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.
Besieged by cotton worms in 1870, Louisiana planter Auguste Le Blanc invented the 19-century equivalent of a bug zapper. The worms transform into noctural moths in order to reproduce, so Le Blanc suspended an eight-foot ring of gasoline burners from the roof of a horse-drawn cart that he drove through his fields at night, following lanes that he had laid out for this purpose.
The roof may serve not only to protect the burners from rain, but also as a means of destroying the moths, for I sometimes coat the underside of the roof with a paint, preferably white paint, made without any ‘drying’ in it, that is to say, made with oil alone, so as to present a sticky surface. When the machine is in use, the moths, attracted and blinded by the light, will either be destroyed by the flame, or else will come in contact with and adhere to the sticky coating of paint.
I don’t know how well it worked, but he deserves credit for his ingenuity. “A machine of eight burners will protect from forty-five to fifty acres of cotton, while the cheapness of the fluid employed for burning purposes renders the expense trifling in comparison with the benefits derived.”
There is also another matter to be mentioned for which both present and future ages have good reason to bless the name of Jonas Hanway. He was the first person who had the courage to hold an umbrella over his head in walking along the streets of London. ‘The eighteenth century,’ writes Chambers, ‘was half elapsed before the umbrella had even begun to be used in England. General Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, remarks: “The people here use umbrellas in hot weather to defend them from the sun, and something of the same kind to save them from the snow and the rain. I wonder that a practice so useful is not introduced in England.” Just about that time, however, a gentleman did exercise the moral courage to use an umbrella in the streets of London. He was the noted Jonas Hanway, then newly returned form Persia, and in delicate health, by which, of course, his using such a convenience was justified both to himself and to the public. “A parapluie,” we are told, defended Mr. Hanway’s face and wig. For a time no other than dainty beings, then called “Macaronies,” ventured to carry an umbrella; and any one doing so was sure to be hailed by the mob as a “mincing Frenchman.” One John Macdonald, a footman, who has favored the public with his memoirs, found as late as 1770 that, on appearing with a fine silk umbrella which he had brought from Spain, he was saluted with the cry of “Frenchman, why don’t you get a coach?”‘
– “Jonas Hanway, the Philanthropist,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April 1884
As the Battle of Trafalgar commenced, Horatio Nelson famously signalled the English fleet that “England expects that every man will do his duty.”
Actually that message arose only due to a last-minute conference on the flagship, as signal officer John Pasco recalled after the battle:
His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, ‘Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY,’ and he added, ‘You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action.’ I replied, ‘If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the word expects for confides, the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.’ His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, ‘That will do, Pasco, make it directly.’
The days of such clear language are over — in an August 1939 letter to the London Times, A.P. Herbert wrote:
Alas, the strong silent Services have been corrupted, too. If Nelson had to repeat his famous signal today it would probably run thus:–
England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issue and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation-groups.
During World War I, one of the worst jobs in the French army was that of wirecutter, the scout deputed to cut through the wire entanglements set up by the enemy, often unprotected in exposed positions. To improve his chances, the army introduced this one-man tank. From Popular Science Monthly, May 1917:
The device is made to resemble a cannon which it is hoped will be considered by the enemy to be broken and discarded. It is provided with slits and larger openings through which the scout may see and get air. The wheels, though apparently rusty and old, are smooth-running and noiseless, and the legs of the scout, moving cautiously at the rate of perhaps one-half inch per minute during critical times, resemble the drooping muzzle of the gun — or it is hoped that they will.
“It is also considered among the possibilities that the device will be of service when it is necessary for a bold and death-defying dash to be made through showers of shrapnel into the teeth of the foe. But this is problematical since the device is not made for rapidity of movement.”
Future president Herbert Hoover published a surprising title in 1912: An English translation of the 16th-century mining textbook De Re Metallica, composed originally by Georg Bauer in 1556. Bauer’s book had remained a classic work in the field for two centuries, with some copies deemed so valuable that they were chained to church altars, but no one had translated the Latin into good modern English. Biographer David Burner wrote, “Hoover and his wife had the distinct advantage of combining linguistic ability with mineralogical knowledge.”
