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 Stone Eater and other Curious Cases
Enjoy with us a collection of short curious tales culled from a favorite Victorian volume — the Stone Eater of London, a mariner’s report of fire from the sky, the rise and fall of a French giant, 18th century blasphemies involving a donkey, and more. Plus, more sardonic verse from Harry Graham in “Karswell’s Corner”
P.T. Barnum's Magnificent Museum Fire
The fire that destroyed P.T. Barnum’s American Museum on July 13, 1865 was a luxuriantly surreal and tragic event, one described beautifully in a contemporary New York Times piece, which we share in this episode verbatim. Doomed whales in enormous tanks, fleeing snakes, sideshow celebrities, and melting wax mannequins are all part of this fantastic tale.
The episode also includes details on Bone and Sickle’s new format for 2023 (more and shorter shows) a morbid bit of poetry from Mrs. Karswell as well as a snippet of a 1920s recording of German soprano Frieda Hempel recreating a performance by Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale,” promoted by Barnum on immensely successful international tours.
A Christmas Ghost Story
The Christmas Eve ghost story is a fine old tradition associated with Victorian and Edwardian England, one now making a comeback on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 2018, Bone and Sickle has enthusiastically embraced the custom.
Our offering for 2022, is “Smee” written by A.M. Burrage in 1931 and read for us by Mrs. Karswell.
Previous Christmas ghost stories are linked here in our website show notes (2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021).
Christmas Devils and the Feast of Fools
From St. Nicholas Day through Christmas, the Devil figured prominently in medieval plays, embodying a subversive seasonal element also celebrated in the Feast of Fools.
We enter the topic of medieval Christmas plays sideways through German composer Carl Orff’s 1935 composition “O Fortuna,” a piece much beloved in Hollywood soundtracks. The lyric Orff set to music happens to belongs to one of 24 11th-century poems preserved in a Benedictine monastery in the Bavarian town of Beuren, providing the collection with its name, Carmina Burana, a Latinized version of “Songs from Beuren.”
After a brief look at some of the rude and blasphemous poems, for which the collection is notorious, we switch to its poem on the Nativity, a much less scandalous composition which formed the basis of one of Europe’s first Christmas plays. We focus on the prominent role given Satan and his demons in that text as well as the comic portrayal of the Antichrist in Ludus de Antichrist, “Play of Antichrist,” preserved in a collection from a nearby monastery in Tegnersee.
From there we switch over to medieval portrayals of another sort of Antichrist, namely King Herod, whose role in the Christmas story is to order the execution of all infant males in his kingdom, hoping thereby to exterminate a potential rival, the “King of the Jews,” rumored to have been born in his kingdom. We discuss some fantastically grisly portrayals of this event from the medieval stage.
We next have a look at some of the stagecraft employed in portraying the Devil and his minions, discussing the fabrication of “Hellmouths,” a set element, which swallowed sinners and vomited up devils on the medieval stage. Alongside this, we examine costumes and pyrotechnics used to enhance the theatricality of demons and their realm.
From there, we turn to another subversive, sometimes violent, undercurrent in holiday celebrations, namely that of the Boy Bishop. Beginning around the 10th century, the title was given to a youth elected to lead mass either on the Feast Day of St. Nicholas or on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. On the surface, the tradition may sound innocently charming enough, but as we learn from quite a few contemporaneous accounts of mayhem and violence involved in the festivities, this inversion of the hierarchies could quickly lead into Lord of the Flies territory.
Related to the Boy Bishop tradition, is our next topic, the Feast of Fools. While many listeners will be familiar will be with the carnivalesque street parades, and election of a mock King, Bishop, or Pope of Fools, these chaotic elements were not limited to the secular world. Indeed, the festum fatuorum began within the church itself, consisting of a number of days in which lower clergy assumed roles usually belonging to those above them in the hiearchy (priests for bishops, etc.).
The “Feast” actually constituted of a number of different days during the Christmas season during which such inversions took place, a period sometimes extending all the way to January 14, on which the “Feast of the Ass” took place, a celebration honoring the animal which bore the Blessed Virgin to Bethlehem, and one involving the congregation in a litany of “hee-hawing.” Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of historical accounts detailing the mayhem involved in these celebrations.
We close with a nod to the most the most famous literary reference to the Feast of Fools, one which novelist Victor Hugo imagined in his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in which the titular character is crowned “King of Fools,” (or “pope” in the original French.)
