PR Trouble


A senior relief official during the Irish potato famine was named Edward Pine Coffin.

A Letter Home


Excerpt from a letter from U.S. Army major Sullivan Ballou to his wife, July 14, 1861:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. …

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours — always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

He never sent it. It was found in his trunk after he was killed in the First Battle of Bull Run.


  • No point in Great Britain is more than 75 miles from the sea.
  • 2427 = 21 + 42 + 23 + 74
  • Sweden had a Charles VII, but no Charleses I-VI.
  • “If a man who cannot count finds a four-leaf clover, is he entitled to happiness?” — Stanislaw Lec

Altered States


The Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence from Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. It was annexed by Hungary the next day. It had been independent for only 24 hours.

In December 2006, Belgian public television station RTBF reported that Dutch-speaking Flanders had declared independence and that Belgium as a nation had ceased to exist. Panicked viewers placed 2,600 calls to the station and crashed its website as they sought further information.

The station kept up the story for two hours, then admitted it was a hoax. “It’s very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. “We obviously scared many people,” acknowledged news director Yves Thiran. “Maybe more than we expected.”

Last Effects

In October 1864, Indiana farmer John VanNuys received a letter informing him that his son had been killed in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in Virginia. He had been shot in the throat while retreating from a line of Confederate rifle pits. “Within twenty minutes our forces rallied and took the ground,” wrote the quartermaster, “but while the rebels held the ground, they had stripped your son of everything except shirt and drawers.”

A few days later VanNuys received an envelope postmarked “Old Point Comfort, Oct. 10.” Inside was a note in his son’s handwriting:

This testament belongs to Captain S.W. VanNuys, Acting Ass’t. Adj’t. General 3d Brigade, 3d Div., 18th Army Corps. Should I die upon the field of battle, for the sake of a loving mother and sister, inform my father, John H. VanNuys, Franklin, Indiana, of the fact.

Below this someone had written:

Mr. John H. Vanings: It is my faithful duty to inform you that your son was killed on the 29th of the last month near Chaffins farm, Va. I have his testament. I will send it if you wish it. From your enemy, one of the worst rebels you ever seen.

The sender had signed it only “L.B.F.” His identity is unknown.

Seat of Knowledge


John VI of Portugal was hard of hearing, so he had a throne built whose leonine arms captured sound and directed it to a listening tube.

“Requiring anyone who wishes to speak with you to kneel and address you through the jaws of your carved lion might be fun for an hour or so,” notes neuroscientist Jan Schnupp, “but few psychologically well-balanced individuals would choose to hold the majority of conversations in that manner.”

Alfonso XIII of Spain was “the most tone-deaf man I ever knew,” remembered Artur Rubinstein. “From the time he was seven, he was accompanied by a man assigned to nudge him whenever the national anthem was played.”

Mail Call

From Andrew Carroll’s Behind the Lines (2005) — during World War II, the parents of William Kyzer received this letter from their son, an infantry rifleman stationed in the Pacific:

Dear Dad & Carmilita

I’m OK, days flies by here in

Well maybe it can be all again soon. I’m praying for it. Write soon Nothing like getting a letter from home. Here on



P.S. They may censor this letter

Carroll writes: “In fact, Kyzer’s mail was not edited at all; he simply hated writing letters and only penned the few sentences at the top and bottom so that his folks would believe that the censors were responsible for slicing out the rest.”

A Dream in Alsace


Wandering the French countryside in 1914, German soldier Hans Fleischer made a remarkable discovery:

Through the thick underbrush, I meandered my way through a small path. Wonderful woods all around me. Not too long thereafter, I came upon a lighted area, and before me lay in the middle of a blooming flower garden, in peaceful silence, the castle of Baron de Turckheim. I stood struck in sight of it, and slowly I went closer to the gentle hills. Behind me lay Blamont. A wonderful picture, this little city with its red-brown roofs, built into a rolling valley, and marked by the old weathered ruins that Bernhard once destroyed during the Thirty Year’s War, and the high, double towered gothic church. Like an old, good Swabian town, there it lay, an image of freedom in the middle of the destruction of war. I went further through the garden and fields, past Weihern, and soon I stood on the terrace of the glorious construction. With astonishment, I climbed the stair and went in.

