DATE August 27, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Gretchen Worden on medical exhibits at Mutter Museum
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's Book Week on FRESH AIR, featuring interviews with the authors of all
sorts of books.
Gretchen Worden is the author of an illustrated book about the Mutter Museum,
a medical museum whose exhibits are of tumors, lesions, spinal malformations,
Siamese twins and other deformities, pathologies and medical anomalies.
The museum, which is part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia was
founded in 1858 when students were taught about pathologies and deformities,
to preserve specimens, wax models and plaster casts. The Mutter Museum is
open to the public. Worden has worked there since 1975, and has directed it
since 1988. Her book includes many photos of the museum's exhibitions, taken
by artists who Worden says are not interested in conventional beauty but want
to explore its opposite, the deformed, the broken, the disfigured bodies of
those who suffered congenital abnormality, trauma or destructive disease. She
adds, `While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the
spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions.'
I spoke with Worden last November when her book was published.
I want to talk about some of the specimens that are in the Mutter Museum. And
let's start with a plaster cast of a French woman's head with a horn growing
out of the forehead. Who is this person and what's happened to her head?
Ms. GRETCHEN WORDEN (Director, Mutter Museum): Actually it's a wax model.
The woman, as far as we know, was known as Madam Dimanche, which has been
translated as the Widow Sunday. And she was an 80-year-old washerwoman living
in Paris and she'd actually had some previous growths of this type. It's
called cornu cutanium. It's horny substance in the skin that starts
overgrowing and producing these excrescences and in this case, it happened to
be a spectacular growth coming out of her forehead. And the model that we
have shows it about six inches long. The reports--there's a published report
in an 1851 journal that describes it as being, by that time, nine or 10 inches
long. And she had to support it in a sack sewn onto her nightcap until she
finally got to the doctor and had it taken off.
GROSS: How do you live with a horn growing out of your forehead for so long?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, I keep telling people--even today, people put off going to
the doctor. And I think we all have a little reluctance. Back then, there
was less that a doctor could do for you so the hesitation was natural. That's
one of the biggest questions. People look at her and wonder how can you let
it grow so long. And I point out that she was a washerwoman, and this is
someone who takes in laundry. She probably was not dealing with the public.
She was a widow, didn't have a husband around to nag her about getting that
thing off your forehead. So I'm just speculating that that's what she did.
GROSS: Now is this a problem that still exists? I mean, are people still
growing horns out of their foreheads?
Ms. WORDEN: Absolutely.
Ms. WORDEN: Anybody can develop this. And it can be found in animals as
well, cats and dogs. But as they say, it doesn't usually get that large.
GROSS: Now there's a plaster cast of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese
Ms. WORDEN: Right.
GROSS: How did the Mutter Museum get a plaster cast of the Siamese twins?
Ms. WORDEN: We had it made, and we had it made because we had just completed
the autopsy on the Siamese twins in 1874. And that really was a great moment
in the history of the college. These were internationally known men. And the
question had always persisted from the first time they started going on public
exhibit in 1829: Could they have been safely separated? And they would
challenge the medical profession with that question. And it was a way of
And finally when the College of Physicians heard that they'd died, they
realized this is an opportunity to answer that question. And they actually
were able to get the families to agree to have the bodies brought to
Philadelphia, and the autopsy was done in the Mutter Museum at its original
location at 13th and Locust Streets. And after it was completed, that was
when we had the cast made. We were allowed to keep their actual livers as
well, because those were the only organs that were connected through that
GROSS: Are their livers still on exhibit?
Ms. WORDEN: Absolutely, right below the cast.
GROSS: And how are they preserved?
Ms. WORDEN: They're preserved right now in a 75 percent alcohol solution.
GROSS: Huh. So Chang and Eng were joined by the abdomen.
Ms. WORDEN: It was actually--at the end of the breastbone, there's a
cartilage, and they were connected by that cartilage. So the band mostly
consisted of skin and cartilage with superficial circulatory connections
going along the very thin strip of liver tissue that actually passed through
GROSS: How did they die, and what did the Mutter Museum autopsy discover
about whether they could have lived independent of each other?
