The Toynbee Mystery

If you've ever skated in New York CIty, you have no doubt stepped over or ridden across a hidden clue to one of the most interesting mysteries of the past 30 years. If you didn't notice them don't feel too bad. Most pedestrians and motorists have crossed over them thousands of times w/out the slightest notice, but the nearly 60 artifacts hidden in plain sight in NYC alone are clues to a long and incredible mystery that we're happy to introduce you to. The mystery of the "Toynbee Tiles."

It all started over 30 years ago in the filthy streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the mid 1980's pedestrians began to notice strange anomalies pop up on the surface of asphalt streets and avenues throughout the city. Peculiar little plaques with incredibly cryptic messages began to appear overnight, seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of the street. Although the early stages of the tiles varied in colors, shape and text, the most common message appeared to be: "Toynbee Idea: In Kubrick's 2001. Resurrect dead on planet Jupiter". An almost unintelligible message alluding to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001 Space Odyssey" and what most assume refers to late British historian Arnold Toynbee. At the same time that people began to discover the mysterious tiles, a man identifying himself as a social worker named James Morasco started contacting talk shows and newspapers in 1983 with his theory of colonizing Jupiter with the dead inhabitants of Earth, claiming to have come across the idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee. This strange character even called into the Larry King show promoting these same ideas and in a conversation with the The Philadelphia Inquirer, Morasco discussed how Toynbee's book contained a theory about bringing dead molecules back to life, and that this was later depicted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The caller claimed to have founded what the Inquirer called a "Jupiter colonization organization", known as the Minority Association. Strange stuff indeed. It was later discovered by researchers that the name James Morasco was nothing more than an alias. Another dead end to the ghost of the Toynbee tiler.

It wasn't long after the tiles were first being discovered that word began to spread that this event was not unique to Philadelphia but several cities across the US discovered their own treasure trove of miscellaneous tiles strewn about their streets, including New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, St Louis and even as far as Brazil and Argentina.

The early assumption was that the tiles may be an attempt at an early version of street art. A creative new approach at graffiti or performance art with a purposefully confusing message, destined to intrigue those who took notice. But now, some 30 years since the first tiles appeared, not a soul has stepped up to take credit. Quite the opposite, actually. After several vigilante investigators and journalists alike have attempted to track down the party/parties responsible for the bizarre messages, they have not only been met with silence and dead ends, but it has become apparent that those responsible clearly do not wish to be discovered. 

In a 2011 documentary "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" researcher and Philadelphia resident Justin Duerr becomes obsessed with the Toybnee mystery and sets out with his friends to track down the person/persons responsible. After discovering that one of the mysterious tiles discovered in Santiago, Chile actually included a Philadelphia street address on the tile, Justin and his team began to case the neighborhood questioning neighbors and turning up new, fascinating clues. Perhaps one of the more intriguing stories comes from a random local Philly resident who reached out to a website dedicated to the Toynbee mystery, Toynbee.net. Joe Raimondo had a fantastic story about something that happened to him back in 1985. While sitting home alone watching the evening news, his TV was overtaken by a pirate video signal. After his television was overpowered by static a voice began broadcasting the idea "resurrect the dead on Jupiter. Kubrick's 2001", etc. Joe was so startled that he called into the local news station to find out what was going on and they told him that he wasn't the only one calling to complain about this strange broadcast.

The lengths to which this person/people were going to get the message out about their bizarre proposal of resurrecting the dead on planet jupiter was becoming more and more astounding. 

As Justin Duerr and his team investigated further they began to get closer and closer to the truth. At one point they interview a neighbor of the address listed on the Santiago tile and she mentions her suspicions about a local resident she had seen driving around in a car with part of the floor panel missing. A bell went off in the researchers heads and it immediately solved one part of the puzzle. The question of how the tiler was managing to lay these tiles w/out ever being seen in action was now answered. One big tile, laid right at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan seemed an unbelievably impossible feat to have pulled off. But, if the tiler was hidden w/in his own car and managed to lay the tile as he entered the tunnel, it seemed far more possible. But who the hell WAS this guy and what the hell was the "Minority Association"? The elusiveness of the guilty party starts to earn your respect the more you look into this story. And as Justin Duerr starts to conclude near the end of his documentary, it becomes so apparent that the tiler does NOT want to be discovered that Justin starts to question if he actually SHOULD continue attempting to uncover his identity. 

This empathy for the tiler grows once you learn about some of his one-off tiles in which he demonstrates extreme paranoia and fear of the press. One tile lays it all out in a rambling diatribe exclaiming that he has been followed and assaulted by journalists, claiming that the press has gone so far as to hire mafia hitmen to murder him. "I secured house with blast doors and fled the country" he says and even pleads to readers to "murder every journalist, I beg of you".

If the Toynbee tiler is indeed only one man and he is as mentally unstable and frail as his messages suggest and his neighbors seem to think he is, then perhaps the saddest part of the story is that this great mystery will eventually be lost. Since most cities re-pave their streets every 15-20 years, it is unlikely that the Toynbee tiles will survive beyond another decade. But that might actually just add to the story, knowing that 4 inches below the asphalt at a certain point on 34th St and 5th Ave, there lies a brilliant piece of art by an mysterious street artist, or a cryptic paranoid message from a stark raving lunatic. But either way, it will probably add to the mystery and intrigue, as long as people continue to talk about it and keep the story alive.

The documentary "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" is not the most well-made video piece, but it does a good job of building suspense and properly investigating the story. I've gone out of my way here to leave out some of the details in order to maintain some of the mystery and intrigue. But the documentary manages to get as close to the truth as possible, so if you want to get to the bottom of the rabbit hole feel free to watch the video below. But be warned, that a mystery as ethereal as the Toynbee Tile story is, rarely occurs in modern times and has real life, tangible players and characters. So this story is special in that it is not only verifiable but it is still unfolding. So if you watch the documentary you might lose some of that mystery...............Oh, what am I saying, you're going to watch the documentary anyways so just click the damned play button and enjoy.