A young boy who drowned on the Titanic. Despite the frightful loss of life, the evacuating passengers generally behaved honorably — giving women first place in the lifeboats, for instance, regardless of their class. 55 percent of third-class women survived, compared to 33 percent of first-class men.
“In the town of Ratisbon a certain young man who had an intrigue with a girl, wishing to leave her, lost his member; that is to say, some glamour was cast over it so that he could see or touch nothing but his smooth body. In his worry over this he went to a tavern to drink wine; and after he had sat there for a while he got into conversation with another woman who was there, and told her the cause of his sadness, explaining everything, and demonstrating in his body that it was so. The woman was astute, and asked whether he suspected anyone; and when he named such a one, unfolding the whole matter, she said: ‘If persuasion is not enough, you must use some violence, to induce her to restore to you your health.’ So in the evening the young man watched the way by which the witch was in the habit of going, and finding her, prayed her to restore to him the health of his body. And when she maintained that she was innocent and knew nothing about it, he fell upon her, and winding a towel tightly about her neck, choked her, saying: ‘Unless you give me back my health, you shall die at my hands.’ Then she, being unable to cry out, and growing black, said: ‘Let me go, and I will heal you.’ The young man then relaxed the pressure of the towel, and the witch touched him with her hand between the thighs, saying: ‘Now you have what you desire.’ And the young man, as he afterwards said, plainly felt, before he had verified it by looking or touching, that his member had been restored to him by the mere touch of the witch.”
– “How, As It Were, [Witches] Deprive Man of His Virile Member,” Malleus Maleficarum, 1487
“I do not think we should like to dine with a Chinese gentleman, or Mandarin, as he would treat us to strange dainties, as — a roast dog, a dish of stewed worms, a rat pie; or, perhaps, a bird’s-nest. But the bird’s-nest would be the best of the list, for it is not like the kind of bird’s-nests which you have seen, but is made, I believe, of the spawn of fish, and looks something like isinglass. It is the nest of a sort of swallow, is about the size of a goose’s egg, and is found in caverns along the sea shores; so it is not so bad as it seems at first. And the rats are as large and fat as some of our rabbits, being fed on fruits and grain, purposely for eating; as also are their dogs, for eating.”
– From The World’s Fair; or, Children’s Prize Gift Book of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Describing The Beautiful Inventions And Manufactures Exhibited Therein; With Pretty Stories About the People Who Have Made and Sent Them; And How They Live When at Home
When the Eiffel Tower was first built, it was regarded as an eyesore.
Guy de Maupassant ate regularly at a restaurant in the tower — he said it was the one place in Paris he could be sure he wouldn’t see it.
A is an Abolitionist –
A man who wants to free
The wretched slave — and give to all
An equal liberty.
B is a Brother with a skin
Of somewhat darker hue,
But in our Heavenly Father’s sight,
He is as dear as you.
C is the Cotton-field, to which
This injured brother’s driven,
When, as the white-man’s slave, he toils,
From early morn till even.
– From The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, a children’s book printed for an anti-slavery fair, 1847
In 1896, to draw tourists to Rhinelander, Wis., Eugene Simeon Shepard staged an encounter with a hodag, a legendary creature with “the head of a bull, the grinning face of a giant man, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with a spear at the end.”
According to the story, Paul Bunyan’s ox had to be burned for seven years to cleanse its soul of all the profanity that local lumberjacks had hurled at it. The hodag rose from its ashes.
There’s no telling whether anyone bought this, but the hodag is now the official mascot of Rhinelander High School.
Mark Twain reports on a student who was asked to analyze this stanza from Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake”:
Alone, but with unbated zeal,
The horseman plied with scourge and steel;
For jaded now and spent with toil,
Embossed with foam and dark with soil,
While every gasp with sobs he drew,
The laboring stag strained full in view.
The student wrote:
The man who rode on the horse performed the whip and an instrument made of steel alone with strong ardor not diminishing, for, being tired from the time passed with hard labor overworked with anger and ignorant with weariness, while every breath for labor he drew with cries full or sorrow, the young deer made imperfect who worked hard filtered in sight.
Twain’s comment: “I see, now, that I never understood that poem before. I have had glimpses of its meaning, it moments when I was not as ignorant with weariness as usual, but this is the first time the whole spacious idea of it ever filtered in sight. If I were a public-school pupil I would put those other studies aside and stick to analysis; for, after all, it is the thing to spread your mind.”
