Junk Mail

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After the San Francisco earthquake, James Jones wrote this letter on a detachable shirt collar and mailed it without postage to his son and daughter-in-law in New York:

Dear Wayland and Gussie: All safe but awfully scared. Frisco and hell went into partnership and hell came out winner — got away with the sack. Draw a line from Ft Mason along Van Ness Ave. to Market St., out Market to Dolores to Twentieth, thence to Harrison, 16th & Portrero Ave. R.R. Ave. to Channel St. and bay. Nearly everything east and north of this boundary line gone, and several blocks west of it, especially in Hayes Valley as far as Octavia St. from Golden Gate Ave. east. Fire is still burning on the northside but is checked in the Mission. I and a band of 40 or 50 volunteers formed a rope and bucket brigade, back-fired Dolores from Market to 19th, pulled down houses and blanketed westside Dolores and won a great victory. More with paper & stamps. James G. Jones. April 21st, 1906.

It was delivered. The post office had resolved to handle “everything, stamped or unstamped, as long as it had an address to which it could be sent,” remembered William F. Burke, secretary to the city postmaster. When he made the rounds of camps, “the wonderful mass of communications that poured into the automobile was a study in the sudden misery that had overtaken the city. Bits of cardboard, cuffs, pieces of wrapping paper, bits of newspapers with an address on the margin, pages of books and sticks of wood all served as a means to let somebody in the outside world know that friends were alive and in need among the ruins.”

At the close of the first day, “95 pouches of letters carrying mail composed of rags and tatters and odds and ends — and burdened with a weight of woe bigger than had ever left the city in a mail sack — were made up for dispatch. … It came to our knowledge later that not one piece of this mail that was properly addressed failed of delivery.”

An Invisible Map

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Shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, Air Force navigator Iceal Hambleton needed to reach the Cam Lo River but was surrounded by enemy forces who might intercept any radio messages sent to him. After some consultation, rescuers told him to play the first hole at the Tucson National Golf Course. “Before you start be damned sure you line your shot up properly,” they said. “Very bad traps on this hole.”

Hambleton was bewildered at first but came to understand. As an avid golfer he was familiar with a number of American courses, and he had a photographic memory of each hole’s length and layout. The first hole at Tucson was 430 yards long and ran southeast, so he set off accordingly across country, following an imaginary fairway.

This worked. By invoking additional holes from three Air Force bases, as well as a par 3 from Augusta National, rescuers led Hambleton to the river, where a Navy SEAL picked him up.

“Two things kept me alive,” he told Golf Digest in 2001. “The will to live, and my wife. And we’re playing golf Friday.”

Higher Math

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During the hyperinflation that followed World War I in the Weimar Republic, a 5,000-mark cup of coffee could cost 8,000 marks by the time it was drunk. Newspapers published the stupefying multipliers by which prices had risen each day:

Tramway fare: 50,000
Tramway monthly season ticket:
— For one line: 4 million
— For all lines: 12 million
Taxi-autos: multiply ordinary fare by: 600,000
Horse cabs: multiply ordinary fare by: 400,000
Bookshops: multiply ordinary price by: 300,000
Public baths: multiply ordinary price by: 115,000
Medical attendance: multiply ordinary price by: 80,000

By the end of 1923 there were 92,844,720,742,927,000,000 marks circulating in the German economy, nearly 93 quintillion (note the logarithmic scale in the chart above).

This had a curious psychological effect. In December Time reported, “With the price of bread running into billions a loaf the German people have had to get used to counting in thousands of billions. This, according to some German physicians, brought on a new nervous disease known as ‘zero stroke,’ or ‘cipher stroke,'” a “desire to write endless rows of [zeros] and engage in computations more involved than the most difficult problems in logarithms.”

Human minds are not made to comprehend such large numbers. Foreign minister Walther Rathenau called it the “delirium of milliards”: “What is a milliard? Does a wood contain a milliard leaves? Are there a milliard blades of grass in a meadow? Who knows? If the Tiergarten were to be cleared and wheat sown upon its surface, how many stalks would grow?”

Fortunately the madness was stemmed with the introduction of a new currency — in 1924 one could exchange a trillion of the old marks for a single new Rentenmark, and the economy was finally stabilized.

