History

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.

Some Things Never Change

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This is magnificent — it’s a document written on birch bark in 12th-century Russia, unearthed in 1951.

A 6-year-old boy named Onfim was learning to write — and doodling on his homework.

Scrap Paper

In 1946, the inflation rate in Hungary reached 4.19 quintillion percent, a modern record.

By August, all the Hungarian banknotes in circulation would have bought one-thousandth of one U.S. cent.

Black Tie Optional

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English biologist Richard Owen designed a collection of life-size concrete dinosaurs for London’s Crystal Palace.

On New Year’s Eve 1853, he hosted a dinner for 21 inside the iguanodon.

The Big Fix

On May 31, 1886, tens of thousands of workers pulled the spikes from railroad lines throughout the South, shifted one rail 3 inches, and spiked them in again.

No one had standardized the gauges.

Come Out, Come Out …

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That hollow column on the right is a “priest-hole,” a hiding place for Catholic priests, who were hunted with Elmer-Fudd-like tenacity when Elizabeth took the English throne around 1560. A “papist” could be hanged for saying mass; converting a Protestant was high treason.

Fortunately, the priests had a Bugs Bunny in the shape of Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit laybrother who spent his life devising secret chambers and hiding places for persecuted Catholics. “Pursuivants” could spend as much as a fortnight fruitlessly tearing down paneling and tearing up floors while the priest held his breath a wall’s thickness away.

Ickily, some of these hidden priests starved to death.

What?

A deaf observer of the American Civil War would have been deeply confused by the outcome of certain battles. That’s because the generals planned to hear the course of the struggle — and, in some cases, the sounds never arrived.

“Acoustic shadows” typically occur when an expected sound is absorbed somehow or deflected by windshear or a temperature gradient. In the Civil War it had significant effects at Fort Donelson, Five Forks, and Chancellorsville. At the Battle of Iuka, a north wind prevented Grant from hearing guns only a few miles away. At Perryville, Don Carlos Buell learned only from a messenger that his men were involved in a major battle.

At the Battle of Seven Pines, Joseph Johnston was 2.5 miles from the front but heard no guns. And certain sounds from the Battle of Gettysburg were inaudible 10 miles away but clearly heard in Pittsburgh.

(Thanks, David.)

Strange Bedfellows

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In 1948, a few months before his death, Babe Ruth visited Yale to donate a copy of his autobiography. He presented it to the captain of the school’s baseball team.

The captain’s name was George Bush.

Oops

Ohio didn’t become a state until after World War II. Thomas Jefferson had approved its boundaries in 1803, but Congress didn’t start formally admitting new states until nine years later. It was 1953 before anyone realized this, and Eisenhower hastily recognized the Buckeye State retroactively. Hopefully no one noticed.

Dueling Namesakes

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Portland, Oregon, was nearly named Boston.

Founder William Overton owed money to benefactors in Boston and in Portland, Maine. A coin toss in 1845 decided which city would give its name.

“The Waco Horror”

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Between 1882 and 1930, Texans committed 492 lynchings. By most accounts, the most horrible of these was the 1916 slaying of Jesse Washington, a Waco farmhand who had confessed to the rape and murder of a white farmer’s wife.

A jury of 12 whites deliberated for four minutes before declaring Washington guilty. They called for the death penalty, but before authorities could act, he was dragged from the courtroom, doused with coal oil, and suspended alive over a bonfire. A witness wrote:

Washington was beaten with shovels and bricks … was castrated, and his ears were cut off. A tree supported the iron chain that lifted him above the fire. … Wailing, the boy attempted to climb up the skillet hot chain. For this, the men cut off his fingers.

Washington’s corpse was put in a cloth bag and dragged behind a car to Robinson, where it was hung from a pole. Northern newspapers condemned the lynching, but Texas was largely unrepentant. The image above is taken from a postcard (!); on the back someone has written, “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”

Are We Tilting?

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Make a rigid map of the United States and add a weight for each person in the country. Then try to balance it on your finger.

In 1790, you’d find a neat equilibrium point under Chestertown, Md. — but you’d have to keep shifting as settlers moved west. By 1850 the balance point had slid into West Virginia; in 1900 it reached Indiana.

It’s still moving. During the 20th century, the point shifted another 324 miles to the west, into Phelps County, Mo. That includes a dramatic jump of 10 miles in a single year — in 1960, when Alaska and Hawaii first appeared on the census.

Burying the Hatchet

The Third Punic War didn’t end until 1985.

Begun in 149 B.C., the contest never reached a peace treaty because Rome utterly destroyed Carthage. 2,134 years passed before the cities’ mayors “officially” ended the conflict.

“Battle of the Bees”

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In Africa, World War I dawned with a buzz and a howl. The British Indian Army was trying to sneak up on an eastern seaport held by the Germans when they disturbed huge hives of aggressive African bees, which drove them into the sea. “I would never have believed that grown-up men of any race could have been reduced to such shamelessness,” said a British officer. One engineer was stung 300 times.

The Times wrote that the bees had been sprung by the German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. When asked about this, he merely smiled and said, “Gott mitt uns.”