The pied piper is not just a fairy tale. Something specific and terrible appears to have happened in the German town of Hamelin on June 26, 1284. What it was is uncertain, but it seems to have claimed the town’s children, perhaps in a mass drowning, burial, epidemic or exodus. An inscription from 1603 reads:
Anno 1284 am dage Johannis et Pauli
war der 26. junii
Dorch einen piper mit allerlei farve bekledet
gewesen CXXX kinder verledet binnen Hamelen gebo[re]n
to calvarie bi den koppen verloren
In the year of 1284, on John’s and Paul’s day
was the 26th of June
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colors,
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
and lost at the place of execution near the Koppen.
Rats weren’t added to the story until the late 16th century. The site of the children’s disappearance, on Coppenbrugge mountain, is now a site of pagan worship, and a law forbids singing and music in one street of Hamelin, out of respect for the victims … though we may never know what their fate was.
In Britain during the 1700s, pickpocketing was punishable by death … but the public hangings became prime targets for pickpockets.
A 12th-century Javanese king, Jayabaya, predicted that white men would conquer the Indonesian island one day and tyrannize the people for years, until the white men were driven out by yellow men from the north. The yellow men would remain for one crop cycle, he said, and then Java would be free.
Amazingly, these predictions were fulfilled almost perfectly 800 years later. White settlers from the Netherlands ruled the island until the Japanese invaded in 1942, and two years later they officially granted Indonesia its independence.
Since Javanese predictions are so accurate, we should note that Indonesia seems due for another messiah — prophecies said he’d arrive “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky.”
Excerpts from an eighth-grade final exam, Salina, Kansas, 1895:
- Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.
- A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
- District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
- Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
- Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.
- Show the territorial growth of the United States.
- What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic orthography, etymology, syllabication?
- What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
- Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fermandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
- Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
- Describe the movements of the earth. Give inclination of the earth.
Students were actually allowed to take it in seventh grade, and retake it in eighth grade if they didn’t pass.
Sam Patch (1799-1829), “The Yankee Leaper,” earned his epithet — in his 30-year lifetime he jumped from the following points:
- Mill dam, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
- Passaic Falls, New Jersey
- Miscellaneous bridges, factory walls, ships’ masts
- Niagara Falls, New York
- Upper Falls, Rochester, New York
That last one attracted a crowd of 8,000 — Upper Falls is 99 feet high. The first attempt went fine, but on the followup he dislocated both shoulders and drowned. His grave marker says “Sam Patch — Such Is Fame.”
As old as the pyramids, southern England’s Silbury Hill is even more enigmatic. It’s essentially a gigantic man-made hill, 130 feet tall and perfectly round.
It must have taken 18 million man-hours to build, but archaeologists are stumped as to its purpose.
On Nov. 25, 1809, British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst was preparing to leave the small German town of Perleberg. He stood outside the inn, watching his portmanteau being loaded onto the carriage, stepped out of the light, and was never seen again.
A nearby river was dragged, and outbuildings, woods, ditches, and marshes were searched, but no trace of Bathurst was ever found. A reward was offered for information, but none came forth.
Bathurst had been urging Austria into war against the French, but Napoleon swore on his honor that he had played no part in the disappearance. The mystery has never been solved.
Chicago means “land of smelly onions.”
That’s how the native Potawatomi described the swampy area next to Lake Michigan. French explorers picked up the name, and it stuck.
“I will now give an imitation of three Hawaiians. This is one (whistles), this is another (plays ukulele), and this is the third (marks time with his foot). I could imitate four Hawaiians just as easily, but I will tell you the reason why I don’t do it. You see, I bought a horse for $50, and it turned out to be a running horse. I was offered $15,000 for him, and I took it. I built a house with the $15,000, and when it was finished a neighbor offered me $100,000 for it. He said my house stood right where he wanted to dig a well. So I took the $100,000 to accommodate him. I invested the $100,000 in peanuts, and that year there was a peanut famine, so I sold the peanuts for $350,000. Now, why should a man with $350,000 bother to imitate four Hawaiians?”
