To commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England struck a medal bearing the device of a fleet flying under full sail.
The inscription read Venit, vidit, fugit — “It came, it saw, it fled.”
In 1943, Colorado broom factory worker Mary Babnik Brown saw an advertisement in a Pueblo newspaper soliciting blond hair, at least 22 inches long, that had not been treated with chemicals or hot irons. Brown had never cut her hair, which she combed twice a day and washed twice a week with pure soap. When her samples were deemed acceptable, she cut off all 34 inches and sent it in, considering this her contribution to the war effort, though “I cried for two months.”
At the time she was told that her hair would be used in meteorological instruments. It wasn’t until 1987, the year of her 80th birthday, that she learned that it had been used in the Norden bombsight, a top-secret instrument that guided bombs to their targets. Engineers had determined that fine blond human hair worked ideally in crosshairs, but the technology was a closely guarded secret, so the donors weren’t told how their contributions would be used. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” Brown said. “All I knew was that they needed virgin hair.”
She did get some compensation: Pueblo declared Nov. 22, 1991, “Mary Babnik Brown Day,” she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society’s hall of fame, and Ronald Reagan sent her this letter:
Planetary economy will be a determining factor in the change of diet which the coming century must inevitably witness. Such a wasteful food as animal flesh cannot survive: and even apart from the moral necessity which will compel mankind, for its own preservation, to abandon the use of alcohol, the direct and indirect wastefulness of alcohol will make it impossible for beverages containing it to be tolerated. Very likely tobacco will follow it.
— T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence, 1905
n. a duel
In 1842, Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois lawyer, published a letter in a Springfield newspaper criticizing the performance of the state’s auditor, James Shields. Shields, quick to anger, challenged Lincoln to a duel, and the two met on an island in the Mississippi River. As the challenged party, Lincoln was permitted to choose the weapon, and he requested long cavalry broadswords. As he stood 7 inches taller than Shields, this gave him an enormous advantage, which he demonstrated by cutting a branch above Shields’ head. Accounts differ as to how the auditor responded — he either laughed or quailed — but the two agreed not to fight. Lincoln appears to have been embarrassed by the whole affair, and declined to discuss it in later years.
In April 1964, British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home was staying at the home of a friend in Scotland. One day when he happened to be alone there, he answered the door to find a group of students from Aberdeen University, who said they were there to kidnap him.
At first Douglas-Home said, “I suppose you realize if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” Then he stalled by asking for 10 minutes to pack a few things, and bought further time by offering beer to the students. Eventually his friends returned and the students departed willingly. Douglas-Home never spoke publicly of the incident, as the breach would have imperiled his bodyguard’s career, but in 1977 he mentioned it to a colleague, whose diary entry came to light in 2008.
Related: Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared entirely in 1967. He was visiting Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, with friends when he decided to go swimming. When he disappeared from view a search was organized, but it could find no trace of him. The beach is known for its rip tides, so he’s presumed to have drowned, but no body has ever been found.
A gruesome detail from the siege of Leningrad, from the diary of ballet teacher Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, April 1942:
And there, across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.
With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’
- without his knapsack
- without his rags
- in his underwear
- a skeleton with ripped-out entrails
They took him away in May.
That’s from Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina, Writing the Siege of Leningrad, 2002. They add, “The man was apparently heading for the Finland Station in the hope of getting out of Leningrad on Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life.'”
Housewife Sof’ia Nikolaevna Buriakova remembered, “Having grown numb from work, having lost a sense of what was permissible, the gravediggers stooped to all sorts of disgusting jokes, even blatantly violating the deceased. On the road leading to the communal grave a tall corpse had been stood with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. His frozen, iced-over arm pointed the way to the trench graves.”
Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:
“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”
Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.
Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.
Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.
When Japanese forces took Wake Island in December 1941, they put 98 captured Americans to forced labor. When the American military threatened to retake the island in October 1943, the Japanese took these civilians to the north end of the island, blindfolded them, and executed them by machine gun.
One of the Americans somehow escaped this massacre and fled. We know this because he returned to the scene and carved the legend “98 US PW 5-10-43″ on a coral rock near the mass grave. He was subsequently captured and beheaded.
The rock remains a landmark on the island. The American’s identity has never been discovered.
At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.
In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”
That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”
In 1855, American whaler James Buddington came across an abandoned vessel stuck in the ice off Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. It was HMS Resolute, a British exploration ship that had been abandoned two years earlier and drifted rudderless through 1200 miles of the Canadian Arctic.
The U.S. Congress returned the ship to Queen Victoria, and in 1879 its timbers were made into two desks with admirable pedigrees: One resides in Buckingham Palace … and the other is in the Oval Office, where it’s been used by almost every president since Rutherford B. Hayes.
Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.
Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.
Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”
Each year on the last Saturday in April, the citizens of Ocean Shores, Washington, celebrate “Undiscovery Day” to commemorate the night in 1792 when British explorer George Vancouver sailed right past their harbor without discovering it.
At midnight they gather on the shore and shout “Hey George — over here!”
In July 1945, a former inhabitant of Poland’s Lódz ghetto, Avraham Benkel, returned to find his home in ruins. Lódz had been the last of 200 ghettos in German-occupied Poland, and as the war neared its conclusion tens of thousands of its inhabitants had been deported to death camps. When the Red Army reached it in January, only 877 survivors remained.
In the abandoned building next door to his own, Benkel found a book, François Coppée’s The Truly Rich, on whose endpages and margins an anonymous boy had kept a diary of his ordeal:
June 1, 1944: “I just finished my ‘loaf, which I had to have for eight days; today is the third. It may turn [out] to be lethal for me to behave in such a manner, but my will-power is so weakened and my ever increasing appetite so strong that I can’t help it. Is there no bread, dry unsavoury bread enough for me and my fellow-sufferers in this world?”
July 10, 1944: “I am exhausted, I have no more patience, my nerves are frayed. What I do have is an indescribable disgust toward the world and mankind, toward the masses and people, toward doctrines and dogmas. I do not believe, I do not believe in any change in the world, no! Anyone who can sink as low as the modern man has can be nothing more than an unsuccessful experiment of nature, which certainly regrets it!”
July 20, 1944: “I feel such a need to open my diary and to write in order to ease my bitter heart, about what hell we go through, how terribly we suffer. During the time when we had literally nothing to eat, we were willing to believe that the physical annihilation of men, women, and children of our nation had appeased the blond beast. But now it looks as if they have not had enough, and that they want to satisfy their thirst with the blood of the innocent.”
Almost nothing is known about the boy’s identity, age, background, schooling, or fate. Only the verb forms in his entries tell us that he was male. In all likelihood he was deported to Auschwitz as the Russians closed in.
“My God, why do you allow them to say that you are neutral?” he wrote in a final, undated entry. “Why will you not punish, with all your wrath, those who are destroying us? Are we the sinners and they the righteous? Is that the truth? Surely you are intelligent enough to understand that is it not so, that we are not the sinners and they are not the Messiah!”
(From Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, 2002.)
In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes a battlefield reflex that is “far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness”:
A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down. But had he not abandoned himself to the impulse he would now be a heap of mangled flesh. It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how.
Apparently this was a real phenomenon, at least in World War I. Stephen Foot, a British officer who spent three years on the western front, writes in his 1934 memoir Three Lives:
It was about this time that I suddenly realised that I had become acclimatised to shell fire; not that I liked or had ceased to fear it, but that I was able to discriminate between a shell that was coming near and one that was far enough away not to worry about. Some officers recently arrived from England were responsible. They were in charge of one of the working parties, and while we were standing in a group, not far from Plug Street, we heard the whine of a German shell. I looked instinctively in the direction of the church to see the usual cloud of dust and stones, and at the same time I realised that the officers with me had ducked. I was certainly no braver than they were — quite the contrary; but my ear had somehow become attuned, so that as soon as the first sound was heard I knew approximately where the shell would burst.
Foot calls this sense “a great relief to one’s nervous system” and speculates that the worst cases of nervous breakdown occurred in men who didn’t have it. “One cannot explain it,” Remarque wrote. “If it were not so, there would not be one man alive from Flanders to the Vosges.”
- What time is it at the North Pole?
- The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
- After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
- 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
- PRICES: CRIPES!
- “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial
When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.
How long is a coastline? If we measure with a long yardstick, we get one answer, but as we shorten the scale the total length goes up. For certain mathematical shapes, indeed, it goes up without limit.
English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson discovered this perplexing result in the early 20th century while examining the relationship between the lengths of national boundaries and the likelihood of war. If the Spanish claim that the length of their border with Portugal is 987 km, and the Portuguese say it’s 1,214 km, who’s right? The ambiguity arises because a wiggly boundary occupies a fractional dimension — it’s something between a line and a surface.
“At one extreme, D = 1.00 for a frontier that looks straight on the map,” Richardson wrote. “For the other extreme, the west coast of Britain was selected because it looks like one of the most irregular in the world; it was found to give D = 1.25.”
This is a mathematical notion, but it’s also a practical problem. On the fjord-addled panhandle of Alaska, the boundary with British Columbia was originally defined as “formed by a line parallel to the winding of the coast.” Who gets to define that? On the map below, the United States claimed the blue border, Canada wanted the red one, and British Columbia claimed the green. The yellow border was arbitrated in 1903.
