Saturday, August 20, 2011

Remarks Prepared For The Inaugural Launch Of The Mississippi Megalops: Cadmus, The Great Blooming Void, And The Last Performance Of A Celebrated Castrato

In 1929, fringe historian Rolston Geary wrote in his obscure masterpiece, Utsaht Ushipi ("River of Rats"): "The Mississippi of the latter half of the 19th century was an agent of profound and dubious change, a sort of liquid conveyor belt that ceaselessly carried all manner of vice, decadence, debased culture, and quackery north from places where such commodities had been hatched in a hothouse of guile and gullibility."

As the history I wish to recount today commences, our nation was just beginning its long recovery from the Civil War; it had been barely two months since General Robert E. Lee had presented the Confederacy's surrender at Appomattox. With the tenuous peace, the Mississippi River was a throbbing superhighway running up and down the heart of the country, and all manner of humanity was making its way north and west in search of a new start or simply returning home.

St. Louis was a bustling staging ground for refugees and pilgrims fleeing the ravages of the war. At the same time the northern reaches of the river had been a relatively placid refuge during the war years, and its populace had been for the most part distant spectators throughout the conflict, even as tens of thousands of Union soldiers had trained at Fort Snelling and fought at Gettysburg and other pivotal battles of the war.

In early May of 1865, the McKinley Morganfield, a steamboat making its maiden voyage, embarked from St. Louis bound for St. Paul. Among the passengers on the boat was a consumptive castrato from Italy, Marcello Salvatorri. Salvatorri was at the time one of a handful of surviving castrati in Europe --along with the legendary Alessandro Moreschi, Domenico Mustafa, and Girolamo Velvutti-- and was well past his prime. Once, though, he had been known as "The Angel of Perugia" and had been a minor celebrity in Europe, where in 18th century Italy one could still routinely find signs outside the offices of doctors bearing the words, Qui Si Castrano Ragazzi --"Here boys are castrated."

For at least a decade, however, Salvatorri's increasingly rare performances had been primarily spectacles of mere curiosity and even pity. A review of one of his last European performances had referred to his voice as "a ruin, the feeble skreeing of a doomed animal."

Salvatorri's trip to America --billed as the "The Grand Tour of a Celebrated Castrato"-- was sponsored by a utopian community on the outskirts of a disreputable hamlet then called Cadmus, which had been thrown up downstream from St. Paul in the early years of the Civil War.

Cadmus was home to an adjunct military garrison to nearby Fort Snelling, as well as a trading post, a collection of motley merchants, the hovels of river men, a handful of unruly saloons, a busy boat landing, and --on its eastern fringe-- the Reverend Hosiah Hungwell's visionary encampment, The Great Blooming Void. The Great Blooming Void was characterized by the relative youth of its members, and espoused a mish mash of spiritual, philosophical, and psychological notions that incorporated the most attenuated tenets of both romanticism and the Enlightenment. Hungwell's acolytes were an eccentric and eclectic group; some were attracted by the promise of naturism and free love, others by the group's avowed pacifism and the Reverend's queer brand of futurism; still others by the opportunities for artistic expression and philosophical and scientific inquiry.

Hungwell had invented a "Dream Cradle," and his adherents utilized several different variants of this invention to stimulate dreams and visions. Hungwell was said to spend upwards of 16 hours a day in his own, specially customized Cradle, and he emerged from one such session with a vision of creating a new renaissance of castrati in America, which he called "a species of pure artists and laborers, keepers of mankind's purest dreams." This vision became the Reverend's latest pet obsession, and he began to make plans to bring a castrato from Europe to perform at the Great Blooming Void's annual "Summer of Love" festival, with the goal of raising public awareness and support for his campaign.

Through eastern connections Hungwell managed to find his man, and to arrange his passage from Europe.

That spring, though, the village of Cadmus was dealing with an unprecedented infestation of rats. In late March the river had washed tens of thousands of rats downstream, and scores of these sodden vermin had managed to scramble ashore at the Cadmus boat landing and lay siege to the already squalid community.

One local diarist of the period wrote that "one cannot walk the streets unmolested by the creatures. It is not uncommon to encounter them in packs of several hundred, and they are aggressive and will swarm anything that sits still for too long."

