History

Last Words

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Amelia Earhart left behind what she called “popping off letters,” to be opened in the event of her death. This one, discovered by her husband and biographer, George Putnam, was addressed to her father:

May 20, 1928

Dearest Dad:

Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway. You know that.

I have no faith we’ll meet anywhere again, but I wish we might.

Anyway, good-by and good luck to you.

Affectionately, your doter,

Mill

Another, addressed to her mother, read simply, “Even though I have lost, the adventure was worth while. Our family tends to be too secure. My life has really been very happy, and I don’t mind contemplating its end in the midst of it.”

Offside

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After the Battle of Germantown in 1777, an American soldier approached the British line carrying a white flag, a fox terrier, and a note:

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe, does himself the pleasure to return him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar, appears to belong to General Howe.

An officer conveyed the dog to British general Sir William Howe:

The General seemed most pleased at the return of the dog. He took him upon his lap, seemingly uncaring that the mud from the dog’s feet soiled his tunic. Whilst he stroked the dog, he discovered a tightly folded message that had been secreted under the dog’s wide collar. The General read the message, which seemed to have a good effect upon him. Although I know not what it said, it is likely to have been penned by the commander of the rebellion.

There’s no record of what this second note said, but Sir William later referred to the incident as “an honorable act of a gentleman.”

(Caroline Tiger, General Howe’s Dog, 2005.)

Unquote

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“It has been said, not truly, but with a possible approximation to truth, that in 1802 every hereditary monarch was insane.” — Walter Bagehot

Dry Humor

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Jokes from the Dust Bowl:

The drought was so bad that when one man was hit on the head with a rain drop, he was so overcome that two buckets of sand had to be thrown in his face to revive him. Housewives supposedly scoured pans clean by holding them up to a keyhole for sandblasting, and sportsmen allegedly shot ground squirrels overhead as the animals tunneled upward through the dust for air. Some farmers claimed that they planted their crops by throwing seed into the air as their fields blew past and that birds flew backwards to keep the sand out of their eyes.

In 1935 Dalhart Texan editor John McCarty founded a Last Man’s Club in which each member took an oath: “In the absence of an act of God, serious family injury, or some other emergency, I pledge to stay here as the last man and to do everything I can to help other last men remain in this country. We promise to stay here till hell freezes over and skate out on the ice.”

As a joke he proposed to build a huge hotel amid the dunes north of Dalhart where tourists would pay “fancy prices” for the privilege of witnessing the “noble grandeur an imposing beauty of a Panhandle sandstorm.” “We’ve got the greatest country in the world if we can just get a few kinks straightened out,” he wrote. “Let’s keep boosting our country.” About 100 people joined the club; more said they wanted to do so but acknowledged they were afraid they’d have to leave.

(From R. Douglas Hurt’s The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, 1981.)

In a Word

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interturb
v. to disturb by interrupting

In late 1908 Douglas Mawson, Alastair Mackay, and Edgeworth David left Ernest Shackleton’s party in hopes of discovering the location of the South Magnetic Pole. On Dec. 11, while Mackay left the camp to reconnoiter, David prepared to sketch the mountains and Mawson retired into the tent to work on his camera equipment:

I was busy changing photographic plates in the only place where it could be done — inside the sleeping bag. … Soon after I had done up the bag, having got safely inside, I heard a voice from outside — a gentle voice — calling:

‘Mawson, Mawson.’

‘Hullo!’ said I.

‘Oh, you’re in the bag changing plates, are you?’

‘Yes, Professor.’

There was a silence for some time. Then I heard the Professor calling in a louder tone:

‘Mawson!’

I answered again. Well the Professor heard by the sound I was still in the bag, so he said:

‘Oh, still changing plates, are you?’

‘Yes.’

More silence for some time. After a minute, in a rather loud and anxious tone:

‘Mawson!’

I thought there was something up, but could not tell what he was after. I was getting rather tired of it and called out:

‘Hullo. What is it? What can I do?’

‘Well, Mawson, I am in a rather dangerous position. I am really hanging on by my fingers to the edge of a crevasse, and I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I shall have to trouble you to come out and assist me.’

I came out rather quicker than I can say. There was the Professor, just his head showing and hanging on to the edge of a dangerous crevasse.

David later explained, “I had scarcely gone more than six yards from the tent, when the lid of a crevasse suddenly collapsed under me. I only saved myself from going right down by throwing my arms out and staying myself on the snow lid on either side.”

Mawson helped him out, and David began his sketching. The party reached the pole in January.