In April 1819 the French slave ship Rodeur set sail for Guadeloupe from the Bight of Biafra with a crew of 22 men and 162 slaves. After 15 days, a disease of the eyes appeared among the slaves in the hold. The heartless captain threw 36 slaves overboard, but the illness soon spread to the crew, and eventually everyone on board except for a single man was blind.
And then came one of the most remarkable incidents in the history of sea commerce. As the Rodeur was crawling along with this one man at the helm, another ship, with all sails set, was seen. That was a glad moment on the Rodeur, and she was quickly headed for the stranger, hoping to get men who could navigate the ship. Drawing near, the Rodeur’s lone helmsman observed that the stranger was steering wildly, and that no one could be seen on board. But the moment the Rodeur had arrived within hailing distance men came to the stranger’s rail, and in frantic tones said that every one on board had become blind, and begged for the help that the Rodeur had come to secure. The stranger was the Spanish slaver Leon.
That’s from journalist John Randolph Spears, who wrote a history of the American slave trade at the turn of the century. This is such a horrible story that I hoped it was just folklore, but it’s borne out in the inquiries that followed and commemorated in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Slave-Ships”:
“Help us! for we are stricken
With blindness every one;
Ten days we’ve floated fearfully,
Unnoting star or sun.
Our ship’s the slaver Leon,–
We’ve but a score on board;
Our slaves are all gone over,–
Help, for the love of God!”
On livid brows of agony
The broad red lightning shone;
But the roar of wind and thunder
Stifled the answering groan;
Wailed from the broken waters
A last despairing cry,
As, kindling in the stormy light,
The stranger ship went by.
Unable to help one another, the two ships parted. On June 21 the Rodeur reached Guadaloupe, where the last man went blind. The Leon passed into the Atlantic and was never seen again.
n. a circumnavigation, an epic journey, an odyssey
In 1505 Ferdinand Magellan sailed east to Malaysia, where he acquired a slave named Enrique who accompanied him on his subsequent westward circumnavigation of the globe. When that expedition reached the Philippines, Enrique escaped, and his fate is lost to history. That’s intriguing: If he managed to travel the few hundred remaining miles to his homeland, then he was the first person in history to circumnavigate the earth.
In May 1861, barely three weeks after the start of the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln received a letter from Helen Rauschnabel of Rochester, N.Y., relating “a remarkable dream I had last night about Mr. Lincoln which I think has a significant meaning.”
I dreamed it stormed & thunderd & lightned terribly, it seemed as tho the Heavens & Earth were coming together, but it soon ceased, still there seemed to be very dark clouds sailing thro the horison, I thought I stood pensively viewing the scene, when a man resembling Mr Lincoln appeard standing erect in the firmament with a book in his hand, he stood as near as I could calculate over the City of Washington, his head seemed reard above the lightnings flash and thunder bolt, the sun seemed to be just rising in the East, and its rays shed a soft mellow light around about him, beneath his feet rolled dark & heavy clouds which the sun light was fast dispeling, I saw him walk thro all the Southern part of the horison with a book in one hand, & a pen in the other.
“When he got to the western part of the firmament he made a halt & stood erect,” she remembered. “He was crowned with honors & coverd with Laurels, and looked very smiling.” She found herself singing a verse, which she remembered when she awoke and committed to paper: “A voice from the North has proclaimed the glad Morn / And Slavery is ended & Freedom is born / The fair Sunny South is restor’d one more / Secession is ended & Slavery is ore.”
In 1936, as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for re-election against Republican Alf Landon, a group from Wall Street’s financial district sponsored a competition to find the best anagram for FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. The winner was VOTE FOR LANDON ERE ALL SINK.
During the 1980 campaign, Jimmy Carter was accused of reversing his position on several issues to maintain his popularity. Edward Scher of New York University coined the palindrome TO LAST, CARTER RETRACTS A LOT.
Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan, who inspired Howard Bergerson to compose a “press conference” in 1982 using only the letters in RONALD WILSON REAGAN. Here the Gipper describes his foreign policy:
We are sworn nonaggressors; we need law and order, we disallow war as lawless and senseless, and in a larger sense we also regard war as, now and again, needed. A needed war is no dead end or swan song, nor need we ride in war as no-good sinners on genderless geldings! We need androgens and derring-do! We need Old Glories, and seasoned soldiers garrisoned worldwide, generals in golden regalia, and raised dander! We need all-seeing, world-girdling radar, seagoing sonar and liaison ensigns, newer DEW lines and earlier NORAD warnings, larger arsenals and deadlier arrows in silos, R-and-D on lasers, and goodlier anger! We need no ring-a-ding dissensions and wild-goose rallies, nor do we need addled ding-a-ling diagnoses on wielding dread winged swords and daggers — or on wielding God’s own grenades! Ordained grenadiers alone assess, and ordained godlings alone will wield Gold’s sidereal grenades riding on Odin’s arrows. Godless Leningrad warlords and roodless, religionless Red warriors sold on Red-engendered Warsaw agreeings are as sidling sidewinders in loose sand! In nine innings (I disdain gridiron analogies) we will win — no one is dawdling! We are leaning on oars! We and God will engage all Red raiders, and, God willing, we will win odds-on! No one dragoons or goads God!