Hoover, a mining engineer, and his wife Lou, a linguist, spent five years on the project, visiting the areas in Saxony that Bauer had described, ordering translations of related mining books, and spending more than $20,000 for experimental help in investigating the chemical processes that the book described.
The Hoovers offered the 637-page work, complete with the original woodcuts, to “strengthen the traditions of one of the most important and least recognized of the world’s professions.” Of the 3,000 copies that were printed, Hoover gave away more than half to mining engineers and students.
Marine private Guy Gabaldon was 18 years old when he took part in the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands in June 1944. In order to secure the island, Gabaldon began to go on “lone wolf” missions, using his smattering of Japanese to convince enemy civilians and troops to give themselves up.
“Immediately after landing on Saipan I decided that I would go off into enemy territory to fight the war as I saw fit,” he wrote in his 1990 memoir Saipan: Suicide Island. “I always worked alone, usually at night in the bush. I must have seen too many John Wayne movies, because what I was doing was suicidal.”
“My plan, as impossible as it seemed, was to get near a Japanese emplacement, bunker or cave, and tell them that I had a bunch of marines with me and we were ready to kill them if they did not surrender. I promised that they would be treated with dignity, and that we would make sure that they were taken back to Japan after the war.”
He must have been stupendously persuasive, because he captured 1,500 Japanese single-handed — including 800 on a single day in July. “When I began taking prisoners it became an addiction,” he wrote. “I found that I couldn’t stop — I was hooked.”
Gabaldon earned a Navy Cross for his efforts, and Jeffrey Hunter played him in the 1960 film Hell to Eternity. “The heroes are still over there,” he told the Chicago Tribune at the film’s opening. “Those who gave their all are the heroes.”
The Treaty of Berlin was drafted in secrecy, so its framers were astonished to find it published in the London Times. Journalist Henri de Blowitz at first refused to reveal his source, but at last relented near the end of his life. Well before the congress started he had attached a confederate to the clerical staff, but the man felt he was being watched, so the two could not dare to meet or talk. Finally de Blowitz noticed that they wore hats of the same type and color, and he hit on a plan of “childish simplicity.”
De Blowitz was staying at the Kaiserhof. Each day his confederate went there for lunch and dinner. The two never acknowledged one another, but they hung their hats on neighboring pegs. At the end of the meal the confederate departed with de Blowitz’s hat, and de Blowitz innocently took the confederate’s. The communications were hidden in the hat’s lining.
“Only twice were we forced to put off the communication till the following day,” de Blowitz wrote in his 1904 memoir. “Once, however, we had a scare.”
“One of my English colleagues, on leaving the dining-room, made a mistake and took my friend’s hat. Without looking at each other we felt, as he wrote me next day, that we turned pale. If the colleague in question had kept the hat, he might have discovered the third article of the treaty, which had been adopted at the previous day’s sitting, and also a hint of the difficulties that had arisen between Russia and England on the question of the boundaries of Bulgaria, and very disagreeable consequences for my friend might have been the result. Fortunately, on reaching the door, the Englishman put on the hat, which dropped over on his nose. He laughingly took it off and replaced it on its peg. I had risen to take the hat from him, but sat down again. I breathed freely, and my friend must have done the same.”
Anthropologist George Bird Grinnell’s The Fighting Cheyennes (1915) describes “perhaps the only attempt to disable a railroad ever made by Indians.” A Cheyenne named Porcupine relates that in late summer 1867, after an embittering loss to U.S. soldiers in frontier Nebraska, his band witnessed “the first train of cars that any of us had seen. We looked at it from a high ridge. Far off it was very small, but it kept coming and growing larger all the time, puffing out smoke and steam, and as it came on we said to each other that it looked like a white man’s pipe when he was smoking.”
“Not long after this, as we talked of our troubles, we said among ourselves: ‘Now the white people have taken all we had and have made us poor and we ought to do something. In these big wagons that go on this metal road, there must be things that are valuable — perhaps clothing. If we could throw these wagons off the iron they run on and break them open, we should find out what was in them and could take whatever might be useful to us.”
