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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Image: Flickr

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.)

A Bad Night

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San Francisco reporter James Hopper got to bed at 3 a.m. on April 18, 1906, after a night at the opera. After two hours of sleep he felt himself suddenly shaken “like a fish in a frying-pan”:

I got up and walked to the window. I started to open it, but the pane obligingly fell outward and I poked my head out, the floor like a geyser beneath my feet. Then I heard the roar of bricks coming down in cataracts and the groaning of twisted girders all over the city, and at the same time I saw the moon, a calm, pale crescent in the green sky of dawn. Below it the skeleton frame of an unfinished sky-scraper was swaying from side to side with a swing as exaggerated and absurd as that of a palm in a stage tempest.

Just then the quake, with a sound as of a snarl, rose to its climax of rage, and the back wall of my building for three stories above me fell. I saw the mass pass across my vision swift as a shadow. It struck some little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs and the bricks pass through the roof as through tissue paper.

The vibrations ceased and I began to dress. Then I noted the great silence. Throughout the long quaking, in this great house full of people I had not heard a cry, not a sound, not a sob, not a whisper. And now, when the roar of crumbling buildings was over and only a brick was falling here and there like the trickle of a spent rain, this silence continued, and it was an awful thing. But now in the alley someone began to groan. It was a woman’s groan, soft and low.

Jacob Levinson, a director of Fireman’s Fund, weathered the quake with his family at 2420 Pacific Avenue. He wrote later, “I am frequently asked whether I was badly frightened by the shaking, to which I invariably reply that I had passed the point of being frightened, exactly as one might on a sinking vessel in mid-ocean when fully alive to the inevitable. My only thought was to get the family together so that when the house went down we should all go together.”

Aloft Over London

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Vincenzo Lunardi undertakes the first aerial voyage in England, Sept. 14, 1784:

When the thermometer was at fifty, the effect of the atmosphere and the combination of circumstances around, produced a calm delight, which is inexpressible, and which no situation on earth could give. The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful. My horizon seemed a perfect circle; the terminating line several hundred miles in circumference. This I conjectured from the view of London; the extreme points of which, formed an angle of only a few degrees. It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it. I could distinguish Saint Paul’s and other churches, from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous beehive, but the industry of it was suspended. All the moving mass seemed to have no object but myself, and the transition from suspicion, and perhaps contempt of the preceding hour, to the affectionate transport, admiration and glory of the present moment, was not without its effect on my mind. I recollected the puns on my name, and was glad to find myself calm. I had soared from the apprehensions and anxieties of the Artillery Ground, and felt as if I had left behind me all the cares and passions that molest mankind.

See Eavesdropping.

The Titanic Orphans

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Marcel_Navratil

Among the survivors of the Titanic were two boys who were unclaimed by any adult. They were very young, 2 and 3 years old, and they spoke no English, so the two became a brief media sensation as authorities sought to locate their parents.

They turned out to be Edmond and Michel Navratil, sons of a French tailor who had spirited them away from their mother and booked a passage under an assumed name. When the ship hit the iceberg, “He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms,” Michel recalled. “A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die.”

“I don’t recall being afraid,” Michel said. “I remember the pleasure really of going ‘plop’ into the lifeboat.” A woman in their boat took charge of the orphans when they reached safety, and eventually their mother in France read the news reports and claimed them. Michel grew up to be a professor of philosophy and died in 2001, the last male survivor of the sinking.

“I died at 4,” he once said. “Since then I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.”

Oops

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In January 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress began leaking fuel near Goldsboro, N.C., and the crew were forced to eject before they could reach Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

They watched as the plane descended toward the tobacco farmland below carrying two 3.8-megaton nuclear weapons. As the plane broke up, it dropped both of them. One smashed into a muddy field, but the other deployed a parachute to slow its descent and activated five of its six arming mechanisms.

It stopped short of detonating, which is good, because it packed more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

“How close was it to exploding?” asked disposal team commander Lt. Jack B. ReVelle afterward. “My opinion is damn close. You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off.”

Only three years earlier, a similar mishap had occurred over Georgia.

Roughing It

The Duke of Wellington forbade officers to carry umbrellas into battle. On Dec. 10, 1813, during the Peninsular War, he saw a group of Grenadier Guards sheltering from the rain and sent an angry message: “Lord Wellington does not approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the gentlemen’s sons to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.” He later reproved their commander, saying, “The Guards may in uniform, when on duty at St. James’s, carry them if they please, but in the field it is not only ridiculous but unmilitary.”

Spectacles were not allowed in the British army until 1902. “There is little doubt that England will soon realize that she must take her place in company with the Continental people and furnish glasses as they do,” the Medical News had opined that March. It quoted ophthalmologist John Grimshaw, who had asked invalided South African soldiers whether their eyes had given them trouble in shooting on the veldt.

“Fightin’ all day, sir, and never saw a Boer,” one had replied. “Yes, sir, we simply blazed away at the kopjes on the chance of hittin’ a Boer or two.”