Editors have troubles like less distinguished folk. One of these, who presides over the destinies of a western newspaper, is mourning the loss of two subscribers. One wrote asking how to raise his twins safely, while the other wanted to know how he might rid his orchard of grasshoppers. The answers went forward by mail, but by accident he put them into the wrong envelopes, so that the man with twins received this answer: ‘Cover them carefully with straw and set fire to it, and the little pests, after jumping in the flames a few minutes will be speedily settled.’ And the man with the grasshoppers was told to ‘give them castor oil and rub their gums with a bone.’
– The Typographical Journal, Aug. 15, 1900
When Wilhelm Kieft tried to outlaw smoking in New Amsterdam in the 1630s, he brought on a unique protest. Washington Irving writes:
A mob of factious citizens had … the hardihood to assemble before the governor’s house, where, setting themselves resolutely down, like a besieging army before a fortress, they one and all fell to smoking with a determined perseverance, that seemed as though it were their intention to smoke him into terms. The testy William issued out of his mansion like a wrathful spider, and demanded to know the cause of this seditious assemblage, and this lawless fumigation; to which these sturdy rioters made no other reply, than to loll back phlegmatically in their seats, and puff away with redoubled fury; whereby they raised such a murky cloud, that the governor was fain to take refuge in the interior of his castle.
Wilhelm finally gave in — people could smoke, he said, but they had to give up long pipes. “Thus ended this alarming insurrection, which was long known by the name of the pipe plot, and which, it has been somewhat quaintly observed, did end, like most other plots, seditions, and conspiracies, in mere smoke.”
In 2008 L.A. Innes of Jamestown, Saint Helena, auctioned a collection of images taken during the Boer War. This one shows a prisoner standing next to a tortoise on the island. The tortoise was mature at the time of the photograph, which was taken in 1900, and investigators were surprised to find that he’s still alive — “Jonathan” lives on the grounds of the governor’s residence, blind in one eye but still active and mating with other tortoises.
If he was 70 at the time Innes’ photograph was taken, then he’s 184 today — the oldest living reptile on earth.
In 1966 University of Kentucky social psychologist Melvin Lerner asked 72 undergraduate women to observe a peer working on a learning task. When the learner made an error she appeared to receive a painful electric shock. In describing her suffering, the observers tended to reject and devalue her when they thought they would continue to see her suffer in a later session.
Lerner suggested that we come to terms with the suffering we see around us by deciding that the world is just — that those who are unfortunate somehow deserve their fate, and thus that we can avoid such a fate ourselves. This is reflected in figures of speech such as “You reap what you sow” and “He got what was coming to him.”
“If people did not believe that they could get what they want and avoid what they abhor by performing certain appropriate acts, they would be virtually incapacitated,” Lerner wrote. “If this is true, then the person who sees suffering or misfortune will be motivated to believe that the unfortunate victim in some sense merited his fate.”
(Melvin J. Lerner and Carolyn H. Simmons, “Observer’s reaction to the ‘innocent victim’: Compassion or rejection?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4(2) [August 1966], 203-210.)
An odd feature from the Baltimore Sun of Oct. 5, 1902: Alfred Hermann of Bakersfield, Calif., pledged to circle the world in a year and a half wearing a pair of steel handcuffs, and to earn a livelihood while doing so. If he succeeded, his friend Al Armstrong agreed to finance a medical education for him.
At the time of the interview, Hermann had reached the East Coast six months after setting out from California on March 22, having visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. “From here I ship to London, and from there go to Paris. After leaving Paris I intend to visit Berlin. At St. Petersburg I will connect with the Trans-Siberian railway and reach the west coast of China,” whence he planned to continue to Japan and embark for San Francisco. His only means of earning money along the way was to sell pictures of himself and give “exhibitions of the different exercises that it is possible for a man to take with his hands steel-braceletted.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Hermann could remove the manacles at night, “for health’s sake.” “At each stopping place the cuffs are unlocked, when he retires, by some responsible person, preferably the landlord of the hotel where he stays. Upon departing the landlord locks the cuffs, seals a bit of paper over the key opening, writes his name thereon and also writes his name in a book that Hermann carries, with the name of place, date, etc., affixed in regular postmark form. The key is then placed in Hermann’s pocket.”
I don’t know whether he made it. “The boy’s got grit in him,” Armstrong said. “I like his pluck; but, of course, he doesn’t stand much chance of winning. His enthusiasm will be likely to give out when he’s up against it in China or Russia or some other outlandish place where nobody understands the American lingo and will lock him up for a lunatic or a jailbird. However, I’ll make good if he will.”
