In May 1856, an African teenager named Nongqawuse had a vision: If her people killed all their cattle, she said, their long-dead ancestors would rise and drive out the European settlers.
Word spread quickly, and they did as she urged. In 10 months that followed, the Xhosa nation killed 400,000 cattle, driven by mounting rumor and revelation that great fields of corn would also spring into existence, that their ancient heroes would return to life, and that sickness and old age would disappear. In his Compendium of South African History and Geography of 1877, George McCall Theal records the climax:
At length the morning dawned of the day so long and so ardently looked for. All night long the Kaffirs had watched, with feeling stretched to the utmost tension of excitement, expecting to see two blood-red suns rise over the eastern hills, when the heavens would fall and crush the races they hated. Famished with hunger, half dying as they were, that night was yet a time of fierce, delirious joy. The morn, that a few short hours, slowly becoming minutes, would usher in, was to see all their sorrows ended, all their misery past. And so they waited and watched. It came, throwing a silver sheen upon the mountain peaks, and bathing hill-side and valley in a flood of light, as the ruler of day appeared. The hearts of the watchers sank within them; ‘What,’ said they, ‘will become of us if Mhlakaza’s predictions turn out untrue?’ It was the first time they had asked such a question, the dawn of doubt had never entered their thoughts till the dawn of the fatal day. But perhaps, after all, it might be midday that was meant, and when the shadows began to lengthen towards the east perhaps, thought they, the setting of the sun is the time. The sun went down behind clouds of crimson and gold, and the Amaxosa awoke to the reality of their dreadful position.
The ensuing famine killed 40,000 Xhosa. “Nongqause escaped, and is still living,” Theal wrote. “For prudential reasons she has ever since resided in the colony, where she preserves an unbroken silence concerning the deeds in which she played so prominent a part.”
A letter received by the White House in February 1936:
Dear Mr. President:
I’m a boy of 12 years. I want to tell you about my family. My father hasn’t worked for 5 months. He went plenty times to relief, he filled out application. They won’t give us anything. I don’t know why. Please you do something. We haven’t paid 4 months rent. Everyday the landlord rings the door bell, we don’t open the door for him. We are afraid that will be put out, been put out before, and don’t want to happen again. We haven’t paid the gas bill, and the electric bill, haven’t paid grocery bill for 3 months. My brother goes to Lane Tech. High School. he’s eighteen years old, hasn’t gone to school for 2 weeks because he got no carfare. I have a sister she’s twenty years, she can’t find work. My father he
staying home. All the time he’s crying because he can’t find work. I told him why are you crying daddy, and daddy said why shouldn’t I cry when there is nothing in the house. I feel sorry for him. That night I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I wrote this letter to you in my room. Were American citizens and were born in Chicago, Ill. and I don’t know why they don’t help us Please answer right away because we need it. will starve Thank you.
God bless you.
In her “My Day” newspaper column on Dec. 30, 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “I wonder if anyone else glories in cold and snow without, an open fire within, and the luxury of a tray of food all by one’s self in one’s own room?” A Columbus, Ind., woman responded, “I would give ten years of my life to be able to have the luxury of an open fire just one evening, as you write about in the Indianapolis Times.”
George Washington retired as a lieutenant general and so was technically outranked by the four- and five-star generals of later wars.
Thinking this unseemly, Congress passed a resolution in 1976 arranging that Washington be promoted posthumously to “General of the Armies of the United States” and that no officer in the U.S. Army ever be considered to outrank him:
Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington of Virginia commanded our armies throughout and to the successful termination of our Revolutionary War; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington presided over the convention that formulated our Constitution; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington twice served as President of the United States of America; and Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list; Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That
(a) for purposes of subsection (b) of this section only, the grade of General of the Armies of the United States is established, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present.
(b) The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976.
Gerald Ford signed the executive order that October.
One day [Ben Franklin] came, half-frozen from his long ride, to a wayside inn. A great crowd was about the fire, and for some time Franklin stood shivering. Suddenly he turned to the hostler.
‘Hostler,’ said he in a loud voice, ‘have you any oysters?’
‘Well, then,’ commanded Franklin in still louder tones, ‘give my horse a peck!’
‘What!’ exclaimed the hostler, ‘give your horse oysters!’
‘Yes,’ said Franklin, ‘give him a peck.’
