History

The Chaocipher

Somewhere, J.F. Byrne is laughing at all of us.

A friend of James Joyce (he was the basis for Cranley in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Byrne announced in 1918 that he had devised a simple and unbreakable code system, called the “Chaocipher,” that would fit into a cigar box:

I had, and still have in mind, the universal use of my machine and method by husband, wife, or lover. My machine would be on hire, as typewriter machines now are, in hotels, steamships, and, maybe even on trains and airlines, available for anyone anywhere and at any time. And I believe, too, the time will come — and come soon — when my system will be used in the publication of pamphlets and books written in cipher which will be unreadable except by those who are specially initiated.

Unfortunately, no one was interested. The U.S. Signal Corps, the State Department, the Department of the Navy, AT&T — all turned him down.

Finally, Byrne published a lengthy coded message in his autobiography, offering $5,000 to anyone who could decipher it. A few years later, he quietly died, taking the secret with him.

The cipher has never been solved.

01/29/2014 UPDATE: In 2010 Byrne’s family donated his papers to the National Cryptological Museum, so the algorithm is now known. (Thanks, Peter.)

Great Serpent Mound

Created by Native Americans at least 1,000 years ago, Ohio’s Serpent Mound is a double mystery.

First, while there are several burial mounds nearby, the serpent itself doesn’t contain any human remains. It’s just a giant earthen snake, 1,330 feet long.

Second, the site on which it’s built shows faulted and folded bedrock, meaning that a huge cataclysm, a meteorite or a volcanic explosion, happened here in the ancient past.

Is that why the serpent was built there? We may never know.

Caveat Emptor

French forger Vrain Denis-Lucas must have had a golden touch. His customers bought “manuscripts” from all of the following authors:

  • Robert Boyle
  • Isaac Newton
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Cleopatra
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Pontius Pilate
  • Joan of Arc
  • Cicero
  • Dante Alighieri

… even though all of them were written in contemporary French. All told, Denis-Lucas sold 27,000 manuscripts before the French Academy of Science realized something was wrong. He spent two years in prison and then disappeared.

“Guillotine”

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Account of an execution by guillotine, recorded in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, July 7, 1827:

Arrived near the fatal machine, the unhappy man stepped out of the vehicle, knelt at the feet of his confessor, received the priestly benediction, kissed some individuals who accompanied him, and was hurried by the officers of justice up the steps of the cube-form structure of wood, painted of a blood-red, on which stood the dreadful apparatus of death.

To reach the top of the platform, to be fast bound to a board, to be placed horizontally under the axe, and deprived of life by its unerring blow, was, in the case of this miserable offender, the work literally of a moment. It was indeed an awfully sudden transit from time to eternity. He could only cry out, ‘Adieu, mes amis,’ and he was gone. The severed head, passing through a red-coloured bag fixed under, fell to the ground-the blood spouted forth from the neck like water from a fountain-the body, lifted up without delay, was flung down through a trap-door in the platform.

Never did capital punishment more quickly take effect on a human being; and whilst the executioner was coolly taking out the axe from the groove of the machine, and placing it, covered as it was with gore, in a box, the remains of the culprit, deposited in a shell, were hoisted into a wagon, and conveyed to the prison. In twenty minutes all was over, and the Grande Place nearly cleared of its thousands, on whom the dreadful scene seemed to have made, as usual, the slightest possible impression.

Walking Tall

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“Man is the noblest work of God!” roared Mark Twain. “Well now, who found that out?”

Consider the case of Oliver the chimpanzee. Oliver liked to stand upright instead of knucklewalking like his peers, and his keepers noticed that his face was flatter than other chimps’, who tended to avoid him.

That’s all the impetus they needed. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Oliver was paraded through a succession of theme parks, zoos and promotions, billed as a missing link or even a “humanzee,” or human-chimp hybrid, and confined for seven years in a cage that measured only 7 by 5 feet.

It all came to nothing. In 1996, when Oliver was old, blind, and arthritic, University of Chicago geneticist David Ledbetter checked his chromosomes and discovered he was just an ordinary ape, albeit one who preferred to walk upright.

It’s still possible that Oliver belongs to a rare subspecies of chimps who resemble humans … but after that treatment, would he take that as a compliment?

Johann Beringer

The trouble with arrogance is that you never know when to turn it off. By all accounts Johann Beringer was insufferable, so two of his colleagues on the University of Würtzburg faculty of medicine decided to teach him a lesson.

They carved lizards, frogs, and spiders from limestone, inscribed them with the Hebrew name of God, and planted them on Mount Eibelstadt, where Beringer frequently went to find fossils.

It worked — and, like Drake’s Plate of Brass, it worked a little too well. Beringer found the figures, took them seriously, and, to his colleagues’ horror, actually published a book about them. When critics pointed out visible chisel marks, he claimed they’d been left by the hand of God. When the hoaxers tried to talk him out of it, he sued them as “a pair of antagonists who tried to discredit the stones.”

When the truth came out, it ruined them all, haunting Beringer most of all. Legend tells that actually he went bankrupt trying to buy up all the books, and there was a final irony. He died in 1740 — and a second printing of his book was produced in 1767.

Hooray

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Ground zero after the first test of a nuclear weapon, July 16, 1945. Observers set up betting pools on the outcome, including these possibilities:

  • It would be a dud
  • It would destroy the state of New Mexico
  • It would ignite the atmosphere and incinerate the planet

Physicist I.I. Rabi won — he predicted a blast equivalent to 18 kilotons of TNT.

