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March 04, 2019

Everything you wanted to know about the 'steel furnace letter' but were afraid to ask

We turned to experts in medicine, metalwork and other fields for answers about the crazy viral flyer

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27th and Girard Furnace Party Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Could this lot at 27th Street and Girard Avenue on the line between Philadelphia's Brewerytown and Fairmount neighborhoods soon be the home of a 'steel furnace' operation meant to help human beings become statues and, thus, protected from the food that they've eaten since the first grade?

We trust that you’ve already heard about the Fairmount/Brewerytown “steel furnace letter” that launched a quadrillion memes, a dedicated subreddit, garment sales, videos, a fundraising effort and, among other things, a communal embrace of the phrase “Do Attend.”

If you’re not familiar with it, any of those hyperlinked phrases above (or the top link in those "related stories" links to the right) can help get you up to speed. 

Maybe it'll even help explain why an original copy is up for bids on eBay, with an initial asking price of $365 (a figure referenced therein not once but twice).

The ebb of intense attention being paid to the 240-word missive has since flowed. With 69 days between the February 17 emergence of the letter and its proposed April 27 gathering, that was only natural. 

Sure, there is footage of the person purported to have distributed these flyers, a day before it captured the public consciousness, but multiple trips to that area failed to turn up anybody who recognized him as someone seen around the neighborhood. 

(He was described as an "old head" who, when someone peeked through a window on 28th Street north of Girard as he was sliding a flyer into a nearby door, "stared at me for 20 seconds and it felt like he was looking deep within my soul," per one witness.)

As the Steel Furnace Party takes on a potential and mysterious life of its own – could 27th and Girard end up being Philly’s Woodstock? Stay tuned! – we here at PhillyVoice decided to take a deeper dive down that one-sheet rabbit hole.

We set out on a mission to decode its intentions, meanings and viabilities in a line-by-line breakdown of its words, speaking to experts in a variety of fields to determine whether this thing could actually happen (or if we’ve all fallen prey to an elaborate hoax). Humor us.

Furnace letter phillyAnonymous letter/Facebook

The “steel furnace letter” that was circulating around the Fairmount neighborhood has gone viral on Reddit.

What follows are the results of that investigation, presented in Q&A (or a similar) fashion with the caveat that some questions were never meant to be answered. 

Do read on:

The letter starts with the perfectly-centered word ABBA. Is this some sort of viral gimmick for the Swedish pop supergroup?

Sure, “Mamma Mia!” will be performed in New Hope this summer, but it’s more likely that in this context, ABBA was representative of the Aramaic word for “the father.” (In Hebrew, “Ab” translates to father.)

Regardless, here’s ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” because it’s a flat-out banger:

The writer claims that all the food we’ve eaten since first grade on (for breakfast, lunch AND dinner, no less) is alive in our bodies, singling out “dead animal remains or meat.” What is the veracity of this statement?

A heated discussion broke out when we were discussing what, if any, foods are cooked alive, whether vegetables are technically living when consumed and the like.

But fruit-bat soup, frog sashimi, chilled ants, wormy cheese and the like are not Philadelphia-area delicacies. Furthermore, chewing gum does not stay in your stomach for multiple years if swallowed.

So, no, food does not remain alive inside you from the first grade on. We reached out to the American Society for Nutrition for edification, and were referred to Roger Allyn Clemens of the University of Southern California and presiding officer of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology.

Clemens, too, dispelled any thought of lingering, living foods. He shared that food is in one’s mouth for a few seconds, one’s stomach for a couple minutes and one’s gastrointenstinal tract “in different stages of digestion anywhere from one to three days depending on bowel-movement patterns.”

"None of that food (from first grade) appears in your body today." - Dr. Roger Allyn Clemens

Sure, babies, infants, teens and adults have different BM schedules, but Clemens said that raw foods don’t follow different patterns, and that cooking does away with toxins while releasing nutrients (especially in the case of vegetables).

