Many of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s stories were suggested by the illustrated tiles that decorated the fireplace in his study at Christ Church, Oxford:

  • At top is the ship that the Bellman steered, though “the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”
  • At top left is the Lory, who joined in the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland.
  • Below the Lory is the Dodo, who claimed a thimble as his prize.
  • At bottom left is the Fawn that couldn’t remember its name in Through the Looking-Glass.
  • At top right is the Eaglet, another Caucus-Race participant.
  • Below the Eaglet is the Gryphon, also from Wonderland.
  • At bottom right is the Beaver from “The Hunting of the Snark,” the only creature that the Butcher knew how to kill.

One of Carroll’s child-friends, Enid Stevens, supplied these particulars for The Lewis Carroll Picture Book, published in 1899. “As I sat on Mr. Dodgson’s knee before the fire,” she wrote, “he used to make the creatures have long and very amusing conversations between themselves. The little creatures on the intervening tiles used to ‘squirm’ in at intervals. I think they suggested the ‘Little birds are feeding,’ &c., in ‘Sylvie and Bruno.'”


When you think of the hosts without no.
Who are slain by the deadly cuco.,
It’s quite a mistake
Of such food to partake,
It results in a permanent slo.

A young lady sings in our choir
Whose hair is the color of phoir,
But her charm is unique,
She has such a fair chique,
It is really a joy to be nhoir.

There once was a choleric colonel
Whose oaths were obscene and infolonel,
And the chaplain, aghast,
Gave up protest at last,
But wrote them all down in his jolonel.

— Anonymous

Home Made

Sears used to sell houses by mail. Between 1908 and 1940, about 75,000 American families bought kits that included everything necessary to construct a finished house, including nails, screws, shingles, windows, staircases, mantelpieces, and paint. All this would be delivered to the local railroad station, and the customer would assemble it with the help of friends (or, later, local contractors).

With 447 varieties and a wealth of options — customers could choose their own hardware, light fixtures, cabinets, bookcases, and telephone niches — Sears houses have no characteristic appearance. But it’s thought that most of them are still being lived in today.

Case Closed

Another French trial is related of a beggar who being famished went to the door of a victualing house and inhaled the smell of the dinner until refreshed. He was sued by the proprietor for the price of a dinner. He declared he had taken nothing but the plaintiff declared that he had been refreshed at his expense. The justice gave this case a study that might well be imitated by our superior judges and finally decided that as the defendant had been refreshed by the smell of the dinner, the proprietor ought to be compensated by hearing the jingle of the coins.

— H.C. Shurtleff, “The Grotesque in Law,” American Law Review, January-February 1920

Land Rush

In 1955, the radio program Sergeant Preston of the Yukon promised that every child who bought a box of Quaker Oats cereal would receive a deed for one square inch of land in the Yukon. The company bought 19 acres on the Yukon River, divided it into square-inch plots, and packed the deeds into boxes of cereal.

In all 21 million plots were distributed this way, and then people, being people, began to explore the possibilities. According to Charles C. Geisler in Property and Values (2000), one deed owner declared independence for his tiny fiefdom; another offered to donate his to create the world’s smallest national park. One boy sent four toothpicks to the title office so they could fence his inch, though the deeds stipulated that each owner must acknowledge the right of every other owner to cross his plot at will. In Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984), John Robert Colombo reports that one wily collector amassed 10,000 deeds and asked to combine them; “his request was denied, as nowhere on the Deed of Land did it state that the square inches were adjacent.”

As it turned out, all this enterprise was moot — Quaker Oats never registered the subdivision or paid taxes on the land, so the whole thing reverted to the Canadian government a few years later.

Over the Top,_Hermann_Ratjen_alias_%22Dora_Ratjen%22.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Dora Ratjen competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, her teammates thought it strange that she always bathed behind a locked door. “I thought something was a bit funny, because she had a deep voice and she snored in her sleep,” recalled fellow high jumper Elfriede Kaun. “She also had to shave, not just her legs and under her arms, but also her face.”

Ratjen took fourth place and went on to set a world record (1.67 m) in the 1938 European Athletics Championships. On the way home she was detained by the Magdeburg police, who discovered that she was a man. Because of his malformed genitals, the midwife at his birth had mistakenly told his parents that he was female, and he was christened Dora and raised as a girl. “From the age of 10 or 11 I started to realize I wasn’t female, but male,” he told police. “However, I never asked my parents why I had to wear women’s clothes even though I was male.” He learned to pursue his love of sport as a loner.

After the discovery in Magdeburg, Ratjen promised to stop competing, and the prosecutor declared that no finding of fraud was possible because there was no intention to reap financial reward. Dora returned his medals, changed his name to Heinrich, and quietly took over his parents’ bar, declining numerous interview requests.

It’s often reported that the Nazis forced Ratjen to compete in the Olympics as a deliberate ruse “for the honor and glory of Germany,” but a 2009 investigation by Der Spiegel found no evidence of this. Sportswriter Volker Kluge told the magazine, “On the basis of the available documents, I think it is completely out of the question that the Nazis deliberately created Dora Ratjen as a ‘secret weapon’ for the Olympic Games.” He conceded that the Reich Sport Ministry may have been aware that Ratjen was a “borderline case.”

Sure Thing

[Lewis Carroll] told me of a simple, too simple, rule by which, he thought, one could be almost sure of making something at a horse-race. He had on various occasions noted down the fractions which represented the supposed chances of the competing horses, and had observed that the sum of these chances amounted to more than unity. Hence he inferred that, even in the case of such hard-headed men as the backers, the wish is often father to the thought; so that they are apt to overrate the chances of their favourites. His plan, therefore, was to bet against all the horses, keeping his own stake the same in each case. He did not pretend to know much about horse-racing, and I probably know even less; but I understand that it would be impossible to adjust the hedging with sufficient exactitude — in fact, to get bets of the right amount taken by the backers.

— Lionel Arthur Tollemache, Old and Odd Memories, 1908

Civic Minded

In 1979 Louisiana congressional candidate Luther Devine Knox tried to change his name to None of the Above so that the phrase could appear on the ballot.

His hope was that voters could then vote symbolically to reject the whole slate. “The people of this country have never had a free election,” he said in 1991. “We don’t have a right to reject candidates.”

The attorney general stopped him.

Divided Culture
Image: Flickr

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House straddles the border between Derby Line, Vt., and Stanstead, Quebec. The library’s front door is in the United States, but the circulation desk and all of the books are in Canada. Opera is performed on a Canadian stage before an American audience.

Hence it’s the only library in the U.S. with no books, the only opera house in the U.S. with no stage, and the only library in Canada with no entrance.

See Four-Dimensional Basketball, A Freak of Navigation, and An Inland Archipelago.