Truth, Lies, and Presidential Bones

I, along with some others, take Presidents Day as an opportunity to celebrate the lives and contributions of all US presidents. Amid the praise, however, perhaps I alone feel compelled to describe their skeletal maladies. I have gleaned the following information from several websites and books that carefully detail the reported injuries, diseases, bad habits, and addictions experienced by US chief executives throughout their lives, starting with George Washington’s birth in 1732.

The list may not be complete and accurate for at least three reasons. X-rays were not discovered until 1895, so a “fracture” before that time, unless the bone ends were seen emerging through the skin, might have been a dislocated joint or a bad sprain. Secondly, diagnostic terms such as gout, lumbago, and rheumatism have been tossed about without strict and uniform definitions over the nearly 300-year span of this survey. And early on, there were not confirmatory laboratory tests for such diagnoses. Finally, there have been multiple instances where a president wanted to keep his ailment(s) secret because of their implication of weakness or vulnerability; yet the truth escaped. It is possible, however, that there are other presidential ails that never became publicly known.

Efforts at secrecy led to at least one other problem. It may have precluded some presidents from receiving the best care available, because for the sake of covertness, they shunned the most eminent (and most visible) doctors and hospitals. Another possible problem is that trying to maintain secrecy usually entailed lying. 

Millard Fillmore

Jimmy Carter is the longest living president–presently 94 and counting. Who was the healthiest president? Likely it was Millard Fillmore. He neither drank nor smoked and was conscientious about maintaining his wellbeing. He had no known medical problems until he suffered a stroke at age 74. A second stroke later the same year killed him.

John Tyler

Conversely, John Tyler was in ill health throughout his life. His maladies included arthritis and general achiness, particularly in his post-presidential years. Nonetheless, he managed to father eight children with one wife before he was President and seven more with a second wife after his term. His last child was born when Tyler was 70. Tyler died two years later. Imagine his productivity had he been spry.

People will undoubtedly speculate forever about Lincoln’s skeletal condition. There is some agreement that he inherited it from his mother, since they shared many skeletal features. A reporter once described Lincoln as over six feet tall, lanky, with long drooping arms “terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions, which, however were far exceeded in proportion by his feet.”  Lincoln, whatever his skeletal peculiarities, did not apparently have any noteworthy bony problems other than having a piece of his jaw extracted along with a tooth. Many of his fellow presidents were not so lucky.

Jefferson, Kennedy and George W. Bush all had severe back pain. Jefferson’s life predated the discovery of general anesthesia, so elective back surgery during his time was unimaginable. JFK had one operation, Bush two.

Gerald Ford sustained multiple injuries playing high school and college football, which led in later life to bilateral total knee replacements. These restored his ability to play golf and tennis.

Grover Cleveland

In 1893 during his second presidential term, Grover Cleveland surreptitiously had surgery to remove a cancer from his mouth (on his cigar-chewing side) along with part of his upper jaw and hard palate. The surgery was performed entirely through his mouth, so there was no external evidence of the procedure, and his bushy moustache likely concealed swelling and bruising. The clandestine operation took place aboard a private yacht cruising Long Island Sound. His five-day absence went entirely unexplained, and Cleveland allegedly said to those involved that he lied more about this event than he did during the whole rest of his life. Twenty-five years later the truth emerged.  

Here is a list of presidential fractures sorted from head to toe. Taft fell from a wagon at age nine and sustained a “minor” skull fracture, which by some accounts left him with a life-long and visible indentation in his scalp. Both Truman and Carter broke their collar bones, the former from falling out of a chair in childhood and the latter from skiing in adulthood. Both had additional fractures in late life. Truman fell and broke several ribs; and Carter, the oldest living past President at age 94, broke his hip as he was leaving home to go turkey hunting. Far more dramatic were Jackson’s rib fractures, which resulted from a duel. Later, in an out-and-out gunfight, a bullet shattered Jackson’s shoulder. The first gunshot wound continued to drain and stink for the rest of Jackson’s life.