“No. Absolutely not. Not at all,” responded Clemens when asked if people could have any food eaten in the first grade still inside them. “Your body does a wonderful job of elimination. None of that food appears in your body today.”

At the close of our conversation, he noted – surprisingly – that these sorts of questions arise in the field “all the time and it’s always interesting to see it come back up.”

(Writer's note: There were no experts available to consult about whether a "newborn baby received your first grade body, or whether "being burned alive" is a viable option to address this situation. The person(s) behind the flyer suggest that we become solid steel statues but only placing ourselves under anesthesia, mixing our bodies with melted – or molten – metal and resolidifying the metal and seal ourselves in cement. There are many questions here. Let’s take them one by one.)

Can you actually place yourself under anesthesia?

For this, we reached out to the Pittsburgh-based American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.

ASRA steered us toward Dr. Rajnish Gupta, associate professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University and chair of the group’s upcoming Regional Anesthesiology and Acute Pain Medicine Meeting in Las Vegas. (We greatly appreciate Gupta for not saying this question was beneath him.)

"Anesthetizing yourself is suicide. I hope police know about this guy." - Dr. Rajnish Gupta

His simple answer? “You can’t anesthetize yourself safely.” 

And why not? There are three components to the process: putting a patient off to sleep, maintaining and monitoring vital signs and the patent while knocked out, and waking them up from sleep safely.

Sure, you could conceivably pull the first part off yourself, but steps two and three? No way. Saying it’s a dangerous proposition would be an understatement, our expert said.

“It’s suicidal,” he said. “Anesthetizing yourself is suicide. I hope police know about this guy.”

(Writer's Note 2: We couldn't really decode the line which reads, "When it becomes the real you, you can type it up and have a lot of copies made, then pass them out and post them up." This, because we don't have any background knowledge, besides watching "The Wiz," of what would happen if someone was encased in a statue or cement or, in that movie's case, Nipsey Russell in a Tin Man costume. Furthermore, it's unclear what would be passed out and posted up. Sorry.)

Is it possible "to become a solid steel statue (by) mixing yourself with melted metal"?

Addressing this question wasn’t very easy from a non-fictional and/or scientific perspective. Nobody within the Philadelphia Department of Public Health felt confident offering comments on account of a lack of experience with such situations.

Logic would hold that being mixed with molten metal would a) hurt and burn really, really bad until b) you die.

This isn’t Han Solo being frozen in carbonite to serve as a decoration on Jabba the Hutt’s ship.

This is real life. People should not touch molten metal or concoct plans to make statues in which they can survive (akin to a knight’s armor).

All that said, pop culture has recently examined something akin to this.

Some of you watch a program called “Game of Thrones” in which a character named Viserys Targaryen was killed by having molten gold poured over his head. See below:

That scene prompted several articles examining the history of such forms of execution and what happened to the body when subject to them.

And what did they conclude? “While the molten metal might choke you, burn your lungs and rupture your organs, it’s ultimately the steam that’s likely to kill you first.”

In other words, don’t try this at home, or on a vacant lot at 27th and Girard, folks.

Oh, looking for some handy "How To Make Solid Steel Statues Without Bodies Inside Them" guides? Check here, here, here and here for tips.

What happens to a body when encased in cement?

While the flyer notes that bodies will be mixed with molten steel first, we solely examined what happens to bodies when mixed in with concrete.

Starting in the fictional world, this scenario was the focus of a 2008 episode of the television program “Grey’s Anatomy.” Long story short: Dude hanging out at a construction site gets trapped while deciding to show off and lay in drying concrete.

Bad move, fictional bro, even if you managed to survive.

In any event, the Los Angeles Times spoke to medical professionals to fact-check the television version of events. If you want to take a deeper dive, do so via this link.

From a non-fictional perspective, we spoke with Shawn Parcells, a forensic clinical anatomist with National Forensic Autopsy and Toxicology Services in Topeka, Kansas. (Yeah, he’s dealt with some dicey headlines of late, but he chalks it up to intra-field haters and grudges.)