Ms. WORDEN: They died because a few years before 1874, Chang had suffered a
stroke, and he was not in as good health as Eng, who was the larger, taller
twin. And so it came to one night in January of 1874 when he was having
trouble breathing and was obviously ill. But they had this routine. They had
married sisters in North Carolina and had families of 21 children, but they
set up separate households in adjacent farms. And every three days, like
clockwork, they would travel from one man's farm to the other so that each man
could be with his family, be the master of his estate, and then they would go.
So it was a dark and stormy night, and they probably should not have gone
because Chang was not well. But he insisted that they go to Eng's house, and
during the night, he died. And Eng woke up and found that his brother was
dead and roused the household, and they sent for the doctor, who had always
said, `If one dies, I will cut close to the body of the dead twin, and the
other one should be able to survive.' The doctor didn't come in time, and
over the space of a few hours, Eng lapsed into a coma and died.
GROSS: So did the autopsy find that they perhaps could have survived had they
been separated earlier?
Ms. WORDEN: There is always that speculation that, had it been done when they
were children, when you have greater recuperative powers, it might have been
successful. But they also discovered that in that band, unsuspected, there
GROSS: The band of muscle that joined them?
Ms. WORDEN: The band of skin and cartilage, yeah. There were slight
outpouchings from each man's peritoneal cavity that contains your abdominal
organs. So the band would have had to be very carefully dissected because if
you get into the peritoneum, then you can get massive abdominal infection. So
the risk of infection was always there. And of course, you're talking 1874.
We're just beginning to use antiseptic surgical procedures. It's 20 years
before X-rays, so you really couldn't get an idea ahead of time what you'd
find. It would have been just operating blind, so to speak.
So the conclusion was that in the best of cases they might have been
surgically separated, but it probably would not have been advisable at any
point because of the risk of shock and infection and certainly more so when
they were adult men.
GROSS: One of the things on exhibit at the Mutter Museum is a giant colon, a
colon that grew to approximately five times the size of an average colon.
What is the story behind this colon?
Ms. WORDEN: It belonged to a man who died in 1892 at age 29. And it's a
congenital condition where you have a problem with the nerve supply to the
muscular wall of the colon, so feces don't pass through normally. And you get
backup of feces, and that's what caused the enlargement of the colon. Today
we'd probably solve it by a colostomy or resection of the bowel, and they'd
pick it up soon after, but we're talking the late 19th century. So it just
got progressively larger as he grew because at first he was able to function.
He had various jobs as a messenger. And at one time, he was actually on
display at the famous Dime Museum at Ninth and Arch Street as the windbag or
balloon man. But as he got older, he was getting increasingly uncomfortable.
So in 1892, he went to Hahnemann Medical College and complained to the
doctors, and they correctly diagnosed it as an enlarged colon. But 1892, you
weren't doing abdominal surgery that could have helped him in any way. So
they took photographs, which we have on display at the museum with the colon,
and then had to just send him away. And he died a few months later.
GROSS: What did he look like?
Ms. WORDEN: He looked like a perfectly ordinary guy, about 5'7", a spare
body, but with this enormously distended abdomen. And when they did the
autopsy, they found that his abdominal organs were practically, you know,
pushed up into his chest up to his clavicle. So it must have been horribly
GROSS: So this colon is now preserved in what?
Ms. WORDEN: It was cleaned out, dried and stuffed with a lot of excelsior,
which is just wood shavings. We found old newspapers in it. I mean, it was a
big thing to stuff, so they put in a lot of material. And it's important now
because it's a spectacular example. Megacolons are fairly rare, and they just
rarely get to that size. So it is still impressive even to
gastroenterologists today, and it makes it very clear how far medicine has
progressed since 1892.