NOTE: This episode is adapted from the chapter “The Church Breeds a Mo...
An After-Dinner Reading: Decadent Dining in the Satyricon
This short off-format episode is intended as a sort of fireside reading to be enjoyed by our overfull American listeners as they struggle to digest their Thanksgiving dinners. It’s from the late 1st-century novel, Satyricon by Petronius and describes what is quite likely Western literature’s most decadent description of a feast.
Villainous Victorian Women
Our survey of villainous Victorian women examines six individuals associated with some of the most ghastly crimes of the era, many directed against children (and for this reason possibly a bit of a rough listen for some.)
Five of these criminals inspired murder ballads, or more specifically “execution ballads,” single-sheet broadsheets sold at the time of the trials or executions.
The sixth woman, Mary Ann Cotton, a poisoner from the north of England, also inspired verses, in this case, however, a schoolyard rope-skipping chant of the type memorializing Lizzie Borden. (We begin the show with a version the Borden rhyme from 1956 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents remixed by Bob’s Vids.)
Cotton, Britain’s first female serial killer, was executed in 1873 for the murder of her stepson, the last of 13 offspring whose lives she’d taken, that along with three of her four husbands, who were generously insured to ensure the poisoner would profit from her evil.
Like Cotton, our next murderer also preferred arsenic as her lethal weapon. The American, Lydia Sherman, throughout the 1860s and early ’70s poisoned eight children as well as three husbands in New York and Connecticut. Dubbed “the modern Lucretia Borgia” by the press, Sherman was also the subject of an 1873 book, The Poison Fiend: The Most Startling and Sensational Series of Crimes Ever Committed in this Country. Unlike Cotton, however, Sherman escaped the gallows, sentenced instead to end her life in prison. We begin her segment with a snippet of the broadside “Ballad of Lydia Sherman” by the Mockingbirds.
We next look at Emma Pitt, a schoolteacher in the British village of Hampreston in Dorset, who murdered a child in 1869. While only taking the life of a single victim, her crime was regarded as particularly heinous as that victim was her own newborn baby, not only killed but mutilated by its mother.
Our next murderess, the Irish servant Kate Webster was found guilty of killing her mistress Julia Thomas in 1879. While she also committed but a single homicide, she’s remembered for the particularly grisly details shared in her trial regarding her disposition of Thomas’ body. Webster’s trial was such a sensation that Gustav, Crown Prince of Sweden, traveled to Britain for the trial, and Madame Tussaud displayed her figure in the Chamber of Horrors for nearly six decades.
The unspeakable deeds of our next criminal are recorded in the 1843 ballad, “Mary Arnold, the Female Monster.” The less said here about this abomination the better as it may be the most horrific account related in the history of our show.
Our final segment opens with a snippet from another ballad, “Mrs. Dyer the Baby Farmer,” as sung by Eliza Carthy. In 1896 Amelia Dyer was executed in London for the murder of a single child, though many more deaths were suspected during her 17 years working as a “baby farmer.”
Dyer is the most notorious example of this shady practice by which mothers arranged adoption of illegitimate or unwanted children with mercenary caregivers. The sum paid, being was a relatively low fee affordable to lower class women, was therefore not realistically expected to sustain the child for long. For this reason, infants thus abandoned, tended to be poorly fed, or outright starved, quieted with gin, or even killed, the last being the case made against Amelia Dyer.
We close with a snippet of the ballad heard earlier, in this case sung by Derek Lamb.
5 starry starres!
Do you like the Wicker Man.. a lot? Folk horror revival, Ronald Hutton, Hellebore magazine, Harvest Home, the Wicker Man, J.G. Frazer, M.R. James and the Wicker Man? Then you are probably already listening to the Bone & Sickle podcast. And taking notes. A lot of them.
Real Folklore, Real dark and gruesome.
I love the Patreon benefits, like show notes and links for further research. The introductory running storyline really helps me settle into the headspace of this podcast. It took me a couple episodes to realize how perfectly and intentionally crafted this is.
Ridenour packs more researched information into one episode than any graduate level class I have attended. I am so grateful to have access to all of this work.
I listen to lots of podcasts but this one has remained the top favorite over the years. It is well-researched with compelling story-telling, a rich ‘backstory’ for the hosts, and killer soundscapes that always pair perfectly with the episode. I always recommend this podcast.
Love the show!