murders I know best, and hope I can give justice to this compendium as I do it.  A lot of the true crime encyclopedias out there are tiresome cash grabs, covering the same ground over and over and discussing intricate and fascinating murders in so little detail that the reader finds herself longing for text at least as comprehensive as Wikipedia.  Not so with Schechter, and even if my discussion doesn’t resonate, you should look into him if his name is new to you. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s probably my fault.

Halloween 2017: Haunted Air by Ossian Brown

Book: Haunted Air

Author/Photo Collector: Ossian Brown, with introduction by David Lynch, epilogue by Geoff Cox

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, photography collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The photographs themselves are odd and unsettling, but this book came with unexpected (and sort of gross) surprises.  Plus this book links David Lynch and the dude from Coil together and that has some odd potential.

Availability: Published by Jonathan Cape in 2010, you can get a copy here:

If you live in the UK, it may be cheaper to get a copy here.

Comments: Sometimes the story of how I obtain a book is odd, though the story behind how I came to own this particular title is grimly predictable.  Periodically, I will wake in the middle of the night and will take a sleeping pill to go back to sleep.  This is problematic because I must take a Lunesta every night to sleep at all and am generally not really “awake” when I wake and take the second pill.  Under the influence of double the dose I need to take, I will sometimes not go back to sleep.  Sometimes I open my iPad and order strange fabric collections or, as you can guess, a load of books.  I don’t know I’ve done this until I receive the shipment and wonder why it was sent and go online and see that I was shopping at four in the morning, ordering stuff from sites where my credit card is evidently stored in my account information.

And that’s how I came to own Haunted Air.  Interestingly, I picked out books from my “wish list” so every book I ordered was something I wanted and none of them were too expensive, which was good since I ordered nine books.  Since then I have kept my prescription anywhere other than the drawer of my bedside table and this hasn’t happened in about a year.  I mention all of this because I personally find it creepy when I find evidence that I was moving around, engaging in activities I commonly associate with consciousness, when I was supposed to be sleeping.  But given the popularity of hypnotics as sleep aids, this may not be creepy to others, especially Ambien users who wake to find they ate entire boxes of cereal with their hands or drove their car up to the Wag-a-Bag, executed a perfect parallel parking job, walked back home and went back to bed.  Ordering books in an altered state of consciousness by most standards is vaguely creepy but largely benign.

That sort of describes this book, if you take out the “vaguely” and replace it with “rather.”  This book really is rather creepy but largely benign, with any ill-intent coming from the reader herself. Ossian Brown has an impressive collection of old Halloween photos. The front page calls it “Hallowe’en” and the photos date from 1875-1955.  I only mention the use of the precise but twee “Hallowe’en” because I really wanted to include this video wherein a Chloe Sevigny impersonator pronounces the word as written.

Back to the book.  It occurs to me that the main reason this book is so creepy is because everyone takes about ten photos a day on their phone and so many of us are so very curated in how we appear, even when we disguise ourselves to celebrate pagan holidays.  Endless Instagrams of intricate make-up jobs, exquisite costumes, spider-leg cupcakes straight from the latest Martha Stewart Living fall edition.  We are hyper-aware of ourselves even when we appear candid.  I personally won’t post photographs online if I find there is too much cat hair on the carpet or sofa, unless the purpose of the photo is to document the cat hair and even then I may use a filter.

So it’s unnerving to see people so nakedly and without guile wearing paper or burlap bags fashioned into masks.  Church ladies with their hair up and their dresses buttoned to their necks wearing paper mache masks in scenes that are wholesome as wheat bread yet reminiscent of the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  That sort of messy, archaic, unmatched, unincorporated Halloween is not a part of any American’s landscape any longer and the viewer of such photos can find herself in an uneasy place, understanding she is assigning a malignancy to plain-spun activities that was not intended by those in the photographs yet unable to stop herself from imagining someone in such a mask stabbing her to death.

Most of the photos in this collection are nightmare fuel.  They are raw and primal, with a humble intensity that still surprises me when I revisit the photos.  Here are some of the ones that set my teeth on edge.

It’s like The Hills Have Eyes Episode One: Wagon Train.

Halloween 2017: Ben Thompson’s Grave

Ben Thompson doesn’t have the level of posthumous fame as his exploits should have earned.  I think it’s because he didn’t have a catchy nickname.  In the early days of Texas statehood, among impulsive, gun-crazy men with a violent streak, he was first among equals.  But fame is fickle and it’s hard to pin down why some gunslingers are well-remembered and why some become footnotes.  In many regards, outside of Texas history buffs, Ben Thompson is a footnote.

Still, among lovers of Old West or Texas history, some of us do remember Ben Thompson and this is a perfect time of the year to share his story.  He was a soldier and a lawman, but among Texas lawmen during the 1800s, it was not uncommon for lawmen to also be criminals, and Thompson was definitely a criminal, and a violent one at that.  So violent was his life that some people interested in ghosts and the paranormal say the power of his character affects his final resting place.

