A Horrid Coincidence


In April 1819 the French slave ship Rodeur set sail for Guadeloupe from the Bight of Biafra with a crew of 22 men and 162 slaves. After 15 days, a disease of the eyes appeared among the slaves in the hold. The heartless captain threw 36 slaves overboard, but the illness soon spread to the crew, and eventually everyone on board except for a single man was blind.

And then came one of the most remarkable incidents in the history of sea commerce. As the Rodeur was crawling along with this one man at the helm, another ship, with all sails set, was seen. That was a glad moment on the Rodeur, and she was quickly headed for the stranger, hoping to get men who could navigate the ship. Drawing near, the Rodeur’s lone helmsman observed that the stranger was steering wildly, and that no one could be seen on board. But the moment the Rodeur had arrived within hailing distance men came to the stranger’s rail, and in frantic tones said that every one on board had become blind, and begged for the help that the Rodeur had come to secure. The stranger was the Spanish slaver Leon.

That’s from journalist John Randolph Spears, who wrote a history of the American slave trade at the turn of the century. This is such a horrible story that I hoped it was just folklore, but it’s borne out in the inquiries that followed and commemorated in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Slave-Ships”:

“Help us! for we are stricken
With blindness every one;
Ten days we’ve floated fearfully,
Unnoting star or sun.
Our ship’s the slaver Leon,–
We’ve but a score on board;
Our slaves are all gone over,–
Help, for the love of God!”

On livid brows of agony
The broad red lightning shone;
But the roar of wind and thunder
Stifled the answering groan;
Wailed from the broken waters
A last despairing cry,
As, kindling in the stormy light,
The stranger ship went by.

Unable to help one another, the two ships parted. On June 21 the Rodeur reached Guadaloupe, where the last man went blind. The Leon passed into the Atlantic and was never seen again.

In a Word

n. a circumnavigation, an epic journey, an odyssey

In 1505 Ferdinand Magellan sailed east to Malaysia, where he acquired a slave named Enrique who accompanied him on his subsequent westward circumnavigation of the globe. When that expedition reached the Philippines, Enrique escaped, and his fate is lost to history. That’s intriguing: If he managed to travel the few hundred remaining miles to his homeland, then he was the first person in history to circumnavigate the earth.

Things to Come


In May 1861, barely three weeks after the start of the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln received a letter from Helen Rauschnabel of Rochester, N.Y., relating “a remarkable dream I had last night about Mr. Lincoln which I think has a significant meaning.”

I dreamed it stormed & thunderd & lightned terribly, it seemed as tho the Heavens & Earth were coming together, but it soon ceased, still there seemed to be very dark clouds sailing thro the horison, I thought I stood pensively viewing the scene, when a man resembling Mr Lincoln appeard standing erect in the firmament with a book in his hand, he stood as near as I could calculate over the City of Washington, his head seemed reard above the lightnings flash and thunder bolt, the sun seemed to be just rising in the East, and its rays shed a soft mellow light around about him, beneath his feet rolled dark & heavy clouds which the sun light was fast dispeling, I saw him walk thro all the Southern part of the horison with a book in one hand, & a pen in the other.

“When he got to the western part of the firmament he made a halt & stood erect,” she remembered. “He was crowned with honors & coverd with Laurels, and looked very smiling.” She found herself singing a verse, which she remembered when she awoke and committed to paper: “A voice from the North has proclaimed the glad Morn / And Slavery is ended & Freedom is born / The fair Sunny South is restor’d one more / Secession is ended & Slavery is ore.”

Presidential Wordplay


In 1936, as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for re-election against Republican Alf Landon, a group from Wall Street’s financial district sponsored a competition to find the best anagram for FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. The winner was VOTE FOR LANDON ERE ALL SINK.

During the 1980 campaign, Jimmy Carter was accused of reversing his position on several issues to maintain his popularity. Edward Scher of New York University coined the palindrome TO LAST, CARTER RETRACTS A LOT.

Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan, who inspired Howard Bergerson to compose a “press conference” in 1982 using only the letters in RONALD WILSON REAGAN. Here the Gipper describes his foreign policy:

We are sworn nonaggressors; we need law and order, we disallow war as lawless and senseless, and in a larger sense we also regard war as, now and again, needed. A needed war is no dead end or swan song, nor need we ride in war as no-good sinners on genderless geldings! We need androgens and derring-do! We need Old Glories, and seasoned soldiers garrisoned worldwide, generals in golden regalia, and raised dander! We need all-seeing, world-girdling radar, seagoing sonar and liaison ensigns, newer DEW lines and earlier NORAD warnings, larger arsenals and deadlier arrows in silos, R-and-D on lasers, and goodlier anger! We need no ring-a-ding dissensions and wild-goose rallies, nor do we need addled ding-a-ling diagnoses on wielding dread winged swords and daggers — or on wielding God’s own grenades! Ordained grenadiers alone assess, and ordained godlings alone will wield Gold’s sidereal grenades riding on Odin’s arrows. Godless Leningrad warlords and roodless, religionless Red warriors sold on Red-engendered Warsaw agreeings are as sidling sidewinders in loose sand! In nine innings (I disdain gridiron analogies) we will win — no one is dawdling! We are leaning on oars! We and God will engage all Red raiders, and, God willing, we will win odds-on! No one dragoons or goads God!

Reagan’s name can also be rearranged to spell INSANE ANGLO WARLORD.

Going Down


One last, almost unbelievable, anecdote from the San Francisco earthquake:

When the quake struck at 5:12 a.m., William Stehr was in his room on the top floor of the Nevada House at 132 Sixth Street. At first he considered jumping from his window onto a roof below, but “as I was waiting to make up my mind the house I was looking at collapsed with a deafening roar.” He was dressing himself hurriedly when he heard another crash and saw that the Brunswick House had also collapsed “and was tumbling into a heap of ruins in a smother of dust.” He leapt to his door but found that the quake had jammed it shut.

As I was tugging at it I felt the floor tilting and sinking under me, and I knew that the house was going down like the others. So I hung on instinctively to the door handle while the whole floor dropped. As it sank I felt three distinct bumps as the lower floors collapsed in turn under the weight of the roof and the top story. With each bump came a frightful crash and cracking of timbers and glass and the cries of other people in the house who were being destroyed. …

The cries of these people who were being killed, especially the women, were dreadful to hear; even to me, in my own peril, thinking every instant that I would be crushed, they were the most dreadful part of the experience.

Then came another bump, very sudden and very severe. The place fell in on top of me, the breath seemed to be knocked out of my body and I went unconscious.

He had survived. Of the 50 people in the Nevada, only seven had escaped. “On all sides, where the Nevada, the Ohio, the Brunswick and other lodging houses had been, there was nothing but a big pile of debris.”

(From Malcolm E. Barker’s Three Fearful Days, 1998.)

The Comma Strike

In September 1905, printers in Ivan Sytin’s Moscow publishing house went on strike, demanding pay for punctuation marks. Discontented workers in other trades and other cities soon joined them in sympathy: bakers, railroad workers, lawyers, bankers, even the Imperial Ballet. Without the railroad, steel and textile mills were forced to shut down; soon nearly the entire adult population of Petrograd had ceased work. The general strike led Tsar Nicholas II to issue the October Manifesto, granting a constitution to Russia for the first time in its history. Thus, wrote Trotsky, “a strike which started over punctuation marks ended by felling absolutism.”

A somewhat related story, from David Kahn’s The Codebreakers: In June 1887 Philadelphia wool dealer Frank J. Primrose sent his agent William B. Toland west, ordering him to buy 50,000 pounds of wool in Kansas and Colorado and await further instructions. The two corresponded by telegram using phrase codes like these to shorten the messages.

On June 16 Primrose planned to send the message Yours of the 15th received; am exceedingly busy; I have bought all kinds, 500,000 pounds; perhaps we have sold half of it; wire when you do anything; send samples immediately, promptly of purchases. Shortened with phrase codes this read DESPOT AM EXCEEDINGLY BUSY BAY ALL KINDS QUO PERHAPS BRACKEN HALF OF IT MINCE MOMENT PROMPTLY OF PURCHASES.