In 1964 British meteorologist Allan Crawford visited tiny, freezing Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, the most remote island in the world, to investigate the possibility of establishing a weather station there. When his helicopter touched down near a shallow lagoon in the island’s interior he found a surprise:
There was an abandoned whaleboat in quite good condition, though lying at the bottom of the lagoon, gunwales awash. What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery? There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose.
Thinking that castaways might have landed on the uninhabited island, Crawford’s party made a brief search but found no human remains. The boat’s presence has never been explained.
(From Crawford’s book Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties, 1982.)
In August 1883 James Wallis, the chief of police on the small island of Rodrigues in the western Indian Ocean, added this note to his official report for the month:
On Sunday the 26th the weather was stormy, with heavy rain and squalls; the wind was from SE, blowing with a force of 7 to 10, Beaufort scale. Several times during the night (26th-27th) reports were heard coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns. These reports continued at intervals of between three and four hours, until 3 pm on the 27th, and the last two were heard in the direction of Oyster Bay and Port Mathurie.
It wasn’t gunfire. It was the “death cry” of Krakatoa, 3,000 miles away in Indonesia — the loudest sound in recorded history.
The lyrebird of Australia is an astonishingly gifted mimic, and its talents extend beyond the natural world: Above, a lyrebird imitates the human technology it has encountered; below, a captive bird mimics construction at the Adelaide Zoo.
In 1969, park ranger Sydney Curtis heard a lyrebird producing flute sounds in New England National Park on the coast of New South Wales. After some sleuthing, Curtis discovered that a neighboring farmer had played the flute for a pet lyrebird in the 1930s. When ornithologist Norman Robinson studied the call, he discovered that the bird was singing two popular songs of the 1930s — “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”
“It is now seventy years since a lyrebird learned these fragments,” wrote David Rothenberg in 2006, “and today the flute song has been heard a hundred kilometers from the original source. A human tune is spreading through the lyrebird world, as they’ve decided through generations to prefer just two shards of our particular music.”
The United Press syndicate published an eye-opening story in 1951 — a 32-year-old German soldier had emerged, “bearded, blinded and blubbering,” when workers cleared wreckage from the entrance to a Nazi supply depot in Babie Doly, Poland.
The soldier said that he and five companions had been buried alive in the food and supply warehouse when retreating German troops dynamited the entrance in 1945. Four of the six had died, two by suicide, but the man and one companion had survived for six years underground, drinking water that trickled through cracks and living in darkness when their supply of candles ran out in 1949. The second man had “dropped dead of shock on emerging into the daylight.”
Decide for yourself — here’s another UP story, and here’s an account in Time magazine. The story also turns up in the 1958 German film Nasser Asphalt and inspired the 1973 English film The Blockhouse, with Peter Sellers.
Related: During World War II, British naval intelligence conceived “Operation Tracer,” a secret plan to seal a group of soldiers in a bunker at the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, so that if Nazis captured the rock the hidden soldiers could observe the movements of enemy vessels and report them to the Admiralty by wireless communication. A chamber, shown here, measuring 14 × 4.8 × 2.4 meters was constructed secretly in 1942, and six men volunteered to be sealed inside for at least a year (they had provisions for up to seven years). But the plan was never put into effect, and the empty chambers were ordered sealed. They came to light only in 1997, when they were discovered by the Gibraltar Caving Group.
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge carries the Capitol Beltway across the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., connecting Maryland on the eastern shore with Virginia on the western.
The southern tip of Washington’s jurisdiction just touches the bridge’s westbound lanes — a 90-meter section of that span belongs to the District of Columbia. This makes the Wilson the only bridge in the United States that occupies three jurisdictions.
This sounds like an opportunity for some sort of perfect crime, but I can’t quite work it out.
Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.
– James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895
In the 1860s, workers discovered the remains of a cat and a rat behind the organ in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.
There’s no telling how long they’d been there. Their bodies had been desiccated in the dry air of the church.
The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”
In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.
If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.
So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.
