History

Angry Planet

History’s 10 deadliest natural disasters:

  1. Yellow River flood, China, summer 1931: 1 million to 2 million dead
  2. Yellow River flood, China, September-October 1887: 900,000 to 2 million dead
  3. Bhola cyclone, East Pakistan, Nov. 13, 1970: 500,000 to 1 million dead
  4. Shaanxi earthquake, China, Jan. 23, 1556: 830,000 dead
  5. Cyclone, Coringa, India, Nov. 25, 1839: 300,000 dead
  6. Kaifeng flood, China, 1642: 300,000 dead
  7. Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami, Dec. 26, 2004: 283,100 dead
  8. Tangshan earthquake, China, July 28, 1976: 242,000 dead
  9. Banqiao Dam failure, China, August 1975: 231,000 dead
  10. Aleppo earthquake, Syria, 1138: 230,000 dead

Six of the 10 occurred in China. See also Death Tolls.

Trevanion’s Escape

Confined in Colchester Castle during the English civil war, the royalist officer Sir John Trevanion was awaiting execution when he received this letter:

Worthie Sir John:- Hope, that is ye beste comfort of ye afflicted, cannot much, I fear me, help you now. That I would saye to you, is this only: if ever I may be able to requite that I do owe you, stand not upon asking me. ‘Tis not much that I can do: but what I can do, bee ye verie sure I wille. I knowe that, if dethe comes, if ordinary men fear it, it frights not you, accounting it for a high honor, to have such a rewarde of your loyalty. Pray yet that you may be spared this soe bitter, cup. I fear not that you will grudge any sufferings; only if bie submission you can turn them away, ’tis the part of a wise man. Tell me, an if you can, to do for you anythinge that you wolde have done. The general goes back on Wednesday. Restinge your servant to command. — R.T.

Sir John studied the message for several hours, and then, apparently despairing, asked to spend some time alone in prayer. His captors agreed — and never saw him again.

Read the third letter after each punctuation mark.

Accidentally Famous

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In 1838, a man made history by having his boots polished.

The man, in the lower left, was the only thing standing still when Louis Daguerre took this photograph of a busy Parisian street. Because the film was exposed for 10 minutes, the rest of the traffic blurred into nothing — and the anonymous man became the first person ever to appear in a photograph.

“A Christmas Pie of Ye Olden Time”

James, Earl of Lonsdale, sent a Christmas pie to King George III, which contained 9 geese, 2 tame ducks, 2 turkeys, 4 fowls, 6 pigeons, 6 wild ducks, 3 teals, 2 starlings, 12 partridges, 15 woodcocks, 2 Guinea fowls, 3 snipes, 6 plovers, 3 water-hens, 1 wild goose, 1 curlew, 46 yellow-hammers, 15 sparrows, 15 chaffinches, 2 larks, 4 thrushes, 12 fieldfares, 6 blackbirds, 20 rabbits, 1 leg of veal, half a ham, 3 bushels flour, and 2 stones of butter. It weighed 22 stones, was carried to London in a two horse wagon, and if it was not as dainty as the celebrated pie containing four-and-twenty blackbirds, which, when the pie was opened, began to sing, it was, at all events, a ‘dish to set before the king.’

Bizarre Notes & Queries, January 1886

Economy

On the way to one of his many duels, Georges Clemenceau requested a one-way railway ticket.

“Isn’t that a little pessimistic?” asked his second.

“Not at all,” Clemenceau said. “I always use my opponent’s return ticket for the trip back.”

The New World Prophecy

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There’s a passage in Seneca’s Medea that seems to have foretold the discovery of America 1400 years before the event:

Venient annis secula seris,
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum.
Laxet, et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos detegat orbes
Nec sit terris ultima Thule.

“The times will come in later years when ocean may relax the chain of things, and a vast continent may open; the sea may uncover new worlds, and Thule cease to be the last of lands.”

Cold Case

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A son of William the Conqueror, William II of England is remembered mostly for the curious manner of his death. In August 1100, William organized a hunting expedition in the New Forest. In sharing arrows with the Anglo-Norman nobleman Walter Tirel, he said, “It is only right that the sharpest be given to the man who knows how to shoot the deadliest shots.” That was tempting fate, apparently: The king did not return after the hunt, and his body was discovered the next day with an arrow piercing his lungs.

Walter fled to France, but chroniclers generally don’t consider him a murderer. He was a skilled bowman, unlikely to fire impetuously, and the abbot who sheltered him in France heard him swear repeatedly that he had not been in the part of the forest where the king was hunting. On the other hand, William’s brother Henry was also in the hunting party, and he stood to gain (and did) from William’s death.

So what really happened? We’ll never know.

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.