The English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury saw Halley’s comet as a young boy in 989.
When he saw it again 76 years later, he declared: “You’ve come, have you? … You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.”
The year was 1066. That October, with the Battle of Hastings, the Normans began their conquest of England.
Predictions by Scottish mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society:
- “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” (1883)
- “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” (1895)
- “Radio has no future.” (1897)
Speaking to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900, he said, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Einstein’s annus mirabilis came five years later.
When Raphael died in 1520, a portrait was found in his studio of a local baker’s daughter named Margherita. She is thought to have been his lover — on his deathbead he had bid her farewell and arranged for her care.
The portrait might reveal something else as well. Writing in The Lancet in 2002, Georgetown University medical professor Carlos Hugo Espinel suggests that “La Fornarina” might have had breast cancer:
There is a bulge in the [left] breast that, beginning inward from the axilla and curving horizontally to the right, slopes gently toward the nipple. This bulge seems to be a mass, oval in shape, puckering just above the tip of La Fornarina’s index finger.
After studying other artworks, Espinel has also concluded that Michelangelo had gout, that Rembrandt died of temporal arteritis, and that the Mona Lisa’s smile may have resulted from the partial paralysis of a facial muscle. Independent research has supported some of these diagnoses.
“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” — Grover Cleveland, 1905
The following story of the Paris Commune was vouched for by an English spectator: “As several Versaillese were being led away to be shot, one man in the crowd that accompanied them to see the shooting made himself conspicuous by taunting and reviling the prisoners. ‘There, confound you,’ said one of the prisoners at last, ‘don’t you try to get out of it by edging off into the crowd and pretending you are one of them. Come back here; the game is up; let us all die together;’ and the crowd was so persuaded that the communard’s vehemence was only assumed to cloak his escape that he was marched into file with the prisoners and duly shot.”
– Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905
What John de Mandeville lacked in travel experience, he made up in imagination:
In Ethiope are such men that have but one foote, and they go so fast yt it is a great marvaill, & that is a large fote that the shadow thereof covereth ye body from son or rayne when they lye uppon their backes, and when their children be first borne they loke like russet, and when they waxe olde then they be all blacke.
The writer published a singular book full of such prodigies in the 14th century, most of it apparently borrowed from other writers or spun from whole cloth. Who would do such a thing? We’ll never know — as it turns out, the name “Mandeville” itself was made up.
One last unlucky elephant. In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison was locked in a historic “war of currents” with George Westinghouse. Edison wanted the nation to use direct current; Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla wanted alternating current.
That sounds like a pretty tame dispute, but Edison went to some horrific lengths to sway public opinion. To prove that AC was dangerous, he began electrocuting stray cats and dogs. He said they were being “Westinghoused.” He also secretly funded the first electric chair, which ran on AC but was underpowered — its first use resulted in “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging,” in the words of one witness.
Anyway, around this time a Coney Island elephant named Topsy was condemned to death for killing three men in three years. Hanging was out, thanks to the ASPCA, so Edison suggested they send 6,600 volts of AC through her. So on Jan. 4, 1903, 1,500 people gathered at the amusement park and watched as Topsy ate carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide and was Westinghoused. She died quickly, reportedly, but Edison recorded the whole thing on film, and later played Electrocuting an Elephant to audiences around the country.
He lost the fight for DC power, though. There’s some justice.
In 1897, testimony from a ghost helped to convict a murderer. Zona Heaster Shue’s death was presumed to be natural until her mother claimed that her ghost had visited her on four successive nights and described how she had been murdered by her husband, Edward. When Zona’s body was exhumed, her neck was found broken, and a jury convicted Edward of murder.
That may be the last U.S. case of “spectral evidence,” but it’s not the first. During the Salem witch trials, if a witness testified that “Goody Proctor bit, pinched, and almost choked me” in a vision or dream, this would be accepted as evidence even if Proctor was known to have been elsewhere at the time.
“Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom,” wrote Clarence Darrow. “Justice is what comes out of a courtroom.”
A “bookwheel,” designed by Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli (1531-1600).
Because it keeps the reader’s place in various texts, it’s considered an early prototype of the World Wide Web.
New York City as seen from space, Sept. 11, 2001.
The average age of the city’s dead was 40.
Text of an ancient Macedonian scroll discovered in Greece in 1986:
On the formal wedding of [Theti]ma and Dionysophon I write a curse, and of all other wo[men], widows and virgins, but of Thetima in particular, and I entrust upon Makron and [the] demons that only whenever I dig out and unroll and re-read this, [then] may they wed Dionysophon, but not before; and may he never wed any woman but me; and may [I] grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. I [am] your supplicant: Have mercy on [your dear one], dear demons, Dagina(?), for I am abandoned of all my dear ones. But please keep this for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably and to me grant [ha]ppiness and bliss.
It would have been written in the 4th or 3rd century B.C.
Eyewitness account of a performance by the 8-year-old Mozart, 1769:
“After this he played a difficult lesson, which he had finished a day or two before: his execution was amazing, considering that his little fingers could scarcely reach a fifth on the harpsichord.
“His astonishing readiness, however, did not arise merely from great practice; he had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition, as, upon producing a treble, he immediately wrote a base under it, which, when tried, had a very good effect.
“He was also a great master of modulation, and his transitions from one key to another were excessively natural and judicious; he practiced in this manner for a considerable time with an handkerchief over the keys of the harpsichord.
“The facts which I have been mentioning I was myself an eye witness of; to which I must add, that I have been informed by two or three able musicians, when Bach the celebrated composer had begun a fugue and left off abruptly, that little Mozart had immediately taken it up, and worked it after a most masterly manner.
He was still an 8-year-old, though. “For example, whilst he was playing to me, a favourite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time.”
