In 1920 two English cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced a series of photos that seemed to show them cavorting with fairies and gnomes.
The images were published in The Strand and convinced Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he wrote: “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.”
But see Fairies Unmasked.
Blue Peacock was the sexy code name of a secret British plan to salt the Rhine with nuclear mines in the 1950s, in case of war.
Less sexily, they planned to put a live chicken in each one, to keep the electronics from getting cold.
When the file was declassified on April 1, 2004, this was taken to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s true. Fortunately, the project was canceled.
Cures, from John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696:
- To cure a Thrush: Take a living frog, and hold it in a cloth, that it does not go down into the child’s mouth; and put the head into the child’s mouth ’till it is dead; and then take another frog, and do the same.
- To cure the Tooth-Ach: Take a new nail, and make the gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an oak. This did cure William Neal’s son, a very stout gentleman, when he was almost mad with the pain, and had a mind to have pistolled himself.
- For the Jaundice: The jaundice is cured, by putting the urine after the first sleep, to the ashes of the ash-tree, bark of barberries.
- To cure a beast that is sprung, (that is) poisoned: It lights mostly upon Sheep. Take the little red spider, called a tentbob, (not so big as a great pins-head) the first you light upon in the spring of the year, and rub it in the palm of your hand all to pieces: and having so done, piss on it, and rub it in, and let it dry; then come to the beast and make water in your hand, and throw it in his mouth. It cures in a matter of an hour’s time. This rubbing serves for a whole year, and it is no danger to the hand. The chiefest skill is to know whether the beast be poisoned or no. From Mr. Pacy.
The land regions of Mars can be distinguished from the seas by their ruddy color, the seas being greenish. But here, perhaps, you will be disposed to ask how astronomers can be sure that the greenish regions are seas, the ruddy regions land, the white spots either snow or cloud. Might not materials altogether unlike any we are acquainted with exist upon that remote planet?
The spectroscope answers this question in the clearest way. You may remember what I told you in October, 1876, about Venus, how astronomers have learned that the vapor of water exists in her atmosphere. The same method has been applied, even more satisfactorily, to the planet of war, and it has been found that he also has his atmosphere at times laden with moisture. This being so, it is clear we have not to do with a planet made of materials utterly unlike those forming our earth. To suppose so, when we find that the air of Mars, formed like our own (for if it contained other gases the spectroscope would tell us), contains often large quantities of the vapor of water, would be as absurd as to believe in the green cheese theory of the moon, or in another equally preposterous, advanced lately by an English artist — Mr. J.T. Brett — to the effect that the atmosphere of Venus is formed of glass.
– Richard A. Proctor, St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls, November 1877
Recipe for “flying ointment”:
- 1/2 oz. soot
- 1 oz. pork fat
- 1 oz. hemlock
- 1 oz. deadly nightshade
- 1 oz. wolfsbane
Allegedly such recipes were obtained by torturing accused witches, who said they used the ointment to fly to the Sabbat. More likely the mixture induced hallucinations; maybe that amounts to the same thing.
The Russians’ “tsar tank” (above) didn’t work in World War I, and their “winged tank” (below) didn’t work in World War II.
No matter. “Failure is not falling down,” runs an Asian proverb, “but refusing to get up.”
When Magellan reached Argentina in 1519, he was in for a shock:
One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. … He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned …
The navigator’s account says the man was “10 spans high,” which would be 7 foot 6; later European explorers reported natives up to 15 feet tall.
These legends persisted for 250 years before they were debunked, and they left one permanent legacy: Patagonia means “land of the big feet.”
Contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night of his assassination:
- Two pairs of glasses
- Lens polisher
- Watch fob
- Newspaper clippings
… and a Confederate five-dollar bill.
Letter received by William McKinley in April 1898, shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War:
Dear Sir I for one feel Confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war –
But in case of such an event I am ready to place a Company of fifty Lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.
Treatment for sore throat, diphtheria, and scarlet fever from The Confederate Receipt Book, 1868:
Mix in a common size cup of fresh milk two teaspoonfuls of pulverized charcoal and ten drops of spirits of turpentine. Soften the charcoal with a few drops of milk before putting into the cup. Gargle frequently, according to the violence of the symptoms.
A letter to the Seattle Bureau of Prohibition, Sept. 12, 1931:
My husband is in the habit of buying a quart of wiskey every other day from a Chinese bootlegger named Chin Waugh living at 317-16th near Alder street.
