Ripley’s Believe It or Not – The “Eye Smoker”

Alfred Langevin, the “Eye Smoker”

The miracle of the Internet allows one these days to do a deep dive into the oddities of humanity, and many of Robert Ripley’s stories can be either verified, clarified, or debunked. I was an inveterate consumer of Ripley’s collections as a youth, and this particular item always intrigued me. As it turns out, this story happens to be entirely accurate, as documented at Human Marvels.

Included at the link is a video that shows the late Mr. Langevin demonstrating his odd talent.

Science Source - Artwork of a cross-section through a human skull
Cross-section of a human skull

A lot of the human skull is empty space, and as you can see from the above illustration, there’s a very small partition between the sinuses and the orbits of the eye. All it would take is a small malformation or injury to either the skull or the nasolacrymal duct to connect the eye with the sinuses, and Bob’s your uncle.

Determination: Believe it!

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not – Premature Aging

THE BOY WHO DIED OF OLD AGE BEFORE HE WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD

Cross-posted from Livejournal

THIS strange anomaly of an aged youth attracted considerable attention during the last century. He was Charles Charlesworth, born of normal parents in Staffordshire, England, March 14, 1829. He reached maturity and grew whiskers at the age of four and died suddenly in a faint (syncope) when but seven years old.

Charlesworth was of small stature and proportions, and with imperfectly developed clavicles, lower jaw, and membrane bones of the skull. His face was wizened, hair and whiskers white, skin shriveled, hands knotted with conspicuous veins and tendons, voice piping, and gait and standing posture those of an old man.

Ref.: “Progeria” and “Premature Senility” in any Medical Text Book.


Progeria is now a well-known and well-understood phenomenon, although there is no known cure. It was not described until 1886 by Jonathan Hutchinson and independently in 1897 by Hastings Gilford, after which it was named Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome (HGPS). In 2003, it was discovered that progeria caused by a point mutation in position 1824 of the LMNA gene, replacing cytosine with thymine, creating a form of the Lamin A protein which cannot be processed properly and accumulates in the cell nucleus. Lamin A is a major structural protein of the human cell nucleus. When Lamin A is altered, it affects the shape and the function of the nuclear envelope. These changes cause other cells to die prematurely. (see Progeria at Wikipedia.)

One other famous case of accelerated aging was also documented by Ripley in a later series. His description, accompanied by one of his own illustrations, was lifted almost verbatim from the Huntingdon, PA “Daily News” of 25 September 1830:

Clarence was also written up in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of September 27, 1830 (this photo also appeared in Charles Addams’ Dear Dead Days (Putnam, 1959, p. 18)

Time Magazine of Monday, Oct. 06, 1930 described the event in these words:

At Toledo, Clarence Kehr Jr., 6, standing 4 ft. I in., weighing 87 lb., was barred from both public and Catholic schools because he has a bass voice, smokes, has to shave, is as strong as a grown man. He can lift persons bulking 250 lb., 200-lb. dumbbells, can push without strain a lawn roller, or an automobile filled with passengers. Prime stunt: lifting Jack Dempsey when Dempsey scaled 202 lb. Born normal, Clarence Jr. continued so until 9 mos. old. Between 9 mos. and 3½ years he grew ten years physically in all things except height. When 4½ he was physically 14½, at 6 he is 16. He has no use for girls his own age, prefers them 16 or older.

Doctors attribute his precocity to some defect in his pineal gland. This ductless gland, apparently the rudiment of a third eye,* lies in among the interior folds of the brain. Its functions are not well understood. One thing it certainly does is to inhibit sexual development of children. Because all the ductless glands of the body delicately control and balance one another’s forces, when one acts abnormally as in Clarence Kehr’s case, or in Harold Arnold’s case (see col. 2), it incites a physiological riot. Clarence Kehr’s parents plan to appeal to Ohio’s State Board of Education. Meanwhile he is being tutored privately.

*In some lizards and other reptiles and in the larva of the lamprey, the pineal gland is on a stalk (like a crayfish’s eyes) and is near the top of the head. Here it has a distinguishable retina and lens. French Philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed: “There is a small gland [the pineal] in the brain in which the soul exercises its functions more particularly than in the other parts.” Contemporaries agreed.

It appears that Kehr was not a victim of progeria – Psych Web Resources describes Kehr’s case in this manner:

Accelerated aging can also be produced by hormonal imbalance, as shown by the case of Clarence Kehr. This illustration is from a 1931 article in American Psychologist titled, “A clinical study of ‘Toledo’s Strong Boy'” (McClure & Goldberg, 1931). It reports “the strange case of Clarence Kehr, Jr., who skipped from the cradle to adolescence in physical development.” Clarence, shown at age 6, is in the middle of the photograph, with his brother and sister on either side.

Toledo’s Strong Boy” (from McClure & Goldberg, 1931)

Clarence’s development was radically accelerated. He was able to lift his mother off the floor at the age of 5. He had prominent muscles, a mustache, and a baritone voice at age 6.