Some Secrets Last Forever

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This conical tower, part of the Great Zimbabwe ruins of sub-Saharan Africa, has stood for a thousand years, and we may never learn what lies inside: The tower is 30 feet tall and has no windows or doors.

Much Ado About Nothing

You can fool some of the people all of the time.

Perhaps inspired by Thomas Chatterton, the teenage Samuel William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) “found” an old deed with Shakespeare’s signature.

His father, a collector, was overjoyed, so Ireland went on finding more Shakespeareana — a promissory note, a declaration of Protestant faith, letters to Anne Hathaway and to Queen Elizabeth, books with notes in the margins and “original” manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear.

Amazingly, these were all authenticated by experts of the day. Ireland wasn’t caught until at age 18 he wrote an entire “lost” play, which was mounted at Drury Lane Theatre. As a playwright, he couldn’t match the Bard, and Vortigern and Rowena closed after a single performance on April 2, 1796.

Sadly, his father took the blame, as no one could believe such a young man could pull off such a forgery. His son fled to France and died in obscurity.

SPQR

The initials SPQR appear everywhere in Rome — they were emblazoned on the standards of the Roman legions, and they appear today in the city’s coat of arms. The only trouble is that no one knows what they stand for. Historians think it’s probably one of these mottoes:

  • Senatus Populus Quiritium Romanus (“The senate and the citizens’ Roman people”)
  • Senatus Populusque Quiritium Romanorum (“The senate and people of the Roman citizens”)
  • Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The senate and the Roman People”)
  • Senatus Populusque Romae (“The senate and the people of Rome”)

But that hasn’t stopped everyone else from making suggestions:

  • Sono Pazzi Questi Romani (“These Romans are crazy.”)
  • Sono Porci Questi Romani (“Those Romans are pigs.”)
  • Solo Pago Quando Ricevo (“I will pay when I get paid.”)
  • Soli Preti Qui Regnano (“Only priests rule here.”)

Supposedly Pope John XXIII noted that SPQR backward reads RQPS, which he suggested meant “Rideo Quia Papa Sum” — “I laugh, because I am the Pope.”

A Superhero Monk

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The Loch Ness monster is not only shy, he’s old. The Life of St. Columba, by the 7th-century Scottish abbot Adomnan of Iona, contains an account of the monster attacking a Pict in 565, and being fought off by the courageous saint:

[He] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

Operation Mincemeat

In 1943, the Allies set a dead man adrift off Spain. The corpse of “Major William Martin” carried a set of keys, theater stubs from a recent performance, a bank overdraft notice — and “secret documents” that detailed a plan to invade Europe via Sardinia.

The ruse worked — the Germans found the documents and prepared for a Sardinian attack that never came, and the Allies successfully invaded Europe through Sicily.

Who was the corpse? Apparently he was a vagrant Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael who ingested rat poison — a rare posthumous war hero.

“CAPILLARY, a Little Caterpillar”

There have always been bad students. Here’s what kids were writing on English exams 150 years ago:

  • ABORIGINES, a system of mountains.
  • ALIAS, a good man in the Bible.
  • AMENABLE, anything that is mean.
  • AMMONIA, the food of the gods.
  • ASSIDUITY, state of being an acid.
  • AURIFEROUS, pertaining to an orifice.
  • CORNIFEROUS, rocks in which fossil corn is found.
  • EMOLUMENT, a headstone to a grave.
  • EQUESTRIAN, one who asks questions.
  • EUCHARIST, one who plays euchre.
  • FRANCHISE, anything belonging to the French.
  • IDOLATER, a very idle person.
  • IPECAC, a man who likes a good dinner.
  • IRRIGATE, to make fun of.
  • MENDACIOUS, what can be mended.
  • MERCENARY, one who feels for another.
  • PARASITE, a kind of umbrella.
  • PARASITE, the murder of an infant.
  • PUBLICAN, a man who does his prayers in public.
  • TENACIOUS, ten acres of land.
  • REPUBLICAN, a sinner mentioned in the Bible.
  • PLAGIARIST, a writer of plays.

— From Mark Twain, “English as She Is Taught: Being Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools,” 1887

CSS Shenandoah

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The Civil War didn’t quite end with Lee’s surrender. The Confederate man-of-war CSS Shenandoah was in the Arctic Ocean at the time, and kept attacking Union ships for four more months.

By the time it stopped, the Shenandoah had carried the Confederate flag completely around the world. It sank or captured 38 ships, two-thirds of them after the war ended, and took close to a thousand prisoners. Oops.

A Good Word

Words dropped since the 1901 edition of the Chambers Dictionary:

  • decacuminated adj. having the top cut off
  • effodient adj. habitually digging (zoology)
  • essorant adj. about to soar
  • flipe v. to fold back, as a sleeve
  • lectual adj. confining to the bed
  • neogamist n. a person recently married
  • nuciform adj. nut-shaped
  • numerotage n. the numbering of yarns so as to denote their fineness
  • pantogogue n. a medicine once believed capable of purging away all morbid humours
  • parageusia n. a perverted sense of taste
  • presultor n. the leader of a dance
  • ramollescence n. softening, mollifying
  • roytish adj. wild, irregular
  • sagesse n. wisdom
  • salebrous adj. rough, rugged
  • sammy v. to moisten skins with water
  • sarn n. a pavement
  • scavilones n. men’s drawers worn in the sixteenth century under the hose
  • tarabooka n. a drumlike instrument
  • tortulous adj. having swellings at regular intervals
  • wappet n. a yelping cur

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”

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“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.