Memento

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In 1798 Horatio Nelson’s navy defeated a French fleet off the coast of Egypt. Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who helped to destroy the French flagship L’Orient, sent Nelson a macabre gift:

My Lord,

Herewith I send you a Coffin made of part of L’Orient’s Main mast, that when you are tired of this Life you may be buried in one of your own Trophies — but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of your obedient and much obliged servant,

Ben Hallowell

Nelson was indeed buried in it after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

No Good Deed

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In 1939, the U.S. Navy submarine Sculpin helped to rescue the crew of her sister ship Squalus, which had flooded and sunk off the coast of Maine.

After the rescue the Sculpin went on to serve in World War II, where she was sunk in 1943 by a Japanese destroyer. Twenty-one of her crew were captive aboard a Japanese aircraft carrier when the carrier itself was sunk by torpedoes from an American sub.

The attacking sub was the salvaged and repaired Squalus — the same ship that Sculpin had saved four years earlier.

Quick Thinking

In summer 1940, Germany demanded access to Swedish telephone cables to send encoded messages from occupied Norway back to the homeland. Sweden acceded but tapped the lines and discovered that a new cryptographic system was being used. The Geheimschreiber, with more than 800 quadrillion settings, was conveying top-secret information but seemed immune to a successful codebreaking attack.

The Swedish intelligence service assigned mathematician Arne Beurling to the task, giving him only a pile of coded messages and no knowledge of the mechanism that had been used to encode them. But after two weeks alone with a pencil and paper he announced that the G-schreiber contained 10 wheels, with a different number of positions on each wheel, and described how a complementary machine could be built to decode the messages.

Thanks to his work, Swedish officials learned in advance of the impending invasion of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Stalin’s staff disregarded their warnings.

“To this day no one knows exactly how Beurling reasoned during the two weeks he spent on the G-Schreiber,” writes Peter Jones in his foreword to The Codebreakers, Bengt Beckman’s account of the exploit. “In 1976 he was interviewed about his work by a group from the Swedish military, and became extremely irritated when pressed for an explanation. He finally responded, ‘A magician does not reveal his tricks.’ It seems the only clue Beurling ever offered was the remark, cryptic itself, that threes and fives were important.”

(Thanks, John.)

Time’s Up

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This fob watch, retrieved from the wreck of the Titanic, confirms the approximate time that the ship went down, 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912.

On June 7, 1692, an earthquake destroyed Port Royal, Jamaica. Centuries later, during a 1960 excavation in Kingston Bay, archaeologist Edwin Link discovered a pocket watch whose hands were frozen at 11:43 a.m., pinpointing the onset of the quake and confirming eyewitness accounts made 268 years earlier.

On Aug. 12, 1949, time slowed briefly in London: Fifty starlings settled on Big Ben’s minute hand and delayed the striking of the hour by four and a half minutes.

Confined

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Oppressed by the sexual advances of her master, 22-year-old North Carolina slave Harriet Jacobs fled in 1835 and hid for seven years in a tiny loft under the roof of her grandmother’s house nearby:

The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air. … The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on the other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed; but I was weary, and I slept such sleep as the wretched may, when a tempest has passed over them.

She cut a tiny peephole in the roof so that she could watch her children, who lived in the house but did not know of her presence. Eventually she escaped to the North, was reunited there with her brother and her children, and published an autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in 1861. “My body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment,” she wrote, “to say nothing of my soul.”

See Out of Sight.

Spendthrift

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Didius Julianus bought Rome. When Pertinax, the successor to Emperor Commodus, failed to support the Praetorian Guard in 193, they overthrew him and auctioned off the whole empire. Cassius Dio writes:

Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, ‘Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?’ And to Sulpicianus in turn, ‘Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?’ Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.

He didn’t last long — Septimius Severus swept into the capital after nine weeks, and the Praetorians switched allegiance again. “And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, ‘But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?’ He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.”