What a miserable image of destruction! The whole glory and wonder of this castle had become ruins and piles of rubble, everything cut down and in pieces, the wonderful chamber with its glorious library and its heavy, gold shrine, the woodwork covered room with its proud row of ancestor’s portraits, the lovely living room with its uncommon furniture — everything forever demolished. With a shudder, I went through the rooms. There! In one corner in the back — was that not a grand piano? I stood in my tracks, and then almost fell down with shock. Right! A grand piano: Steinway & Sons and untouched. A miracle! Finally, finally, music! How painful and with what longing I had missed just this holiest of all arts, and now I find in the middle of all of this rubble a grand piano! The room became like a temple to me, and I sat down as if at an altar. I began slowly, my fingers gliding tremblingly over keys no different than others I have played on. All of my longings became swelling tones that went out into the summer morning. They were holy moments of the blissful memories of the world, whenI was able to make music again for the first time. I awoke like out of a dream when I stopped.

But there! What was lying right under the piano? Did I see correctly? Right, sheet music! In haste I grabbed for the ‘The Valkyries.’ That was the culmination of my happiness, to find my Valyries here! Soon, the sound rang out. Joyously and then more so. The old, raw soldier’s playing became more relaxed, and seldom has a song of love and springtime and inner power emanated from me with more emotion. Outside, the destructive struggle between life and death, with all of its terrible incidents and gruesomeness — and here, in this moment, a German song of love. Rare, unforgettable hours! Feeling deeply fulfilled and happy, I had been taken back to my peaceful garden house. I was at home. I had made German music, and now I could go into war again. Blessed, I returned to my comrades.

From Andrew Carroll’s book Behind the Lines. Fleischer is believed to have been one of 95,000 Jews fighting for the German Army. If he survived, he would have been the victim of constant persecution in the Nazi regime, even having fought for Germany. What became of him is unknown.

Legal Grief


According to tradition, barristers wear black because they’re still in mourning for Queen Mary II, who died in 1694.

Or, properly speaking, they adopted black on Mary’s death at the wish of William III and have retained it as a convenient costume ever since.

Mary is most commonly cited; sometimes another Stuart queen is named. Sir Frederick Pollock, who served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer for more than 25 years, famously joked that the whole bar went into mourning in the time of Queen Anne (Mary’s younger sister) and never came out again.

He wrote, “I have always been told that formerly the Bar wore, in Court, coats, &c. of any colour under the gown, which also need not have been black; but that on the death of Queen Anne the Bar went into mourning, and since then every barrister has generally worn black.”

The Candy Bomber


In July 1948, 27-year-old Air Force lieutenant Gail Halvorsen was flying food and supplies into West Berlin, which was blockaded by the Soviet Union. One night he encountered a group of hungry children who had gathered near the runway to watch the planes land.

“They could speak a little English,” he recalled later. “Their clothes were patched and they hadn’t had gum and candy for two or three years. They barely had enough to eat.”

Halvorsen gave them two sticks of gum and promised to drop more candy for them the next day from his C-54. He said he’d rock his wings so that they could distinguish him from the other planes. Then he returned to the base and spent the night tying bundles of candy to handkerchief parachutes.

Over the next three days he dropped candy to growing crowds of West German children. He had wanted to keep the project secret (“It seemed like something you weren’t supposed to do”), but when a newsman snapped a photograph Halvorsen began receiving boxes of candy from all over the United States, many with parachutes already attached. Halvorsen went home in February 1949, and the blockade was lifted three months later.

In 1998, when Halvorsen returned to Berlin, a “dignified, well-dressed man of 60 years” approached him. He said, “Fifty years ago I was a boy of 10 on my way to school. The clouds were very low with light rain. I could hear the planes landing though I couldn’t see them. Suddenly out of the mist came a parachute with a fresh Hershey chocolate bar from America. It landed right at my feet. I knew it was happening but couldn’t believe it was for me. It took me a week to eat that candy bar. I hid it day and night. The chocolate was wonderful but it wasn’t the chocolate that was most important. What it meant was that someone in America knew I was here, in trouble and needed help. Someone in America cared. That parachute was something more important than candy. It represented hope. Hope that some day we would be free.”

The Popgun War

Brothers Alphonse, Kenneth, and Mayo Prud’homme were playing with a foot-long toy cannon in Natchitoches, La., in September 1941 when they saw a man peering at them through binoculars from the opposite side of the Cane River. “We just fired a shot at him to see what would happen,” Kenneth remembered later. “He bailed out of the tree and went flying back down the road in a cloud of dust.”