Scoop

Cleveland Press reporter John Raper took a vacation in New Mexico in 1944 and came back with a sensational story — he had discovered a “mystery city” there, a closely policed community at work on some top-secret project northwest of Santa Fe.

Uncle Sam has placed this in charge of two men. The man who commands the soldiers, who sees that the garbage and rubbish are collected, the streets kept up, the electric light plan and the waterworks functioning and all other metropolitan work operating smoothly is a Col. Somebody. I don’t know his name, but it isn’t so important because the Mr. Big of the city is a college professor, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, called ‘the Second Einstein’ by the newspapers of the west coast. …

It is the work of Prof. Oppenheimer and the hundreds of men and women in his laboratories and shops that makes Los Alamos such a carefully guarded city. All the residents will be obliged to remain there for the duration and for six months thereafter and it seems quite probable that many of them don’t know much more about what is being done than you do.

Apparently Raper had driven into the compound to investigate but was escorted closely and allowed to see nothing. He told curious New Mexicans, “I don’t know a bit more about it than I did before I went.” Santa Fe residents whispered that Oppenheimer was building some sort of chemical weapon, an explosive, or “a beam that will cause the motors to stop so that German planes will drop from the skies as though they were paving blocks.” But all of this appeared to be rumor.

Raper published his story in the newspaper on March 13. It provoked an immediate stir among the Manhattan Project authorities, who quashed a followup story in TIME and briefly considered having Raper drafted into the Pacific Theater. But ultimately nothing came of it, and no Axis spy seems to have pursued it. American Institute of Physics science historian Alex Wellerstein discusses the story, and provides the full text with its lurid illustrations, on his Restricted Data blog.

(Thanks, Larry.)

Honorable Prisoners

After John II of France was captured by the English in 1356, he paid 1 million gold crowns for his ransom and promised to pay 2 million more. As a guarantee he offered his son Louis as a hostage. When word came that Louis had escaped, John voluntarily returned to captivity in England, citing reasons of “good faith and honor.” He died there in 1364.

In 1916, after two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp, British Army captain Robert Campbell received word that his mother was dying of cancer. He wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II asking permission to visit her, and was given two weeks’ leave on condition that he return afterward. Campbell went to England, spent a week with his dying mother, then returned to confinement in Germany, where he remained until the war ended.

“Captain Campbell was an officer, and he made a promise on his honor to go back,” said historian Richard Van Emden, who uncovered the episode while researching his book Meeting the Enemy. “Had he not turned up there would not have been any retribution on any other prisoners. What I think is more amazing is that the British Army let him go back to Germany.”

Sitting Protest

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German shipyard worker August Landmesser openly loved a Jewish woman under the gathering cloud of Nazism in the 1930s. He had joined the party hoping it would help him to find a job, but was expelled when he became engaged to Irma Eckler in 1935. Unwilling to renounce their love, the two were forbidden to marry, prevented from fleeing to Denmark in 1937, and eventually sent to concentration camps.

The photograph above was taken at the launch of the naval training vessel Horst Wessel on June 13, 1936, a year after their engagement. The man in the center, the only one not giving the Nazi salute, is believed to be Landmesser.

Harm’s Way

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On Sept. 9, 1900, the day after a strong storm made landfall on the Texas coast, the U.S. Weather Bureau wired Western Union, Do you hear anything about Galveston?

The first response was We have been absolutely unable to hear a word from Galveston since 4 p.m. yesterday …. But then:

First news from Galveston just received by train which could get no closer to the bay shore than six miles, where Prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About two hundred corpses counted from train. Large Steamship stranded two miles inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling.

The storm had put the entire city under 8 to 15 feet of water and lashed it with winds reaching 145 mph. With 8,000 dead, it remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Following is the only account known to have been written while the storm was taking place — it’s an unsigned letter by a woman, probably a nurse, who was employed at the John Sealy Hospital:

A.M.
It does not require a great stretch of imagination to imagine this structure a shaky old boat out at sea. The whole thing rocking like a reef, surrounded by water, said water growing closer, ever closer. Have my hands full quieting nervous, hysterical women.