Jefferson, two months after becoming Minister to France, broke his wrist. This occurred either while jumping a fence during a tour of Paris with a married woman (Jefferson’s wife had died three years before), while he was jumping over a kettle, or while he was walking with a friend. Was somebody lying? Regardless, this injury nagged him for the rest of his life and further disabled him when, at age 78, he fell from a broken step at home and fractured his opposite wrist.

Reagan fell from a horse and broke his femur when he was 38. At age 90, well after retiring from public view, he broke his hip, which was successfully pinned, and he survived another two years.

Regarding non-fatal gun shots yet harrowing glimpses of death but without apparent skeletal injuries, the award goes to Rutherford Hayes. He sustained Civil War battle wounds on four separate occasions and also had horses shot from under him an equal number of times. 

Even though Washington as a child blurted “I cannot tell a lie”, and Lincoln was known as Honest Abe, the prize for bold truth-telling goes to Eisenhower. A White House visitor noticed him wearing a leather wrist brace and inquired. Ike responded that it was mild arthritis. The visitor said he was glad it wasn’t serious. Eisenhower exclaimed, “I should say it’s serious. I can’t play golf.”  

Happy Presidents Day!


To be published in October
by WW Norton

Why a broken leg is a horse’s death warrant.

Truest Reward was the thirty-eighth thoroughbred to meet its demise in 2019 at the Santa Anita racetrack. The high incidence of horses breaking their legs at this track in recent years has raised many concerns and adverse publicity.

Multiple factors are likely involved. They include not cancelling races when the track is rain-soaked and doping the steeds with anti-inflammatory drugs, sedatives, and muscle relaxants. Although toxicology studies have not shown drug levels that exceeded the racing board’s rules, it remains disturbing that the board allows horses to run while taking multiple medications. Such drugs likely mask early symptoms of skeletal stress, which are exacerbated by too-frequent racing–a habit promoted by those with strong financial stakes in the sport. The problem is not unique to Santa Anita. According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, an average of nearly ten horses died while racing or training at American racetracks in 2018. Even more sadly, the same fracture can occur in horses not bred to race.

Consider the long bones in your hand or forefoot. Imagine fusing two of the middle ones side to side, quadrupling their length, depriving them of any overlying muscle, and restricting their blood supply. Such are the cannon bones. They are a major reason why horses can run fast. But if the horse stumbles, gets kicked, or even tries to stand up in its stall, the cannon bone can break. The final snap may occur in a bone previously stressed and cracked, which was either unknown to or ignored by the trainer. Circulating medications may at times mask symptoms of the impending catastrophe.  

The bones themselves are problematic. Most of these fractures occur in either the front or hind leg’s cannon bone. I have blogged previously on the versatility of these strong, dense, long bones that have been repurposed as chisels, awls, hide scrapers, buttons, chess pieces, decorative objects, musical instruments, and paving. What makes the cannon bone useful to crafts people makes them useful to horses.

Those affiliated with horse racing, financially, emotionally, or both, describe the final act as euthanasia, which is double speak for kill. With either word, the result is the same: the world is absent one magnificent animal.

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, about 1762
National Gallery

So why is an equine cannon bone fracture fatal? Dogs and cats can hop around pretty well on three legs. Horses can’t. If they try, their other hooves become diseased.  Casts and body slings are entirely impractical. Surgical fixation with metal plates and screws is sometimes attempted, but such procedures are complicated by several major issues. The fracture ends often tear the skin. Then bacteria-laden soil contaminates the wound. Infection overwhelms the surgical endeavor. The fracture may also strip the foot of its already tenuous blood supply, thus precluding the delivery of nutrients and antibiotics to the injury zone and beyond. Because of the added bulk, placement of sturdy hardware may preclude closure of the surgical incision. Then there is the issue of getting an 1100-pound patient to stand up following general anesthesia. The horse unknowingly and perhaps painlessly exerts tremendous bending and twisting forces that sorely test the stability of the most secure hardware fixation.