He spoke about a horribly tragic case out of Wichita, Kansas, where a 3-year-old boy was abused and murdered, his body found encased in concrete in the laundry room of his family’s home four months later.

The boy's father wanted a second opinion for an autopsy in a case that would see his stepfather found guilty of first-degree murder in October 2018. His body had decomposed to the point that determining a cause of death in the initial autopsy was impossible.

Parcells said there were no outward signs of injury, thus concluding that the child had died of asphyxiation rather than from the pressure of the concrete solidifying around him.

“We didn’t find any bones crushed. When pouring concrete, it’s a liquid, so the body will be encased in a bubble of sorts, or a shell around it,” Parcells said.

Short of becoming a statue or encasing oneself in cement, mummification seems to be a reasonable alternative. How did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead, and how long did the bodies remain preserved?

For this, we spoke to Dr. Jennifer Houser Wegner, an Egyptologist at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and curator of an exhibition called “Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display” on view at the museum at 3260 South St.

She explained the why, when, how and other aspects of Egyptian mummification.

MummiesCourtesy of Tom Stanley/Penn Museum

Mummies on display at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's 'Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display' exhibition.

What it boils down to is this: ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and that their “Ka” – a lifeforce akin (but not exactly like) a soul or a spirit – needs somewhere to return to after your physical death. As such, they “went to great lengths to preserve and protect” bodies of the deceased.

“The Ka could reside in a statue. That’s why in tombs, you see so many representations of the deceased,” she said.

Bodies dating back to 5000 B.C. have been discovered buried in shallow graves with objects around them. Those, however, were more naturally mummified by being buried in dry sand in Egypt’s hot climate.

Wegner said a couple thousand years later (as in, closer to today), Egyptians started taking steps to artificially preserve bodies. Internal organs would be removed – including the stomach, thus rendering the point about “food in your stomach since first grade” moot – and the body packed in salt for weeks. (“Much like salted cod at the Italian Market,” she said.)

“We think the mummification process took about 70 days, with much of the liquid absorbed from the body,” she said. “The bodies were then taken out of the salt bed, washed, anointed with oils and wrapped in layers of linens.

“We have mummies here at the Penn Museum from roughly 1200 B.C. that are perfectly preserved.”

How much does it cost to rent a bulldozer that would dig ditches at the site?

We’re not so sure that a bulldozer would be the most effective piece of equipment to “dig some ditches” on the lot. Backhoe loaders and excavators could come through in the pinch, as well. Far be it from us to question the flyer-author’s intentions, though.

Herc Rentals down in Southwest Philly has bulldozers available for rent (roughly $600 to $1,495 per day) along with backhoes ($315 to $800 a day) and excavators ($875 to $1,850 a day).

How much does it cost to procure a "solid steel furnace"?

The flyer references a generic “steel furnace where metal can be melted and the bodies of people and animals mixed with the metal to become steel unable to be hurt.”

Those aren’t available at the corner store.

What the writer was likely referring to was a “blast furnace” which uses smelting to produce industrial metals. You can see one in action below:

A “high-standard steel-making blast-induction melting furnace” was available online for $70,000 to $90,000. There are a whole bunch of them online at various price points, as well. (Obviously, the statue-making angle here necessitates the purchase of a larger model. As in, you can’t use the tiny ones available for a couple hundred bucks for this mission.)

Also, I guess you could scale up the items involved in the “Making a Metal Melting Furnace” YouTube video in a pinch, too.

Is there any importance to the date of the Furnace Party?

That the flyers were distributed nearly 10 weeks before the event struck us as odd. It also made us wonder whether there was rhyme or reason to the timing. Short of tracking down the gentleman who handed out the flyers – trust us, we’re trying to find him – April 27 itself warrants a closer look.

Could there be clues in the date selected (beyond the fact that it’s a Saturday)? Hard to say. But here’s some fun facts about April 27.