GROSS: You say in the book that one of the most popular exhibits in the
museum is a collection of more than 2,000 objects removed from the throats and
airways of patients, such as--what are some of the things that have been
removed from patients' throats?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, the collection came to us in 1924, so there's stuff in
there that you're not going to see around today. Collar buttons, for example,
very popular with kids. We also have a lot of hairpins and safety pins, and I
speculate that, you know, maybe it was a mother holding the pin as she's
diapering the baby. Today you'd have diaper tabs; that's a current choking
hazard. You also get a lot of toys you don't see: jacks--I don't know kids
play with jacks anymore, but they certainly aren't using skate keys, and those
are some of the items. Plus, there's a lot of dental appliances. I think
dentists are more careful now about removing loose prosthetics from the mouth
before they go in. But there's a lot of that that slipped down people's
GROSS: There's a really eerie image in there--I think it must be, like, an
X-ray or something--of a throat with a little toy battleship stuck in it.
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah, it's an X-ray of a child, and we have the little metal
battleship, and it was successfully removed. Dr. Chevalier Jackson was the
physician who assembled the collection, and it was to be used as a teaching
collection, because for each item, he has the complete case history: how old
the patient was, where the object was, what it was, how long it had been in
there and what instrument was used to successfully remove it.
GROSS: My guest is Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Museum in
Philadelphia. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Gretchen Worden is my guest and she directs the Mutter Museum in
Philadelphia. It's a museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and
it was created in the 19th century as a museum of medical anomalies to teach
medical students about the practice of medicine. And now it's open to the
public. And it's just a very, very popular place to see all kinds of medical
The Mutter Museum has a whole collection of fetuses stored in jars. What are
some of the medical reasons for this collection?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, it's interesting, we just have redone that exhibit. It's
called our teratology collection, and it's congenital abnormalities or birth
defects. And it's important in the study of embryology and in the study of
how the body develops normally. Oftentimes, it's only when something goes
wrong that you're aware of how it should go right and at what point in the
development. So it's a document of all of the different things that can
affect the development of the child, and it can be the internal environment,
it can be things that the mother has ingested or is exposed to, it can be
genetic, it can simply be a mutation on the gene. It can be caused by any
number of environmental teratogens, and I think there are more of those today
that can cause deformities. So it really gives us insight into the way human
beings develop when you look at the anomalies.
GROSS: And are most of these fetuses--were they mostly delivered or taken
surgically from the mother's womb?
Ms. WORDEN: The older specimens would probably be either natural miscarriages
or have been delivered normally. The more recent ones that we have with the
severe anomalies are sometimes from pregnancies that have been terminated
deliberately because the defect has been picked up on ultrasound or
amniocentesis, and the decision was made not to carry the pregnancy further.
GROSS: Is this one of the exhibits that gets, like, the most emotional
reaction from people? Or I'm wondering if it's even controversial among some
Ms. WORDEN: It really surprisingly hasn't engendered any controversy, because
we have it within the context of the whole Mutter Museum--we're an educational
museum about medicine and human development. It's in a section where it
segues smoothly into normal fetal development, conjoined twins. So because of
that, people look at it as part of the whole display, which is why I don't
sometimes like to have photographs of the fetuses taken and set apart from the
rest of the environment. But people--of course, they are amazed sometimes to
see some of these defects and then they start reading the labels.
Ms. WORDEN: And it's the same with all of the museum. Now I get--sometimes
people react more strongly to the megacolon or to the swallowed objects. You
never know what someone's going to identify with. They either have had a
similar problem or they know someone with it. Some people can't get over that
GROSS: Right. You know, one of the things that knocks me out--there's a
collection--there's a couple of photographs that you've included in your
Mutter Museum book of two women with lordosis, which is a severe curvature of
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And, you know, like, the trunk of their body is about three inches in
front of the rear of their body, and the waist is just kind of like flat and
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah.
GROSS: So, like, the behind is on one end of the waist and then several
inches in front of it is the torso. It's like there's a flat thing connecting
them. I'm not sure if I'm describing this very clearly, but it's the kind of
thing where you look at it and you could say, `That's how I feel some days,'
Ms. WORDEN: Well, that's the way I feel about the megacolon.
