- 300 million – smallpox, worldwide, 20th century
- 200 million – bubonic plague, worldwide, 1300s
- 62 million – World War II
- 60 million – Mongol conquests, 13th century
- 19 million – AIDS, worldwide to date
- 1 million – Irish potato famine, 1846-1849
- 830,000 – Shaanxi earthquake, China, 1556
- 650,000 – Deaths in the Roman Colosseum for public entertainment, 80-404
- 36,000 – Krakatoa eruption, Indonesia, 1883
- 15,000 – Holy Inquisition, 1184-1800
- 1,517 – RMS Titanic, 1912
- 300 – Great Chicago Fire, 1871
- 270 – Pan Am Flight 103, Lockerbie, Scotland, 1988
- 36 – Hindenburg disaster, Lakehurst, N.J., 1937
- 7 – Space shuttle Challenger, Florida, 1986
- 4 – Kent State shootings
Tallest U.S. presidents:
- Abraham Lincoln 6’3.75″
- Lyndon B. Johnson 6’3.5″
- Thomas Jefferson 6’2.5″
- Chester A. Arthur 6’2″
- George H.W. Bush 6’2″
- Franklin D. Roosevelt 6’2″
- John Adams 5’7″
- John Quincy Adams 5’7″
- William McKinley 5’7″
- Benjamin Harrison 5’6″
- Martin Van Buren 5’6″
- James Madison 5’4″
When financier Charles Vance Millar died in Toronto in 1926, he willed his fortune to the woman who had the most children in the next 10 years.
And people took him up on it — in the end, four women tied at nine births apiece. Each got $125,000.
The period is known as “The Great Stork Derby.”
Size was no impediment to Martin Van Buren Bates, a quiet schoolteacher who found that his enormous size (7’9″) served him better on the battlefields of the Civil War. The “Kentucky Giant” rose quickly from private to captain in the Fifth Kentucky Infantry; Union soldiers told of a “Confederate giant who’s as big as five men and fights like 50.”
After the war, Bates was touring Canada with a circus when he met Anna Haining Swan, another enormously tall person (7’5″), and they married in London, where Queen Victoria gave them two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches as wedding presents.
Their 18-pound child was stillborn, and they ordered an oversize house custom-built in Ohio, with 14-foot ceilings and giant furniture. “To see our guests make use of it,” wrote Bates, “recalls most forcibly the good Dean Swift’s traveler in the land of Brobdingnag.”
The pair toured again, and lost another son, this one 28 inches tall and weighing 22 pounds. “He looked at birth like an ordinary child of six months,” Bates wrote. But “with this exception our lot has been one of almost uninterrupted joy.”
When Anna died in 1886, Martin sold the house and married a woman of normal stature, with whom he lived peacefully until he died of nephritis in Seville in 1919.
A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, April 18, 1935. On Earth these storms are actually relatively minor; on Mars they can last for hundreds of days and cover the entire planet.
Somebody up there hates Siberia.
On June 30, 1908, something huge exploded over the Tunguska River near modern Evenkia. The blast felled 60 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers; it’s been estimated at between 10 and 15 megatons. Witnesses described a huge fireball moving across the sky, a flash, and a shockwave that knocked people off their feet and broke windows up to 400 miles away. Afterward, the night sky glowed for weeks.
But, strangely, there was no crater. In fact, a few trees near ground zero were still standing, their branches and bark stripped off. Stranger still, some reports said the skyglow had begun the night before the explosion, and that there had been strange weather and increased seismic activity for days beforehand. And carbon-14 dating of the soil gave a date in the future — meaning the soil had somehow become enriched with radioactive carbon-14.
What caused the explosion? A meteor? A comet? An asteroid? There’s been no conclusive explanation. But, disturbingly, a similar thing happened just three years ago. An explosion in Siberia in September 2002 that measured up to 5 kilotons was accompanied by northern lights, increased radioactivity, and an outbreak of unknown diseases nearby. An expedition the following year concluded that it was a comet, but no one knows for sure.
“Liver-Eating Johnson” had the coolest nickname in the Old West — cooler, perhaps, than the truth warranted.
The “mountain man” was actually born in New Jersey around 1824. He deserted the Navy after the Mexican-American War and lit out for Wyoming, where he trapped, hunted and supplied cordwood to steamboats.
The legend starts in 1847, when the Crow tribe killed his Indian wife and he launched a personal war that lasted 20 years, in which, supposedly, he would cut out and eat the liver of each man he killed.
Did he really? Who knows? But it made a good story, and Johnson’s stature began to grow — literally and figuratively. His Civil War records put him at less than 6 feet tall, but local yarns soon said he was 6 foot 6.
After serving the Union Army as a sharpshooter, he spent the 1880s as a deputy sheriff in Leadville, Colo., and a town marshal in Red Lodge, Mont. He died in 1900.
