Corpse Bride: La Casa De La Pascualita

Since 1930, La Popular, a bridal shop in the Mexican city of Chihuahua has had its gowns modelled by a uniquely beautiful figure – one who has not aged a bit in 85 years, and still looks as striking as the day she arrived. So legendary has she become, La Pascualita as she is known, attracts tourists from all over Mexico and the rest of the world, eager to decide for themselves whether she is merely a mannequin, or if her origins are far more sinister.

From the first time she appeared in the shop’s window, allegedly having been shipped over from Paris, La Pascualita aroused suspicion; her hands were so realistic that she had fingerprints and faint varicose veins were visible on her legs. But it was her large brown eyes that gave La Pascualita her almost human quality and though they were made of glass, those who looked into them swore they were animated and full of emotion.

Soon, word spread that La Pascualita was no ordinary mannequin; she was actually the perfectly embalmed body of the daughter of La Popular’s owner, Pascuala Esparza. Certainly, it did not go unnoticed that the model bore a strong resemblance to Esparza. Continue reading

The Glorious Adventure: Richard Halliburton’s Marvels

Between the wars, few young American boys would not have read at least one of Richard Halliburton’s books. Chronicling his remarkable exploits and daring escapades, Halliburton travelled across the globe, undertaking and invariably completing labours that would have put Hercules to shame. Born in Brownsville, Tennessee on 9th January 1900, at first, Halliburton’s slight frame and fragile constitution made him appear to be an unlikely adventurer; however, he forbade any physical limitations from inhibiting his formidable character.

From Paris, where Halliburton spent several months in 1919, he replied to his father, who had written to express a desire for his son to adopt a more ‘even tenor,’ that instead, ‘When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills – any emotion that any human ever had – and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.’

After returning to America, Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, and briefly toyed with the possibility of becoming an academic, but his unsatisfied wanderlust soon put paid to such ambitions. In September 1921, he climbed the Matterhorn before heading to Gibraltar, where he managed to get himself arrested on suspicion of being a German spy. Egypt and India were his next ports of call; he saw the Taj Mahal and then went on to Japan, where he scaled Mount Fujiyama, before arriving home in Tennessee on 1st March 1923.

Realising that people would pay good money to hear about his incredible experiences, Halliburton gave a series of lectures and in 1925, published his first book, The Royal Road to Romance. Summing up his attitude to life, and the path he had chosen for himself, he claimed in the text, ‘Youth – nothing else worth having in the world…and I had youth, the transitory, the fugitive, now, completely and abundantly. Yet what was I going to do with it? Certainly not squander its gold on the commonplace quest for riches and respectability, and then secretly lament the price that had to be paid for these futile ideals.’ For good measure, he attempted to paint himself in a rebellious light, adding, ‘Let those who wish have their respectability – I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.’ Continue reading

Immortal Beloved: Count von Cosel And Elena

On 25th October 1931, 22 year-old Elena de Hoyos finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that had already killed several members of her family. Her remaining relatives were not alone in mourning the loss of Elena, an exceptionally beautiful and talented young woman who, before her illness, had a bright future ahead of her as a singer and entertainer. Eighteen months before her death, Elena had come to the attention of the eccentric Count Carl von Cosel. He was no genuine aristocrat, but von Cosel had arrived in Florida from Dresden in Germany in 1927, when he was 50. In America, he changed his title and name from the more humble Tanzler, after abandoning his German wife and their two children. Immediately smitten with Elena, von Cosel believed she was the striking dark-haired woman he later claimed to have been haunted by dreams and visions of.

Never short of suitors on account of her dazzling looks, in 1926 Elena married Luis Mesa, a local man who, like herself, was of Cuban origin. The marriage broke down soon after when Elena suffered a miscarriage and was then diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was during one of her hospital stays that Elena first met von Cosel, who was working as a radiologic technologist at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Key West. Befriending Elena’s parents, von Cosel promised them that he would be able to cure their daughter, even though doctors had warned them there was little hope that she would recover. As he treated her using his own outlandish methods involving x-rays and other machines, as well as tonics containing specks of gold, von Cosel professed his undying love to the dying Elena and brought her extravagant presents. Uninterested, she routinely snubbed his advances, and von Cosel failed in his quest to heal the object of his affection.

A devastated von Cosel offered to pay for Elena’s funeral and also had an elaborate mausoleum built for her at the Key West Cemetery, which he visited on a nightly basis. He also built an airship that he christened ‘The Countess Elena,’ and expressed his wish that some day, he and his dear departed one might travel to the stars in it, where they would be ‘high into the stratosphere, so that radiation from outer space could penetrate Elena’s tissues and restore life to her somnolent form.’ Continue reading

Talking Head: Joseph Faber’s Euphonia

Hailed as the ‘scientific sensation of the age,’ Joseph Faber’s ‘marvellous talking machine,’ known as Euphonia, was first exhibited at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia in December 1845. Faber, who had settled in America from Germany, had dedicated years of his life to his creation, having destroyed and then rebuilt it several times. The scientist Joseph Henry had been most impressed after seeing Euphonia in Philadelphia, described it as a ‘wonderful invention,’ and stating that whilst he had admired ‘the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of London,’ it could ‘not be compared with this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences composed of any words.’

The purpose of Faber’s machine was to replicate human speech, and this was done by using a foot pedal which was attached to bellows via a series of tubes that connected a mechanical glottis to a keyboard. A contemporary science journal described its workings, revealing that a ‘vibrating ivory reed, of variable pitch, forms its vocal chords. There is an oral cavity, whose size and shape can be rapidly changed by depressing the keys on a key-board. A rubber tongue and lips make the consonants; a little windmill, turning in its throat, rolls the letter R, and a tube is attached to its nose when it speaks French. This is the anatomy of this really wonderful piece of mechanism.’

Euphonia’s voice emanated from behind a mask made to represent the face of beautiful young woman; it was designed to speak any European language, although contemporary accounts state that it spoke with a German accent, sang God Save the Queen, and could also mimic human laughter. Continue reading