Is there hope? A little, especially for incomplete fractures and simple, non-displaced ones. Innovative veterinarian orthopedists can try to stabilize such fractures with screws placed through incisions just large enough to admit the drill, screw, and screwdriver. (three minute video) This is done with nerve blocks in the leg while the horse, awake, remains standing. (The surgeon and assistant perform the procedure on their knees.) Pool therapy, useful for sore tendons, ligaments, and joints in both humans and horses, may have a role in the rehabilitation of minor fractures that are securely fixed. Aquatic suspension may be particularly helpful during recovery from general anesthesia.

Since treatment is woeful and no improvements are on the horizon, hope has to rely on better regulation, which can’t come too soon. On New Years Day, Golden Birthday became the first Santa Anita racehorse in 2020 to meet Truest Reward’s fate from just five days before. And this is sport?


The most popular About Bone posts in 2019:

Is it orthopedic or orthopaedic?

How are you going to celebrate National Fossil Day?

Versatile Venerable Vertebrae

Should you resolve to drink bone broth this year?

Extravagant Gifts for Bone Lovers

This time last year, I posted gift ideas for the frugal bone lover–nothing over $9.99. For this holiday season, I have decided to help you shop for those highly sophisticated, discriminating, hard-to-please recipients on your list. The options are vast, but for inclusion here, the selections had to meet these tasteful criteria:

no human skull motifs

no real-bone jewelry

nothing under $500

Of course, after you finish shopping, forward this post to those who will be shopping for you with a “hint, hint.”

By the way, I have no financial interest in any of the items, nor do I own any of them myself, except the last one, which is priceless.

For nature lovers, especially those with large homes or personal museums, consider an assembled skeleton. The leaping fox diorama is a steal for $1225, although it is presently on back order. Conversely the giraffe skeleton stands 14 feet tall and is immediately available for $42,000. Shipping charges would have to be negotiated. At a mere $3000 per vertical foot, the giraffe is certainly worth what it would add to any decor.

Perhaps your gifting budget is a bit tight and your nature lovers are a do-it-yourself types. Consider giving them skeleton “kits” to assemble. Size matters, of course. The squirrel monkey sells for $500 where as the caribou and the camel go for $3475 and $3975, respectively. (Camels are larger than caribous.)

caribou, squirrel monkey, camel

For do-it-yourself techies, large-capacity 3D printers would bring smiles to their faces. One big enough to print whole bones is going to cost $700-$800, but consider that the data files for many different bones are posted on the internet and are free. For example, here are prints of skulls of a gopher tortoise and a gray fox.

Admittedly, not everybody shares my love for bare bones. Nonetheless, extravagant gifts, which do not blatantly shout bone, abound. Consider jewelry, either made from bone or made to look like bone. The ring contains a polished dinosaur fossil. The jeweler insists that the incorporated fossils come from rock shards that are unidentifiable by species and unimportant to paleontologists. Whew! And for $1145, what a great way to safely relate to a terrible lizard. The bone-bead bracelet seems pretty enough without the diamond bauble, but that certainly elevates the price, which is $1050, shipping included. The “bone cuff” is a classic Elsa Peretti design that Tiffany’s lets go for $1150 in sterling silver and for ten times that much in gold. I am not sure if a discerning woman would wear the diamond dog bone necklace, but if she has a dog, then it is a winner. What pooch wouldn’t want to style jewelry worth $1335 around its neck.

For the cerebral, reserved types on your gift list, consider chess sets made of bone. This set costs $1495, which might seem extravagant for a game, but the recipient gets 32 pieces at $47 each.

Then for the impossibly difficult people on your list who already have everything, give them a way to carry and store their bounty. The Alexander McQueen roller bag is “pre-owned” and available on eBay for $796, but the seller is amenable to offers. Standing nearly six feet tall is a bone-inlaid closet selling for $2499 and suitable for storing skeletons.

Finally, here is the most valuable and enduring gift of all. It is priceless, and spreading the word about the blog will also be a great present to me. If you would like, I will mail as many ABOUT BONE cards to you as you wish. Toss each friend and loved one a bone (card) and encourage them to subscribe. Oh so tasteful and supremely extravagant!

