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Weird History

BookTalkBooklist

Weird History
Library BookTalks on Zoom, February 19, 2021
Lane G. (Gere Branch Library)

Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
by George Pendle (B P2485P)

A lonely misfit born into a wealthy Pasadena family, as a boy Parsons read science fiction and launched rockets in his backyard. By his early twenties, he was a leader of Caltech’s “Suicide Squad, ” the motley band of young enthusiasts who founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But his visionary imagination also led him into the occult community thriving in 1930s Los Angeles, and when fantasy’s pull became stronger than reality, he lost both his work and his wife. With a cast of characters that includes Aleister Crowley, Howard Hughes, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein, Theodore von Kármán, and Albert Einstein, this book recovers a fascinating life and explores the unruly consequences of genius.


The Sawbones Book: The Horrifying, Hilarious Road to Modern Medicine
by Sydnee McElroy (610.9 McE)

Wondering whether eating powdered mummies might be just the thing to cure your ills? Tempted by those vintage ads suggesting you wear radioactive underpants for virility? Ever considered drilling a hole in your head to deal with those pesky headaches? Probably not. But for thousands of years, people have done things like this — and things that make radioactive underpants seem downright sensible! In their hit podcast, Sawbones, Sydnee and Justin McElroy breakdown the weird and wonderful way we got to modern healthcare. And some of the terrifying detours along the way. Every week, Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin amaze, amuse, and gross out (depending on the week) hundreds of thousands of avid listeners to their podcast, Sawbones.

Consistently rated a top podcast on iTunes, with over 15 million total downloads, this rollicking journey through thousands of years of medical mishaps and miracles is not only hilarious but downright educational. While you may never even consider applying boiled weasel to your forehead (once the height of sophistication when it came to headache cures), you will almost certainly face some questionable medical advice in your everyday life (we’re looking at you, raw water!) and be better able to figure out if this is a miracle cure (it’s not) or a scam.


The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum (364.152 Blu)

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.


The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime
by Judith Flanders (364.152 Fla)

In this exploration of murder in the nineteenth century, Judith Flanders explores some of the most gripping cases that fascinated the Victorians and gave rise to the first detective fiction. She retells the gruesome stories of many different types of murder — both famous and obscure — from the crimes (and myths) of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper to the tragedies of the murdered Marr family in London’s East End; Burke and Hare and their bodysnatching business in Edinburgh; and Greenacre, who transported his dismembered fiancee around town by omnibus. With an irresistible cast of swindlers, forgers, and poisoners, the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know, The Invention of Murder is both a gripping tale of crime and punishment, and history at its most readable.


The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
by John Vaillant (599.756 Val)

It’s December 1997, and a man-eating Siberian tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random. An absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga.


The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago
by Douglas Perry (364.152 Per)

For intrepid ‘girl reporter’ Maurine Watkins, a minister’s daughter from tiny Crawfordsville, Indiana, big city life offered unimagined excitement. Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking and clothes, but within weeks of starting at the Chicago Tribune, Watkins found herself embroiled in two scandalous sex-fueled murder cases. The first involved Belva Gaertner, the witty, sophisticated millionaire divorcee who feared returning to the poverty of her childhood. Then there was Beulah Annan a Kentucky farm girl turned jazz baby whose wistful beauty obscured an ice-cold narcissism. Both had gunned down their lovers under mysterious circumstances. In Chicago, Watkins learned, the all-male juries didn’t convict women-especially beautiful women. The young reporter was determined to change that.

She mocked ‘Stylish Belva’ and ‘Beautiful Beulah’ on the front page and made them the talk of the town. But the public reaction was not what she expected. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail; newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen ‘murderesses’ preened and strutted in Cook Country Jail as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that wa being lavished on Watkins’s ‘favourites.’ None of these women-nor the police, the reporters, or the public-could imagine the bizarre way it would all end. Douglas Perry vividly captures the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave Chicago its most famous story. Fueled by rich period detail and a cast of characters who seemed destined for the stage. The Girls of Murder City is crackling social history that simultaneously presents the freewheeling spirit of the Jazz Age and its sober repercussions.


Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
by Lawrence Wright (299.936 Wri)

Based on more than two hundred personal interviews with both current and former Scientologists — both famous and less well known — and years of archival research, Lawrence Wright uses his extraordinary investigative skills to uncover for us the inner workings of the Church of Scientology: its origins in the imagination of science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard; its struggles to find acceptance as a legitimate (and legally acknowledged) religion; its vast, secret campaign to infiltrate the U.S. government; its vindictive treatment of critics; its phenomenal wealth; and its dramatic efforts to grow and prevail after the death of Hubbard.


The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
by Kirk Johnson (364.16 Joh)

On a cool June evening in 2009, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist grabbed hundreds of bird skins — some collected 150 years earlier — and escaped into the darkness. Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? This is the gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s relentless pursuit of justice.


Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated a Nation
by Dean Jobb (Biography Koretz)

It was a time of unregulated madness. And nowhere was it madder than in Chicago at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. Speakeasies thrived, gang war shootings announced Al Capone’s rise to underworld domination, Chicago’s corrupt political leaders fraternized with gangsters, and yellow journalism only contributed to the excesses. The frenzy of stock market gambling was rampant. Enter a slick, smooth-talking, charismatic lawyer named Leo Koretz, who enticed hundreds of people (who should have known better) to invest as much as $30 million — upwards of $400 million today — in phantom timberland and nonexistent oil wells in Panama, close to the new Canal Zone.

When Leo’s scheme finally collapsed in 1923, he vanished, and the Chicago state’s attorney, a man whose lust for power equaled Leo’s own lust for money, began an international manhunt that lasted almost a year. When finally apprehended, Leo was living a life of luxury in Nova Scotia under the assumed identity of a book dealer and literary critic. His mysterious death in a Chicago prison topped anything in his almost-too-bizarre-to-believe life. Empire of Deception is not only an incredibly rich and detailed account of a man and an era; it’s a fascinating look at the methods of swindlers throughout history. Leo Koretz was the Bernie Madoff of his day, and in Empire of Deception, Dean Jobb shows us that the dream of easy wealth is a timeless commodity.


Hornswogglers, Fourflushers, & Snake-Oil Salesmen: True Tales of the Old West’s Sleaziest Swindlers
by Matthew Mayo (364.16 May)

Everyone loves a heel, especially one to whom nothing was sacred and who charmed his or her way into the hearts, minds, and wallets of bumpkins and belles alike. Hornswogglers, Fourflushers, & Snake-Oil Salesmen offers dozens of tales of petty bandits, sleazy bunko artists, and conniving conmen (and conwomen!) who traveled West to seek their fortunes by preying on those who went before them to settle and explore. Hornswogglers, Fourflushers, & Snake-Oil Salesmen tells who these nefarious ne’er-do-wells were, what they did, and why they are remembered, and each chapter is illustrated with engaging historic photos and illustrations of the shady characters at work and play. Caution: Lock up your wallet before reading!


My Friend Anna: The True Story of the Fake Heiress Who Conned Me and Half of New York City
by Rachel DeLoache Williams (364.163 Wil)

From a photo editor at Vanity Fair comes the true account of her friendship with “Anna Delvey” — a woman posing as a German heiress who conned her out of $62,000 — and her quest to obtain justice.


The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers,True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch
by Miles Harvey (364.163 Har)

In 1843, James Strang, a charismatic young lawyer and avowed atheist, converted to a burgeoning religious movement known as Mormonism. He persuaded hundreds to follow him to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and declared himself a divine king. He controlled a fourth of the state of Michigan, practiced plural marriages, and established a pirate colony where he perpetrated thefts, corruption and frauds of all kinds. His assassination made front-page news across the country. In The King of Confidence, Harvey tells Strang’s fascinating but largely forgotten story, an account of one of the country’s boldest con men and the boisterous era that allowed him to thrive.


Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park
by Andy Mulvihill (791.068 Mul)

The outlandish, hilarious, terrifying, and almost impossible-to-believe story of the legendary, dangerous amusement park where millions were entertained and almost as many bruises were sustained, told through the eyes of the founder’s son Often called “Accident Park,” “Class Action Park,” or “Traction Park,” Action Park was an American icon. Entertaining more than a million people a year in the 1980s, the New Jersey-based amusement playland placed no limits on danger or fun, a monument to the anything-goes spirit of the era that left guests in control of their own adventures — sometimes with tragic results. Though it closed its doors in 1996 after nearly twenty years, it has remained a subject of constant fascination ever since, an establishment completely anathema to our modern culture of rules and safety. Action Park is the first-ever unvarnished look at the history of this DIY Disneyland, as seen through the eyes of Andy Mulvihill, the son of the park’s idiosyncratic founder, Gene Mulvihill. From his early days testing precarious rides to working his way up to chief lifeguard of the infamous Wave Pool to later helping run the whole park, Andy’s story is equal parts hilarious and moving, chronicling the life and death of a uniquely American attraction, a wet and wild 1980s adolescence, and a son’s struggle to understand his father’s quixotic quest to become the Walt Disney of New Jersey. Packing in all of the excitement of a day at Action Park, this is destined to be one of the most unforgettable memoirs of the year.


The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal
by Hubert Wolf (271.9 Wol)

In 1858, a German princess, recently inducted into the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome, wrote a frantic letter to her cousin, a confidant of the Pope, claiming that she was being abused and feared for her life. The subsequent investigation by the Church’s Inquisition uncovered illicit behavior of the convent’s beautiful young mistress, Maria Luisa. Having convinced those under her charge that she was having regular visions and heavenly visitations, Maria Luisa began to lead and coerce her novices into lesbian initiation rites and heresies. What emerges through the fog of centuries is a sex scandal of ecclesiastical significance.


The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird
by Joshua Hammer (364.162 Ham)

On May 3, 2010, Irish national Jeffrey Lendrum was apprehended at Britain’s Birmingham International Airport with a suspicious parcel strapped to his stomach. Inside were fourteen rare peregrine falcon eggs snatched from a remote cliffside in Wales. Hammer follows the parallel lives of a globe-trotting smuggler who spent two decades capturing endangered raptors worth millions of dollars as race champions, and Detective Andy McWilliam of the United Kingdom’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, who is hell bent on protecting the world’s birds of prey. It’s a story that’s part true-crime narrative, part epic adventure — and wholly un-put-downable.


The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy
by Paige Williams (560.75 Wil)

In 2012, a New York auction catalogue made an unusual offering: “a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton.” In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar, a close cousin to T. rex, the most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in Manhattan had been unearthed in Mongolia, some 6,000 miles away. At 8 feet high and 24 feet long, the specimen was spectacular, and the final gavel signaled a winning bid of well over $1 million. Eric Prokopi, a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A onetime swimmer who spent his teenage years searching for shark teeth, Prokopi’s singular obsession with fossils generated a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens, to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But there was a problem. This time, facing financial strain, had Prokopi gone too far?

As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. As an international custody battle ensued, fueled by geopolitics, Prokopi watched as his own world unraveled. In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans’ relationship with natural history and a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida’s Land O’ Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting–a wildly popular, yet sometimes murky, risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur. In The Dinosaur Artist, her first book, writer Paige Williams has given readers an irresistible story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she examines the question of who, ultimately, owns the past.