The hostler, decidedly astonished, prepared the oysters and started for the stable. Everybody instantly arose from the fire-place and rushed out to see the marvellous horse eat oysters. Franklin took the most comfortable seat before the roaring blaze, and calmly awaited developments. Soon all returned, disappointed and shivering.
‘I gave him the oysters, sir,’ said the hostler, ‘but he wouldn’t eat them.’
‘Oh, well, then,’ answered Franklin nonchalantly, ‘I suppose I shall have to eat them myself. Suppose you try him with a peck of oats.’
– Carl Holliday, The Wit and Humor of Colonial Days, 1912
If Elizabeth II is still on the throne on Sept. 10, 2015, she’ll surpass Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
Interestingly, no one knows precisely when she became queen. George VI died in his sleep sometime between 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1952, and 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 6. At that instant, Elizabeth acceded to the throne. At the time she was staying at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya; according to Ben Pimlott’s 1998 biography The Queen, at the moment of George’s death she was either asleep, eating breakfast, or watching the sun rise.
Mike Parker, a member of the royal party, had joined her at the top of the tree that morning to watch the dawn break over the jungle when he noticed an eagle hovering just over their heads and “for a moment, he was frightened that it would dive onto them.”
“I never thought about it until later,” he said, “but that was roughly the time when the king died.”
A letter from Pope Innocent IV to Güyük Khan, king of the Mongols, March 13, 1245:
Seeing that not only men but even irrational animals, nay, the very elements which go to make up the world machine, are united by a certain innate law after the manner of the celestial spirits, all of which God the Creator has divided into choirs in the enduring stability of peaceful order, it is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and to others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation, and with a fury still unabated you do not cease from stretching out your destroying hand to more distant lands, but, breaking the bond of natural ties, sparing neither sex nor age, you rage against all indiscriminately with the sword of chastisement.
We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace, and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians, and that after so many and such grievous offences you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of Divine Majesty, which without doubt you have seriously aroused by such provocation; nor should you be emboldened to commit further savagery by the fact that when the sword of your might has raged against other men Almighty God has up to the present allowed various nations to fall before your face; for sometimes He refrains from chastising the proud in this world for the moment, for this reason, that if they neglect to humble themselves of their own accord He may not only no longer put off the punishment of their wickedness in this life but may also take greater vengeance in the world to come.
On this account we have thought fit to send to you our beloved son and his companions the bearers of this letter, men remarkable for their religious spirit, comely in their virtue and gifted with a knowledge of Holy Scripture; receive them kindly and treat them with honour out of reverence for God, indeed as if receiving us in their persons, and deal honestly with them in those matters of which they will speak to you on our behalf, and when you have had profitable discussions with them concerning the aforesaid affairs, especially those pertaining to peace, make fully known to us through these same Friars what moved you to destroy other nations and what your intentions are for the future, furnishing them with a safe-conduct and other necessities on both their outward and return journey, so that they can safely make their way back to our presence when they wish.
Güyük wrote back:
By the power of the Eternal Heaven, we are the all-embracing Khan of all the Great Nations. It is our command:
This is a decree, sent to the great Pope that he may know and pay heed.
After holding counsel with the monarchs under your suzerainty, you have sent us an offer of subordination which we have accepted from the hands of your envoy.
If you should act up to your word, then you, the great Pope, should come in person with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you concerning the commands of the Yasak.
Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand.
Furthermore, you have written me these words: ‘You have attacked all the territories of the Magyars and other Christians, at which I am astonished. Tell me, what was their crime?’ These, your words, we likewise cannot understand. Chinggis Khan and Ogatai Khakan revealed the commands of Heaven. But those whom you name would not believe the commands of Heaven. Those of whom you speak showed themselves highly presumptuous and slew our envoys. Therefore, in accordance with the commands of the Eternal Heaven, the inhabitants of the aforesaid countries have been slain and annihilated. If not by the command of Heaven, how can anyone slay or conquer out of his own strength?
And when you say: ‘I am a Christian. I pray to God. I arraign and despise others,’ how do you know who is pleasing to God and to whom He allots His grace? How can you know it, that you speak such words?
Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven? Now your own upright heart must tell you: ‘We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.’ You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe.
That is what we have to tell you. If you fail to act in accordance therewith, how can we forsee what will happen to you? Heaven alone knows.