They lay a stick across the tracks, which was enough to upset a handcar that appeared that night, and the Cheyenne killed the two men who had been working it. Encouraged, they used levers to pull out the spikes at the end of a rail and bent it a foot or two in the air. Presently they spotted two trains approaching and sent a party to assail the first one.
“When they fired, the train made a loud noise — puffing — and threw up sparks into the air, going faster and faster, until it reached the break, and the locomotive jumped into the air and the cars all came together. After the train was wrecked, a man with a lantern was seen coming running along the track, swearing in a loud tone of voice. He was the only one on the train left alive. They killed him. The other train stopped somewhere far off and whistled. Four or five men came walking along the track toward the wrecked train. The Cheyennes did not attack them. The second train then backed away.”
The Cheyenne would shortly be driven out of that country, but they relished this victory. “Next morning they plundered and burned the wrecked train and scattered the contents of the cars all over the prairie,” Porcupine relates. “They tied bolts of calico to their horses’ tails, and galloped about and had much amusement.”
A canal stockholder’s argument against railways, from the Vincennes, Ind., Western Sun, July 24, 1830:
He saw what would be the effect of it; that it would set the whole world a-gadding. Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why, you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work: every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. Veracious people will turn into the most immeasurable liars; all their conceptions will be exaggerated by their magnificent notions of distance. ‘Only a hundred miles off! Tut, nonsense, I’ll step across, madam, and bring your fan!’ ‘Pray, sir, will you dine with me to-day at my little box at Alleghany?’ ‘Why, indeed, I don’t know — I shall be in town until twelve. Well, I shall be there; but you must let me off in time for the theatre.’ And then, sir, there will be barrels of pork, and cargoes of flour, and chaldrons of coals, and even lead and whiskey, and such like sober things, that have always been used to sober travelling, whisking away like a set of skyrockets. It will upset all the gravity of the nation. If two gentlemen have an affair of honour, they have only to steal off to the Rocky Mountains, and there no jurisdiction can touch them. And then, sir, think of flying for debt! A set of bailiffs, mounted on bomb-shells, would not overtake an absconded debtor — only give him a fair start. Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig. Give me the old, solemn, straightforward, regular Dutch canal — three miles an hour for expresses, and two for jog-and-trot journeys — with a yoke of oxen for a heavy load! I go for beasts of burthen: it is more primitive and scriptural, and suits a moral and religious people better. None of your hop-skip-and-jump whimsies for me.
During the War of 1812, the Declaration of Independence hung in the office of Stephen Pleasonton, an auditor in the State Department. When word came that the British might march on Washington, Secretary of State James Monroe ordered Pleasonton to safeguard the department’s important books and papers, so Pleasonton ordered linen bags made and began filling them with documents.
As he was doing this, Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. passed through the building and remarked that the alarm was unnecessary; he did not believe that the British planned to attack the city.
“Had he followed the advice of the Secretary of War, an irreparable loss would have been sustained,” noted the New York Times in 1905. “For the papers which Mr. Pleasonton had placed in the coarse linen bags comprised the secret journals of Congress, then not published; the correspondence of Gen. Washington, his commission, resigned at the close of the war; the correspondence of Gen. Greene and other officers of the Revolution, a well as laws, treaties, and correspondence of the Department of State, from the adoption of the Constitution down to that time.”
Pleasonton had the bags carted to a grist mill on the Virginia side of the Potomac. As he was leaving his office, he caught sight of the Declaration hanging on his wall. He took it down, cut it out of its frame, and carried it away with the other papers.
Feeling that even the grist mill was too vulnerable, Pleasonton removed the bags a further 35 miles to Leesville, where he stored them in an empty house. “Worn out with his labors, Mr. Pleasonton states in a letter, he retired early to bed that night and slept soundly. Next morning he was informed by the people of the little tavern where he had stayed that evening that they had seen during the night, the same being the 24th of August, a large fire in the direction of Washington, which proved to be the light from the public buildings, which the enemy had set on fire and burned to the ground.”