But a century later the nickname was still working. The 1972 Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson was based in part on his life — and Redford even served as one of the pallbearers when Johnson’s body was reburied in Cody, Wyo., in 1974.
Yes, that’s a real dog, and no, the photo isn’t doctored. During World War II the Soviets experimented with “anti-tank dogs,” dogs that were trained to run under enemy tanks with explosives strapped to their backs.
Unfortunately, the Soviets trained the dogs by putting food under their own tanks, which led to some Three-Stooges-style hijinks on the battlefield. In 1942, an entire Soviet tank division was chased into retreat by its own dogs. Serves ‘em right.
Eric II of Denmark styled himself Eric the Memorable.
No one remembers why.
Relationships among U.S. presidents:
- James Madison was the half first cousin twice removed of George Washington.
- Zachary Taylor was the second cousin of James Madison.
- Grover Cleveland was the sixth cousin once removed of Ulysses S. Grant.
- Theodore Roosevelt was the third cousin twice removed of Martin Van Buren.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the fourth cousin once removed of Ulysses S. Grant, the fourth cousin three times removed of Zachary Taylor, and the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (although his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a niece of Theodore).
- Harry S. Truman was the great-great-great nephew of John Tyler.
- Richard Nixon was the seventh cousin twice removed of William Howard Taft and the eighth cousin once removed of Herbert Hoover.
- George H.W. Bush was the fifth cousin four times removed of Franklin Pierce, the seventh cousin three times removed of Theodore Roosevelt, the seventh cousin four times removed of Abraham Lincoln, and the eleventh cousin once removed of Gerald Ford.
Drake’s Plate of Brass is a museum curator’s nightmare: A priceless artifact revealed as historians’ in-joke gone terribly awry.
The story surrounds a golden plate that Francis Drake reportedly left as a monument when he visited Northern California in 1579. Hoping to fool one of their number, a group of local historians hammered out a fake version in 1936 and planted it near Drake’s landing point.
Sure enough, it made its way to the victim, historian George Bolton of Berkeley. Before they could reveal the joke, though, Bolton vouched for the plate’s authenticity, engaging the University of California and paying $2,500 for it.
Now that the hoax was so painfully public the conspirators had to move carefully. They tried discreetly to reveal their joke, but then to their horror Columbia University confirmed the plate as genuine. It was added to textbooks; likenesses were sold as souvenirs; copies were presented to Queen Elizabeth II herself on several occasions.
Only 40 years later, after exhaustive testing at Oxford, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and MIT, was the plate confirmed as a fake, and it was several years before the whole story was pieced together. The plate is still on display at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, an embarrassing testament to the gullibility of an excited historian.
It’s ironic that hopscotch has come to be known as a little girl’s game, because it couldn’t have a more masculine pedigree. The first hopscotch courts were used in military training exercises in ancient Britain during the early Roman Empire. Footsoldiers wearing field packs and full body armor ran through courts 100 feet long, much as football players run through truck tires today.
Imitating the soldiers, Roman children drew their own smaller courts and added a scoring system, which has been preserved remarkably well for more than a thousand years as the game has spread to France (where it’s called “Marelles”), Germany (“Templehupfen”), the Netherlands (“Hinkelbaan”), India (“Ekaria Dukaria”), and even Vietnam (“Pico”) and Argentina (“Rayuela”).
Today’s children still draw their hopscotch courts with the word “London” at the top, without knowing that they’re representing the Great North Road, a 400-mile Roman road from Glasgow to London that was frequently used by the Roman military.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
“Nothing.” — Louis XVI
(Diary entry for July 14, 1789, the day of the storming of the Bastille.)
Vaucanson’s Shitting Duck was one of the more unsavory products of the French Enlightenment.
When it was unveiled by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, thousands watched the “canard digérateur” stretch its neck to eat grain from a hand. The food then dissolved, “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released.” These inner workings were all proudly displayed, “though some ladies preferred to see them decently covered.”
Why make fake duck shit when the world is so well supplied with the real thing? It was part of the Enlightenment’s transition from a naturalistic to a mechanical worldview. Suddenly a duck was not a God-given miracle but a machine made of meat, and complex automatons carried the promise of mechanized labor, stirring a cultural revolution.
Goethe mentioned Vaucanson’s automata in his diary, and Sir David Brewster called the duck “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made.” Sadly, the whole thing was a fake: The droppings were prefabricated and hidden in a separate compartment. Back to the drawing board.
A farewell letter from kamikaze pilot Masahisa Uemura to his daughter:
You often looked and smiled at my face. You also slept in my arms, and we took baths together. When you grow up and want to know about me, ask your mother and Aunt Kayo.
My photo album has been left for you at home. I gave you the name Motoko, hoping you would be a gentle, tender-hearted, and caring person.
