History

Silbury Hill

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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.

Benjamin Bathurst

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.

That Explains It

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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.

“The One-Man Vaudeville Show”

“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

Stature in Washington

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At the time of its construction, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world.

Well, Hey!

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

Self-Help

Benjamin Franklin’s “13 virtues,” which he devised for “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection”:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.”

Flying Dutchman

“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.

Diet of the Desk Worker

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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

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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.

Guiltier Today

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

No Laughing Matter

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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.

“Wonderful Peculiarity in the English Character!”

“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

Plus Permits

In today’s dollars, the Taj Mahal cost more than $500 million.

A Common Theme

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.

Good Point

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.

The Mary Celeste

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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.

Chartres Labyrinth

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.

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.