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I Got a Plush Megacolon for my Birthday

A fuzzy, lovable version of the giant, diseased megacolon specimen on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.
Plush megacolon from the Mutter Museum gift shop
I Heart Guts: Plush Megacolon from the Mutter Museum

Last week was my birthday, which luckily happened to coincide with my sister spending a few days in Philadelphia on business. I am developing an obnoxious habit of hijacking her trips for Cult of Weird content, but in this case I didn’t have to say a word – she was already planning to visit the Mutter Museum while she was in town.

Lowly web lackeys like myself can’t afford to do things like travel, so while the Mutter has always been on my bucket list, the closest I’ll probably ever get is reading about it. But that bleak reality was softened a bit yesterday when I checked the mail and found a plush megacolon from the Mutter gift shop!

Obviously I have the best sister in the world.

But what the hell is a megacolon, you ask? The answer is equal parts fascinating and horrifying: It is an unnaturally large segment of dried and stuffed intestine on display at the Mutter Museum that belonged to a man who died of the disease in 1892.

Here’s what the museum has to say about their specimen:

This colon belonged to a 29-year-old man who had complained of constipation for most of his life. The condition he endured is known as congenital aganglionic megacolon, or Hirschsprung’s disease. It occurs when nerves to part of the colon fail to develop and making it difficult for waste to move to the rectum (aganglionic means “without nerve cells”).

This man was a normal infant up to the age of 18 months, with the exception of a rather large abdomen, coupled with some irregularity of bowels and some constipation. His condition progressed, with the severity of the constipation increasing along with the size of his abdomen. By the age of 16 he would go up to a month at a time without any bowel movements. At 20 he was exhibited at a dime museum as the “Wind Bag” or “Balloon Man.”

During this man’s lifetime, doctors knew that his ailment was not a tumor but rather a defective colon. Surgery to identify and fix the cause would have been extremely risky. He ultimately died of the condition, and was found dead in a bathroom where he was attempting to pass waste.

In Hirschsprung’s disease, only a small section of the colon is usually affected, but the body is unable to transfer normal amounts of waste to any point below the affected section. Chronic constipation ensues. This condition occurs in 1 out of every 5000 to 8000 births. However, today, it is usually identified soon after birth as the baby will have a distended bowel. It is easily corrected with minor surgery in which the affected portion of the bowel is removed and the “good ends” are sewn together.

Plush megacolon from the Mutter Museum

Megacolons are adorable.

3 Strange Cases of Missing Brains

What do the brains of Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and deceased patients of the Texas state mental hospital have in common?
Brains of famous people missing

Brains on the side of the road? Residents of a village in New York were alarmed to discover nine brains along the street last week. An examination by a veterinarian determined the brains were most likely those of dogs or sheep, and noted that one had been professionally preserved in formaldehyde.

According to the report, “Mishaps with preserved brains are not uncommon.

I’m sure many of you in the Cult of Weird community would agree that a spectacularly abnormal brain in a jar, or one whose neurons once fired inside the skull of a famous person, would make a great addition to the collection. But beyond that, what if you had access to a brain that could change our understanding of human consciousness? Or alter the course of world events?

Einstein’s Brain Stolen During Autopsy

Vintage photo of Einstein's brain from 1955
Einstein’s brain

If you had the opportunity to find out what made Einstein so special, could you pass it up? Pathologist Thomas Harvey decided he could not.

Harvey just happened to be on call at Princeton Hospital on April 18th, 1955 when the Nobel prize-winning physicist passed away. Einstein wanted his body cremated and scattered in a secret location. When Harvey found himself alone in the morgue with the opportunity to find out what made the genius tick, however, he decided he could not let that happen.

So Harvey stole Einstein’s brain.

He eventually obtained permission to keep it and study it, determining that it was indeed not normal.

Slices of it can be seen at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

Brains Missing from the University of Texas

Smooth brain specimen from Malformed
Smooth brain specimen from the University of Texas collection. Photo by Adam Voorhees.

The University of Texas State Mental Hospital was home to an extremely rare collection of unusual brains taken from deceased patients of the Austin State Hospital, formerly the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, as far back as the 1950s. When Adam Voorhees and Alex Hannaford began documenting the collection for their book Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, they discovered many of the specimens were missing.

