In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.
The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:
There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Which they kept up day and night,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.
The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.
Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”
When the Civil War ended, thousands of Confederates chose to leave the United States entirely and settle in Brazil. “Shall any Southerner be blamed, if he seeks a land where the night of vengeance has not come, that his day may not be one of threatening?” asked Ballard S. Dunn in Brazil, the Home for Southerners (1866). “Why should he? For, as surely as that these four years of disastrous war have left most of those who have been true to themselves and their ancestors penniless, homeless, despoiled, and bereaved, so surely the future, with its cumbrous disabilities, and fearful forebodings, promises nothing better than poverty and humiliation.”
About 10,000 Southerners made the trip to Brazil, where most settled in the state of São Paulo. Today their descendants form an ethic subgroup. In the city of Americana, the 300-member Fraternity of American Descendants holds an annual festival with Confederate flags, uniforms, and music, and a local cemetery holds the remains of W.S. Wise, the great-uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Thomas Jefferson looks on nervously while Lyndon Johnson “confers” with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.). At 6’4″, Johnson tied Abraham Lincoln as the tallest U.S. president, and he used his physical presence to advance his agenda, cornering his targets in out-of-the-way places and leaning “so close to you,” one staffer recalled, “that your eyeglasses bumped.” In their 1966 book The Exercise of Power, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak dubbed this The Treatment:
The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.
LBJ denied this. “I’d have to be some sort of acrobatic genius to carry it off,” he told an interviewer, “and the senator in question, well, he’d have to be pretty weak and pretty meek to be simply standing there like a paralyzed idiot.”
From a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son Kermit, Oct. 2, 1903:
There! You will think this a dreadfully preaching letter! I suppose I have a natural tendency to preach just at present because I am overwhelmed with my work. I enjoy being President, and I like to do the work and have my hand on the lever. But it is very worrying and puzzling, and I have to make up my mind to accept every kind of attack and misrepresentation. It is a great comfort to me to read the life and letters of Abraham Lincoln. I am more and more impressed every day, not only with the man’s wonderful power and sagacity, but with his literally endless patience, and at the same time unflinching resolution.
Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Maj. John Cartwright, June 5, 1824
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.
— G.K. Chesterton
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
What is this? It’s the American cargo ship West Mahomet in port, circa November 1918. During World War I British and American merchant ships adopted “dazzle camouflage” in hopes that it would help to confuse their type, size, and heading in enemy rangefinders.
It’s hard to say how well it succeeded as camouflage, but it’s a notable episode in art history: The painting style employed ideas from cubism and vorticism, and English artist Edward Wadsworth, who had helped to direct the effort, continued to pursue these themes even after the war — below is his Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool from 1919.
Thomas Jefferson received the following letter on July 31, 1806:
To his Excelency Thomas Jefferson Esq.
It is A Boy of 15 years Old Address to You the following lines. I feel A Strong regard for my Country’s welfair.
I think if I had A been Presendent at the time them opposen Set of People (I allude to the Brittish) appeared before Newyork I Should A been for rasing all the Naval force in the United States and opposed thire proceeding’s. My Father is an Englishman Born. Ever Sence I had an knowledge of Nation affaires I dispised them tirents as there are. I often read of the American War. I fear they Never will Come hear Again. I think if they Should I take up armes boy as I am in my Country’s Defence. If every one was as true to thier Country as me I think the Contest last war would not of been of so long Duration. Conquer or Die is my Wash Word.
A True American though a Youth
Huza to the Constetuon
Huza to the Repubeck
Huza Fredom Independence
Huza to all America.
PS. Sir Excuse the spelling.
“Mr. Hoover, if you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you have to battle with only one of them.” — Calvin Coolidge, to Herbert Hoover
When the British Army went ashore at Normandy, private Bill Millin was wearing a Cameron tartan kilt and playing “Hielan’ Laddie” on his bagpipes. Unarmed except for a ceremonial dagger, he marched up and down the water’s edge, blasting out tunes, and miraculously was not hit. Millin was personal piper to Lord Lovat, commander of 1st Special Service Brigade. The War Office had banned pipers from leading soldiers into battle after many were lost in World War I. “But that’s the English War Office,” Lovat told him. “You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”
“Mad Jack” Churchill enjoyed danger so much that he fought World War II with arrows and a broadsword — that’s him on the far right below, leading a training exercise in Scotland.
