In The Box

In the last millennium, in the days pre-tubes, I read a piece somewhere—Harper’s I think, maybe Rolling Stone—by a shamefaced scribe who confessed to working for some years in the wacky world of Generoso Pope, Jr., late titan of the tabloid empire that churned out such wonderments as The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News.

Two anecdotes from that story have stuck with me for years. The first involved the day when the writer realized that, notwithstanding the fat salaries that Pope paid to his people, he had to get out of the place. Seems one of the rags was set to feature a piece about an alien spacecraft hovering on the far side of Mercury, undetected here on earth. One of the writer’s fellow workers, assigned to author the caption for the image accompanying the spacecraft nonsense, approached a member of the graphics department, bearing with him the image, and asked of it: “Is this a photograph, or an illustration?”

The writer understood that if he remained in Pope’s employ much longer, he too would reach the day when he would genuinely not know whether an image of an undetected alien spacecraft on the far side of Mercury might be an illustration, or a photograph.

The second anecdote concerned a new and zealous female coworker of the writer’s. The writer and she were assigned, for some reason that I have forgotten, to dog Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, as was his wont, arrogantly blew off these people. After several frustrating encounters, the woman angrily shook her fist at a retreating Sinatra, and vowed: “You’ll get yours, Frank! We’ll get you in your box!”

This was a reference to the Enquirer‘s then-practice of surreptitiously obtaining, then publicly printing, photographs of dead celebrities in their caskets—known in the Pope trade as “in the box” pictures. Apparently the first such Enquirer “in the box” shot was of Elvis Presley, which the paper obtained by bribing a member of Presley’s entourage. The Enquirer issue featuring on its cover Presley “in the box” sold more copies than any other edition of the Enquirer in history. Word then went forth to Pope’s Enquirer people that they should move heaven and earth to obtain similar “in the box” photos of future dead celebrities.

I don’t recall whether the paper succeeded, when Frank did pass, in skewering Sinatra “in the box.” I do know the practice continues with Pope’s spiritual heirs: OK! reportedly shelled out $500,000 for a picture of Michael Jackson “in the box.” And there has recently developed a perhaps even uglier sub-genre, in which tabloids print photos of celebrities taken just before they die: Gary Coleman’s heirs sold pictures of his “last moments” to the Globe for $10,000. “They are going to sell a crazy amount of magazines,” a Globetrotter noted before the images appeared. “Yes, it’s an ugly decision to run pictures of a man in his hospital bed minutes before he died, but dead celebrities sell.”

Why am I remembering and recounting all this? Because in recent days this site has begun attracting a tremendous number of page hits for a photograph of Jesse James “in the box,” that I unwittingly posted here nearly a year ago.

My posting of Jesse in his box can be found here. The post, titled “Bobby Ford Nation,” concerned the cowardly back-shooting of Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud, who was blown in half as he lay abed on the roof of his father-in-law’s home, receiving a drip infusion for a kidney ailment. Besides Mehsud, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, one of his wives, and eight other people were killed. The killing agent was an unmanned drone controlled by Bobby Fords in an air-conditioned aerie on a military base thousands of miles away in the United States. I noted that in American history such cowardly back-shooting had traditionally been regarded with great distaste—hence the infamy covering the name of Bobby Ford, who shot an unawares Jesse James in the back—but that, given the current seeming apathy surrounding such remote-controlled killings, perhaps times have changed.

When I was selecting images for that post, there was a photo available offering a close-up of Jesse James, alone in his box. It’s still available. But I wasn’t interested in that. I chose instead the shot of three men standing around Jesse in his box, which spoke to me of a sort of gloating, which is was what the latter-day Bobby Fords were then all about in re the blown-in-two Mehsud.

As I mentioned here, from what I can derive from the wordpress stat features, a fair number of people seem to come into this site on the pictures. And as I said there, that’s fine: humans are visually inclined animals, arrested by sights millennia before they started fumbling with language. Over the months I have noticed that “Bobby Ford Nation” attracts, from time to time, visitors most interested in Jesse James, rather than Baitullah Mehsud. And that most of these people seem to be coming in on the photo, rather than the text.

In recent days, though, the situation has grown completely out of control. Some days hundred and hundreds and hundreds of people are streaming in here to look at Jesse in his box. Why is this? I am not in touch with Jesse James culture: maybe we’re around the anniversary of his birthday, or his death, or one of his more notorious robberies. Maybe out there somewhere are brigades of high school or college instructors decreeing Jesse James assignments, the sort of thing that in my day were called “book reports.” Maybe James is becoming some new teabagging icon—after all, he didn’t much like black people, either. I haven’t a clue. As I haven’t a clue why these Jesse James people are coming here to look at him in his box, rather than selecting any of the several photo-graphs available on the intertubes that portray the man when he was actually alive.

It is said that Pope guided the Enquirer into death and gore after observing how people congregate around automobile accidents. Maybe that’s it. Whatever impulse that is. One I find unsettling, which is why I generally eschew pictures of people dead or suffering—words, it seems to me, should be enough. Probably people who study brains know why people are drawn to gazing at people “in the box.” What drew my eye, in the Jesse James photo I posted, was the living men around the box, not the dead man in it.

This attraction to Thanatos is not going to get me down, though. Not with the recent news that 25% of all internet searches worldwide involve some variation on the word “sex.” This says to me that, even if only in a crude way, Eros is winning. Because no way is another 25% of all internet searches dedicated to Thanatos. No matter how many people may come here to look at Jesse in his box. Frankly, if folks are going to come onto this site on images, I’d rather they came in on something like the photo printed above. But then there are plenty of other places on these intertubes where folks can find images like that.


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When I Worked

July 2010
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