12-noon.
Things beginning to look serious. Water up to the first floor in the house, all over the basement of the hospital. Cornices, roofs window lights blinds flying in all directions.

The scenes about here are distressing. Everything washed away. Poor people trying, vainly to save their bedding, & clothing. Methinks the poor nurses will be trying to save their beds in short order. Now flames in the distance. It is all a grand, fine sight. Our beautiful Bay, a raging torrent.

3 p.m.
Am beginning to feel a weakening desire for something ‘to cling to.’ Should feel more comfortable in the embrace of your arms. You hold yourself in readiness to come to us? Should occasion demand? Darkness is overwhelming us, to add to the horror. Dearest — I — reach out my hand to you. My heart — my soul.

That’s all we have — we don’t know who wrote the letter, or whether she survived the storm (the hospital remained standing).

According to some survivors, we’re lucky to have any accounts at all. “One hour more of that wind would have killed every person on the island,” wrote Walker W. Davis, a salesman who waited out the storm in the Tremont Hotel.

Margaret Rowan Bettencourt, who was 9 years old at the time, remembered that the East End, where her grandmother’s house was located, was largely reduced to splinters. “They never would’ve found her place, but my aunt had a ‘polly’ [parrot] that was up in the attic and the attic didn’t go to pieces. It just sat on the top of the house and the next morning the polly was hollering ‘Pretty Polly. Pretty Polly.’ That’s how they found where they lived.”

Roots

In the old times these isles lay there as they do now, with the wild sea round them. The men who had their homes there knew naught of the rest of the world and none knew of them. The storms of years beat on the high white cliffs, and the wild beasts had their lairs in the woods, and the birds built in trees or reeds with no one to fright them. A large part of the land was in woods and swamps. There were no roads, no streets, not a bridge or a house to be seen. The homes of these wild tribes were mere huts with roofs of straw. They hid them in thick woods, and made a ditch round them and a low wall of mud or the trunks of trees. They ate the flesh of their flocks for food, for they did not know how to raise corn or wheat. They knew how to weave the reeds that grew in their swamps, and they could make a coarse kind of cloth, and a rude sort of ware out of the clay of the earth. From their rush work they made boats, and put the skins of beasts on them to make them tight and strong. They had swords made from tin and a red ore. But these swords were of a queer shape and so soft that they could be bent with a hard blow.

— Helen W. Pierson, History of England in Words of One Syllable, 1884

The Cursing Stone

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In 1525, fed up with robbers and highwaymen on the Anglo-Scottish border, Archbishop of Glasgow Gavin Dunbar composed a monumentally comprehensive curse against them:

I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.

I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds; their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock; their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.

May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.

May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.

May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.

May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.

May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins.

May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and oppression.

May all the plagues that fell upon Pharaoh and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.

May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.

May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.

May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.

May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absalom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.

May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Holofernes, making war and savagery upon true Christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.

And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.

I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth.

I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled by this curse.

I forbid all Christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.

I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.

I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.

I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead; of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be Christian people, while this curse is in effect.

And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world.

And their candle goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.

As part of Carlisle’s millennium celebrations in 2001, local artist Gordon Young carved 383 words of the curse into a granite boulder. Since then, local livestock herds have been wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, a devastating flood has struck the city, factories have closed, and the Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league. Jim Tootle, a local councillor who blamed these misfortunes on the revived curse, himself died suddenly in 2011.

“It is a powerful work of art but it is certainly not part of the occult,” Young insisted. “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”

(Thanks, NMN.)

The Speed of Sound

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When the Erie Canal was opened on Oct. 26, 1825, the fact was known in New York City, 425 miles away, within 81 minutes. This was before the advent of radio or telegraph. How was it done?

Cannons were placed along the length of the canal and the Hudson River, each within earshot of the last. When the crew of each cannon heard the boom of its upstream neighbor, it fired its own gun.

As a result, New Yorkers knew within an hour and half that they had a navigable route to the Great Lakes — the fastest news dispatch, to that date, in world history.

10/07/2013 Wait, that last bit ain’t right — Claude Chappe’s semaphore telegraph covered 120 miles in 9 minutes in 1792. (Thanks, Michael and Lorcan.)