Misc

  • Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
  • After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
  • If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
  • Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
  • “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand

No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.

Vision

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In short my dear Friend you and I have been indefatigable Labourers through our whole Lives for a Cause which will be thrown away in the next generation, upon the Vanity and Foppery of Persons of whom we do not now know the Names perhaps. — The War that is now breaking out will render our Country, whether she is forced into it, or not, rich, great and powerful in comparison of what she now is, and Riches Grandeur and Power will have the same effect upon American as it has upon European minds.

— John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, Oct. 9, 1787

A Bit Too Dashing

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In 1794, at Strasbourg, the French Hussar François Fournier-Sarlovèze challenged a young man to a duel and killed him. When his fellow officer Pierre Dupont de l’Étang denied him entrance to a ball on the eve of the funeral, the fiery Fournier challenged him to a duel. The two fought with swords, and Fournier was wounded.

When he had recovered he challenged Dupont to a second duel, and wounded him. In their third meeting each inflicted a slight wound on the other. Finally the two agreed to a private war that would continue until one of them confessed that he was beaten or “satisfied.” They even drew up a contract:

  1. Every time that Dupont and Fournier shall be a hundred miles from each other they will each approach from a distance to meet sword in hand.
  2. Should one of the contracting parties be prevented by service duties, he who is free must travel the entire distance, so as to reconcile the obligations of service with the demands of the present treaty.
  3. No excuse whatever, excepting those resulting from military obligations, will be admitted.
  4. The present being a bona fide treaty, no alteration can be made to the conditions agreed upon by the contracting parties.

Over the ensuing 19 years the two fought at least 30 duels, each eventually rising to the rank of general. Finally, after a particularly savage meeting in Switzerland in 1813, in which Dupont ran his sword through Fournier’s neck, Dupont explained that he would be married soon and wanted to conclude the matter with a pistol duel in a nearby wood. Dupont twice tricked his opponent into firing at empty clothing, then advanced on him with pistols primed and claimed his victory. In The Duel, Robert Baldick writes, “Thus ended after a total period of nineteen years, the longest, friendliest and most mobile duel in history.”

(This story is so absurdly romantic that I doubted whether it happened at all, but every source I can find confirms at least the essentials. Joseph Conrad found an account of the rivalry in a provincial newspaper and turned it into his 1908 short story “The Duel,” and Ridley Scott turned Conrad’s story into the 1977 film The Duellists. I’ll keep digging.)

Tipu’s Tiger

When British forces plundered the palace of Indian prince Tipu Sultan in May 1799, they found an infuriating trophy:

In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.

Tipu had allied himself with France against the encroaching East India Company, and the Fourth Mysore War brought his downfall. The tiger, it appears, had symbolized his defiance of British colonialism. The instrument was removed to London, where it became a centerpiece in the Company’s Leadenhall Street gallery; John Keats saw it there and immortalized it in The Cap and Bells, his satirical verse of 1819:

Replied the Page: “that little buzzing noise,
Whate’er your palmistry may make of it,
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.”

“Indeed, the horrific image of a wild beast attacking a helpless fellow Briton must have stirred strong reactions in the British audience so few years after the brutal Mysore campaigns,” write Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell in A History of Visual Culture (2010). “Contained within one wondrous work of art was an illustration of the intensity of resentment toward European imperialism, the ferocious power of the enemy prince, and the moral justification for colonization.”

Podcast Episode 46: The 1925 Serum Run to Nome

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In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was struck by an outbreak of diphtheria, and only a relay of dogsleds could deliver the life-saving serum in time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the dogs’ desperate race through arctic blizzards to save the town from epidemic.

We’ll also hear a song about S.A. Andree’s balloon expedition to the North Pole and puzzle over a lost accomplishment of ancient civilizations.

Our segment on the 1925 serum run to Nome was based chiefly on Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury’s excellent 2003 book The Cruelest Miles. Here’s the statue of Balto, who led the final sled into Nome, in Central Park:

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The inscription reads “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenona to the relief of stricken Nome.”

“The Ballad of Knut and Nils,” Yann and Cory Seznec’s song honoring S.A. Andrée’s disastrous 1897 attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon, is on Yann’s blog. You can find more of the brothers’ music here.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Paul Sloane and Des McHale’s 1998 book Ingenious Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Sloane invites interested readers to his Lateral Puzzles Forum, where visitors can set and solve these puzzles interactively.

This week’s episode is sponsored by our patrons and by Harry’s — go to Harrys.com now and they’ll give you $5 off if you use the coupon code CLOSET with your first purchase.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!