There was not, alas, yet a printed organ for news in Cadmus, but one can find several brief dispatches from the St. Paul Sentinel's archives that make mention of the rat problem in Cadmus and fret about growing concerns that the capital city might itself be overrun as well.

In the first week of May, the Cadmus garrison commander, Erling Pike, in consultation with Governor Alexander Ramsey, took the unusual step of offering a bounty on rats; the bursar at the garrison was authorized to pay two cents for every dead rat. A giant pyre was built on the banks of the river, and for at least two weeks, according to the garrison's logbooks, there was a steady procession along the road to the fort, as residents hauled dead rats by the bag and barrow full. Once the bounty was paid, the rats were added to the pyre.

Rat catching mania had taken hold of Cadmus, and drunken, cudgel-wielding vermin vigilantes roamed the streets at all hours of the day and night, clubbing and stomping rats. Local urchins were, as might be imagined, also zealous participants in the slaughter of the rats.

A man named Gustave Moeller, a trapper and fisherman, lived in a heavily secured camp on the western edge of Cadmus, on a little hill overlooking the village. He did not consider himself foolhardy enough to join in the local rat frenzy. He did, though, regard himself as nothing if not an opportunist, and he captured a number of rats in live traps and constructed several large, hooded enclosures in which he systematically began to breed the creatures.

Also aboard the McKinley Morganfield as it began its maiden voyage out of St. Louis was Dr. Gabriel Kaplan, a graduate of the Harvard School of Dentistry, who was making his way west in search of adventure and dental emergencies. Kaplan was an inebriate and a hothead. He had lasted just six months in a Washington dental practice before fleeing that city after shooting a man over an ill-advised horse trade.

By most accounts, Kaplan was a thoroughly incompetent dentist, but in those days even a competent dentist needed to be prepared to defend himself. The tools and techniques of the trade were unsophisticated at best, and unhappy patients, who were often the victims of incredible and horrific incidents of malpractice, frequently resorted to violent acts of retribution.

Doc Holliday, the famed dentist, gambler, and gunslinger, was not an anomalous representative of his trade. On the frontier, it has been alleged, dentists routinely killed more men than federal marshals.

Meanwhile, the broke-down European gelding, Salvatorri, had been further debilitated by the long and arduous journey from Europe to St. Louis, and his condition aboard the Morganfield worsened.

A physician in St. Louis had pronounced the castrato in very poor health, and opined that further travels were likely ill-advised. Nonetheless, the promoter who was accompanying him, a man from Boston by the name of Erich Blount, was determined to get his charge to Cadmus, and so Salvatorri was hauled aboard the steamship by crew members.

Less than a day into the journey Salvatorri developed a terrible toothache. The dentist, Gabriel Kaplan, who had spent his time aboard the boat playing cards and drinking to excess, was summoned. He refused to see the castrato until he was paid up front for his services. A disagreement ensued between the incompetent dentist and the unscrupulous promoter. Despite the promoter's claims (surely exaggerated) of the suffering patient's wide celebrity, Kaplan had no interest in providing pro bono services for Salvatorri. In fact, Kaplan argued, Blount’s claims were all the more reason he should be paid an inflated fee for services rendered.

Kaplan purportedly brandished his gun, placed the barrel squarely in the greasy middle of the promoter's forehead, and demanded payment. By this means, payment was secured, after which Kaplan proceeded to ply the diminished castrato with large quantities of whiskey and then remove the offending tooth and two others for good measure.

As the McKinley Morganfield steamed north toward Cadmus, Gustave Moeller's rat-breeding operation was exploding, and he began to make as many as five trips a day to the garrison, leading a horse-drawn wagon heaped with rats, many of them no more than a week or two old.

These visits immediately aroused suspicion; no one had seen Moeller in Cadmus proper recently, or could recall witnessing his participation in the public revels surrounding the wholesale slaughter of rats. There had also been, by the time Moeller began making his regular trips to the garrison, a marked and widely noted decrease in the local rat population. The rats, in fact, had become quite scarce, and the flow of bounty hunters to the garrison had slowed to a trickle.

Moeller was making a very good living off of his operation; indeed, after only three weeks he had already received more money from the allotted bounty funds than all of the other rat catchers combined.