Happy Holidays


Breaking news for 2020:

Want to hear about Bone, Inside and Out, in a somewhat organized manner? I will be teaching such a course 1:30 – 3:00 pm on five Tuesdays, January 14 – February 11, at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles. Sign up now. We are going to have lots of fun.

WW Norton will be publishing my book, Bone, Inside and Out, in October. Details later.

Wishbone-related Topics to Bring Up (or not) at Thanksgiving Dinner

Certainly you awed your Thanksgiving companions the past two years with bone-related facts gleaned from Twelve No-Fail Conversation Starters Regarding Wishbones (November 2017) and It Takes A Turkey to Call a Turkey (November 2018). Your admirers are undoubtedly wondering what fascinating information you will bring to the holiday table this year.

When the usual chatter about wishbones seems to be waning, cut right in with, “You know, wishbones are not the only bones possessed by some animals but not humans.” Then go down the following list as far as necessary in order to ensure that you will be the center of attention for years to come.

eye rings: pigeon, Komodo dragon
Museum of Osteology

Some birds and reptiles have a flat ring of bone embedded in the white of their eyes. Dinosaurs did too. The ring surrounds the eyeball and tends to give the skull a scholarly look. It probably helps support the shape of the eye, but nobody knows its purpose for sure.

left to right: moose, cow, goat, bone-lover

I have discussed cannon bones (August 7, 2018) before. They are a fusion of several bones located between the ankles/wrists and digits of many hoofed animals. In life, the cannon bones facilitate running; afterwards they are particularly prized by indigenous peoples and handicrafters, who take advantage of their flat, straight surfaces and thick walls to make buttons, fish hooks, musical instruments, and decorative items.

extinct marine mammal, Glasgow Natural History Museum
courtesy D.W. Niven

The next is a set of bones, the gastral basket, possessed by a variety of prehistoric birds and reptiles, including T rex. Crocodiles and a lizard-like New Zealand creature are the sole present-day owners. A gastral basket looks like an oven-rack, in other words, a set of extra ribs at belly level, except that they are not attached to the rest of the skeleton. The gastral basket provided shield-like protection for the owner’s soft underbelly. It may have contributed to breathing, to flying, or to both. It was the Spanx of the prehistoric world.

Is your audience still raptly attentive? If so, carry on.

sea lion, courtesy Cetacea Contracting; ground squirrel, courtesy U Michigan

Nothing is in doubt about the function of the penis bone. It allows for prolonged intercourse, which is the necessary strategy for ensuring paternity of offspring when suitable females are encountered infrequently. Various current-day owners include dogs, cats, raccoons, and sea lions. Its shape varies from rod-like to phantasmagorical. Its size varies from tiny in small monkeys to over two feet long in walruses. Females of species that harbor penis bones generally have clitoris bones, although much smaller.

Likely by this time your tablemates are totally engrossed with your mastery of specialized osteology, but it’s better to stop now and leave them begging for more bone lore, which I will provide next November.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Twenty Ways to Celebrate Day of the Dead

It began as a three-day festival in Southern and Central Mexico and has spread around the world. Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations now take place throughout Central and South America, the Philippines, and locales as far away from Mexico as Massachusetts, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic.

Pre-Columbian cultures have held rituals celebrating their ancestors for perhaps 2500 years. On the Aztec calendar, the festival that morphed into the modern Day of the Dead celebration fell during the summer and lasted a month. After Spanish colonization of the New World in the 16th century, the festival became associated on the Christian calendar with Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, aka Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. It is now a national holiday in Mexico, designed to be a unifying tradition among the nation’s various cultures.

The point is to celebrate deceased friends and family members and support their spiritual journey as they awaken temporarily to enjoy the festivities along with the living. Bones abound.

Colorful and elaborate skeletal displays, especially skulls, are evident in parades, costumes, shrines, and tomb decorations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is embellished with twisted bones made from white frosting. Calaveras (sugar skull candies) are decorated to represent the unique personalities of the departed. A box can be on your doorstep tomorrow when you order from Amazon Prime.

