History

Fire Hazard

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The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever built, 10 times the size of a modern blimp and filled with 7 million cubic feet of flammable hydrogen.

And it had a smoking room.

Irish Bulls

Two examples of “Irish bulls,” or ludicrous published statements:

It is in a Belfast paper that may be read the account of a murder, the result of which is described thus: “They fired two shots at him; the first shot killed him, but the second was not fatal.”

Connoisseurs in [Irish] bulls will probably say that this is only a blunder. Perhaps the following will please them better: “A man was run down by a passenger train and killed; he was injured in a similar way a year ago.”

— From Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders: A Chapter in the “History Of Human Error,” 1893

Punished for Talent

Italian stonemason Alceo Dossena (1878-1937) knew he had a knack for imitating the great sculptors of the past.

What he didn’t know was that his dealers were making a fortune by marketing his creations as originals.

Dossena was already 50 when he recognized some of his own sculptures in “ancient” museum collections. He had got only $200 for each sale. He won a suit against his dealers but died poor in 1937.

Curtain Call

“For 40 years I’ve been an actor on the American stage. My entire family is well represented in the entire field of show business. I’ve played this very city of Cincinnati for 30 or 40 years. I’ve never had a decent reception here. I’ve been waiting all this time, ladies and gentlemen, to say to you that you, the people of Cincinnati, are the greatest morons, the most unintelligent, illiterate bastards I have ever appeared before in my entire life. Take a good look at me, because you’ll never see me again.”

— Vaudeville performer Richard Bennett finally gives up

Rumors of My Death

Almanac writing can be a nasty business. In January 1708, someone published an anonymous letter predicting the death of writer John Partridge. That’s bad enough, but in March Partridge read that he had indeed died. A third letter even presented a eulogy:

Here five foot deep lyes on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack —
Who to the stars in pure good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks or shoes.

Evidently Partridge had some trouble convincing people that he was still alive. Mourners reportedly kept him awake at night, grieving under his window. The real culprit was Jonathan Swift, who loved April Fool’s Day and had been angered by Partridge’s unbelief.

Taking a cue, in Poor Richard’s Almanac Ben Franklin predicted the death of rival almanac writer Titan Leeds on Oct. 17, 1733. When Leeds announced his survival, Franklin denounced the claim as a fraud published in the dead writer’s name. This continued for five years until Leeds really did die. Franklin congratulated the usurpers on their good sense.

The Tichborne Claimant

Lady Henriette Felicite must have been surprised to learn that her drowned son was alive and working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Even more strangely, he had grown fat, his black hair had turned brown, and he no longer spoke French. But she was desperate to reclaim him, and in 1865 he joined her in Paris.

It was a fruitful reunion. “Sir Roger” accepted an allowance of £1,000 a year and resumed his life, winning the support of the Tichborne family solicitor, his former companions in the 6th Dragoon Guards, and several county families and villagers.

But his fortunes fell when Lady Tichborne died and he was accused of imposture. Though more than 100 people vouched for his identity, he ultimately lost his bid for the inheritance and served 10 years in prison for perjury.

We’ll never know who he really was — but his grave is marked Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne.

“The Great Cave Sell”

As one of a series of April Fool’s jokes in the 1840s, the Boston Post once announced that a cave full of treasure had been discovered beneath Boston Common. Workmen removing a tree reportedly found a stone trapdoor that led to a cave full of jewels, coins, and jeweled weapons. You might think Bostoners would be too cynical to accept this, but apparently a mob formed:

It was rainy, that 1st of April, the Legislature was in session, and it was an animated scene that the Common presented, roofed with umbrellas, sheltering pilgrims on their way to the new-found sell. A procession of grave legislators marched solemnly down under their green gingham, while philosophers, archaeologists, numismatists, antiquarians of all qualities, and the public generally paid tribute to the Post‘s ingenuity.

They found nothing, of course. “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something,” wrote Bertrand Russell. “In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”

“The Cannon of the Palais Royal”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17582/17582-h/17582-h.htm

“In the Gardens of the Palais Royal, in Paris, there is a little cannon which stands on a pedestal, and is surrounded by a railing. Every day it is loaded with powder and wadding, but no one on earth is allowed to fire it off. However, far away in the realms of space, ninety-three millions of miles from our world, there is the great and glorious Sun, and every day, at twelve o’clock, he fires off that little cannon, provided there are no clouds in the way. Just before noon on bright days, the people gather around the railing, with their watches in their hands, — if they are so lucky as to have watches, — and precisely at twelve o’clock, bang! she goes.

“The arrangement which produces this novel artillery-practice is very simple. A burning-glass is fixed over the cannon in such a manner that when the sun comes to the meridian — which it does every day at noon, you know — its rays are concentrated on the touch-hole, and of course the powder is ignited and the cannon is fired.”

— Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910

The Barrison Sisters

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The Barrison Sisters after asking “Would you like to see my …” — well, you can guess.

“The Wickedest Girls in the World” toured vaudeville between 1890 and 1910.

No Respect

In 1795, Boston millionaire James Swan paid off the American national debt to France, a total of $2,024,899, out of his own pocket.

Ironically, he spent the last 22 years of his life in a French debtors’ prison.

Lincoln’s Beard

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A letter to Abraham Lincoln, Oct. 18, 1860:

Dear Sir

My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is a going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York

I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye

Grace Bedell

Lincoln actually wrote back, asking, “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?”