It’s U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s birthday, so maybe it’s just a gimmick for an aspiring presidential candidate’s rally?

There are some other famous-people birthdays here (Ulysses S. Grant, Casey Kasem, Coretta Scott King and Ace Frehley of KISS, for starters,) but another one jumps off the page as potentially being connected.

Frank Abagnale is a security consultant, but he was such a compelling con man, check forger and imposter in his previous life that Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed him in the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can.”

(Bear with us here. This is a crazy story in which to find meaning, OK?)

Potential historical ties from a local perspective? On that date in 1868, five people were killed in a boiler explosion at Penn Treaty Iron Works and in 1892, a massive fire destroyed several buildings near Eighth and Sansom streets.

It was also the date that explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed in the Philippines (1521), then-President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (1861) and there was a march on Washington D.C. calling for the impeachment of President Nixon (1974).

Oddly enough, 427 (for April 27) was described on Urban Dictionary – nearly 15 years ago – as “the birthday of a God. The most important day of the year. Should be a national holiday.” 

Indeed it should.

What exactly is going on here? Has all this attention been at the expense of someone suffering from mental-health issues, is it a troll job or is April 27 going to be a magical day on the empty lot at 27th and Girard? And, what do the property owners think?

Herein lies the most problematic aspect of the Steel Furnace Letter, and one that makes the giddy joy it prompted seem worrisome.

I’m sure we can all agree that the text itself feels like it emerged from a troubled mind. To that end, it feels right that a related “Do Attend Help A Friend” GoFundMe drive (and additional T-shirt offer) was initiated to raise funds for the Philadelphia Mental Health Clinic. As of Sunday night, it has raised $1,205 of its $5,000 goal.

This is good.

Since nobody – myself included – has been able to track down the distributor of the flyers, though, it remains cloaked in a bit of mystery.

Attempts to have forensic psychologists offer their insights into the mind were unsuccessful this week, as well.

Experts in that field offered responses like:

• “I am not able to provide assessments of materials as the process is typically more involved.”

• “We don't have an expert that is a fit to discuss this topic.”

• “I am sorry, but this is not anything I can help with; nor can I suggest who would be appropriate to talk with you about it.”

Understandable responses, one and all, what with it potentially using a mentally ill person’s condition for amusement.

So, too, was one I received from a friend who works in that field but was uncomfortable giving psychiatric opinions without having the opportunity to examine the subject.

Those uncomfortable denials came with a caveat, though, and it’s this: the note may very well be a performance art hoax. Sure, they could be the words of a psychotic person but something about it just felt off.

From a property perspective, city records list the owner of 2630-38 West Girard Ave. as 27th and Girard Limited Partnership.

Back in the early 2000s, it was the focus of a heated battle as a potential location for a McDonald’s restaurant, and a group of residents who wanted nothing of the sort.

More recently, it was eyed as a location for a four-story building with stores on the ground floor and residences on the upper floors

MM Partners, the potential developer of that project, "is no longer involved with that site and we are not sure what is happening with it," said Evan Celini, noting that they saw the flyer and are as confused and intrigued as everyone else.

Calls and emails to American Development Company – the property owner of record – went unreturned last week.

According the Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, there are no open violations at the site. But should someone follow through with plans to install a Steel Furnace there, things would change.

“While there are no regulations that address makeshift metal-burning/statue-making/crematorium type operations specifically, I feel confident in stating that the Philadelphia Fire Code prohibits building and operating one’s own metal-burning/statue-making/crematorium on a vacant lot,” said Karen Guss of L+I. “By way of context, here’s the City’s Code interpretation regarding portable outdoor fireplaces.”


Regardless, the buzz in the neighborhood is that - weather permitting - the 27th and Girard Furnace Party will draw droves of people to the area, with the nearby Crime and Punishment Brewing Co. deciding "it would only be right to participate in the ritual sacrifice and brew a beer specially for the occasion."

Do attend.

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