En route from Vancouver to Australia on Dec. 30, 1899, the captain of the S.S. Warrimoo spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At midnight, he stopped the ship at the intersection of the international date line and the equator.
At that moment, the ship was straddling two different hemispheres, days, months, years, seasons, and centuries, all at the same time. By passing between the bow and the stern, passengers could stroll between winter and summer, north and south, and the 19th and 20th centuries.
The downside: For the Warrimoo, Dec. 31 disappeared entirely.
(Roberto Casati points out that if you return to this point on June 21 and lie down on the deck, at midnight your left hand will be in summer, your right hand in spring, your left foot in winter, and your right foot in autumn.)
The Colossi of Memnon, in Egypt. After an earthquake, the one on the right began to “sing” every morning at dawn, producing a light moaning sound probably related to rising temperatures and evaporating dew. In “The Sphinx,” Oscar Wilde wrote:
Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon strains his lidless eyes
Across the empty land, and cries each yellow morning unto thee.
Hearing the song brought good luck, so the colossi began to attract pilgrims from across the ancient world. It stopped in 199 when Emperor Septimius Severus tried to fix the damage. Nice going.
When he received the first duck-billed platypus from Captain John Hunter in Australia, naturalist George Shaw thought it was a hoax. “Impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure,” he wrote in the journal Naturalist’s Miscellany.
Surgeon John Knox agreed: “Aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers … the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art.”
From John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696:
Mr. Schoot, a German, hath an excellent book of magick: it is prohibited in that country. I have here set down three spells, which are much approved.
– To cure an Ague. Write this following spell in parchment, and wear it about your neck. It must be writ triangularly.
A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
With this spell, one of Wells, hath cured above a hundred of the ague.
– To cure the biting of a Mad-Dog, write these words in paper, viz. “Rebus Rubus Epitepscum”, and give it to the party, or beast bit, to eat in bread, &c. A Gentleman of good quality, and a sober grave person, did affirm, that this receipt never fails.
– To cure the Tooth-Ach: out of Mr. Ashmole’s manuscript writ with his own hand.
“Mars, hur, abursa, aburse”.
Jesu Christ for Mary’s sake,
Take away this Tooth-Ach.
Write the words three times; and as you say the words, let the party burn one paper, then another, and then the last. He says, he saw it experimented, and the party “immediately cured.”
Yes, it’s a Jewish toadstool.
In 1938, fanatical Nazi Julius Streicher published a children’s book called Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom), which compared perfidious Jews to poisonous fungus.
“Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew,” a mother warns her children. “They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.”
Disturbingly, Streicher had worked as an elementary school teacher before joining the German army in 1914. He published propaganda for Hitler, and after Nuremberg he was the only sentenced Nazi to declare “Heil Hitler” before being hanged. At least he was consistent.
From a Scientific American account of a Thai earthquake on May 13, 1848:
During the shock, there spontaneously came out of the ground a species of human hairs in almost every place — in the bazaars, in the roads, in the fields, and the most solid places. These hairs, which are pretty long, stand upright and adhere strongly to the ground. When they are burned, they twist like human hairs and have a burned smell which makes it to be believed that they are really hairs; they all appeared in the twinkling of an eye during the earthquake. The river of Chantibun was all rippling, and bubbles rose to the surface, so that the water was quite white. It is thought that these hairs may have been produced by electricity.
Similar “hairs” have been reported after other Asian earthquakes. Some have been identified as fibers from the hemp palm Chamaerops fortunei, a native tree. Others remain unexplained.
Here’s what a pact with Satan looks like:
I deny God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Mary and all the Saints, particularly Saint John the Baptist, the Church both Triumphant and Militant, all the sacraments, all the prayers prayed therein. I promise never to do good, to do all the evil I can, and would wish not at all to be a man, but that my nature be changed into a devil the better to serve thee, thou my lord and master Lucifer, and I promise thee that even if I be forced to do some good work, I will not do it in God’s honor, but in scorning him and in thine honor and that of all the devils, and that I ever give myself to thee and pray thee always to keep well the bond that I gave thee.