I want to make sure you are happy when you grow up and become a splendid bride, and even though I die without you knowing me, you must never feel sad.
When you grow up and want to meet me, please come to Kudan [a national shrine for fallen soldiers]. And if you pray deeply, surely your father’s face will show itself within your heart. I believe you are happy. Since your birth you started to show a close resemblance to me, and other people would often say that when they saw little Motoko they felt like they were meeting me. Your uncle and aunt will take good care of you with you being their only hope, and your mother will only survive by keeping in mind your happiness throughout your entire lifetime. Even though something happens to me, you must certainly not think of yourself as a child without a father. I am always protecting you. Please be a person who takes loving care of others.
When you grow up and begin to think about me, please read this letter.
He added a postscript: “P.S. In my airplane, I keep as a charm a doll you had as a toy when you were born. So it means Motoko was together with Father. I tell you this because you being here without knowing makes my heart ache.”
Pirates get a bad rap. Their trade was often the only course open to a poor person in the 17th century, and as an institution it treated its people uncommonly well, if you overlook the pillaging and murder.
On the Spanish Main, most pirate ships were democracies. You elected your captain, and you could vote to replace him. Spoils were divided evenly. Morale was generally high, so much so that pirates often overwhelmed trade vessels by force of numbers. And there was even a social insurance system, so a wounded pirate would be guaranteed money or gold at a certain scale.
Best of all, buccaneers were egalitarian. If they took a slave ship, they freed the slaves. Occasionally they’d force carpenters or other specialists to sail with them, but they’d free them afterward, and they could join the crew if they chose. That’s more noble, in its way, than a lot of lawful enterprises.
Mount Everest has lost a lot of its intrigue since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit in 1953. Indeed, it’s become a big business in Nepal: Between 1998 and 2001, 560 people reached the “top of the world”; last year Pemba Dorjie Sherpa set a new record by making the climb — five miles straight up — in 8 hours and 10 minutes.
Still, it’s perilous, particularly in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. Hundreds have died, and most of the corpses remain where they fell, frozen solid.
One of those bodies may hold some astounding evidence — proof that the summit was reached 29 years before Hillary’s achievement.
In June 1924, two British climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, had climbed to within a few hours of the top. They were using oxygen, which doubled their speed; their geologist reported seeing them climbing “with great alacrity … near the base of the final pyramid” shortly after noon. But the climbers were obscured by mist, and vanished. Had they succeeded?
In 1933 one of their ice axes was found above a large snow terrace. This narrowed the search. If the bodies could be found, Eastman Kodak thought it could retrieve “fully printable images” from their cameras, which would presumably show the summit if they’d reached it. (Irvine was an avid photographer.)
At first the mystery only deepened. A Chinese porter told of finding an “English dead” near the terrace in 1975, but he died in an avalanche before he could reveal any details. Then, in 1999, Eric Simonson found Mallory’s body, with rope trauma indicating that the two climbers had fallen together. But there were no cameras, and still no sign of Irvine’s body.
That’s where the mystery stands now. Last year a new effort began to recover Irvine’s body — details are at Mallory & Irvine: The Final Chapter. So far they’ve retrieved some puzzling artifacts, but no clear answer. Stay tuned.
Excerpts from the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, by Captain Grose (1811):
- ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite to him.
- ANGLING FOR FARTHINGS. Begging out of a prison window with a cap, or box, let down at the end of a long string.
- APPLE DUMPLIN SHOP. A woman’s bosom.
- BACK GAMMON PLAYER. A sodomite.
- DUCK F-CK-R. The man who has the care of the poultry on board a ship of war.
- GREEN GOWN. To give a girl a green gown; to tumble her on the grass.
- HEMPEN WIDOW. One whose husband was hanged.
- HISTORY OF THE FOUR KINGS, or CHILD’S BEST GUIDE TO THE GALLOWS. A pack of cards.
- MANOEUVRING THE APOSTLES. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, i.e. borrowing of one man to pay another.
- PISS PROPHET. A physician who judges of the diseases of his patients solely by the inspection of their urine.
- SON OF PRATTLEMENT. A lawyer.
And a THOROUGH-GOOD-NATURED WENCH is “one who being asked to sit down, will lie down.”
“Flirting and Its Dangers,” circa 1920:
- No Excuse. – In this country there is no excuse for the young man who seeks the society of the loose and the dissolute. There is at all times and everywhere open to him a society of persons of the opposite sex of his own age and of pure thoughts and lives, whose conversation will refine him and drive from his bosom ignoble and impure thoughts.
- The Dangers. – The young man who may take pleasure in the fact that he is the hero of half a dozen or more engagements and love episodes, little realizes that such constant excitement often causes not only dangerously frequent and long-continued nocturnal emissions, but most painful affections of the testicles. Those who show too great familiarity with the other sex, who entertain lascivious thoughts, continually exciting the sexual desires, always suffer a weakening of power and sometimes the actual diseases of degeneration, chronic inflammation of the gland, spermatorrhoea, impotence, and the like. – Young man, beware; your punishment for trifling with the affections of others may cost you a life of affliction.
