Black Tie Optional


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 …


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.


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


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.


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


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”


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?


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”


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.”

Yamamoto Meets Wile E. Coyote


In early 1945, Americans in western states began to notice something odd. Explosions were heard from Alaska to California, and some people reported seeing parachutes and balloons in the sky.

Newsweek ran an article titled “Balloon Mystery” but was soon contacted by the U.S. Office of Censorship, which was trying to keep the story quiet. It seems the Japanese were using balloons to float bombs over the continental United States. At first it was thought the balloons were being launched from North American beaches, but scientists who studied the sand in their sandbags eventually determined they had been launched from Japan itself. The jet stream could carry a high-altitude balloon across the Pacific in three days.

Japan, it turned out, had launched more than 900 such balloons, and 300 have been found in America. The censorship prevented any word of success from reaching Japan, so the project was soon discontinued. But there was, sadly, some success: On May 5, 1945, a 13-year-old girl tried to pull a balloon from a tree during a church picnic. It exploded, killing a woman and five children.

Swan King


On the evening of June 13, 1886, King Ludwig II of Bavaria went for a walk with a friend on Lake Starnberg. The two never returned, and were found dead in shallow water at 11:30 p.m. Ludwig was known to be a good swimmer, and there was no water in his lungs. Was he assassinated? No one knows.

Truth in Advertising


Pretty, ain’t it? This 30-meter cliff rises from the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta. For 6,000 years, Native Americans would drive buffalo over the edge; the bone deposits at the bottom are 10 meters deep.

The Blackfoot call this place estipah-skikikini-kots, after a legend about one unfortunate young man who chose to watch the climactic plunge from below. Estipah-skikikini-kots means “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.”

Water Music

The Great Bell of Dhammazedi may have been the largest bell ever made, reportedly weighing 300 metric tons.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to confirm its size — after the Portuguese removed it from a Myanmar temple in 1608, it was lost in a river.

Wish You Were Here


People were retouching photos long before PhotoShop. In 1938 Nikolai Yezhov, a leader of the Soviet secret police, fell out of favor with Stalin — and literally disappeared.


Insult to Injury

Being a slave was hard enough in the American South — but wanting to escape was once classified as a psychiatric disorder. In 1851, physician Samuel A. Cartwright of the Louisiania Medical Association decided that runaway slaves suffered from “drapetomania”:

If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the negro anything else than ‘the submissive knee-bender’ (which the Almighty declared he should be) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

Cartwright wrote that with “proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.” But for slaves who were “sulky and dissatisfied without cause,” he recommended “whipping the devil out of them” as a “preventative measure.”

Frost Fairs

1683 Frost Fair

If you’re looking for proof of climate change, consider that Londoners used to hold festivals on the frozen Thames that could go on for weeks. Of the 1683-84 “frost fair,” pictured above, diarist John Evelyn wrote:

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.

Between 1400 and 1814 there are 23 documented cases of the Thames freezing over. The last fair lasted only four days, though; the climate was changing, and the river ran more swiftly as it was embanked during the 19th century.

A Prophetic Monk


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.

Three Strikes

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.

La Fornarina


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.

Suffragette City


“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” — Grover Cleveland, 1905

“Offensiveness Punished”


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

Vacation Planning

Mandeville's Travels

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.