Mexico City was a late comer to the idea of a Día de Muertos parade, starting with a staged one in 2015. It formed the opening scene for the James Bond movie Spectre. The heart-pounding opening scene lasts about eight minutes and shows Daniel Craig destroying a custom-tailored suit amidst gunfire and collapsing buildings; but if you want to focus on dancing bones and skeletons, watch between minutes three and five.

Following that publicity, Mexicans were so taken with the idea of a Day of the Dead parade that they held a bona fide one the next year, which 250,000 people attended. Atlantic magazine just this week posted an array of stunning photographs taken in anticipation of Mexico City’s 2019 merrymaking.

The Los Angeles offerings are centered at Olvera Street and include art exhibits, elaborate altars, and parades extending over nine days. Several cemeteries host elaborate altar-making contests with the winners walking away with $5000 prizes. See seventeen of the region’s top festivities here.

Day of the Dead celebrations are opportunities to celebrate life and remember those who did so previously. And for Angelenos, it’s another chance to get in costume. I joined the festivities last year and absorbed the culture on Olvera Street. Afterwards I rode the Metro home. Nobody on the train batted an eye.

How are you going to celebrate National Fossil Day?

Wednesday, October 16, is Fossil Day. The National Park Service proclaims it so, now for the tenth year. Its stated mission is “to highlight the scientific and educational value of paleontology and the importance of preserving fossils for future generations.”

As far as I know, there are no parades, costumes, holiday cards, or festive foods, just a day to appreciate stone bones. Special events are taking place at natural history and science museums in at least 34 states; but at this late date, you may have already made other plans, so at least you should know what paleontology is as well as what fossil are and a little bit about how they form.

Paleontology, a blending of geology and biology, is the study of ancient life on Earth, based on fossils, which are stone replicas of plants and animals.

An animal may die and get silted over before its skeleton either weathers away or gets scavenged. When conditions are just so, water permeating through those bones’ porous surfaces and leaches out calcium-containing molecules, which are then immediately replaced by another mineral dissolved in the water. The bone turns to stone, one molecule at a time, over tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of years. The mud surrounding the bone also turns to stone, but its constitution is different because it did not start out as bone. If the fossilized bone weathers away a little more slowly than the sedimentary rock within which it is embedded, then later—even millions of years later—when a sea, lake, or riverbank dries up, a passerby might spot a partially exposed fossil.

I get brain freeze when I consider two probabilities. First, only a tiny fraction of animals from millions of years ago were successfully transformed into fossils. Second, most of those that did turn to stone are either still buried or have already become exposed and have weathered away. The fossils that we do have, therefore, constitute only a minuscule glimpse of ancient life, yet they provide fortuitous and miraculous insights into Earth’s history. It is worth a day of reflection.

The public’s interest in fossils had a distinct beginning date–1868. Before that, large stone bones, which as you can imagine are heavy, collected dust in university and museum storerooms.

examples of Hawkin’s artwork

British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was a prolific and well-known natural-history illustrator for Darwin and other mid-century biologists. Hawkins was commissioned to develop an extensive “Paleozoic Museum” in New York City’s Central Park. The intention was to dynamically display dinosaurs that had recently been discovered in America.

Hawkins and his earth-shaking Hadrosaurus

Because New York neither possessed the necessary fossils nor the paleontological expertise for the project, Hawkins ventured to Philadelphia. There he received support from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences to assemble the skeleton of a thirty-foot dinosaur, most of the bones of which were in the Academy’s collection. He made plaster reproductions of missing bones and creatively supported them all with a metal framework such that the reconstructed skeleton assumed a lifelike, standing posture. Hawkins was the first to display fossilized dinosaur bones in this manner.   

The public clamored to see this assembled dinosaur skeleton. Attendance at the Academy doubled over the next year. The display piqued the public’s interest in dinosaurs, an interest that remains strong over 150 years later.

If you need some other juicy facts to spice up your Fossil Day conversations, here are several previous About Bone posts that will help.

