Wednesday, February 24, 2010

HIdden gems

Creepy Victorian rooms always give me the shivers. The stale air, layers of dust, grotesque furniture with vaulted high ceilings, and fragile decorations can suffocate a visitor. Which is why they are the perfect setting for B-movie horror films and Lara croft videogames. Secret passages, old cellars, and hidden doorways and staircases can be found in a number of castles and mansions that were either an indulgence, necessity or forgotten renovation lost in time.

My friend lived in an old house that had an old laundry shoot that went from the third floor to the basement. Our idiotic five year brains wanted to drop a cat down one until it freaked out and managed to climb up and teach us a bloody lesson. Another time I discovered a boarded up waiter dummy in a house, we wanted to crawl inside as a joke but fortunately we were stopped in time. Lack of common sense? For sure, but we weren't the only kids looking for an adventure.

Secret passageways and rooms ('priest holes' during reign of Queen Elizabeth I) have been used throughout history, providing a way for shelter, escape, smuggling, murder and military coups d'├ętat.

- In 1330, Roger de Mortimer (Earl of March) and his lover Isabella of France imprisoned young King Edward III in Nottingham castle. Days before Edward's eighteenth birthday, a small group of supporters used a hidden passageway into the Queen's room to arrest Mortimer and seize power.

- In 1789, during the French Revolution Marie Antoinette managed to escape through a hidden passageway in Versailles.

- The hidden rooms/attics during the Holocaust era were responsible for saving numerous lives. A Dutch watchmaker Corrie ten Boom, constructed a secret room to hide Jews from the Nazis.

- Emergency exits/ secret door could be found in traditional Arabic houses, also known as "Bab Al-Sirr".

- Used primarily to transport marijuana to the U.S., a tunnel was discovered running from Tijuana Mexico to Otay Mesa California.

- Serial killer H.H.Holmes constructed an enormous 'hotel' building in Chicago that contained numerous hidden staircases, doors and trap doors allowing him to enter rooms while guests were sleeping. Changing builders throughout construction decreased questions from police and gave him sole knowledge of the labyrinth maze inside. Many female victims would among his employees who were required to take out a life insurance policy with him as the sole beneficiary. The bodies would be dropped down a secret chute into a crematorium in the basement where he would dispose of the bodies by cremation or dissection by selling the organs and skeleton to medical schools.

- In the monastery of Mont Sainte-Odile, Stanislas Goss managed to steal over 1,000 ancient books in the span of two years after his discovery of an old map that showed details of a secret entrance into the library.

A few famed locations are known to have hidden tunnels, some which played a huge turning point in history... here are a few still standing.

Occasionally The History Channel broadcasts an episode entitled Secret Passages. A bit corny, it's the quick fix to satisfy a momentary craving for education without too much effort.