Clarence was proud of his weight-lifting abilities. He boasted of being the strongest boy in the world. He did not associate with other children, preferring “to do the same things that older people do.” His mustache began to appear when he was 11 months old. By the age of 4, his sexual development was the same as a 14-year-old boy, and he was interested in girls.

X-ray studies revealed that Clarence, at age 6, had bone structure typical of a sixteen to eighteen year old. At the time the article was written, Clarence’s parents were trying to work out a program of private instruction for him. Mentally, he was a normal 6 year old with average or below-average academic abilities. For example, he could not copy a diamond pattern, or verbally describe a picture, both standard items for 7-year-olds on the 1930 Stanford-Binet IQ test.

Verdict: Believe it!

The Old Wolf has spoken.

William Kogut and Robert Ripley

(Cross-posted from my Livejournal)

Robert Ripley was one of my favorite reads when I was young. It was sort of like StumbleUpon today, if you select “bizarre/oddities” as a subject. I couldn’t get enough of it. In those days, there was no Snopes, no Google, no Wikipedia – nothing really to check the veracity of Ripley’s discoveries – many of which were true, others… well, let’s say he was an entertainer more than a scientist. But I always remember this:

THE STRANGEST SUICIDE

A CONDEMNED man, locked in a death cell in San Quentin prison, fashioned a deadly bomb from a deck of ordinary play­ing cards and blew himself into eternity. It was the most ingenious gallows-cheating device ever conceived in the brain of a doomed man.

William Kogut, an ignorant lumberjack of Polish descent, was sentenced to death for killing a woman with a pocket knife. Hope gone, he sat silently in his cell, thinking. The shadow of the’ noose dangled before him; he could hear the slow, dull tread of the thirteen footsteps ascending the stairs to the scaffold.Suddenly a light came into his lustreless eyes. Deliberately and methodically, William Kogut set to work. From the prison cot he wrenched a short piece of hollow tubing. I t was just the thing. Digging into his few possessions, he pulled forth a deck of ordinary playing cards. From the cards he tore out all of the red diamonds and hearts, and, reduced them to small bits. Everything was deathly quiet and the night was long. The eight other condemned men in adjacent cells knew nothing of what was taking place.

Kogut then took the small bits of colored cardboard to the wash bowl and soaked them in water. Then he took the soggy mass and tamped it into the piece of metal tubing as if he were loading a blunderbuss. A broom handle was next utilized in the construction of this strange bomb. The handle was pounded tightly into the end of the tube making the interior air-tight.

This diabolically cunning man knew that playing cards were made of cellulose – a fiber from which trinitrocellulose, a powerful ex­plosive, is made.

The bomb was now ready. Cautiously he took down a small combination oil heater and lamp and lighted it. Over the tiny flame he held the explosive mess, while steam and gas generated within the tubing. After a time the pipe grew hot. Everything seemed ready so he leaned over with his head close to his deadly toy.

How long he waited, no one knows.

Just as dawn tinted the grey prison walls, a terrific explosion occurred. It rocked the countryside for miles around, roused prison guards from their nearby homes, and tumbled prisoners from their cots.

Prison alarms were sounded, guards ran madly to their posts, thinking perhaps the blast might be a signal for a general prison break. Rushing to the condemned row, the excited guards stopped, utterly horrified, before the shattered cell of Number 1651.

The walls were dripping crimson.

William Kogut had cheated the hangman!


I got to wondering… true or false? Snopes records it as true, but describes the explosion as simple pressure of steam in a closed-up pipe sufficient to drive bits of playing card into Kogut’s skull, not the earth-shaking bang that splashed Kogut all over the walls and destroyed the cell to boot.

Barb Mikkelson wrote, “Kogut removed a hollow steel leg from his cot, tore several packs of playing cards into tiny pieces, and stuffed these bits into the pipe… He plugged one end tightly with a broom handle, and poured water into the other end to soak the torn cards. Then he placed his device on top of the kerosene heater… the heater turned the water to steam, adn when the pressure built up to a high enough level, the resulting explosion shot the bits of playing card out of the pipe with enough force to penetrate Kogut’s skull.”

Sciencepunk.com quoted an article in Gargles.net giving a bit more science behind the nitrocellulose angle. While I respect Snopes and the research that Ms. Mikkelson and her hubby do, usually in-depth and convincing, in this instance I tend to go with the science. If an open pipe is plugged on one end by a broom handle, and on the other end by soggy playing cards, I suspect any steam building up in an open pipe would pop the sodden mass out with some force, but not enough to penetrate a skull. The other scenario implies that the pipe was closed on one end, and tightly sealed with the broom handle on the other. In this case, chemical reaction or no, it’s conceivable that the explosion could have had enough energy to kill Kogut… but from what I can tell, the blast was more powerful even than that, and the nitrocellulose story is highly likely.

Only Kogut knows what went down, and the story has passed into the realm of barely verifiable lore… but it’s interesting to know that whatever the case, Ripley got this one right.

Verdict: Believe it!

The Old Wolf has spoken.