Unfortunately, somewhere between Brookville and Ellis, Kansas, someone added a dot, converting BAY into BUY. Consequently Toland bought 300,000 pounds of wool. Primrose lost more than $20,000 in settling with the sellers and sued Western Union, but the Supreme Court ruled against him on a technicality (he had declined to have his message read back to him). He collected only the cost of the telegram, $1.15.

(Thanks, Folkard.)

The Christmas Truce


As Christmas approached in 1914, a number of impromptu cease-fires broke out on the Western Front in which German and British troops exchanged greetings, song, and even food. Rifleman Oswald Tilley of the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his parents on Dec. 27 regarding an incident near Ploegsteert, just north of the Franco-Belgian border:

On Christmas morning as we had practically ceased to fire at them, one of them started beckoning to us so one of our Tommies went out in front of our trenches and met him halfway amidst cheering. After a bit a few of our chaps went out to meet theirs until literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands and exchanging cigarettes, chocolate and tobacco etc. … Just you think that while you were eating your turkey etc. I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before. It was astonishing!

In subsequent years the authorities tried to discourage such truces. Apart from reproving the breakdown in discipline, they had trouble getting the war started again. In late 1915 Ethel Cooper, an Australian woman living in Germany, met a soldier home on leave from the XIX Saxon Corps who told her that his unit had fraternized extensively with a British battalion for two days beginning that Christmas Eve. She wrote, “The trouble began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer: ‘We can’t — they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers turned on the men, ‘Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy.’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. ‘We spent that day and the next day,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.'”

(From Marc Ferro et al., Meetings in No Man’s Land, 2007)

The Defenestrations of Prague


On July 30, 1419, Czech priest Jan Želivský was leading his congregation through the streets of Prague to protest corruption in the Catholic church when someone threw a stone at him from the window of the town hall. His followers stormed the hall and threw 13 members of the town council from a high window, killing them.

Remarkably, the same thing happened again in 1618, when King Ferdinand dissolved the Protestant estates in Bohemia. Aggrieved Protestants confronted Catholic officials in the chancellory and threw several of them from a third-floor window. All three survived — Catholics contended that they had been saved by angels, Protestants that they had landed on a dunghill. (Or, a reader suggests, “the Czechs bounced.”)

The Little Man

In 1525, more than 100,000 German peasants demanded an end to serfdom and were massacred by the well-organized armies of the ruling class. After observing the ornate memorials with which the aristocrats congratulated themselves, Albrecht Dürer proposed a similarly baroque monument to the slain peasants:

Place a quadrangular stone block measuring ten feet in width and four feet in height on a quadrangular stone slab which measures twenty feet in length and one foot in height. On the four corners of the ledge place tied-up cows, sheep, pigs, etc. But on the four corners of the stone block place four baskets, filled with butter, eggs, onions, and herbs, or whatever you like. In the centre of this stone block place a second one, measuring seven feet in length and one foot in height. On top of this second block place a strong chest four feet high, measuring six and a half feet wide at the bottom and four feet wide at the top. Then place a kettle upside down on top of the chest. The kettle’s diameter should be four and a half feet at the rim and three feet at its bottom. Surmount the kettle with a cheese bowl which is half a foot high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and has a diameter of a foot and a half at the bottom, and of only a foot at the top. Its spout should protrude beyond this. On the top of the butter keg, place a well-formed milk jug, two and a half feet high, and with a diameter which is one foot at its bulge, half a foot at its top, and is wider at its bottom. Into this jug put four rods branching into forks on top and extending five and a half feet in height, so that the rods will protrude by half a foot, and then hang peasants’ tool on it – like hoes, pitchforks, flails, etc. The rods are to be surmounted by a chicken basket, topped by a lard tub upon which sits an afflicted peasant with a sword stuck into his back.

What would that look like?

durer peasants memorial

The Bellamy Salute


When minister Francis Bellamy published the American Pledge of Allegiance in Youth’s Companion in 1892, his colleague James Upham devised a salute to go along with it, snapping the heels together and extending the right arm toward the flag:

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, ‘I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.’ At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

This worked fine until the 1920s, when Italian fascists and then German Nazis adopted similar salutes. Congress delicately changed the American salute to the hand-on-heart gesture in 1942.