We need this money for household expenses. Will you please have his place raided? He keeps a supply planted in the garden and a smaller quantity under the back steps for quick delivery. If you make the raid at 9:30 any morning you will be sure to get the goods and Chin also as he leaves the house at 10 o’clock and may clean up before he goes.
Thanking you in advance, I remain yours truly,
Necessity is the mother of invention. In the 1840s, when Army horses and mules were failing in the American Southwest, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, same guy) allocated $30,000 for “the purchase of camels and the importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.” The Navy sent a ship to North Africa, and in 1856 33 confused camels arrived in Indianola, Texas.
They did pretty well. After a survey expedition to California, an enthusiastic Col. Edward Beale declared, “I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted … with this economical and noble brute.”
The Civil War put an end to the project, but there’s a strange postscript. Some of the camels escaped into the Texas desert, where apparently they adapted to life in the wild. The last feral camel was sighted in 1941. There’s a movie in here somewhere.
The longest war in history lasted from 1650 to 1985, between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly (located off the southwest coast of the United Kingdom).
The Dutch had declared it against the Royalists there during the Second English Civil War, and then forgot about it. In 335 years, no shots were fired and no lives were lost.
The shortest war was the Anglo-Zanzibar War, fought between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar in 1896. It lasted 45 minutes. Kudos.
In the 15th century, among the Ojibwa people of Lake Superior, a prophet dreamed of “men who had come across the great water … their skins are white like snow, and on their faces long hair grows. These people have come … in wonderfully large canoes which have great white wings like those of a giant bird. The men have long and sharp knives, and they have long black tubes which they point at birds and animals. The tubes make a smoke that rises into the air … from them come fire and … a terrific noise.”
After this prophecy was made, a group of Ojibwa traveled down the St. Lawrence waterway to investigate and made their first contact with white men, possibly a party from John Cabot’s (1497) or Jacques Cartier’s (1535) expedition.
It’s dangerous to make history. Schoolchildren learn that Oliver Cromwell overthrew the British monarchy, but they’re less often told of the grisly price he paid.
Three years after his death of malaria, Cromwell’s body was dug up and underwent a “posthumous execution” for treason by the restored monarchy: It was hanged, drawn and quartered, decapitated and thrown into a common pit, and the severed head was mounted on a pole and displayed outside Westminster Abbey for four years, until 1685.
Even that wasn’t enough. The head passed among various owners for 275 years; it wasn’t buried until 1960, on the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
And Cromwell was only the most prominent of the regicides of Charles I. Three others were also “punished” posthumously, and those still alive were imprisoned or chased out of England.
Letter from a California resident to an officer of Bodie, a gold-rush boom town, circa 1881:
Kind and Respected Cir:
I see in the paper that a man named John Sipes was attacted and et up by a bare whose kubs he was trying to get when the she bare came up and stopt him by eating him in the mountains near your town.
What I want to know is did it kill him ded or was he only partly et up and is he from this plaice and all about the bare. I don’t know but he is a distant husband of mine. My first husband was of the name and I supposed he was killed in the war, but the name of the man the bare et being the same I thought it might be him after all and I ought to know if he wasn’t killed either in the war or by the bare, for I have been married twise since and there ought to be divorse papers got out by him or me if the bare did not eat him up. If it is him you will know by him having six toes on his left foot.
He also had a spreadagle tattooed on his front chest and a anker on his right arm which you will know him by if the bare did not eat up these sines of it being him.
Find out all yu kin about him without him knowing what it is for, that is if the bare did not eat him all up. If it did I don’t see as you kin do anything and you needn’t to trouble. Please ancer back.
She added a postscript: “Was the bare killed?”
Letter from Jeannette Linn to Santa Claus, Dec. 21, 1899:
Dear Santa, I thought I would drop you a few lines and tell you a few things what I want. Well, I want a pair of skates, because I think by the time Christmas comes it will be frozen up. And for another thing, I want a pair of leggings so that it will keep my feet warm and I want them so that they will come up above my shoe-tops, and I want a little slate like those that have pictures of cats and rabbits and dogs on and like those that are almost like a slate, and if it don’t cost too much I would like a large doll, so large that it would look about four years old. I will tell you where to find it. If you look in the basement of the Arcade on the place where the dolls are, you will see a large doll with real long curly hair and it is jointed and it is as pretty as I am. And I don’t think I want much, but dear Santa, I know that I want more than you can afford to give, for there are more little boys and girls and they want something too. But I would like to have so much a nice tricycle that would cost three dollars and that is too much, I think, to pay for anything, but that is really the price of it because I saw the price on it and it said $3.00 as plain as this letter is written and I think it is written pretty plain.