Presently the man returned with infantry. “They started shooting back at us, and when they’d shoot, we’d shoot back.”

This went on for half an hour, escalating gradually. The boys’ father added firecrackers to their arsenal; their opponents set up smoke screens and readied a .155 howitzer. At last an Army officer appeared at their side and said, “Mr. Prud’homme, do you mind calling off your boys? You’re holding up our war.”

The boys, ages 14, 12, and 9, had interrupted war games involving 400,000 troops spread over 3,400 square miles in preparation for America’s entry into World War II. At the sound of the cannon, George S. Patton had stopped his Blue convoy and engaged what he thought was the opposing Red army. His men were firing blanks, but the maneuvers were real.

“That’s my one claim to fame,” Kenneth told an Army magazine writer in 2009. “I defeated General Patton.”

Two Islands


Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis both died without a country.

In 1865 Lee applied for pardon and completed an amnesty oath, fulfilling terms required by Andrew Johnson. But the documents were never recognized, and Lee died without citizenship in 1870. A century later a worker discovered the oath in the National Archives, and Gerald Ford restored Lee’s citizenship posthumously in 1975.

After the fall of Richmond, Davis was imprisoned for treason. When he emerged two years later, his citizenship was denied — he could not run for office, and he could not vote. Like Lee, he passed the remainder of his life without a nation; Jimmy Carter finally restored his citizenship in 1978.



Why do we say “The United States is” rather than “The United States are”? The founding fathers tended to use are — in 1783 John Adams wrote, “The United States are another object of debate,” and the 13th Amendment declares that slavery shall not exist “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The standard answer is that the Civil War established the country as a unified nation in the modern consciousness. In 1887 a writer in the Washington Post declared that the war had “settled forever the question of grammar. … The surrender of Mr. Davis and Gen. Lee meant a transition from the plural to the singular.” “Since the civil war the tendency has been toward such use,” confirmed John W. Foster in the New York Times in 1901.

It’s not quite so simple, of course — authoritative writers can be found who used is before the war or are afterward. William Cullen Bryant banned the singular use from the New York Post in 1870, and Ambrose Bierce was pressing for the plural as late as 1909. (In 1881 New Englander C.H.J. Douglas proposed “The United State of America,” but he got nowhere.)

But the standard answer is essentially true. “The rebellion made the State rights and State sovereignty idea very obnoxious to loyal people, and gave corresponding prominence and popularity to the idea of nationality,” observed the New York Times in 1895. “The United States is, not are,” concluded Carl Sandburg in 1958. “The Civil War was fought over a verb.”

Brady’s Leap


Frontiersman Samuel Brady was being chased through northern Ohio by a band of Sandusky Indians in 1780 when he found his way blocked by the Cuyahoga River:

“He made his way to Standing Rock, and intended to cross at that ford, but the Indians were awaiting him, and he ran farther along the bank, to a place where the rocks rose at some points to a height of twenty-five feet. The body of the river at the narrowest part was from twenty-three to thirty feet wide, and was deep and dangerous. There was no other ford than Standing Rock for miles, and the Indians felt assured of their prize, but faint heart was not known to the Captain of the Rangers, and even a rushing torrent of water did not stop him in his course. Gaining a less precipitous edge of the cliff, he ran back into the forest, to get a good start, and was so near the approaching red men, that he heard their shots and exclamations. Across the expanse of water, at a height of probably twenty or twenty-five feet, he bounded, and with the eye of a practiced marksman, struck the bank on the other side, and stood on the cliff, as the wild yell and wilder appearance of the first pursuer denoted his disappointment and rage.”

Could this have happened as described? The river is broader and its banks much lower than in former times, so it’s hard to judge. The best evidence I can find supporting the tradition is an 1856 letter by Frederick Wadsworth, who writes that “many years ago” he had visited the spot with a companion who had heard the tale from Brady himself. “We measured the river where we supposed the leap was made, and found it between twenty-four and twenty-six feet; my present impression is that it was a few inches less than than twenty-five feet. There were bushes and evergreens growing out of the fissures in the rock on each side of the stream. He jumped from the west to east side; the banks on each side of the stream were nearly of the same height, the flat rock on the west side descending a very little from the west to the east.” Decide for yourself.

(Thanks, Mike.)