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah. Yeah. I'm feeling bloaty.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Is that a typical reaction that people like personally relate to, some
of these anomalies, because even though these anomalies are just very extreme
disfigurements that you kind of feel that way on a smaller level sometimes?
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, absolutely. As I say, it's--you are struck by the fact that
you're looking at human beings. `And there but for the grace of God go I,'
you say oftentimes and `Thank God for modern medicine.'
Ms. WORDEN: But yeah, it's--and, of course, the fact is a lot of what we'd
look at in the museum and think, `Oh, my God. Nobody has that today.' All
you'd have to do is go into a Third World country or go into rural America and
you will find these, you know, incredibly disfiguring disorders. We are so
spoiled by the fact that we're living in a city that has been a center of
medicine since the 18th century and we've got the best here. But that's not
the way the rest of the world lives.
GROSS: What's one of the exhibits that we haven't yet mentioned that gets a
very strong response from viewers?
Ms. WORDEN: I think that would be the wall of skulls. It's a collection of
139 skulls from the peoples of eastern and central Europe that we bought from
a Viennese anatomist in 1874. And this type of collection was typical of 19th
century medical museums. They would collect skulls of people from all over
the world--and thousands of them--and have them on display, because the whole
idea is compare and contrast, be able to look at all of the differences
between the skulls which you can only see when you see a large number
And what's fascinating is that Professor Hyrtl, from whom we bought it, was
able to record, in most cases, the name, the age, the occupation, in some
cases the religion and the cause of death of each of these individuals. So
you're not just looking at a skull for the shape, as an anthropologist would;
you're looking in a life and you're seeing just a little glimpse of what
people were living like in mid-19th century Europe.
There is a mother who killed her child; there's a ropewalker who died of a
broken neck. It is wonderful from a sociological and cultural point of view.
So you have this wall of skulls with this very cursory information, and you
can look at it and just kind of imagine, `If you had to summarize my life in
four lines and write it on the side of my skull, what would they write?' And
we get that kind of reaction from people, too.
GROSS: There's so many different ways to relate to the Mutter Museum. One
way is that, you know, it's fascinating medical history. It's a good teaching
tool for doctors. Another is that it's just a kind of oddly beautiful
representation of the human condition, all the things that could go astray
with the physical part of the human condition. But another way of looking at
it is it's just good gross-out fun, right? And I'm sure a lot of people come
to the Mutter Museum for that reason, that it's good, gross-out kind of fun.
How do you react when people come to the museum for that reason, to point and
to laugh and giggle and...
Ms. WORDEN: Well, I tell you they may be drawn there out of curiosity.
Ms. WORDEN: Curiosity is a wonderful motivator, and possibly the curiosity
is a little morbid. But once they walk into that space, they see the
beautiful wooden cabinets and the rich colors in the carpet and the lighting,
and then they start reading the labels and they're immediately sucked into the
whole life of that individual and how it reflects back on your life. So you
don't get a lot of poking and laughing. You'll get some comments, like, `Hey,
come over here. Look at this. You won't believe it.' But that's great. I
mean, because it's wonderful to hear the interactions of people between
themselves looking at these things and just quietly interacting with a
GROSS: Well, Gretchen Worden, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. WORDEN: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Gretchen Worden directs the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. I spoke
with her last November after the publication of her book about the museum.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: The great sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay is also a scholar of magic,
con games and sideshows. Coming up, he talks with us about his latest book,
"Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck" as our Book Week continues. And jazz
critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new reissue of the Thelonious Monk album
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sleight of hand artist and actor Ricky Jay discusses
his career and new book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our Book Week continues with Ricky Jay, a master sleight of hand artist and a
spellbinding performer. His one-man shows, "Ricky Jay: On the Stem," and
"Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," were directed by David Mamet. Jay has
acted in the Mamet films "House of Games," "Things Change," "The Spanish
Prisoner," "State and Main," and "Heist." He's now working as a consultant to
the Mamet film "Sleight of Hand," which is about a 19th century magician who
was American's most-wanted serial killer.