The two never met on the field of battle, so God was unable to make his wishes clearer.
A letter from Virginia slave Sargry Brown to her husband Mores, Oct. 27, 1840:
Dear Husband –
this is the third letter that I have written to you, and have not received any from you; and dont no the reason that I have not received any from you. I think very hard of it. the trader has been here three times to Look at me. I wish that you would try to see if you can get any one to buy me up there. if you don’t come down here this Sunday, perhaps you wont see me any more. Give my love to them all, and tell them all that perhaps I shan’t see you any more. Give my love to your mother in particular, and to mamy wines, and to aunt betsy, and all the children; tell Jane and Mother they must come down a fortnight before christmas. I wish to see you all, but I expect I never shall see you all — never no more.
I remain your Dear and affectionate Wife,
It never reached him — it was discovered in the dead letter office in Washington, D.C.
Hit by antiaircraft fire over Bremen on Dec. 20, 1943, Air Force pilot Charlie Brown was separated from his formation. His B-17 had three damaged engines, a wounded crew, and malfunctioning electrical, hydraulic, and oxygen systems. Brown lost consciousness briefly and awoke to find himself shadowed by a German Messerschmitt that did not attack — as Brown flew slowly back to England, the enemy plane accompanied him as far as the North Sea, where the pilot saluted and let him go.
Brown returned to his air base in England, completed his tour, and returned to the United States. In the 1980s he began a search for the German pilot who had spared him, and eventually was contacted by Franz Stigler, who described the escort and the salute just as Brown had remembered them. Stigler was now living in Canada, and the two became close friends until their deaths in 2008.
Asked why he hadn’t fired on Brown’s shattered bomber, Stigler said, “I looked across at the tail gunner and all I could see was blood running down his gun barrels. I could see into Brown’s plane, see through the holes, see how they were all shot up. They were trying to help each other. To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
He recalled the words of his commanding officer: “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
This musical map, by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, presents all 2,053 nuclear tests and explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998, at a rate of one month per second. Each nation is represented by a different tone.
Hashimoto said, “I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave but present problem of the world.”
He undertook the work in 2003, so it doesn’t reflect North Korea’s tests in 2006 and 2009.
Swords in the ancient Middle East were made of a substance called Damascus steel, which was noted for its distinctive wavy pattern and famed for producing light, strong, and flexible blades. No one knows how it was made.
In defending Constantinople against the Muslims, the Byzantine Empire used something called “Greek fire,” an incendiary substance that was flung at the enemy’s ships and that burned all the more fiercely when wet. But precisely what it was, and how it was made, have been forgotten.
Edwardian journalist Charles Cyril Turner, the world’s first modern aviation correspondent, describes a May morning alone in a balloon over Surrey:
Very slowly I approach a big wood. It would better express the situation were I to say that very slowly a big wood comes nearer to the balloon, for there is no sense of movement, and the earth below seems to be moving slowly past a stationary balloon. … Fifteen hundred feet up and almost absolute silence, broken occasionally by the barking of a dog heard very faintly, or by a voice hailing the balloon, and by an occasional friendly creak of the basket and rigging if I move ever so slightly. Then quite suddenly I am aware of something new.
The balloon has come down a little already, and I scatter a few handfuls of sand and await the certain result. But my attention is no longer on that, it is arrested by this new sound which I hear, surely the most wonderful and the sweetest sound heard by mortal ears. It is the combined singing of thousands of birds, of half the kinds which make the English spring so lovely. I do not hear one above the others; all are blended together in a wonderful harmony without change of pitch or tone, yet never wearying the ear. By very close attention I seem to be able at times to pick out an individual song. No doubt at all there are wrens, and chaffinches, and blackbirds, and thrushes, hedge sparrows, warblers, greenfinches, and bullfinches and a score of others, by the hundred; and their singing comes up to me from that ten-acre wood in one sweet volume of heavenly music. There are people who like jazz!
That’s from Turner’s 1927 memoir The Old Flying Days. Elsewhere he describes approaching the surface of the North Sea far from land: “We could hear the incessant murmur of the commotion of waters as the countless millions of waves and ripples sang together. Surely there is not in nature any sound quite like this, and only in a balloon can it be heard, for by the shore one hears only the turbulent noise of the waters breaking on land, and in any sort of ship the noise of the ship itself makes what to our ears would seem discord.”
