The nine weirdest things at Yale

1. The Voynich Manuscript

What has been called “the most mysterious manuscript in the world” is held within the vaults of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Its name – the Voynich Manuscript.

The best code-breakers, mathematicians and linguists have not been able to crack the cipher contained within its 240 vellum pages. Wonderful illustrations of plants, flowers and swimming naked women supplement the famous code (which looks like something of a mix between the Greek, Roman, Gothic and Glagolytic alphabets).

The origins of Voynich are as mysterious as its code. The manuscript was purchased from the Collegio Romano (the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome) by book collector and Polish revolutionary Wilfrid Voynich in 1912; when he died, he gave it to his wife, who left it to a friend, who sold it to book dealer Hans Kraus in 1961. In 1969, after years of searching for a buyer, he donated it to Yale.

It has been attributed variously; although it was long thought to be the work of the 13th century Franciscan Friar and polymath Roger Bacon, modern scholars have named John Dee, an astrologer and mathematician at the Court of Queen Elisabeth I, Edward Kelley, an Alchemist friend of Dee’s and even Voynich himself, among others, as the authors of the manuscript. But even if it were a hoax cooked up by Dee or Kelley, no clue has been found that will help confirm whether the book contains a jumble of letters or a lost text.

But the years of failure don’t deter would be code-crackers and people who are just curious to see the code.

“We get a lot of questions about [the manuscript],” said Moira Fitzgerald, the assistant head of Access Services at the Beinecke. “We can tell when a TV special has been aired because the number of questions goes up.”

But Fitzgerald says that Yale students rarely ask to see the book.

“Most of the interest comes from outside of Yale,” she said. “A lot from the country of Germany. I don’t know why.”

Unfortunately the access to Voynich is now restricted, although in special cases the library staff will show the manuscript but not allow it to be taken into the reading rooms.

The reason, the library staff explains, for this restricted access is simply to protect the fragile manuscript.

To illustrate their case, they tell the story of an elderly woman who claimed to be a psychic and asked to see the original text and subsequently tried to place her hands over the pages in order to sense the “vibes” given off by the remarkable book.

But don’t fear, if you want to have a quick glimpse of the Voynich or have a go at cracking the code, the Beinecke has digitalised the entire manuscript at http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/voynich.html.

2. Greco-Roman-Egyptian Magical Amulets

Venture to the third floor of Sterling Memorial Library and you may stumble across a succession of small rooms that contain Yale’s Babylonian Collection, the biggest collection of Mesopotamian objects in the United States.

But in a dusty drawer at the back of an office crammed with cuneiform tablets and maps of Mesopotamia, one can find 74 Greco-Roman-Egyptian Magical amulets left to Yale in 2005 by Dr. James H. Schwartz, a neurobiologist at Columbia University who also had an interest in numinology. The amulets are small stones or pieces of metal inscribed with text written in Greek letters, although the letters rarely say anything in classical Greek.

For some indication of what the amulets mean and what their significance might be, I visit John C. Darnell, the chair of Yale’s Egyptology Department, in his office on the third floor of the Hall of Graduate Studies.

“Primarily these are words of magical power; these can be names of gods and they can also be things that to us seem like nonsense,” explains Darnell. “These sorts of gems and magical incantations on papyri are the origins of words like ‘Abracadabra.’”

The engravings on the amulets are of Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian gods and demigods. Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, is featured prominently on some stones while others depict Yahweh, the Hebrew god.

“What’s really interesting about them is that people in the Greco-Roman world are taking these names from all over the Eastern Mediterranean and using them on these magical gems,” says Darnell. “We know sort of how they were used because there are magical papyri in Greek and in Demotic and some of these texts make specific reference to what you did with these amulets.”

Darnell proceeds to read from a translation of a magical papyrus that he has on hand:

“Take a lodestone and on it have carved a three face Hecate and after the carving is done, clean with natron and water and dip it in the blood of one who has died a violent death, then make a food offering to it and say the spell at the time of the ritual.”

Also featured on the stones is Abrasax, the Eastern Mediterranean god of Magic who Darnell believes traces his origins from the Ancient Egyptians. He shows an image of the tomb of Rameses II and explains that the double snake motif of Abrasax and that depicted on the tomb are one and the same.

“These things have a very, very old Egyptian pedigree,” he says. “They basically create a kind of magical God for the worshippers who doesn’t really exist in specific religions. It is the attempt to make a pantheistic god who is made up of all the great gods you can imagine.”

