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.
A letter to Abraham Lincoln, Oct. 18, 1860:
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
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.
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.”
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.”
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?
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.)
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.
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.”
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
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.”
Yes, it’s a Jewish toadstool.
In 1938, fanatical Nazi Julius Streicher published a children’s book called Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom), which compared perfidious Jews to poisonous fungus.
“Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew,” a mother warns her children. “They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.”
Disturbingly, Streicher had worked as an elementary school teacher before joining the German army in 1914. He published propaganda for Hitler, and after Nuremberg he was the only sentenced Nazi to declare “Heil Hitler” before being hanged. At least he was consistent.
From a Scientific American account of a Thai earthquake on May 13, 1848:
During the shock, there spontaneously came out of the ground a species of human hairs in almost every place — in the bazaars, in the roads, in the fields, and the most solid places. These hairs, which are pretty long, stand upright and adhere strongly to the ground. When they are burned, they twist like human hairs and have a burned smell which makes it to be believed that they are really hairs; they all appeared in the twinkling of an eye during the earthquake. The river of Chantibun was all rippling, and bubbles rose to the surface, so that the water was quite white. It is thought that these hairs may have been produced by electricity.
Similar “hairs” have been reported after other Asian earthquakes. Some have been identified as fibers from the hemp palm Chamaerops fortunei, a native tree. Others remain unexplained.
Here’s what a pact with Satan looks like:
I deny God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Mary and all the Saints, particularly Saint John the Baptist, the Church both Triumphant and Militant, all the sacraments, all the prayers prayed therein. I promise never to do good, to do all the evil I can, and would wish not at all to be a man, but that my nature be changed into a devil the better to serve thee, thou my lord and master Lucifer, and I promise thee that even if I be forced to do some good work, I will not do it in God’s honor, but in scorning him and in thine honor and that of all the devils, and that I ever give myself to thee and pray thee always to keep well the bond that I gave thee.
This one was presented as evidence against Urbain Grandier, a French Catholic priest who was executed for seduction and witchcraft in 1634.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In 1849, Henry Box Brown escaped slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia.
Brown stood 5’8″ and weighed 200 pounds, and he spent 26 hours in a box 2’8″ x 2′ x 3′. Unfortunately, he spent a lot of it upside down. “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets,” he later wrote, “and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.” The trip from Richmond covered 275 miles by overland express stage wagon.
When the box was opened, his first words were “How do you do, gentlemen?”
In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln related the following story to his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon:
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers, “The President,” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin.” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.
He was assassinated a few days later.
“The accompanying picture is no imaginary instance, but is actually taken from an official document. The figure is supposed to represent one of these Deal boatmen, and the numerals will explain the methods of secreting the tea. (1) Indicates a cotton bag which was made to fit the crown of his hat, and herein could be carried 2 lbs. of tea. He would, of course, have his hat on as he came ashore, and probably it would be a sou’wester, so there would be nothing suspicious in that. (2) Cotton stays or a waistcoat tied round the body. This waistcoat was fitted with plenty of pockets to hold as much as possible. (3) This was a bustle for the lower part of the body and tied on with strings. (4) These were thigh-pieces also tied round and worn underneath the trousers. When all these concealments were filled the man had on his person as much as 30 lbs. of tea, so that he came ashore and smuggled with impunity. And if you multiply these 30 lbs. by several crews of these Deal boats you can guess how much loss to the Revenue the arrival of an East Indiamen in the Downs meant to the Revenue.”
– East Indian smugglers’ scheme to evade English customs officers, circa 1810. From E. Keble Chatterton, King’s Cutters and Smugglers, 1700-1855, 1912
Uncle Billy rested his axe on the log he was chopping, and turned his grizzly old head to one side, listening intently. A confusion of sounds came from the little cabin across the road. It was a dilapidated negro cabin, with its roof awry and the weather-boarding off in great patches; still, it was a place of interest to Uncle Billy. His sister lived there with three orphan grandchildren.
Leaning heavily on his axe-handle, he thrust out his under lip, and rolled his eyes in the direction of the uproar. A broad grin spread over his wrinkled black face as he heard the rapid spank of a shingle, the scolding tones of an angry voice, and a prolonged howl.
“John Jay an’ he gran’mammy ‘peah to be havin’ a right sma’t difference of opinion togethah this mawnin’,” he chuckled.
– Annie Fellows Johnston, Ole Mammy’s Torment, 1897
Handbill circulated in Dallas on Nov. 21, 1963, the day before Kennedy’s assassination:
A human sacrifice to a carnivorous tree, as described in the South Australian Register, 1881:
The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.
Unfortunately, years of subsequent investigation — including the enchantingly titled Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree (1924) — have failed to find such a tree, or even the Mkodo tribe that purportedly feeds it. Nice try, though.