Indeed, death can coexist with immortality. Consider Miss Paginate. She is born in 2000. In 2030 she time travels to a future funeral in 2050. She finds herself in the coffin as a fifty-year-old. Just as a distinction between temporal parts allows you to both sit and stand, it also allows Miss Paginate to be both dead and alive. Indeed, by slowing down her aging to an asymptotic rate from 31 to 39, Miss Paginate lives forever. At age 40, she finds herself back in 2040. She learns that she has been missing from 2031 to 2039. Miss Paginate also discovers that her normal rate of aging has resumed. She commences a memoir of her life, with special attention to the infinite portion that commences from 2050. She regrets her upcoming death in 2050. That will deprive her the time needed to complete her autobiography. But she takes comfort in knowing that she will live forever after her death (albeit as something akin to a partial amnesiac — since she will not remember her experiences from forty to fifty).
– Roy Sorensen, “The Symmetry Problem,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, 2013
This unassuming house in Petersburg, Va., has an odd history — it was constructed from the tombstones of Union soldiers who had besieged the city in 1864. The curator of the city’s museum told author Gwyn Headley that, apparently to save on maintenance, nearly 2,000 marble headstones were removed from Poplar Grove Cemetery and sold to a Mr. O.E. Young, who assembled them into a two-story house.
“The tombstones face inward, so as the owner lay in bed the names of the dead stood about his head,” Headley writes in Architectural Follies in America (1996). “Later they were plastered over so that their descendants leave none the wiser.”
“The last word must be left to the lady living next door to the Tombstone House, who confessed with massive political incorrectness, ‘Ah don’t rightly see what all the fuss was about. They was jist Union boys.’”
How’s that for a headline? It ran in the New York Times Sunday magazine on Aug. 27, 1911:
Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.
The Times was relying on Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a dying Martian civilization was struggling to reach the planet’s ice caps. “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” he’d told the newspaper — but he was already largely ostracized by skeptical colleagues who couldn’t duplicate his findings. The “spokes” he later saw on Venus may have been blood vessels in his own eye.
Whatever his shortcomings, Lowell’s passions led to some significant accomplishments, including Lowell Observatory and the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death. “Science,” wrote Emerson, “does not know its debt to imagination.”
W.H. Coltharp had a problem. He’d been asked to build a bank in Vernal, Utah, but the bricks he needed were in Salt Lake City, 127 miles away. Wagon freight would have been too expensive, so in 1916 he sent 50,000 bricks by parcel post, essentially mailing the bank to Vernal.
The post office was not delighted with Coltharp’s ingenuity. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson wrote that “it is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail” — and he set a new limit of 200 pounds per day per receiver.
A clown’s face is his livelihood; it’s an unwritten rule among clowns that one must not copy the face of another. Accordingly, in 1946 London clown Stan Bult began painting the faces of his colleagues onto eggshells, effectively trademarking their identities. Bult’s collection was largely destroyed in an accident in 1965, but London’s Circus Clowns Club resurrected the practice in 1984 and added samples of its members’ costumes and wig hair, making each into a peculiar sort of portrait.
In 1979, Leon “Buttons” McBryde, a clown with the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, heard about the British practice and established his own egg registry, which now includes hundreds of portraits of clowns hand-painted by his wife, Linda. The U.S. registry has been used in at least one court case in which one clown charged another with infringing his design.
In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.
The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:
There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Which they kept up day and night,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.
The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.
Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”
If human behavior is essentially rational, what are we to make of procrastination? I have to write a paper; it’s a requirement of the course, and I know I’ll be better off for writing it, but instead I alphabetize my spice rack. “The procrastinator is someone who knows what (s)he wants to do, in some sense can do it, is trying to do it — yet doesn’t do it,” write psychologists Maury Silver and John Sabini. Bewildered by his own delay, Hamlet says
I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do;”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.
“Hamlet knew what he had to do, wanted to do it, had the means to do it, and was prepared to do it — constantly — but was ‘unable’,” they write. Procrastination is “a psychopathology of everyday life, as curious to those who suffer it as to those who would explain it.”
(Maury Silver and John Sabini, “Procrastinating,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 11:2, July 1981.)
We know that Sherlock Holmes lived in London — we have this on the authority of Arthur Conan Doyle. But we would resist saying that the residents of London have included Sherlock Holmes. How can the one be true but not the other?
Suppose that Doyle had written a story in which Holmes had had tea with prime minister William Gladstone. Then it would seem correct to say that Holmes had had tea with Gladstone, but wrong to say that William Gladstone had once had tea with Sherlock Holmes. What can we make of this? Can Doyle be wrong about his own character’s actions? Is all fictional discourse false?
