This week’s entry: Toynbee tiles
What it’s about: Embedded into city streets across America are tiles bearing cryptic messages. Each message is some variation on the phrase, “Toynbee idea in movie 2001 resurrect dead on planet Jupiter.” Some have a smaller inscription below with a different message. Some are colorful; some are plain white. But no one knows who has been laying them down or why (though theories persist). The tiles began appearing in the 1980s, and new ones have been spotted as recently as 2013.
Strangest fact: We’re not exactly sure what “Toynbee” alludes to. The likeliest explanation is that it’s a reference to Arnold Toynbee, one of the most famous historians of the ’40s and ’50s. In one of his writings, Toynbee considers resurrection of the dead from a philosophical standpoint (while acknowledging it’s likely a scientific impossibility).
Another explanation is a Ray Bradbury short story, “The Toynbee Convector,” named for the historian, in which a time traveler visits a dismal future but returns to the present and reports on a future utopia, inspiring his contemporaries to build that future for themselves.
David Mamet suggests that the Toynbee message comes from one of his plays, which debuted around the time the tiles began appearing. In 4 A.M., a character calls into a Larry King-like radio show, saying that 2001 was based on Arnold Toynbee’s writings and includes a plan “to reconstitute life on Jupiter.” However, there are also claims that the tiles predated Mamet’s play, as three years before, a man called into the actual Larry King’s radio show to discuss bringing the dead back to life on Jupiter.
Biggest controversy: Some of the Toynbee tiles have additional text beyond the standard Toynbee/2001/Jupiter message, and it’s as out-there as you’d expect. A set of four tiles were once placed at 16th and Chestnut in Philadelphia, detailing a conspiracy involving publishing magnate John Knight, the mafia, NBC, and several other media companies and their “Soviet Pals.” You’ll be shocked to learn a rambling conspiracy theory also has a soft spot for the chosen people, as the media is referred to as “hellion Jews,” and Knight was singled out as a “Philadelphia thug hellion Jew.” (While Knight Ridder was a successful newspaper chain, Misters Knight and Ridder were two different people, and their company was based in San José, California. The Soviet Union had also disbanded by the time the message appeared.)
Thing we were happiest to learn: We don’t know much about the tiles, but we do know how they’re made. One no-longer-existing tile in Pittsburgh included a secondary message that confirmed the method with these instructions: “linoleum, asphalt glue in several layers, then placing tar paper over it so that car wheels won’t mess it up, and apparently the heat of the sun on the tar paper will bake it into the street.” The method is confirmed by Justin Duerr, a punk musician, zinester, and filmmaker, who stars in the documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles, for which Jon Foy won Sundance’s Directing Award. Duerr claims to have found a newly installed tile, wrapped in tar paper, just as the instructions describe.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While new tiles have been appeared in cities all over the country (and as far away as Buenos Aires), they’ve also been destroyed by the hundreds. In some cases, the tiles are destroyed as part of road maintenance, but some cities target them for destruction. The city of Chicago considers tiles vandalism and removes them as soon as the city can find them. Philadelphia, which seems to have the most tiles and is the artist’s likely home, has acknowledged the tiles as art and in 2015 pledged to preserve a few of them “only if there is a fast and affordable method for removing them.”
Also noteworthy: The artist behind the tiles revealed himself, sort of. In 1983, around the time the tiles first started appearing, a social worker named James Morasco contacted talk shows and newspapers (he was almost certainly the Larry King caller mentioned above), with talk of colonizing Jupiter with the dead, inspired by a book by Toynbee. However, when the Kansas City Star and Action News investigated, they found two James Morascos, who’d both died that year, one 87 and one 88 years old, and neither the artist, according to their widows, suggesting that “James Morasco” is a pseudonym.
In Resurrect Dead, Duerr names Severino “Sevy” Verna, a reclusive Philadelphia artist, as the likely name behind Morasco, suspecting he put a hole in the bottom of his car to place the tiles unnoticed, though Wikipedia doesn’t elaborate on why Verna is the prime suspect.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Chicago city officials put the Toynbee tiles in the same category as graffiti, which city governments tend to see as a public nuisance. But graffiti is an artistic tradition as old as time, from images scratched into ancient Egyptian tombs to the urban art movement essential to hip-hop culture to political statements around the world.
Further down the Wormhole: Further confusing things is that there appear to be copycat tiles around the country, though there’s no real way of knowing whether they were in fact made by a different artist. While, like the presumed-real tiles, the copycats are mostly in sizable cities like Portland, Oregon; Buffalo, New York; and San Francisco, at least one has been spotted in Noblesville, Indiana. This burg of roughly 55,000 people is mostly notable for its contribution to criminal justice—it hosted the trial of D.C. Stephenson, former Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK. His conviction for second-degree murder was a severe blow to the Klan’s influence in Indiana. Nobleville’s jail also once held a teenage Charles Manson. The notorious cult leader’s followers murdered nine people in 1969, and while Manson didn’t personally commit any of the murders, he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit seven of them and remains in prison to this day. His trial was sensational and was called by many the trial of the century, a title that’s less impressive when you take into account that it gets assigned to a high-profile trial every couple of years. We’ll look at this century and the last, and various trials of them, next week.