Reagan’s name can also be rearranged to spell INSANE ANGLO WARLORD.
One last, almost unbelievable, anecdote from the San Francisco earthquake:
When the quake struck at 5:12 a.m., William Stehr was in his room on the top floor of the Nevada House at 132 Sixth Street. At first he considered jumping from his window onto a roof below, but “as I was waiting to make up my mind the house I was looking at collapsed with a deafening roar.” He was dressing himself hurriedly when he heard another crash and saw that the Brunswick House had also collapsed “and was tumbling into a heap of ruins in a smother of dust.” He leapt to his door but found that the quake had jammed it shut.
As I was tugging at it I felt the floor tilting and sinking under me, and I knew that the house was going down like the others. So I hung on instinctively to the door handle while the whole floor dropped. As it sank I felt three distinct bumps as the lower floors collapsed in turn under the weight of the roof and the top story. With each bump came a frightful crash and cracking of timbers and glass and the cries of other people in the house who were being destroyed. …
The cries of these people who were being killed, especially the women, were dreadful to hear; even to me, in my own peril, thinking every instant that I would be crushed, they were the most dreadful part of the experience.
Then came another bump, very sudden and very severe. The place fell in on top of me, the breath seemed to be knocked out of my body and I went unconscious.
He had survived. Of the 50 people in the Nevada, only seven had escaped. “On all sides, where the Nevada, the Ohio, the Brunswick and other lodging houses had been, there was nothing but a big pile of debris.”
(From Malcolm E. Barker’s Three Fearful Days, 1998.)
In September 1905, printers in Ivan Sytin’s Moscow publishing house went on strike, demanding pay for punctuation marks. Discontented workers in other trades and other cities soon joined them in sympathy: bakers, railroad workers, lawyers, bankers, even the Imperial Ballet. Without the railroad, steel and textile mills were forced to shut down; soon nearly the entire adult population of Petrograd had ceased work. The general strike led Tsar Nicholas II to issue the October Manifesto, granting a constitution to Russia for the first time in its history. Thus, wrote Trotsky, “a strike which started over punctuation marks ended by felling absolutism.”
A somewhat related story, from David Kahn’s The Codebreakers: In June 1887 Philadelphia wool dealer Frank J. Primrose sent his agent William B. Toland west, ordering him to buy 50,000 pounds of wool in Kansas and Colorado and await further instructions. The two corresponded by telegram using phrase codes like these to shorten the messages.
On June 16 Primrose planned to send the message Yours of the 15th received; am exceedingly busy; I have bought all kinds, 500,000 pounds; perhaps we have sold half of it; wire when you do anything; send samples immediately, promptly of purchases. Shortened with phrase codes this read DESPOT AM EXCEEDINGLY BUSY BAY ALL KINDS QUO PERHAPS BRACKEN HALF OF IT MINCE MOMENT PROMPTLY OF PURCHASES.
Unfortunately, somewhere between Brookville and Ellis, Kansas, someone added a dot, converting BAY into BUY. Consequently Toland bought 300,000 pounds of wool. Primrose lost more than $20,000 in settling with the sellers and sued Western Union, but the Supreme Court ruled against him on a technicality (he had declined to have his message read back to him). He collected only the cost of the telegram, $1.15.
As Christmas approached in 1914, a number of impromptu cease-fires broke out on the Western Front in which German and British troops exchanged greetings, song, and even food. Rifleman Oswald Tilley of the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his parents on Dec. 27 regarding an incident near Ploegsteert, just north of the Franco-Belgian border:
On Christmas morning as we had practically ceased to fire at them, one of them started beckoning to us so one of our Tommies went out in front of our trenches and met him halfway amidst cheering. After a bit a few of our chaps went out to meet theirs until literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands and exchanging cigarettes, chocolate and tobacco etc. … Just you think that while you were eating your turkey etc. I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before. It was astonishing!
In subsequent years the authorities tried to discourage such truces. Apart from reproving the breakdown in discipline, they had trouble getting the war started again. In late 1915 Ethel Cooper, an Australian woman living in Germany, met a soldier home on leave from the XIX Saxon Corps who told her that his unit had fraternized extensively with a British battalion for two days beginning that Christmas Eve. She wrote, “The trouble began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer: ‘We can’t — they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers turned on the men, ‘Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy.’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. ‘We spent that day and the next day,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.'”
(From Marc Ferro et al., Meetings in No Man’s Land, 2007)