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History of Autism/ Tales of the Bizarre

Date Monday - August 24, 2015
Host George Noory
Guests Steve SilbermanMarc Hartzman

In the first half, science writer Steve Silberman discussed the history of autism, and his work challenging some of the presumptions about the condition. Today, estimates are that 1 in 68 American kids have some form of autism, which suggests that we're in the midst of a kind of epidemic. But Silberman points out that the diagnosis may have been under-reported or narrowly defined in previous decades, and wasn't as rare as psychiatrists thought at the time. In the 1970s, parents were actually blamed for the problem, and were advised to permanently place their children in institutions and psychiatric facilities, he recounted.

No two autistic people are alike but they often share certain traits such as being extremely interested in very specific topics or activities, lack of eye contact, chronic anxiety, and clapping their hands as a way to regulate their energy, he detailed. Silberman revealed that Dr. Hans Asperger was the first to describe the autism spectrum, a decade before child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who is sometimes credited with creating the diagnosis in the 1940s. Silberman is not convinced that vaccines play a role in the rise of autism, and suggested that the cause may be an interplay of genetics and environmental factors in the womb-- such as an overabundance of the hormone testosterone. He also noted that a contributing factor in autism might be that older fathers carry more mutations in their sperm, and parents are now having kids later in life.

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One of America's leading connoisseurs of the bizarre, Marc Hartzman, was heavily influenced at an early age by Ripley's Believe It Or Not and the annual Guinness World Record books. In addition to discussing weird things on eBay, and sideshow performers, Hartzman covered his latest work researching the extremely strange history of Oliver Cromwell's embalmed head, which for centuries enjoyed a series of unexpected adventures. Cromwell, who instigated the beheading of King Charles in 1649, died of natural causes in 1658, but was exhumed by King Charles II three years later, and beheaded posthumously. In his book (view musical trailer), Hartzman writes from the point of view of Cromwell's disembodied head, imagining various meetings with real historical figures such as the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, before he was finally buried in 1960 at Cambridge.

Citing some of the most remarkable sideshow performers, Hartzman named Laloo, who had an unborn parasitic twin jutting out from his chest area. One of the promoters dressed the twin as a girl, to present the two as a brother and sister. Another favorite, Johnny Eck, a living half-man with no legs, had a normal twin brother, and the two were used to great effect in a magician's saw-a-person-in-half trick. Hartzman shared that one of the strangest and funniest things he discovered for sale on Ebay was a paperweight made out of moose poop.

News segment guests: Mish Shedlock, Dr. Gary Ridenour

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William Mumler: The Man Who Claimed to Photograph Spirits

William Mumler: The Man Who Claimed to Photograph Spirits

Among America's oddest purveyors of the unknown was William Mumler who was purported to take photographs of the dead, Marc Hartzman, author of "American Sideshow," told C2C on 8/24/15. Mumler, a former jeweler, began his checkered career in the late 1880s. An amateur photographer, Mumler’s first spirit photograph was a self-portrait – one in which the apparition of his cousin appeared next to him on the developed plate. The cousin had been dead for 12 years. Shortly thereafter, Mumler became a full-time spirit photographer, and his work became a sensation.

Among Mumler’s most famous photographs was one of newly-widowed Mary Todd Lincoln which showed the apparent shade of her assassinated husband, Abraham Lincoln, hovering behind her (center image). Another famed ghost-photo was of Master Herrod, a Massachusetts medium (right). Hartzman said that Mumler claimed to "have no idea how he was doing this" and back then "there were no existing photographs of a dead child or loved one" to discover and then drop into the portrait behind them. But people swore upon seeing Mumler’s work that it was indeed their dearly departed somehow brought back from the other side.

Mumler was challenged to take similar photographs in different conditions. Using his own camera he took a photograph but developed it at a critic’s lab. When Mumler was able to produce a spirit-photograph, his detractor was silenced. But as Mumler’s career flourished so did the number of questions. The great impresario, P.T. Barnum and others believed that the spirit-photographer was capitalizing on easy prey -- people whose judgment had been clouded by grief.

In April 1869, Mumler was brought to trial for fraud. The great showman Barnum himself testified against Mumler. He hired a professional photographer to produce a spirit-portrait, who did so quite easily by double exposing the film negative. Though he was acquitted, Mumler’s career was over – a brief footnote in the annals of the bizarre. For more from the fascinating interview with Marc Hartzman, which includes details about famous freaks like Johnny Eck, and the post-mortem odyssey of Oliver Cromwell’s head, listen to the 8/24/15 show in its entirety. Not yet a Coast Insider? Sign up here.

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