But do these stones do anything?

Darnell smiles and explains that Egyptian medicine was based not only on magic, but also on medical praxis. So the stones and the medicine went together – the stones provided psychological assurance and the medicine physical treatment.

But one should still be careful when touching the stones — a student in Darnell’s 2007 seminar “Egypt and Northeast Africa: A multidisciplinary approach” said the students were told to “be careful what they thought of” while handling the gems.

3. Particle Accelerator

My search for the third thing on this list brings me to a mound behind the parking lot at the foot of Science Hill. Crickets chirp as I approach a large steel door carved into the side of the mound. At first, it seems like a garage or some sort of storage depot, but suddenly the door opens and Andreas Heinz, a German particle physicist and assistant professor of physics, bids me enter.

The mound is home to the Wright Foundation, an extensive underground nuclear physics facility which houses the largest university particle accelerator in the U.S. — “the world’s most powerful stand-alone tandem Van de Graaff accelerator, capable of terminal voltages up to 20 Megavolts,” according to the foundation’s Web site.

The walls are painted dusty blue and white and our feet clop against plastic.

We enter the room which houses the accelerator through a door marked with a radiation symbol.

“There’s a small amount of radiation,” Heinz assures me. “But quite honestly, when we do our experiments, most of the time the radiation level is lower than that of the parking lot.”

The accelerator consists of an ioniser that produces negatively charged ions, which are accelerated by a charge of circa 100,000 volts and then injected into a tandem (or tube with pinched ends the size of a school bus) where there is a positive charge of about 18 million volts, which further accelerates the particle. The tandem is also filled with SF6 (Sulphur Hexofluoride), an insulator which keeps the experiments at a regular temperature.

“That’s not enough, so in the center here, we have a little bit of carbon foil,” explains Heinz. Most of the particle gets through the thin layer of foil, but the negative charge is stripped from the ion and is subject to a second acceleration from the positive charge in the chamber.

Says Heinz: “The second part of the acceleration is more efficient and we end up with a couple of percent of the speed of light.”

In the background there is an ominous clicking sound. I ask if it’s a Geiger counter, but Heinz tells me it is a vacuum pump.

We pass through another radiation sign and Heinz points out where the particles are fired out of the end of the accelerator. They turn a magnetised corner into the room where six machines test different qualities exhibited by the particles.

He shows me the YRAST ball, a machine which measures the levels of gamma radiation given off by particles as they hit two thin layers of carbon foil in the heart of another mechanism – the New Yale Plunger Device (NYPD).

But what benefits can such experiments bring mankind?

Heinz explains that most of the accelerators in the world are not in universities, they are in hospitals. “[They] produce radioactive isotopes which are injected into the bloodstream to diagnose or cure diseases,” he says.

If you’re interested in seeing the accelerator, Heinz gives tours, and both graduate and undergraduate students with an interest in physics are allowed to work on the particle accelerator.

4. The “Saybrook Suicide Suite”

In Saybrook’s Wrexham Tower, Entryway B, on the left side of the fourth floor, there’s what appears to be the entrance to a suite. But if you look closely you’ll notice the lock has been removed. Yale lore has it that three consecutive students died or took their own lives in this room before the university decided to seal it off to students because of repeated claims of hauntings.

If one gets past the locked door, there isn’t very much to see – a room the size of a small single with a thick coat of dust covering the floor. An old chair sits by itself in the middle of the floor.

There is no official word on the “suicide suite.” Former Saybrook College Master and Dean of Yale College Mary Miller, current Master Paul Hudak and Saybrook Dean Paul McKinley all said in e-mails that they had never heard of any hauntings.

“I heard that there might have been a room or two that was abandoned during the 2001 renovations in that area,” said Hudak. “But the haunting and student deaths are just someone’s imagination getting the best of them, I would think.”

5. The Hedge Maze behind the School of Management

It’s not a Hedge Maze, it’s a “knot garden”. But this quiet spot certainly deserves mention — it’s a great place to sit and enjoy a chicken Tikka from the food carts outside the School of Management between classes.

Nestled between the new SOM buildings and the 1832 neoclassical Skinner House (now The International Center for Finance) on Hillhouse Avenue, the garden is a reminder of the past tenants of the mansion.

“As part of the original gift to Yale of the building, the Trowbridges stipulated that the garden should be maintained in perpetuity,” explained Patricia Pierce of the Yale Development Office.