“Any officer who goes into action without his sword,” he said, “is improperly dressed.”
Churchill charged through the whole war this way — he’s the only British soldier to fell an enemy with a longbow — and yet he lived to be 90. He died peacefully in Surrey in 1996.
William Howard Taft weighed as much as 340 pounds during his presidency, but after leaving office he lost 70 pounds and kept it off for the remainder of his life. He shared his diet on the front page of the New York Times:
I have dropped potatoes entirely from my bill of fare, and also bread in all forms. Pork is also tabooed, as well as other meats in which there is a large percentage of fat. All vegetables except potatoes are permitted, and of meats, that of all fowls is permitted. In the fish line I abstain from salmon and bluefish, which are the fat members of the fish family. I am also careful not to drink more than two glasses of water at each meal. I abstain from wines and liquors of all kinds, as well as tobacco in every form.
“I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life,” he said. “Too much flesh is bad for any man.”
In 1864, as Abraham Lincoln fought for re-election during the Civil War, he was eager to admit Nevada to the Union because of its pro-Unionist and largely Republican sympathies. James Nye, governor of the territory, sent certified copies of the Nevada constitution overland to Washington, but on Oct. 24 they still hadn’t arrived. So he sent the entire constitution by telegram.
Telegrapher James H. Guild worked for seven hours to transmit the document in Morse code. Because there was no direct link from Carson City to Washington, he had to send it to Salt Lake City, from which it bounced to Chicago, then Philadelphia, and finally the War Department’s telegraph office at the capital. Above is the final page of the 175-page transcription, showing the word count (16,543) and the cost ($4,303.27, about $60,000 today).
Three days later, just eight days before the election, Nevada was admitted to the Union, and Lincoln was re-elected president.
PARISEAU, N. De, born in 1753; a celebrated victim of the ‘mistakes’ of the guillotine. Pariseau was director of the opera ballets at Paris, and ardently espoused the cause of the revolution in ‘La Feuille du Jour.’ He was arrested by the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1793, and beheaded by mistake, instead of Parisot, a captain of the king’s guard.
— The Biographical Treasury, 1847
The Atlanta Constitution of Oct. 2, 1892, contains this lurid tale from the Civil War. Discharged after losing a leg in battle, Confederate colonel Clay Clayton had returned to Sans Souci, his Alabama plantation, when a portion of the Union army established camp nearby and the Yankee officers made Clayton’s mansion their headquarters. During the occupation, Frederick Jasper, a disreputable captain from a Massachusetts regiment, pursued Clayton’s beautiful daughter, Virginia, who rejected his proposal of marriage. Virginia’s two brothers and lover learned of this during a visit to the plantation immediately after the Union troops left.
When the war ended, Clayton’s sons returned to Sans Souci and Virginia married her lover and settled on an adjoining plantation. Cotton had risen to a high price, and Clayton had two bales in his ginhouse, but he vowed not to sell them for less than $1 a pound, and they lay there unregarded for years.
In 1866 a Boston lawyer appeared looking for any trace of Jasper. The captain had separated from the Union troops after they had departed the plantation, taking with him a sergeant and promising to return in half an hour. He was never seen again, and now the lawyer sought to establish his fate in order to settle his estate. Clayton could tell him nothing, and he returned to Boston.
Twenty years later Clayton died, and the brothers and Virginia’s husband finally sold the ginhouse bales, which were stamped with the plantation’s mark and sent to Russia.
When it came to the turn of these two bales from old Colonel Clay Clayton’s Alabama plantation they were opened and the cotton dumped out on the floor of the factory. One was shaken up, there was a flash of blue and something bright, and a rattle of something on the floor. What was it? It was a skeleton in the uniform of a captain of the army of the United States of America. Sword, watch, money, buttons, some rotten cloth and bones. That was all. On the watch were the words, ‘Frederick Jasper, Boston.’