This one was presented as evidence against Urbain Grandier, a French Catholic priest who was executed for seduction and witchcraft in 1634.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In 1849, Henry Box Brown escaped slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia.
Brown stood 5’8″ and weighed 200 pounds, and he spent 26 hours in a box 2’8″ x 2′ x 3′. Unfortunately, he spent a lot of it upside down. “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets,” he later wrote, “and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.” The trip from Richmond covered 275 miles by overland express stage wagon.
When the box was opened, his first words were “How do you do, gentlemen?”
In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln related the following story to his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon:
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers, “The President,” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin.” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.
He was assassinated a few days later.
“The accompanying picture is no imaginary instance, but is actually taken from an official document. The figure is supposed to represent one of these Deal boatmen, and the numerals will explain the methods of secreting the tea. (1) Indicates a cotton bag which was made to fit the crown of his hat, and herein could be carried 2 lbs. of tea. He would, of course, have his hat on as he came ashore, and probably it would be a sou’wester, so there would be nothing suspicious in that. (2) Cotton stays or a waistcoat tied round the body. This waistcoat was fitted with plenty of pockets to hold as much as possible. (3) This was a bustle for the lower part of the body and tied on with strings. (4) These were thigh-pieces also tied round and worn underneath the trousers. When all these concealments were filled the man had on his person as much as 30 lbs. of tea, so that he came ashore and smuggled with impunity. And if you multiply these 30 lbs. by several crews of these Deal boats you can guess how much loss to the Revenue the arrival of an East Indiamen in the Downs meant to the Revenue.”
– East Indian smugglers’ scheme to evade English customs officers, circa 1810. From E. Keble Chatterton, King’s Cutters and Smugglers, 1700-1855, 1912
Uncle Billy rested his axe on the log he was chopping, and turned his grizzly old head to one side, listening intently. A confusion of sounds came from the little cabin across the road. It was a dilapidated negro cabin, with its roof awry and the weather-boarding off in great patches; still, it was a place of interest to Uncle Billy. His sister lived there with three orphan grandchildren.
Leaning heavily on his axe-handle, he thrust out his under lip, and rolled his eyes in the direction of the uproar. A broad grin spread over his wrinkled black face as he heard the rapid spank of a shingle, the scolding tones of an angry voice, and a prolonged howl.
“John Jay an’ he gran’mammy ‘peah to be havin’ a right sma’t difference of opinion togethah this mawnin’,” he chuckled.
– Annie Fellows Johnston, Ole Mammy’s Torment, 1897
Handbill circulated in Dallas on Nov. 21, 1963, the day before Kennedy’s assassination:
A human sacrifice to a carnivorous tree, as described in the South Australian Register, 1881:
The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.
Unfortunately, years of subsequent investigation — including the enchantingly titled Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree (1924) — have failed to find such a tree, or even the Mkodo tribe that purportedly feeds it. Nice try, though.
From The Private Life of the Queen, by “One of Her Majesty’s Servants,” 1897:
Her Majesty [Queen Victoria] takes delight in a clever riddle or rebus, but on one occasion she was very angry at having been hoaxed over a riddle which was sent to her with a letter to the effect that it had been made by the Bishop of Salisbury.
For four days the Queen and Prince Albert sought for the reply, when Charles Murray (Controller of the Household) was directed to write to the bishop and ask for the solution.
The answer received was that the bishop had not made the riddle nor could he solve it.
Forgive your dying daughter. I have but a few moments to live. My native soil drinks my blood. I expected to deliver my country but the fates would not have it so. I am content to die. Pray, Pa, forgive me. Tell ma to kiss my daguerreotype.
P.S. — Give my gold watch to little Eph.
