Early Delivery

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In the 1940s British psychologist Robert H. Thouless set out to test the existence of life after death by publishing an enciphered message and then communicating the key to some living person after his own death. He published the following in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:

CBFTM HGRIO TSTAU FSBDN WGNIS BRVEF BQTAB QRPEF BKSDG MNRPS RFBSU TTDMF EMA BIM

He wrote that “it uses one of the well-known methods of encipherment with a key-word which I hope to be able to remember in the after life. I have not communicated and shall not communicate this key-word to any other person while I am still in this world, and I destroyed all papers used in enciphering as soon as I had finished.” He hoped that his message would be unsolvable without supernatural aid because the message was relatively short and the cipher wasn’t simple. To prevent an erroneous decipherment, he revealed that his passage was “an extract from one of Shakespeare’s plays.” And he left the solution in a sealed envelope with the Society for Psychical Research, to be opened if this finally proved necessary.

He needn’t have worried — an unidentified “cipher expert” took up the cipher as a challenge and solved it in two weeks, long before Thouless’ death. It was the last two lines of this quotation from Macbeth:

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

(It’s a Playfair cipher — a full solution is given in Craig Bauer’s excellent Unsolved!, 2017.)

Interestingly, Thouless published two other encrypted ciphers before his death in 1984, and only one has been solved. If you can communicate with the dead perhaps you can still solve it — it’s given on Klaus Schmeh’s blog.

A Bloody Bargain

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During Henry Stanley’s 1886 Emin Pasha Relief Expedition to the interior of Africa, naturalist James S. Jameson allegedly paid a group of cannibals to kill and eat a young girl so that he sketch the act. According to his interpreter, Assad Farran, Jameson afterward took the sketches to his tent, finished them in watercolors, and then “showed these and many other sketches to all the chiefs.”

Jameson protested the accusation, but his own diary describes the killing:

I told him that people at home generally believed that these [accounts of cannibalism] were only ‘travellers’ tales,’ as they are called in our country, or, in other words, lies. He then said something to an Arab called Ali, seated next him, who turned round to me and said, ‘Give me a bit of cloth, and see.’ I sent my boy for six handkerchiefs, thinking it was all a joke, and that they were not in earnest, but presently a man appeared, leading a young girl of about ten years old by the hand, and I then witnessed the most horribly sickening sight I am ever likely to see in my life. He plunged a knife quickly into her breast twice, and she fell on her face, turning over on her side. Three men then ran forward and began to cut up the body of the girl; finally her head was cut off, and not a particle remained, each man taking his piece away down to the river to wash it. The most extraordinary thing was that the girl never uttered a sound, nor struggled, until she fell.

In his 1889 account of the expedition, Heroes of the Dark Continent, James William Buel presents the images above as copies of Jameson’s sketches.

Another of Stanley’s men claimed that Jameson had spoken freely of the incident at the time, and only realized “the seriousness” of his actions much later. “Life is very cheap in Central Africa,” he wrote. “Mr. Jameson forgot how differently this terrible thing would be regarded at home.”

Farewell

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Politicians and public figures may well care to ponder the story of the death of Franco. Surrounded on his deathbed by his faithful generals, he heard outside, beyond the heavily drawn curtains, a strange subdued noise like the sea, and asked someone to investigate. An aide did. He looked down from the palace balcony and returned with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes and reported: ‘Caudillo, it is the people. Thousands of them. They have come to say goodbye.’ And Franco raised himself on one elbow and barked: ‘Why? Where are they going?’

— British Airways parliamentary affairs officer Norman Lornie to Jack Aspinwall, MP, for his 2004 collection Tell Me Another!

Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Open for Business

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Elijah Bond, patentee of the Ouija board, died in 1921, he was buried in an unmarked grave, and as time passed its location was forgotten. In 1992, Robert Murch, chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, set out to find it, and after a 15-year search he did — Bond had been buried with his wife’s family in Baltimore rather than with his own in Dorsey, Md.

Murch got permission to install a new headstone and raised the necessary funds through donations, and today Bond has the headstone above, with a simple inscription on the front and a Ouija board on the back — in case anyone wants to talk.

Overdue

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Harry Houdini worked out a code with his wife, Bess, so that they could communicate during his performances:

Pray = 1 = A
Answer = 2 = B
Say = 3 = C
Now = 4 = D
Tell = 5 = E
Please = 6 = F
Speak = 7 = G
Quickly = 8 = H
Look = 9 = I
Be quick = 10 or 0 = J

Each of the first 10 letters of the alphabet is represented by both a word and a number, so BAD, for example, could be represented by “Answer, Pray, Now.” Letters beyond the 10th would be represented with two digits; for example, S, the 19th letter, could be indicated by 1 and 9, “Pray-Look.”

After Houdini died in 1926, Bess waited for a message in this code, according to an agreement between them. In 1929, psychic Arthur Ford claimed to have received it:

Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray-answer, look, tell, answer-answer, tell.

“Rosabelle” is a song that Bess used to sing. The rest, decoded, spells out BELIEVE. At first Bess took this as a genuine message from her husband, but skeptics pointed out that by this time she had revealed the code to Harold Kellock, who had published it in a biography that had appeared the previous year. So Ford could simply have learned the code and prepared the message himself. Bess repudiated Ford’s claim and in 1936 stopped attending séances. She said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

“Houdini never said he could come back,” observed Henry Muller, curator of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. “He just thought that if anybody could do it, it would be him.”

(From Craig Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.)

Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

Getting the Point

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Sixteenth-century England had some singularly inept bowmen:

In 1552, at about 3 pm on the 28th October, Henry Pert, gentleman, went out to play at Welbeck [Nottinghamshire] and drew his bow so fully with an arrow in it that he lodged the arrow in his bow. Afterwards, intending to make the arrow climb straight into the air, he shot the arrow from his bow while leaning slightly over the bow. Because his face was directly over the arrow as it climbed upwards it struck him over his left eyelid and into his head to the membrane of his brain. Thus the said arrow, worth one farthing, gave him a wound of which he immediately languished, and lay languishing until 12 pm on 29th October when he died, by misadventure.

In The Romance of Archery, historian Hugh D.H. Soar adds, “The coroner was sufficiently curious about this circumstance to take matters a little further. He inquired how this accident could happen and was told by knowledgeable colleagues that the unfortunate Henry was notable for using too short an arrow and regularly drawing it inside his bow.”

Worth a Try

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Image: Wikipedia

The gravestone of John Renie, a 19th-century house painter, at St. Mary’s Priory Church in Monmouth, Wales, is a 285-letter acrostic puzzle — from the central H the sentence “Here lies John Renie” can be traced out (in king’s moves) in 45,760 different ways. Renie probably carved it himself; according to cleric Lionel Fanthorpe, he hoped it would occupy the devil while he escaped to heaven.

See “Remarkable Inscription” and A Puzzling Exit.

A Grim Climate

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Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)