In a Word


n. a helper of the blind

I was recently told the following story of a piece of silverware now existing in the plate-room at Marlborough House. One day the Prince of Wales, on alighting from his carriage at the door of a house where he was about to pay a visit, saw a blind man and his dog vainly trying to effect a passage across the thoroughfare in the midst of a throng of carriages. With characteristic good-nature the Prince came to the rescue, and successfully piloted the pair to the other side of the street. A short time afterwards he received a massive silver inkstand with the following inscription:– ‘To the Prince of Wales. From one who saw him conduct a blind beggar across the street. In memory of a kind and Christian action.’ Neither note nor card accompanied the offering, and the name of the donor has never been discovered. But I think that this anonymous gift is not the least prized of the many articles in the Prince’s treasure chamber. I can vouch for the authenticity of this anecdote, as it came to me direct from a young English lady who, by the kindness of a member of the Prince of Wales’ household, was shown through Marlborough House during the absence of its owners, and the inkstand in question was pointed out to her by her conductor.

– Unsigned article, The Australian Journal, January 1893

Form Regards


The wife of a Russian soldier received this letter, handwritten in cursive, during World War I:

My Dear and Beloved Wife!

I am sending you, my dear, a little note about myself from far away. I am, thank God, alive and well and feel good about myself. Write me about your health and the health of our dear children. If only you knew, how my heart longs for you and the children, if only I could hold you to my chest and kiss you from the bottom of my heart.

I ask you, my darling spouse, write me even more often. I live by your letters alone. As soon as I receive communication from you, I read it through and through several times, and it’s as if I see you and the children, as if I am right next to you.

Every day I pray to our Good Lord above for you and for our children, and I ask Him, so that He, the Merciful, would let us meet again. And I believe, that happy day is not far off. Or, my dearest one, do not despair but instead as soon as you receive my letter, write me back about everything in great detail, for I eagerly await your note. I rely on the Lord, Our God, that I will find you and the dear children in good health and happiness.

I am sending heartfelt greetings to all our friends and family. Let them not forget me, for I shall not forget them.

I remain your loving and faithful husband.

“What is unique about the letter is that the government, not the soldier, authored it,” writes Andrew Carroll in Behind the Lines (2005). “Recognizing the importance of mail to bolster spirits on the home front as well as the battlefield, the Russian government provided these prewritten letters, which soldiers could simply fold up and send to the designated recipient.”

Out of Sight

In 1915, after being cut off from his regiment in northern France, British Army private Patrick Fowler found his way to the farmhouse of Marie Belmont-Gobert in the German-occupied town of Bertry. He implored her to hide him, but she had space only in an oaken cupboard in the living room.

Incredibly, Fowler spent three years and nine months in a space 5.5 feet high and 20 inches deep while more than 20 German musketeers were billeted in the same house. “He was there at times when unsuspecting Germans were actually sitting around the fire in the same room,” reported the New York World in 1927. “Often they came down to the ground floor quarters of the Belmont family and made coffee on the fire there.”

The Germans even made periodic searches. “[A German captain] and his men sounded the walls and floors for secret hiding places, uttered awful threats,” reported Time. “Mme. Belmont-Gobert only sat passive in her sitting room. At last the captain wrenched open the right-hand door of her large black armoire, snorted to see it divided into small shelves incapable of holding a rabbit, banged the right-hand door shut without opening the left-hand door, strode away.”

The Germans finally left Bertry on Oct. 10, 1918, and Fowler returned to his unit. Nine years later, in recognition of her act, the French government granted Belmont-Gobert a pension, and Britain named her a Dame of the Order of the British Empire. The cupboard resides today in the King’s Royal Hussars’ Museum in Winchester.


  • Connecticut didn’t ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939.
  • Can one pity a fictional character?
  • 64550 = (64 – 5) × 50
  • BILLOWY is in alphabetical order, WRONGED in reverse.
  • “The essence of chess is thinking about the essence of chess.” — David Bronstein

Assembly Dissembled

burbank lockheed plant

In order to hide it from Japanese bombers during World War II, Lockheed covered its entire Burbank, Calif., manufacturing plant with a camouflage net of chicken wire, poles and cables, feathers, and tar. From the air it looked like another residential section of Burbank, complete with trees, roads, sidewalks, and houses:

burbank lockheed plant camouflaged

“It was an engineering marvel,” reported Gil Cefaratt in his history of the company, “but when it rained, [engineer Richard P.] DeGrey remembers the odor of millions of wet chicken feathers almost made work impossible for a couple of days.”