- Remedy. – Do not violate the social laws. Do not trifle with the affections of your nature. Do not give others countless anguish, and also do not run the chances of injuring yourself and others for life. The society of refined and pure women is one of the strongest safeguards a young man can have, and he who seeks it will not only find satisfaction, but happiness. Simple friendship and kind affections for each other will ennoble and benefit.
- The Time for Marriage. – When a young man’s means permit him to marry, he should then look intelligently for her with whom he expects to pass the remainder of his life in perfect loyalty, and in sincerity and singleness of heart. Seek her to whom he is ready to swear to be ever true.
- Breach of Confidence. – Nothing is more certain, says Dr. Naphey, to undermine domestic felicity, and sap the foundation of marital happiness, than marital infidelity. The risks of disease which a married man runs in impure intercourse are far more serious, because they not only involve himself, but his wife and his children. He should know that there is nothing which a woman will not forgive sooner than such a breach of confidence. He is exposed to the plots and is pretty certain sooner or later to fall into the snares of those atrocious parties who subsist on black-mail. And should he escape these complications, he still must lose self-respect, and carry about with him the burden of a guilty conscience and a broken vow.
- Society Rules and Customs. – A young man can enjoy the society of ladies without being a “flirt.” He can escort ladies to parties, public places of interest, social gatherings, etc., without showing special devotion to any one special young lady. When he finds the choice of his heart, then he will be justified to manifest it, and publicly proclaim it by paying her the compliment, exclusive attention. To keep a lady’s company six months is a public announcement of an engagement.
From Searchlights on Health — The Science of Eugenics: A Guide to Purity and Physical Manhood; Advice to Maiden, Wife and Mother; Love, Courtship, and Marriage, by Prof. B.G. Jefferis, M.D., Ph.D., and J.L. Nicols, A.M.
From Hand Shadows to Be Thrown Upon the Wall, by Henry Bursill (1859).
During World War II, Lord Mountbatten and Geoffrey Pyke approached Winston Churchill with a novel plan to reach German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, where land-based planes couldn’t reach them. They wanted to build an aircraft carrier out of solid ice.
It sounds crazy today, but if they’d gone through with it Project Habbakuk might well have lived up to its biblical billing (“be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told”). Mountbatten and Pike planned to assemble 280,000 blocks of ice into a ship 600 meters long, with a displacement of 2 million tons (today’s Nimitz-class carriers are 333 meters long and displace 100,000 tons). It would carry electric motors, anti-aircraft guns, an airstrip, and a refrigeration unit to keep everything from melting.
Pro: It would be practically unsinkable.
Con: It would take 8,000 people eight months to build it, at a cost of $70 million.
In the end they made a little prototype in Alberta, but the project never got any further. Still, it’s a credit to Churchill that he even considered such an outlandish idea. “Personally I’m always ready to learn,” he once said, “although I do not always like being taught.”
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” — Napoleon
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Goethe’s remark is kind but romantic — Michelangelo’s frescoes ennoble the human spirit, but they also illustrate the dangers of scope creep.
The painter signed on in 1508 to repaint the ceiling, at first with simple golden stars on a blue sky. Lacking a project manager, he agreed to add 12 figures, and the slide began. Before he was done there would be more than 300 figures, in scenes depicting the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment.
As the scale grew, problems multiplied. The Judgment drew objections from Cardinal Carafa, who was scandalized because now a fresco was showing human genitals inside the Vatican. And the artist was forced to make do with male models, because females were too rare and costly.
In short, the Renaissance was plagued by all the same devils that dog modern projects. At least Michelangelo met them philosophically and saw the project through. “If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery,” he said, “it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
Everyone knows Richard the Lion-Hearted and William and Conqueror. Here’s a list of less auspicous royal nicknames:
- “Charles the Bad” (Charles II of Navarre)
- “William the Bastard” (William I of England)
- “Coloman the Bookish” (Coloman of Hungary)
- “Alfonso the Chaste” (Alfonso II of Aragon)
- “Peter the Ceremonious” (Peter IV of Aragon
- “Edmund the Deed-Doer” (Edmund I of England)
- “Henry the Fat” (Henry III of Champagne)
- “Louis the Indolent” (Louis V of France)
- “Edgar the Outlaw” (Edgar Atheling)
- “Constantius the Pale” (Constantius Chlorus)
- “Louis the Sluggard” (Louis V of France)
- “Garcia the Trembler” (Garcia II of Navarre)
Worst of all: “Constantine the Dung-Named,” Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775. Supposedly he defecated in his baptismal font in 718. Nice going.