Bone and Sickle is a celebration of the intersection of horror, folklore, and history. Every episode offers a bounty of frightful tales, fantastic legends, and macabre historical anecdotes harvested by eccentric artist, collector, and rogue folklorist Al Ridenour. Dramatized readings of historical texts by co-host Sarah Chavez unfold within an immersive ever-shifting soundscape of original music, old folk ballads, intricately layered effects, and audio clips from horror films both classic and campy. Ridenour’s source books, though real enough, are said to be pulled from a vast private library of antiquarian tastes, part of a manor-house environment in the neighborhood of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. Managing the estate with undue passion is Mrs. Karswell, whose voice can be heard in the program reading from various historical sources cited. The family misfortunes that have landed Karswell in Ridenour’s service are part of greater plan known to her through interior whisperings and private rituals of dubious validity. Under another name, Mrs. Karswell hosted a podcast called “Cabinet of Curiosities” long before Aaron Mahnke made use of the title.
The Gibbet, Hanged in Chains
The gibbet was a hanging iron cage used to display the corpses of criminals in 18th and early 19th-century England. To be thus “hanged in chains,” in the judicial jargon and thinking of the day, subjected the criminal to an extra measure of postmortem shaming and offered the general public a rather extravagant cautionary example. Naturally, this frightful spectacle also generated a fair measure of folklore, which we explore in this episode as a follow-up to our “Gallows Lore” show.
The gibbet was a relatively rare punishment reserved for the crime of murder, and only then used in particularly heinous or high-profile cases. Though it was sometimes employed before 1751, its use was more widespread thanks to The Murder Act instituted that year. This bit of legislation offered this extra punitive measure in response to a sort of inflation of the penal code attaching the death penalty to increasingly minor crimes, such as acts of theft.
The Murder Act also designated anatomical dissection of the criminal body as an additional option for postmortem punishment, a fate actually much more common than the gibbet. Dissection may have been intended primarily to enhance physicians’ medical knowledge, but it also provided the surgeons with body parts and substances that could be sold off for other purposes. We make a grisly digression from gibbets to explore some of the ways the human byproducts of executions were made use of in folk-medicine, magic, and certain professions.
Next, we get into the details of the gibbetting process. Contrary to common understanding, the gibbet was not simply designed as a sort of narrowed human-sized birdcage. It was an arrangement of customized form-fitting iron bands wrapping the limbs, trunk, and body, and connected with vertical cross-pieces. The cage was suspended in a way that allowed it to rock freely in the wind, lending a sort of eerie animation to the corpse and thereby increasing the terrifying impact of these displays.
The horrific impression made by the gibbeted corpse is detailed in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, in a scene describing an encounter with a gibbet by the story’s protagonist as a child. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a few lavishly macabre paragraphs from the novel.
We follow this with another literary gibbet, one surprisingly found in a now-forgotten series of children’s books by Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family, published in three volumes between 1818 and 1847.
Then we hear a typical ghost story told of the gibbet, a tale set down in ballad form as “Old Grindrod’s Ghost,” which first appears in the 1872 collection Ballads, Romantic, Fantastical, and Humorous by the historical novelist William Ainsworth. The excerpt of the song heard is from the North-English band Pendlecheek.
While gibbettings drew huge crowd, the morbid fascination they popularly exerted lingered on in relics obtained from the gibbets as they fell to pieces over the years — in bits of bone, fragments of iron and wood that were carried off as mementoes. We examine cases of gibbet iron and wood recycled as novelty products, or even as structural elements in buildings, such as an old gibbet post serving as a ceiling beam in The Hare and Hound on the Isle of Wight. There are a few ghost stories, and gibbet rhymes and riddles along the way.
Though the gibbet was relatively exclusive to England, the practice was inherited by its colonial states. From America, we hear of a very demanding pirate gibbetted on a small island in Boston Harbor, and from Canada, a unique case of a gibbetted woman, Marie-Josephte Corriveau, hanged in chains in Québec City for murdering her husband in 1733.
Marvelous and Rare
We’re doing something different this time out.
Bone and Sickle is taking off the rest of September to allow time for Mr. Ridenour’s research and Mrs. Karswell apiary maintenance.
To fill the gap, we’re offering listeners a sample of the short bonus episodes all our $4-and-up Patreon subscribers hear every month.
We hope you enjoy this substitution, and if you do, might even consider joining us on Patreon to hear more of the same.
We’ll be back in October with a regular episode following upon on our “Gallows Lore” show, as well as a special Halloween offering. Till then…
We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.
We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.
Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope). Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.
Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.
The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782. We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.
Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705. Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.
Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored. (And we stop at some pubs en route!)
One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874. We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.
Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.
The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.
In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages. A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.
The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory. This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain an...
The Frankenstein Method
The method Frankenstein employed to create life is left mostly a mystery in Mary Shelley’s 1818 book. How then did the notion of stolen body parts stitched together and animated by lightning become so firmly entrenched in popular imagination?