— Joe Cook, vaudeville performer
At the time of its construction, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world.
How to Cure Cancer. — Boil down the inner bark of red and white oak to the consistency of molasses; apply as a plaster, shifting it once a week; or, burn red-oak bark to ashes; sprinkle it on the sore till it is eaten out; then apply a plaster of tar; or, take garget berries and leaves of stramonium; simmer them together in equal parts of neatsfoot oil and the tops of hemlock; mix well together, and apply it to the parts affected; at the same time make a tea of winter-green (root and branch); put a handful into two quarts of water; add two ounces of sulphur and drink of this tea freely during the day.
— Barkham Burroughs’ Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information, 1889
Benjamin Franklin’s “13 virtues,” which he devised for “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection”:
- TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
- TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
“It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow’d the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.”
“At 4:00 a.m., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow.”
— Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence, aboard H.M.S. Inconstant, July 11, 1881.
Thirteen officers and men saw the object, whatever it was, as did the crews of the corvettes Tourmaline and Cleopatra.
Just how much food the brain worker needs is a question which has not yet been decided. In general it appears that a man or a woman whose occupation is what we call sedentary, who is without vigorous exercise and does but little hard muscular work, needs much less than the man at hard manual labor, and that the brain worker needs comparatively little of carbohydrates or fats.
Many physicians, physiologists and students of hygiene have become convinced that well-to-do people, whose work is mental rather than physical, eat too much; that the diet of people of this class as a whole is one-sided as well as excessive, and that the principal evil is the use of too much fat, starch and sugar.
— Public School Domestic Science by Mrs. J. Hoodless, 1898
Mount Rushmore is incomplete. Artist Gutzon Borglum had planned to sculpt the four presidents from head to waist, but he died before he could finish the job.
Mahatma Gandhi’s “seven modern sins”:
- Wealth without work
- Pleasure without conscience
- Knowledge without character
- Commerce without morality
- Science without humanity
- Worship without sacrifice
- Politics without principle
Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz served as an infantry squad leader during World War II.
Every year on June 6 he used the comic strip to memorialize his comrades who fell at Normandy.
“The French, however wretched may be their condition, are attached to life, while the English frequently detest life in the midst of affluence and splendour. English criminals are not dragged, but run to the place of execution, where they laugh, sing, cut jokes, insult the spectators; and if no hangman happens to be present, frequently hang themselves.”
— Memoirs of Lewis Holberg, quoted in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, July 28, 1827
In today’s dollars, the Taj Mahal cost more than $500 million.
Deaths of selected Burmese kings:
- Uzana (1254): Trampled to death by an elephant
- Minrekyawswa (1417): Crushed to death by an elephant
- Razadarit (1423): Died while lassoing elephants
- Tabinshweti (1551): Beheaded while searching for an elephant
Draw your own conclusions.
A samurai once asked Zen master Hakuin where he would go after he died. Hakuin answered, “How am I supposed to know?”
“How do you know? You’re a Zen master!” exclaimed the samurai.
“Yes, but not a dead one,” Hakuin answered.
Passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste, a 103-foot brigantine that left New York for Genoa on Nov. 7, 1872:
- Benjamin S. Briggs, 37, captain
- Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, 30, captain’s wife
- Sophia Matilda Briggs, 2, captain’s daughter
- Albert C. Richardson, 28, mate
- Andrew Gilling, 25, second mate
- Edward W. Head, 23, steward and cook
- Volkert Lorenson, 29, seaman
- Arian Martens, 35, seaman
- Boy Lorenson, 23, seaman
- Gotlieb Gondeschall, 23, seaman
A month after she sailed, the ship was found abandoned off the coast of Portugal. Her cargo was intact, and she carried a six-month supply of food and water. The sextant, chronometer and lifeboat were missing, suggesting that the ship had been deliberately abandoned.
No survivors were ever found. The mystery has never been solved.
Medieval worshipers who followed the labyrinth in France’s Chartres Cathedral had a surprisingly long ordeal — the path to the center is 150 meters long. Penitents sometimes walked it on their knees.
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.)