The university eventually released a statement that the missing brains were destroyed in 2002 during a routine disposal of biological waste.

JFK’s Missing Brain

Bullet fragments seen in x-ray of John F. Kennedy's brain
X-ray shows bullet fragments in JFK’s brain

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. During the autopsy, his damaged brain was removed and stored in the National Archives. In 1966, it was discovered that Kennedy’s brain was missing. No one knows where it went, why it was taken, or the whereabouts of the organ today.

The fate of JFK’s brain remains a mystery.

Weird Book Club Recommended Reading

Most Popular Weird Books of 2014

Taxidermy, cryptids, crematoriums and grotesque medical history: The Cult of Weird community rounds up the best weird books of 2014.
Best weird books of the year

This year I learned that the Cult of Weird community loves a good, macabre book as much as I do, which helped tremendously when it came time to gather suggestions for the Fall reading list.

This year Cult contributor J. Nathan Couch’s search for the elusive Goatman hit the shelves, along with mortician Caitlin Doughty’s tales from the crematory and Robert Marbury’s quintessential guide to taxidermy art.

Here are the top 10 books most sought after by the Cult in 2014:

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtySmoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

BUY IT

Taxidermy Art: A Rogue's Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It YourselfTaxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself

In this collection of taxidermy art, you’ll find a winged monkey with a fez and a martini glass, a jewel-encrusted piglet, a bionic fawn, and a polar bear balancing on a floating refrigerator. Author Robert Marbury makes for a friendly (and often funny) guide, addressing the three big questions people have about taxidermy art: What is it all about? Can I see some examples? and How can I make my own? He takes readers through a brief history of taxidermy (and what sets artistic taxidermy apart) and presents stunning pieces from the most influential artists in the field. Rounding out the book are illustrated how-to lessons to get readers started on their own work, with sources for taxidermy materials and resources for the budding taxidermist.

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Mutter Museum Historic Medical PhotographsMutter Museum Historic Medical Photographs

The first book on the Mutter Museum contains artful images of the museum’s fascinating exhibits shot by contemporary fine art photographers. Here, the focus is on the museum’s archive of rare historic photographs, most of which have never been seen by the public. Featured are poignant, aesthetically accomplished works ranging from Civil War photographs showing injury and recovery, to the ravages of diseases not yet conquered in the 19th century, to pathological anomalies, to psychological disorders. Many were taken by talented photographers between the 1860s and the 1940s as records for physicians to share among colleagues and to track patients’ conditions, and demonstrate various techniques used in medical photography including the daguerreotype, micrography, X ray, and traditional portrait-style photography. As visual documents of what humans endured in the face of limited medical knowledge, these extraordinary and haunting photographs demonstrate how far medicine has advanced.

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Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the CatacombsHeavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies.

In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as “the catacomb saints,” were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death.

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Rest in Pieces by Bess LovejoyRest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

In the long run, we’re all dead. But for some of the most influential figures in history, death marked the start of a new adventure. The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated, and even filed away in a lawyer’s office. Their fingers, teeth, toes, arms, legs, skulls, hearts, lungs, and nether regions have embarked on voyages that crisscross the globe and stretch the imagination. Counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s corpse. Einstein’s brain went on a cross-country road trip. And after Lord Horatio Nelson perished at Trafalgar, his sailors submerged him in brandy—which they drank. From Mozart to Hitler, Rest in Pieces connects the lives of the famous dead to the hilarious and horrifying adventures of their corpses, and traces the evolution of cultural attitudes toward death.

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Explore the legends and sightings of Goatman in the new book by J. Nathan CouchGoatman: Flesh or Folklore?

Legend says that all across America, a monster lives in the darkness. It lurks on the boundaries of suburbia mere miles from our homes. Huge, foul-smelling, and murderous, it has many regional names but most people refer to the creature by a simple, straightforward name – Goatman. Join author J. Nathan Couch as he explores the Goatman legends and sightings in search of the bizarre creature’s origins.

Named Best Weird Cryptid Book of 2014 by International Cryptozoology Museum founder Loren Coleman!