Ricky Jay is also a scholar of magic, con games and sideshows. He's the
author of two histories of unusual entertainments, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof
Women" and "Jay's Journal of Anomalies." His latest book, "Dice: Deception,
Fate & Rotten Luck," is a series of reflections and historical anecdotes about
dice. The book also features photographs of dice from Jay's personal
collection. These don't look like ordinary dice. They are old celluloid dice
and they are decomposing.
Ricky Jay, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want you to describe what the
decaying dice look like.
Mr. RICKY JAY: Well, it's actually difficult to describe but over a period of
years and years, dice which are made from celluloid, celluloid nitrate in this
case, which was the industry standard probably up till about the middle of the
last century, eventually begin to break down, and they break down in the most
amazing ways. I mean, they start--you see crystallization on the corners of
the dice and they move to the edges, and eventually it--fissures occur and
stress and imploding of dice where you can wind up with actual crumbling
pieces with the paint used to mark the pips on the dice moving with the dice
taking absolutely extraordinary shape where the colors change, where material
which might have been in the dice, both in the makeup of the celluloid, which
would be cotton fibers and camphor in addition to sulfuric and nitric acid,
but also if the dice were, how shall we say, adapted for use by cheaters. So
if there were things within the dice you may see them coming out. You may see
oxidation. And this series of photographs which Rosamond took were absolutely
stunning. I mean, just stunning.
GROSS: I want to add that on some of these decaying dice you actually see
mold growing and there is something so creepy about it, and I think part of
what makes these photos so exciting to me is that they're inert substances
that are dying as if they were organisms. And it's almost like a definition
of surrealism. Remember how--you know how that surrealistic image of the cup
that is fur-lined...
Mr. JAY: Oh, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...is what these dice remind me of. This, like, almost unholy
combination of inertness and life. How did you start collecting dice?
Mr. JAY: Well, I suppose one could call them tools of my trade, I mean, as a
sleight of hand artist. Both magic and gambling techniques often involve
dice, and so they're wonderful objects, and over the years I realized without
consciously trying to amass an enormous collection of them that I did have
thousands of pairs of dice coming from disparate sources, from gamblers who
reformed and took to other fields for their financial support, from
collectors, from friends who would give me dice, and eventually I had many of
them. And over the course of the years this breakdown of the dice, this decay
and exposure, managed to make them create these unusual, incredibly unusual,
GROSS: When you started collecting dice, did you have any idea that they were
going to decay? Or did they just surprise you and start doing that?
Mr. JAY: No idea at all. It was a complete surprise. I mean, I had seen
dice in various states of decay and of course, older dice, really old
dice--bone dice, ivory dice--don't decay in this way. This is, you know, a
manmade process. Celluloid is the first commercially successful manufactured
plastic. So I suppose it should have a fate that suits that.
GROSS: Now these dice made out of celluloid, they disintegrate for the same
reason that old celluloid film disintegrates, right?
Mr. JAY: Absolutely. Absolutely.
GROSS: Now the photographer says that these dice smell also. Do they smell a
Mr. JAY: They do. And I must say keeping them in my house for a period of
years, I would occasionally, at the request of my wife or various other
visitors, have to move them into more secluded areas. I kept them largely in
all plastic drawers and then covered them and then you would not notice this
rather odoriferous eminence. But if you took them out of the drawers, you
GROSS: How have you used dice over the years?
Mr. JAY: Well, just as objects to conjure with, I suppose is the best way to
express that. There are lovely effects that can be done with dice.
Mysteries, effects of skill and if one were choosing to talk about gambling or
hustling, you could demonstrate, in fact, various things that could be done
GROSS: You quote your grandfather who said that who--he was a magician and he
said he never played with cards because if he lost, he was thought to be an
incompetent magician and if he won he was suspected to be a cheater. I was
figuring that would probably be true with dice, also.