The Trowbridge family acquired it in the early 20th century and left it to Yale in 1978 with specific instructions not to build over the garden’s box hedges. It’s just as good they did — on a sunny day, one can lie on the grass between the boxes, undisturbed, and watch clouds flit across the sky.

6. The Comparative Literature Library

This “secret library,” located on the eighth floor of Old Campus’s Charles W. Bingham Hall, is only open to comparative literature grads and faculty. Notwithstanding the ban on undergrads, many students manage to break in and see the long wooden tables, imposing bookshelves and carved fireplace that lie within.

Founded by the chair of Yale’s Comparative Literature department in 1949, the library now contains books bequeathed to the German department by the Palmer and Schreiber families and the books of a husband-and-wife pair of scholars Anne Amory Parry and Adam Parry – who were killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971 – alongside the doctoral and senior theses of every comparative literature graduate and literature major since 1949.

Notably, it contains the library of the celebrated and later reviled deconstructionist Paul de Man. Many books with de Man’s notes and inscriptions, however, have been purloined over the years in a library where there are no security measures.

“I wish we had some way to protect [the books] from the effects of sunlight. Those big windows are beautiful and give a fine view on New Haven, but the books get roasted over the years,” Haun Saussy, Bird White Housum Professor of Comparative Literature said.

Saussy reminisces: “Those of us who have been here awhile remember seminars taught there by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and many, many visitors. Those of us who did our oral exams there, or gave job talks, they can still feel the stage fright. Many friendships began in that room, quite a few marriages and pairings and a lot of intense conversations.”

The library is sometimes used for functions, and undergraduates have, on occasion, been taken inside by professors. Most undergraduates who have seen it, though, have broken in or borrowed keys from friendly graduate students — David Rudnick ’09 ate and slept in the room for four days in order to finish his senior essay, pretending to be a graduate student.

The room was also home to YSECs, the Yale Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets for the 2007-’08 academic year, whose members would break in and hold their meetings there every night, and one senior society tapped an unsuspecting freshman who happened to stray onto the eighth floor when they were holding their initiation ritual there.

When I suggested to Mary Jane Stevens, the registrar of the Literature Department, that there was a “secret library” in Bingham Tower, she laughed.

“It’s not really a secret place,” she said. “It’s just off-limits to undergrads.”

7. The Peabody Tapeworm Collection

I am led through a door marked “Staff Only,” down a long white corridor to another set of doors, and then through another corridor. I’m following Museum Assistant Daniel Drew to the invertebrate zoology laboratory at the Peabody Museum. We’re here to see the collection of tapeworms, a request that the guard at the front desk says “you don’t get every day.”

The Peabody has a collection of a couple of thousand samples of tapeworms collected by Yale’s first professor of zoology, Addison E. Verrill, in the late 19th century. Verrill actually named several parasites, although his specialty was fish.

We arrive in a bright white room. Jars containing masses of gray-brown material suspended in ethyl alcohol sit on a desk in the center.

Drew directs my attention to two jars, which contain beef tapeworms extracted from Yale students on March 18, 1896. The worms can grow up to 16 feet in length.

He then shows me a model about half-a-foot long of the tapeworm’s hooking mechanism, which ensures you have to kill the tapeworm with medicine before you can excrete it. We then move to the collection itself — he maneuvers rows and rows of moveable shelves stacked with samples of invertebrates until he gets to the tapeworms.

Eric Lazo-Wasem, senior collections manager of the Peabody’s Invertebrate Zoology department, enters the room at this point and, after introducing himself, points at his favorite specimen — a parasitic worm that was removed from the vomit of a stranger in the New Haven train station and sent to Verrill in 1879.

When I ask why anyone would even think of sending the specimen to Verrill, Lazo-Wasem replies:

“Think of New Haven in 1879 – he would have been known for his science, and on top of it he was the State Parasitologist, so it would have been natural for them to bring that here.”

But the specimens are not just from New Haven — Yale owns the first slides taken back from Africa by Theodor Bilharz of a more deadly parasite, now known as Bilharzia.

Aside from the various species of parasite, Verrill’s collection also includes some curios such as the intestine of a hog (ruptured from an overpopulation of worms), chunks of pig meat with cysts (caused by the tapeworm’s intermediate stage) and a small section of a human shoulder infected by more than 100,000 miniature worms.

Lazlo-Wasem says that a person could die painfully from an infection like that, but, thanks to antibiotics and better food screening, it is uncommon today for people to even get a tapeworm.