The sergeant’s body was found in the other bale. When the Boston lawyer returned to Alabama to investigate, Virginia’s husband told him everything: He and the Claytons had discovered Jasper assaulting Virginia on the plantation and carried him and the sergeant to the ginhouse.
The cotton was lying ready to be baled. We started the press and filled it. Into the middle of the bale of cotton went the wretch Jasper, begging like a hound to be killed first. But no. He went into the bale alive and was pressed with it. The other man, seeing the fate in store for him, shot himself, while we were at the press and he was lying wounded on the ground. Then he went in the other bale.
The Claytons then retained the bales with the excuse that they were waiting for a high price. But they were unrepentant: They had killed a Union soldier on Southern territory during wartime, and one who had behaved “vilely” despite their hospitality. “I cannot blame you at all,” said the lawyer, who returned to Boston and delivered Jasper’s fortune to his heirs.
The whole thing is so melodramatic that I think it must be fiction, but the Constitution ran it as a news story with the notice “Every particular of this incident can be verified by legal papers on file in Boston courts and by the testimony of witnesses yet living.” Make your own judgment.
On March 31, 1943, Army Air Corps second lieutenant Owen Baggett’s B-24 was hit by Japanese fighters while en route to destroy a railroad bridge in Burma. Baggett and four others bailed out before the bomber exploded, and the fighters began strafing them as they descended. Two of the parachutists were killed, and Baggett’s arm was grazed. He drew his .45 and sagged in his harness, hoping the Japanese would think him dead.
Presently a Zero approached him at near stall speeds and the pilot opened his canopy to get a better look. Baggett fired four rounds into the cockpit and the fighter dropped out of sight.
Had he downed a fighter with a pistol? It’s impossible to know for certain. Baggett was captured by the Burmese and spent two years in a Japanese prison camp and eventually retired from the Air Force as a colonel. When journalist John L. Frisbee contacted him in 1996, he was reluctant to talk about the incident — he believed he had hit the pilot but acknowledged that the evidence for this was indirect and circumstantial. Frisbee wrote that a few months after Baggett’s imprisonment, “Col. Harry Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter Group who had been shot down, passed through the POW camp and told Baggett that a Japanese colonel said the pilot Owen Baggett had fired at had been thrown clear of his plane when it crashed and burned. He was found dead of a single bullet in his head. Colonel Melton intended to make an official report of the incident but lost his life when the ship on which he was being taken to Japan was sunk.” Make your own judgment.
The township of Thierville, in Normandy, has not lost any service personnel in France’s last five wars — the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, either world war, the First Indochina War, or the Algerian War.
It was the only community in France in which no war memorial was erected between 1919 and 1925 — the only one with no dead to mourn.
William Howard Taft sometimes tipped the scales at 350 pounds. While serving as governor of the Philippines, he made a trip into the mountains for his health. He cabled Secretary of War Elihu Root:
STOOD TRIP WELL. RODE HORSEBACK 25 MILES TO 5,000 FEET ELEVATION.
Root wrote back:
REFERRING TO YOUR TELEGRAM … HOW IS THE HORSE?
When Theodore Roosevelt was reelected president in 1904, his friend Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, sent him a congratulatory telegram:
RICHARD THIRD ACT ONE SCENE ONE LINES ONE AND TWO
The lines read “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
Roosevelt spent the next four years fighting a recalcitrant Senate and House. As he was leaving office he received another wire from Wister:
ROMEO AND JULIET ACT THREE SCENE ONE LINE THREE PRECEDING MERCUTIO’S EXIT
The line is “A plague o’ both your houses!”
In 1916 British movie houses thrilled to The Battle of the Somme, which depicted actual fighting in the trenches of France as it unfolded that summer. At the visual climax of the film (30:33 in the video above), the British Army goes “over the top,” climbing over the parapet and losing a number of soldiers as it advances on the German position.
“Oh God, they’re dead!” cried a woman in the audience. The Dean of Durham entered “a protest against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement.” And H. Rider Haggard wrote, “[I]t does give a wonderful idea of the fighting … The most impressive [picture] to my mind is that of a regiment scrambling out of a trench to charge and of the one man who slides back shot dead. There is something appalling about the instantaneous change from fierce activity to supine death … War has always been dreadful, but never, I suppose, more dreadful than today.”