Mr. JAY: Well, it is. I think I actually mention it in that aspect in the
book because of the same thing, of people being suspected of being cheaters if
they simply won. I mean, that bears to mind one of, I think, the most
interesting anecdotes in the book. In 1544, the year we find the first
serious account of cheating with dice in the English language and of all
places it appears in a study on archery called "Toxophilus" by Roger Asham,
and in it he talks about what I think is just a truly diabolical method of a
cheater gaining his advantage. So he says in this particular game a man that
the cheaters want to take for their money is actually winning honestly. So
what they do is to switch false dice into the game, let the honest man throw
the dice once and accuse him of cheating and then take his winnings. And
that's in 1544. I mean, the level of duplicity is just wonderfully
GROSS: How are loaded dice made? Like what's the principle there?
Mr. JAY: Well, the principle is that a foreign substance is placed into the
dice at some specific spot to make it favor the throwing of certain points.
So I think that's a reasonably accurate analysis of this, so that if it's
heavier on one side, it'll make--that side would tend to be thrown to the
bottom so that the opposite side would surface. And various materials could
have been used over the years--lead, gold, quick silver, mercury. And then
the placing of these loads within the dice became more and more sophisticated.
GROSS: What are the first forms of dice that you have found in your research?
Mr. JAY: Well, I think it's pretty safe to say that dice come from astragali,
which are the heel bones of hoofed quadrupeds, and this particular bone was
quite attractive and six sided and took well to decoration. And they say that
the heel bone of the antelope was particularly handsome and that was really
prized by the throwers of astragali. And we think that only four sides were
actually used in these dice games. And the evolution from astragal to dice
is, at least to my knowledge, not based on any single event, that it takes
place gradually over a period of years and years.
GROSS: You actually reprint a quote from--it's a craps dealer and his rapper
has come on. You have your book with you?
Mr. JAY: Yeah.
GROSS: Could I ask you to turn to page 38? Maybe you know this by heart.
Mr. JAY: Yeah, I'd be happy to do this for you.
Mr. JAY: (Reading) `Ladies and gentlemen, get your money down, it's betting
time. The heart six and the heart eight gets you seven to one. The heart 10,
the heart four gets you eight to one. I repeat, get your money down. It's
betting time and we're off. Coming out for a point, bet the big 11. Seven is
a crap. Bet the field. They come or they don't come. Five and after five,
the field. They come or they don't come. Leave your money set and win a big
bet. Don't cut it thin or you won't win. Leave it go and watch it grow. And
the winner five on the front line. And we're coming out for another point.
Yolev(ph) the winner.'
GROSS: What year is that from?
Mr. JAY: Boy, I would guess that that's probably the late--you have a craps
dealer in the '50s or '60s, you know, just somebody doing their spiel trying
to get someone to lay down money in a casino situation.
GROSS: Are there many casinos where you have people who can do the spiel as
Mr. JAY: I think that that becomes a dying art. It's very much like carney
which we've talked about on past shows together, that the language of the
carney and the carney come-on has changed enormously, that you used to have an
outside talker, someone that would do the pitch and that they would repeat
this pitch over and over again and the very concept of that has basically been
replaced by a tape-recorded loop. And I think in large casinos people think,
certainly in the really classy casinos of Vegas, that a spiel like that is
somehow an unfair inducement to bad betting. So I think in both cases they're
dying out, sadly.
GROSS: Why do you think the underworld and illicit activities have always had
their own language?
Mr. JAY: Well, this becomes a very complex question and one for someone
whose skills are in areas other than mine. But I think the general thing that
you hear is the idea that this language is used to be exclusionary, but I
think people who study this carefully will tell you that's rarely the case.