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Cabinets of WonderCabinets of Wonder

Skulls, butterflies, hunting trophies, ancient Egyptian artifacts, the alleged skeletons of mythological creatures, and many other mysterious oddities fill cabinets of wonder. A centuries-old tradition developed in Europe during the Renaissance, cabinets of wonder (also known as curiosity cabinets) are once again in fashion. Shops, restaurants, and private residences echo these cabinets in their interior design, by making use of the eclectic vintage objects commonly featured in such collections. Cabinets of Wonder showcases exceptional collections in homes and museums, with more than 180 photographs, while also explaining the history behind the tradition, the best-known collections, and the types of objects typically displayed. Offering both a historical overview and a look into contemporary interior design, this extravagantly illustrated book celebrates the wonderfully odd world of cabinets of wonder.

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Stop Worrying There Probably is an AfterlifeStop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife

Did Steve Jobs have a vision of the afterlife on his death-bed? Does quantum physics suggest that our mind might survive the physical death of our body? How do some near-death experiencers ‘see’ outside of their bodies at a time when they are supposed to be dead? In ‘Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife’, author Greg Taylor covers all these questions and more. From Victorian seance rooms through to modern scientific laboratories, Taylor surveys the fascinating history of research into the survival of human consciousness, and returns with a stunning conclusion: that maybe we should stop worrying so much about death, because there probably is an afterlife.

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Walter Potter's Curious World of TaxidermyWalter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

Welcome to Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s fantasy world of rabbit schoolchildren, cigar-smoking squirrels and exemplary feline etiquette in Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. Walter Potter (1835–1918), a British country taxidermist of no great expertise, built anthropomorphic taxidermy tableaux that became famous icons of Victorian whimsy, including his masterpiece The Death & Burial of Cock Robin. His tiny museum in Bramber, Sussex, was crammed full of multi-legged kittens, two-headed lambs, and a bewildering assortment of curios. Potter’s inspired and beguiling tableaux found many fans in the contemporary art world: it was reported that a £1M bid by Damien Hirst to keep the collection intact was refused when the museum finally closed. Here, perhaps for the last time, many important pieces from the collection are showcased and celebrated with new photographs of Potter’s best-loved works. Darkly witty and affecting, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy makes a charming, whimsical (and yes, slightly morbid) gift.

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Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930

From the advent of photography in the 19th and into the 20th century, medical students, often in secrecy, took photographs of themselves with the cadavers that they dissected: their first patients. Featuring 138 of these historic photographs and illuminating essays by two experts on the subject, Dissection reveals a startling piece of American history. Sherwin Nuland, MD, said this is “a truly unique and important book [that] documents a period in medical education in a way that is matched by no other existing contribution.” And Mary Roach said Dissection “is the most extraordinary book I have ever seen–the perfect coffee table book for all the households where I’d most like to be invited for coffee.”

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What books are you looking forward to reading in 2015?

Cult of Weird Fall Reading List

Autumn has arrived, and Halloween is just around the corner. This is the perfect time to kick back with something pumpkin spice flavored and pick up a good book about the weird, obscure and downright disturbing.

I had a few books in mind that needed to be included on this list, but most of these recommendations straight from the Cult sound like fascinating reads I had not even heard of.

More:

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitin Doughty
Mortician Caitlin Doughty (of the Ask a Mortician web series and The Order of the Good Death) reveals the grim and fascinating details of cremation and her experiences in the industry of death.

Available right here.

Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch

Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch
Cult contributor J. Nathan Couch tries to separate fact from fiction as he explores legends of the vile and murderous Goatman creature from across America.

Available right here.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is a story about a family of carnies who used poisons, chemicals and drugs to breed their own human oddities for their freak show.

Available right here.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Available right here.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Riggs weaves a fascinating tale about children with strange abilities and the monsters who want to eat them, supported by weird vintage found photos.

Available right here.

Taxidermy Art by Robert Marbury

Taxidermy Art rogue guide by Robert Marbury
Whether you are an aspiring taxidermist or just love the art form, this book is for you. Taxidermy Art is a guide to the culture of rogue taxidermy and the artists who work tirelessly to bring taxidermy out of the dusty shelves of natural history museums into the spotlights of modern art. The book also includes lessons and resources to help you get started.

Available right here.