Ben Thompson was like many of the wild men who made Texas their home – he was a jack of all trades before he found his niche as a gunslinger.  Born in England in 1843, his family emigrated to Texas in 1851.  In his teens, he worked as a printer’s apprentice and in 1859 he went to New Orleans to work as a bookbinder.  It was in New Orleans that the man he was to become showed himself when he killed a man whom he claimed was abusing a woman.  Stabbed him to death.  He was fifteen or sixteen when this happened.

He served in the Civil War, fighting with the Confederates, but the battles he fought didn’t quell his love of guns and rough justice because after he returned to Austin he shot and killed a man during an argument over a mule.  A mule.  Seriously.  And since the mule was technically Army property, Thompson was arrested.  That didn’t slow him down though because he busted out of prison and fled to Mexico where he joined Maximillian’s forces until the good emperor lost the war in 1867.  Clearly a man unable to function outside of conflict, Thompson returned to Austin and promptly shot his brother-in-law for abusing Thompson’s wife.  Oh yeah, Thompson got married during his stint in the Civil War.  The civilizing effects of marriage didn’t really take with him.

So, Thompson was tried and sent to prison in Huntsville, and this time he was unable to break out.  He served two years of his four year sentence until pardoned by President Grant.  Once free he headed up to Abilene, Kansas with his family and opened a prosperous saloon with an old Army buddy, Philip Coe, and seemed to be doing reasonably well.  That changed when Thompson was in a terrible buggy accident that injured him, his son and his wife, who lost an arm.  While Thompson was recovering from the accident, Coe went and got himself shot by Marshal “Wild Bill” Hickok.

By any measure Abilene of the early 1870s was a tough town, and its city marshal – James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok – was up to the challenge of taming its rowdy visitors.  Although there may have been many reasons that Hickok and Philip Coe did not care for each other, it is likely that the basis for their dislike was a woman they both cherished.  Apparently she chose the gambler over the lawman and was going to leave town with Coe – or so she thought.  During the evening of October 5, 1871, Hickok shot Coe, who had been firing his pistol into the evening air on a street in Abilene.  Tragically, in the confusion of the shots taken at Coe, Hickok also shot and killed his deputy. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

After that, Abilene, Kansas was tired of Hickok and all the cattle drivers who passed through, making trouble at the drinking and gambling establishments, so they relieved Hickok of his duty and banned undesirables from entering or remaining in the city.  That included Thompson so he went to Ellsworth, Kansas and began his time as a professional gambler.  Interestingly, it was in Ellsworth that Thompson encountered another name we all remember more than poor Ben:

After the shooting of Coe, Ben Thompson left town for Ellsworth, Kansas, where he met Wyatt Earp in one of the Old West’s classic “in the streets” confrontations.  Looking down the barrel of Earp’s gun, Thompson backed down and soon left Ellsworth for the Texas Panhandle.  There Thompson would meet and, in the ensuing years, form a life-long friendship with Bat Masterson. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

Interestingly, Thompson’s brother shot and killed the Ellsworth, Kansas sheriff and fled.  A couple of years later he stood trial and was acquitted – the Thompson family seemed to be able to avoid the worst penalties for their impulsive and criminal natures, but so did a lot of men during that time.  Rustle some cattle and you’d hang immediately if caught but shoot a sheriff and people could understand how the sheriff may have had it coming.

From 1874 to 1879, Thompson made his living as a professional gambler, traveling around various Texas cities, and of course he got into trouble as he did it.  On Christmas Day, 1876, a fight broke out in the Austin Theater.  Thompson, seeing a friend was causing the commotion, decided to help his friend out and jumped into the fray.  When the theater owner emerged with a rifle and shot at Thompson, Thompson returned fire and killed him in three shots.  It was determined later that Thompson had killed in self-defense.

Looking for quick money in the Colorado silver mines, Thompson went west and while there teamed up with his friend, Bat Masterson, who had assembled a team of hired guns to work for Kansas-based railroads that were embroiled in a right of way dispute with Colorado railroads.  Thompson was well-paid for his efforts so he returned to Austin and opened a gambling saloon that he called the Iron Front Saloon.  Here’s where it gets kind of funny: Ben Thompson was scrupulously honest in the way he ran his gambling tables and earned the respect of Austin citizens as being an honest man, so honest that the citizens in Austin elected him to be city marshal, not once, but twice.  And the hell of it is, he was an honest man.  He just liked shooting people.  So why not have an honest shooter serve in law enforcement?