“… six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, huddled in a corner, their sole covering what seemed to be a ragged horse cloth, and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached in horror and found by a low moaning that they were alive, they were in fever — four children, a woman and what had once been a man. … In a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious either from famine or fever. … Within 500 yards of the Cavalry Station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying, unable to move, under the same cloak — one had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move, either themselves or the corpse.”
– From a letter by a Mr. O’Brien to the Duke of Wellington describing a visit to Skibbereen during the Irish potato famine, Dec. 17, 1846
During aerial surveys in 1992, German forestry students were surprised to see a giant swastika north of Berlin. Apparently locals had planted larches in that pattern in 1937, presumably to prove their loyalty to the party. After the war it was forgotten, as the effect could be seen only from the air, and only as the leaves changed.
When the giant Nazi symbol was rediscovered, though, Brandenburg authories worried that it would attract right-wing extremists — so they started cutting down the larches. In the end, 68 of the 100 trees had to fall before the effect was obscured. There’s an irony here, somewhere …
Hurricane Carol hits the Rhode Island Yacht Club, 1954.
Hurricanes seem to run in cycles of 50-70 years. Destructive storms were common between 1926 and 1960, but five of the 10 most expensive storms in U.S. history have occurred since 1990.
“At length, the moon arose in great splendour, and little Henry saw at a distance an old abbey, all covered with ivy, and looking so dark and dismal, it would frighten any one from going in. But Henry’s little heart, occupied by the idea of his mamma, and with grief that he could not find her, felt no fear; but walking in, he saw a cell in the corner that looked like a baby-house, and, with Fidelle by his side, he bent his little steps towards it, and seating himself on a stone, he leaned his pretty head against the old wall, and fell fast asleep.”
– From The Extraordinary Adventures of Poor Little Bewildered Henry, Who Was Shut Up In An Old Abbey For Three Weeks, A Story Founded on Fact, 1850
What do these writers have in common?
- Ernest Hemingway
- John Dos Passos
- e.e. cummings
- Somerset Maugham
- John Masefield
- Malcolm Cowley
- Sidney Howard
- Robert Service
- Louis Bromfield
- Harry Crosby
- Julian Green
- Dashiell Hammett
- William Seabrook
- Robert Hillyer
- John Howard Lawson
- William Slater Brown
- Charles Nordhoff
- Sir Hugh Walpole
- Desmond MacCarthy
- Russell Davenport
- Edward Weeks
- C. Leroy Baldridge
- Samuel Chamberlain
All drove ambulances during World War I.
Too much optimism is a bad thing. In 1897, Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée planned to reach the North Pole in a leaky and untested balloon, steering only by dragging ropes. He and two companions lifted off from Svalbard in July, drifted north and disappeared for 33 years.
It wasn’t until 1930 that their last camp was discovered — they had crashed after only two days and spent three freezing months trying to walk home.
“Morale remains good,” Andrée had written before his diary became incoherent. “With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever.”
John Robert Conroy may have regretted bringing his bull terrier to France in World War I — the dog became the star of his unit. It won:
- 3 Service Stripes
- Yankee Division YD Patch
- French Medal, Battle of Verdun
- 1st Annual American Legion Convention Medal, Minneapolis
- New Haven World War I Veterans Medal
- Republic of France Grande War Medal
- St. Mihiel Campaign Medal
- Purple Heart (retroactive)
- Chateau Thierry Campaign Medal
- 6th Annual American Legion Convention
- Humane Education Society Gold Medal
I’m not making any of that up. “Sergeant Stubby” fought in the trenches for a year and a half, warning of poison gas attacks, finding wounded soldiers, and listening for incoming shells. He met Woodrow Wilson and John Pershing, was wounded several times, and even learned to salute. His remains are on display at the Smithsonian.
Excerpts from 19th-century students’ physiology exams:
- “Physillogigy is to study about your bones stummick and vertebry.”
- “Occupations which are injurious to health are cabolic acid gas which is impure blood.”
- “We have an upper and lower skin. The lower skin moves all the time and the upper skin moves when we do.”
- “The body is mostly composed of water and about one half is avaricious tissue.”
- “The stomach is a small pear-shaped bone situated in the body.”
- “The gastric juice keeps the bones from creaking.”
- “The Chyle flows up the middle of the backbone and reaches the heart where it meets the oxygen and is purified.”
- “The salivary glands are used to salivate the body.”
- “In the stomach starch is changed to cane sugar and cane sugar to sugar cane.”