Besieged by Spain in 1572, the people of Leyden, Holland, ran out of silver. In order to have a currency for everyday trade, they tore pages from books and stamped them in coin dies, producing the first paper money in Europe.
During World War I the Fanning Islands could not receive currency from Australia, so they arranged to have one-pound notes printed in Hawaii. When peace came, these temporary notes were cut in half and used as movie tickets.
“I have enough money to last me the rest of my life,” said Jackie Mason, “unless I buy something.”
The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 is a landmark in English law, permitting a prisoner to challenge the lawfulness of his detention. But Parliament passed it through an absurd miscount:
Lord Grey and Lord Norris were named to be the tellers: Lord Norris, being a man subject to vapours, was not at all times attentive to what he was doing: so, a very fat lord coming in, Lord Grey counted him as ten, as a jest at first: but seeing Lord Norris had not observed it, he went on with this misreckoning of ten: so it was reported that they that were for the Bill were in the majority, though indeed it went for the other side: and by this means the Bill passed.
That account, by contemporary historian Gilbert Burnet, is borne out by the session minutes. The act remains on the statute book to this day.
On Dec. 6, 1917, an overnight express train bearing 300 passengers was approaching Halifax, Nova Scotia, when an unexpected message arrived by telegraph:
“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”
The train stopped safely before the burning French cargo ship Mont-Blanc erupted with the force of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, the largest manmade explosion before the advent of nuclear weapons.
The blast killed 2,000 residents, including train dispatcher Vince Coleman. He had remained at work in the telegraph office, sending warnings, until the end.
When Napoleon left France for Elba, his supporters wore violets as a secret sign of their allegiance. This 1815 colour print by Jean-Dominique Etienne Canu, Le Secret du Caporal La Violette, conceals images of the exiled emperor, his wife, and his son. Where are they?
Meade brought his troops to this place where they were to win or lose the fight. At noon all was in trim, and at the sign from Lee’s guns a fierce rain of shot and shell fell on both sides. For three hours this was kept up, and in the midst of it Lee sent forth a large force of his men to break through Meade’s ranks. Down the hill they went and through the vale, and up to the low stone wall, back of which stood the foe. But Lee’s brave men did not stop here. On they went, up close to the guns whose fire cut deep in their ranks, while Lee kept watch from the height they had left. The smoke lifts, and Lee sees the flag of the South wave in the midst of the strife. The sight cheers his heart. His men are on the hill from which they think they will soon drive the foe. A dense cloud of smoke veils the scene. When it next lifts the boys in gray are in flight down the slope where the grass is strewn thick with the slain. … Oh, that there were no such thing as war!
– Josephine Pollard, The History of the United States Told in One-Syllable Words, 1884
When informed of the accession of Peter III of Russia in 1762, George III said, “Well, there are now nine of us in Europe the third of our respective names”:
- George III, King of England
- Charles III, King of Spain
- Augustus III, King of Poland
- Frederick III, King of Prussia
- Charles Emanuel III, King of Sardinia
- Mustapha III, Emperor of the Turks
- Peter III, Emperor of Russia
- Francis III, Duke of Modena
- Frederick III, Duke of Saxe-Gotha
Such a coincidence was unprecedented in European history.
One hot summer day in 1904, Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois visited the House dining room and asked for a bowl of bean soup. He was told that, in view of the sultry weather, it had been omitted from the menu.
“Thunderation!” Cannon roared. “I had my mouth set for bean soup! From now on, hot or cold, rain, snow, or shine, I want it on the menu every day.”
And so it has been, ever since. The recipe was published on the menu in 1955:
2 lb. No. 1 white Michigan beans.
Cover with water and soak overnight.
Drain and re-cover with water.
Add a smoked ham hock and simmer slowly for about 4 hours until beans are cooked tender. Then add salt and pepper to suit taste.
Just before serving, bruise beans with large spoon ladle, enough to cloud. (Serves about six persons)
Early on the morning of May 13, 1862, a lookout on the U.S.S. Onward spotted a Confederate steamer heading out of Charleston Harbor directly toward the Union blockade. Commander F.J. Nickels was about to fire when he saw that the steamer was flying a white flag. “The steamer ran alongside and I immediately boarded her, hauled down [the] flag of truce, and hoisted the American ensign, and found that it was the steamer Planter, of Charleston, and had successfully run past the forts and escaped.”