And it was a pretty good decision – plenty of people thought Ben Thompson was the best marshal Austin ever had.  But rest assured he didn’t stop killing people.  In 1882, Thompson visited the Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio and felt that the card tables at the establishment might not meet his level of scrupulous honesty and shot the theater owner, Jack Harris, to death.  He was indicted for murder and resigned as marshal and it will surprise no one that he was acquitted of murder.  Presumably the theater owner had it coming.  Thompson returned to Austin and was given a hero’s welcome

Now, you and I, if we shot a popular entertainment establishment owner to death, we might be emboldened a bit if we returned home to the 1880s version of a ticker tape parade, but it takes a really bold person to return to the scene of the crime.  Thompson went back to the Vaudeville Theater in 1884.  He and his friend, John King Fisher, one helluva gunslinger in his own right, sauntered into San Antonio like they owned the place and news of their arrival spread quickly.

What happened inside the Vaudeville Theater depends on the sources.  Some say that within minutes of entering the saloon area of the Vaudeville Theater, they were both ambushed and shot from behind.  That’s some cowardly crap right there but, it must be said, that there would have been little chance for anyone to kill him in a straightforward gunfight.  But other sources indicate that perhaps Thompson pushed things too far. He had already run into some of Jack Harris’ business partners inside the Vaudeville Theater, but stayed for the show and pressed his luck in the saloon

Thompson and Fisher had been drinking heavily in the saloon.  Inside, Simms, Foster and three confederates were waiting.  When the subject of the murder of Jack Harris came up, Fisher wanted to leave. But Thompson pushed on, eventually slapping Foster and putting a pistol in the saloon owner’s mouth.  Almost immediately shooting broke the tension and silence of the room.  As the smoke cleared, both Thompson and Fisher lay dead on the floor.  Fisher had never drawn a gun, and Thompson managed but a single shot.  Yet the bodies of the outlaw lawmen had nine and thirteen wounds, respectively.  Ironically, a coroner’s jury in San Antonio ruled the killings self-defense. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

Legends of the ambush grew far outside of the reality of what really happened.  Texas history junkies talk of how it was that Ben Thompson killed six of the men who ambushed him with a single six-shooter and hit them each square like ducks in a carnival shooting game.  The reality is that even in the scenario where he pressed his luck, he barely knew what hit him.  I bet he’d have liked the way his own murder played out in terms of the myths that arose around him.  But no one was ever charged with killing him, and his body was shipped back to Austin.  He’s buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery.

I first heard about Ben Thompson from a ghost hunter.  I don’t hunt for ghosts, but I do like looking into ghost legends, and ghost hunters can be really helpful in finding out interesting stories.  The lady I met told me that it was impossible to take a good photo of Ben Thompson’s gravestone because he hates the stone that was put on his resting place because it isn’t the one he won in a card game, so he makes sure all the photos people take are marred in some manner.

Bear with me, this story has some merit.  The late Charley Eckhardt wrote up a lot of what he knew about some of the better and more interesting Texas legends and he wrote a short article about how it was that Ben Thompson won his tombstone in a card game.  One night a tombstone salesman named Luke Watts played poker at a table at Iron Front Saloon and it just so happened that Ben Thompson was playing that night at that table as well.  Watts tried to sell Ben Thompson a tombstone, but Thompson didn’t seem too interested. But when Watts had lost every penny in his pocket, Thompson’s demeanor changed.

Watts was not as good a poker player as he thought he was, and sometime after midnight he announced that he was cleaned out and was leaving the game. Thompson asked him how much his tombstones were worth. “It depends on what kind it is,” Watts replied.

Thompson said he wanted the best tombstone Watts had. Watts told him he had a fine marble stone that was worth $200. Thompson told him to bring it up and put it in the game. Thompson would accept it in lieu of $200 cash. The game began again and Thompson won the tombstone. Watts suggested that he carve at least Thompson’s name and date of birth on it, but Thompson said no. The stone sat in the poker room in the Iron Front for a few months, until Thompson ordered it moved to the basement.

Not long after this Ben Thompson died in the ambush in San Antonio, but according to Eckhardt his resting place in Oakwood Cemetery lacked a headstone until 1925, and that the tombstone he won remained in the basement of the Iron Front Saloon until it was demolished. Eckhardt wasn’t certain if the stone that was eventually placed on his grave was the stone he won in the card game.

I don’t know one rock from another but the stone that marks Ben Thompson’s resting place does not look like it’s fine marble and I don’t think that anyone was too pressed to rescue a slab of marble from the basement of a saloon marked for demolition.

Oakwood Cemetery is a favorite of mine and many others in the area.  I spent a lot of time there searching for the burial places of the victims of the Servant Girl Annihilator, and while I was there years ago, I remembered that legend the ghost hunter told me and I took a photo of Ben Thompson’s gravestone.

And there you go.  Maybe Ben really is angry about his stone and interferes with good pictures.

Join me under the cut as I behave like the killjoy I so often am.