A meeting was convened at the garrison, and someone eventually broached the previously unthinkable: was it possible this odd fellow was actually running some sort of rat production out of his fortified camp?  A delegation of soldiers was to be dispatched on a mission of discovery the following morning.

Moeller, however, had had for several days the sense that the jig was up. He had managed to stockpile a snug boodle of cash, and had long been planning to join the steady exodus of settlers headed west. No one seems to be quite certain what became of Moeller, but the details of the mission of discovery are noted in terse detail in the garrison's surviving logbooks: the next morning the delegation arrived at Moeller's compound to find the man gone. Worse yet, he had performed the dastardly deed of liberating his rats, and the soldiers were confronted by the ghastly spectacle of what appeared to be tens of thousands of rats, moving like a great river of vermin down the hill toward Cadmus.

The height of this new infestation occurred at almost precisely the same moment that the McKinley Morganfield was docking at the Cadmus landing. It was universally agreed that what was forever after known as "The Moeller Scourge" far exceeded the previous rat crisis. It was now decided that the bounty was clearly insufficient for addressing the problem. Furthermore, the ensuing public disorder was taxing a force of already beleaguered soldiers. This garrison served as a sort of invisible adjunct to nearby Fort Snelling. It was staffed mostly with older soldiers and assorted riff-raff that hadn't passed muster or been regarded as battle worthy. These men were responsible for little more than preserving some modicum of peace in Cadmus and the other outlier communities that had sprung up around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. They were widely regarded as failures at even this, and their combination of indolence and indifference had cemented the reputation of Cadmus and other similar towns as rogue bastions that were as unruly as anyplace in the American west of the same period.

One of the remaining ranking commanders was an old man of a scientific bent. He recalled seeing the patent for an obscure invention from the factory of Eli Whitney. This contraption was a rat mower, and this officer, Fergus Something or Another, felt certain he could draw up and supervise the construction of something close enough to Whitney's design to be effective.

Working virtually around the clock with the company engineers and blacksmiths, Fergus Something or Another was confident he could produce a testable prototype in less than a week's time.

Cadmus, meanwhile, was awash in rats. The seriously ill castrato, Salvatorri, had been hauled ashore aboard a gurney and ferried through the river of rats to The Great Blooming Void encampment just east of the village. He had arrived in such dire condition --Gabriel Kaplan's butchery had led to an infection, not uncommon even in the most minor dental procedures of the time-- that he was immediately installed in the infirmary.

The gelding's afflictions were by this time so many, and his mental state so deranged, that Reverend Hungwell feared he would lose his prize specimen before he'd even had a chance to hear him sing a note. Salvatorri was feverish, delusional, hacking, and barely able to breathe through his monstrously swollen mouth and nose.

The date of his advertised performance was less than two weeks away.

Among the more curious members of The Great Blooming Void was a great, naked oaf who had come to the community from a respectable family in St. Louis. This young man was Bartlett Hearn, who had been christened Kraj Majales --"The King of May"-- by Rev. Hungwell. Hearn was a simpleton, "touched" in the parlance of the day, and from a very early age he had proved himself incapable of keeping his clothes on. After repeated incidents in school and the community, he had been pronounced a public nuisance and his father had sent him north to Hungwell, with the hope that The Great Blooming Void might at the very least provide his wayward son with some spiritual or moral grounding.

Bartlett Hearn was not yet 20 years old when he reached the utopian outpost near St. Paul. He was already said to be a strapping lad, larger, in fact, than anyone else in Cadmus. His simple, open personality and instinctive naturism immediately endeared him to Hungwell.

The huge and perpetually naked Majales took a keen interest in the debilitated eunuch, and the touched lad from St. Louis proved to be an instinctive, compassionate, and capable nurse.

Under the care of Majales, who was assisted in his ministrations by the infirmary staff and Hungwell himself, the castrato from Perugia rallied valiantly, and in one week's time he was able to stand and, with the support of the naked May King, take brief strolls.

A splendid start to summer in Cadmus --it was now early June-- no doubt proved salubrious to Salvatorri's spirits and health. A handful of the community's residents were Italians, and so were able to converse with the castrato and serve as translators for Majales and Hungwell. Though his health was improving by the day, Hungwell continued to fret about the voice of his visitor. Salvatorri spoke in a halting, raspy chirp that often confounded even his translators. Time and again he was asked if was able to sing, and each time he would shake his head sadly and insist that it was impossible.

