About Face


To commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England struck a medal bearing the device of a fleet flying under full sail.

The inscription read Venit, vidit, fugit — “It came, it saw, it fled.”

Hair Today …


In 1943, Colorado broom factory worker Mary Babnik Brown saw an advertisement in a Pueblo newspaper soliciting blond hair, at least 22 inches long, that had not been treated with chemicals or hot irons. Brown had never cut her hair, which she combed twice a day and washed twice a week with pure soap. When her samples were deemed acceptable, she cut off all 34 inches and sent it in, considering this her contribution to the war effort, though “I cried for two months.”

At the time she was told that her hair would be used in meteorological instruments. It wasn’t until 1987, the year of her 80th birthday, that she learned that it had been used in the Norden bombsight, a top-secret instrument that guided bombs to their targets. Engineers had determined that fine blond human hair worked ideally in crosshairs, but the technology was a closely guarded secret, so the donors weren’t told how their contributions would be used. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” Brown said. “All I knew was that they needed virgin hair.”

She did get some compensation: Pueblo declared Nov. 22, 1991, “Mary Babnik Brown Day,” she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society’s hall of fame, and Ronald Reagan sent her this letter:


Looking Up

Planetary economy will be a determining factor in the change of diet which the coming century must inevitably witness. Such a wasteful food as animal flesh cannot survive: and even apart from the moral necessity which will compel mankind, for its own preservation, to abandon the use of alcohol, the direct and indirect wastefulness of alcohol will make it impossible for beverages containing it to be tolerated. Very likely tobacco will follow it.

— T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence, 1905

In a Word

n. a duel

In 1842, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois lawyer, published a letter in a Springfield newspaper criticizing the performance of the state’s auditor, James Shields. Shields, quick to anger, challenged Lincoln to a duel, and the two met on an island in the Mississippi River. As the challenged party, Lincoln was permitted to choose the weapon, and he requested long cavalry broadswords. As he stood 7 inches taller than Shields, this gave him an enormous advantage, which he demonstrated by cutting a branch above Shields’ head. Accounts differ as to how the auditor responded — he either laughed or quailed — but the two agreed not to fight. Lincoln appears to have been embarrassed by the whole affair, and declined to discuss it in later years.

(Thanks, Aric.)

Occupational Hazards

In April 1964, British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home was staying at the home of a friend in Scotland. One day when he happened to be alone there, he answered the door to find a group of students from Aberdeen University, who said they were there to kidnap him.

At first Douglas-Home said, “I suppose you realize if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” Then he stalled by asking for 10 minutes to pack a few things, and bought further time by offering beer to the students. Eventually his friends returned and the students departed willingly. Douglas-Home never spoke publicly of the incident, as the breach would have imperiled his bodyguard’s career, but in 1977 he mentioned it to a colleague, whose diary entry came to light in 2008.

Related: Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared entirely in 1967. He was visiting Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, with friends when he decided to go swimming. When he disappeared from view a search was organized, but it could find no trace of him. The beach is known for its rip tides, so he’s presumed to have drowned, but no body has ever been found.

(Thanks, John.)

Lost Hope

A gruesome detail from the siege of Leningrad, from the diary of ballet teacher Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, April 1942:

And there, across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.

With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’

  1. without his knapsack
  2. without his rags
  3. in his underwear
  4. naked
  5. a skeleton with ripped-out entrails

They took him away in May.

That’s from Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina, Writing the Siege of Leningrad, 2002. They add, “The man was apparently heading for the Finland Station in the hope of getting out of Leningrad on Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life.'”

Housewife Sof’ia Nikolaevna Buriakova remembered, “Having grown numb from work, having lost a sense of what was permissible, the gravediggers stooped to all sorts of disgusting jokes, even blatantly violating the deceased. On the road leading to the communal grave a tall corpse had been stood with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. His frozen, iced-over arm pointed the way to the trench graves.”

Parting Orders


Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:

“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”

Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.

No Man’s Lands


Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.

Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.


A Hidden Drama


When Japanese forces took Wake Island in December 1941, they put 98 captured Americans to forced labor. When the American military threatened to retake the island in October 1943, the Japanese took these civilians to the north end of the island, blindfolded them, and executed them by machine gun.

One of the Americans somehow escaped this massacre and fled. We know this because he returned to the scene and carved the legend “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a coral rock near the mass grave. He was subsequently captured and beheaded.

The rock remains a landmark on the island. The American’s identity has never been discovered.



At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.

In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”

That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”