(From Daines Barrington, “Account of a Very Remarkable Young Musician,” Philosophical Transactions)
Another case of man’s inhumanity to elephants. Don’t even read this one. Seriously.
In 1826, the owners of a London menagerie decided to kill Chunee, their 5-ton Indian elephant. The animal had been docile for years — Lord Byron said “I wish he was my butler” — but he grew violent toward the end of his life, perhaps aggravated by pain from a rotten tusk. When, on a rampage, he killed one of his keepers, it was decided he was too dangerous to keep.
Unfortunately, Chunee wouldn’t eat poison. So a group of musketeers were summoned to his cage, a trusted keeper ordered him to kneel, and the soldiers began to fire volleys into his chest and legs. This continued for more than an hour, during which one witness reported that the sound of the elephant’s “agony had been much more alarming than that made by the soldier’s guns.” Even with 152 musketballs in him, the elephant continued to live, kneeling in a cage full of blood, so they had to dispatch him, finally, with a sword.
News of the slaughter inspired numerous poems and even a successful play, but owner Edward Cross sought a profit even in the animal’s death. He charged a shilling to see the body dissected; he sold the hide (which took nine butchers 12 hours to remove); and he put Chunee’s skeleton on display in his old cage — with the bullet holes in his skull clearly visible.
Since the 1930s, hundreds of stone spheres have been found in Costa Rica. They range from a few centimeters to more than 2 meters in diameter and weigh up to 16 tons.
No one knows who made them or why, but they’re old — some date to 200 B.C.
1916 came to a black end for Sparks World Famous Shows, a circus that was traveling through the American South. In Kingsport, Tenn., an amateur trainer named Red Eldridge was leading a 5-ton Asian elephant to a local pond when she stopped to nibble a watermelon rind. He grew impatient and prodded her behind the ear. She flung him against a drink stand and stepped on his head.
What followed can only be described as a lynching. A crowd began to chant, “Kill the elephant!” A local blacksmith fired two dozen rounds into Mary, with little effect. The local sheriff impounded her, newspapers reported (falsely) that she had killed several workers in the past, and nearby towns threatened to boycott the show. By most accounts Mary had calmed down after killing Eldridge, but that didn’t seem to matter.
So on Sept. 13, owner Charlie Sparks took Mary to a local railroad yard and hanged her from an industrial crane in front of 2,500 people, including most of the town’s children. The chain snapped on the first attempt, causing Mary to fall and break her hip. The second attempt killed her, and she was buried beside the tracks.
“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself,” wrote George Eliot. “It only requires opportunity.”
At sunrise on April 14, 1561, the citizens of Nuremberg, Germany, witnessed a strange aerial spectacle. According to a contemporary broadsheet, large numbers of red, blue and black “globes” or “plates” appeared near the sun, “some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.” Two great tubes also appeared, “in which three, four and more globes were to be seen. They then all began to fight one another.”
After an hour, “they all fell … from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if everything were on fire, then it slowly faded away on the earth, producing a lot of steam.”
Strangely, the same thing happened five years later in Basel, Switzerland. On Aug. 7, 1566, also at sunrise, “many large black globes were seen in the air, moving before the sun with great speed, and turning against each other as if fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards faded and went out.”
Well, here’s a cheery scene. Laughing children, a bright fire, and … wait a minute, is that a dog on a treadmill?
Once common, turnspit dogs were specially bred to run on wheels and turn meat. Typically they were kept in pairs so they could take turns at the hot and unpleasant work, which largely went unappreciated. In Of English Dogs (1576) they’re described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.”
Perhaps fortunately, the breed is extinct now, made obsolete by the mechanized kitchen.
Sixteenth-century prophet Nostradamus predicted three Antichrists. The first two are thought to have been Napoleon and Hitler, but the third, known only as “Mabus,” hasn’t shown up yet. Here are the relevant quatrains:
Mabus will soon die, then will come
A horrible undoing of man and beast,
We will see vengeance at once,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when passes the comet.
His hand finally through the bloody ALUS,
He will be unable to protect himself by sea,
Between two rivers he will fear the military hand,
The black and angry one will make him repent of it.
What does this mean? Who knows? Presumably it’ll make sense at the time.
San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. (See also George Lawrence’s kite photo.)
More than 80 percent of the city was destroyed in the quake and subsequent fire. One journalist wrote that it was not a fire in San Francisco, but a fire of San Francisco.
Never dare the British navy. Logan Rock, in Cornwall, had been famous as a “rocking stone” — the 80-ton boulder was “obsequious to the gentlest touch” but stood “as fixt as Snowdon,” in the words of poet William Mason.
Lt. Hugh Goldsmith apparently took that as a challenge, and in April 1824 he led the crew of HMS Nimble in tumbling the boulder from its clifftop perch.
His satisfaction was short-lived, however. Outraged at the loss of a tourist attraction, the local residents insisted that Goldsmith restore the stone, and six months later Logan Rock was hauled back to its perch, balanced — and chained in place.
Mark Twain in the laboratory of his friend, inventor Nikola Tesla, where in 1894 Twain briefly became a human light bulb:
In Fig. 13 a most curious and weird phenomenon is illustrated. A few years ago electricians would have considered it quite remarkable, if indeed they do not now. The observer holds a loop of bare wire in his hands. The currents induced in the loop by means of the “resonating” coil over which it is held, traverse the body of the observer, and at the same time, as they pass between his bare hands, they bring two or three lamps held there to bright incandescence. Strange as it may seem, these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.
– T.C. Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” Century Magazine, April 1895
Russian chemist Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was taking color photographs as early as 1909.
He took this self-portrait in 1915, managing to look old-timey even without sepia.
Stanford University after the earthquake of 1906.
The statue is of Louis Agassiz … who studied geology.