"Impossible" was not a word that had any currency in the Reverend's worldview; its use, in fact, was expressly forbidden in the Great Blooming Void's covenant. Hungwell had Salvatorri administered a round-the-clock series of potions, elixirs, teas, lozenges, hot towels, steam treatments, and vigorous throat massages. He was also subjected to regular, intense sessions with the community's widely celebrated mesmerist.

Through it all, the King of May remained Salvatorri's constant companion.

As all this was going on, the rat population, fueled by the rising temperatures and rapidly emerging vegetation, was exploding unabated, and the rats had begun to show up at The Great Blooming Void compound in increasing numbers. The denizens of the commune were morally and constitutionally ill-equipped to deal with an infestation of rats. They were both peaceable folks and cowards, and as such were terrified of the rats and disinclined to kill them. It was almost as if Gustave Moeller's rats sensed they had found a sanctuary from the looming specter of the rat mower.

Reverend Hungwell was, of course, bedeviled and infuriated by the rat invasion, coming as it did less than one week from the announced Summer of Love festival and the performance of his celebrated European castrato. Invitations had been extended to many notables in the capital city, and Hungwell was determined that the festival would go off as planned.

He ordered all those members of The Great Blooming Void who were not engaged in nursing Salvatorri to participate in a rat round-up. The initial plan was to use brooms to drive the vermin into far-flung corners of the compound, where they could be swept into gunny sacks and crates, and relocated to a stretch of wilderness further east. This, of course, was simpleminded folly. The rats were too numerous, brazen, and fleet, and the gentle folk of The Great Blooming Void were too timorous.

Reports, meanwhile, arrived announcing that the rats had found their way into the community's food stores and --even worse news to Hungwell-- had breached the infirmary and were frightening the castrato.

What allegedly transpired next seems, frankly, to be little more than a fanciful bit of revisionist history or a trope from the purview of folklore. One of the more mysterious and eccentric members of The Great Blooming Void community was an androgynous dandy who called himself The Future Man. The Future Man, who would later relocate to New York and make a name for himself in social circles there, was a stoic enigma even to the other Great Blooming Voidians.

This character (who was widely regarded by many to be a member of the fairer sex) is said to have emerged from his tent at the height of the chaos. Wearing his trademark black cape and hat, and striding in leather boots with four-inch heels, he waded right into the frenzy of swarming rats, clapping his hands, stamping his feet rhythmically, and blowing a tin whistle. Here was a Pied Piper of Hamelin scenario, with the exception that in this instance the rats did not follow The Future Man out of the encampment, but rather fled before him, streaming in an almost orderly procession toward the gates.

In this fashion the mysterious rat herder worked methodically for several hours while the other stunned residents of the community looked on with startled amazement. It is said that Kraj Majales even led Marcello Salvatorri from his bed in the infirmary so that the castrato could witness the spectacle.

The fleeing rats headed up the road toward Cadmus, a route that took them directly past the garrison, outside of which Fergus Something or Another and a small group of soldiers and engineers were doing some last minute tinkering on the rat mower. As time constraints and access to materials had made it impossible to equip the rat mower with steam power, Fergus Something or Another had designed the contraption with two facing sideboard seats, each equipped with three sets of pedals. Six men would thus provide the power to turn the threshing blades, while a seventh man would steer the mower from a higher perch in back.

Seeing the river of rats moving down the road toward them, and seeing in this river of rats an opportunity to be seized, a garrison commander gave the order to attack. Eager volunteers sprang aboard the mower and pedaled furiously in the direction of the onslaught. On each pass through the swarming tide, the rat mower was proving to be devastatingly effective. The creatures were being mulched in huge numbers, and those that managed to escape the whirring blades were being stomped and clubbed by the crowd of soldiers and other spectators that had gathered to watch the spectacle. The river of rats became a river of blood.

A large contingent from The Great Blooming Void had assembled outside the compound to witness what was to them a thoroughly horrific tableau. Included in this contingent was the now emaciated castrato, who was perched on the shoulders of the May King.

