THE BLOG

This Chester County, Philadelphia Author Smoked a Mean Pipe

02/03/2015 11:30 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

This is the story of writer Daniel P. Mannix IV, who had a farm about a mile from my family's home in Frazer.

The Mannix farm was a legendary place. Mannix was a writer who traveled the world with his wife, Jule Junker Mannix, in search of wild animals to bring back to their farm in an area then called Bacton Hill.

The Mannix farm was already well known throughout the region when I was 12 or 13 years old. The Mannix family also belonged to the local Catholic parish and we would often see them at Mass.

The word then was that actress Elizabeth Taylor had once spent time on the Mannix farm while filming her first movie, National Velvet. Apparently the adolescent Liz needed some horse experience, so it was decided that the Bacton Hill farm would be the ideal place for her to learn about horses. The farm also had pythons, cheetahs, llamas, an otter, a spider monkey and even a small elephant.

The Mannix family was listed in the Philadelphia Social Register; they were "society people," meaning they had a long and accomplished American lineage. Families like the Mannix family are also referred to as being from "old money," although if economic circumstances changed they might become known as "fallen aristocracy."

Because of the Liz Taylor story, my family observed the Mannix family with a curious eye.

We would take note when we'd spot Jule at Mass wearing ordinary slacks topped with a worn, but obviously once very expensive, mink stole. At the time this was the standard Saturday afternoon shopping dress for many Main Line matrons.

I ran high school cross country with Mannix's son, Danny. Danny would often invite me to run with him on his farm after school. The farm had tremendous acreage. Danny and I usually ran long dirt roads framed by trees and fields with the occasional winding brook. After our run, Danny would invite me into the house where he'd show me his pet snakes, one of them a python named Peter.

Before that, he introduced to his father, the writer.

Mannix was sitting in his study smoking a pipe in front of a wall of bookshelves. The prolific author was sitting by a window, dressed in a tweed jacket, the smoke billowing from his pipe like the steam from a vintage locomotive. This is what people used to imagine when they thought of (male) writers.

Danny introduced me as a friend "who wanted to be a writer." Mannix didn't seem too impressed. He might even have been thinking, "run from this life, boy, run as fast as you can."

I came away from that meeting thinking... Mannix smokes a mean pipe.

Next, I was introduced to Peter the Python. I already had experiences with snakes, especially when a fellow Explorer Scout taught me how to handle and hold his pet snakes. As a boy I liked to watch a snake shed its skin. To me, discarded snake skins resembled transparent piping or coils.

Danny encouraged me to put Peter around my neck. Since Peter was very large, this seemed risky. Don't pythons wrap themselves around their victims and strangle them?

In his autobiography, this is what Danny's father wrote about Peter. "Handling a big snake is an unforgettable experience. There is the gentle touch of the soft lips and delicate tongue, together with the strange feeling that you are holding a living electric current swathed in smooth scales."

Danny's father reminded his readers that pythons are not poisonous. "Peter, like all constrictors," he wrote, "kills by wrapping his coils around his victim, usually a chicken or a rabbit."

Pythons, Mannix continued, rarely kill human beings because "a man has hands and can generally unwrap a snake before he loses consciousness."

The important thing here, I guess, is to stay awake.

While I wasn't afraid of Peter, his size was daunting. At that time I had no idea that the family allowed Peter to slither around the house, and that very often Peter, being a semi-aquatic creature, would curl up near the plumbing in the bathroom or worse yet, go inside the toilet for a long, cozy nap.

"Peter strongly disliked having the toilet flush when he was inside," Mannix wrote, adding that when that happened he would rise up and give one of his long, loud hisses.

As for the house-guest who inadvertently sat on the bowl with Peter inside, well, that's another story.

Mannix wrote about his experiences as a side show act working in carnivals. At different times in his life, he was a sword swallower, a fire eater, a trainer of wild animals, and a magician known as "The Great Zadma."

In his book, Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, he describes his experiences while traveling with a carnival. He writes about the fat lady, the human beanpole and the ostrich man who ate broken glass.

(I'd certainly like to see the Ostrich Man at the next Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby).

In his book, Freaks, Mannix describes the love affairs of little people (called midgets in those days); the story of elephant boy; the amours of Jolly Daisy, the fat woman; the notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi's Rigoletto and the little person, only 34 inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. Then there was the human torso with a talent for sewing and typing.

As one reviewer commented, Freaks comprises "bizarre accounts of normal humans turned into freaks -- either voluntarily or by evil design!"

In the sword swallowing book, we are able to enjoy photographs from the 1930s and 40s (all taken by the author) and observe the forgotten world of circus performance artists. One reviewer said that the book "will appeal to all who speculate about the outer limits of pain, pleasure, and revulsion."

Mannix's book, The Beast: The Scandalous Life of Aleister Crowley, is about the English occultist and ceremonial magician. After the book was released, Mannix received an invitation to join Anton LaVey's Church of Satan. Mannix refused the offer; LaVey perhaps did not distinguish between the curious and sometimes sensationalist imagination of the writer and the realm of personal belief.

Mannix, as far as I knew, was still a member of our local parish and receiving Communion on Sundays.

Mannix's most famous book, Those About to Die, takes the reader into the bowels of the Roman games at the Coliseum; it was also a look into the daily lives of gladiators.

While I was running cross country with Danny, his father had already published The Hellfire Club, about the secret decorated caves in England where the country's once famous One Percenters, engaged in parliamentary style meetings and various forms of sexual debauchery. Eminent and respected men from the worlds of arts, letters and politics, including benign Benjamin Franklin himself, were said to be habitués of these dens of vice where everything was permitted.

Mannix, who was born in 1911 and died in 1997 at age 85, was survived his wife, Jule, by 20 years.

Today there's a renewed interest in his work, as many of his earlier, out of print books have been republished. And while I haven't set foot on the farm where Liz Taylor once groomed the National Velvet horses, during my research I did discover that Mannix had once teamed up with famed literary critic Malcolm Cowley when they co-authored The Middle Passage. This disturbing essay focuses on the mechanics of slavery, its origins in Africa, its European history and what happened on the slave ships that came to America.

We learn, for instance, that "the vast majority of the Negroes [Mannix's term] brought to America had been enslaved and sold to the whites by other Africans." These other Africans "were coastal tribes and states, like the Efik kingdom of Calabar, that based their whole economy on the slave trade."

The author's report that the slaves might have been prisoners of war, or kidnapped by groups of black marauders, or even sold with their entire families for such "high" crimes as adultery, impiety or, as the authors state, "stealing a tobacco pipe."

Slaves were shackled two by two then sent below the ship; although, women slaves were allowed to roam the vessel so that sailors could see which ones they could have their way with. Mannix writes: "All the slaves were forced to sleep without covering on bare wooden floors... In a stormy passage the skin over their elbows might be worn away to the bare bone..."

In the morning, the sailors would oversee the "dancing of the slaves," a ritual in which the chained slaves would be forced to dance around the deck by the cat-o-nine tail armed sailors. This happened while one slave pounded a drum or a sailor played a bagpipe. This therapeutic ritual was a precaution against "suicidal melancholy," although the authors report that many slaves suffered from a condition known as "fixed melancholy," an expression used to describe a state when a slave had lost the will to live, despite being well cared for.

Diseases like yellow fever plagued these ships, as did the smell of human excrement, which could be detected miles away, depending upon air currents. Mutinies were not uncommon, given the conditions on board. Sometimes the ship's crew would be slaughtered, but the problem for the slaves became where to dock the ship, because for them, there was no such thing as freedom.

If I wore a hat, I'd take it off in honor of Daniel P. Mannix.