- “The olfactory nerve enters the cavity of the orbit and is developed into the special sense of hearing.”
- “The growth of a tooth begins in the back of the mouth and extends to the stomach.”
- “If we were on a railroad track and a train was coming the train would deafen our ears so that we couldn’t see to get off the track.”
– From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887
Robinson Crusoe isn’t entirely fiction — it’s based on the story of a real Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years marooned on an uninhabited island.
Selkirk was sailing with privateer William Dampier in 1703 when he began to doubt the seaworthiness of their galleon, the Cinque Ports. Finally he decided to stay ashore voluntarily on the Juan Fernández islands in the South Pacific with only a musket, gunpowder, carpenter’s tools, a knife, a Bible, and his clothing.
At first Selkirk was wracked with loneliness and regret, but he soon acclimated to island life. He domesticated wild cats to keep rats at bay, grew turnips, cabbage and pepper berries, and built two huts of pimento trees. He hunted wild goats and made clothing of their skins and forged a knife from cast-off barrel rings.
There’s a telling postscript to the story. After four years and four months, Selkirk was rescued by William Dampier, the same man who had left him ashore — but Selkirk was surprised to see he was sailing a different ship. The Cinque Ports had sunk, losing most hands. Selkirk, it seems, had been right to stay on the island.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Excerpts from 112 Gripes About the French, a handbook produced to help American soldiers understand the French after the Liberation:
- The French are too damned independent. The French are independent. They are proud. They are individualists. So are we. That’s one reason there is friction between us.
- I never heard people gab so much. Gab, gab, gab. If you understood the language it might be interesting and not just “gab.” An American writer, Ambrose Bierce, said, “A bore is a person who talks — when you want him to listen.”
- The French are not as clean as the Germans. Perhaps not. If the Germans had had no soap for five years they wouldn’t be as clean as they might like to be. A learned man once said, “An untidy friend is better than an immaculate enemy.”
- The French can’t drive a car. They can’t keep it up. They ruin vehicles. The French, on the whole, certainly do not drive as well, keep a car up as well, or protect their vehicles as well as we do. Neither do women, compared to men. We have had more mechanical training, more technical experience. And at the present time we have incomparably better maintenance facilities.
Evidently somebody thought this was a good idea. In the late 19th century, lamplighters used this “giraffe bicycle” to travel between gas streetlamps. If you could keep your balance you’d be sitting more than 7 feet above the ground. Watch the road.
A Navy collier during World War I, the U.S.S. Cyclops put to sea from Rio de Janeiro on Feb. 16, 1918, touched at Barbados on March 3 and 4, and was never heard from again. She took 306 crew and passengers with her.
In 1968, a diver off Norfolk, Va., reported finding the wreck of an old ship in about 300 feet of water. When shown a picture of the Cyclops he said he was convinced it was the same ship. But, strangely, even that wreck disappeared — further expeditions failed to find anything.
Cleveland is misspelled. The Ohio city was named for Gen. Moses Cleaveland, the leader of the crew that surveyed the local territory. But when the town’s first newspaper, The Cleaveland Advertiser, was established in 1830, the editor found that its title was too long by one letter — so he unceremoniously dropped an A.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
When Thomas Edison died in 1931, his last breath was caught in a test tube by his son Charles.
He was convinced to do it by Henry Ford, who believed that a person’s dying breath contained his soul.
You can see it for yourself — the test tube is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
“I must write something of myself today. I can look back and see plainly all my journey here. The day may come when I shall be laid away in the grave, and my boys — the dear boys I have loved so well — will look over my trunk and find this manuscript; they will then perhaps believe I am not crazy. I know Dr. Steeves tells them I am a lunatic yet. They will weep over this, as they think of the mother they have left here to die among strangers.”
– Mary Huestis Pengilly, Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 1885
This disk was found in the ruins of a Minoan palace in 1908.
It’s an archaeological mystery. No one knows where it came from, what it was used for, or the language or meaning of its inscription. It’s known simply at the Phaistos disk.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
In July 1808, 100 kilometers east of the Montana Rockies, Lewis and Clark wrote, “We have repeatedly heard a strange noise coming from the mountains. … It is heard at different periods of the day and night … and consists of one stroke only, or of five or six discharges in quick succession. It is loud and resembles precisely the sound of a six-pound piece of ordnance.”
They were leading the first overland expedition of the United States territory, so it wasn’t a cannon. The sounds have never been explained.