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January 2, 2024 10 mins

Let's go find a few curious facets of the great state of Pennsylvania, shall we?

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales are right there on display, just
waiting for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

(00:36):
Imagine this. The year is eighteen thirty and you have
a horn growing out of the center of your forehead.
It's the color and texture of tree bark. It started
forming six years ago and now it's nearly ten inches long.
You want this weird growth gone, but the doctors all
tell you the same thing. Surgery is going to be
horrifically painful. However, after six years of living with this

(00:58):
thing growing out of your head, you don't really care anymore.
You go in for surgery to handle the pain you
know is coming. You're given whiskey that's it, drunk, but
fully aware that a scalpel is aimed at your face.
You lay back, bite down on a towel and hope
for the best. It's the most excruciating thing you have
ever experienced, but you survived the ordeal, and because of

(01:20):
that you become famous for being one of the first
successful plastic surgery patients ever. And I'm sure you've guessed
by now that this is a true story. The patient
in question was Madame Demanche of Paris. She had a
cutaneous horn, which is a large tumor formed out of keratin.
After her successful operation, she became a poster child for
plastic surgery. A wax model of her face, horn and

(01:44):
all was purchased by an American medical school graduate while
he worked abroad. His name was doctor Thomas Mooder, and
he would become one of the most important surgeons in
the world. Born in Virginia in eighteen eleven, Thomas's boyhood
was marked by tragedy. By the time time he was
seven years old, his brother, mother, and father had all
passed away from illness. He was sent to live with

(02:06):
his grandmother, but soon she too died. He was then
raised by a family friend until at fifteen years old,
he left to go to college, and Thomas flourished in school.
He flew through his undergrad studies and soon moved to Philadelphia,
where he attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. At
just twenty years old, he officially became doctor Muder. The

(02:27):
next year, he took a trip to Paris to study
the burgeoning field of plastic surgery. Now, just to be clear,
doctor Mud wasn't doing facelifts. In the eighteen hundreds, plastic
surgeons were most often focused on helping patients with congenital deformities,
body growths, or injuries from severe accidents. Usually they worked
with very extreme cases, like that of Madame Demnche. Doctor

(02:50):
Mud purchased the wax model of her face while working
in Paris and brought it back to Philadelphia the following year.
In eighteen thirty two, he established his own medical practice.
He soon gained a reputation as someone who truly cared
about his patient's comfort and safety when he operated. He
tried to keep the surgery clean and quick to minimize
his patient suffering. But still, the sculpture of the horned

(03:13):
woman served as a sad reminder people tended to avoid
surgery even when they desperately needed it. It was just
too painful, and a lot of nineteenth century doctors didn't
seem to care. They viewed pain as a natural part
of surgery, something to be accepted rather than avoided. But
doctor Mutor disagreed if surgery wasn't so agonizing, people would

(03:35):
be more likely to get the help that they needed,
and that's why when he learned about a new medical
technology in eighteen forty six, he was desperate to try it.
He was called ether. Now, for those who don't know,
ether was in early form of anesthesia. It knocked patients
unconscious during surgery, preventing them from feeling any pain. Many
physicians were opposed to its use, though, believing that it

(03:56):
could be dangerous, but doctor Mutor saw it as an
opportunity that couldn't be passed up. That same year, doctor
Mudor became the first surgeon in Philadelphia to administer anesthesia.
It was a huge success, and people begin flocking to
him for pain free or at least far less painful
medical care. Over the next few decades, the practice of
administering anesthesia before surgery caught on. Meanwhile, doctor Muder became

(04:21):
a professor at the local Jefferson Medical College. He lectured
on the benefits of ether, inspiring a generation of physicians.
By the time he died in eighteen fifty nine, he
had become a symbol for a more humane, patient centered
approach to medicine. He'd also amassed an impressive collection of
medical specimens, which were eventually used to found Philadelphia's Moodor Museum.

(04:42):
In these days, the museum is considered one of the
nation's foremost collections of historical medical oddities. It houses a
mixture of doctor MUD's belongings and other curious acquisitions like
cross sections of Albert Einstein's brain, a tumor from US
President Grover Cleveland's jaw, and of course that wax model
of Madame Dimanche. So if you ever have to go

(05:03):
to the oar, spare a thought for the horned woman
and the surgeon she inspired, and be thankful that doctors
can knock you out with more than just a stiff drink.