Perhaps the only thing that comes to mind as an absolutely exclusionary use of
real language is the language of the pickpocket, where the pickpocket--the
hook, the wire, the dip, the canon(ph), the man who actually takes the
wallet--talks to his shell, his confederate, his stick, his stall, and
literally gives him directions in actual conversation that would allow the
stall to know where to set up and what pocket the dip wants to reach to take
the wallet away. And the idea that that actually happens during the
transmission of a crime is pretty wonderful to me. But it's the most specific
example that I can think of.
GROSS: So that they can talk in code and no one will understand.
Mr. JAY: Right. And then the concept of the office, which is giving a
signal. It's a wonderful 18th century term that's still used by gamblers all
the time. It's a method of communicating from one gambler to another. It
could be silent. It could be through language. Now that I say that, I mean,
it can be used in a monte game with the operator telling the shill by
language. The shill can't follow which is the actual card to be chosen, you
know, where the queen is amongst the two black sixes and so the operator, in
the course of doing his spiel, will actually manage to tell the shill which
card he should bet on.
GROSS: Before you became a master of the con game and a historian of the con,
were you ever taken? I mean, when you started to really love this stuff,
before you knew how it worked, did you play three card monte and lose all the
time? Did you play dice with people who were cheating, but you didn't quite
know how so you were a losing?
Mr. JAY: Let me say that I have been in card games and games of chance in
which people were moving. That's the correct term. People were absolutely
moving. And sometimes you can determine it while it's happening and other
times you might have to go back after the game and recall, `Ah-ha, that must
have been what happened in this situation.' I think anybody who thinks that
they can't be cheated in a game is the perfect person for you to play against.
Mr. JAY: Because they're clearly suckers. Anybody can be cheated. I mean,
they're just levels and new work that's being done all the time.
GROSS: My guest is Ricky Jay. His latest book is called "Dice: Deception,
Fate and Rotten Luck." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is master sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay. He's also an
actor and a scholar of conjuring, con games and sideshows. His latest book is
called "Dice: Deception, Fate and Rotten Luck."
Your "Journal of Anomalies," which was like a very handsome almost newsletter
that you would occasionally publish featuring anomalies, freaks from history,
unusual performers through history. You collected that a while ago into an
actual book. Why are you so interested in people who would be known as
Mr. JAY: Well, I think I sometimes say that I'm not so interested in people
who were just--for instance, Siamese twins don't particularly interest me.
But Siamese twins who play the violin interest me enormously. It's a bit
glib, but I think you see where I'm going.
GROSS: Right. Exactly.
Mr. JAY: I really am interested in people who would overcome extraordinary
difficulties and become, you know, just absolutely fascinating people. One
man who actually crosses over to both books is a man we've talked about
before, Matthew Buchinger, one of my true favorites, a man who was born in
1674 and was only 28 inches tall and had no arms or legs and was an
extraordinary magician, which is how I got interested in him, but he also
played more than eight musical instruments and danced the horn pipe and did
trick bowling shots and fired pistols and he also was a dicer. Matter of
fact, I have this couplet about him in the book, `He throws the dice as
careless down as any gamester in the town and though the number cast be three,
two sixes you shall ever see.'
So the idea of this 28-inch man, who actually had no arms or legs, but he had
two--well, I guess the easiest way to describe his appendages were like the
thalidomide flippers that we saw in this country some 20 or 30 years ago. But
his enormous accomplishments are just absolutely intriguing to me and he also,
amazingly enough, was an extraordinary calligrapher. And I've managed over
the years to build up a collection of original pieces of his calligraphy,
often done on vellum, sometimes on paper in the early years of the 18th
century and because they were so good, they were saved and I've been able to
put together a rather remarkable holding of this. But I think he may be the
man that I'm most interested in in the world. I mean, it's such an
extraordinary level of accomplishment, and also in an age where these people
were exhibited in horrible situations, here was a man who was allowed to have
a real education, you know, had an interesting family life, who had many
descendants who became accomplished in their own rights.
I think his grandson was, at one point, considered the best lute player in
England. Buchinger himself had four wives and 14 children. So he's just, to
me, endlessly fascinating.
GROSS: Where do you go to learn more about him?
