History

Square Deal

In 1994, Leonard Gordon showed that all 37 presidential surnames to date can fit into a 22 × 18 rectangle:

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Free Won’t

Zeno once caught a slave stealing and began to beat him.

Knowing the philosopher’s penchant for paradoxes, the slave cried, “But it was fated that I should steal!”

Zeno said, “And that I should beat you.”

Jefferson’s Commandments

A “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life,” sent by Thomas Jefferson to the new father of a baby boy:

  1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
  2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  3. Never spend your money before you have it.
  4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
  5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  6. We never repent of having eaten too little.
  7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
  9. Take things always by their smooth handle.
  10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.

It’s not clear what a smooth handle is. Possibly it refers to a saying by Epictetus: “Everything has two handles, one by which it can be borne, another by which it cannot.” Or possibly Jefferson was referring to the need for civil discourse.

See also Ben Franklin’s “13 virtues” and Poor Richard’s lesser-known maxims.

No Comment

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A proud mother once remarked that her baby looked exactly like Winston Churchill.

Churchill told her, “Madam, all babies look like me.”

Monte Verde

In 1975, a veterinary student came across a curious bone in south-central Chile, about 36 miles east of the Pacific. It proved to be that of a mastodon, and as archaeologists explored the discovery site, they found the remains of ancient hearths, a brazier pit, and a 20-foot tentlike structure made of wood and animal hides.

The site is estimated to be 12,500 years old. If that’s accurate, these people occupied Chile a full millennium before humans are generally thought to have colonized the Americas. Who were they?

Triple Play

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Jesse James once sought shelter at a lonely farmhouse. The widow there apologized for her poor hospitality. She said she had very little money and despaired of paying the debt collector, who was coming imminently to demand $1,400.

James gave her $1,400 and told her to get a receipt. Then he hid outside and watched the road.

The debt collector arrived, looking grim, and entered the house. A few minutes later he emerged, looking pleased.

James accosted him, took back the $1,400, and rode off.

“In Event of Moon Disaster”

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On July 18, 1969, two days before the first lunar landing, presidential speechwriter William Safire composed the following text to be read by President Nixon if astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin were stranded on the moon:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Safire also suggested that Nixon call the “widows-to-be” before the speech, and that a clergyman should commend the astronauts’ souls to the “deepest of the deep” when communications ended.

All Aboard

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William Howard Taft once found himself stranded at a country railroad station and was told that the express train would not stop for a lone passenger.

He wired the conductor: STOP AT HICKSVILLE. LARGE PARTY WAITING TO CATCH TRAIN.

When the train stopped, Taft got aboard and told the conductor, “You can go ahead. I am the large party.”

A Polyhedral Mystery

What is this? Well, it’s a dodecahedron, but what was its purpose? More than 100 of these objects have been found between England and Hungary; this one was discovered among Roman ruins near Frankfurt. Typically they’re made of bronze or stone, with a hollow center and a round hole in the middle of each face, and they range in size from 4 to 11 centimeters.

The Romans likely made them in the second or third century, but strangely they appear in no pictures from that period and they’re not mentioned in Roman literature.

Best guesses so far: survey instruments, candlesticks, or dice.

Next!

History’s shortest-reigning king served for 20 minutes. When Charles X abdicated the French crown after the July Revolution of 1830, rule passed to his son, Louis XIX, who immediately resigned as well, over his wife’s entreaties.

The longest-reigning king is the pharaoh Pepi II, who ascended the Egyptian throne in 2278 B.C. at age 6. He ruled for 94 years.

No Peace

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Wilmer McLean used to say that the Civil War started in his backyard and ended in his parlor. The Virginia grocer was living in Manassas in 1861 when the First Battle of Bull Run broke out and dropped a cannonball into his fireplace. He moved to Appomattox and four years later Lee surrendered to Grant in his parlor.

He got a good story out of it but lost most of his furniture, which spectators carried off as souvenirs.

What’s in a Name?

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In 1882, when Texas governor Big Jim Hogg had a daughter, he decided to name her after an epic Civil War poem that her uncle had written.

Unfortunately, the heroine was called Ima.

“My grandfather Stinson lived 15 miles from Mineola and news traveled slowly,” she wrote later. “When he learned of his granddaughter’s name he came trotting to town as fast as he could to protest but it was too late. The christening had taken place, and Ima I was to remain.”

Contrary to local legends, she did not have a sister named Ura.

Unwelcome Coincidence

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Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert seemed to carry an odd curse — he was present or nearby at three successive presidential assassinations:

  • On April 14, 1865, his parents invited him to accompany them to Ford’s Theater. He remained at the White House and heard of his father’s death near midnight.
  • On July 2, 1881, he was an eyewitness to Garfield’s assassination at Washington’s Sixth Street Train Station.
  • On Sept. 6, 1901, he was present at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., when McKinley was shot.

In 1863, a stranger saved his life in a Jersey City train station. The stranger was Edwin Booth — the brother of John Wilkes Booth, his father’s future assassin.

Spared to Serve

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The Confederate navy had a working submarine during the Civil War. Powered by a hand crank, the 40-foot H.L. Hunley managed to sink an 1,800-ton sloop-of-war in Charleston harbor in 1864, a historic first, but then herself sank.