When the two met the following year, Lincoln was president-elect — and had grown his famous beard.

Occupied

People who died on the toilet:

  • Edmund Ironside, King of England (989-1016)
  • Uesugi Kenshin, Japanese warlord (1530-1578)
  • Arthur Capell, First Earl of Essex (1631-1683)
  • George II, King of Great Britain and Ireland (1683-1760)
  • Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729-1796)
  • Evelyn Waugh, English writer (1903-1966)

George Carlin said, “At a formal dinner party, the person nearest death should always be seated closest to the bathroom.”

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”

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Organizers founded the modern Olympic Games in 1896, and they hadn’t quite got the hang of things by 1904. That year included “Anthropology Days,” in which indigenous people from around the world were borrowed from the World’s Fair to compete against white men in various events, including mud fighting, greased-pole climbing, and rock and spear throwing.

This was so embarrassing that the Olympic committee held “intercalated” games just two years later, in Athens, to help everyone forget about it.

“A Battle on Stilts”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17582/17582-h/17582-h.htm

“In the year 1748 the great Marshal Saxe, who was travelling through the Low Countries, came to the town of Namur in Belgium. There the citizens did everything in their power to make his stay pleasant and to do him honor, and among other things they got up a battle on stilts. These inhabitants of Namur were well used to stilts, for their town, which has a river on each side of it, lay very low, and was subject to overflows, when the people were obliged to use stilts in order to walk about the streets. In this way they became very expert in the use of these slim, wooden legs, and to make their stilts amusing as well as useful they used to have stilt-battles on all holidays and great occasions. …

“Things are different in this country. It is said that in 1859 a man walked across the rapids of the Niagara river on stilts, but I never heard of any of his taxes being remitted on that account.”

— Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910

Sorry, Fred

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There’s no such thing as a brontosaurus. Eager to claim a new species during the competitive “bone wars” of the 1870s, Yale paleontologist Othniel Marsh slapped a mismatched skull, tail and feet onto an incomplete apatosaurus skeleton he’d found in Wyoming.

Amazingly, the error persisted until 1975, leaving a confusing slew of brontosaurus references on everything from postage stamps to Flintstones reruns. Don’t believe them.

The Berners Street Hoax

In 1810, Theodore Hook, a writer of comic operas, bet his friend Samuel Beazley that he could turn any house in London into the most talked-about address in the city within one week. Beazley accepted, and Hook began writing letters.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 10, a Mrs. Tottenham of 54 Berners Street turned away a coal merchant delivering a load of coal that she hadn’t ordered.

She was in for a long day. The Morning Post reported: “Wagons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart loads, organs, pioanofortes, linens, jewelry, and every other description of furniture sufficient to have stocked the whole street, were lodged as near as possible to the door of 54, with anxious trades-people and a laughing mob.”

It went on. “There were accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature painters, artists of every description, auctioneers, … grocers, mercers, post-chaises, mourning-coaches, poultry, rabbits, pigeons, etc. In fact, the whole street was literally filled with the motley group.”

The merchants were followed by dignitaries: the governor of the Bank of England, the archbishop of Canterbury, cabinet ministers, dukes, and finally the lord mayor of London.

Hook won his bet, collecting one guinea. He eventually confessed to the prank, but apparently never received any punishment.

Mary Tofts

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In 1726, 25-year-old English maidservant Mary Tofts began giving birth to rabbits. Despite a miscarriage earlier that year, she apparently went into labor, and local doctor John Howard delivered several stillborn rabbits.

More were coming. Howard summoned other doctors by letter, and Mary’s next litter was witnessed by Nathaniel St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to King George I, and Sir Richard Manningham, the most famous obstetrician in London.

Amazed, St. Andre published a tract titled A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits. But Mary’s deliveries stopped when she was put under close supervision, and soon a boy came forward reporting that she had bribed him to supply her with more rabbits. In the end she confessed, saying she had done it “to get so good a living that I should never want as long as I lived.” Ah.

“The Fuels of the Future”

“With the prospect of coal becoming as rare as the dodo itself, the world, we are told by scientists, may still regard with complacency the failure of our ordinary carbon supply. The natural gases and oils of the world will provide the human race with combustible material for untold ages — such at least is the opinion of those who are best informed on the subject.”

Glasgow Herald, quoted in Scientific American Supplement No. 717, Sept. 28, 1889

“God Regrets the Error”

In a 1632 version of the King James Bible, the printers omitted a “not” from Exodus 20:14, so the seventh commandment read “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

The printers were fined 300 pounds, a lifetime’s wages, and most of the copies were recalled. Eleven still exist.

Bonus erratum: In Myles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, Psalms 91:5 read: “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night.” Should have been “afrayed for eny terror.”

Fortune Favors the Bold

On Oct. 16, 1906, small-time criminal Wilhelm Voigt became a big-time criminal … for one day.

Wearing a secondhand captain’s uniform, he appeared at the local army barracks, where he dismissed the commander. Then, with 10 grenadiers and a sergeant in tow, he took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin, and took over city hall.

There he confiscated 4,000 marks and 37 pfennigs and ordered the town secretary and the mayor sent to Berlin on charges of crooked bookkeeping. He told the remaining soldiers to guard the building for half an hour and then left for the train station, where he changed back to civilian clothes and slipped away.

Why? Why not?

A Freak of Navigation

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.)

Song of the Sphinx

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.

Platypus

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.”

Landmarks in Medicine, #3

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
A B
A

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.”