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The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart is a military award given to United State soldiers who are injured or killed in combat.  Since April 1917 the medal has been awarded in the name of the President of the United States to men and women of the armed forces (and, for a brief period, to civilians who were injured in meritorious action with the enemy).  The Purple Heart medal is indeed a purple heart with a profile relief statue of George Washington.  Above his head is the coat of arms of the Washington family (who were descended from British nobles) which consists of red and white bars beneath three red stars with holes in them.  The medal hangs from a purple ribbon with silver-white edges—which is also what the service ribbon for the Purple Heart looks like.

The Purple Heart Service Medal

The Purple Heart Service Medal

In 1945, the United States military was planning an all-out amphibious assault on Japan.  Military planners reckoned that this campaign would lead to an unprecedented number of casualties, so the Pentagon ordered 500,000 purple hearts to give to the troops injured or killed. However, thanks to hard-working scientists, the physical nature of the universe, and President Truman’s uncompromising orders, the assault on Japan became unnecessary.  In all succeeding years (and throughout all subsequent wars), total American casualties have never approached this number, so Purple Heart awards given out today are practically antiques.

The Badge of Military Merit

The Badge of Military Merit

The Purple Heart is an incredibly distinctive looking award with a unique name and a powerful, unusual color.  What is the meaning behind the color of the medal?  The color and shape of the medal were conceived by no less a person than George Washington himself in the midst of the Revolutionary War.  Washington wanted to award common soldiers who had committed deeds of unusual merit and he commanded that such soldiers be honored with the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart shaped patch sewn onto their uniform.  The Badge of Military Merit is generally viewed as the first military award of the United States Armed Services, but, most unfortunately we do not know what exactly the enigmatic Washington was thinking when he chose the color (although the meaning of the shape, at least, seems obvious).  Perhaps the general associated purple with the noble qualities of sacrifice, valor, and courage which the badge was meant to embody.  Whatever the case, Purple Hearts bear a unique personal connection to George Washington, the foremost of the fathers of the nation.

An artist's interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

An artist’s interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

 

Snake-handling

Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia.  Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers.  Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley.  Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses.  Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.  Mark 16: 17-18

And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)

While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman).  Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry.  The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond.  Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.

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A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing,  testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church.  Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies.  Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included.   The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons.  Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces.  If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith.  Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.

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Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men.  Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.

Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws.  In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed.  A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).

George Went Hensley

George Went Hensley

The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life.  After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister.  During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining.  After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee.   He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties.   During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes.  The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face.  After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite.  When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement.  Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).

This blog has pursued all things gothic, as the open-ended concept has wound its way through history, the arts, literature, and other forms of culture.  There is, however, a major creative genre which we have entirely overlooked—that of cinema.  The melodramatic spookiness of the 19th century Gothic revival movement was born in architecture and literature, but it was the media of film which cemented the whole concept of horror as a fundamental distinctive genre.   In the modern world, gothic horror (with all of its familiar trappings) is virtually synonymous with film.  This characteristic milieu of ruffled clothing, vampires, ghosts, sconces, and eerie castles goes all the way back to the first horror film–which was made very early indeed, in France in 1896.

Le Manoir du Diable (“The Manor of the Devil”) was meant as a pantomime farce, but most of the familiar elements of gothic cinema appear in the three minute production.   It was released on Christmas Eve of 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin (which was on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris).  Since the piece is well over a century old, any copyright has long expired and it is part of the public domain.  So, without further ado, here it is:

Using the most sophisticated special effects of the day, the filmmakers present a sorcerous devil popping in and out of reality.  The fiend creates goblins, bats, and specters out of thin air and thereby bedevils a pair of foppish noblemen who have wandered (or been summoned?) into the haunted castle.   Fortunately, one of the noblemen has the presence of mind to seize a handy crucifix and banish the fiend.

Although the film’s staging—and overarching moral lesson–owe something to opera, the rapid protean transfigurations were a completely novel feature.  Admittedly the special effects have not aged well, but I think you will enjoy Le Manoir du Diable, the first gothic film.

The illusionist and filmmaker, George Méliès (who looks exactly like one imagines)

Old-timey Olympics?

The Olympics is continually remade to reflect contemporary taste.  Sports which were once important are gradually abandoned.  Exciting new sports which appeal to younger audiences (or boring old sports which appeal to wealthier audiences) are tried out.  For example, the 2016 Olympics in Rio will feature two new sports—rugby sevens and golf (which has repeatedly been part of the Olympics in the past—and has repeatedly been dropped because it is an unwatchable festival of abject tedium).  The extent to which things have gradually changed becomes apparent when one looks back at the canceled sports of yesteryear, many of which are so anachronistic they seem like Monty Python gags.  The Economist illustrates the point with this delightful chart which features live pigeon shooting, javelin free style, and pistol dueling for teams (!?).  One of the discontinued sports which sounded most exciting to me was club swinging which conjures heady images of hirsute cavepersons belaboring each other with wooden cudgels. Was this the original sport?

Club Swinging?

Alas, my research into club swinging has revealed that the sport was not the Neanderthal free-for-all for which I was hoping (nor even some sort of amoral 70’s party event).  Apparently the “clubs” are those weird elongated bowling pin things that jugglers use.  The club swinger would take these objects and whirl them about his head and trunk in a discipline which combined saber-dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and just plain looking ridiculous. The sport had such a circus appearance that it gave rise to rumors that juggling was once an Olympics sport (which it never was).  Club swinging was also known as Indian club swinging because gifted participants apparently looked like they were taking part in some intricately choreographed Native American ritual.  In the fullness of time club swinging devolved into rhythmic gymnastics, that strange pseudo sport where a young Bulgarian dances and tumbles with a ribbon on a stick (which always makes my poor father apoplectic when he sees it on TV).

Club Swinging

Rhythmic Gymnastics

Club swinging was only a medal event at two Olympics festivals—the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932.  Both of these Olympics were dominated by Americans because, in the age before cheap jet travel, the Olympics were not nearly as International as they now are.

“Smokey” the mascot of the 1932 Olympic Games

The 1932 Olympics took place at the high point (or low point?) of the Great Depression and underlines the sad exigencies of those times.  The gold medalist in club swinging was George Roth, an unemployed gymnast who was hit particularly hard by that economic catastrophe (in fact the Guardian reports that he once went 15 days without eating—so he probably looked like today’s gymnasts).  Roth embodied Baron de Coubertin’s ideal of unpaid amateur sports to an unwholesome degree: as soon as he was awarded with his gold medal he left the stadium and sadly hitchhiked home.

George Roth, the last Olympic gold medalist in Club Swinging

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