Sunday, January 15, 2017

Human Sacrifice and Execution in the 1920s

There is more fiendishness and murderousness in this series on human sacrifice and execution in Weird Tales. In the previous series, the fiend or murderer attacked a woman who might somehow resist. Here, she is helpless. You can interpret this situation sexually, just as in the previous series. There is even a name for the desire to have sex with a sleeping or helpless person. It's called somnophilia. Bill Cosby, whom we loved so much when we were kids, has been accused of raping women after having drugged them. Some people think that he is a somnophiliac. Not long ago, I watched Mother, Jugs & Speed from 1976. There are scenes of drug use and of somnophilia in that movie, and you just can't watch it in the same way now as you might have then. I suppose this desire to put women into situations where they are helpless has to do with the viewer's (or participant's) feelings of inferiority or a lack of confidence, sexual ability, or sexual experience, or his attempts to avoid rejection or humiliation. Anyway, here they are, the covers of the 1920s showing human sacrifice and execution. In this first installment, all of the victims are women.

Weird Tales, September 1925. Cover story: "The Gargoyle" by Greye La Spina. Cover art by Andrew Brosnatch.

Weird Tales, November 1926. Cover story: "The Peacock's Shadow" by E. Hoffman Price. Cover art by E. M. Stevenson.

Weird Tales, February 1927. Cover story: "The Man Who Cast No Shadow" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C. Barker Petrie, Jr. I assume this is an image of sacrifice: the woman is helpless and tied down, while the man holds a knife. That makes three knives in a row.

Weird Tales, Ocober 1929. Cover story: The Woman with the Velvet Collar" by Gaston Leroux. Cover art by Hugh Rankin. Here the weapon of choice is not a knife but a guillotine blade. I remember in the movie The Da Vinci Code that the blade is supposed to be a masculine symbol and the cup a feminine symbol. So far in this series (and in the previous one), that seems to be true, at least for the male symbol.

To be concluded . . . 

Text and captions copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I saw Mother, Jugs & Speed only once; in the theater when it came out, and I still clearly recall feeling physically ill at the scene which you referenced. It depicts an inexcusable violation; not just of the flesh, but of an all-important trust. Such abuse of position and power is thoroughly repugnant; akin to an apparently loving father molesting his child. And now that you point it out, Bill Cosby's place in the cast gives the movie and this sequence a whole new perspective.
    Was he inspired by this movie? Or a more disturbing prospect; was this scene inspired by admiration of Bill Cosby's really life practices?
    (Tying another disturbing movie from the seventies into your observations; the film Looking For Mr. Goodbar has a horrifying depiction of the knife as analogous to the male sex organ, of murder as an extension of rape. And this scene is also a violation of trust, making it all the more distressing.)

    Interesting to note that the first three covers here show ritual sacrifice while the fourth gives us an execution (which is, after all, just State-sponsored sacrifice) and that structurally all four compositions are identical; the girl is unconscious and bound across the bottom of the image with the male armed with a blade looming over her on the right.

    I don't know why women's nipples are considered obscene, yet male nipples are not. Is it because a women's nipples are functional? In any event, I was amused by the cover for the February '27 cover, in which the artist cleverly both covered and represented the victim's nipple with the orange candle flame.

    1. Mike,

      I wondered, too, whether Bill Cosby was inspired by the movie or if he was already doing these things when it was made. We should be clear that there are two different episodes and two different characters: Bill Cosby's character administers drugs to a woman (at her request). You get the idea that this is one of his regular services. The scene is highly sexualized. Larry Hagman's character rapes or attempts to rape an unconscious woman. He is punished for it, but, still, it's a pretty cruel and cynical scene, perhaps a reflection of the times. Put the two together, drug use and rape of an unconscious woman, and you have the story that has so recently been in the news.

      Sometimes Weird Tales showed nipples, sometimes it showed naked breasts but without nipples, and sometimes it hid nipples behind locks of hair, tendrils of smoke, or, as you pointed out, tongues of flame. Even when it hid nipples, there were strong visual suggestions of nipples. We should remember that the magazine started out in the early 1920s as necklines went down and hemlines went up. Fashionable women generally did not wear brassieres in the 1920s. You can see that in movies of the time. There was also female nudity in movies of the teens and twenties. That changed in the 1930s, but pulp magazines kept on with their ways, especially Weird Tales, which may have had the cachet of a more artistic or more high-end magazine, even if it was only a pulp.

      For as long as Farnsworth Wright was editor, Weird Tales seems to me to have had a Victorian air about it, especially in the 1920s. In Victorian times, female nudity was allowed in art as long as it was of a biblical, mythological, or historical subject. (Now that I think of it, maybe weird fiction was an outgrowth in part of the biblical, mythological, and historical, especially of the medieval or gothic.) Anyway in the Weird Tales of the 1920s, you had a publisher (b. 1890), an editor (b. 1888), a leading author (HPL, b. 1890), and two cover artists (Senf, b. 1873; Rankin, b. 1878) all born in and formed by the Victorian era. You would have a hard time today trying to sell a magazine on the newsstand showing a nude woman, even if it were only a drawing or a painting of a nude woman.


    2. I'll add one more thing: the covers of Weird Tales were never obscene, pornographic, or lascivious, at least in my opinion. C.C. Senf and Hugh Rankin drew very realistic figures. They did not distort female anatomy the way other pulp artists and especially comic book artists did. Their art is tasteful. Virgil Finlay followed their lead, I think, even if he glamorized women. As for Margaret Brundage: her art is harmless. The exception to all: W.H. Silvey's cover for July 1953, which I think is in poor taste.


  2. It's been over forty years since I saw Mother, Jugs & Speed, so I have forgotten the scene with Cosby administering drugs. The scene I recall was the one with Larry Hagman's character and an unconscious teenage girl in the back of the ambulance. It still makes my skin crawl.

    Wow! I just looked for and found the cover of the July '53 issue that you mentioned. That certainly is pornographic, even if it is highly stylized. I do like it, but in my opinion such an image has no place on the cover of this magazine.
    As an interesting aside: In my online search, I found a copy of this issue autographed by Richard Matheson for sale on eBay.