The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets
by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (364.131 Bha)

The thrilling, true-life account of the FBI’s hunt for the ingenious traitor Brian Regan–known as The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell. Before Edward Snowden’s infamous data breach, the largest theft of government secrets was committed by an ingenious traitor whose intricate espionage scheme and complex system of coded messages were made even more baffling by his dyslexia. His name is Brian Regan, but he came to be known as The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell. In December of 2000, FBI Special Agent Steven Carr of the bureau’s Washington, D.C., office received a package from FBI New York: a series of coded letters from an anonymous sender to the Libyan consulate, offering to sell classified United States intelligence. The offer, and the threat, were all too real. A self-proclaimed CIA analyst with top secret clearance had information about U.S. reconnaissance satellites, air defense systems, weapons depots, munitions factories, and underground bunkers throughout the Middle East. Rooting out the traitor would not be easy, but certain clues suggested a government agent with a military background, a family, and a dire need for money. Leading a diligent team of investigators and code breakers, Carr spent years hunting down a dangerous spy and his cache of stolen secrets. In this fast-paced true-life spy thriller, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reveals how the FBI unraveled Regan’s strange web of codes to build a case against a man who nearly collapsed America’s military security.


The Last Job: The “Bad Grandpas” and the Hatton Garden Heist
by Dan Bilefsky (364.162 Bil)

Over Easter weekend 2015, a motley crew of six English thieves, several in their sixties and seventies, couldn’t resist coming out of retirement for one last career-topping heist. Their target: the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit, in the heart of London’s medieval diamond district. “The Firm” included Brian Reader, ringleader and legend in his own mind; Terry Perkins, a tough-as-nails career criminal but also a frail diabetic; Danny Jones, a fitness freak, crime enthusiast, and fabulist; Carl Wood, an extra pair of hands, and definitely more brawn than brains; John “Kenny” Collins, getaway driver, prone to falling asleep on the job; and the mysterious Basil, a red-wigged associate who has only now been identified.

Perhaps not the smoothest of criminals — one took a public bus to the scene of the crime; another read Forensics for Dummies in hopes he would learn how to avoid getting caught–they planned the job over fish and chips at their favorite pubs. They were cantankerous and coarse, dubbed the “Bad Grandpas” by British tabloids, and were often as likely to complain about one another as the current state of the country. Still, these analog thieves in a digital age managed to disable a high-security alarm system and drill through twenty inches of reinforced concrete, walking away with a stunning haul of at least $19 million in jewels, gold, diamonds, family heirlooms, and cash. Veteran reporter and former London correspondent for the New York Times Dan Bilefsky draws on unrivaled access to the leading officers on the case at the Flying Squad, the legendary Scotland Yard unit that hunted the gang, as well as notorious criminals from London’s shadowy underworld, to offer a gripping account of how these unassuming criminal masterminds nearly pulled off one of the great heists of the century.


The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
by Benjamin Wallace (641.22 Wal)

In 1985 a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson was sold for the sum of $156,000. Benjamin Wallace goes on the trail of this most expensive of wines, and meets along the way Nazis, conspiracies and millionaires.


Jay’s Journal of Anomalies: Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Impostors, Pretenders, Sideshow Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments
by Rick Jay (364.163 qJay)

A dazzling tour through the world of singular entertainers, con men, and unusual phenomena. For the past four years, the multitalented Ricky Jay (sleight-of-hand artist, author, actor, film consultant, and scholar of the unusual) has published a unique and beautifully designed quarterly called Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. Already a coveted collector’s item, the complete set is gathered here for the first time. A brilliant excursion into the history of bizarre entertainments, the journal covered such subjects as dogs stealing acts from other dogs, an anthropological hoax involving the only survivors of a caste of ancient Aztec priests, and the ultimate diet: ingesting only air. In a delectably deadpan and winning style, Jay conveys his admiration and affection for the offbeat that characterized his bestselling Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. He explains how wags since the sixteenth century have cheated at bowling; he explores the ancient relationship between conjuring and dentistry; and he chronicles the exploits of ceiling walkers and human flies. Crammed full of illustrations drawn from the author’s massive personal archive, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies will baffle, instruct, and, above all, delight.