Unfortunately, six years later a panel of experts pronounced the sequence a fake. The troops are not carrying heavy equipment, the grass is lush, and the trenches are open to sniper fire and unprotected against artillery, and, most telling, the camera positions would have been dangerously exposed to enemy fire if this footage were authentic. It appears that cameraman Geoffrey Malins had staged certain crucial scenes for the sake of the drama.
Malins had profited from the film’s notoriety with a book called How I Filmed the War in 1920. This came back to bite him: Another cameraman later described meeting a soldier who had “died” for Malins in a trench well behind the lines.
(Roger Smither, “‘A Wonderful Idea of the Fighting': The Question of Fakes in ‘The Battle of the Somme’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 13:2 [June 1993], 149)
A striking story is going the rounds concerning an officer who, being refused leave to go with the Chitral expedition, obtained five days’ leave to go ‘shooting.’ He entrained to a point as near the operations as the railway would carry him, and then, being unable to obtain a horse, set out to march. Equipped with a bottle of gin and a huge sausage as his only rations, he plodded the weary miles over rough ground cheerfully. He reached the head of the column just as the charge was about to be made on the Malakand Pass. He was in time to join the head of the storming column, and was in the first three on the summit. When the battle was over he had to eschew the camp and the rest that awaited the fighting line, and had to make his way back as best he might to a point where the railway would take him up. The London correspondent of the Birmingham Gazette says he heard General Sir Evelyn Wood say that this officer is a full colonel. He went into action as a common soldier, tearing the straps off his Kharka uniform that his rank might not be discovered. For, as Sir Evelyn remarked with a twinkle in his eye, if he had been discovered he would have been put under arrest.
— Hawke’s Bay Herald, New Zealand, June 28, 1895
This chart, devised in 1869 by French civil engineer Charles Minard, illustrates the disastrous toll suffered by Napoleon’s army on its foray into Russia in 1812. Yale political scientist Edward Tufte describes it in his 1983 book The Visual Dislay of Quantitative Information:
Beginning at the left on the Polish-Russian border near the Niemen River, the thick band shows the size of the army (422,000 men) as it invaded Russia in June 1812. The width of the band indicates the size of the army at each place on the map. In September, the army reached Moscow, which was by then sacked and deserted, with 100,00 men. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow is depicted by the darker, lower band, which is linked to a temperature scale and dates at the bottom of the chart. It was a bitterly cold winter, and many froze on the march out of Russia. As the graphic shows, the crossing of the Berezina River was a disaster, and the army finally struggled back into Poland with only 10,000 men remaining. Also shown are the movements of auxiliary troops, as they sought to protect the rear and the flank of the advancing army. Minard’s graphic tells a rich, coherent story with its multivariate data, far more enlightening that just a single number bouncing along over time. Six variable are plotted: the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the retreat from Moscow.
He concludes, “It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”
Predictions from British journalist John Langdon-Davies’ A Short History of the Future, 1936:
- “Democracy will be dead by 1950.”
- “There will be no war in western Europe for the next five years (from 1935).”
- “By 1960 work will be limited to three hours a day.”
- “Abundant new raw materials will [by 1960] make food, clothing and other necessities universally obtainable.”
- “By 1975 parents will have ceased to bring up their children in family units.”
- “By 1975 sexual feeling and marriage will have nothing to do with one another.”
- “Crime will be considered a disease after 1985 and will cease to exist by A.D. 2000.”
- “The high-brow art of our day will have no future save as a historic curiosity, since it has sacrificed everything to a misguided individualism.”
- “By A.D. 2000 every community will have adopted a planned birth-rate and population will be kept at a fixed level by state-controlled contraception, abortion and sterilization.”
- “England will have a population one-tenth of its present size.”
- “Large tracts of America will go back to the primeval wilderness.”
- “Mankind, like the social insects, will be divided into four or five different sexual types and will forget the he and the she in the needs of physiological and social division of labour.”
“The present can have no meaning unless it is to be found in the future,” he wrote, “so that our happiness and our efficiency as thinking beings depends upon the clarity with which we see what the future holds.”
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.”
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: