Photo Credits: Mark Watson
The truth is, it remains a mystery, although there are many theories about its origins.
Some believe the first association between April 1st and playing tricks can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales from 1392. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” a fox tricks proud rooster Chauntecleer on “syn March bigan thritty dayes and two”. Chaucer probably meant 32 days after March (May 2), but many readers apparently misunderstood the line, and believed it to mean March 32 – a non-existent date – and recognized it as April 1.
Others believe that the origins of April Fools’ Day began with the adoption of a new calendar in 1582. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered the use of a new calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar. This calendar celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1, which was actually a new idea. Many ancient cultures celebrated New Year’s Day around April 1, and according to legend, many people refused to recognize the new calendar or simply were unaware of its existence. These people continued to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1, and eventually other people began to make fun of these “fools” by sending them to look for things that did not exist – also known as a “fool’s errand” – or by tricking them into believing something that was totally false.
Although history can’t really pinpoint how or when April Fools’ Day began for certain, people the world over celebrate it year in and year out by playing pranks on each other. Some go all out with intricate plots and plans, but I find the simple classics to be the most fun.
Even so, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the elaborate hoaxes that have been created to fool the public by media outlets and big businesses. For instance, Google frequently pranks its users on April 1st. Here’s a couple of Google pranks:
Google Maps rolled out “Pac-Maps” for a second run this year. It was originally released back in 2015, but – with its popularity – it returned for round two. I actually heard a few people talking about this on social media recently.
This year, Google released its prank “The Google Gnome”. It was actually a bad pun crafted by
Google isn’t the only company to play a prank for April Fools’ Day. Many organizations have played the public over the years.
In 1957, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) news program Panorama announced that Swiss farmers were harvesting a record spaghetti crop thanks to the elimination of the dreaded “spaghetti weevil”. News footage showed Swiss peasants pulling spaghetti from trees, prompting thousands of viewers to call and inquire how to grow spaghetti trees!
Taco Bell pulled a huge prank in 1996, reporting that they had purchased the US prized Liberty Bell to help ease the national deficit. The company claimed it would be renaming the national treasure the “Taco Liberty Bell”, fooling thousands of citizens who called to complain. Before Taco Bell revealed it was a practical joke a few hours later, reporters asked White House press secretary Mike McCurry about the sale, and in true April Fools’ fashion he made a joke of his own. He responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would soon be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
Though the true origins of April Fools’ Day may remain one of history’s mysteries, it sure is fun to research and participate in. So, make sure you watch your back, don’t believe everything you read, and plan a few pranks of your own!
The Dyatlov Pass incident refers to the mysterious unsolved deaths of nine individuals on a hiking trip in the northern Ural Mountains on February 2, 1959.
This experienced trekking group from the Ural Polytechnical Institute had established a camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl when something went terribly wrong. During the night, something caused the group to tear their way out of their tents from the inside, fleeing the campsite in heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. Even more curious, the group fled their camp wearing minimal clothing.
Was it an avalanche, some bizarre military experiment, or a case of paradoxical undressing that caused these bizarre deaths? To this day no one knows for sure, but many theories have been presented as to what actually happened, some going as far as theorizing that a Russian Yeti was responsible.
The goal of the groups expedition was to reach Otorten, a mountain 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) north of the site of the incident. This route was as a Category III trek, the most difficult, but all members had experience in long in mountain expeditions. They arrived by train at Ivdel, a city at the center of the northern province of Sverdlovsk Oblast, on January 25, taking a truck to Vizhai, which was the last inhabited settlement to the north. They began their march toward Otorten from Vizhai on January 27, but the next day one of the members, Yuri Yudin, was forced to go back due to illness. The remaining group of nine continued the trek, and was expected to check in via telegraph once they had returned to Vizhai around February 12th.
When the 12th passed and no messages had been received, there was no immediate reaction. Delays of a few days were common with such expeditions. When the relatives of the travelers demanded a rescue operation on February 20, the head of the institute sent the first rescue groups consisting of volunteer students and teachers. Later, the army and militsiya forces sent planes and helicopters to join the rescue operation.
The searchers found the group’s abandoned and badly damaged tent on February 26th on Kholat Syakhl, and were baffled by what they discovered. Mikhail Sharavin, the student who found the tent, said “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind. “
Evidence showed that the tent had been cut open from inside. Eight or nine sets of footprints were discovered leaving the camp, but the tracks showed that they were wearing only socks, a single shoe, or were even barefoot. The tracks were followed down toward a wooded area, on the opposite side of the pass about 1.5 kilometers (0.93 mi) to the north-east, but after 500 meters (1,600 ft) these tracks were covered with snow.
Under a large cedar tree near the edge of the woods, the searchers found the remnants of a small fire, along with the first two bodies. Krivonischenko and Doroshenko were discovered shoe less and dressed only in their underwear. Three more corpses – Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin – were discovered between the cedar tree and the campground. They appeared to have died in positions suggesting that they were attempting to return to the tent, and were found separately at distances of 300, 480 and 630 meters from the tree.
The remaining four travelers were finally found on May 4 under four meters of snow in a ravine 75 meters farther into the woods from the cedar tree. They were better dressed than the others, and had even taken some clothing from the members of the party that had already died. Zolotariov was wearing Dubinina’s faux fur coat and hat, and Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Krivonishenko’s wool pants. Also, a camera was discovered around Zolotariov’s neck which had not been listed as part of the groups equipment. However, the film in the camera was reported to have been damaged by water.
A medical examination of the first five bodies found no injuries which might have led to their deaths. It was eventually concluded that they had all died of hypothermia. One of the deceased had a small crack in his skull, but it was not thought to be a fatal wound.
The examination of the four bodies found in May shifted thoughts as to what had happened, with three of the hikers showing fatal injuries. One body had major skull damage, and two others had major chest fractures, all of which required extreme force.
Notably, the bodies had no external wounds. It was as if they had been subjected to a high level of pressure.
It was speculated that the indigenous Mansi people might have attacked the group, but no evidence supported the theory. It was also speculated that an impending avalanche could have made the group storm out in the snow, but again, there was no evidence of an avalanche. One hypothesis, popularized by Donnie Eichar‘s 2013 book Dead Mountain, is that wind traveling around Holatchahl Mountain created a Kármán vortex street, which can produce infrasound capable of inducing panic attacks in humans, which could have caused the strange incident.
All of these scenarios are very rational, however, some of the evidence was not. Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the campsite of their own accord, on foot, and their tent had been ripped apart from the inside. The fatal blows to several of the bodies could not have been inflicted by anything with less force than a car crash, and forensic radiation tests showed high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of some of the victims.
Some people believe the incident was a military accident and cover up, as there are records of parachute mines being tested by the Russian military in the area around the same time. Parachute mines detonate a meter or two before they hit the ground, producing similar damage to those experienced by the hikers; heavy internal damage with very little external trauma. Of course, no official documents support this theory, and the official verdict was that the group members all died because of a compelling natural force.
The investigation ceased in May of 1959. From there all files from the case were sent to a secret archive, and locked away for several decades. This was typical procedure in the USSR at the time, and is not as peculiar of an action as some theorists make it sound. All the files from the case were released in some manner, though missing pieces, by the late 1980’s.
However, what was peculiar was the 2014 Discovery Channel special Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, which explored the cryptozoology theory that the Dyatlov group was killed by a Menk or Russian Yeti. Oh, and by the way, the episode found no evidence to prove that the Yeti exists, or that it’s a killer.
What do you think happened to the group in the Dyatlov Pass incident? If Discovery Channel is looking for a Yeti, then no theories are too crazy, I suppose.
When first discovered, WWII was still in full swing, making British authorities fear that the skeletons were of a hidden Japanese invasion force which had fallen victim to the harsh environment. After some investigation, this theory was proven false, but the truth behind the bizarre scene took decades to finally understand.
The remains were not fresh enough to have been enemy soldiers, however, the dry, cold air of the region had preserved flesh, hair, and bones. This meant no one could properly determine exactly what period the remains were from, or what had killed them. There were also wooden artifacts, iron spearheads, leather slippers, and jewelry discovered with the bodies. With over 300 human skeletons in the small valley, theories ranged from epidemic to ritual suicide, but none could be proven indefinitely.
Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit conducted radiocarbon dating on some of the remains, concluding that they dated back to around 850 AD, but how or why they were in the remote location still remained a mystery.
One legend local to the region claimed the remains came from Raja Jasdhaval, the king of Kanauj, and his entourage. It is said that he was traveling with his pregnant wife, Rani Balampa, and was accompanied by servants, a dance troupe, and others on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine, for the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, which takes place every twelve years. During their pilgrimage, a sudden severe storm with extremely large hail stones struck. With nowhere to take shelter, the entire group perished near Roopkund. There is also an ancient and traditional folk song among Himalayan women which describes a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron.” This was only a legend, with no evidence to substantiate it, but more recent investigations actually lend support to the tale.
A 2004 expedition to collect DNA samples revealed that there were two distinct groups of people among the skeletons, one being a family or tribe of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of people who shared genetic properties similar to the local population of the area. These locals had most likely been hired as porters or guides for the foreign group.
Further studies of the skeletons revealed a common trait among both groups, wounds on their heads and shoulders, caused by round objects. Researchers concluded that the victims at Roopkund had perished in a sudden hailstorm, just as described in the local legends and songs.
While there is no definitive evidence proving that the legend and the group are one in the same, it is an intriguing connection. There is no historical evidence of any trade routes in the area around Roopkund, but it is on an important pilgrimage route of the Nanda Devi cult, which makes researchers wonder if it’s in fact related, or just one big coincidence.
Roopkund has become a tourist destination, however, this strange place is covered with ice and snow for most of the year. When it is thawed, you must undertake a 3-4 day trek starting from Gwaldum in Chamoli district to get there by hiking, as there are no roads to its location. Even so, many visitors come each year to witness and investigate the bizarre sight.
Because of the tourism, a growing concern about the regular loss of skeletons has occurred. It is feared that if steps are not taken to conserve them, the skeletons may gradually vanish, as it is reported that tourists have a habit of taking skeletal remains in large numbers. The district magistrate of Chamoli District has recommended that the area be protected, and governmental agencies have since made efforts to develop the area as an eco-tourism destination, to preserve the remainder of the skeletons.
The Mother of Forensic Science
The Mother of Forensic Science
In the early half of the 20th century, police coroners did not have to be medically trained, and crime-scene investigation was minimal. That is, until an elderly Frances Glessner Lee – a woman with an affection for dollhouses and death – explored her interest in how detectives examine clues.
Mrs. Lee was the daughter of an industrialist who became wealthy from International Harvester. She wasn’t allowed to attend college like her brother, but was inspired by one of his classmates – and future chief medical examiner of Suffolk County – George Burgess Magrath. He was studying medicine at Harvard Medical School, particularly death investigation, but Lee herself was emphatically discouraged when she expressed interest in forensic pathology.
After her brother’s death in 1930, she inherited the Harvester fortune, and took her first steps towards her own career at age 52. Having remained friends with Magrath, who had become a chief medical examiner in Boston, she assisted in lobbying to have coroners replaced by medical professionals, which was a huge step forward in promoting forensic science. She also used her fortune to create the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine in 1931, which was the first such department in the country.
Her monetary contributions helped change the field, but it wasn’t her greatest contribution.
Lee created dollhouses as a hobby, and applied her skills to create 20 expertly crafted dioramas of actual crime scenes she had visited; two of which have been lost to time. The series of dioramas is dubbed the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. They were named as such because the purpose of a forensic investigation is said to be to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell”.
She hosted a series of semi-annual seminars in homicide investigation throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, using these dioramas to teach future investigators how to better locate and interpret clues.
The rooms of each diorama are filled with any small details that were present at the real scene, including working mousetraps, rocking chairs, and even lights. Even the corpses accurately represented discoloration and bloating. Twice a year, Lee held a week-long seminar where participants would investigate the scenes for 90 minutes with only the aid of a flashlight and a magnifying glass, in attempts to deduce the details of each murder.
Lee was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943 for her contributions, making her the first woman to join the International Association of Chief of Police. She was also allegedly the inspiration for Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.
After Lee’s death in 1962, the models were acquired by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are on permanent loan. In the 1990’s the dioramas underwent $50,000 in restorations, and are still used for forensic seminars today.
In April of 2012, a documentary film – Of Dolls and Murder – was released, looking at how these intricate dioramas are still used to train homicide detectives, despite all the technological advances in death investigation.
Without this woman’s involvement, who knows how the history behind forensic science may have unfolded. Frances Glessner Lee’s contributions helped shape the future for the field, and continue to teach, and amaze, future generations.
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Soap and Teacakes
Soap and Teacakes
Also known as the “Soap-Maker of Correggio“, Leonarda Cianciulli was an Italian serial killer who murdered three women between 1939 and 1940, turning their bodies into soap and teacakes.
Leonarda Cianciulli was born April 14, 1894 in Montella; a small town in Italy. It is fair to say that she was a distraught youth, as she attempted suicide twice.
Cianciulli and her husband left Montella and moved to the man’s town, Lauria, in 1921. Here, Cianciulli would get her first taste of crime, committing fraud, which landed her in jail in 1927. After serving her sentence, the couple decided to move to Lacedonia, where their home was destroyed by an earthquake in 1930. From here, they moved once more, this time to Correggio.
While living in Correggio, Cianciulli opened a small shop, and became very popular and well-respected within her neighborhood, but was tortured with further hardships. Of her seventeen pregnancies, she suffered three miscarriages, and lost ten of her children in their youth. Eerily, she claimed that a fortune teller had told her that she would marry and have children, but that all of the children would die young.
As if that weren’t terrifying enough, reportedly, Cianciulli also visited a Romani who practiced palm reading, who told her, “In your right hand I see prison, in your left a criminal asylum.”
Though Cianciulli had served time for fraud, she had never placed any ill will toward her neighbors. However, in 1939, she learned that her eldest son of her four surviving children, Giuseppe, was going to join the Italian Army in preparation for World War II. Being overly-protective of her living children, Cianciulli concluded that her son’s safety during the war required human sacrifices. She found her sacrifices in three middle-aged women, who happened to be her neighbors.
Being something of a fortune teller herself, these women all had come to Cianciulli for guidance. She gave each of the women similar advice, telling them to leave the town of Correggio, but none of them ever made their departures.
The first victim, Faustina Setti, had come to Cianciulli for guidance in finding a husband. She was told of a suitable partner in Pola, but was asked to tell no one. Cianciulli persuaded Setti to write letters and postcards to relatives and friends to be mailed when she reached Pola, which were intended to tell Setti’s family that everything was fine once she arrived. But, on the day of her departure, she came to visit Cianciulli one last time, where Cianciulli offered her a glass of drugged wine. She then killed Setti with an ax and dragged her body into a closet. Then she cut the body into nine parts, gathering the blood into a basin.
In her memoir, entitled An Embittered Soul’s Confessions, Cianciulli described the rest of her actions in an official statement:
“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.“
Cianciulli’s second victim, Francesca Soavi, was seeking work when Cianciulli claimed to have found her a job at a school for girls in Piacenza. Soavi was also persuaded to write postcards to be sent to friends, this time from Correggio, detailing her plans to leave for the job. Cianciulli believed these postcards would cover her tracks when Soavi disappeared. On September 5, 1940, before her departure, Soavi came to visit Cianciulli, and she too was given drugged wine and was killed with an ax.
Cianciulli’s final victim was Virginia Cacioppo. She was a former soprano singer, said to have sung at La Scala. She came to Cianciulli for guidance, where she was told about work as the secretary for a mysterious impresario in Florence, and like Cianciulli’s other victims, she was instructed not to tell anyone where she was going.
On 30 September 1940, Cacioppa came to visit Cianciulli one last time before departing, and fell victim to the same pattern as the first two women. However, unlike the first two victims, Cacioppo’s body was not only turned into teacakes, but was melted down to make soap. According to Cianciulli’s statement:
“She ended up in the pot, like the other two…her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”
Cacioppo’s sister-in-law was suspicious of her sudden disappearance. The woman claimed to have last seen Cacioppo entering Cianciulli’s house. Fearful that her sister-in-law had been murdered, she reported her thoughts to the superintendent of police in Reggio Emilia, who opened an investigation. Soon Cianciulli was arrested, immediately confessing to the murders.
Cianciulli was tried for murder in Reggio Emilia in 1946, and remained unrepentant, going so far as to correct the official account while on the stand:
“At her trial in Reggio Emilia last week Poetess Leonarda gripped the witness-stand rail with oddly delicate hands and calmly set the prosecutor right on certain details. Her deep-set dark eyes gleamed with a wild inner pride as she concluded: “I gave the copper ladle, which I used to skim the fat off the kettles, to my country, which was so badly in need of metal during the last days of the war….”
Of course, Cianciulli was found guilty of her crimes, and was sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum. She died of cerebral apoplexy in the women’s criminal asylum in Pozzuoli on October 15, 1970.
Several artifacts from the case, including the pot in which the victims were boiled, are on display at the Criminological Museum in Rome, and several plays have been created mimicking the tale of Cianciulli’s crimes. Love and Magic in Mama’s Kitchen was first produced by Lina Wertmuller at the Spoleto Festival in 1979, and the play began a run on Broadway in 1983.
Leonarda Cianciulli was a twisted individual, yes, but it was her belief that her sacrifices would protect her son that drove her to commit her atrocious crimes. After the loss of thirteen children, her morals were corrupted out of fear. While I cannot condone her actions, I understand why she felt the necessity to perform them. When you believe in something desperately enough, it can cloud your judgement, and lead you to dark paths.
Also, I’ll never look at a tea party quite the same way.
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GIF’s via Giphy