– Telegram dictated by “Emily” (last name unknown), who left home to join the Union army as a man and was fatally wounded in Tennessee at age 17
In 1920 two English cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced a series of photos that seemed to show them cavorting with fairies and gnomes.
The images were published in The Strand and convinced Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he wrote: “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.”
But see Fairies Unmasked.
Blue Peacock was the sexy code name of a secret British plan to salt the Rhine with nuclear mines in the 1950s, in case of war.
Less sexily, they planned to put a live chicken in each one, to keep the electronics from getting cold.
When the file was declassified on April 1, 2004, this was taken to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s true. Fortunately, the project was canceled.
Cures, from John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696:
- To cure a Thrush: Take a living frog, and hold it in a cloth, that it does not go down into the child’s mouth; and put the head into the child’s mouth ’till it is dead; and then take another frog, and do the same.
- To cure the Tooth-Ach: Take a new nail, and make the gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an oak. This did cure William Neal’s son, a very stout gentleman, when he was almost mad with the pain, and had a mind to have pistolled himself.
- For the Jaundice: The jaundice is cured, by putting the urine after the first sleep, to the ashes of the ash-tree, bark of barberries.
- To cure a beast that is sprung, (that is) poisoned: It lights mostly upon Sheep. Take the little red spider, called a tentbob, (not so big as a great pins-head) the first you light upon in the spring of the year, and rub it in the palm of your hand all to pieces: and having so done, piss on it, and rub it in, and let it dry; then come to the beast and make water in your hand, and throw it in his mouth. It cures in a matter of an hour’s time. This rubbing serves for a whole year, and it is no danger to the hand. The chiefest skill is to know whether the beast be poisoned or no. From Mr. Pacy.
The land regions of Mars can be distinguished from the seas by their ruddy color, the seas being greenish. But here, perhaps, you will be disposed to ask how astronomers can be sure that the greenish regions are seas, the ruddy regions land, the white spots either snow or cloud. Might not materials altogether unlike any we are acquainted with exist upon that remote planet?
The spectroscope answers this question in the clearest way. You may remember what I told you in October, 1876, about Venus, how astronomers have learned that the vapor of water exists in her atmosphere. The same method has been applied, even more satisfactorily, to the planet of war, and it has been found that he also has his atmosphere at times laden with moisture. This being so, it is clear we have not to do with a planet made of materials utterly unlike those forming our earth. To suppose so, when we find that the air of Mars, formed like our own (for if it contained other gases the spectroscope would tell us), contains often large quantities of the vapor of water, would be as absurd as to believe in the green cheese theory of the moon, or in another equally preposterous, advanced lately by an English artist — Mr. J.T. Brett — to the effect that the atmosphere of Venus is formed of glass.
– Richard A. Proctor, St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls, November 1877
Recipe for “flying ointment”:
- 1/2 oz. soot
- 1 oz. pork fat
- 1 oz. hemlock
- 1 oz. deadly nightshade
- 1 oz. wolfsbane
Allegedly such recipes were obtained by torturing accused witches, who said they used the ointment to fly to the Sabbat. More likely the mixture induced hallucinations; maybe that amounts to the same thing.
The Russians’ “tsar tank” (above) didn’t work in World War I, and their “winged tank” (below) didn’t work in World War II.
No matter. “Failure is not falling down,” runs an Asian proverb, “but refusing to get up.”
When Magellan reached Argentina in 1519, he was in for a shock:
One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. … He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned …
The navigator’s account says the man was “10 spans high,” which would be 7 foot 6; later European explorers reported natives up to 15 feet tall.
These legends persisted for 250 years before they were debunked, and they left one permanent legacy: Patagonia means “land of the big feet.”
Contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night of his assassination:
- Two pairs of glasses
- Lens polisher
- Watch fob
- Newspaper clippings
… and a Confederate five-dollar bill.
Letter received by William McKinley in April 1898, shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War:
Dear Sir I for one feel Confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war –
But in case of such an event I am ready to place a Company of fifty Lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.