Genuine Hate Produced the Bone Wars

T rex Rocks

Fossil Fraud Foisted, then Fossil Fraud Foiled

And finally, a little paleontology humor. We wouldn’t understand if we didn’t have fossils. Happy Fossil Day.

T rex Rocks

In my April 29, 2019 post, Big Bone Business on eBay, I noted that the fossilized skeleton of a baby Tyrannosaurus rex was for sale on eBay for $2.95 million. The seller recently ended the auction–apparently no takers. Should they repost the offering please do humankind and science a favor: buy it and have it shipped directly to a natural history museum. On the eBay posting, the seller hyped the auction with some cock and bull about not wanting this treasure to fall into the hands of a museum, which “has limited opening hours and might be prohibitively expensive for some to visit”. Rather, the seller stated, “Once put ONLINE, the entire World can enjoy it 24/7/365.” OK, give it to a museum while stipulating that the museum posts the images online. Then everybody can enjoy the photos, and interested paleontologists can access the real deal for close study.

Only 20 relatively intact sets of T rex stone bones exist overall, and there is recent good news about several Tyrannosaurus specimens that are safely ensconced for scientific study and public awe.

Sue, the most intact specimen found to date, is about 90% complete and continues to terrify and delight museum goers at the Field Museum in Chicago. Since December she resides in the Museum’s new Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet and is now positioned in a less crouched and more aggressive position than before. Because her supporting armature allows temporary removal of any of her bones individually for intense study, a generation of paleontologists has learned much about T rex’s posture and movement and has even estimated her body weight.

Opening with much anticipation and fanfare on June 8, the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, displays “The Nation’s T Rex“. It is posed to soon devour a hapless Triceratops. This T rex is on 50-year lease from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns it since the fossils were discovered on federal land in Montana.

A few months earlier came a full scientific description of Scotty, a T rex originally discovered in 1991, the year after Sue surfaced. Full-scale excavation of Scotty began in 1994 and proceeded slowly because of the extremely dense rock encasing the specimen. This and other difficulties delayed the publication of a complete analysis until now. Investigators estimate that Scotty lived into his early 30’s (extremely long for a dinosaur) and, based on the length and girth of his bones, stretched 40 feet from snout to tail tip and might have slightly outweighed Sue. I doubt, however, that either one obsessed much over their weight. A full-scale replica of Scotty recently went on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, near its discovery site.

In addition to nicknames such as Sue and Scotty, other T rex specimens sport monikers such as Stan, Bucky, Tristan, and Trix, although the sex of any dinosaur has yet to be determined. Supposing Sue was actually male, I wonder if his name predisposed him to bar fights a la Shel Silverstein and Johnny Cash? If so, what do you think the bar bullies had been drinking? Who do you think would have won?

Cobblebone Pavement

In my quest to learn everything about bone, over the past three years I have visited at least 100 museums on four continents as well as scoured additional museums’ on-line collections and untold numbers of books and journal articles. Recently I spent a day in Oxford, England, visiting two anthropology museums, a natural history museum, and a history of science museum. In each, I found interesting bone objects but really nothing I had not seen before. Therefore with low expectations, I stopped by the Museum of Oxford.

The museum was undergoing renovation (“refreshments” in British parlance), but they had set up a temporary micro-museum in a large room at the Oxford Town Hall. It had no ticket counter or guard and just two or three other visitors. One case displayed several bone needles and an ice skate made from a horse or cow cannon bone, examples of which I had seen before.

Then I saw a surprise–a three-foot square slab laid flat on a waist-high display case. The shapes of the pieces creating this large mosaic immediately revealed their source—the ends of cannon bones from large animals. (For a description of it, see my previous post, The versatile cannon bone. What is it?)

The bones had been cut in half, placed vertically, and mortared in place to form a pavement of, well, cobblebones. Archaeologists had unearthed the surface at nearby Park End Street and dated it to the 1700’s. At that time the area was a shambles, now an obsolete word for an open-air slaughter house and meat market.