The transport ship’s pilot, Robert Smalls, had resolved to escape slavery by steaming out to the Union warships blockading his city. When the ship’s white officers had gone ashore that night, he directed his eight fellow slaves to fire up the boilers and guided the ship to a nearby wharf, where they collected their families. Then Smalls donned the captain’s hat and coat and gave two long and one short blasts on the whistle as they neared Fort Sumter, as he had seen the captain do. The sentry sent him on his way. As he made for the Union fleet three miles away, he put up one of his wife’s bedsheets as a flag of truce.
Harper’s Weekly called the theft “one of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced.” In his Naval History of the Civil War, Union admiral David Dixon wrote, “The taking out of the ‘Planter’ would have done credit to anyone, but the cleverness with which the whole affair was conducted deserves more than a passing notice.”
Smalls was given a monetary reward for the captured Planter and went on to serve in the South Carolina legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. When Abraham Lincoln asked why he had stolen the ship, he said simply, “Freedom.”
“The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery.” — G.C. Lichtenberg
In 1958 Winston Churchill broke his spine in a fall and was required to sleep with a bedrest, which he hated. He and nurse Roy Howells got into a heated argument in which the two swore at one another.
In making up afterward, Churchill said, “You were very rude to me, you know.”
Howells said, “Yes, but you were rude too.”
Churchill said, “Yes, but I am a great man.”
“There was no answer to that,” Howells remembered later. “He knew, as I and the rest of the world knew, that he was right.”
(From John Perry, Winston Churchill, 2010.)
On Jan. 28, 1393, during a riotous wedding at the royal palace of Saint-Pol, Charles VI and five French nobles dressed up as wild men using linen costumes covered with pitch and hair and ranged among the guests, howling like wolves and daring them to guess their identities. One guest approached too closely with his torch and set them ablaze. The Duchess of Berry had the presence of mind to throw a cloak over the king, and one of the nobles managed to dive into a barrel of water. “The other four were burned alive their flaming genitals dropping to the floor, [the Monk of St. Denis] remarks with a sharp but on this occasion rather unsavoury eye for detail, releasing a stream of blood,” notes Jan R. Veenstra in Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France. “Three of them, the count of Joigny, the bastard of Foix and Aymeri de Poitiers were deeply mourned; a fourth victim, Huguet de Guisay, was left wailing in agony for three days before he too expired, but he was not mourned, the Monk of St. Denis explains, since he was a vicious man and people were glad to see him perish.”
On March 26, 1351, during the Breton Civil War, the contending fortresses of Josselin and Ploërmel agreed to an organized contest: Each side would select a team of 30 knights who could fight with any weapons they chose, including swords, maces, and battleaxes. Referees would signal the start of the melee and manage truces for refreshments and medical care. The fight went on for hours. In the end, English commander Robert of Bamborough, of Ploërmel, and eight of his men were slain and the rest taken captive; the pro-French Breton team lost four (or perhaps six) knights; and both sides were badly wounded. The “combat of the thirty” made heroes of its victors and became a symbol of chivalry during the Hundred Years’ War; in 1373, Jean Froissart saw firsthand the honor accorded to a survivor who displayed his scars at a feast given by Charles V.
The armistice that ended Word War I was signed aboard Marshal Foch’s private train in the forest of Compiègne in November 1918.
In June 1940, Hitler demanded that France surrender aboard the very same carriage in the same spot in the forest.
“The disgrace is now extinguished,” wrote Joseph Goebbels in his diary. “It is a feeling of being born again.”
The Germans destroyed the carriage during the war, but in 1950 a replacement, correct in every detail, was rededicated. It’s on display today in a memorial at Compiègne.
One last odd weapon, this from Popular Science, September 1917: Enid S. Wales of Detroit proposed a shell that would spread coils of barbed wire before an onrushing enemy, stopping their progress and exposing them to attack by infantry and machine guns.
Four hollow caps containing coils of barbed wire would be fitted to a trench mortar shell, one end of each coil secured to the body of the shell. “When the projectile explodes, the caps containing the barbed wire shoot out like bullets in all directions distributing the wire in great tangled masses.”
I don’t know if the idea was ever put into practice.