Mr. JAY: Well, I don't know. I suppose every time that I'm on the road--this
is one of the pleasures of my life if I'm in a city performing I manage to go
to libraries and museums and bookstores and print shops in search of material.
And in that way I've been able to unearth a lot of material about him and
various other people that I write about as well.
GROSS: Do you think there is any contemporary equivalent of the freak show
Mr. JAY: Well, there still are some shows like this running. And, you know,
a man named Ward Hall and another man named Bobby Reynolds still put on shows
like this that are great fun. And, you know, it's considered a dying
entertainment on the level that there are far less of these shows than there
once were. And politically, they're rather peculiar as well, but often one
has to talk to the person who's being exhibited and often those people feel
like they have an honest way to make a living and are not being exploited at
all. But this is a difficult political issue. I mean, I love this world--the
world of the carnie.
GROSS: Well, Ricky Jay, a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. JAY: Terry, thanks very much indeed.
GROSS: Ricky Jay's latest book is called "Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten
Our interview was recorded in December after the book was published.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of the Thelonious
Monk album "Criss-Cross."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Reissue of Thelonious Monk album "Criss-Cross"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1962, composer and pianist Thelonious Monk signed with Columbia Records
after recording for little independent labels like Prestige and Riverside.
Now he was with a corporate giant that had the clout to get him on the cover
of Time magazine. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Monk had finally become a
modest commercial hit and the way-out iconoclast began looking like a wise
elder, never mind he was still in his 40s.
(Soundbite of "Tea for Two")
"Tea for Two" from the album "Criss-Cross," one of four new albums in an
ongoing Thelonious Monk re-reissue series from Columbia. All but one have
been on domestic CD before. The exception is "It's Monk's Time." Though the
new additions are spiffed up with extra tracks, including newly unveiled
alternative takes, "Criss-Cross" from 1962 and '3 was Monk's second Columbia
LP, and one of the best. The tune "Criss-Cross" is one of his most abstract
and had fallen out of his repertoire since its 1951 recording. Bringing it
back, Monk streamlined it, cutting two bars to hurry it along.
(Soundbite of "Criss-Cross")
WHITEHEAD: Monk introduced few new tunes in the '60s. Mostly he revisited
his older masterworks and favorite standards typically with a less urgent if
jauntier feel than before. The new versions highlight his melodies indelibly
rendered by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Even some Monk experts flub the
details of his tunes, but if you listen to Rouse, you'll know exactly how they
go. The Monk classics here include "Rhythm-A-Ning," based on a lick that
first turned up in a chart by his friend, Mary Lou Williams. Andy Kirk
recorded her "Walkin' and Swingin'" in 1936.
(Soundbite of "Walkin' and Swinging'")
WHITEHEAD: Some Monkophiles deride Charlie Rouse as a soloist because the
saxophonist never really grappled with the composer's clotted harmonies,
relying instead on bebop licks and scraps of the original tune. Fair enough,
but his broad tone was a perfect foil for Monk's brittle piano, and he learned
a lot from the master about timing and the use of space. Rouse put a
distinctive stamp on this phase of Monk's career, despite a changing cast of
drummers and base players.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: That tuneful bassist is John Ore who'd already recorded with
eccentric pianist Elmo Hope and Sun Ra. On drums is Frankie Dunlop. Monk
once revealed the secret of a good arrangement: make the drummer sound good.
The composer left gaping holes in his elliptical themes and Dunlop knew just
how to fill them. This is "Think of One."
(Soundbite of "Think of One")
WHITEHEAD: By the way, if you wonder why major labels reissue a lot of the
same records over and over, it's because it's easy money repackaging back
catalog as new releases. It gets vintage product back on the racks and maybe
even reviewed again. It's a bit of a shell game but it's hard to knock a
scheme that keeps the classics in print.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed "Criss-Cross" by Thelonious Monk, which has just been
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a duet featuring Lester Young and
Nat Cole, recorded in 1946. Lester Young was born 94 years ago today.
(Soundbite of music)
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