It all fits. Butchers would have little use for cannon bones because they have virtually no meat outside and no marrow inside. So, possibly to get relief from the muddy street, some enterprising soul cut the otherwise useless, readily available, and extremely hard cannon bones in half and paved away.

No one seems to know what fraction of the entire pavement the museum’s section constitutes, so more cobblebone may be resting under adjacent modern buildings. Since returning home, I have discovered that archaeologists have recorded 16 similar examples from Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all of them from the Oxford area and many from private dwellings, so it seems like cobblebone underfoot was a unique local tradition.

Subversive Bone Music

Imagine growing up in the 1950s in the Soviet Union and not being able to hear Bill Haley and the Comets sing Rock Around the Clock or to dance to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The authorities feared that such subversive Western influences would turn youthful passion away from love for the Motherland, and they therefore banned them along with recordings of both tango and saxophone. 

An ingenious workaround, variously known as Bone Music, Jazz on Bones, and Ribs, came about. Bootleggers would play a smuggled, commercially produced record next to a transcription lathe armed with a sharp needle. This would scratch the music’s audible vibrations into a long spiral groove on a spinning disc of discarded vinyl X-ray film. The vinyl was soft enough to accept the groove and hard enough to preserve it.

The task was tedious because a bootlegger had to cut the x-ray films one by one into crude circles, record each one, and burn a center hole with a lit cigarette. The product, however, was cheap and also easy to conceal and sell using the standard methods for distributing urban contraband. 

The audio quality of Ribs has been variously described as “sounding like sand” or as if listening to Ella Fitzgerald “from across the street while being pummeled by torrential rain.” Furthermore, the grooves wore out quickly, sometimes after only five to ten playings. The demand for Bone Music dried up after 1964, when tape recorders became legal.

Curiously, the banned music itself had nothing to do with bones or ribs. Why then, the names? At that time in the Soviet Union, vinyl was scarce and tuberculosis was common. Strangely, there is a connection. Bootleggers repurposed old vinyl X-ray films that hospitals discarded in bulk. Many of these were chest X-rays that had been taken to diagnose lung infections. Listen to a rendition of St. Louis Blues recorded on a skull film, to Ella Fitzgerald singing Lullaby of Birdland, and to Elvis crooning Heartbreak Hotel. The latter two were both recorded on chest X-rays with easily identifiable ribs.

Consider the irony if a bootlegger had recorded one of Mr. Presley’s hits on a pelvic X-ray. Subversive indeed.

Roll the bones!

During life, a goat’s knucklebones allow for ankle motion, which the goat finds useful but probably not fascinating. In their afterlife, however, knucklebones from goats and sheep have fascinated humans for thousands of years, probably beginning in ancient Egypt or in what is now western Turkey. Roughly rectangular, each bone is about the size of a hard candy. Four or five fit easily in the palm, and it is almost impossible not to jiggle them momentarily and roll them out—a thrill of touch, sight, sound, and … anticipation.

Although the ends are too small and rounded for them to stand straight up, the knucklebones’ four long sides are uniquely shaped, so the odds vary for one coming to rest on any given side. Without concern for how they landed, children played jacks with them or tossed them up and tried to catch them on the backs of their hands. By attributing different values for each landing surface, adults used them for gambling, hence the expression, “Roll the bones.” Fortune tellers attributed meaning to the landing positions both of the individual bones and their relationships to one another.

Kuncklebones’ ageless popularity for gaming and forecasting is apparent from their frequent presence in archaeological discoveries, with the objects both in their original osseous forms as well as reproductions made from metal or clay. Through the ages, sculptors, potters, and painters have recorded people’s fascination with knucklebones. 

Cubic dice evolved from knucklebones and standardized the odds of a gaming piece landing on a given side. Other shapes ensued, from four sides to twenty sides and nearly every sidedness in between.

Goats and sheep are not the sole original possessors of knucklebones. Any hoofed animal with cannon bones (the topic of a previous blog post) has knucklebones. This includes horses and cattle. These, however, would be too large to jiggle and roll more than one, which would have made a game of Monopoly tediously slow.