Little is known about the sub’s crew, but one story held that the commander, Lt. George E. Dixon, had survived the Battle of Shiloh because a Union bullet struck a coin in his pocket. His sweetheart, it was said, had given him the coin “for protection.” This was considered a family legend until 2002, when a forensic anthropologist investigating the Hunley‘s remains discovered a healed injury to Dixon’s hip bone.

Near Dixon’s station another researcher found a misshapen $20 gold piece, minted in 1860, with this inscription:

Shiloh
April 6 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D.

“Curious Signs in New York”

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One may see in the shop-windows of a Fourth avenue confectioner, ‘Pies Open All Night.’ An undertaker in the same thoroughfare advertises, ‘Everything Requisite for a First-class Funeral.’ A Bowery placard reads, ‘Home-made Dining Rooms, Family Oysters.’ A West Broadway restaurateur sells ‘Home-made Pies, Pastry and Oysters.’ A Third avenue ‘dive’ offers for sale ‘Coffee and Cakes off the Griddle,’ and an East Broadway caterer retails ‘Fresh Salt Oysters’ and ‘Larger Beer.’ A Fulton street tobacconist calls himself a ‘Speculator in Smoke,’ and a purveyor of summer drinks has invented a new draught, which he calls by the colicky name of ‘Aeolian Spray.’ A Sixth avenue barber hangs out a sign reading ‘Boots Polished Inside,’ and on Varick street, near Carmine, there are ‘Lessons Given on the Piano, with use for Practice.’ ‘Cloth Cutt and Bastd’ is the cabalistic legend on the front of a millinery shop on Spring street; on another street the following catches the eye: ‘Washin Ironin and Goin Out by the Day Done Here.’

— Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882

Recent History

The oldest U.S. Civil War widow is still alive. Maudie Hopkins was 19 when she married 86-year-old veteran William Cantrell in 1934. She’s 92 today.

Five Down

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In May 1944, as the Allies prepared to invade Europe, the word UTAH appeared in a crossword puzzle in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. Security officers found that a bit worrisome: Utah was the code name for one of the landing beaches.

Their worry turned to alarm when OMAHA and MULBERRY, two further code names, appeared in subsequent puzzles. And alarm turned to panic when NEPTUNE and OVERLORD appeared four days before the planned invasion. In Allied code, Neptune referred to the landing operation, Overlord to the entire invasion of Normandy. The government immediately arrested Leonard Dawe, the schoolteacher who had composed the puzzles.

A long interrogation ensued, but in the end they decided Dawe was innocent. Apparently his students had overheard troops using these words and then repeated them in his hearing. If that’s true, the published words were in fact code names — but no one involved had recognized them as such.

Boston Molasses Disaster

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Of sweetness, Shakespeare wrote: “A little more than a little is by much too much.” Boston learned this the hard way in the Molasses Disaster of 1919, when someone tried to fill a weak tank with 2.3 million gallons of the thick syrup.

“A muffled roar burst suddenly upon the air,” wrote the Boston Herald. “Mingled with the roar was the clangor of steel against steel and the clash of rending wood.”

The tank collapsed, sending a giant wave of molasses sweeping through the North End. Even in the January cold, the wave would have been 8 to 15 feet high and traveled at 35 mph. It broke the girders of the elevated railway, lifted a train off its tracks, and tore a firehouse from its foundation. Twenty-one people stickily drowned, and 150 were injured. Cleanup took six months; one victim wasn’t found for 11 days.

No one knows the cause, but it’s been noted that molasses was used in making liquor, and the disaster occurred one day before Prohibition was ratified. It appears the owners were trying to distill molasses into grain alcohol before the market dried up. Write your own pun.

Where the Buffalo Roam

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Those are bison skulls, in the 1870s, waiting to be ground into fertilizer. Before Columbus there were 60 million bison in North America; by 1890 there were 750. They were holding up our railroads. Now they’re back up to 350,000, but 70 percent of those are being raised for human consumption.

The Jefferson Bible

Thomas Jefferson once composed a secular version of the Christian Gospels. He said he wanted to study Jesus’ teachings without “the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves.”

He called the Bible’s supernatural content “nonsense,” from which Jesus’ ideas were “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” His narrative ends like this:

“Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

Money to Burn

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During the German hyperinflation of the early 1920s, prices doubled every 49 hours.

That meant that paper currency notes were cheaper than firewood.

Helen Duncan

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In November 1941 a U-boat torpedoed the British battleship Barham, but the Germans didn’t realize they’d hit it. The British Admiralty managed to keep the loss a secret for two months, but in the interval a Scottish spiritualist named Helen Duncan announced that the Barham had sunk. She said she’d heard the news from a dead sailor.

The British authorities arrested Duncan, hoping to discredit her story. They appealed to an old law against fraudulent “spiritual” activity … which unfortunately was called the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.

So: History records that a practicing medium who revealed an “unknowable” secret at a séance in 1941 was convicted under a witchcraft law. She served 9 months.

Modern Girl

When Cleopatra was born, the Great Pyramid was already 2,500 years old.

Comanche

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It’s not quite true that Custer’s entire detachment was killed at Little Bighorn. Two days after the battle, this horse appeared, badly wounded but still alive. It had been the personal mount of one of Custer’s captains.

Nursed back to health, Comanche was named a “second commanding officer” in the 7th Cavalry. He was buried in 1890 with full military honors.