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk
Rant is a twisted vision of the future marked by a plague of rabies and recreational car crashing. This is the oral biography of the strange life and spectacular death of Buster Casey full of the witty and jaded nihilism you expect from Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.

Available right here.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Terror by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons tells a fictional story based on the true events leading to the loss of 129 men to madness and cannibalism on the doomed Franklin Expedition in 1845.

Available right here.

Satan Wants Me by Robert Irwin

Satan Wants Me by Robert Irwin
Sex, drugs and devil worship in 1960s London.

Available right here.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Dr. Mutter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
A biography of Thomas Dent Mütter, the Philadelphia doctor who revolutionized surgery through the use of ether as anesthesia and the sterilization of surgical tools. In 1858, his collection of medical oddities and anatomical specimens became the foundation of the Mutter Museum.

Available right here.

Did I miss a weird or macabre book that is perfect for fall reading?
Let me know in the comments below.

Death: 10 Macabre and Fascinating Books

I embarked on a mission to create a simple list of “weird” books that would look great (and possibly frighten guests) on your coffee table. Instead I accidentally assembled a rather profound exploration of humanity’s most primal anxiety: death.

As far as anyone can tell, no one has ever actually lived forever, be it physically or spiritually. However, that does not end our tireless efforts to keep death at bay, or the eternal struggle to accept our seemingly inescapable fates.

These books delve into the science of immortality and the veneration of death, a macabre look at the dark side that exists in the desperate pursuit of life.

Related

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris
Author Paul Koudounaris uncovers the bizarre history of Europe’s exquisitely jeweled catacomb saints, remains thought to be of early Christian martyrs unearthed in the labyrinthine tombs discovered beneath Rome in 1578. After the Protestant Reformation lead to the destruction of holy relics, the bones were reassembled, decorated lavishly and put on display.

Get Heavenly Bodies right here.

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy
Walter Potter was a Victorian taxidermist who crafted whimsical scenes with kittens, birds and other critters from the English countryside. For years his collection drew visitors from all over the world, until it was auctioned in 2003 and scattered. This book may be the only way the collection will ever be seen together again.

Get Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy right here.

Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife

Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife by Greg Taylor of The Daily Grail
I have long been a follower of Greg Taylor’s work over at The Daily Grail. In his new book, he explores the history of research into the survival of human consciousness, from the beliefs of Victorian spiritualists to cutting-edge scientific studies.

Stop worrying now by grabbing your copy of the book right here.

Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses book by Bess Lovejoy
Sometimes death is only the beginning. Author Bess Lovejoy crafted a fascinating book tracing the true adventures of historical celebrities, or at least pieces of them, after they met their various fates.

Get Rest in Pieces right here.

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life Adventures in Taxidermy book by Melissa Milgrom
Melissa Milgrom digs into the often misunderstood world of taxidermy, going into the workshops where the art is made, where museum dioramas come to blow the dust off the old stigmas.

Get Still Life right here.

Mütter Museum Historic Medical Photographs

Mutter Museum Historical Medical Photographs book
Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum is home to a macabre collection of human oddities and medical anomalies. This book showcases photos from the collection depicting Civil War medicine, ravaging diseases, deformities and psychological disorders.

Get your copy right here.

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930
This book is a window into early American medicine, documenting the rite of cadaver dissection for medical students. These photos pierce the veil, allowing a rare glimpse into the highly exclusive inner sanctum where men cut into dead bodies on bloody tables to learn how to heal the living.

Start dissecting right here.

The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever

The Book of Immortality by Adam Leith Gollner
I haven’t had the opportunity to read this yet, but an excerpt about author Adam Leith Gollner’s journey to David Copperfield’s private island, where the magician claims to have discovered a fountain of youth, definitely caught my attention.

Discover the secrets of immortality right here.

Cabinets of Curiosities

Cabinets of Curiosities book
Cabinets of curiosities began as rooms of wonder or wunderkammer, amazing collections of weird and rare natural history relics, religious artifacts and works of art assembled by intellectuals and royalty.

Get Cabinets of Curiosities right here.

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses

Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
The first offering from Paul Koudounaris, the photos in this book explore the religious sanctuaries where death was put on display – enormous ossuaries decorated with human bones across the globe.

Get Empire of Death here.