Our episode begins with a clip from Universal’s pattern-setting 1931 production, Frankenstein, in which Henry Frankenstein rhapsodizes about building the creature’s body from the dead. While the idea’s suggested in Shelley’s novel, the process doesn’t quite seem to match the cinematic treatment in which the creature’s fabricated from whole human body parts stitched together. We’ll hear some passages read by Mrs. Karswell, that seem to suggest Shelley’s Frankenstein fabricates his creature instead from component materials — tissues and whole systems built up slowly over bones obtained from the charnel house. The creature’s large stature in films, however, matches the literary prototype — for very practical reasons, as is explained.
Next we have a look at how Shelley portrays Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create life as influenced by his study of alchemical texts (by Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus,) Of particular interest here is the work of his Swiss countryman, Paracelsus, who in the 16th century set down directions for the creation of a homunculus, a tiny human-like being grown in a glass bottle.
These comments, in a general way, seem to have influenced an odd inclusion in the script for 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein’s partner in monster-making, Dr. Pretorius, presents his own experiments in creating homunculi (as in the clip played).
As further evidence that Bride’s screenwriters went digging in some rather obscure texts, the film’s portrayal of the miniature king escaping his bottle to pursue a homunculus-queen in an adjacent bottle appears to be directly lifted from a legend of an Austrian freemason Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein, creating homunculi in 1755 — a legend appearing only as a footnote in an 1896 biography of Paracelsus by the Theosophist Franz Hartmann.
While none of this appears in Shelley’s novel, some scholars have attempted to locate the inspiration for her novel in the work of another alchemist: Johann Conrad Dippel, in particular because the location of his birth in 1673 is listed as Burg Frankenstein, Castle Frankenstein on a hill near the city of Darmstadt Germany. We look at evidence for parallels in Shelley’s story and von Dippel’s career, and though the linkage appears to be fairly speculative, we end up with some good stories involving the misuse of bone oil, and a corpse dyed blue.
We next examine references to Victor Frankenstein’s interest in lightning and galvinism (early notions of electricity), and how this supplants his earlier interest in alchemy. The connection between galvinism, 18th-century researcher Luigi Galvani, and frog legs is explained, as is Mary’s husband Percy Shelley’s hands-on dabbling in this field.
While both Percy and Mary had an interest in this evolving field, their understanding of these matters could often be of a more poetic than scientific. In Mary’s introduction to the 1831 reissue of her novel, she references galvinism as a possible source of the creature’s animation, though the idea here is inspired by her highly idiosyncratic understanding of an experiment conducted by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles). A reference to what seems to be living pasta is also muddled into all t...
Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts
Western tales of bottled spirits, imps, devils, and even ghosts are largely borrowed from the Islamic and Jewish legends of jinn captured by King Solomon. In this episode, we explore how this is expressed in folk tales, demonological treatises, and literary borrowings.
We begin with a nod to the Assyrian god Pazuzu (and a clip from Exorcist II, The Heretic.) Here, aconnection between feared Assyrian spirits such as the jinn is mentioned. Pazuzu’s identity as a spirit of ill winds, brings us to a wind-related track from the original Exorcist soundtrack (from 1972’s oddball album Songs from a Hill.) It’s a recording of a wind harp, or Aeolian harp. And this brings us to the Greek god of winds, Aeolus.
Aeolus features in the Odyssey in an episode that anticipates our bottled spirit motif. He presents Odysseus a bag of wind to speed him on his journey. The wind spirits contained in this bag then brings us to a story about King Solomon trapping a wind demon in Arabia to aid him his construction of the Jerusalem Temple. We hear this particulsar tale from the medieval text, The Testament of Solomon read by Mrs. Karswell.
We then look a bi from further medieval texts commenting on Solomon’s capture of demons in various vessels, and how thesee are later broken open by heedless conquerors of Jerusalem, releasing a Pandora-style plague of demons upon the world.
Our motif entered the literary world via 17th-century Spain, in Luis Velez de Guevara’s satirical novel El Diable Cojuelo, “the lame devil.” We also hear a bit about a French adaptation, Alain-René Lesage’s 1707 novel, Le Diable Boiteux. Both of these feature the demon Asmodeus, and referenced Asmodeus’s identity as demon of lust, a notion taken up in various demonological treatises.
Next we look at folk tales, beginning in County Cork, Ireland, with the “Legend of Bottle Hill,” which takes its name from a curious (and curiously inhabited) bottle obtained by one Mick Purcell on this particular Irish hill. Both good and rather surprising bad luck follow.
From Scotland, we hear the legend of the Wizard of Reay and of his efforts to evade Satan’s over-eager efforts to claim his soul, as well as his bottle-imp story, involving a cask in the Cave of Smoo, a reputedly haunted sea cave in Sutherland.
The Wizard of Rea’s tactic for controlling the demon he finds in the cask is the same as we find in the folk tale, “The Wizards of Westman Islands,” from Iceland (in which we learn what role the sinister “Sending” plays in Icelandic folklore.)