Farewell

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An episode from the sinking of the Titanic, from the testimony of passenger Mary Smith:

When the first boat was lowered from the left-hand side I refused to get in, and they did not urge me particularly; in the second boat they kept calling for one more lady to fill it, and my husband insisted that I get in it, my friend having gotten in. I refused unless he would go with me. In the meantime Capt. Smith was standing with a megaphone on deck. I approached him and told him I was alone, and asked if my husband might be allowed to go in the boat with me. He ignored me personally, but shouted again through big megaphone, ‘Women and children first.’ My husband said, ‘Never mind, captain, about that; I will see that she gets in the boat.’ He then said, ‘I never expected to ask you to obey, but this is one time you must; it is only a matter of form to have women and children first. The boat is thoroughly equipped, and everyone on her will be saved.’ I asked him if that was absolutely honest, and he said, ‘Yes.’ I felt some better then, because I had absolute confidence in what he said. He kissed me good-by and placed me in the lifeboat with the assistance of an officer. As the boat was being lowered he yelled from the deck, ‘Keep your hands in your pockets; it is very cold weather.’ That was the last I saw of him; and now I remember the many husbands that turned their backs as that small boat was lowered, the women blissfully innocent of their husbands’ peril, and said good-by with the expectation of seeing them within the next hour or two.

Bedroom steward Alfred Crawford was helping ladies into a port-side lifeboat when Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, arrived with his wife, Ida. “She made an attempt to get into the boat first. She had placed her maid in the boat previous to that. She handed her maid a rug, and she stepped back and clung to her husband and said, ‘We have been together all these years. Where you go I go.'” The two were last seen sitting side by side in chairs on the deck.

See Leaving.

Mr. Right

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In April 1935 a 29-year-old Berlin mother sent Adolf Hitler a humorous narrative — her 7-year-old daughter had fallen in love with him:

Aribert stood there flabbergasted and speechless. ‘You don’t want to marry our Hitler?’ ‘Just Hitler, no one else, the little girl says proudly. ‘I want no other husband.’ …

Little Gina stands in the middle of the room, furious and offended. ‘You don’t have to shout so stupidly, I’ll get him. Right now he still doesn’t have time to get married; but when I’m grown up, everything will already be going much better, and then he won’t have so much to do. Then I’ll become his wife.’

‘But, Gina,’ says the father, smiling. ‘He doesn’t know you. You don’t know whether he would love you or not.’ ‘He has already loved me as long as you have,’ the little lady says boldly. And then she cries in rage and bitterness: ‘All his men have got wives and children, he is the only one who is all alone. I love him so much, and I am so sorry for him.’ …

‘Hmm, are you happy too, Daddy,’ Little Gina says, giving her father a sideways glance, ‘when everybody else gets something wonderful and you are the only one who doesn’t? Are you really happy then, without being sad, because you haven’t got anything?’ …

‘But he also has to have someone who really and truly loves him. When I am his wife, then I shall set the table for him, he will always have flowers, and I shall caress and kiss him.’ …

Gina’s father put her to bed, and her brothers danced around the family’s garden, singing:

Gina wants to marry Hitler
ohoho!
Gina will someday be his wife
ohoho!

In June Albert Bormann replied, “Your nice, lively little episode has given the Leader real pleasure. The Leader wishes to thank you for the birthday greetings that you sent at the same time.” In August the family sent flowers and a letter from Gina: “We wanted so much to see you. I love you so much. Please write to me.” She signed it “Your Gina.” He never responded.

(From Henrik Eberle, ed., Letters to Hitler, 2007.)

Dictation

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In 1887, Irish journalist Richard Pigott sold a series of letters to the Times of London. Purportedly written by Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Parnell, they seemed to show that Parnell had approved of a savage political assassination five years earlier. Parnell denounced the letters as a “villainous and bare-faced forgery.”

In the ensuing investigation, Parnell’s attorney asked Pigott to write a series of words and submit them to the court:

livelihood
likelihood
Richard Pigott
proselytism
Patrick Egan
P. Egan
hesitency

What was the point of this?

Click for Answer