8. Dura Europos remains

In 1920, during the Arab Revolt, a British soldier digging a trench in what is now Syria chanced upon set of wall paintings that were marvelously preserved. This was the first time since the fall of the fort of Dura Europos to the Sassanid Empire in 256 or 257 A.D. that anyone had seen the remains of what was once a mighty Roman stronghold.

Due to unrest in the region, it was not until 1928 that extensive archaeological excavations could begin. Teams sponsored by Yale and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres began to plunder the site and ship their findings back to Damascus, the United States and France. The excavations ended in 1937, by which time 12,000 pieces of clothing, weapons, wall paintings and other remains had found their way back to the Yale University Art Gallery.

Dura was an incredibly multicultural city and the findings certainly reflect that:

“It was a crossroads in the region — traders would go through, caravans would go through,” explains Lisa Brody ’91, the YUAG’s associate curator of ancient art. “What’s wonderful about the site for scholars is that it’s very well preserved, and that the archaeological remains reflect all of these different cultures interacting — especially, for example, the religions.”

The city of Dura had a Mithraic temple, an early Christian chapel and a synagogue, which were all sent back to Yale as complete as possible. Reconstructions of the whole Mithraic temple and Christian chapel’s baptistry were built in the 1980s and housed at the YUAG, but now the entirety of the collection is kept at an off-site storage facility in Hamden.

“We are in the process of evaluating the condition of the objects from the Dura excavation and beginning conservation treatment,” says Brody, who laments that students are not able to see the collection.

She said she hopes to organize a travelling exhibition of the objects starting in February 2011, before the space for the collection to be permanently housed and exhibited (including the reconstruction of the Mithraic temple, but not the baptistery, which will be digitally reconstructed) is completed in 2012.

Until then, interested parties can view the objects on ARTstor.com if they can’t charm their way into the off-site facility.

9. Holy Land U.S.A.

Sometimes you need to get out of Yale to find strange things. But you don’t need to go far to find one of the weirdest places in Connecticut. It was late last year that I crept up the hill with a group of friends to the site of Holy Land U.S.A., an abandoned Christian theme park.

Founded in 1956 by John Greco LAW ’25, a local attorney who said God called him to build the park on a hilltop overlooking Waterbury, “Holy Land U.S.A.” is a miniature reconstruction of Bethlehem, complete with sites of interest in the life of Jesus Christ. By the 1970s, it was one of Connecticut’s main tourist attractions, with around 44,000 people visiting each year to hear stories about the life of Jesus, stroll through the mini catacombs and buy souvenirs from the gift shop.

But Greco was 70 when he began Holy Land, and by the 1980s, he had to close the park due to the fact that he simply could not maintain it. When he died in 1986, he left it to the Religious Teachers Filipini, the order of nuns who still maintain it.

The gate was open when we visited and nobody challenged our entrance, save a black cat that dashed in front of us. Bad luck? Perhaps — we were unable to find the catacombs. Still, the view from the top of the hill is stunning at sunset.

Comments

  • goldie ’08

    sweet article. really interesting. you should do more of these, or just one a week as a scene feature. there are many more things to explore at Yale

  • tuck189

    Really great piece. Please, more like this, with pictures…

  • donvito

    there’s already a weird new england book. there are plenty of things at yale and around new haven for a book. the two former italian consulates in new haven for instance. one in wooster square, which was owned by howard taft for a while. he had an oversized bathtub installed in the basement. the other one in westville. yale avenue i think. i know a yale alum who lives directly behind it. the consul and wife were discovered to be axis spies during world war 2 and deported. the wife supposedly put a hex on the house.

  • B

    Excellent.

  • Hopeful

    I hope that you meant “beef tapeworms extracted by students” and not “from students”.

  • Alum ’98

    I really enjoyed this piece as well. I wish I had been able to see some of these curiosities when I was a student!

  • auth

    no, “from students” is correct.

  • Y10

    Great article! Really interesting

  • Sarah

    I agree – I really enjoyed this! I hope to see more articles like it. Perhaps even one on the most expensive “things” Yale has. I’ve always heard a rumor that the chandelier in the Davenport dining hall is some sort of special crystal that’s worth 1.5 million or so.

  • June

    This is an excellent article. Well written and interesting. Thank you.

  • old alum

    This was a wonderful article…maybe you could convince the Yale Alumni Magazine to run it with assorted pictures (and pay you for the privilege!)

  • xtinaxtantini

    great article, nicolas.