(05:27):
On Valentine's Day in nineteen eighty one, twelve year old
Todd Dombowski was walking down the streets in his Pennsylvanian hometown.
His tennis shoes hit the asphalt with each step. Todd
knew to never walk around barefoot. That was something that
you just didn't do. There. He glanced up at the trees,
admiring the first hint of green as winter turned into spring.

(05:47):
Then suddenly he heard a cracking sound his heart leapt
as the ground dropped out from beneath him, creating a
sinkhole that was one hundred and fifty feet deep. Smoke
billowed out of the fissure in the earth, and Todd
fell right in. He flailed his arms desperately, only just
managing to grab hold of an exposed tree root underneath
the broken concrete. He held on for dear life, trying

(06:09):
not to inhale the smoke, and of course he screamed
for help. Thankfully, Tod's cousin was just up the road,
and he ran down to poll Tod out of the sinkhole.
Shaken by the close call, both boys rushed home. The
worst part was this was just another day in Centralia.
It had all started nineteen years earlier. In May of
nineteen sixty two, the city's landfill was starting to overflow.

(06:33):
Their annual Memorial Day celebration was coming, and the last
thing they wanted was to make citizens parade past a
giant mountain of garbage. So the city council came up
with a solution, burn all the trash. It seemed simple enough.
The fire department surrounded the landfill with flame resistant material,
then set the rubbish ablaze. When all the garbage had
been reduced to ash, they doused the area with water

(06:55):
and snuffed out any remaining embers, or so they thought.
Two days later, the landfill was somehow on fire again.
Firefighters sprayed more water, but it didn't seem to help.
The following week, more flames arose. Confused, the fire department
sifted through the ash to find out where these seemingly
immortal flames were coming from. That's how they discovered that

(07:17):
they had made a horrible mistake. You see, in the
early twentieth century, Centralia was a mining town, but that
was so long ago that when the officials lit the
landfill on fire, they didn't think to check underneath it first.
If they had, they would have noticed that all the
trash was stacked on top of an opening of a
coal mine. Completely by accident, the fire department had ignited

(07:38):
that coal and it wasn't just a single mine. It
was a labyrinth of them, stretching out beneath the city
in all directions, all ablaze. Over the following months, a
fire raged underneath people's homes and businesses. The ground was
hot to the touch. Smoke rose out of cracks in
the concrete, and people started getting sick because carbon monoxide
levels became unnaturally high. Of course, the fire department tried

(08:01):
to stop the blaze, but your regular run of the
mill fire hoses were weak weapons when it came to
putting out miles long underground coal fire. They sought outside
help and ended up spending seven million dollars trying to
put the fire out. But by nineteen eighty one, when
twelve year old Todd almost fell into a flaming sinkhole,
the mines were still burning. In nineteen eighty three, twenty

(08:23):
one years after the fire began, the federal government stepped in.
US officials spent forty two million dollars to purchase the
entirety of Centralia, demolishing all the buildings and relocating the
twenty five hundred people who once called the city home.
The government even revoked the city's zip code, officially wiping
it off the map, and just like that, Centralia turned

(08:45):
into a ghost town, a smoky, abandoned abyss of a
ghost town. However, sixty three determined citizens insisted on staying put.
They remained in Centralia for another decade until the state
of Pennsylvania invoked eminent domain in Nighttien ten ninety three,
forcing the remaining locals to leave, well most of them.
If you can believe it, exactly six people refuse to

(09:07):
leave Centralia, even though it had become a dangerous ghost
town where the streets routinely opened up to reveal the
flaming mines below. In twenty thirteen, these remaining Centrallians sued
the state of Pennsylvania for rights to their property. They
each received a settlement of nearly three hundred and fifty
thousand dollars and the right to stay in their homes
for as long as they lived. And you have to

(09:29):
admit it's a spooky image. Six people living in a
town that doesn't officially exist, their homes nestled in between
the rubble of raised buildings in the ash of a
fire that's still burning. In fact, it was so spooky
that it inspired the creators of a well known horror
movie franchise. The setting of Silent Hill was inspired by Centralia,
and these days the city is more commonly known as

(09:51):
the real life Silent Hill. Sadly, it doesn't look like
Centralia will be getting a new reputation anytime soon. The
fire beneath the city has been going for sixty one years,
and according to experts, there's enough coal in the minds
to keep it burning for two hundred and fifty more.
I guess that doesn't technically qualify as an eternal flame,
but it's pretty darn close. I hope you've enjoyed today's

(10:18):
guided tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free
on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the show by
visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. This show was created by
me Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works. I
make another award winning show called Lore, which is a podcast,
book series, and television show, and you can learn all

(10:40):
about it over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until
next time, stay curious.

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