From The Brothers Grimm, we hear “The Spirit in the Glass Bottle,” involving another bottled imp discovered in the gnarled roots of an ancient tree, and of a similar tactic used to subdue his volatile nature.
Jumping ahead a bit, we look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1891 short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which likewise adapts themes from the previous folk tales, while adding further complications and convolutions. The story has served as basis for several films, an opera, a standard magician’s trick, and more than one radio adaptation. (We hear a bit of one from a 1974 production by CBS Radio Mystery Theater.)
Stevenson makes use of some elaborate caveats attached to his bottled spirit, conditions that will produce either good or very bad luck, involving among other things, the need to rid oneself of the infernal talisman before one’s death by selling it for less than one payed for it. This motif is also found in German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué̵...
They Arabic mythology of the jinn is, not surprisingly, quite different than what you might glean from Western pop culture. Films such as 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad and 1958 Ray Harryhausen classic, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which we hear sampled in our opening might have you believe these creatures function as nothing more than wish-granting slaves, but their existence needn’t be entangled with human wants and needs.
One Thousand and One Nights, or the collection sometimes titled Arabian Nights, is the original Western source when it comes to our topic of the genies or the jinn. This begins with the word “genie,” an English rendering of the original French translation of the Arabic word, “jinn” (which can be used as both plural and singular, btw.) These tales are told within a frame story related by Scheherazade, a woman providing a cliff-hanger night-by-night narrative intended to delay the plans of her newly wed husband, who intends to execute her after the wedding night. (We hear a bit of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade along the way).
After reviewing the evolution of these Arabian Nights stories from original oral forms (which were more often Persian, Indian, and Greek than Arab, actually), we have a look at some surprising misunderstandings about the story of Aladdin, which, like the stories of Sinbad, and Ali Baba, were not even part of the first collection of these tales assembled.
Jinn are a separate race, created between men and the angels. They are not immortal, and live in an invisible society organized like our own with similar social orders, marriages, and offspring (though sometimes humans are taken as marriage partners also). They are not necessarily good or evil, choosing their own path, which may include following the Muslim faith, as the Qur’an speaks of the Prophet preaching to this race of being. They may also follow other faiths as Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian jinn are also sometimes mentioned.
We spend some time looking at how their appearance has been described in literature, though no particularly definitive description emerges, as they are constant shapeshifters. They may appear simply as shadows or whirlwinds, but more often seem to take human form, albeit, often that of a human hybridized with various animals features (horns are common). Frequently, they may also simply take the form of animals, particularly dogs, and snakes. We hear some interesting anecdotes in this regard, illustrating the reverential treatment animals sometimes receive lest they reveal themselves to be dangerous jinn in disguise.
While their theoretical home is Mount Qaf-Kuh, the sort of Mt. Olympus of Islamic mythology, jinn obviously do not confine themselves to this location and can be found nearly anywhere man ventures. Some locations, such as abandoned homes, cemeteries, and ruins are obvious, but others such as certain mosques and marketplaces also are mentioned.
More obvious than where you might encounter a jinn is when you might do so. Their nocturnal nature is widely agreed upon, and just as certain treatments of animals is ill-advised for risk of offending the jinn, we hear of a number of actions that should not be performed by night for similar reasons.
Along the way, we learn how iron and salt may be used to repel the jinn, favorite foods of the jinn, how shooting stars relate to the jinn’s propensity to eavesdrop, and hear an interesting tale of a jinn-human marriage from Edvard Westermarck, a Finnish scholar who spent a great deal of time in Morocco.
The jinn, we learn, may be sought out for their advice, thanks to their supernatural knowledge of things seen and unseen,
Customer ReviewsSee All
The most fun one can have in someone else's study!
Bone & Sickle sets a standard for others to follow. A grand tour through the Wyrd, the joyously grim and the darkly comic, every lovingly crafted episode full to the brim with curios and charm.
This is a show that knits together multiple threads from the fantastic past and magical modern. Where Horror and folklore intersect in strange tales as we marvel at the seductive flowers that sprout from twisted roots.
Our host is the perfectly wonderful oddball Al Ridenour, two parts scholar, one part raconteur, with a dash of neurosis-in-denial, garnished with the driest boneyard wit. This show is hilarious, witty, learned and fascinating. With exceptional production values, Bone & Sickle is an independently produced Tour-de-Force for fans of quality audio theatre.
Excellent creepy folklore
Highly recommended, hugely enjoyable. A really polished production, with atmospheric music, referenced sources and excellent readings. The hosts’ recounting of their off stage adventures are a charming and occasionally creepy touch, but the main star here is the well researched and presented dark folklore. For lovers of horror, Grimm tales, and “dark folk” enthusiasts.
Delicious dark atmosphere and great research.
I have been interested in ghosts and mysteries from being a child. I always find this podcast fascinating. I love the mixture of the folklore, historic and horror, film sources with the on going funny dramatic and creepy setting of Al Ridenour and his housekeeper etc. I am currently a member of The Ghost Club est. 1862 and I recommend this podcast to all the members. Do listen to it.