She finished: “Well Santa, I must close because it is getting late and I think if I don’t close you will not bring me anything. I have got as much as I can think of.”
In 1900, sponge divers were retrieving relics from an ancient Greek shipwreck when archaeologist Spyridon Stais noticed a rock with a gear wheel in it. He had discovered the Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable clockwork computer that modeled the movements of heavenly objects as early as 87 B.C.
Using x-ray analysis, historians of science and technology have studied the mechanism closely and devised several working reconstructions. British orrery maker John Gleave believes the front dial tracked the sun and moon through the zodiac year against the Egyptian calendar. Others believe it modeled the motions of the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — every celestial body known to the ancient Greeks.
That last interpretation is significant: In the first century B.C. Cicero had written of an instrument “recently constructed by our friend Poseidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets.” It may have been used to calculate celestial positions at the times of certain events or births.
Whatever the details, the device was remarkably sophisticated for its day: Among other things, it uses a differential gear, which historians had previously thought was invented in the 16th century. Complex Greek creations like this may have passed through the Arab world and eventually informed European clockmaking. What other ancient technology has been lost?
Uninspiring land speed records:
- 39.24 mph, Dec. 18, 1898, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
- 41.42 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
- 43.69 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
- 49.93 mph, Jan. 27, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
- 57.65 mph, March 4, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
- 65.79 mph, April 29, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
Interestingly, these were all set with electric vehicles.
The Uffington White Horse was cut out of the turf on a hill in southern England, exposing the chalk beneath.
Some say it’s really a dragon — the figure is 3,000 years old.
The mutiny on the Bounty is a landmark of sea law, but it also has a curious linguistic sequel. After setting Captain Bligh adrift, Fletcher Christian fled to Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. With him were eight other crewmen, six Tahitian men, and 11 women. In order to understand each other, they developed a creole mix of English and Tahitian known as “Pitcairnese”:
|How are you?||Whata way ye?|
|Where are you going?||About ye gwen?|
|Are you going to cook dinner?||You gwen whihi up suppa?|
|Would you like some food?||Ye like-a sum whettles?|
|I don’t think so||I nor believe|
|It doesn’t matter||Do’ mine|
The mutineers were a diverse lot, with origins from Scotland to the West Indies, so the mix is a linguistic hodgepodge. For instance, “whettles,” above, meaning food, is a throwback to the Old English victuals.
Now remembered chiefly for establishing Rhodes scholarships, South African diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes left an alarming provision in his will — he hoped to take over the world:
To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.
“I contend that we (the British) are the finest race in the world,” he once wrote, “and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”
In 1803, Australian Joseph Samuel was sentenced to hang for murder. The first attempt failed when the rope broke. A replacement rope stretched, letting Samuel’s feet touched the ground. And the third rope broke.
So they let him go.
- From the begining woman has occupied a dependent position, and has been only what man has made her. The Turks, logical fellows, denied her a soul, and made of her an object of barter and sale; the American Indians made of her a beast of burden. In America, since we extended the area of civilization by butchering the Indians, we have copied both.
- The inferiority of the sex is easy of demonstration. It has been said that the mother forms the character of the man so long, that the proposition has become axiomatic. If this be true, we can crush those who prate of the equality of women, by holding up to the gaze of the world the inferior men she has produced. Look at the Congress of the United States.
- My friend is learned. She has a tolerable knowledge of Greek, is an excellent Latin scholar, and as she has read the Constitution of the United States, she excels in political lore the majority of our representatives in Congress. But nevertheless I protest against her voting for several reasons:
- She cannot sing bass! Her voice, as Dr. Bushnell justly observes in his blessed book, is pitched higher than the male voice, which indicates feminine weakness of mind.
- Her form is graceful rather than strong.
- She delights in millinery goods.
- She can’t grow whiskers.
– Satirical lyceum speaker Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, “The Struggles of a Conservative with the Woman Question,” 1868