Here’s one just in time for Halloween. Turning the musty pages of The Knickerbocker, or, New York Monthly Magazine for September 1849, we come upon this most curious tale. (When reading what follows, keep in mind that political correctness was a concept far in the future.)
A negro woman, FRANCES COUENHOVEN by name, residing at a place called ‘Dead Horse Bay,’ near Gravesend, Long-Island, was married about eighteen months ago. The day after the ceremony she started with her husband in an ordinary ‘top-buggy’ wagon to visit some friends who lived a few miles off; and it so happened that the horse took fright, and in spite of the address of the driver, managed to run under a sign that was elevated upon two posts, at the junction of the bay and Gravesend roads, by which the top of the buggy was torn off instantly, and the sable pair narrowly escaped with their lives. In due course of time FRANCES became a mother. The child was born entirely bald; but the attention of the physician, Dr. STILLWELL, was directed to an unusual development on the back of the infant’s head. Upon examination, it proved to be a mass of thin membranous substance, in texture like a bat’s-wing, intersected with slender, elastic radii, resembling whale-bone, and turning upon osseous pivots at the ears. Judge of the surprise of the physician, when upon farther [sic] examination it proved to be moveable; and gently drawing it forward over the infant’s head, it unfolded itself into a miniature representation of a gig-top! The child is now living, and may be seen at any time by the curious at Dead Horse Bay, Long Island, about nine miles from this city.
Sadly, for those of us of ghoulish bent, none of this was true. There was – and is – an inlet east of Sheepshead Bay called Dead Horse Bay. It is named, prosaically, for the glue factory detritus that littered its shores in the nineteenth century. (It remains a place of eerie pilgrimage, where urban explorers mine the castoff bits of Brooklyn life that time and tide have rendered somehow beautiful. ABC News “discovered” Dead Horse Bay in a recent piece.) And the surnames Stillwell and Couenhoven (more usually spelled “Kouwenhoven”) were common in Gravesend, the town that once comprised the southernmost reaches of Brooklyn.
But the Knickerbocker liked to poke fun at other periodicals, especially the stodgy, pseudo-scientific ones. Thus, satire was the impetus behind this tale of a baby born with a buggy-top covering his head. The Scalpel: A Journal of Health, Adapted to Popular and Professional Reading, and the Exposure of Quackery, had run in August a “serious” piece on “Remarkable Instances of the Effect of the Imagination of the Mother on her Unborn Child,” fleshed out with eyebrow-raising of examples of pregnancies delivered of infants with cat-shaped eyes or half a horse’s head.
In a follow-up, the Knickerbocker – or, rather, its sister publication with the tongue-in-cheek title, Bunkum Flag-Staff and Independent Echo – sent a reporter and a sketch artist to see firsthand the baby at Dead Horse Bay. They found the “little critter . . . playin’ out in front of the house, with its top up, ’cause ’t was drizzly. We let it up and down twice . . . and it works [first] rate.”
And if you believe that, there’s a big old bridge here in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you!
Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (firstname.lastname@example.org)