And there, as he stared at the almost inconceivable barbarism that was unfolding before his eyes, the castrato found his voice. He began to emit a series of almost coloratura squeaks and screams, which the Reverend Hungwell described in his diaries as "glorious, pure, a bit ragged and ruined by time and trial, yet what damage there was in the eunuch's voice was but evidence of the great sacrifices art must make in the pursuit of beauty."

Seized with ecstasy by an occurrence he considered a miracle  that had surely been hatched in his Dream Cradle, Hungwell shooed his flock away from the carnage that was still unfolding, got them safely back inside The Great Blooming Void compound, and shut fast the gates. Addressing his adherents before they dispersed, he said, "We have witnessed a terrible atrocity, and seen evidence of man's boundless capacity for savagery. Yet in the midst of such a wrenching and diabolical spectacle we have been given a sure sign that the way of The Great Blooming Void is the right way, and humanity's best hope."

That night Hungwell and Kraj Majales sat at the bedside of the exhausted castrato into the early hours of the morning. Salvatorri was said to be once again deranged, and sweating profusely, but, while holding the hand of his naked and most faithful attendant, the King of May, he suddenly began to sing a version of "Ave Maria," his voice rising as he found his way into a tune he had performed hundreds of times before. People all over the camp were startled by the unreal sounds coming from the infirmary, and many made their way from their beds to stand outside and listen. Salvatorri's voice was a shell of its former glory, but Hungwell remembered it as "the sound of a long shattered peace being gradually, with each intake of breath, restored. It was almost as if we were hearing a man who was turning away from time itself and striding confidently, if full of sorrow, into the loving embrace of his Lord."

Salvatorri lapsed into unconsciousness shortly after his only American performance, and he was pronounced dead just as the June sun began its first incursion on The Great Blooming Void.

Inspired by the events of that long day and night, Reverend Hungwell and The Great Blooming Void formed The Rio de Ratones Poetry Society, and this group, which was to have a minor influence on American poetry of the post-war period, devoted itself to preserving the memory of the tragic Salvatorri and advocating for what Hungwell had called "great sacrifices in the name of art." The Rio de Ratones Poetry Society is little remembered today, but its motto, "To a new age of gods and monsters!" was appropriated by director James Whale for his 1935 horror classic, "The Bride of Frankenstein."

By 1880, Reverend Hungwell was dead and The Great Blooming Void had been driven from its property by the state of Minnesota, its residents dispersed to far-flung places. Hungwell's diaries, along with a handful of other accounts from the time, including the Cadmus garrison logbooks, survive in the Minnesota Historical Society's archives. The village of Cadmus burned to the ground in 1888.

The modest grave of the tragic Salvatorri –believed to be the only European castrato buried in American soil—can be found in the Pine Bend cemetery along the Minnesota River in Rosemount, just across highway 52 from the infernal sprawl of the notorious Koch refinery.

The photograph above, which shows a Dream Cradle in use at The Great Blooming Void, was taken by Oscar Gustav Rejlander.

(NOTE: I would be remiss in not acknowledging my indebtedness to John S. Beckmann's splendid "On Castration in the Name of Art" for a good deal of information on the life of Marcello Salvatorri, the decline of the castrati in the late 19th century, and a few stolen phrases.)


  1. Stolen or not, "a snug boodle" is a phrase worth repeating.

    Have any castrati ever played ball in the bigs?

  2. I believe, based on a quick Google search, that I can take credit for "snug boodle."

    And on the subject of Major League castrati, I recently stumbled across this interesting tidbit from Ramin Tohidi's "Anabolic Steroids: A Look at Potential Drug Testing Legislation and its Constitutional Implications" (Harvard Law Review): 'Surprisingly, steroids also produce “feminizing side-effects in males, most notably...high voice.” However, this effect will be reversed once one stops using the drug. “A great deal has been said about anabolic steroids and the male reproductive system; much of it is unfounded, some of it is undoubtedly true and should be seriously considered.” For one, steroids reduce normal testosterone production, “often to the levels seen in castrated males; in addition spermatogenesis (sperm production) frequently ceases.”'

  3. what a blast! that post was fantastic!

  4. That was... quite an experience.