We don’t normally regard it so. “If you say that Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street I may wager that you are mistaken,” writes philosopher John Woods. “Then, as we all very well know, what you say wins the bet; what I say loses it. … It is an interesting and important curiosity of the affair that [the argument] that Holmes could not have lived in Baker Street because he could not have lived anywhere, he being but fictional, is not automatically, or always, if ever, deemed a satisfactory endorsement of my claim at the expense of yours. The bet is still yours.”
(From The Logic of Fiction, 1974.)
In late March 1938, Antonio Carrelli received a letter and a telegram in short succession. Both were from Ettore Majorana, the brilliant Italian physicist who had recently joined the faculty of the Naples Physics Institute, where Carrelli was director.
The letter read, “Dear Carrelli, I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months. I ask you to remind me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your Institute, especially Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too. E. Majorana.”
The telegram had been sent immediately afterward: “Dear Carrelli, I hope you got my telegram and my letter at the same time. The sea rejected me and I’ll be back tomorrow at the Hotel Bologna traveling perhaps with this letter. However, I have the intention of giving up teaching. Don’t think I’m like an Ibsen heroine, because the case is different. I’m at your disposal for further details. E. Majorana.”
On investigation it was found that Majorana had withdrawn all the money from his bank account and taken the night boat from Naples to Palermo on March 23. He had sent both messages from Palermo and then boarded the steamer to return to Naples on the night of March 25.
But there the trail ended. On the return journey Majorana had shared a compartment with a local university professor, but beyond this point no trace of him could be found. His family offered a reward of 30,000 lire for his whereabouts, and Enrico Fermi implored Mussolini for aid, citing the “deep brilliance” of Majorana’s physics, which he compared to those of Galileo and Newton. A police search found no body but offered no clues.
What happened to him? Theories abound: The most natural explanation, that he committed suicide, is discounted by both his family and the bishop of Trapani, citing his strong Catholic faith. (Also, it doesn’t explain the withdrawal of the money.) Other theories contend that he was murdered, that he fled physics because he foresaw the advent of nuclear weapons, that he had a spiritual crisis and joined a monastery, that he became a beggar, and that he moved to South America. No one knows.
(Barry R. Holstein, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana,” from the Carolina International Symposium on Neutrino Physics, 2008.)
I’ve had some incredible experiences with lyrebirds of late in Sydney’s southwest. Recently on the Old Ford Road, Kentlyn, I observed a male in full display on his mound, going through a repertoire of vocal impressions that would have put Peter Sellers to shame. Among the imitations I recognised were kookaburra, currawong, butcherbird, cockatoo and even a small dog. But my most startling experience was last Christmas morning, about 7 a.m. From a group of three or four lyrebirds arose a distinct call of ‘Fire! Fire!’ It seems that one bird must have overheard this cry on some earlier danger-fraught occasion. Or, as the far side of the Georges River is Defence Department territory, maybe it picked it up during military training.
– Frederick Hill, “Members’ Mailbag,” Australian Geographic, July-September 2005
Letter to the Times, Feb. 6, 1946:
I have just written you a long letter.
On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste paper basket.
Hoping this will meet with your approval,
I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
November 1896 saw the start of a strange wave of airship sightings across the United States — the San Francisco Call published the image above on Nov. 19, claiming that the craft had passed over eastern Sacramento the previous night, where hundreds had seen “its brilliant searchlight traveling over the city, and who will also swear that they heard the voices of its occupants and distinguished their merry song and laughter.”
In the frenzy that followed, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interview with attorney George D. Collins, who claimed that he represented the airship’s inventor, a wealthy Maine man who had spent 17 years and $100,000 perfecting the craft. “The reports from Sacramento the other night were quite true. It was my client’s ship that inhabitants saw. It started from Oroville, in Butte County, and flew in a straight line for sixty miles directly over Sacramento. After running up and down once or twice over the capital, my friend came on a distance of another seventy miles and landed on a spot on the Oakland side of the bay, where the ship now lies guarded by six men. In another six days several defects will be done away with and it is then his intention to fly right over San Francisco.”
That never happened, and Collins was quickly forgotten, but it’s interesting to note that 10 years earlier, in 1886, inventor Moses Cole had patented a strikingly similar “new and improved aerial vessel” (below). “It consists of two semi-spheroidal balloons,” Scientific American had reported, “between which are situated the cabins for the passengers and crew, these being fitted with windows and surrounded by a circular balcony.” Possibly the Call’s artist had used Cole’s patent for inspiration. Or possibly Collins was telling the truth. Or possibly Martians had adopted Cole’s design as a disguise. We’ll never know.
See Just Visiting.