False Fealty

Written in prison by Arthur Connor, a prominent figure in the Irish Rebellion of 1798:

The pomps of Courts and pride of kings
I prize above all earthly things;
I love my country, but the King,
Above all men, his praise I sing.
The Royal banners are displayed,
And may success the standard aid.

I fain would banish far from hence
The “Rights of Man” and “Common Sense.”
Confusion to his odious reign,
That foe to princes, Thomas Paine.
Defeat and ruin seize the cause
Of France, its liberties and laws.

Connor escaped in 1807 and made his way to France, where he became a general in the army. “These two apparently loyal verses, if properly read, bear a very different meaning,” writes Henry Dudeney. “Can you discover it?”

Click for Answer

Easy Money


In 1728 the city of Paris defaulted on a large number of municipal bonds. As a way to offer some restitution, the city decided to sponsor a series of lotteries among the disappointed bondholders. There would be only a few winners, but each investor could at least hope to recoup some of his lost money.

That’s very noble, but the city fathers had overlooked two things. First, because the government had sweetened the pot, the value of the lottery prize vastly exceeded the combined cost of the tickets. And second, among the bondholders were Voltaire and Charles Marie de La Condamine, who realized this.

The two organized a syndicate to buy up all of their fellow bondholders’ tickets, essentially guaranteeing themselves a huge profit each month. They did this systematically for half a year before the government caught on; when confronted, they pointed out that they were doing nothing illegal. In all, the syndicate realized 6 to 7 million francs, of which Voltaire kept half a million — enough to leave him independently wealthy for the rest of his life.



Queen Elizabeth acceded up a tree. When her father, George VI, died in 1952, the princess was staying at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya, essentially an enormous treehouse built into a fig in the Aberdare National Park. While she returned quickly to Britain, hunter Jim Corbett wrote in the visitors’ logbook:

“For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen — God bless her.”

This Scepter’d Isle


English history as reported by American schoolchildren in 1887, from Caroline Bigelow Le Row, English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools:

  • “England was named by the Angels.”
  • “The Celts were driven out of England into Whales.”
  • “Julius Caesar invaded England 400 years B.C. The English condition was in a rude state.”
  • “The Brittains were the Saxons who entered England in 1492 under Julius Caesar.”
  • “The Britains conquered Julius Caesar and drove him ignominiously from his dominions.”
  • “The Britons founded the Druids. They ust to hold religious services out of doors.”
  • “The Druids were supposed to be Roman Catholicks.”
  • “The Crusaders were fanatics who fought in tournaments.”
  • “The Habeas Corpus Act said that a body whether alive or dead could be produced in court.”
  • “Alfred the Great reigned 872 years. He was distinguished for letting some buckwheat cakes burn and the lady scolded him.”
  • “Rufus was named William on account of his red hair. He established the curfew fire bell.”
  • “William the Conqueror was the first of the Mormons.”
  • “Edward the black Prince was famous for founding chivalry.”
  • “Chivalry is a fight on horseback between two horsemen in an open plain.”
  • “A night errant is a man who goes around in the night in search of adventures.”
  • “The Middle Ages come in between antiquity and posterity.”
  • “The War of the Roses was between the white and the red.”
  • “Henry Eight was famous for being a great widower having lost several wives.”
  • “Lady Jane Grey studied Greek and Latin and was beheaded after a few days.”
  • “Queen Mary married the Dolphin.”
  • “Elizabeth was called the Virgin queen because of her many accomplishments and she had a great many fine dresses.”
  • “The unfortunate Charles First was executed and after he was beheaded he held it up exclaiming Behold the head of a trater!”
  • “Cromwell was only a parallel with Bonaparte.”
  • “Queen Victoria was the 4th son of George Third the Duke of Kent.”
  • “John Bright is noted for an incurable disease.”
  • “Lord James Gordon Bennett instigated the Gordon Riots.”

Manners Maketh Man


From Notes and Queries, March 14, 1863, Charles I’s “twelve golden rules” for deportment at table:


They were found in a collection of proclamations and broadsides held by the Society of Antiquaries. “Unquestionably the maxim-loving monarch’s jealousy of all interference with his prerogative, even in conversation, as also his constitutional dread of contention, and ‘counterblast’ hatred of tobacco, are reflected in these counsels to a sufficient extent to fix him with their authorship.”